The Ultimate Guide to Planning and Choosing a Sahara Desert Tour

Planning your trip to Morocco? If you have the time and find that your itinerary doesn’t have an overnight stop in the Sahara Desert then I suggest you rethink your plans, pronto. Missing out on an expedition into the golden dunes is like buying a lantern without purchasing the candle; you lose the light that makes your trip glow.

We spent two nights in the Sahara Desert, Merzouga to be exact; a mere 20km from the border of Algeria and it was the absolute highlight of our trip to the north of Africa. If we could have, this is where I would have chosen to spend more time following our tour, but the two nights we enjoyed was just enough for an action-packed ‘break’ from the crowds and medinas of Morocco.

Sure, if you’re only spending a week in Morocco then you probably won’t have the opportunity to visit the dessert (unless you shelve other plans).  But if you’ve got more than that, a trip to the Sahara is an absolute must!

So, let’s get your Sahara Desert tour planned!

Plan Your Sahara Desert Tour

Transport into the Desert on Your Sahara Desert Tour

Merzouga is quite a journey from the major hubs of Morocco, with a crossing of the High Atlas Mountains required on the 540km journey from Marrakech (meaning some 10 or more hours on the road), or a slightly less daunting, (but still preciously time-consuming) 7-hour (or more) drive from Fes.

Rental cars, small group tours or public transport buses are your only transport options to consider.

Rental Car or Public Bus

If you have a lot of time on your hands and are keen for a do-it-yourself adventure, you might want to try the rental car or public transport options. A seven-day rental car could set you back anywhere from MAD570 (USD60/NZD91) or more, plus additional costs (such as fuel and insurance).

By comparison, public buses are a 12-hour journey and cost around MAD220 return (USD23/NZD35) from Marrakech.

Tour Group: The Easiest Way to Join a Sahara Desert Tour

If you are time-bound, I would suggest a group tour is your best choice to visit the Sahara Desert. It will ensure you arrive stress-free and ready to make the most of your time amongst the sand.

For us, the journey out to Merzouga was part of a group tour provided by Travel Talk Tours.

During our 10 day Exotic Morocco tour, our transport was with a group of 30 on a 45-seater bus expertly driven by our dutiful driver, Abdelmajid, a Moroccan native. Or route took us from Fes to Marrakech via the desert. Travelling along sealed roads, we passed changing landscapes, horse-pulled carts, and lively rural markets, pausing for comfort stops at otherwise abandoned shops and petrol stations en-route. Our driver even had to negotiate a spot of flash flooding which left flowing rivers through sections of the road and locals stranded either side! To finish off the journey into the desert, our bus went off-roading, bumbling along a gravel and sand path for around 4kms, pulling up with a few hours of light left at our stop for the night.

Though it is possible to get to the desert using public and self-driven transport, we were incredibly pleased with our decision to join a tour.  In our opinion, it really is the best option.

Top tips for your Sahara Desert tour transport: Hand sanitiser and toilet paper are a must for any bathroom stops in Morocco!  Also make sure you have a way to pass the time on the drive; read, binge watching your favourite TV show (pre-downloaded of course), or get your travel pillow ready for some z’s. 

Sahara Desert Accommodation

As it turns out, despite the isolation, a stop in the Sahara Desert does not have to mean roughing it when it comes to sleeping arrangements. There are a range of options available to book in the area including traditional Berber style camping, riads (houses or palaces with internal courtyards) and hotels to suit all budgets (starting from around $20 NZD a night, ranging right up to incredible luxury desert hotels). No matter your preferred style of travel there will be something to suit your budget.

Our tour described the desert accommodation as camping so, armed with fond childhood memories, my power banks charged and expectations of unforgiving camp stretchers at the ready, you could not imagine my delight when I was directed into a full-height material tent, complete with hand woven floor coverings, power, lighting and full double bed (frame, mattress, pillows and all) and a padlock for the door. There was even a brand-new bathroom block just 10 steps away, with flushing toilets, hot showers and mirrors above the basins. Better described as a glamping experience than the camping I was expecting from my childhood, my only worry was how to stop getting pesky sand between the sheets.

Our camping spot was attached to a complete hotel, with indoor and outdoor relaxing areas, dining, and even a pool. However, (although offered) the Wi-Fi at the site left something to be desired, so be prepared to use the time to switch off from the digital world and enjoy your incredible surroundings.

After all, that’s what you’re there for!

Meals in the Sahara Desert

Due to the remote location, expect to eat where you are staying. Our meals were included as part of the tour, with endless breakfast, lunch and dinner options laid out buffet-style, served to suit our itinerary. Here, we had the best selection of Moroccan food for the entire trip, with fresh local-inspired dishes peppered with pomegranate, flatbreads, slow-cooked tagines, couscous and Moroccan mint tea, and a selection of international dishes (just in case you needed something a bit more familiar).

As a side note, if you have dietary requirements, and are heading out to Morocco, I would enquire with your tour company or accommodation providers before travelling to remote areas to ensure your needs can be met. We had a vegetarian on tour who was catered for with each included meal, but to ensure you can be properly catered for or are aware if you would need to self-cater, it is best to speak to someone before booking your travel.

What to Take

This is always a difficult topic as it is so personal to your travel style and preferences, but my standout items above the usual packing list include:

  • PJ’s incase you need to dash to the bathroom in the middle of the night. It is fantastic having tent lighting but when you share a material wall with others, light illumination is also shared, and may not always be welcome by the neighbour at 3am.
  • Your choice of bowel stoppers (like Imodium or Pepto-bismol) in case you are struggling with a dodgy tum. In the unforgiving terrain, there is nowhere to ‘go’ once you head out on your desert activities, and upset stomachs are sometimes an unfortunate truth for those who head to Morocco.
  • Selfie stick, Gopro extendable pole or small travel tripod. Of anywhere on your journey in Morocco, in the Sahara Desert you will likely take ‘that’ unforgettable snap of yourself, you know, the one that will be shared, printed, maybe even put on the wall. Do yourself a favour and capture more than just a headshot selfie in this incredible environment. There are few passers-by to ask to take your photo and the landscape is just too beautiful to miss.

Desert Activities

So, now that you know the all-important necessities, what bucket-list adventures can you have in the Sahara Desert?

Camel Riding

Known as the ‘ships of the desert’ camels are one of the oldest means of transport and sustenance for locals. No trip to the desert is complete without sitting astride one of these docile animals while they advance ‘follow the leader’ style into the dunes. It is the best way to immerse yourself in the simplistic beauty of the famous Sahara Desert. Much like riding a horse, you will use muscles you may not know you had so I wouldn’t sign up to more than an afternoon journey unless you want to be quite uncomfortable for a few days after.

Be prepared for a bit of a lurch as your trusty steed stands and sits either end of the journey, and make sure everything is securely attached to you before getting on. It is a long way down and precious items can easily giggle out of pockets and silently fall to the sand along the way.

Pro Tip – carabiners, wrist straps and sling bags are your best friends for keeping cameras, sunglasses, and water bottles accessible but secure.

4×4 Exploring

Driving rules in the Sahara Desert go out the window as guides make their own fun while navigating the vast dunes. This is not something to try on a whim, with rental cars as dune driving is a different art to barrelling down sealed roads, but this expedition is well worth locking in for a thrilling experience as you explore life among the sand. We spent the whole morning with our lively guide diving over dunes and spinning doughnuts in the gravel between stops. I am sure the screams, cheering, clapping and laughter from our car’s occupants were entirely audible over the upbeat songs blasting out the windows.

Learn the Art of Moroccan Tea Making at a Nomadic Camp

Sweet Moroccan mint tea is offered across the nation at any time of day, regardless of the season and without doubt you will get to try variations at accommodation and meal stops throughout the country. During our 4×4 experience we visited a nomadic family and learned how to prepare the tea from scratch with our guide Abdul, while sitting under the protection of a small tent, learning about the life of the nomadic Berber people. Let me tell you there is a lot more sugar in the tea than I expected. No wonder it is always served in petite glasses.

Experience traditional African music at the Khamlia Village

The Khamlia village is a settlement created by Berber and Gnaoua ethnic origins in the 50’s and 60’s as people moved away from the more traditional nomadic lifestyle. The Gnaoua, originating from central and west Africa, play traditional music that has become the essence of the village. The group we visited, ‘Les Pigeons du Sable’ supports a positive economy for the village’s residents.

Dune Hiking (and if you are game, Dune Boarding)

If you have never experienced dune hiking, be prepared for a leg and lung workout like never before. As sand shifts under your weight, you often feel like you are getting nowhere for a lot more effort than you expected, but persist, as the views and sense of accomplishment is so worth it. If you are keen to give dune boarding a go, ask your accommodation if they have boards to lend. Just remember what comes down, must first go up.

Top tips: Time your venture in the early morning or late evening to escape the heat, shoes fill up with sand and become weighty so go bare foot instead and walk along the natural ridges of the dunes, it may not be the most direct way to your end point but it certainly makes the journey much easier.

Watch a Perfect Sunset (and Sunrise for that matter)

Find a vantage point from your accommodation or venture out into the dunes and watch as the changes in light cast the most beautifully dramatic shapes and shadows amongst the dunes.

Soak Up Some Sun by (or in) the Pool

If you are fortunate enough to enjoy accommodation with a pool (something I would strongly advise if you decide to travel in the scorching summer months) build in some time, even if it is just an hour or two to enjoy poolside.

Stargazing and Night Photography

With limited light pollution and many cloudless nights, this is the perfect location for some nighttime stargazing. Head away from the lights of your accommodation, enjoy the peace of the evening and wonder at the secrets of the cosmos.

Sit by the Campfire and Enjoy the Lively Beat of Berber Drums

A night in the desert is not complete without some time beside the campfire. Listen to locals strike spirited beats on traditional drums as they invite you to dance like no one is watching in the dark or have a go as players guide you through a beat on a drum.

Add a Sahara Desert Tour to Your Travel Bucket List

There really is something for everyone in the Sahara Desert and I can’t imagine a trip to Morocco is complete without experiencing this iconic landscape for yourself. So, are you ready to tick off the Sahara Desert on your bucket-list?

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Thank you to Travel Talk Tours for having us along as their guests on their 10 day Exotic Morocco Tour. As part of their expertly created itinerary we were able to tick off all of the above activities in two days in the Sahara Desert. As always, all thoughts are our own.

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