True adventure in the Sahara desert and the art of budget travel
“to have a truly magical experience in the Moroccan desert, sometimes you need to take a chance.”
Morocco is often thought of as a tourism mecca. The streets of Marrakech are thought to be filled with thieves, scammers, and people attempting to sell you some tour or trinket for much more than it is worth. Most people experience the beauty of this country from the comfort of a resort and fully inclusive tours that over-promise and under-deliver. The best way to uncover the beauty of this country, the kindness of its people, and the life changing experiences it has to offer, however, is by arriving with no plan and arranging everything outside of the tour companies.
Flying into Marrakech, Fes or Casablanca will undoubtedly be a culture shock for all but the most seasoned travelers. Make sure not to stay in these cities too long or you will be caught up in the busyness of them and miss out on the hidden gems on the opposite side of the country! By taking a cheap bus to the small town of Merzouga, you can avoid paying $100+ for a tour to the Sahara desert and have as much time as you want to take in its glory. Most desert tours arranged out of the larger cities are rushed. They usually only give you one night at a “camp in the Sahara desert” which usually is a few tents not far off the highway. You can instead make your way to this town and negotiate your trek into the desert with many of the Berber families who live there! They will take you to the far side of the Moroccan Sahara by camel and you will sleep under the stars on carpets in the vast expanse of the sand. Some people stay only a night in the desert, but a lot of these families would be more than happy to take you for 4 or 5 days and travel by camel from oasis to oasis on a personal expedition in the Sahara.
From Fes or Marrakech, you can go to the bus station and get a night bus to Merzouga for around $20. The night bus is comfortable, but getting to the Sahara from either city will be a long ride. At least on the later bus you can sleep and save a night's accommodation in your budget. you will arrive in Merzouga at around 5:30am, which is perfect timing to watch the sunrise over Erg Chebbi: the largest sand dune in morocco. Merzouga has a completely different feel from the rest of the country. the town is only a couple square miles, but hosts a plethora of activities and a whole lot of Berber culture.
at the bus station you will be hounded by touts asking if you have a place to stay or if you need a ride or camel tour. just say no thank you and walk toward the big dune. its about a 5 minute walk from the station to the middle of town so you don't need a taxi. on the main road in town where all the shops are, walk down until you find hostel Hassan. this small converted Riad is the only hostel in town and is the coolest place I've ever stayed. The owner, Hassan, is a well traveled Berber man who speaks perfect English. the hostel is very cheap and most nights, Hassan will go buy groceries and cook a community meal for everyone to eat. Hassan will also hook you up with the most incredible overnight stay in the Sahara possible. He grew up in Merzouga and knows all of the families who run desert camps. he will not only get you a desert camp for far cheaper than anything I've seen advertised, but also make sure it is authentic. The reason you wait until you get to Merzouga to negotiate a stay in the desert is not just about saving money.
When you join an organized tour from the major city, they are all centered around stopping and getting you to buy things at the many tourist locations they take you to. the tour guides are given money to bring you to certain shops and restaurants on your way to the desert. you are then only give one night in the desert and brought back to your hotel in the city. this doesn't allow nearly enough time for the Sahara and you are forced into an itinerary that is not built for adventure, but built for getting people there and back quickly. by arranging your own desert camp with a Berber family in Merzouga, you can spend as much time as you want in the desert and experience all it has to offer.
I spent nearly a month in Morocco with a little over a week of it being in the Sahara. When I return to the country, I know that I will be heading to the Sahara again and spending 90% of my time there. It is inexpensive, full of culture, and absolutely mind blowing.
As a photographer, it is one of the most incredible destinations I've ever encountered and I can't wait to get back. My goal when traveling is always to have an authentic experience and see how little I can spend. I don't wan't to be crammed onto a tour bus or into a resort with a million other tourists experiencing a tailor made version of what the average american or european expects. I want to get dirty, try new things, go through
challenges, and come away with a story. Morocco gave me that in spades and while not the cheapest country I've been to (*cough* Vietnam *cough), it definitely wasn't tough on the wallet. Morocco has left me with a different view on Arab countries and has made me add places like Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia to my future list of travels.
The best tours and experiences can be arranged independently at a much cheaper cost than advertised by tour companies and hotels. Having a third party do all the arrangements for your travels may be more convenient, but to have a truly magical experience in the Moroccan desert, sometimes you need to take a chance.