Going to Morocco? Is the Sahara desert on your agenda?
The Sahara desert was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever witnessed and experienced!
If you’re a backpacker like myself and looking into the possibility of heading into the Sahara Desert but not sure how to go about it; weather to do it independently or through a tour company, you’ve clicked onto the right post.
Since I started backpacking way back in 2010, I very rarely take tours. I prefer to do excursions like this independently, but this time I opted for a Sahara desert tour from Marrakech because of time restraints.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, In this post we will explore your options and I’ll run through the experience I had with IgoMorocco.com’s marrakech sahara desert tours.
Before we dive into this Sahara desert tour though I do have to admit something. In all my years of traveling around the world, all the things I’ve seen, done and experienced the riding through and staying the night in the Sahara is easily was one of my greatest experiences and the best thing; it’s budget traveler friendly!
But, how do you get to the Sahara desert?
There are certain things, we budget backpackers prefer to do on our own. And if you have the nouse, the time, some haggling ability, I’m sure you could do this alone. However there is that risk of getting lost in the Sahara desert. I’m sure you could just rock up, haggle, buy or rent a camel and wander off into the Sahara desert. But if you’re not an expert at navigating vast Sahara desert dunes; I wouldn’t recommend it.
Of course there are other options to do it independently without getting lost on your own. You could make your own way to a town close to the Sahara desert edge, and get a local guide from the towns to take you into the dunes. I’ll be honest if I had more time on my hands, I probably would have chose this option instead of one of the Sahara desert tours from Marrakech.
So, you can either do it independently and get a local or a guide to take you into the desert once you get to the town on your own, or the other option is to book an organized Sahara desert tour from Marrakech or Fes.
Which methods suits you best?
A Pre-booked Sahara desert tour from Marrakech is a better option if you prefer everything organized for you if you want to just turn up and be led the whole way and be hassle free in planning or don’t have the time to do it yourself. However with tours, everything is on time restraints, there’s an itinerary to follow, there’s no freedom of length of time spent in one place, or where to eat and sleep. It’s all pre-determined and there’s less of a chance of spontaneity, so depending on your view that can be seen as a pro or a con.
If you want to do it independently, you have to do all the research yourself, figure out a route, decide where to stop and how long for and then figure out which local or guide can take you into the Sahara desert dunes themselves.
Remember, you should go for the option that suits you and your traveling style best.
As I mentioned I prefer to do trips independently, I like to have the freedom to explore in my own way at my own pace, to figure out my own route, and doing things my way. For me, it’s more of an adventure to get to the destination that way.
Having said that, I have taken tours in the past and due to time restraints so this time I chose to book a Sahara desert tour.
Budget Sahara Desert Tour options
If you decide to go the organized Sahara desert tour route, then your first course of action is to seek out a tour company/operator.
When it comes to choosing a Sahara desert tour, there is no need to worry. There’s no shortage of budget Sahara desert tours from Marrakech.
You might get tempted to just book one online and get it out the way, but there are plenty of options in Morocco itself. It felt like every other shop was offering Sahara desert tours from Marrakech, and even the ones that weren’t knew somebody who sold one. You can book them through your hostel or Riad (although not the best option as I found out from people in my hostel.) And, don’t even worry about booking too far in advance, tours run 365 days a year.
I learned that most Marrakech desert tours offer pretty much the same options and itineraries the only difference between then are the prices. (Prices vary on the quality of the tour operator and trip. However, some companies charge a higher rate for a poorer quality of the trip. More on this later.)
Types of Sahara desert tours available:
Most Sahara Desert Tours from Marrakech have pretty much the same Itineraries, they typically range like this:
2 day/1 night – Shorter trips that typically go to smaller dunes like Zagora, including a few stops along the way, an overnight stay in a Berber camp in the dunes and a return journey the next day – Great introduction to the desert if you’re really tight on time. (But you don’t go so deep into them)
3 day/2 nights – Longer trip that takes you further to the bigger dunes like Merzouga and Erg Chebbi, tours typically include scheduled stops like Kasbah Ait Ben Hadodu, Dades Gorge Valley, and Todra Gorge. This option includes your first night in a shared or private hotel, second night in the desert camp and a return journey to Marrakech.
4 days/3 nights – This option includes all of the above but you get to spend a full day in the desert doing activities like sand boarding, quad biking and 4×4 riding *Note activities depend on the tour operator, not all will offer activities.
Budget trips – Basic camps and tents, Air conditioned Mini-vans.
Budget Shared – Shared mini-vans with people from other tour groups (This is not told beforehand and causes confusion, more on this further in the post.)
Private Sahara desert tours are available but at a higher cost.
IGoMorocco.com Sahara desert tours from Marrakech
After much deliberation trying to find the right balance between price and quality, wading through countless Marrakech Sahara desert tours, I settled and booked Sahara desert tour to start from Marrakech or Fes with IGoMorocco.com, through a friends recommendation.
I opted for the 3 day Marrakech to desert tour which included mini tours and stops along the way, first night in shared or private accommodation, a 2-hour camel ride to the camp, a night’s stay at the desert camp, with a return journey back to Marrakech.
This option covers all main attractions and gives you a decent amount of time to experience the Sahara desert.
TIP: With most tour companies, you can choose between riding a camel into the desert or riding in a 4×4 but the latter is more expensive.
IGoMorocco were very good with communication about the Sahara desert tour before the trip. Booking was simple, a quick secured online payment, which I got a receipt for instantly. They emailed me the Itinerary, what to bring and even sent me a reminder through Email and a phone message the day before.
As I mentioned above most of the Marrakech Sahara desert tour operators follow the same route to the desert and include similar Itineraries. Below is how my 3 day Marrakech to Desert tour with Igomorocco turned out.
Sahara desert tour – Day 1
The first thing you should know and prepare yourself for is the early starts and long drives. The Sahara desert is a long way from Marrakech and the days will be long.
An early start!
The first day starts with a 7 am pick up from either your accommodation or from an agreed pick up spot. I.E if you’re staying in the Medina, you will be picked up from Cafe De France, like I was (a popular cafe in the main square.)
Nothing ever runs on time
Being an experienced backpacker, I was well aware pickups are rarely on time, and this was no different. While other Marrakech desert tours came and went, I waited and waited with others who booked with IGoMorocco. Finally, somebody appeared to let us know our driver was running a little late (surprise, surprise.)
When our minivan did arrive, the 6 of us got on the van, but a few of us were told to swap vans onto another one with no explanation – The confusion started!
So with 4 of us in a new van, we were finally on our way – well, so we thought! We seemed to circle Marrakech a few times before stopping outside the Palace where more people were swapped around; more confusion. With the van filled, we were just about to leave but then the driver got in on the act and played the swap game with a driver from a different van.
Finally, we hit the road and left Marrakech behind us
As usual with organized tours, there wasn’t much conversation to begin with. I think this was due to the fact that everybody was trying to figure out what was going on. However not too long into the journey the ice started to break and conversations started to break out. Of course, the thing we all had in common was that everybody was confused.
The confusion escalated when we found out people in the van had booked through different companies, 6 of us through IGoMorocco, and the others from 2 or 3 different companies, and we had all paid different prices. Put it this way there were 4 people who had paid much more than me from a different company to do the exact same trip as me.
(It was only after I got in contact with IGoMorocco when I returned to Marrakech that I found out this was because I chose a shared budget tour. Apparently shared tours in Morocco don’t just mean shared with other people but with other tour companies too.)
Never the less, in light of the confusion, this made for some great banter between us all and as much as I don’t like tours this Sahara desert tour got off to a fun start.
Once we left Marrakech in the rearview mirror, the road opened up, the landscape changed and the mountains started to come into full view. It wasn’t long before we were amongst the Atlas mountains. Our first stop was a mountainside cafe, just to take in the view and to refresh before we started winding and weaving up, down and through the incredible mountain range.
Most of the early morning was spent driving through the mountains.
Kahsbar Ait Benhaddou
The first major stop and mini-tour for all tour companies is the historic village of Kasbah Ait Benhaddou; a UNESCO world heritage site.
This was an important village along the caravan route from the Sahara to Marrakech (Learn about its place in history here.). However, in modern times, this village is known more commonly for being the setting for movies like Lawrence of Arabia and more recently Gladiator.
I have to admit, the sight of the village and walking around it, felt like stepping into history. The old interlinking clay houses crammed into the hillside give you a sense of the thriving community it once was. And, it was great to learn about its history, it’s purpose, the way locals would let the desert nomads, and traveling merchants stay with them.
However, one of my main gripes with organized tours is the lack of freedom you have and limited time you get to explore. You have to take the route the guide wants you to take, it was great learning about its history but I would have liked to explore it by myself.
At the end of the short tour, the same old ‘give a tour guide a tip’ was proposed. So apparently this wasn’t a scheduled stop on the tour, it was voluntary stop. It was only a couple of Euros tip, so nobody really complained.
So lunch was at a pre-determined cafe, a set menu with not much choice and was over-priced (lunch price is not included in your original tour price.) The less said about this lunch the better.
After lunch, we were taken to a few shops to buy a headscarf for the desert. The shopkeepers put on a demonstration on how to put a headscarf on properly and their selling point was that this is the last place you can buy a headscarf before the desert. Now, to clear this up, no this is not true, you can buy a headscarf anywhere all the way up to the entering the dunes.
Once all the selling was done, along with the other hoards of tourists we hit the road again. A few other stops included stopping at the movie studios and museums, a couple of bathroom stops and a few stops for photo ops.
As day eventually turned to night and clocking up a lot of miles on the open road and through the mountains, the driver started to drop people off at their accommodation. There was more confusion here too.
With the shared budget trip there is an option to upgrade to a private heated room, now normally being a budget traveler I wouldn’t have paid for an upgrade. However, on this occasion, I got an upgrade as part of my deal to write this post (A perk of being a blogger.)
A few guys were dropped off at a hotel in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, the rest of us stayed on board, a few others dropped off at another. I was still seated on the van, finally, the rest of the group were dropped off (at the shared accommodation.) However, I was told to stay on the minivan. I thought I was going to get some special treatment but turns out the driver just forgot to drop me off at the previous stop.
I was dropped off at the hotel, the guy who checked me in was very flustered and panicked as he was checking in a number of people at once and was in a hurry to get everybody into the dining hall for dinner (dinner is free and included in the initial price.) I joined up with some people from my group, met a few others from other groups, shared stories about our confusing day, shared some jokes while we were rushed to eat. Dinner, by the way, was a traditional tagine (of course) and then we were free to do as we wanted around the hotel.
There was free WiFi in the hotel but the signal was only strong in the freezing cold lobby so mostly everybody was clattering their teeth while trying to get online for the first time in the day. (We all know how hard it is to go a whole day without being online.)
The room itself wasn’t anything special but I it was heated and it was so nice to have a hot shower to round off a confusing but fun first day of my Sahara Desert tour.
Day 2 – The Sahara desert tour main event!
That was just day 1 – Part 2 of my Sahara Desert tour includes the actual trip into the Sahara desert, the overnight desert camp experience and the return journey back to Marrakech.
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