A Sahara desert tour is an adventure and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Here are my detailed tips on how to plan the perfect Sahara trip.
Shades of gold shimmer around us, sparkling under the sun’s rays. Sand dunes stretch endlessly into the horizon as far as the eye can see. A Berber man dressed in an indigo djellaba and a white headscarf saunters along the dunes.
This is the Sahara Desert, a place full of mystery, beauty and joy. It’s home to mountains of shifting sand, craggy rock canyons, lush oases and ancient mud-walled fortresses. As one of the biggest deserts in the world, it’s bigger than the size of the United States and covers 11 countries. Among them, Morocco gives the easiest access to the Sahara, thanks to cheap flights and good tourism infrastructure.
I’ve just returned from an epic Morocco desert tour with my daughter, and it looks like we’ve both fallen under the spell of the Sahara. Perhaps it was the magic of the dunes or the hospitality of the Berbers, maybe it was the opportunity to share this special experience with my daughter. But Morocco has really captured my heart this time.
Table of Contents
- Sahara Desert Tour
- Why Visit the Sahara Desert in Morocco
- How to Visit the Sahara Desert in Morocco
- When to Visit the Sahara Desert
- How Many Days Do You Need for a Sahara Desert Tour?
- Traveling the Sahara Independently vs on a Tour
- Which Type of Sahara Desert Tour to Choose?
- What I Like About Our Sahara Desert Tour
- How is a Sahara Desert Tour Like?
- Is a Sahara Desert Tour Suitable for Kids?
- What to Expect in the Sahara Desert
- My 5- Day Sahara Desert Tour Itinerary
- Day 1: Into the Atlas Mountains
- Visit UNESCO Mud Villages
- Drive along Canyons & Oasis
- Stay at: Azalai Desert Lodge
- Day 2: Climb the Sand Dunes
- Enter an Ancient Ksar
- Meet Berbers in Tamegrout
- Into the Sahara!
- Stay at: Azalai Desert Camp
- Day 3: Explore South of the Sahara
- Visit Berber Nomads
- Explore an Oasis Town
- Stay at: Dar Infiane
- Day 4: Off the Beaten Path of Morocco
- Visit an Ancient Granary
- Walk around an Oasis
- Cross the Anti-Atlas Mountains
- Stay at: Palais Oumensour
- Day 5: Back to Marrakech
- Stay at: Riad & Spa Azzouz
- What to Pack for Sahara Desert Tour
- Inspired? Pin it!
Sahara Desert Tour
Why Visit the Sahara Desert in Morocco
Visiting the Sahara is an adventure and a once-a-lifetime experience. Getting there isn’t easy, but it’s well worth every minute of the journey. The Sahara has the power to impress even the most hardened traveler.
I’ve been to Morocco three times prior — and Morocco has always been one of those places I like enough to keep returning but it has never been on my list of favorite places. But this recent trip to the Sahara changed that.
A trip to Morocco isn’t complete without journeying into the Sahara Desert. You can wander the souks of Marrakech or visit the palaces of Fez and surf on the beaches of Agadir — but you won’t get to experience the soul of the country unless you venture into the Sahara. It is after all the home of Berber nomads and the spiritual heart of North Africa.
How to Visit the Sahara Desert in Morocco
Firstly, it is possible to visit the Sahara from various countries like Algeria, Chad and Algeria — but it is the easiest from Morocco. Morocco is just a short flight from most of Europe (and even a 1-hour car ferry from southern Spain). Marrakech Menara Airport is the main gateway to Morocco. Budget airlines like Easyjet and Ryanair fly from many cities in Europe to Marrakech for as cheap as 40 euros return. I paid just 50 euros return for my flight from Eindhoven, NL!
From Marrakech, you can easily book a Sahara desert tour which will bring you around the Sahara region and allow you to stay in the dunes for a night. Some companies offer day trips to Ouarzazate from Marrakech but I do NOT recommend that as you’ll be driving long distances only to see a town in the desert (not the dunes). Scroll down to learn more about the various desert tours.
In the last 10 years, Morocco has become a hugely popular destination, not just for Europeans but also international travelers. Instagram definitely has put Morocco on the map worldwide. The country has decent tourism infrastructure, with excellent highways, beautiful traditional riads to stay at, and good restaurants everywhere.
When to Visit the Sahara Desert
The Sahara can be visited year round, except for the summer months of July and August when it gets way too hot. Expect temperatures of around 40 to 55 degrees Celsius in summer. Temperatures drop below freezing at night during the Saharan winter (and especially in December and January). Sandstorms are more frequent between January and May.
The best time to visit the Sahara is spring (March-May) and autumn (September-November), when the weather is mild. But this is also the peak tourist season, so expect more crowds than usual. We visited in mid-March and found the weather to be really pleasant (not too warm) and it wasn’t too crowded.
Ramadan is a holy month in Islam, during which the Muslims refrain from drinking and eating from dusk till dawn (4 am to 7.30 pm in Morocco). In 2019, Ramadan will begin around 5 May and end around June 4, give or take one day. It is still worthwhile to visit during Ramadan but note that businesses don’t usually open before 11 or 12 in the morning. Dinner in restaurants is served later than usual ( starting at 8.30pm).
How Many Days Do You Need for a Sahara Desert Tour?
The Sahara is bigger than many countries combined — as you can imagine, it’s not an easy feat getting there. It takes two days of driving just to get to the Erg Chigaga or Erg Chebbi dunes. You need to drive over the Atlas Mountains to get there and once you reach the edge of the Sahara, it takes another two hours of off-road driving to get to the dunes.
There are many one-day or two-day Morocco desert tours and even day trips from Marrakech, but I don’t recommend taking those. You won’t actually get to see the actual big sand dunes of Erg Chigaga or Erg Chebbi, and you might end up at a kitsch camp with huge groups of tourists.
I recommend taking at least five days to explore the Sahara region. This will allow you to have enough time on the giant sand dunes, and also visit the ancient mud-walled fortresses, explore the canyons and see the mountains along the way. If you are traveling from afar and want to see as much of Morocco as you can, you need at least two weeks in Morocco. That will give you enough time to explore also the fascinating cities of Marrakech and Fez, the beautiful Atlas Mountains as well as the charming blue town of Chefchauoen.
Traveling the Sahara Independently vs on a Tour
We went on a 5-day desert trip with Sun Trails, a boutique tour operator that designs tailor-made private tours to bring you beneath the surface of Morocco. We didn’t just go sightseeing — we had tea with a nomadic family, met local Berbers who showed us how their village, and stayed in a private Bedouin tent in the sand dunes of the Sahara. Plus we had a brilliant guide who really showed us his home in an engaging and fun way.
It IS possible to visit the Sahara Desert in the Moroccan side independently, but you’ll need to have a 4WD and know how to navigate it well. It is easy to get stuck in the sand (we experienced that in Oman and it was no fun!). Make sure you have the tools and knowledge to get yourself out. If you’re traveling Morocco with kids, I highly recommend booking a tour.
Some people also simply book a stay in a desert camp in Ouarzazate or Mhamid, but these are desert towns and you won’t get to experience staying right in the dunes. Erg Chigaga dune is where you want to go if you want to stay overnight in the dunes, and that is a two-hour off-road drive from the nearest town.
Which Type of Sahara Desert Tour to Choose?
Tourism is huge business in Morocco, so there are plenty of companies that offer Sahara desert tours. These can range from $70 for a 3-day Morocco desert tour in a big coach to $700 for an exclusive private tour in SUV.
The mainstream coach tours all go to the same spots and visit the same sites. They’re herded around in big groups, visiting touristy spots with other people who are hungry for selfies. I’ve heard terrible things about budget group tours to the Sahara, including scams and sexual harassment. Be sure to research properly before choosing your tour company.
We went on a private tour with Sun Trails as we didn’t want to travel with a big group. Our private tour took us away from the touristy spots, into ancient fortresses and tiny hamlets that none of the big coaches would visit. Our guide was superb and showed us places that exceeded our expectations. We also stayed in beautiful, small boutique hotels instead of massive hotel chains.
What I Like About Our Sahara Desert Tour
What I liked most about the Caravans Dust tour we did was how it brought us off the beaten path. We wouldn’t have visited those places ourselves were it not for our Moroccan guide Boujeema. He is also extremely knowledgable about all things Moroccan and could answer any question I had with in-depth explanations.
Having a private tour also meant we had a flexible schedule and could adjust it according to our preference. For instance, we spent more time in the sand dunes than scheduled as we really enjoyed it there and they were absolutely fine with it.
As he’s got young kids himself, Boujeema was understanding and knew we had different needs to other travelers. He was always keeping an eye on my daughter and being thoughtful of her. I highly recommend him for family travelers heading to Morocco with kids.
How is a Sahara Desert Tour Like?
There’s a lot of driving involved on a Sahara desert tour. Our first day of the trip covered 360km and the rest of the days were around 160km each day.
That meant we were driving for 6-8 hours each day not including stops and lunch breaks. Our typical schedule involved starting the day at 9am and visiting a few spots during the day, before reaching our hotel for the night at 4-5pm.
All of our activities and accommodation were included in the tour price, and also the service of a guide. We also had dinner and breakfast included at every accommodation we stayed. Our accommodation were mostly in the form of elegant, boutique hotels that were stylish and tastefully designed. We stayed at a luxury desert camp in the Sahara for just one night, and at boutique lodges in towns and rural areas for the rest of the time.
Is a Sahara Desert Tour Suitable for Kids?
At first, I was a little worried if Kaleya would enjoy a tour. Even though she has been to 35 countries at her tender age of four, we mostly traveled independently. Even if we did join tours, they were day trips. This was the first time she would travel with a guide and over long distances.
It turned out that I didn’t have anything to worry about. Kaleya got along well with our guide Boujeema and he always tried to make it fun for her. She didn’t enjoy the long drives that much though, but I did bring plenty of toys, books and iPad to keep her entertained. Needless to say, she was incredibly happy in the Sahara and we spent as much time as we could running all around the sand dunes.
Traveling Morocco with kids is easy as Moroccans (men and women) are incredibly kind and friendly to kids and they’re always welcoming. Everywhere we went, people would wave to her and touch her head or hand. Our museum guides or the ladies working at our hotels often chatted with her and carried her up and down the stairs. It was really endearing to see how much attention they gave to kids.
What to Expect in the Sahara Desert
Mention the word ‘desert’ and most people think of sand dunes. It is true that the Sahara Desert is made up of 40% sand dunes — but there is actually a variety of environments/terrains in the Sahara, including mountains, canyons and oasis filled with massive palm groves and beautiful farm lands.
Within the Sahara region is also many interesting little towns such as Tamegrout where the Berbers still make pottery the way their ancestors have done for centuries. The whole region is dotted with ancient ksours, mud-walled fortresses, that are still inhabited today.
My 5- Day Sahara Desert Tour Itinerary
Our Caravans Dust itinerary followed the old caravan route from Marrakech into the Sahara’s dunes, returning via an off the beaten track route over the majestic Atlas Mountains. In just five days, we explored different valleys, canyons, palm groves, and mountains. We also visited mysterious ksours and kasbahs, and had tea with the nomads in the Sahara. Sun Trails proposed this itinerary for us as I wanted to get off the beaten path and this was perfect in every way.
Day 1: Into the Atlas Mountains
Our desert trip started with a drive into the High Atlas Mountains. The Atlas Mountains have the second highest mountain peak on the Africas continent (after Kilimanjaro) so expect to climb up to over 3000m in altitude.
Immediately upon leaving Marrakesh, the landscapes transformed and we feasted upon lush green palm groves backdropped by red rose cliffs. Along the way, we saw plenty of traditional Berber villages, with clusters of flat-roomed stone houses perched on sides of green hills. Calls to prayer boomed from the speakers of the mosques that dominated each tower while smoke rose up from the chimneys of the hammams (baths) the villages.
Visit UNESCO Mud Villages
After weaving our way up the mountains, we saw over hundreds of ksar (or ksour in plural) which are traditional mud-walled villages built by the Berbers. Ait Ben Haddou is the best example of the ksar architecture. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is a village made up of mud-walled houses stacked up on a hilltop overlooking a river.
The first houses here were built in the 11th century but the current version was completed in 18th century. It was made famous by Hollywood movies filmed here, including Lawrence of Arabia, Mummy and Game of Thrones. Currently only six families live there, others have all moved out to make place for tourist cafes and restaurants.
Drive along Canyons & Oasis
To reach our destination Zagora, we continued driving across the Anti-Atlas and feasted on the beautiful scenery before arriving at the Tizi n Tichka pass, at 2100 meters high. Once over the pass, we found ourselves in the dramatic lunar landscape of the Anti Atlas Mountains. Eventually, we arrived at the beautiful Draa Valley, a gorgeous oasis filled with lush green palm trees backdropped by the mountains.
Stay at: Azalai Desert Lodge
An intimate, beautiful lodge near the town of Zagora, surrounded by palm trees and mud-walled houses. Each room/bungalow is named after a famous explorer. The lodge sure does feel like an oasis in the arid land, with its stylish decor and vintage safari-style design. It also has a big outdoor pool, great to take a dip in after a long day of driving. Check the latest rates.
Day 2: Climb the Sand Dunes
Enter an Ancient Ksar
We started the next morning with a walk around an ancient ksar that continues to be inhabited today. Tizegrate is a mud-walled fortress built entirely out of mud in the 16th century. It’s now home to over 100 Berber families who work on the farms surrounding the fortress.
I was surprised to find that inside the high mud walls were dark corridors that were designed that way to cool down the homes during the insufferable summers in the Sahara. One of the houses was converted into a museum, so we had the chance to see the layout (with a patio and double storey) and how people used to live.
Meet Berbers in Tamegrout
Continuing on our drive towards the Sahara, we made a stop at Tamegrout, a small town that served as a hub of learning and religion.
Here we met Hassan, a local Berber man who showed us around town. It was interesting talking to him about life in Tamegroute and visiting the ksar where he grew up and still lives. He also showed the main mosque of Tamegrout that was decorated with beautiful archways, water fountains and carved doors.
We then headed into the Nasiriyya Library, which has one of the biggest collections of ancient books in Morocco. The library is actually very modern and simple and doesn’t quite tell the story of Mohammed Nassir. Eventually we ended our walk at the pottery centre of the town, where typical Moroccan clay tajines were made.
Into the Sahara!
After a delicious lunch of cous cous and chicken in Mhamid (the last town before the desert), we left the tarmac road behind and headed into the Sahara. Riding off road in the desert was thrilling but it took two hours of driving before the giant sand dunes appeared in the distance.
The last part of our journey to the desert camp was on camel back. It was my daughter’s first time on a camel, and I was mightily impressed by how fearless she was. Riding towards our desert camp, we were warmly welcomed with warm towels and a fresh lemonade.
My daughter was absolutely stoked to be in a giant playground with endless sand dunes and we spent the rest of the evening running up and sliding down sand dunes. Sunset on the dunes was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in my life, especially more so with the mint tea and cookies that the staff served us right on the dunes.
Stay at: Azalai Desert Camp
Staying in our private Bedouin tent surrounded by sand dunes was a special experience. We had the most delicious meal on our trip here, feasting on goat cheese pastries and tender lamb tagine under the shimmering stars. That evening, we enjoyed mint tea by the campfire and watched the stars until it was time to head in. I couldn’t have asked for a more magical experience.
Day 3: Explore South of the Sahara
We first spent around three hours driving south of the Sahara, passing Lac Iriki, a dry river bed where the Draa River used to form its estuary. We then took on the hamada, the much dreaded stony desert, to finally reach the nearest town, Foum Zguid.
Visit Berber Nomads
Along the scenic drive, we saw many groups of nomads settled with their sheeps and chickens. They lived in makeshift tents built out of plastic sheets and metal sticks, often close to a well where they had access to fresh water.
We decided to pay a nomadic family a visit. After Boujeema introduced himself, the family warmly welcomed us and spoiled us with tea and bread (as they do for all guests). The Berbers are generous and hospitable people who are never afraid to share. It was an absolute privilege to be welcomed into their home and get to know them.
We got to know that the family moves around once a year in search of new pasture for their cattle, and they are a generation of three living together. They live very simple lives, raising animals for food and milk, and spending most of their time in nature.
Explore an Oasis Town
Another two-hour drive took us to an oasis town named Tata, an oasis settlement along the trade route from West Africa. The ancient ksar of Tata is stacked up on a hilltop and looks particularly imposing from across the river. Unlike the ksour we’d seen before, the one here was made of a mixture of stones and mud.
Wandering around the village, we got to see how locals live and learn how their irrigation system works, before heading up to the ksaur where our guesthouse was.
Stay at: Dar Infiane
Located within the ancient fortress in Tata, this simple guesthouse features traditional Berber architecture with charismatic interiors. All of the rooms have stone walls, wooden beams on their ceilings and colorful kilim carpets. The place is in serious need of a renovation, but not a bad place to stay if you’re looking to go off the beaten path. Read the TripAdvisor reviews here.
Day 4: Off the Beaten Path of Morocco
Visit an Ancient Granary
Today we made our way towards Taroudant, where we would stay for the night. Our first stop was Ait Kine, just 40km outside of Tata. Ait Kine is a small village with an impressive granary from the 16th century. A granary is a storage and fortress that the Berbers built to store their foods (like olives and dates) for months or years. During the times of war, they would hide from enemies in the granary, which became their refuge.
Walk around an Oasis
I never quite understood the meaning of ‘oasis’ until we came to the one in Ait Kine. The oasis I’ve visited tend to be natural lagoons of water in the desert, giving life to just a few palm trees. But the oases in the Sahara are often lush palm groves, some with up to half a million palm trees (like the one in Zagora). It was absolutely refreshing walking in the shade of the palm trees, weaving our way along plantations bursting with green beans, chilli, carrots and so much more.
Cross the Anti-Atlas Mountains
To get to Taroudant, we had to zigzag our way up the Anti-Atlas Mountains along a corkscrew road with hairpin bends. At such dizzying heights, the view of the mountains was spectacular. Perched on the mountain slopes were clusters of Berber villages, so quaint and picturesque against the natural backdrop. Right after descending from the mountains, we found ourselves weaving our way through craggy sandstone canyons flanked by palm trees.
Eventually after a two-hour drive, we arrived in Taroudant, sometimes called ‘Little Marrakesh’. Hidden by magnificent red-mud walls, and with the snowcapped peaks, Taroudant’s souqs and squares are a much less touristy version of the ones in Marrakech.
Stay at: Palais Oumensour
A quaint oasis in the midst of the medina of Taroudant, this elegant heritage hotel is converted from a historical building and transformed into a stylish abode. I love the lush bougainvilleas found all over the hotel and the inviting swimming pool right by the courtyard. And best of all, the hotel’s restaurant serves up excellent contemporary fusion cuisine with Moroccan flair. I had an avocado mousse and tomato salad with a tender turkey leg as a main course. Check the latest rates.
Day 5: Back to Marrakech
On the last day of our tour, we headed straight back to Marrakech as we wanted more time in the city. The drive on the well-paved highway from Taroudant to Marrakech took just three hours. You can also choose to go west to Agadir, a beach town on the coast, or further up the Anti-Atlas Mountains. The choice is endless.
Stay at: Riad & Spa Azzouz
Riad & Spa Azzouz is a modern oasis amidst the chaos of Marrakech’s medina. The small and intimate riad is located right in the midst of the labyrinth-like medina, and yet the soothing ambiance and pastel-colored walls instantly calm me down once I step through its doors. The riad only has six rooms and a beautiful rooftop terrace that has a shallow pool (perfect for kids) and Cafe-del-Mar vibes. Check the latest rates.
What to Pack for Sahara Desert Tour
Regardless of when you visit, the temperature difference between night and day is big in the Sahara. Always pack a lightweight jacket for the chilly nights regardless of when you’re traveling. Other than that, a scarf, fleece and t-shirts and long pants will suffice. Don’t forget your hat, sunscreen and sunglasses for the sand/heat.
Remember that Morocco is a Muslim country, Even though they don’t expect foreigners to cover up completely, please show some respect by covering up your knees. Loose harem pants and long dresses that cover your knees are the best things to wear in Morocco.
There are so many twists and turns on the road to the Sahara Desert because you have to pass through the Atlas Mountains. I suggest bring Dramamine or any other motion sickness pills. I didn’t need these but some people might prefer to bring them.
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