When we began planning our trip to Morocco, I found that in many of the articles I read, a visit to the Sahara Desert was highly recommended. Immediately, I was intrigued. The only catch? The true desert – think rolling dunes, no one in sight for miles – was not an easy trip from Marrakech. In fact, it was close to 10 hours one way in a car, which meant if you wanted to visit the Sahara Desert, you also had to sleep in the Sahara Desert.
But let’s back up…
Typically the words camping and my name are not associated with one another. As a reference point, I have never camped. I have never slept in a tent. I have never slept outdoors. I even skipped the 2nd grade Brownies camping trip because I wouldn’t sleep in a cabin outside. So, in the spirit of stepping out of my comfort zone and checking another item off the life bucket list, I was determined to visit and CAMP in the Sahara Desert.
Well, it turns out that there are countless luxury desert camps that cater to tourists who want to see and experience the Sahara Desert without “roughing it”. There are also two parts of the desert that host these camps – Erg Chebbi and Erg Chigaga. I spent countless – literally countless – hours researching the different camps, reading reviews, and getting price quotes. Finally, I settled on the Erg Chigaga Desert Luxury Camp, which was the original glamping camp in the Sahara Desert.
From what I learned during my nighttime googling sessions, Erg Chebbi is the more commercial of the two deserts. There are many more camps set up around this area as well as actual hotels close-by. While there are picturesque high dunes, the experience is much more generic and the camps are always crowded with tour groups. Erg Chigaga, on the other hand, is less developed with camps (I never saw another one that looked anything like ours during our many drives through the desert) and the overall trip is more adventuresome because that part of desert is still widely untouched. Both deserts are far from Marrakech and all the camps are similarly priced and are very much glamping experiences. My feeling was if we are going to do it, we should do it right and go all in. After all, I wanted to see the real Sahara Desert!
Your journey begins with your personal driver picking you up at your riad or hotel in a 4×4. The driver is with you the entire trip and acts as a guide/resource for you as you journey to the desert. Our driver, Jamal, was wonderful. He was mild-mannered yet still conversational and got us to and from the Sahara as quickly and as safe as possible. During the first day of your trip, you travel through the Atlas Mountains, all the way to the small village of Agdz, which acts as both a halfway point and location for an overnight stay. Along the way to Agdz, you will see Aït Benhaddou, drive along the Tizi n’Tichka pass, and take in the beauty of the Ounila Valley. The mountains are absolutely incredible and I felt like the drive went by much faster because there was so much to see! We also stopped for lunch and a tour of Kasbah Telouet, an abandoned kasbah with incredible tile work. When we finally hit Agdz, we checked into Kasbah Azul, a homey hotel with beautiful gardens and warm hospitality.
On the second day, you travel through the Draa Valley and Zagora before finally reaching the desert! Before reaching our destination, we stopped at a pottery shop in Tamegroute where we saw workers creating clay pieces by hand during the heat of the day. We ended up buying a small memento to take home. Additionally, we made a pit stop to pick up our very own cheches. These are colorful head scarves to wear in the desert, as they protect against the sun and sand (they came in major handy during our camel ride!). Before we knew it, we had reached M´Hamid El Ghizlane, the last village before the desert. It’s hard to picture but the road literally ends and all of a sudden, you are driving a.k.a off roading on only sand for miles, miles, and miles. From that last point of civilization, it’s another two plus hours before you reach the camp and let me tell you, it’s very bumpy! If you are prone to motion sickness, wear a patch or take medication.
When we arrived at the camp, it was around 4:00 p.m. and the heat was still incredibly intense. Our actual tent was sweltering, so we took up post on a hammock in the shade which provided us with a small breeze.
At sunset, we hiked (it was deceptively hard!) to the highest dune to watch the beauty of the day fade into the desert. The color reflecting off the dunes was pure magic! It was truly incredible that all we could see for miles were dunes. I had to pinch myself that it was real. Each night, we were fed a traditional Moroccan meal under the stars and ended the evening with live Berber music.
On our second day at the desert camp, we woke up early for breakfast and a camel ride. This was the part I was most excited to experience and it did not disappoint. With a guide leading the way, our camel caravan traveled up and down the dunes of the Sahara Desert, and it was amazing. The beauty is unmatched and so unique!
To escape the heat of the day, we later took a drive to a shady oasis about 40 minutes from our camp to enjoy lunch, drinks, and relaxation. My husband, Lyle, had his heart set on doing an ATV excursion in the dunes, so we left the camp again to explore the dunes by four wheelers. I wasn’t immediately enthusiastic about this idea, but it ended up being really fun and offered us some pretty terrific views of the desert!
At sunset, we once again hiked up the dunes and reflected on our final day in the Sahara Desert. Later that night, we set our alarms to get up for 3:00 a.m., which is when the moon set and darkness in the desert really set in. The sky was so engulfed with stars that it almost looked fake! I felt like I was in planetarium show as we used our star gazer app to point out constellations I don’t think I have ever seen before!
On our final day, we departed the camp after breakfast to make the 8 hour drive straight to Marrakech. This ride felt long. While we stopped for lunch and to visit a Berber rug coalition, the drive was monotonous (…and to think that our driver, Jamal, does this every week, three different times!). Covered in sand, we returned to Marrakech with many memories of our time in the desert.
So, how was my first camping trip?
Overall good. I can confidently say that I don’t like camping (those 8-year-old instincts were right!), but I am really glad that I pushed myself to do this trip. The experience is defined as a luxury desert camp aka glamping, but in my opinion, it’s still very much camping. On one hand, there is solar power electricity for lights and charging and on the other, you have to do your business in a chemical toilet, flush it by pouring water down the hole, and then dispose of your toilet paper in a trash can next to it. There’s also no shower. You use two buckets (one with hot water and the other with cold water) to cleanse yourself. Let’s just say, my first activity back at our riad in Marrakech was a shower! We certainly weren’t roughing it, but it also wasn’t a five star resort.
In the end…
We came (16+ hours of driving worth..)
We saw (lots of gorgeous dunes, stars and sunsets)
We conquered (camel riding, camping!!, and eating tajine for four days straight)
Thank you, Sahara Desert, for the experience.
Tips if you are considering a similar trip to the desert:
-Bring lots of sunscreen, wet wipes (your feet get crazy dirty from the sand), and restorative lip balm.
-Be prepared for any type of sickness. Bring Imodium, motion sick medication, and any other must-haves for common illness.
-You will be off the grid. We had very, very limited cell phone service at the desert camp, so forget posting to Instagram and save your data for emergencies.
-There’s obviously no iron, so don’t stress about wrinkles, or bring things that look ok with a few creases in them. Linen was my go-to for the desert. It was comfortable and carefree and kept me cool!
-Bring layers, depending on when you go, it may get super chilly at night. The temperature felt great in our tent, but we definitely used the heavier blanket provided.