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Morocco’s Otherworldly Desert: Insider’s Guide to the Sahara’s Sand Dunes and Starry Nights

by WendyPerrin.com | January 26, 2021

The insider advice on this page is from two of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Morocco: Hicham Mhammedi Alaoui and Radia Tehitahe of Experience Morocco.

Trusted Travel Expert
Hicham Mhammedi Alaoui and Radia Tehitahe

 

After earning an MBA from Harvard, Hicham returned to his native Morocco to fulfill his dream of introducing travelers to the best of his homeland beyond the typical tourist routes. Radia is his trusted deputy in their Casablanca office (he also has staff in Marrakech) who will listen carefully to your interests and hobbies and craft a custom itinerary that brings Morocco to life. She can arrange everything from a family-friendly scavenger hunt through Marrakech’s souks to a cooking class in a Berber village to a workshop in metal welding or book binding, and she loves to place travelers in the most atmospheric 4- and 5-star riads that ooze Moroccan charm. Hicham’s and Radia’s English-speaking drivers will stay with you throughout your journey, ready to change up your itinerary on the fly (and saving you the hassle of negotiating with Moroccan cabbies). Their private guides, whose specialties range from shopping to Jewish heritage, are all trained to ensure that same-sex couples feel comfortable in their country.

Trips have a 3-night minimum and start at $700 per day for two travelers in low season; that includes 4-star accommodations, some meals and private guiding, and a car and driver for your entire trip.

Things to Do and See

trail of camels in Moroccan desert sunset

Photo: Tim Baker

Don’t Miss
Desert bread. Morocco is renowned for its varieties of bread. Taguella is prepared from a dough similar to that of other breads found in the country, but the cooking process is different: It’s buried under a fire built atop the desert sand. After about 30 minutes, the bread is dug out and its thick outer crust is cracked to reveal a soft inside that goes perfectly with local olive oil and mint tea. A must!

Sunrise over the dunes. It’s well worth the early wakeup call to enjoy the magnificent views and soft light of sunrise over the Sahara. Just tell your camp’s staff that you’re up for it, and they’ll gently knock at your tent’s door in the morning so that you can emerge and walk up a dune to find a comfy chair and a warm pot of tea or coffee awaiting you.

Don’t Bother
The reality of a camel ride is less glamorous than the picture; you may be better off spending those 30 to 45 minutes sitting atop a sand dune and admiring the views with your drink of choice. If you’ve never ridden a camel before, know that it’s quite an uncomfortable ride, and the animals’ welfare is rarely a top priority for their minders.

Most Underrated Place
Most travelers on the route from the desert to Marrakech stop at Ksar Ait-Ben-Haddou, an ancient fortress that’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a famous backdrop for a number of films over the years. There’s no denying the grandeur of Ksar, but check out Kasbah Telouet too: It’s much less well known but even more beautiful. Situated along the former route of the caravans from the Sahara over the Atlas Mountains to Marrakech, Kasbah Telouet is a striking example of traditional Moroccan architecture, making use of stucco, mosaics for the walls, and green ceramic tiles on its roof.

Most Overrated Place
Ouarzazate is Morocco’s film capital, with two large film studios that have played host to numerous Hollywood productions over the years, most notably Game of Thrones, Gladiator, and Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation. Unfortunately, the city has little to offer beyond the studios, and travelers are often disappointed after they arrive. If you have kids who want to try on costumes and play with the props, or if you’re a die-hard cinephile, it’s worth a quick stop. Otherwise, continue on another 40 minutes and spend the night instead in the Oasis of Skoura, an immense area of native palm trees dotted with archeological sites.

Hidden gem
Khemliya is a small village on the edge of the desert where the Gnawa ethnic group live; these are descendants of Central African slaves that were brought to Morocco. As part of a mid-morning tea break on the desert journey from Fez to Marrakech, Hicham and Radia can arrange for their travelers to visit with the Gnawa, who will share their traditional Saharan music and dance, and invite you to join along.

Cheap Thrill
One of the best ways to spend your evening in the Sahara is completely free—you just have to look up! Barring a full moon, you can expect a large array of stars and, if you’re lucky, even a couple of planets or a shooting star.

Where to Stay and What to Eat

luxury tent camp in the Sahara desert at night - Morocco

Photo: Tim Baker

Best Desert Camps
The dunes don’t lend themselves well to traditional construction materials. Instead, Hicham and Radia will recommend the right desert camp; the 4- and 5-star encampments that they use have no more than 16 canvas-sided tents, each with their own ensuite bathroom.

Best-Value Splurge Hotel
Dar Ahlam, in an old converted kasbah, offers a world-class way to experience a Moroccan desert oasis, with a unique culinary twist: No matter how many days you stay there (and Wendy recommends three, based on her experienced there during the annual olive harvest), you’ll never have two meals in the same location or setting, and every one of them will be a surprise and completely private. Some dining spots are in the nooks and crannies of the ancient kasbah or among the property’s olive groves; others may be a half-hour drive away, in lush gardens or atop a hill with a stunning view of the sunset. Splurge on a Garden Suite, as they are twice the size of the entry-level Kasbah Suites.

Dar Ahlam’s unforgettable “Memory Road” itinerary takes travelers from the country’s Atlantic coast to the Sahara, exploring remote parts of the country that few travelers visit. Along the way to the hotel, you stay at three houses that blend into the local villages but are very well appointed inside, as well as a desert encampment.

Morocco -- Warm bread fresh from the oven and mint tea

Warm bread fresh from the oven and mint tea. Photo: Experience Morocco

Dish to Try
Medfouna, a Moroccan flatbread dough stuffed with meat (cow or lamb), diced onions, and spices. You’ll find it in every Berber town in the desert. If you head out early enough from Fez, you can enjoy it for lunch in Midelt or a village farther south.

teenage boy Sand Boarding in the Moroccan Dunes

Wendy’s son Doug sandboarding in the Moroccan dunes. Photo: Tim Baker

Bragging Rights
A VIP desert experience starts with a leisurely wakeup in Marrakech and an 11 a.m. helicopter flight over the Atlas Mountains, landing in the middle of the Saharan dunes. You’re welcomed to your own exclusive desert camp with a traditional mint tea ceremony and lunch buffet. In the afternoon, it’s choose your own adventure: an SUV or quad-bike ride into the dunes, sandboarding, or simply basking in the grandeur of the dunes. Around sunset, your choice of drinks is served as local bands perform traditional Saharan song and dance. Then it’s on to dinner prepared by a private chef, followed by a campfire with more local music or some downtime to stargaze. The helicopter picks you up the next morning, and you can be back in Marrakech in just under 24 hours. Wendy did it, and it ranks as one of her most spectacular travel memories. Here’s her video of the helicopter ride over the Sahara, for starters.

 

Contact Hicham and Radia

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Best Times to Go

April, May, September, and October, when the nighttime temperatures are just chilly rather than unbearably cold.

Worst Times to Go

Late December through early January is the single busiest time of year in Morocco—but those who include an overnight in the desert will find that temperatures plunge after dark and it can be tough to get a good night’s sleep.

July and August are at the other end of the spectrum and get extremely hot.

Biggest Rookie Mistake

Trying to fit Marrakech, Fez, and the Sahara into one week. The desert portion alone takes three or four nights from start to finish (see “Travel distances,” at left)—unless you charter a private helicopter, which is pricey but means you can have a meaningful experience of the desert in one overnight.

The Souvenir

A blue scarf that is typically worn by the Tuareg people. The fabric protects from both the sun and the sand (in the event of sandstorms) and is commonly seen on the heads of locals in the desert region.

Must-have App

SkyView is a fun app for uncovering stars, constellations, and planets in the unending night sky of the Sahara.

Don’t Forget to Pack

A warm jacket. People think that Morocco is warm year-round, but temperatures drop in winter, especially in the desert at night.

Scam to Avoid

The long drives to and from the desert inevitably entail a number of bathroom and quick tea breaks, and a lot of travelers find themselves roaming around the rest areas where savvy bazaars have set up shop. These spots aren’t the best places to find examples of traditional Moroccan craftsmanship, so buyer beware!

Travel Distances

There are two common driving routes to get to and from the desert, and both take three days. You’ll stop for bathroom and tea breaks, and Hicham and Radia’s vehicles are outfitted with Wi-Fi, water, and snacks (For how to skip the drive and get a magnificent desert experience in only 24 hours, see “Bragging Rights,” below):

1. From Fez to the Sahara and on to Marrakech (or, the opposite: Marrakech-Sahara-Fez): The drive from Fez to the desert takes eight hours. It you start by 7 a.m.,you can nap in the car, stop for lunch at a small local restaurant in a Berber village, and reach your desert camp before sunset. (The later you leave, the shorter your breaks will be.) On the second day, it’s common to drive another five to seven hours, then stop in the Dades Gorges or the oasis of Skoura. On the third day, it’s another five to six hours on winding roads through the High Atlas Mountains to Marrakech. It’s surprising to wake up in the hot desert, and a few hours later step out of the car at the top of a mountain pass and feel the brisk chill in the air; there can even be snow in the winter.

2. Round-trip from Marrakech: In this case, the first day involves a nine-hour drive to reach the desert camp; once again, you want to leave early in the morning in order to arrive before sunset. The second day includes a six-hour drive to the oasis of Skoura, where you stop for the night. On the third day, it’s another five hours back to Marrakech. Since you have to backtrack on this route, you’ll see more if you fit your desert experience in between Fez and Marrakech.

Reviews

Radia notified them...

Priscilla Eakeley | March 24, 2020

They found...

Gina Davis | February 5, 2020

They really understood...

Bernardine Wu | December 10, 2019
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