How I had the most amazing and affordable experience in the Sahara Desert.
Though it’s possible to visit the Sahara desert without a tour, either by hitchhiking or renting a car, my research had proven that an organized tour is simply much easier and more efficient for exploring this remote area of Morocco.
The Tour Company
Of course, cost is one of the most important factors for the budget traveler. I wanted to find the most affordable desert tour that still covered all the main attractions.
Matt and I were browsing different tour companies when Hicham, the owner of Ya Salam Hostel where we were staying, offered us the desert tour through his company.
Awesome Morocco Tours and Travel is his own company that does tours all over Morocco, for amazing prices. The prices differ depending on the size of the tour, so it’s best to contact him directly if you’re thinking of using his company. He is a super nice and accommodating guy, happy to help in any way he can.
I just want to note that every single tour offering “3 days, 2 nights” in the desert is basically 1 day and 2 nights in the desert, with 2 full days of driving. Driving to the Sahara from Marrakech takes about 10 hours, so almost the entire first and last days of the tour are spent in the car.
There is no getting around that, though many tour companies try to sugarcoat the driving time. Just bring some entertainment for the car ride, and you’ll make a few stops for lunch and scenic views along the way. But it is A LOT of driving, so be prepared.
The drive passes through the Atlas Mountains, which are absolutely stunning. You’ll see rugged peaks streaked with red clay, little villages nestled in the hillside, and cliffs studded with cacti and olive trees.
The road is basically carved into the mountains, so the drive is quite bumpy, dusty, and winding. If you can stomach the constant hairpin turns through this part of the drive, you can appreciate the incredible scenery.
Around the halfway point of our drive, we stopped at Aït Benhaddou a hilltop town where many movies have been filmed and that is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The town used to be a popular stop along the caravan route from the Sahara to the city, and there are only five families still living here in the rustic clay dwellings.
After hiking to the top of the village, we ate a $12 lunch of Moroccan soup and bread, a main course like tagine or cous-cous, and fresh fruit. Drivers generally push you into the more expensive tourist restaurants, but it’s still cheap for a three course meal compared to many other countries so it’s worth it.
Most tours don’t include lunch, only 2 breakfasts and 2 dinners while you’re in the Sahara.
Accommodation Near Erg Chebbi Dunes
Once you approach the desert, the terrain is flat and arid. Dry, sandy plains stretch for miles, with the occasional clusters of palm trees and civilized towns.
We reached our accommodation at 9:30pm, after leaving the car and getting into a 4WD which drove us over the bumpy sand dunes to our hotel.
We stayed at Kasbah Bivouac Lahmada, a lovely oasis of hospitality sitting right in front of the famous Erg Chebbi sand dunes. Much of the buildings in the desert are made out of clay, and the design is minimalistic but regal.
The staff here were so friendly and greeted us with green tea and a delicious dinner when we arrived.
The next day for breakfast we had bread, olives, cheese, crepes, jam yogurt, and tea, and relaxed until our camel trek at 7pm.
I’ve never felt anything like the heat in the desert; it was definitely the hottest I’ve ever been.
I slept in my own sweat the night before, laying spread-eagled on the best to prevent my limbs from touching each other. The ceiling fan just blew the hot air around in circles, but I eventually got to sleep. During the day I showered in cold water about 6 times, but the second my body dried, I was hot again.
During the day, temperatures get up to 115 Fahrenheit or 45 celsius. The sun beats down relentlessly on the earth, and there is virtually no way to escape it except sitting in the shade and chugging a cold bottled water. But the air is so dry that you actually don’t sweat as much as you do in humid places like the rainforest.
Our hotel did have a pool, surprisingly. This was an amazing way to cool down during the day, especially after Matt and I hiked to the nearest sand dunes in the morning.
The sand was scorching, so we had to keep our sandals on but we got some incredible photos and enjoyed standing on top of the dunes, listening to the thick silence.
No wind, no traffic, no life at all except the distant song of a bird every now and then. It was surreal.
Camel Trek Into The Sand Dunes
In the evening, we boarded our camels and set off for a stroll. Another great thing about this tour was we only had 8 people, so it was a small, comfortable group.
We hopped onto the camels while they were seated, and when they stood up it was scary but hilarious. Their long, skinny legs fold in the strangest places, and you have to hold on tight to the saddle as you lurch backward and forward while these gangly creatures rise to their feet.
Camels are such interesting animals. They store fat in their humps, so they can live without food and water for days in the desert. Their feet are like wide, round, squishy hooves that tread gently on the hot sand, and their hair feels like a scratchy carpet.
Our guide simply clapped them on their chests and gave them commands in the Berber language. He has done these camel treks every single day for two years, and when I asked if he likes living in the desert he said “No, it’s too hot”.
A few locals said the same thing when I asked about living in the desert, yet they are still there. I think there is something magical about the desert and the serenity of life here that makes people stay. Or maybe it’s just the rising tourism factor and the jobs it provides.
After riding our camels for about 30 minutes into the dunes, we hopped off and climbed up to the top of the tallest dune in sight. The sand was cooler by now, so I hiked barefoot and felt the velvety soft sand massage my feet.
Climbing the sand was a crazy workout, but the view from the top blew my mind. Layers upon layers of rippling dunes stretch as far as the eye can see, most of them soft and smooth with razor sharp edges formed completely naturally.
When the wind blew, a sandstorm enveloped us and whipped sand all over the place. I found sand in the tiniest cracks of my camera, and I know I’ll have sand in my hair for weeks.
To get back down to our camels after sunset, we ran, slid, or rolled down the steepest edge of the dune. It was super fun, and even our dog companion from the hotel ran down as well.
Camping In The Desert
We arrived at our “campsite” shortly after, which I expected to be a few small tents for sleeping and a hot plate for cooking dinner. It was more like “glamping”, with a huge space covered in Moroccan rugs and framed with private rooms, complete with actual beds, toilets and showers.
I was so impressed, and we had another amazing meal before a nice jam session with the locals. They sang African tunes and played some sort of metal clapping instrument in addition to the drums which we got to play as well. We brought some wine and enjoyed the entertainment, before heading out to the dunes again to watch the stars.
The sky was a bit cloudy, so there weren’t as many stars as I expected. But our camel guide tested our brain power with some riddles, and eventually I drifted off to sleep on our blanket.
When I woke up it was around 1am, and everyone was still talking. I looked up and the sky had cleared, and the countless twinkling stars became more visible in the intense black of the night.
The next morning, watched the sunrise and had another delicious breakfast. There was an adorable puppy that I played with and wanted to take back to Marrakech. We then packed up and rode our camels back to the 4WD, which drove us to a tour bus to transport us back to the city.
Returning to Marrakech after the desert was a rude awakening. After the overwhelming beauty and peace of the desert, we were back in the land of traffic, honking horns, and locals yelling at us to buy their products every second. But the temperature in Marrakech feels almost cool now after experiencing the heat of the Sahara, and I will cherish that desert trip forever.