The Sahara desert, although many might think so, is not the largest in the world. However, it's only beaten by the coldest places on Earth - The Antarctic and Arctic regions which are the greatest barren land areas on our planet. Having said that, the Saharan territory is shared among 11 countries and stretches over 9 million square kilometers (3,5 million square miles). Its magnificent, golden, perfectly smooth dunes attract many visitors from around the world and the easiest way to reach them is through Morocco - stopping by the fascinating Berber oases and villages on the way.
How to get to Sahara in Morocco
Tourism industry is very well developed in Morocco, you will have no problems with organizing a trip to Sahara. The easiest way to do it is to join a tour in Marrakesh - one of the most popular cities in the country. There's a plenty of choice: you can get a luxury, private (and expensive) trip and stay in a luxury hotel or if you are on a budget, you can choose an organized tour which will take you everywhere for a really good value. The prices can vary greatly, and from my experience, I would discourage from pre-booking online. Remember that bargaining is rooted in Moroccan culture and you must do it if you don't want to get ripped off. Also, you must be aware of some con artists who roam the streets and offer tourists to 'walk' them to the perfect restaurant, hotel or a travel office. They usually don't work with any businesses and will charge you ridiculous amounts for such services. They might seem overnice at first, but as soon as you refuse to pay, the situation can get really unpleasant. The best way is to just ignore any of them saying firmly 'no thank you'.
I had seen many tours advertised online, usually the prices were around 200 USD (175 EUR) for a 3 day desert tour from Marrakech. You must think it's not much considering the hotels, transport and some meals were included. However, you should be able to get such a tour for not more than 1000 MAD (92 EUR/106 USD). I paid only around 85 EUR for mine.
If you don't want to purchase any tours and you're brave enough to drive on Moroccan streets, to get to the Sahara desert, you must reach either Zagora (5 hour drive) or Merzouga (7 hour drive) towns in the south. Don't forget to stop at Ait Ben Haddou near Ourzazat - Berber ancient town that was featured in many Hollywood films like Gladiator or The Mummy.
How many days to stay in Sahara?
It depends on how much time you have. There are even two days/one night tours to Zagora available from Marrakech, however you won't see much in such a short time, the camp will probably be set near the town and you won't have a chance to visit the real dunes.
The best option is to take at least a three days/two nights tour. Not only you'll have a chance to climb the most impressive dunes, spend a night in a nomadic tent but also you'll see the other side of Morocco (which is most often associated with desert landscapes). To reach Sahara, one must get through the Atlas Mountains which offer dramatically different scenery - lush green mountain slopes, olive and orange groves and snowy peaks. The drive is absolutely stunning - it's a great attraction itself. Apart from that, you can visit the aforementioned Ait Ben Haddou, beautiful red valleys (Dades Valley) with breathtaking rock formations, impressive Todra Gorges and some interesting local Berber town and villages, like Tinghir for example. Make sure your tour will include all this! (I will describe all these sites in the future articles.)
You must be aware that the culture in Morocco is different and often the guides will expect the tips as if they were entitled to it unconditionally. Do give tips if you are happy, but remember, if you're not, you don't have to tip them, even if they suddenly become rude. This happened to me and my companions, it's a different culture and you just must accept it.
Visiting Sahara - A camel ride in the desert
In the evening of the second day of the tour we finally arrived in the outskirts of Merzouga - a little town which is a gateway to the desert. After leaving all our stuff in a guesthouse, we got on the camels and started a one hour ride through the dunes. It was difficult to hold the camel and take pictures at the same time, but I think I did a good job. The landscape was really spectacular, especially when all the towns and villages disappear from the horizon and we were surrounded only by the golden dunes. At some point of our trip it turned extremely windy, so windy that it was almost impossible to climb the dune. Nevertheless, the wind 'smoothed out' the dunes and the scenery was even more breathtaking.
The sand was really nice and pleasantly soft in touch. After dark, we had some nice barbecue beside the tents and then we got ready to sleep in them. The conditions were really rough, very basic (but that's the real fun in it), and if you are afraid of the huge beetles - Scarabaeus - you might have a problem as they will surely crawl on you when you're asleep. They are completely harmless though.
Next morning, there was a choice: those who didn't want to ride a camel again back to the guesthouse could use one of the 4x4 vehicles. It's good to take a camel ride at dawn as you can admire the beautiful sunrise (if the weather is good). Then, after breakfast, the Sahara tour was over and everyone set out on a long journey back to Marrakech. We, however, had different plans. We didn't want to go to Marrakech as we'd already seen it. A few more travelers joined us and we all took a crazy ride in a local taxi - around 800 km (500 miles) from Sahara to the sea, going through different parts of Atlas Mountains and stopping in Fez and the entirely blue, one of a kind, beautiful town of Chefchaouen. I've described the crazy trip here - have a look!
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