Moroccan desert trip – How to stay in the Sahara desert on a budget

Moroccan desert trip – How to stay in the Sahara desert on a budget

I flew to Morocco, explored the souks of Marrakech, went high into the Atlas mountain, rode on a camel at sunset and camped in the Sahara desert. All for less than €300.

Getting there

Ryanair started flying from Liverpool UK to Marrakech in Morocco this year 2017. With prices as low as £40 for a return flight I booked a trip.

Weather

I went at the beginning of January. In Marrakech the weather was cool and a light jacket was needed during the day. However, in the direct sun it was hot and t-shirt weather.

Marrakech in the sun
Jemaa el-Fnaa, Marrakech

It was definitely not outdoor swimming pool weather so consider this when you’re booking accommodation.

Outside the city in the Atlas Mountains it was cold coat weather, even when the sun was out.

In the Sahara desert at night it was freeeeeeeezing! Thermals and a thick coat were a must.

Booking the trip

I arrived in Marrakech and booked the trip through my hostel, Marrakech Riad Rouge. I chose this hostel due to the high score on hotelworld but I don’t believe it was accurate. There’s a blog post on that here: https://farfranhome.com/hostels-good-bad-ugly/

No matter what hostel or hotel you stay at they’ll try and sell you similar trips to what I did. I went for the lowest priced budget option.

I chose the Sahara Desert – Merzouga – 3 days, 2 nights trip for €85.

Tip – you can haggle over this price. I didn’t know and found out people all paid different prices for the same tour.

Originally I wanted to go on the Sahara Desert – Zagora – 2 days, 1 night trip, but I found out from people who had been that the desert part is more like walking along a beach and there’s no sand dunes like you see in the movies.

You can also choose to go to Fez or return to Marrakech after the tour.

Safety

My main concern was whether this was safe for a young female solo traveller. Answer – it’s totally safe. The set up of the tour includes a driver and small group which you spend your whole time with. This is both good and bad as you sometimes don’t have much freedom to look around.

Day 1

My pick up arrived at the hostel at 7:30am. I transferred into a car with 8 people, it was a tight fit inside the car but luckily I got a window seat. I’m not sure how the groups are chosen. My group included similar aged backpackers from other hostels, a mix of couples and solo travellers.

We left the city and went through the Atlas Mountains on the Tishka Pass, reaching a height of 2260m. It was exciting as the roads were crazy and winding. The driver also played his favourite Moroccan tunes.

Winding roads of the Atlas Mountains
Winding roads of the Atlas Mountains
At 2260 metres
At 2260 metres

The view was incredible. We stopped and saw a traditional Berber Village. The term Berber is used for the descendants of the pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa.

Traditional Berber Village
Traditional Berber Village

We also stopped at a beautiful gorge. At every stop there were people trying to sell something like desert rose rocks.

View of the gorge in the Atlas Mountains

View of a gorge in the Atlas Mountains

View of a gorge in the Atlas Mountains
View of a gorge in the Atlas Mountains

Aït Benhaddou

We continued on the road for a few more hours and reached the ancient Kasbah Aït Benhaddou.

Aït Benhaddou
Aït Benhaddou

This is an UNESCO world heritage site formed of earthen buildings surrounded by high walls. Four families still live in this ancient village. You might recognise it from several films and TV shows including Gladiator and Game of Thrones.

Aït Benhaddou

Movies filmed at Aït Benhaddou
Movies filmed at Aït Benhaddou

We met a guide here. He showed us around and took us to an artist’s shop who sold awesome ink drawings.

Cat outside the artist's shop
Cat outside the artist’s shop

We had time to explore the top of the city and take photos – on one side were the mountains and on the other was the Sahara desert. It was incredible.

Aït Benhaddou

Atlas Mountains in the distance
Atlas Mountains in the distance

On the way back to the car we stopped at a scarf store where they showed us the traditional way ladies wrap scarves around their heads.

Next we headed to Ouarzazate – the gateway to the Sahara, in the heart of the Atlas Mountains, for lunch. The menu only had a few options- beef, chicken or vegetable tagine, and all were 100 Moroccan Dirham. Because I was in such a tight group it was difficult to break away to find other restaurants.

Dades Gorges

We carried on driving for 3 hours and reached Dades Gorges as the sun was setting. It was very cold here, especially after the sun went down, and because it’s in a valley.

Dades Gorges
Dades Gorges

We stayed at Hotel Restaurant La Gazelle du Dades. I shared a room with another girl. Morocco is a Muslim county so unless married, men and women can’t share a room. Luckily it had big furnaces in the hallways so we kept our door open and the room heated up. They had wifi in the reception area but it wasn’t very good.

We ate another tagine for dinner and then listened to some live music and Berber drummers playing. There was a roof garden on the second floor and at night you could see the sky lit up with stars. That’s if you’re willing to go out in the cold!

Tagine
Tagine

One guy in my group got food poisoning somewhere on the first day. I always take antibacterial hand gel with me and go for vegetarian options. This reduces the risk of catching something. You don’t want to get caught out in Morocco as many places still have squat toilets with a tap and bucket….

Day 2

It was another early morning and another gorge – The Todra. We also stopped in the Dades Valley, often called “Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs” as so many Kasbahs are located there.

A guide who spoke good English showed us around one of the Kasbahs. It included a huge oasis and a mosque that was no longer used.

Dades Valley - oasis
Dades Valley – oasis

The guide spoke about Islam and his views on why we must have large families. When trying to discuss this further he refused to listen to anything other than what he believed. In general I didn’t find the Berber people I met very open to discussion.

Roof of the mosque
Roof of the mosque
Inside the mosque, learning about customs
Inside the mosque, learning about customs

Carpet shop

This carpet shop was run by a family who had been making carpets by hand for many generations. We saw the women making them and had mint tea while we learnt all about the carpet manufacturing process. It often takes many months to years to make a carpet depending on the size and design.

The carpets ranged from €200 for a small one to €2,000 for the largest carpets. They offered postage and took credit cards.

Two people in my group bought carpets after some haggling. They were beautiful and incredibly well made. I’m sure they’d last a few life-times but most of these carpets cost more than I had spent on this whole trip so I wasn’t their target market.

Moroccan carpets

Moroccan carpets
Moroccan carpets

Afterwards, we went for lunch and once again it was the same menu of tagines for 100 Dirham. Here I spoke to our driver about buying some alcohol.

Even though his English was limited and my French was rusty – he understood “vino rouge”. He didn’t judge even though it was against his religion and we stopped at a liquor store. The driver was a cool guy and kept track of everyone, making sure no one got lost.

If you follow me on Instagram or have read my other blog posts, you’ll know I’m into my wine.

Moroccan red wine
Moroccan red wine

Merzouga – Sahara desert

The highlight – riding a dromedary (Arabian camel with one hump) through the Sahara desert at sunset.

I was so happy when we arrived and saw the dromedaries waiting for us. The dromedary is a beautiful animal and riding one wasn’t difficult. Only when it goes from sitting to standing I had to cling on. We rode the animals for an hour over the sand dunes to the camp.

Dromedaries waiting for us at sunset
Dromedaries waiting for us at sunset
My dromedary
My dromedary
Dromedary riding
Dromedary riding

You can’t carry much on the dromedary, so only take a small bag. Also, don’t take lots of water like I did, it wasn’t needed. It’s waaaaay too cold to have a wash and you get up early to leave at sunrise (around 4:45am) you don’t even have time to brush your teeth.

Sahara desert
Sahara desert
Riding into the desert
Riding into the desert

Desert camp

The camp is made up of large tents with rugs in. There’s no luxury here. The desert is your toilet.

We ate another tagine in the large tent. With no sun the desert temperature plummeted. It was so so cold. I even saw some ice. But I didn’t let this deter me from exploring and I went for a walk up and down the sand dunes under the stars.

The sky was amazing. I’ve always lived in cites and I had no idea there were so many stars! It was absolutely incredible looking up.

Sitting around the camp fire was fun. There were many other groups there, about 40 people in total. I eventually found someone with a bottle opener (the wine I bought wasn’t a screw top) and I drank the whole bottle. It helped me stay warm. I was even offered some Moroccan hash.

Campfire
Campfire

By 11:30pm I couldn’t take anymore of the cold and I headed to the tent and went to sleep. Taking a sleeping bag would have been a good idea.

Day 3

They woke us up at 5am and we rode on the dromedaries back to the car as the sun was rising. I was very thankful I had packed gloves, scarf and a hoody.

Sunrise in the Sahara

Sunrise in the Sahara

Sunrise in the Sahara
Sunrise in the Sahara

Most of my group went on to Fez but I return to Marrakech. The drive back north took about 8 hours through the Atlas Mountains. We had a few stops, including an Argan oil store and for lunch. We got back to Marrakech at 7pm.

Back in Marrakech
Back in Marrakech

Trip costs

I had 2 days in Marrakech and 3 days on my desert trip.

  • Return flight – €50
  • Transport to and from the hostel to the airport – €30
  • Accommodation in Marrakech – €18
  • Sahara Desert Tour – €85
  • Guide tip – €10
  • Lunches on the tour – €25
  • Wine – €5
  • Food and shopping in Marrakesh – €40

Total = €273

This was an awesome adventure for less than €300.

Overall

I had a great time and ticked something else off my travel bucket list.

My aim was to visit the Sahara desert and I achieved it. I also enjoyed the scenery of the Atlas Mountains and Aït Benhaddou.

I did this on a budget and went for the cheapest options. My only complaint (apart from the cold) was, there wasn’t an opportunity to get off the dromedary to take photos on the sand dunes. We were only there in the dark and this is all the 1 night camping budget tours offer you. You don’t have much freedom. If there’s a few of you then think about a personalised tour.

If I went back to the Sahara desert I would do Luxury Desert Camping. Being in the desert looking up at all the stars is really magical and, in my opinion, worth the expense – if you have the money.

I plan on going back to Morocco and travelling around, visiting – Fez, Essaouira, Casablanca and more. But this won’t be for a while. I found Morocco is a country older people return to and it’s not just dominated by young back packers. In the meantime I’ll finish off Europe.

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