The Sahara desert in Morocco is without any doubt one of the greatest attractions of this country. Many visitors embark on a Sahara adventure that will remember all their lives. Spending a night in the desert is an experience to live. In the complete silence one listens to oneself, to his breathing and heart. In the night sky, thousands of stars. When the moon is big enough you can walk through the dunes without the need for artificial light. Those who visit the Sahara desert in Morocco usually spend a night in a haimas camp in the middle of the dunes. These camps are usually reached in dromedary, a ride that in many cases coincides with the sunset.
The Sahara desert extends through the southeast area of Morocco, which goes from the border with Algeria and Mauritania to the Atlas Mountains. It has be understood that the Sahara is not a sea of dunes that covers North Africa. Most of the extent of this desert arerocks and arid soil “hammada”.
In Morocco the places where the sand forms large dunes are called “erg”, and there are only two in the country: Erg Chebbi and Erg Chigaga. These are the sand deserts that are really worth visiting. In this guide about Moroccan Sahara we explain the difference between both deserts and which one to visit depending on your preferences and the time you have.
If you want to enjoy those dunes that you have seen in so many photos and movies you will have to go to the east of Morocco, near the border with Algeria, where the towns of Merzouga and Zagora are located.
Both deserts are not equal. The dunes of Merzouga are the best known and most visited, they are the highest impressive dunes that you can see in Morocco, they can reach 150m. In the Zagora desert there are less dunes and they are smaller. On the other hand, being less visited and having a greater extension this desert is more remote and there are many fewer tourists. Zagora is much closer to Marrakech, 350km away. As many travelers come from Marrakech and only have one night they opt for the Zagora desert. To visit Merzouga, 560km from Marrakech it is necessary to have at least two nights.
If time and budget are not a problem, best is to make a 4 or 5 day excursion to the Merzouga Desert. It is truly impressive and with a trip of several days you can enjoy the points of interest found along the way as well as enjoy the scenery. Places like Ait Ben Haddou, the Valley of the Roses, the Dades Gorges, the Valley of the Draa and the Todra Gorges Todra, on the road between Marrakech and Merzouga are truly amazing. If instead you want to spend less days for the excursion or really run away from tourist places, visit Zagora, the only way to sleep one night in a desert haima. Until Ouarzazate the road is the same as to visit Merzouga, in this excursion important places like Ait Ben Haddou are also visited, so the route is also very interesting.
Counts the leyend that when a wealthy family refused hospitality to a poor woman and her son, God was offended and buried them under the mounds of sand called Erg Chebbi. So goes the legend of the dunes rising majestically above the twin villages of Merzouga and Hassi Labied, which for many travellers fulfil Morocco’s promise as a dream desert destination.
The erg Chebbi or so-called Merzouga desert dune system consists of a N-S oriented sand deposit, about 156 km2.
The system is a free aquifer. The entry of the water system is limited to direct infiltration of rainwater meanwhile the discharge of the aquifer is produced by evaporation natural drainage in the springs and wells extractions from khettaras.
In places, the dunes of the Merzouga desert rise up to 150 meters from the surrounding hamada (rocky desert) and altogether it spans an area of 28 kilometers from north to south and up to 5–7 kilometers from east to west lining the Algerian border.
CTM Company. It leaves Fez at 9:30 p.m. every day in the direction of Rissani. The stops are Meknès, Azrou, Midelt, Errachidia, Aoufouss, Erfoud and Rissani. From Rissani you can take a taxi for about 25dh. SUPRATOURS.. It leaves Fez at 8:30 p.m. every day, direction Merzouga. The stops are Meknès, Errachidia, Erfoud, Rissani and Merzouga.
CTM Company.. Departure from the Marrakech bus station at 08’00h every day with Rissani direction. The stops are Agouim, Ouarzazate, Skoura, K Mgouna, Boumalne-Dadès, Tinerhir, Tinejdad, Goulmima and Errachidia. From Errachidia you can take a taxi for about 60dh. SUPRATOURS. company. It leaves from Marrakech at 08:30 every day, direction Merzouga. The stops are Ouarzazate, Boumalne-Dadès, Tinerhir, Tinejdad, Goulmima, Errachidia, Aoufouss, Erfoud, Rissani and Merzouga.
You can choose to make your trip by 4 × 4 with local driver.
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This is without any doubt the most requested activity by those who visit the dunes of Merzouga. The activity a dromedary ride (for those who do not convince them there are other means of access) at sunset. The Berbers of the camp offer tea upon arrival and then free time to settle in the jaima and enjoy the desert. The typical Moroccan dinner is served and then there is a Berber music show around a campfire. At night you can contemplate the stars, something unforgettable. In the morning, those who want to see the sunrise are called early and depending on the camp, breakfast is served or they return to town to have breakfast at a hotel. You can find more information about the whole experience in our link “sleep in the desert of Morocco”
Most visitors to the desert of Merzouga choose to spend a night in a camp of jaimas in the desert. In most cases, tourists arrive at this dromedary camp (not camel). For those who stay in one of the villages that are on the outskirts of the sand desert you can hire a camel ride. It is highly recommended to do it at sunset or at dusk. If you are going to take a camel it is recommended to wear comfortable clothes, protect yourself from the sun and carry water by hand.
For those adventurers in love with the engine and adrenaline there are several options. You can rent quads, buggies or motorcycles. If you prefer comfort and enjoy the scenery, you can also opt for a 4 × 4 with a driver to take you through the dunes. One feels in the Paris-Dakar.
This activity is carried out in the months of July and August. It’s about burying your body except your head in the sand and staying there for as long as the specialists consider. It is a highly recommended activity for rheumatism and other health problems. It is also considered good for the skin and as detox. For the most part, it is people from Morocco who come every summer to take sand baths, mainly because foreigners don’t know him.
This activity has the laughs assured. In the desert camps as well as in many shelters you can get tables to try to throw you down the dune.
In the first place it is recommended to walk through one of the villages beside the dunes. The inhabitants of these villages are Berbers who live in mud-brick houses. Many of them, especially men speak Spanish and / or other languages and will probably greet you as they pass. Remember that “alelamum salam” is answered “aleikum salam”.
Hassilabied square, neighbour village of Merzouga
Depending on the time of day you can see the men go to the mosque, the women doing their shopping or going to look for water at the source. Although there is running water they like to drink the water they collect from the one that accumulates under the dunes. Men spend many hours in cafes (but if you are a woman you will be welcome in them anyway). Women spend most of the day at home. The children go to school and spend a lot of time playing in the street.
Although most of the desert inhabitants do it in adobe houses in the villages, there are still families with their nomadic lifestyle. They live in stores and usually have cattle. You can visit them and they will probably invite you to tea. Berbers are well known for their hospitality.
One of the villages on the door to the Merzouga desert is Khamilia, known in the region as the “gnawa village”. Its inhabitants, in the majority are the descendants of slaves brought from black Africa and emancipated in this town. They have kept their traditional music gnawa and the town is closely linked to it. If you approach you can visit one of the houses of music, in them there are always musicians of different ages prepared to show their art to those who approach. There you can enjoy the show with a tea and see how the elders teach the children so that the tradition continues.
Music house in Khamilia.
A must see if you are in the area on Tuesday, Thursday or Sunday is RIssani. In the village (larger than those surrounding the dunes of Merzouga) is one of the oldest markets in Morocco. In it you can find a lot of things: from cattle to cosmetics, haggling, they will come out at a great price. Many of the people in the area still come to the market on a donkey so there you can see a parking lot for donkeys.
Erg Chegaga or more popularly known as the Zagora Desert is larger than Merzouga but somewhat more horizontal, since its dunes are smaller (62 meters in front of 150 meters).
The main difference lies in its accessibility due to the distance from the nearest urban center: Merzouga in the case of Erg Chebbi, a few meters away; M’Hamid if we talk about Erg Chegaga, 50 km on unpaved roads, so only SUVs can access.
From the Zagora desert you can make some visits in the surroundings. These are some of the places to discover:
This huge mud plain until recently was a lake where the river Draa was going to die at least in its shallow channel. After the construction of the Ouarzazate dam, the flow of the Draa river decreased, and today it dies between the towns of Zagora and Tagounite and the Iriki lake ceased to be a swampy area to become a Sebka or Chott. The impression conveyed by this place is something similar to an almost absolute immensity and all this is manifested in that sense of freedom that emanates from the wide horizons. With the exception of to the north, where Jbel Bani is found, you look where you look, you get lost in an absolutely flat line. The soil is made of hardened sand with a thin layer of salt from the desiccation of the lake, although small dune fields have continuously proliferated along its surface. The only sign of life is illusory landscapes in the form of mirages or, in a timely manner in times of rain, small lakes that attract birds from the area.
About 50-60 kilometers away from the sand dunes of Erg Chigaga. M’Hamid is in Arabic, ‘plain of gazelles’, it is a small oasis town in southern Morocco with approximately 7500 inhabitants. It is considered as the entrance to the great Sahara. Hidden in the palm oases of M’Hamid there are seven ancient ksars, fortified Berber villages, now almost uninhabited and decomposing but worth knowing. Probably one of the most authentic desert areas.With its spectacular nature, this landscape does not have a huge influx of tourists and keeps the charm of the Sahara desert as its legacy.
A place you can see incredible kashbas that have been filmed. Sacred Oasis of Oum Lâalag A few kilometers from Zagora extends this oasis of almost 15 hectares, surrounded by a wall of adobe, and whose interior, in addition to palm trees, water continues to flow. It is conferred sacred qualities for its great proximity to the desert.
This small town is the main producer of Berber carpets in the country. You can approach if you are interested in these carpets.
Si estás planeando visitar el Sahara puede interesarte echar un vistazo a esta lista de cosas que se recomienda llevar y otras que depende de tu elección.
Of course it depends on the time you go. In winter Warm clothes because the nights are quite cold. If you go to sleep in a jaima in winter make sure that the bedding is enough for a fairly cold night. In general the days are sunny with pleasant temperatures but it could rain someday. Check the weather information. The sun is quite strong also in winter, so it is recommended to wear a visor or hat, more like a Berber turban or handkerchief to protect yourself. Sunglasses another essential. As pants some that are comfortable, especially if you are going to ride in dromedary. Comfortable shoes too. The best way to walk through the dunes is to do it barefoot or with comfortable and light shoes.
In spring and autumn During the day depending on which month you go it will be between a pleasant temperature and very hot. In the same way, depending on the month, the nights will be warm to cold. Anticipate warm clothes. In general the days are sunny with pleasant temperatures but it could rain someday. Check the weather information. The sun is quite strong so it is recommended to wear a visor or hat, more Berber style a turban or handkerchief to protect yourself. Sunglasses another essential. As pants that are comfortable, especially if you are going to ride a dromedary, avoid shorts for this activity. Comfortable shoes too. The best way to walk through the dunes is to do it barefoot or with comfortable and light shoes. In summer The Sahara desert in summer is really hot during the day. If you are determined to visit it at this time go prepared with very fresh clothes. The sun is very strong so it is recommended to wear a visor or hat, more Berber style a turban or handkerchief to protect yourself. Sunglasses another essential. In general the days are sunny but it could rain someday. Check the weather information. As pants that are comfortable, especially if you are going to ride a dromedary, avoid shorts for this activity. Comfortable shoes too. The best way to walk through the dunes is to do it barefoot or with comfortable and light shoes.
If you are going to spend a night in a desert camp, it is recommended to carry all charged batteries: mobile, camera, laptop, etc. If you have external chargers it is also a good idea. In some camps there is no facility to charge these electronic devices.
Water of course Something to chop Sunscreen A razor can always be useful A small hiking backpack Flashlight (your phone could run out of battery) Basic kit since there are no pharmacies in the nearby towns.
Our most popular Morocco Sahara Tours . The trip from Marrakech is rich in scenery and includes an unforgettable stay in a Desert Camp.
A great experience starting from Fes including camel trekking and at least one night in a tented desert camp in the Merzouga Desert.
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