Exploring the Sahara Desert

Previously, we shared our experience in Marrakesh, one of Morocco’s largest and truly authentic cities – to learn more about why this was one of our favorite cities we’ve explored together, check out our other post – Exploring Marrakesh! As much as Marrakesh surprised us at every turn, nothing could prepare us for the beauty and diversity of the Moroccan landscape or the compassionate nature of the communities that welcomed us. We traveled in a small tour group from Marrakesh to Fez over a three -day period, exploring the jagged valleys and forests of the Atlas Mountains, wandering the fortresses and palaces of Moroccan royalty, getting lost in the endless drifts of the Sahara desert. 

As with most excursions to unfamiliar places, it’s important to plan ahead to get the most out of your trip. Discovering the expanses of Morroco is no exception! If a Saharan desert tour is on your horizon, check out below how completed the trek, what to expect along the way, and how to prepare.

How to Travel Rural Morocco

The Sahara Desert is the largest hot desert on the planet – in fact its roughly the size as the United States. It crosses the borders of many African countries to choose from, including the eastern regions of Morocco and in close proximity to both Marrakesh and Fez. The most common way to access the Sahara is by vehicle, which gives you two options: 1. Rent a car, or  2. Join a tour group. We typically love the freedom and spontaneity that comes with discovering somewhere new on your own; however, we opted to join a small, four-person tour group for this particular trip. We recommend this mode of transportation as it provided great company, safety and security, and an insiders perspective on behalf of our amazing tour guide. 

There is an overwhelming number of tour groups to choose from, and not all can meet your expectations. Tours vary in price, size, and duration. Understanding these parameters before starting your search can really help you focus on finding the right tour group for YOU. What helped us most in our search was judging both the quantity of online reviews and specific content that reviewers discussed. Promising tour companies we found had a larger number of reviews across multiple forums, with reviewers praising the values and principles of the tour company and guides that aligned with ours.

Our guide Jamal

By applying our personal ‘filters’ we decided to use Authentic Saharan Tours for a shared, 4 person tour. Led by our extremely kind and knowledgeable local guide, Jamal, they provided us transportation by 4×4 SUV, breakfasts, dinners, and accommodations with local partners. There were plenty of stops along the way, where they provided additional local guides to lead tours of historical locations and landmarks, as well as staffed our private campsite in the Sahara. Although we had limited control over our hourly itinerary, we could offload the stresses of navigating a foreign, third world country and leave more energy for soaking it in. In addition, we had hours of one on one time with our tour guide Jamal who taught us more about the country, including customs, ways of life, and cultural perspectives than we possibly could have learned on our own. 

What to Expect

Travel

Driving the countryside of Morocco is a feast for the eyes. Depending on your route, you will likely experience every landscape that comes to mind, including large, jagged mountains and cliffsides, winding canyons and valleys, expansive plains, the rolling dunes of the desert, and even walking among the local Barbary Macaque in lush forests. However, this reward comes at the effort required to get there. In our three -day trek, we spent over 15 hours driving to and from the desert, with a Toyota Rav 4 packed full of luggage and people. Take advantage of this time by getting to know your tour guide, listening to stories from your international travel companions, and DJ’ing your fav travel playlists! And when you arrive to each destination, you’ll be more than glad to have made the journey. 

Our ride

Accommodations

Our first night was spent in a picturesque hotel on the outskirts of Ouarzazate (the Gateway to the Sahara) and in the heart of the Atlas Mountains. We explored the rugged local landscape that is featured in many Hollywood films and shows, including Gladiator and Game of Thrones. Our second night was spent camping under the stars of the Sahara desert. Our 4×4 took us across the sand to a staging area for our final mode of transport – camesl! From here, we enjoyed a 45-minute camel ride to a private, full amenity campsite. We were treated to private tents straight out of a Harry Potter novel, complete with hardwood flooring, king bed, and running water (including a hot shower!). Our host provided an authentic Moroccan dinner and breakfast, and taught us to play the djembe around the campfire. Although we arrived during sunset, tour groups that arrive earlier have the added activity of off-roading in the Sahara dunes or event sandboarding. 

Food

Although much of the drive is spent traveling through very remote areas of the country, there a surprisingly large number of restaurants and diners along the way. Our meals consisted of multiple courses , with dishes featuring tagine assortments, breads, and soups. Tagine is a cone shaped cooking pot used to slow cook savory meals of meat, vegetables, and spices, and is the most common method of preparing meals across Morocco. Mint tea is common in every meal and often served with plenty of sugar.

How to Prepare

As we mention above, doing your research ahead of time will allow you to get the most value out of your hard-earned vacation. The temperature can vary greatly in this part of the country, large swings between hot sunny days to cool nights. Pack accordingly with lots of layers. Additionally, if you are hoping to capture the perfect Sahara shots, it is important to protect your camera from the fine grains of sand blowing kicked up from wind and camels by using a camera case. Bring along some external battery packs for your cell phones and cameras for the long days on the road and night in the desert. A charger converter for the outlets is also essential.

Although credit cards are widely accepted across Morocco in both hotels and restaurants, it is important to keep cash on hand for purchasing souvenirs and tipping local guides. The local currency is the Moroccan Dirham, which converts to approximately 10 US cents (1 USD = 10 Dirham). Your best option for converting currency will be in the city you depart the tour from. In our case, we converted currency in the main square of Marrakesh, Jemaa el-Fnaa, with our tour guide present before the tour started.

It’s important to know that tourism is a major contributor to the Moroccan GDP, and if you opt for a tour, it may feel slightly commercialized at times. Be understanding, patient, respectful and, most importantly, remember to tip your tour guides. As a side note: many places we visited ended in gift shops, but we never felt pressured to buy something, which is not the case for all tours and something to be mindful of.

Final Thoughts

Traveling to Morocco was a profound experience for us, and one that we won’t soon forget. We have a great appreciation for the culture and way of life of the people who live here, from the bustling city of Marrakesh to the rural communities in the mountains, forests, and desert. We have only good things to say about our tour, and can’t wait for our next opportunity to experience Moroccan cuisine. We hope you add Morocco to your list of future travel destinations and have the trip most meaningful for you!   

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