On any trip to Morocco, among other things, a visit to the Merzouga desert is a must. Here I bring you my experience, route and tips to get you on your way to the desert.
There are many options to visit the desert, and if you are in Marrakech, just walking through the medina you will find an endless number of agencies with offers to see the sand dunes at sunrise and sunset… Prices can vary, you can find them from 65€ to 150€. And you may wonder why the price varies so much. There are several reasons, the first and for me the most important: the agency gets its share of the cake, of course.
Another reason is the quality of the accommodation on your trip, or at least that’s what they are selling you. Although if you want me to be honest, and from experience, in the end, it has nothing to do with it, so I would take the cheapest, as in my group there were people who had paid €60 and others €110 and we all went together, we slept in the same conditions…
The package that you are going to find the most is the 3 days 2 nights to the desert of Merzouga, which is the one that I recommend the most since the place is close to “Mordor” and there are more than 10 hours of journey, and if you want to do it in 2 days 1 night, multiply that eternal journey by 2, it’s crazy.
3 days 2 nights pack to the desert of Merzouga
Day 1. Departure from Marrakech. 8.00 am.
AÏT BEN HADDOU
We start our route towards Aït Ben Haddou, located 30 kilometres before reaching Ouarzazate from Marrakech. It has been used as a film location on dozens of occasions, including major productions such as Game of Thrones, Gladiator, The Mummy and The Jewel of the Nile…
Difference between a ksar and a kasbah
Kasbah: fortified house (or rather fortified mansion!) in which powerful families or clans lived.
Ksar: fortified settlement grouping together a multitude of houses belonging to different families; most of them are humble houses and often within the ksar there is one or several kasbahs. So Aït Ben Haddou is a ksar within which there are several kasbahs.
The visit to the ksar of Aït Ben Haddou is free of charge. Entering the citadel, strolling through its alleys and going up to the highest part to enjoy the panoramic view is free.
The main (and free!) entrance from the road is via the bridge.
Another way to get to the ksar of Aït Ben Haddou is to cross the river over a path-bridge made of sandbags. As advice and my own experience, it is best to cross the bridge you see in the photo.
Warning to avoid scams – Tips and experience
As soon as we got there, a guide got into our minibus and without even introducing himself, he told us to follow him, that he was going to be our guide in Aït Ben Haddou. We were 18 people on the bus, and after almost 5 hours of travelling, we didn’t hesitate to follow him, although it seemed a bit strange to us.
In Marrakech, we had been told that it is normal to meet guides in this muddy city, but at the end of the trip we gave them some money for their “work”, something symbolic, and they are always grateful.
He took us to some “public” toilets, 0.30€ (where you always have to pay and they are never clean) and we were ready to start our tour.
Our guide, somewhat arrogantly, avoids the bridge where everyone was crossing the river to access the Ksar. Instead, he leads us directly to the riverbank. Where some sandbags act as a bridge, which is difficult for some people to cross. I, for example, was able to cross without help, but in the case of older people who needed help, there were some “helpers” there, ready to give you a hand to help you cross the river. They did ask for money at the end, of course!
As a curiosity, it is a saltwater river, as it comes from the mountain where salts abound.
Just after the whole group managed to cross the river with or without help, our guide began to speak. And what he was going to say left none of us indifferent.
THE GUIDE OF AÏT BAN HADDOU
We hardly knew his name, he simply said:
-The guided tour is €3 per person.
We were all silent, not knowing what to say or what to do. Very politely I asked him.
-Excuse me, if we want to do the visit without a guide, it is possible, isn’t it?
The man didn’t like my question very much, the others seemed to wake up a bit. I knew that the city could be visited without a guide and this man was demanding 3€ per person. When he hadn’t even earned our attention or our respect, after forcing us to go over the river, after asking him nicely to go over the bridge, as there were people in the group who couldn’t make it on their own. His answers were negative in both cases.
There’s a small museum, simple and neglected, which is somewhat symbolic of the place (1€). There is also a poster with all the films that have been shot in Ait Ben Haddou. The truth is that everything is in very bad condition, but still interesting to see.
The whole place is magical, a city raised from the mud, and from the top of the hill, there are magnificent picturesque postcard views.
Maybe I didn’t get much information about the place because I went without a guide, but when you travel and they treat you like banknotes with legs instead of people, you don’t really want to go there. At the end of the day, we’ll always have blogs to get some information.
WHERE TO EAT IN AÏT BEN HADDOU
If you go with a guide, you will probably be taken to the restaurant where they take all the tourists at the end of the visit. We ate in a super cheap place, and it was delicious. Here is a photo of the place. As a recommendation: the chicken tacos are top notch!
The rest of the group, half of them ate at the same place as us and the other half at the restaurant.
When I got on the bus, everyone congratulated me for having stood up to the man. I wasn’t looking for congratulations, I just didn’t think it was fair that the guide took advantage of us in that way.
Gain the trust of the group, earn it, make our visit worthwhile. And in the end, you even get more tips than you asked for. But not that way, you won’t get anything.
I found out that none of our group had gone with the guide and therefore no one had paid anything. The guide got angry with me and said:
-If you didn’t want a guide, you could have gone on your own but don’t talk to the group. You made me lose the whole group.
Sorry Mustafa (I don’t even know his name, I leave you a picture of his face), but I asked you nicely if I could do it and you sent me to the van. Each one reaps what he sows.
We left there with a bittersweet taste. Victory for not being ” cheated “. But sad at the same time for having to meet people like that…
In Ouarzazate, the second stop on our route, we made a quick stop, but this time just to take photos (3 minutes), it is a city known as the Gateway to the Desert. It is also known as the “Hollywood of Africa“. The city is home to several film studios including one of the largest in the world, Atlas Studios. Films such as The Jewel of the Nile, Asterix and Cleopatra and The Ten Commandments were shot in these studios.
It was getting late and we headed towards the Dades Gorges. We could hardly see anything because it soon got dark but only feel the swaying of the van as we drove along the winding roads.
We arrived at a riad for the night. No heating (10€ per room, 1 group paid for it but then it didn’t work so they got their money back) and most of them, no sockets in the room.
Dinner, Tajine “for a change”. Everyone retired to rest. I stayed with Mehdi playing for a while the Darbouka, the typical Arabian cup drum. It was a great night in spite of the cold (-2ºC).
Day 2. Departure from Dades Gorges. 8.00 am.
After sleeping under a mountain of blankets because of the cold. Our host Mehdi served us a champion’s breakfast. And then we set off again to continue our route.
Again we meandered through the Dades valley and this time our driver stopped at a viewpoint so that we could take our photos.
We continue on our way to the Toldra Valley, leaving behind us muddy villages and beautiful valleys.
Another guide was waiting for us in Tinerhir. This time the first thing he did was to introduce himself and inform us that he was included in the tour, to which everyone applauded his words. His name, Guachit.
He showed us orchards, the river, a Berber house where we were shown endless carpets of various different materials.
Then we head to the Toldra Gorges, with a fascinating history. They are known worldwide as one of the most spectacular rocky canyons.
In its some parts the gorges are only 33 metres wide but have cliffs over 100 metres high on either side of the river. The river has virtually dried up, leaving only the imagination to picture the mighty forces of nature that once carved this region.
Our guide told us that not long ago there was a torrential downpour and the area had to be evacuated as the water rose up to 6 metres!
The cliffs of the gorge attract many climbers every year who come to enjoy their passion.
In just 15 minutes we saw it, took photos and went back to the village for lunch. As I said, if you go with a guide, he will take you to a restaurant, and ours even took us to the table, then said goodbye and left. We ate Tajine again.
After lunch, we bought some supplies for the road and set off for the Merzouga desert.
HEADING TO THE DESERT
We arrived at nightfall at a hotel at the foot of the desert and they made us take only one bag per person with what we needed to take us to the desert, so our backpacks and those of many others stayed overnight in the van.
We were loaded onto camels and set off into the desert. There we would find our camp.
The feeling of riding a camel is not very pleasant (physically speaking), but when you realise that you are surrounded by dunes, by the desert, it becomes a magical moment.
Barely 15 minutes had passed and we had to tell the camel drivers to stop so that we could appreciate the sunset. So we were all sitting on the backs of the camels and we could see a different kind of sunset, between the dunes, take 4 photos and go on. It all seemed a bit rushed… somehow it was taking away the magic of the moment.
As soon as we reached the camp, I jumped off the camel and set myself on a mission. To climb the highest dune so that I could continue to watch the sunset in peace and quiet.
I’ll tell you one thing, walking or climbing a dune is not easy. With effort, sweat and crawling I managed to get there to see the last beams of sunlight of that day and for the first time ever I made it to the desert.
Back at the camp, everyone was in their tents. How boring, I thought, and I sat in the middle of the camp waiting for them to come out gradually so that I could chat with them.
After a while I realised that it was dark enough and I asked my new friends to lie down, not to talk, just to look up into the sky. And they were all speechless. Infinite millions of stars above us, breathtaking.
I let them enjoy the silence for a while and then I went to the camel drivers to ask them for some Darboukas or whatever instruments they had available.
And that’s when the real magic began! I started to play, others to sing… each one contributed with something and even if it was minimal, it was special. You can see spectacular photos of that night on my Instagram account so follow me so you don’t miss it @MundoMahalo
Later they served us dinner, guess what? Tajine, what a surprise! It was really nice to share a table and Tajine with our new travel companions. After dinner, the hosts entertained us with music which I joined in, playing the Darbouka of course!
Day 3. Camel ride
Early in the morning we got on the camels and went back to the hotel. On the way, we made a stop and this time we were allowed to get off the camels to take photos at sunrise.
We arrived at the hotel and had breakfast. Afterwards, most of us went back to Marrakech, a long trip with just a stop for lunch and to go to the toilet.
We took a shared taxi to Fez (which I also recommend). It usually costs about 25€ per person. And it’s really well worth it, much better than a bus. Faster and more comfortable.
And so this is the adventure of Morocco, the desert route and tips.
If you have come this far… THANK YOU! I know it’s a long post, and staying until the end has a lot of merits and I’m very grateful. Tell me in the comments what you thought if you’ve been to the desert or if you would like to…
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