How to plan a Morocco desert trip

How to plan a Morocco desert trip

The evocative street life and grand architecture of Morocco’s imperial cities, among them Marrakesh and Fez, are magnificent destinations it’s true, but nothing can quite compete with the natural spectacle of towering sand dunes sweeping across the Sahara – a desert easy to access even without a camel caravan and wilderness expedition training.

However, while one of North Africa’s most progressive nations, LGBT+ relationships are still far from accepted, and though it’s not uncommon to see (heterosexual) men arm in arm on the street, homosexuality remains illegal, and can result in prison time. It’s unlikely you’ll encounter any problems as a visitor, but public displays of affection (however romantic the location) should be avoided, and hook-ups are a risk frankly worth avoiding.

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Merzougal Luxury Desert Camp

Merzougal Luxury Desert Camp

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The Sahara Desert in Morocco is one of the best places in the world to take in the full splendour and enormity of the Milky Way

Why plan a trip to the Moroccan desert?

Forget any thoughts you might be harbouring about the Morocco desert being a dead expansive of dull sand and rock. There is a surprising amount of wildlife to be discovered if you know where to look, ancient tribal customs that have remained unchanged long into the twenty-first century, and the chance to unleash your inner Indiana Jones or Lawrence of Arabia with camel trekking and a range of adrenaline sports.

But it is, without doubt, this unique landscape that will hold your gaze, from rocky escarpments and picturesque lone trees to mighty dunes that seem to glow come sunrise and sunset. Clear of light pollution, the Sahara Desert Morocco is one of the best places in the world to take in the full splendour and enormity of the Milky Way; its night skies are emblazoned with 100 billion stars in a show like nothing you’ve ever experienced before.

Photo: Rafael Barquero

Photo: Rafael Barquero

Photo: David Billings

Photo: David Billings

How long should your Sahara tour be?

Although local companies running Morocco desert trips will happily take you on a two-day tour of the Sahara if that’s what you ask for, the realities of getting from Marrakesh or Fez and crossing the High Atlas mountains both there and back mean it will be difficult to experience all the Saharan sands have to offer on a tour of less than three days. With this amount of time dedicated to the desert you’ll find the opportunity to relax in a tented camp among the Berber people, journey over the dunes on a camel, and begin to get a sense of what the region is all about.

Booking your Sahara tour in advance

Both Marrakesh and Fez are ideal gateways to the Sahara’s warm sands and even warmer traditions of hospitality. Spend just a short time in these southern cities and you’re sure to come across companies offering tours. Many undoubtedly offer perfectly adequate trips, but by walking in off the street it’s difficult to know the quality of exactly what you’ll be getting.

Photo: Sergey Pesterev

Photo: Sergey Pesterev

It’s therefore always worth having the names of a tour company with a well-established reputation. Get Your Guide, run well-recommended three-day Marrakesh desert tours from the city to Mergouza, a village situated among the Erg Chebbi dunes close to the end of the tar road, which incorporates a camel ride in the dunes, the impressive landscapes of the Dades Canyon, and a night in a desert camp. Alternatively, try the similar three-day tours from Morocco Desert Tour and Roaming Camels Morocco. Doubling up on your desert experiences, the four-day tour on offer from Morocco Desert Trips begins in Marrakesh but ends in Fez.

If time isn’t your foremost factor and you would rather travel at your own pace than that of a tour group, then consider heading independently to Mergouza Luxury Tented Camp, a small set-up of just five large traditional haimas camel skin tented rooms alongside a chill-out lounge and restaurant, which is situated amid the tranquil orange-red dunes of Erg Chebbi.

Merzougal Luxury Desert Camp

Merzougal Luxury Desert Camp

Best time to visit

Renowned for its fierce summer heat even by the tribes you have lived here for centuries, the Sahara’s summer months, when temperatures can reach beyond 40°C in the shade, are best avoided entirely. By contrast, Moroccan winters can be disappointingly wet, and the high passes over the Atlas mountains blocked by snow. You’ll, therefore, find that most companies offer Morocco desert tours between March and May, and then again from late September and October when there are clear skies, bearable temperatures, and the best road conditions.

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Photo: Remi Jacquaint

Photo: Remi Jacquaint

Geography of the Moroccan Sahara

The Sahara spans an area of 9.2 million square kilometres (approximately the size of the United States), making it the largest non-polar desert in the world. In Morocco, it stretches south from the High Atlas mountains, around half a day’s drive from Marrakesh and Fez.

How to get to the Moroccan desert

By far the easiest way of getting into the Moroccan desert is on a tour, which will take you along the well-maintained roads by minibus. Should you prefer, its also possible to hire a car in Marrakesh or Fez, or hop on one of the country’s frequent bus services.

Dunes to visit in Morocco

The slowly shifting dunes of the photography books are to be found at Erg Chebbi, near the village of Mergouza in the southeast of the country, and Erg Chigaga in the far south, near the Draa Valley and border with Algeria.

Photo: Houssam Korichi

Photo: Houssam Korichi

Photo: Federico Gutierrez

Photo: Federico Gutierrez

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The landscapes of drifting dunes, contrasting sharply against the blue sky by day and stars by night are endlessly fascinating

What to do in the Moroccan desert

The desert is such that you can do as much or as little as you like. The landscapes of drifting dunes, contrasting sharply against the blue sky by day and stars by night are endlessly fascinating, while riding a camel is perhaps the easiest way of getting even closer to the dunes and that true desert experience. Sunrise and sunset treks provide the most astounding colour palette (and more suitable temperatures), while the cuisine, music and hospitality of the Berber help unwrap some of the secrets of the desert.

Photo: Elvis Bekmanis

Photo: Elvis Bekmanis

Photo: Tomas Malik

Photo: Tomas Malik

What to pack for the desert

Needless to say, the desert is hot, but what is sometimes understated is the change in temperature that comes with nightfall, where temperatures can drop twenty degrees in half an hour. So while the thermometer will still read a pleasant 20 degrees, after the heat of the day it will feel cold and you will be wanting warm clothing.

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