Sahara desert tour.
Off to the Sahara Desert we go!
If you’re heading to Morocco soon I’m sure a Sahara Desert tour is high on your agenda; if it’s not – I strongly recommend putting it on.
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 honestly one of my greatest highlights and the best thing; it’s budget traveler friendly!
But, how do you do it?
Here’s the thing, you can’t just buy a camel and toddle off into the desert – well, actually I’m sure you could but unless you know the desert like the back of your hand, I wouldn’t recommend it.
So apart from buying your own camel, what are your options?
Well, you can either do it independently and get a local or a guide to take you into the desert once you get to the dunes, or book an organised Sahara desert tour to start from Marrakech or Fes.
Which methods suits you best?
A Pre-booked Sahara desert tour is good for you if you prefer everything organised for you, if you want to just turn up and be led the whole way and be hassle free in planning. 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 and 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 desert dunes themselves.
Remember, you should go for the option that suits you and your traveling style best.
I’ll be honest, 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 (I was only in Morocco for a week) I chose to book a Sahara desert tour.
Budget Sahara Desert Tour options.
If you decide to go the organised tour route, then your first course of action is to seek out a tour company/operator.
When it comes to choosing one for the Sahara desert, there is no need to worry. There’s no shortage of budget tour options.
Although you might get tempted to just book one online and get it out the way, there are plenty of options in Morocco itself. In Marrakech it felt like every other shop was a tour operator, and even the ones that weren’t will know somebody who sells 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 learnt that most operators pretty much offer 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 trip. More on this later.)
Types of trips:
Most Sahara Desert Tours 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.
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 sandboarding, 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 before hand and causes confusion, more on this further in the post.)
Private tours are available but at a higher cost.
After much deliberation trying to find the right balance between price and quality, through a recommendation I booked with IGoMorocco.com,
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 your camp, a night’s stay at the desert camp, 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 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 tour operators follow the same route to the desert and include similar Itineraries. Below is how my 3 day Marrakech to Desert tour 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 pickup 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 traveler I was well aware pickups are rarely on time, and this was no different. While other tours came and went, I 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 mini van 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 organised 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 one got off to a fun start.
Once we left Marrakech in the rear view mirror, the road opened up, the landscape changed and the mountains started to come into full view. It wasn’t long before we in and amongst the Atlas mountains. Our first stop was a mountain side 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 it’s 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 it’s 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 organised 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 it’s 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 head scarf for the desert. The shop keepers 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 in to 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 Main event.
That was just day 1 – Part 2 of my Sahara Desert tour will include the actual trip into the Sahara, the over night desert camp experience and the return journey back to Marrakech. (Part 2 will be published on 14/04/18)
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