“The travel to the sand dunes in Morocco is happiness in its simplest form. Nothing and everything at the same time. A magnetic and hypnotic place. Simple and majestic.”
Do you know how I got inspired to visit the Sahara Desert? Looking for a host in Couchsurfing to go to SF last year, I found a member’s profile that wrote about the “most amazing thing she had done so far”. Red sand everywhere, sunsets, sunrises and hypnotic sky during the night… Me: “WOW! I want to do that! but looks a bit unreachable…“. However, 8 months later I would be already travelling to Morocco to discover this place.
Imagine having the chance to go to a place that is like a sea of sand with vertiginous sand waves. Where distances are deceptive and it’s easy to lose track of your footprints. A place where sunsets and sunrises are a spectacle and the immensity of the night traps you in the absolute darkness. The travel to the sand dunes in Morocco is happiness in its simplest form. Nothing and everything at the same time. A magnetic and hypnotic place. Simple and majestic.
The Saharan Desert expands across a vast area of North Africa, crossing the continent from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Red Sea in the east. The Sahara desert is made up by a variety of land features; mountains, plateaus, sand plains, salt flats and ergs. An erg or “sand sea” it’s a flat area with wind-swept sand, forming the dunes, which can reach peaks of 180m high. The ergs cover only approximately 15% of the entire desert.
One of the easiest ergs to access and visit are the dunes of Erg Chebbi, in Merzouga. Merzouga is a little town located in the South-East of Morocco, close to the border with Algeria. It’s like an oasis of sand since it only covers an area about 30km long and between 5-10km wide.
The Erg Chebbi dunes can offer an unforgettable experience. The activities that you can do here are totally out of the ordinary: camel trekking through the dunes, sleeping under the stars in a Berber tent, feeling the immensity of the silent presence of the desert and more. In this post, I will tell you everything you need to know to make it.
There are 2 cities from where is possible to reach Merzouga: from Marrakech and from Fes. I travelled from Fes since I found a cheap flight. So, before to travel to Fes, I wrote in the Couchsurfing community asking about recommendations to get to Merzouga. Apart from receiving a lot of invitations to be hosted in Fes (that I wasn’t expecting to receive), I also received an invitation to be hosted in Merzouga! What do you think I did?
The experience in the dunes of Erg Chebbi
The tours in Erg Chebbi follow roughly the same plan, that may vary depending on the company, the tour guides, the quality or type of desert camp you stay, the weather and the activities you do in the dunes.
“I didn’t have anything; just dry nature surrounding me, darkness and stars, strangers I just had met and an incredible feeling of happiness.”
Before the Experience
Lhoussin, a local Berber guy who works making tours in the desert invited me to stay at his place through Couchsurfing. Going to the dunes is exactly what I was looking for, so I accepted the invitation! (apart of being very curious about how Berber people live). His place was in Hassilabied, a little village next to Merzouga. I was travelling solo, but he had prepared mattresses for another 4 travellers. Nothing fancy, of course, but was enough to sleep and rest. It was cool to stay in a typical house of the area built in adobe.
The plan was going to the dunes in the afternoon after lunch at about 16:00, so I had some time to walk around Hassilabied. In this village, you can breathe the tranquillity and simplicity of a place where it’s like time doesn’t pass. The streets are simple dirt roads, the architecture characteristically build in adobe and it’s almost no noise. The day was cloudy and the landscape looked a little bit reddish, giving it a mysterious aura.
Heading to the meeting point of the tour guided by our guide Lhoussin, a group of women of the village were having lunch in a community in the street and they invited us to try their couscous (it was the real couscous, so yummy!). People in Morocco is super kind and hospitable.
The experience starts when you head to the meeting point of the tour, where you will meet your guide and the camels. Here, your guide will help you to get ready. Lhoussin and his colleagues helped us to wear the turban (I bought my own in Fes), they lent some haiks to some of the other travellers and helped us to get on the camel. Once all the group was ready to go, the experience started.
To ride the camel is not necessary for any previous experience. At first, it can feel a bit uncomfortable and a little wobbly, but all that you need is holding on firmly and focusing on enjoying the landscape. The camels will be connected by a rope in a train layout, being led in the front by a walking guide. So, you don’t need to do anything more than enjoying the captivating scenery.
If the time works out, the guides will stop along the way to allow you to catch the sunset from the dunes. The journey to the desert camp can take about 1 – 2 hours, but you really won’t feel the time. The landscape is so captivating that you suddenly will be already in the desert camp.
The desert camp
The camps in the desert tend to be quite simple in general, but even the ones that are more luxurious. I stayed in a camp organized in different tents, separated like rooms; a dining room, 5 bedrooms and a shared restroom. The facilities were pretty basic, but enough. For example, in the dining room we sit on rugs or little chairs around a table to have dinner, the bedrooms had a normal simple bed. Enough for one night. and I would say, the simpler you go, the better to get more of the experience.
There are other camps that are even simpler, with thin mattresses on the ground. The more luxurious ones can have some extras, like more comfortable chairs, better beds and some can even have showers.
If you don’t like the idea of camping in the desert, you can just take the camel trek to the dunes, and head back after.
Sandboarding and sand sledging
If time permitting (and weather), you could do some hiking in the dunes, sand sledging or sandboard as basic activities.
The most I loved of this place is how it brought back the child we have inside. All of us went running to the closest dune to play with the sand, doing sand sledging and sandboard. The dunes weren’t too high at this point, so it was easy to climb them (still tiring though), and having a lot of fun!
For sandboarding, you might need some previous experience (like in snowboarding). If not, just stand up on the board and try to keep the balance while to go down in a straight line. Otherwise, you can just sit on the board like in a sledge!
Trekking on the dunes
If you are lucky with the weather, and it means that is not too hot, another good experience it’s doing trekking further away from the desert camp through the dunes. We wanted to reach a peak point which looked near and high, but it wasn’t like we imagined since it’s tiring (your feet will be full of sand) and you will not feel any closer to that point and any higher either.
The dunes are like a super slow-motion version of a stormy sea, so you go up and down and suddenly you may not see what you had in your back. The footprints start disappearing for the effect of the wind and… yeah, it’s not recommended to go too far if you don’t want to get lost.
The night was coming, our guide Lhoussin saw us very far and started calling to return. In addition, the dinner was ready (and we were very hungry) so, was the moment to rest and eat.
The menu was a tagine, with some bread and fruit. The food was good. The dining tent was quite cosy and having the company of the other travellers made it more welcoming and nice. The best would come later.
After dinner, Lhoussin and his colleagues prepared a bonfire outside the camp and on the rhythm of the drums, they sang Berber music. I didn’t have anything; just dry nature surrounding me, darkness and stars, strangers I just had met and an incredible feeling of happiness.
Feeling the night
The night is one of the most memorable things of this trip. After the bonfire and the Berber rhythms, I spent some time with some of the other travellers playing cards in the main tent. Since it was still a little bit cloudy, it wasn’t possible to see the stars. But later the sky was cloudless! with a big shiny full moon that was “overshadowing” the spectacle of the stars. It was the moment to spend some time watching the moon and the sky.
It was very windy, so I was struggling a little bit with the thermal sensation. But neither the cold nor the persistence of the moon would stop me to see the night in total darkness. I stayed until the moon gave up. In the deafening silence of nothing, I felt the presence of the wind sweeping the sand. Contemplating the depth of the night and the stars, it’s one of the best things I have ever done in my life. Nevertheless, although to be under the stars during the night was awesome, going to bed wasn’t that awesome, I was such a cold that I couldn’t almost sleep. Make sure to bring some warm clothes if you visit in Autumn-Winter time.
Heading back and sunrise
For the next day, the plan is leaving the camp on the camel before the sunrise takes place. So, along the way is possible to find a good spot to watch it. We got up quite early, at about 6:30 am. Thus, when we were going back to Hassilabied, a few minutes before the sunrise, we stopped and ran up to a dune and receive the new day.
After, we head back to our camels to continue the journey. Then, we arrived to the village, we were served breakfast with green tea.
BONUS TRACK: Driving a quad bike across the dunes
Once finished the tour in the dunes (and having proper sleep at my accommodation) I was curious about driving quad bike in the dunes, so asked about it to Lhoussin. Some larger camps have quad bikes for rent, but in our case no, but Lhoussin showed us a place where we could rent them, and we did. The price looked super cheap, until, in the end, I realized I had done one of my best mistakes in my life…
Once you are equipped with a helmet that fits you, one of the employers drives a quad bike showing you the path to follow, but also to assist you in case of getting stuck in the sand or any other unforeseen.
They didn’t ask the driving license. If you didn’t have one, it’s recommended you start slower and going faster once you get more used to it. Depending on the progress in the skills of all the participants, the guide progressively starts going faster, increasing as well the complexity of the dunes: more adrenalizing ups and downs that are just WOW!. If you get stuck, they will stop and help you.
Apart from driving, the best was going to one of the highest points of Erg Chebbi where the views are stunning! It’s even possible to see the end of the erg!
As a recommendation, once you get more skilled and start going faster, avoid passing too fast on the vegetation, for 2 reasons: preserving nature and because you could end up having an accident turning upside down.
I made a mistake listening to the prize, I heard 40 DH but it was in reality 40€ per 1 hour (but I would say, it worth it!). I didn’t have enough money to pay it, so I needed to go to Merzouga (~8km away) to take money from the only cashing machine of the area. There isn’t public transport, so I reached there doing hitchhiking!
How many days are necessary to visit
Most people might be thinking that this is a trip that requires a lot of time, but if you live in Europe, it can be done in a minimum of 4-5 days. For example, my itinerary was:
- The first day was for landing in Morocco (landed on a Friday night)
- The second day was to travel to Merzouga (you could discover a bit the city before to head to Merzouga)
- The third day is to live the tour and sleep in the desert camp.
- The fourth day is to return from the dunes and doing later quad bikes. Later I headed back to Fes in the same day.
- The last day I took my plane to return to the UK in the afternoon.
How to make it?
There are 2 main locations from where is possible to go to Merzouga: Fes and Marrakech. These cities provide a direct connection to Merzouga, but the distances are long in both cases. From Fes, the journey takes approximately 10-11 hours and from Marrakech, about 12 hours.
There are 2 ways to reach Merzouga: booking guided tours or going on your own.
There are many options and prices depending on your budget, schedule and time. There are options to go for example in a 4×4’s or others going by bus in a bigger group. Depending on the tour, it can include the accommodation, the experience in the dunes and the transport with some stops along the way in places of interest. If what you want is just enjoying the experience, then a guided tour is what you are looking for, like for example:
- From Fes (round trip): 2 days tour, 2 days private tour
- Starting in Fes and ending in Marrakech (recommended for open plans) : 3 days tour
- Starting in Marrakech and ending in Fes (recommended for open plans): 3 days tour
- From Marrakech finishing in Fes (round trip): 3 days tour option 1 and option 2
On your own
If this is what you prefer, then you will need to plan the most part of your trip as I did, but also it gives you the freedom to decide how you make it.
You will need to organise = Transport + Accommodation + Tour
The options are by bus or hiring a car. I personally preferred the first option, for being the easiest for me.
- Bus: the company that takes you to Merzouga is Supratours. If you have issues to book the bus ticket online, you will need to do it directly in the ticket office. I actually bought it the same day I was departing to Merzouga. The departing times from Fes and Marrakech are at 20:30 hrs. The arrivals use to be in the early morning, about 4:30-5:00am. Don’t worry about arriving at this time, it’s something normal, you will have someone in reception or someone to pick you up depending on where you stay.
- Car hire: if you preferred to rent a car, there are plenty of companies to find the car and price that fits you. This option is more recommendable if you come with someone else because distances are long and always is good to have company just in case (and you can divide expenses). If this is your option, bear in mind of heading out with enough petrol and keep checking the fuel gauge, since the stretches between towns are wide. You can find petrol stations along the way in most sizable towns. One advantage of going by car is that you have the chance to stop on your way and explore places you like, and also you could stay over.
Hotel/Riad/Hostel: your best bet will be to check if the place you are looking for to stay offers tours and other activities to do in Erg Chebbi. Then, you can arrange anything directly with them. There are many options so, choose the one that transmits the best feeling. This hostel I’ve found is top top top, just check the references. If I came again to Merzouga I definitely would go with this one.
Couchsurfing: to make this adventure, you need at least to have your profile complete (and if possible having some good references as well) and see if you are lucky enough. You also need to understand very well the purpose of Couchsurfing, it is not just going to someone else’s place “for free”. If you understand the philosophy of Couchsurfing and have a complete profile, then this is what you need to do:
- To create a Public trip in Merzouga writing about what you are expecting to do. You might receive a message from someone local that run tours.
- Check very well hosts’ references to make sure all it’s good.
- Clarify is they run tours to the dunes. If not you can book it separately.
If you found the accommodation, but you still don’t know about the tour, you can book it in advance, independently of where you will stay. These options might be of
- Option 1: camel trek and overnight at the desert camp
- Option 2: camel trek and overnight at a luxury tent at the desert camp
What time of the year is better to visit
It’s up to you, you decide what you prefer: hot or cold. In summer temperatures can reach 45ºC during the day, for this reason, most of the tours are arranged at times it’s not too hot, like in the sunset or sunrise. In winter can be warm during the day, but during the night can reach temperatures under 0ºC.
Although is possible to visit Erg Chebbi during all year, it’s important to check when Ramadan happens (between about 20 April to 20 May), since it could be some changes of the general schedules of the tours. Always ask just in case.
What else to take into account for this trip
If you decided to visit Merzouga, take into account a few things before to travel:
- Pack light: I would recommend travelling with a backpack instead of a suitcase. When you head to the dunes, take the essentials in a backpack, remember that you will ride a camel.
- Clothes: while riding the camel it’s recommended to wear long trousers to avoid chafing your legs (you can change clothes when you arrive at the camp). It’s also recommended to wear closed shoes. In the hot months, having optionally a couple of open-toe shoes can be good to have some air for your feet.
- Take some warm clothes if travelling in autumn-winter: although the days might be warm between November and March, the nights can get very, very cold. I suffered the cold during the night because I didn’t bring enough warm clothes. In wintertime is recommended to take with you an all-season sleeping bag. Don’t suffer the cold as I did
- Take some basic commodities: in the few shops along the main road in Merzouga town or in the main square of Hassilabied, you can collect some essentials that might be necessary for your trip into the dunes: water and some snacks, since in the dunes you will not have access to anything apart of what the tour staff gives you. Also, it’s important to get tissues just in case and a torch, to see your steps in the darkness if you need to go to the toilet, the desert camp facilities can be quite basic.
- Take something to cover from the rain: check the weather if you aren’t going in summer, because although it isn’t common that rains, may God have mercy on your souls. It’s good to have a waterproof cover to protect your belongings and a rain poncho accessible just in case (I know the story of 2 friends that were surprised by the rain when they were riding on the camel in direction to the camp).
- Be respectful: people in a very hospitable and nice, be kind and respectful as well as they will be with you. Respect the environment and try to match to the local customs. Dress modestly, Morocco is a conservative country and more in remote regions, therefore you should cover your shoulders and knees.
My final recommendation
Guided tours might be the best option to make a bit of everything since apart of visiting the dunes and staying during the night, you also will have the chance to stop along the way to Merzouga. The cost might be a bit more expensive than going on your own but gives you stress-free planning. The best options are the ones from Fes to Marrakech or vice-versa.
Travel on your own gives you a bit more of freedom to stay more time in Merzouga and deciding where to go after. The format and timing to visit the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi will be pretty much the same, so it can worth more if you can get in touch with the local culture and the Berber community.
I hope all this information could result useful for you. Please let me know if you end up travelling to Merzouga or booking a tour. I will be happy to hear from you for any comments, thoughts, questions or feedback. Have safe travels!