This is Part I of a two-part blog post that looks into the most important considerations when planning a trip to Morocco. I outline these Morocco travel considerations here and also offer a few resources to help plan your trip to Morocco.
In this installment, I want to talk specifically about the question of whether to visit the desert or not. If you do want to go to the desert, this will take the most time, and it will be important to plan the rest of your trip around it.
In addition to deciding DESERT or NO DESERT, you will also have to decide which desert.
There are two desert dunes that you can visit. Erg Chebbi is just outside of Merzouga or Erg Chigaga is a few hours south of Zagora.
ERG CHEBBI - MERZOUGA
Erg Chebbi is the more popular and well-known option. Travelers usually visit the dunes here on their way from Marrakech to Fes or on a quick Marrakech-and-back round trip tour. At these dunes, it’s easy to ride a camel into the desert, and spend the night in a luxury camp on the edge of the dune. Almost all the luxury camps offer en-suite toilets in each traveler’s tent. The tents that I usually stay in are kitted out with comfortable beds and bedding, lighting run by generators, and a door that shuts firmly against the elements. Other camps up the ante and provide travelers with en suite toilet and shower. Thanks to Morocco's investment in its tourism infrastructure, it’s not uncommon to find full bars of cell service at most of these camps. To visit these dunes, owners of the desert camp recommend arriving an hour and a half before sunset. That way you can pack a small backpack, hop on your camel, and plod out into the desert with enough time to catch the sunset from the top of a dune in the Sahara.
Visiting the dunes outside of Merzouga offer travelers more options:
You can stay overnight in the desert in one of these luxury camps;
You could ride camels both into and out of the desert. Or you could ride camels into the desert and return by 4x4 to Merzouga. Most of my clients prefer the latter option as one long camel ride is quite enough.
If you don't want to sleep in the desert, you can take a camel ride into the desert to catch the sunset and then return to your hotel to sleep. There are plenty of great hotel options in local towns on the edge of the desert such as Merzouga, Rissani, and Erfoud (sometimes spelled Arfoud).
ERG CHIGAGA - M'HAMID AL GHIZLANE
In contrast, the Erg Chigaga dunes, outside of M’hamid el Ghizlane, are much more remote and hard to access. After arriving in M’hamid el Ghizlane, travelers will jump in a 4x4 where they drive 2.5 hours to the desert camps. Once you arrive at the camp, you can relax, walk around, drink mint tea, or try your hand at sand-boarding. Just before sunset you'll jump on the camels and take a trek to the base of Erg Chigaga, the highest dune.
If you want to visit Erg Chigaga, it makes the most sense to travel round-trip from Marrakech. I would also encourage you to arrive in M’hamid el Ghizlane early enough in the day. Once in M'hamid el Ghizlane, keep in mind that you'll still have another 2+ hour 4x4 ride to the desert camp and an hour-long camel ride before sunset.
Because of its more remote location, there are not as many tourists in Erg Chigaga, and odds are there will be very few other people in your desert camp.
GETTING THERE AND BACK
With both Erg Chebbi outside of Merzouga and Erg Chigaga outside of M’hamid al Ghizlane, there are plenty of small towns to visit along the way. That's a post for another time.
Even though you can visit the desert, ride camels and return to Marrakech in only four days, I wouldn't recommend it. I will always encourage you to take your time in driving out to the desert and back-- there are so many wonderful things to see along the way! More on that later.
In the meantime, once you've decided if you're going to the desert and which dunes you're going to visit, it's important to nail down how much time you're planning to spend in country. Click here to read Part II of this installment, which talks about the ideal trip length to visit the desert and do everything else you want to do in Morocco.