Want to visit the Sahara desert in Morocco, but prefer to avoid organised tours? This how-to guide may help. It’s based entirely on my own experiences and the research I did for my own trip a few years ago. Although the prices may have changed slightly since then, I believe most other details remain the same.
There are lots of package holidays and tours available to take tourists from Marrakech or Fes to the desert, which can be a great way to get to the desert with an experienced guide and without the need to organise too much yourself.
However, if you want to visit the Sahara on a budget, or you simply prefer the freedom of independent travel to the organised structure of a tour, then a DIY trip to the desert is entirely possible, even if the internet seems to suggest it isn’t. It is also a cheaper option and offers a great deal more choice.
In this post, I’ve tried to put together in one place all the information I had to trawl the web for while I was planning my desert trip in Morocco.
I’ve also included everything I wish someone had told me before I left. My hope is that I may be able to make your life easier if you’re trying to figure out how to see the Sahara in Morocco.
- How to Visit the Desert in Morocco
- Where to Visit the Desert in Morocco
- Closest Town to the Desert in Morocco
- Suggested Itinerary
- How to Get to Merzouga
- Where to Stay in Merzouga
- How to See the Dunes in Merzouga
- How Much Will it Cost?
- What to Pack
- More Info and Further Reading
Updated September 2020 – Most of the information contained below should still be correct. Bus times may have changed, and prices have probably increased slightly. If anyone has any more info please leave a comment to update me!
Where to Visit the Desert in Morocco
The Sahara is a vast desert, and covers a huge area of Morocco. But not all of it looks like the image you probably have in mind when you picture the desert in Morocco.
In fact, a huge part of Morocco’s desert region is a big, flat, landscape of dusty grey rubble! To see a real desert of undulating golden sand dunes, you have to head to the “ergs”. These are areas of shifting sand dunes in the Sahara, areas that look exactly like what you would hope to see when visiting the desert.
In Morocco, there are two areas of Saharan dunes which tourists can visit: Erg Chebbi and Erg Chigaga. Both are situated in the remote south/southeastern desert region of Saharan Morocco, beyond the Atlas mountain range.
Home to nomad Berbers, Erg Chebbi is the smaller of the two ergs, at 22km long and 5-10km wide. But the dunes reach a greater height of up to 150 meters.
The nearest town of Merzouga is right on the edge of the dunes, just 1km away, meaning that you can stay in a hotel in town and still walk to the dunes in a few minutes.
This makes Erg Chebbi far more accessible, and much easier for a DIY trip to the desert in Morocco. This easy access makes the dunes very popular with tourists, which means more guides and souvenir touts. But it also means travelling there under your own steam is easier – perfect for backpackers!
Erg Chigaga are the larger dunes, around 40km long and 10-15km wide, and reaching a height of up to 120 meters. Historically, these dunes were occupied by Bedouin Arabs.
Erg Chigaga is 60km from the nearest town of M’Hamid and can only be reached by 4×4 (which takes a few hours) or by a 2-3 day camel trek. There are hotels in M’Hamid, and campsites nearer the dunes.
M’Hamid is nearer to Marrakech than Merzouga, and can also be reached by bus. But the dunes here are more inaccessible. The need for an off-road vehicle means that a trip to these dunes is probably better organised through a tour, except for the more intrepid explorers.
Closest Town to the Desert in Morocco
I have first-hand experience of organising a DIY tour to Erg Chebbi, so the remainder of this article will focus on those dunes.
The nearest towns to Erg Chebbi are:
- Erfoud (the biggest nearby town) – 60km away
- Rissani – 40km away
- Merzouga– 1km away
The larger towns of Rissani and Erfoud make a good base to explore several sites in Saharan Morocco, as well as the dunes. The dunes themselves are still a couple of hours drive away, but there are several other sites around that you could create a fun road trip around. Both towns would be good places to stay if your schedule isn’t as tight as mine was, and you have five or six nights in the area.
If your only goal is to head to the desert, the best place to stay is the small town of Merzouga. You can also opt for one of Merzouga’s surrounding villages like Hassilabied, as I did. There are a number of hotels and campsites in these towns, and local guides can be hired quite cheaply to lead a hike or camel trek into the dunes.
Unfortunately, a trip to the Sahara is not something that can be done in a day or two. The drive to the dunes from Marrakech takes up a whole day, so one night wouldn’t allow enough time to actually see the dunes.
I’d recommend three nights, particularly if you’re getting the bus there and want to spend a night in the dunes. This is how I did it:
08:30 Depart Marrakech
21:00 Arrive Merzouga. Check-in Hotel Mamouche
Morning and afternoon in Hotel / exploring Hassilabied
16:00 Depart for camel trek. Camping in the desert
07:00 Camel trek back to the hotel.
Afternoon and evening in hotel / exploring Hassilabied.
08:00 Depart Merzouga
20:30 Arrive Marrakech
How to Get to Merzouga
You can fly into Marrakech, Fes or Ourazazate. Merzouga and the surrounding region can be easily accessed from all three. There is no railway in this part of Morocco, so Merzouga can only be accessed by road. You can take a bus, or hire a car and drive yourself there.
Taking the Bus to Merzouga
As far as I know, the only bus company that goes all the way to Merzouga is Supratours. Other companies, such as CTM, travel to the nearby towns of Rissani and Erfoud, but don’t go all the way to the dunes.
The journey from Marrakech to Merzouga is 12.5 hours. From Fes to Merzouga (overnight) the journey is ten hours forty-five minutes. Supratours, in my experience, have relatively new, comfortable, clean buses, with decent aircon.
Tickets cost Dh200 per person each way, and can be bought on the day at the bus station or in advance at the Supratours office. They can also be reserved on the phone.
Good to Know:
When I travelled, you could only buy tickets for the outbound journey as the return tickets need to be booked at the return station.
There were no toilets on the Supratours buses when I visited. On the 12.5 hour journey from Marrakech to Merzouga we had two twenty-minute stops, the first at two hours in and the second about seven hours in. When the bus stops to let people on and off, most of the passengers will get out to have a cigarette – you can jump out here and use a toilet in a nearby café but the bus may not wait for you, so it’s risky. I’ve also seen online that the Fes – Merzouga journey only stops once.
The shops at the bus stops only sell things like crisps, biscuits and sweets. You should buy sandwiches or fruit before leaving Marrakech if you want a proper lunch.
Bus Office Addresses:
Supratours Marrakech – Avenue Hassan II, Nouvelle Ville – behind the train station. 0524 42 17 69 or 0524 43 55 25.
Supratours Fes – BC Almohad. 0535 65 26 22
Supratours Merzouga – Merzouga Charkia. 0535 57 63 43.
Driving to Merzouga
The other option is to hire a car in Marrakech or Fes and drive yourself down to the desert in Morocco. You could even drive your own car or caravan down through Spain and take the ferry across!
The journey from Marrakech to Merzouga largely follows the same road all the way down. So with the help of a satnav, it shouldn’t be too difficult to make your own way. You can rent a small car with aircon for around £130 for four days (I don’t recommend going without aircon on this journey).
Although more expensive than taking the bus, the journey takes around eight hours (according to Google maps) as opposed to the twelve hours on the bus. Renting a car obviously offers more freedom, too, to stop when you like. You can also make detours to take in some of the sites of the region, including the spectacular Todra Gorge or Dayet Srji, an enormous saltwater lake near Rissani, which is home to a large number of flamingos.
It’s worth noting that although the drive is fairly straightforward, it does involve crossing the High Atlas Mountains using precarious, winding roads. These have sharp corners, often with no barriers between the road and the sheer drops alongside. Other drivers in Morocco are prone to speeding, as well as overtaking on blind corners.
I’d say that only very confident drivers should be undertaking this trip alone. That being said, the views are incredible and there is a lot to enjoy on the drive through the mountains.
If you fancy doing a self-drive trip to the desert in Morocco, use a comparison site like Rentalcars.com to find the best deal.
Where to Stay in Merzouga
This is the most straightforward part of planning the desert trip. There are lots of hotels in Merzouga and the surrounding area offering a range of services and prices for all tastes and budgets. Just do a search on Booking.com and pick your favourite. There is also at least one caravan park in the nearby village of Hassilabied, and some hotels also offer campsites close to the dunes as a budget option.
I’d be very happy to recommend the hotel we stayed at, Riad Mamouche. See my earlier review for more information. The staff were lovely, the food was great, and we were even able to arrange our dune tour through the hotel.
How to See the Dunes in Merzouga
Erg Chebbi is relatively small, so you could probably hike into the dunes alone if you were feeling adventurous. A compass would be handy to find the direction of home.
However, most people prefer to organise a camel trek into the dunes, possibly with an overnight stay at a traditional Berber camp. Especially because the best time to see the dunes in Merzouga is at sunrise.
These can be booked locally in Merzouga, organised through your hotel, or booked online using a trusted service. I like Get Your Guide (one of my trusted affiliate partners). They have a great range of tours to the desert in Morocco on their Merzouga page here.
I organised my tour in advance through my Hotel, Riad Mamouche, by emailing the manager. We had a local guide who led us on a camel trek to a camp, where we had dinner, watched the sunset over the dunes, and listened to music. The next morning we woke up around 6am to watch the sunrise, before another camel trek back to the hotel.
How Much Will it Cost?
The following is based on what I paid for during my four-day trip. Prices were correct in 2012, and conversions were last updated as of September 2019.
- Bus journey from Marrakech – Merzouga and back – 200MAD per person (£16.50)*
- Hotel double room for two nights, two people sharing – £65
- One-night camel trek and camping in the desert, including dinner £29 per person.
In total, we spent £90.50 per person for a three-night trip, plus spending money for food, souvenirs and a tip for our desert guide.
Update 2019: I’ve done a bit of digging online and it seems the cost of the bus may now be just 80MAD, around £9.
What to Pack
Because Merzouga is a relatively small town, it’s polite to respect the local custom of dressing modestly, even if the locals are used to tourists. Try to keep arms and shoulders covered, and wear shorts or skirts that cover the knee. I wore vest tops with a light cotton scarf over my upper arms and shoulders, and I didn’t feel at all uncomfortable walking around the hotel or the town. We went in March and it was baking hot, and very dry. Loose clothes and sun cream are vital.
Also, take an Arabic phrasebook. English isn’t as widely spoken in this area as it is in the cities, and certainly isn’t as strong. A French phrasebook will certainly come in handy in Merzouga, and it wouldn’t hurt to learn a few Arabic phrases just to be polite and make a good impression. The only one I managed to learn was shukran, meaning thank you, which is always nice to know.
Desert Packing List for Morocco
A scarf to protect your hair and face is incredibly useful, as sand gets blown everywhere if the wind picks up. I’d also recommend keeping arms covered with another scarf, or long-sleeved top, as when it is windy the sand has a tendency to sting bare skin. A skirt or dress is highly impractical, especially on camels. Loose shorts are good, or a pair of baggy ‘harem’ trousers are ideal. I swore by these on my trip, and you can pick up some really cool designs for around £8 on Amazon:
On your feet, wear sandals with straps, or a pair of lightweight trainer pumps like Converse. Avoid pumps or flip-flops as they might fall off while you’re riding the camels, and there’s no need to waste suitcase space on bulky trainers or walking boots unless you’re planning a long hike through the dunes.
At night, it was really windy and cold. Plenty of blankets were provided at the camp, but I also wore a long-sleeved top, jumper and leggings under my pyjama bottoms.
More Info and Further Reading
My travelogue posts about my own Morocco desert trip:
Booking and information websites:
- Hotel Mamouche: riadmamouche.com
- Search for hotel options: Booking.com
- Compare car rental prices: Rentalcars.com
- Compare tour prices: GetYourGuide
So, there you have it! However you get to the desert in Morocco, enjoy it – and please get in touch to let me know about your experiences.
Help me keep this post current to assist other travellers planning a DIY desert trip. Please comment here or contact me if any facts/prices need updating. If you found this post helpful – why not pin it to share with others?