There are few more isolated places in the world than the Sahara desert. Despite its scorching days and freezing nights, many travellers dream of venturing into this sea of sand dunes to ride a camel and enjoy the Berber hospitality.
During my last visit to Morocco, I joined a two day trip to the Sahara desert from Marrakech to live this experience first-hand. Check out the first day of my trip, in which I would visit the High Atlas Mountains, Ait-Ben-Haddou and the Dades Valley!
how to get to the Sahara Desert
Most trips to the Sahara desert start from Marrakech and go all the way to Merzouga, the door to the desert. However, this doesn’t really mean that Marrakech is close to the Sahara: you will need to drive for over 8h each way to reach the famous dunes.
Visiting for one day is almost an impossible task, so the best option is going for a 2 day, 1 night trip to the desert. If you have enough time, you can also do two nights in the desert and stop in some additional places on the way.
There are so many local companies organising visits to the desert that you won’t even know where to start looking. Many tour operators will want to take advantage of the visitor and try to increase the price, so always compare a few of them. Prices in Morocco are quite low, so even if they double the price you will still find the trip quite cheap. However, doing some research will allow you to save some money that you can spend by helping the local artisans or tipping the locals, instead of spending it with a single greedy man running the tour.
After doing some research, I booked a two day trip to the Sahara from Marrakech with Marrakech Tours Trips. The main reason for choosing this company was that it offered a visit in Portuguese. Since all my travel companions were Brazilian and I can also understand and speak the language, we decided to book with them.
This company also offers visits in other languages, including English and Spanish, so they are a great option no matter what language you speak.
The trip had a cost of only €130 per person, and it included transfers from and to Marrakech airport, 2 nights hotel with breakfast in Marrakech before and after the tour, as well as transportation and a guide from Marrakech to the desert. For the first night of the tour, accommodation with breakfast was included in Dades, and the second night we would sleep in a bedouin camp in the desert. The facilities of the camp were first-class, including toilets and showers inside some tents, shared toilets with hot water and Wi-Fi all over the camp.
Overall, I was quite happy with the experience, although I did find some parts of the tour a bit rushed (which is comprehensible due to the huge distances), and some of the guides were a bit disappointing both in knowledge and how they interacted with the group.
I would still recommend this company in terms of price-quality. In any case, there are many other alternative companies to book the tour. I mainly went with this company due to the language of the tour, but if you speak English, Spanish or French you can probably find very similar tours for even a lower price.
After having spent a day visiting the highlights of Marrakech, we woke up in our hotel located next to Jemaa el-Fna square for breakfast before starting our way to the desert.
Our hotel served a very generous breakfast in the terrace upstairs, where we started meeting the rest of the group that would join us on our 2-day trip.
We all gathered downstairs around 8.30am and boarded the van that would bring us to the desert. We drove for over 2 hours before we reached the first stop of the visit, the High Atlas.
The High Atlas is a range of mountains in central Morocco, and you have to drive through them in order to reach Merzouga near the dunes of the Sahara desert. The mountains constitute a natural barrier separating the Sahara from the Mediterranean sea.
The High Atlas even have one of the ski stations of Morocco. Even though I couldn’t see any snow during my visit, the views of the surroundings were breathtaking, with green vegetation that would become arid land as we crossed to the other side.
Right after crossing the High Atlas, we had a pit stop to learn about one of the most famous products of the region, the argan oil.
Argan oil is produced from the argan tree, original from Morocco. Its uses and properties are endless; argan oil can be used to dip in bread or as seasoning for the famous couscous, but it also has cosmetic purposes. The oil is often sold and used as soap or moisturiser.
The visit started with a brief demonstration of how the oil is extracted from the argan fruit. Once the fleshy pulp is removed, the argan nut is cracked to obtain the argan kernels. This process is done by hand, mainly by Berber women. To obtain culinary oil, the kernels are then roasted until they reach a brown colour, when they are ground to extract the argan oil from the mash obtained. The process for cosmetic oil is the same, the only difference is that the kernels are not roasted.
After some free time to learn about the product and do some shopping, we continued our long drive to the desert.
More than 5 hours after we left Marrakech, we stopped for a well-deserved lunch before heading to the nearby town of Ait-Ben-Haddou.
This fortified village, or ksar, was part of the former caravan route that connected the Sahara desert and Marrakech. It’s famous for its fortification and kasbahs, and was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.
The city is accessed through a bridge that goes over a dried river. From there, you can see the impressive views of Ait-Ben-Haddou and its fortress.
The site dates back to the 12th century, however, the oldest constructions found nowadays belong to the 17th century. Once you access the town, the entire visit will be uphill until you reach the fortress. On the way, you can visit not only the traditional mud houses but also a mosque, the public square, a caravanserai and two cemeteries (Muslim and Jewish).
But the crown jewel in Ait-Ben-Haddou is the fortress located at the very top of the ksar. The climb can get a bit steep at some points, but the views from the top are well worth it, from where you’ll be able to appreciate the fortified houses and sandy castles.
In spite of its beauty and historical interest, Ait-Ben-Haddou famous as it was chosen on numerous occasion as a set for Hollywood movies and TV series.
Since the 60s, the town became the cinema city of Morocco, when international producers and directors heading there to use it as the set of many famous blockbusters, including Lawrence of Arabia (1965), Indiana Jones (1996), The Mummy (1999), Gladiator (2000) and of course many episodes of the HBO series Game of Thrones.
We had been driving for almost 5 hours when we reached the last stop of the day, the Dades Valley.
This valley expands for many kilometres, so there isn’t one single place where you can stop to enjoy the breathtaking landscapes. We reached the valley just before sunset, when the unique rock formations acquire a red tone that makes the surroundings even more beautiful.
The valley was formed by the Dades River, originating in the High Atlas and flowing for 350 kilometres until it joins the Draa River near the Sahara. The walls of the gorges range between 200 and 500 meters, with many villages located on its slopes.
My visit took place in May and the vegetation was abundant, so the green trees proportioned a great contrast against the natural rock formations.
With the night approaching, and our guides eager to reach our hotel before the Iftar (the evening meal that ends the daily Ramadan fast at sunset), we stopped in Dades to spend the night.
Next morning we still had a long drive before reaching the Sahara desert, with stops in the breathtaking Dades Gorges and Todra Gorge before reaching Merzouga, the door to the Sahara , where we would sleep in a bedouin camp to spend the night in the desert.
All opinions are my own.