It’s a brand new year and I have started 2018 with a real bangarang. On the 5th of this new year, I went to Marrakech for a week which included a three-day tour to the Erg Chebbi desert.
It was such a real adventure with plenty of firsts! My first trip of the new year, the first time in Morocco, first steps on the African continent, and first camping overnight in a desert.
If you are curious about what a tour to the Sahara desert might look like I have written a full description of my excursion through Morocco. Check it out!
It was an early morning pick up. Eight o’clock in the morning a gentleman came and picked my partner and me up from our Riad and lead us to the meeting point where myself and 15 others were placed on a bus.
The Atlas Mountains were closed due to the snow. So the journey lead us around the mountain chain, bring us just shy of the coast. Once the bus reached the other side of the mountains we began to pass countryside villages and towns.
The terrain changed from dry rock to light snow, to open and vast countryside. Passing homes and farms of those who live on the outskirts. We were afforded to see the lives of the people living outside of the city. I saw some men working in dirty garages or else selling food in a not to clean food stand. I could see the kids playing football with a ball or making toys out of random debris. In bigger towns, groups of women were seen walking the streets wrapped from head to toe in a black or white cloth as they walked together to the market.
We stopped around 1:00 pm for lunch in a small cafe where the menu consisted of tajine, soup, kebabs, and pizza. We all ate in the back room with the rest of the tourist, while the local men sat in the front of the cafe watching a football match. After lunch, we headed back to the bus where we continued our journey for another 5 hours until we reached a Berber village.
First, stop at a UNESCO Berber village called Kasbah Ait Benhaddou in Ouarzazate (nicknamed the door of the desert). Most famous for being the filming location of Marco Polo (1982), The Living Daylights (1987), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Mummy (1999), Gladiator (2000), Kingdom of Heavan (2005), Alexander (2004), Bable (2006), Prince of Persia (2010), and Game of Thrones.
Our guide led us through the village telling us about the houses made of mud and straw. He explained the lifestyle of the four Berber families that still reside in this small clay village. Each family are decedents of the original nomads and live in these very essential homes with no electricity. In addition to the homes where the families live, there were plenty of shops with clothes, rugs, and scarves for sale. We had plenty of time for pictures as the guide further described the history of the village and the surrounding area.
At the end of the tour, the guide took us to a small store where we could purchase scarves for the ride into the desert. You are not obligated to buy anything here but it is a good idea to have something for the desert. It is also a nice souvenir from the Sahara desert. Scarves should cost no more than 60 Dh (about € 6) but you might be able to make the price lower through negotiations.
A handful of the group did so and just before we got back on the bus the guide asked to pay 20 Dh for entrance into the village. This was something I did not hear him mention before but it only added up to € 2 so I didn’t mind. He also mentioned how grateful he would be for a tip and said that any money given is shared with the community of those who live in Kasbah Ait Benhaddou. We paid and got back on the bus.
Note: It’s important to know that all of the guides on this tour will ask for a tip it is completely up to you to give or not.
We continued on to our hotel in the Dades Valley, close to the foothill of the mountains. We arrived at 10:00 pm and were given room keys. After dinner, I was exhausted from a full day of driving so I called it a night.
It was freezing outside and seemed even colder in the room. I was given the option to rent a space heater for an extra 100 DH (about € 10). I refused the space heater thinking it wouldn’t be that bad since we had two thick blankets. I was so wrong.
The hotel was simple but clean, and in January it was really cold. If you do this tour in or around January be sure to dress warm enough.
I woke up early the next morning and feeling tempted to take a shower. But I wasn’t sure how hot the water would be and was too afraid of getting sick since the tiled floors were icy cold so I opted not to risk it. We met in the dining room again for breakfast and shortly thereafter hopped on the bus.
I had asked the driver if he could turn on the heater but he told me that the van doesn’t have a heater, only air conditioning, so we were all a little jittery when we returned to our seats on the bus at 7:30 am.
Continuing on our way to the desert we found ourselves in a small but modern-looking town. We pulled over and another guide stepped on the bus welcoming us.
We exited the bus and headed into some fields. As the guide talked on about the use and purpose of the fields, young boys followed us making horses and camel figures made of strong blades of grass. They gave one to me saying, “It is yours.” About 5 minutes later they put their hand out asking for money. If you have a few coins it is polite to give them a few, if not go ahead and give it back.
We walked into the town and stopped at a carpet store where we took our shoes off and sat in a circle as the woman poured tea and the man taught us a little bit about how the carpets are made. He was clearly trying to make a few sales but the guide explained that we were not obligated to buy anything.
Back on the bus and we drove 15 minutes into the Todra Gorge. It was AMAZING! The towering canyon red walls with a fresh spring river water ran through the gorge. It was so beautiful, I had completely forgotten about my lack of sleep. After a lovely walk and plenty of pictures we got on the bus and headed out for lunch.
Just before sundown we finally made it to the Erg Chebbi desert where our camel rides were waiting for us. I can’t begin to describe the beauty of the reddish-gold sand that lay before us for miles. It was so smooth, like freshly fallen snow. The beauty was too much for my eyes to take it in all at once. I took a good look at the camels examining them for any signs of maltreatment. In all honesty, it is never easy to see how animals are treated on a regular basis. These camels seemed in healthy condition and very mild tempered.
After our a photo moment, we mounted and headed to our campsite. As we did so we watched the sunset across the dunes.
Be sure to wear jeans for the camel ride, the saddles are not so comfortable.
We arrived at the campsite after dark and were shown to our tents. The tents were made of tarps and wood posts with small mattresses on the ground inside and thick blankets.
Everyone socialized for a while until people slowly trickled into the dining tent, where we sat on the ground and ate a traditional Moroccan dinner.
After dinner, I stepped out and saw the amazing stars. This was another eye-opening moment. Looking up at the clear night sky is something I will never forget. There were more stars above me than I have ever seen before.
I joined the circle of people around the campfire and listened to the men play music on drums until the exhaustion took over and I went to bed.
Against my initial assumption, the desert was freezing cold. It reached about -8 C. Fully dressed in my jacket, two layers of pants, and three thick blanket my feet were once again too cold to let me sleep. I got about 4 hours of sleep since I spent most of the night trying to get comfortable and trying to forget that my feet were popsicles.
It was a 5:00 am wake up! It was still dark out when I peeked out of the tent. I quickly wrapped myself with my big scarf and packed the few things I had with me. I mounted my camel and as the tribe headed back to the pickup spot where we watched the sunrise. It was magical and freezing. I suggest wearing some warm gloves.
We got to the pickup point and were asked to donate tips to the guides for the camel trek. We were then directed to a breakfast spot across the street where we warmed our hands with the hot tea and ate tasty bread and jams.
We all piled on the bus after taking our last photo shoot of the group and headed back to Marrakech.
Luckily the roads to the Atlas mountains had cleared and we were able to take a lovely drive through the high snowy peaks.
Warning: the roads are a little windy.
The roads weren’t terribly windy but I recommend you bring some smelling salts or a small bottle of essential oil (I use lavender) to help with car sickness. Not only were the roads a bit twisted but our driver was passing slow trucks on a one-lane road. It was terrifying going around other drivers with an oncoming car in view. The drivers are professionals, this is just how things are done in Marrakech but if you sit in the back of the bus you will not need to feel the anxiety from the drive.
The bus returned to the city late evening (9:00 pm) and everyone unloaded and said their goodbyes. After the aching goodbye, I was eager to get to my riad for a hot shower and a full night’s sleep in a warm and proper bed.
With the lack of sleep, constant sense of cold, long drives, and general discomfort this trip was so worth it. At times it does feel a bit rushed because of how far the destination is but if you have time to take a four-day tour you may have more time to spend in the desert. For our tour, we were unable to spend the day in the desert with might have been nice. But all in all, I am so happy with the tour and all of the wonderful people we met.
I paid about € 85 for this three-day excursion and it included breakfast and dinner, a night at the hotel, a night in the desert, tours through the UNESCO Berber village, the canyons, the camel trek, and transportation. All in all, I think it is a really great deal.
If you are interested in a private tour or luxury styled camping you might be looking at the change of about € 500 or more. This is the perfect trip for those on a budget and doesn’t mind a temporary rough living situation. The views of this wonderful country are truly breath taking and you won’t regret going.