When we originally booked this trip to Morocco, all we knew was that 1) we wanted to use Marrakech as our base city, and 2) we needed to do some sort of desert tour. We quickly learned that in order to see the desert properly from Marrakech, you need to either rent a car yourself or hire a driver to take you on a four day-minimum itinerary. Without really knowing what to expect, we asked our first hotel, Riad Meriem, to book a four day tour on our behalf.
I’m not sure if it’s company that Riad Meriem always recommends, but they signed us up with a private tour via Aztat Tours. To be quite frank, I was a bit nervous when I noticed that their company name didn’t match what’s on their website (e.g. Aztat and Atlas) and that they asked for the money up front in cash when we were picked up from our riad, but their reviews were good on Tripadvisor, so we went with it.
Let’s start with the good stuff. Our guide Mustafa, while not necessarily the friendliest of guys, was an excellent driver. His 4×4 seemed well-equipped to handle the windy, bumpy Moroccan roads, and he knew the country like the back of his hand. He had a cold and his English wasn’t so great, but we were just relieved that he delivered us safely to each of our destinations.
Also, the Moroccan landscapes that we saw throughout the four day tour were nothing short of breathtaking. Mustafa whisked us away from the Marrakech medina and before we knew it we were in the middle of the Atlas Mountains. A few hours later we were back on flat ground and walking around the ancient Ait Benhaddou kasbah, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where films like Gladiator and Lawrence of Arabia were shot.
The next day it seemed as though we visited several completely different planets because the terrain started out flat and rocky in Ouarzazate, then suddenly we were overlooking massive canyons, then we were in the green Draa Valley, and finally we arrived at the gorgeous golden sand dunes of Merzouga (a.k.a. Erg Chebbi).
The camel trek and Berber tent overnight were definite highlights of the trip, and as you can see below it is shockingly difficult to take good photos while riding a camel.
We rode our camels back to civilization on our third day in the desert, and again we drove through an ever-changing series of beautiful landscapes. The lush Todra Valley and Gorge, the beautiful Dades Valley and Gorge, and the other-worldy Monkey Fingers were incredible to see.
And now, the bad. Everyone says not to eat raw vegetables in Morocco, but after nearly a week of the same tagines for lunch and dinner every day, I was craving some sort of non-stewed vegetable. In Dades Gorge we went to a restaurant that served a Moroccan salad of tomato, onion, and green pepper as our lunch appetizer, and I couldn’t help but sneak a few bites. You can guess what happened next. So on the fourth day of our desert tour, we asked Mustafa to just drive us back to Marrakech as quickly as possible (which was pretty much the original plan anyway), with only small breaks in Ouarzazate and the tizi n tichka pass so he and Aaron could refuel.
And even if you don’t get food poisoning, the roads themselves will most likely make you nauseated. I never get carsick or motion sickness of any kind, but the insanely windy roads in the Atlas Mountains and Todra definitely pushed me to my limits. Bring along some Dramamine if curvy roads make you queasy.
Another negative part about our desert experience was the fact that we just couldn’t communicate very well with Mustafa in English (or French for that matter), and most of the time it felt like he was purely our driver and not also a guide. I’m not sure if it was because he was dealing with a cold himself, but he rarely spoke to us and never told us what we could expect from our daily itinerary. There was also zero communication with Aztat Tours in advance, so we didn’t know that we have to pay cash up front and what we needed to bring with us. When we arrived in Merzouga, we checked into what I would call a suspiciously empty hotel and was told to just leave our luggage in our room (which was made of cement and straw), and then just bring what we needed into the desert for our overnight experience. Wait, what? Oh, and did we bring sleeping bags with us? No, Mustafa, we did not, were we supposed to? It was a bit frustrating and worrisome at the same time.
Fortunately, our luggage was totally safe and two other couples showed up at the Merzouga hotel so we had company for the Berber tent experience, otherwise it would have been very awkward to be alone in the desert with Aaron and several camel wranglers who played drums and sang to us in Arabic and Spanish, weirdly enough. But staring up at the stars while lying in the dunes next to our camels was an amazing experience that we’ll never forget.
Alright, I’m going to stop it with the negativity because overall, we had a really wonderful experience in the desert. I’ll leave you with a few takeaways that you should consider if you are planning a similar trip:
- Unless you speak fluent Arabic, Berber, or French, insist on getting a guide who speaks English very well.
- Have any other friends interested in going to Morocco? Convince them to go with you! A four day desert tour is nearly the same cost for four people as it is for two, so you can save a bunch of money if you can split the bill with some friends.
- But speaking of money, you’ll really get what you pay for with these desert tours. Some friends of ours went on a much more expensive tour a few weeks before we did, and the hotels that they stayed in along the way were much nicer. Our hotels were clean and fine, but much more along the basic side.
- If you get sick of eating the same food all the time, you’ll want to bring snacks with you to the desert. Every restaurant that we visited for lunch offered the same overpriced menu. Not a lot of options out there, but you’ll never leave a meal hungry. Berber hospitality = way too much food. At. Every. Single. Meal.
- If you have any dietary restrictions, speak up right away! Some of the dinners we had were just served to us without any questions.
- Drink lots and lots of water. The dry heat of the desert will suck the moisture out of you so you need to stay hydrated.
- Sick of visiting kasbahs? Not interested in purchasing argan oil or carpets? It’s okay, just let your driver know. He will adjust your itinerary accordingly.
- Bring warm clothes to wear at night in the desert. Especially warm socks.
- Feeling adventurous? Many tourists just rent their own car and drive themselves throughout the desert. However, we were told that there are many false roadsigns along the way and that several major roads aren’t included on tourist maps. So things could get interesting!
My next/last Morocco blog post will be about my favorite part of the trip; our two final days back in Marrakech. Stay tuned!