Disclosure: We were provided a free or discounted tour in return of our honest review. All opinions expressed here are our own and not influenced by the reviewed company in any way.
After spending a couple of relaxing days in Fes, we were ready for a fun road-trip and to spend time in the Sahara Desert. The landscape is stunning and it’s a perfect way to break up the ride from Fes to Marrakech. Ditch the flight or direct bus and take the scenic route, my friends 😊
We had booked a 3 day tour with Sahara Desert Crew after reading several TripAdvisor reviews, and a couple of friends had recommended this company as well. The company was very responsive to all our questions leading up to the trip and easily accessible via Whatsapp. We highly recommend them.
Usually a planning freak, I deliberately avoided researching the tour too much to leave an element of surprise. Here’s a little taste of our experience and our journey though one of the most beautiful places we have visited.
This post is part of the Morocco itinerary. Other posts in this series:
- Day 1 and 2: Chefchaouen: Blue pearl of Morocco
- Day 3 and 4: Wander around in Fes – Coming soon
- Day 5: Day trip to Voulibilis, Moulay Idriss and Meknes
- Day 6, 7 and 8: 3 day Sahara tour from Fes to Marrakech – This post
- Day 9 and 10: Visiting Marrakech – Coming soon
Day 1: Fes to Merzouga via Ifrane Midelt and Atlas mountains
We were picked up from the blue gate in Fes by our guide and driver Ibrahim at 8.30 am and we started the day right with some fresh orange juice from a stall on our walk through the medina.
We had booked a shared tour but were lucky enough to be the only people on this day and had the entire van to ourselves. We actually don’t mind shared tours, as you get a chance to meet fellow travelers from different parts of the world. Most tour operators in Morocco only provide private tours which are more expensive. It was good to have a choice of shared or private tour with Sahara desert crew, which was another reason for choosing them over the competitors.
We quickly got on the road and were all set for the long drive ending in the Mergouza desert located in the eastern part of Morocco near the Algerian border. Something to keep in mind, there is a LOT of driving on all 3 days, but it’s not a big deal if you are prepared. You are covering a lot of highlights of Morocco in this short period, so it was the perfect balance of scenic driving broken up with interesting stops. If you don’t prefer this, you might want to opt for a longer tour. Podcasts and audio books were very useful to pass the time in the car.
The landscape changed pretty dramatically as we headed out of Fes, from urban landscape to small towns and then just pure nature, forests and fields.
Our first stop on the road was Ifrane, a mountain village also referred to as “Switzerland of Morocco” because the cottages look similar to Swiss chalets. The French built this town when they “arrived” in Morocco.
We walked around for some time and got another orange juice – I feel spoiled after having freshly squeezed orange juice every day. There’s an indefinable quality to fruit juice that was picked the same day, and traveled less than a few miles to reach your glass. We mailed a postcard to our parents at the local post office and got some snacks for the road. It was a nice touristy pit stop to stretch the legs and nothing special IMO. We took a few pictures and were on our way.
We passed by royal Emirati and Qatari summer vacation lodges, and the landscape changed from hills to dense cedar forest. We stopped by to see some Berber apes who were very accustomed to tourists, just hanging by the roadside. They were amusing, gentle and eager to share some peanuts. When Jamie offered to feed them an odd-looking brown/burnt peanut, the monkey dismissed it and picked out better looking ones from his hand. Quite a discerning palate!
We passed by the gorges in Midelt and Tizi Ntalghamt pass while taking in views of the High Atlas plateau. The landscape changed yet again – slowly at first, and then suddenly into barren land clearly indicating that we were heading into the desert country.
We stopped for lunch along the way at Restaurant Merzouga. The food was good but I couldn’t eat much. As a vegetarian, I had a tough time in Morocco outside the big cities. I got a little tired of vegetable tagine, and the soups often had chicken in it. Ibrahim was helpful in finding suitable options, and I managed to find something good to eat every day. I had plenty of snacks as back-up which I would recommend to someone who is a picky eater or on a restricted diet.
We took another small break at the panoramic viewpoint of Ziz valley. This spot was so beautiful and nothing like we had ever seen before. A lush valley full of date palms surrounded by the desert…gorgeous.
We continued our drive to Merzouga and arrived a couple of hours before sunset. Our bags were sent to the camp separately via jeep as we got ready to saddle up on a camel!
So, what’s it like to ride a camel you ask?
The camels were clean and well behaved. We easily managed to get hoisted up and cozy in the saddle. It is a little unnerving for the first few minutes but gradually we got used to the rhythmic movements going up and down the dunes. You can see for miles across the desert, the sun is shining and there is nothing else to do but to enjoy the view. It was magical!
Well…until your thighs get a little sleepy since, unlike horse-riding, you don’t have stirrups on a camel so it is difficult to change positions and shift around. The fun definitely outweighs any discomfort.
I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the breathtaking scenery which was not an easy feat. It took a little time to take steady photos while trying to keep myself firmly balanced on the camel. A skill I won’t have to use frequently I hope…
We took a little break after an hour and watched the sunset with a handful of other tourists. I will let the pictures do the talking here.
While we were planning the Morocco itinerary, I was initially hesitant to book this tour. We have been to deserts in Jordan, Egypt and near UAE. I was wondering if this would be one of those same old tourist machines – stay in a tent, camel ride, lame meals, drive back, etc. I am so glad we went for it! The Sahara desert blew us away. The pinkish golden sand, the huge dunes, and the magnificent sunset…you have to see it for yourself.
After a short ride our trusty steeds delivered us to our camp for the night which we were very excited about! The camel guide gave us an option to watch the sunset from the dunes, but we were a little tired and opted to enjoy the final minutes of daylight in camp. We arrived right at dusk and were happy to be sitting on the firm cushions while enjoying some mint tea and snacks to wind down the afternoon.
We were warmly greeted and shown to our “room” for the night. It was a luxurious tent with a modern bathroom and shower in it…in the middle of the desert! We relaxed and took in the view of the camp before dinner.
I was hesitant about the dinner and wondered how the vegetarian meal would be in a desert camp, but I was pleasantly surprised. I received a hearty 3 course meal with freshly basked bread. I was happy and ready for a nice nap after a long day. As we headed back into our tent, we heard some wonderful Berber music and curiously headed out. The staff, who are clearly great hosts and cooks, also managed to play several instruments. It was a beautiful, clear night and we enjoyed the drum circle and enjoyed the starry skies. It was a much better way to end the night than just passing out.
Day 2: Merzouga to Dades via Todgha gorges and Tinghir
We woke up bright and early the next morning. I am glad that we coaxed each other into heading for sunrise instead of hitting the snooze button. We saw golden rays hitting the dunes as far as eyes could see, undulating landscape filled with deep colors and shadows stretched to the horizon without a single human to ruin the scene. After the sunrise, we headed to the breakfast which was adequate. I wish there was some fresh fruit but had to remind myself that we were in the middle of the desert!
We deliberated whether we should take a camel ride back, or we could be transported in the jeep. Our bums were a bit sore and we were not sure whether we could do it again for 1.5 hours. We had decided to take then vehicle back and were supposed to leave at 9.30 but there was some confusion and were asked to leave early at 9am.
We were not ready so quickly and decided to just go with the camel. I had enjoyed the camel ride and chose to do that again while Jamie decided to walk instead. The camel ride is especially difficult on men …(hint – male parts on a camel for 2 consecutive days). The 90 minute hike across sand dunes wasn’t too challenging, and easy to keep pace with the camels.
Even though I was sore, I am glad we did the camel ride again…it was fun and scenic and I will always remember this journey through the Erg Chebbi sand dunes. Jamie enjoyed a different perspective of the Saharan desert, and snapped some great new photos along his hike. As we reached the drop-off area we said good-bye to our camel guide who made our journey fun and safe.
Ibrahim was waiting for us dressed in colorful, authentic Berber clothing and we barely recognized him!
It had only been a day but it felt like we had already seen so much! Next we stopped in Ibrahim’s home town of Rissani. We went to the local market and donkey parking lot. It was a nice spot to enjoy a non-touristy market and see the locals going about their day. We were on a hunt for some special olive wood Moroccan soup spoons for a friend and managed to find some big hand-carved serving spoons at this market. Ibrahim was so helpful, and he spent a lot of time over the next two days trying to locate the specially requested tiny wood spoons from various friends and vendors! Rissani is also a good spot to get delicious dates and other fresh items as they are more reasonably priced compared to the touristy medinas of Marrakech and Fes.
Tip: Locals in Morocco were in general hesitant about having their pictures taken. Ask before taking pictures to respect their privacy.
We stopped at a local spot (which had no name) on the main road passing through one of the small towns for lunch. Jamie and Ibrahim had some barbecue and I had salad, bread and some olives. Delicious…
Food and shopping tip: The strawberries in Morocco were delicious! I ate a pound everyday…yep! Morocco is also famous for dates, rose water and rose cosmetics, and obviously the colorful souvenirs and trinkets in Fes and Marrakech. Fes is also famous for leather goods but IMO a lot of stuff seemed mass manufactured, so use a discerning eye while shopping.
After stretching our legs, we were on our way to the Todra valley. I had always imagined this perfect desert in my mind with date trees and intricate houses made of sand and mud – an oasis in the middle of a stark desert. After being to several deserts which I enjoyed for their own beauty, I had quickly given up on the idea of my fantasy oasis. I thought that movies and TV shows made this scenery possible with special effects. This was until we got to southern Morocco. This is exactly the landscape of which I had been dreaming for years. I would love to come back here and spend more time in the valley. We also walked through the touristy part of the gorge surrounded by rug and souvenir vendors, which made for vivid scenery.
We then drove through the Dades valley where we saw some interesting rock formations called the “monkey toes.” We also drove down the winding road (a.k.a. “Cadillac road” where a commercial was filmed recently) before stopping at our home for the night – Babylon Dades.
Located in the Dades valley, the hotel was a great stop for the night. We were offered tea and cookies as soon as we got in, and also had been upgraded to a nice room. It was well furnished and simple. The balcony looked onto the valley. The toilet was very wobbly and there were some issues with the shower. It wasn’t a big deal though.
We were famished after a long day, and the dinner was supposed to start at 8.30 pm. We headed to the dining room promptly and got a nice table. People started trickling in slowly and after 20 min, the room was full.
The food was OK and the service was slow.
Day 3: Dades to Marrakech via Ouarzazate, Ait benhaddou Kasbah and high Atlas Mountains
The breakfast spread was great and we had a nice filing breakfast before heading off on our tour for the last day.
We drove down the road of one thousand kasbahs and headed to our main stop for the day – Ouarzazate. These stunning kasbahs (think castles) and the gorgeous landscape have been used in several movies and TV shows over the years like Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, and Game of Thrones. We stopped by the main town for a bit and then quickly headed for the star attraction – Aït Benhaddou which is also, not surprisingly, an UNESCO world heritage site. We spent half a day here.
Walking up and down the main castle and around the periphery of this stunning little town is unforgettable. It gets packed with day tours from Marrakech so it was a good idea to leave early and arrive here as soon as possible. We also had lunch at a local spot chosen by Ibrahim which was delicious and filing.
We were now on our way to Marrakech. This 4 hour drive again goes through winding roads and over mountain passes, and we just took in the view and reminisced about the whirl-wind of the last 2 to 3 days.
As you can see there is a lot of driving time so my suggestion is to be prepared. We are pretty quiet, introspective people which initially worried Ibrahim that we’re not happy. He was used to guests having an endless stream of questions, and asking for frequent pit stops. We would chat a little bit after each destination, but during long stretches we’d both become engrossed in an audio book. We assured him that the scenery is simply mesmerizing, and we really love the experience of his beautiful country. I will forever associate this part of Morocco with Walt Disney because I spent a lot of driving time listening to the biography of Disney.
It is so much fun to chat with a local about culture, traditions and language. For instance, we had this fun discussion about how to respond to “thank you” (Shukran) in his language. From my past visits in middle east, I had remembered the response being “Afwan”, but as soon as I would say it, I would get weird looks. I was told it is technically correct but not used colloquially. I didn’t quite understand until Ibrahim expounded:
“It all depends on who is saying thank you,” he said.
“If you help an old lady by giving up your seat, for example, the response is – La shukran alawajib (don’t thank me it’s my duty)
In a formal situation when, let’s say, someone cuts in front of you even if you have the right of way – afwan (almost “you are excused”)
In response to a friend (informal) – merhaba (or you are welcome).”
It all finally made sense! I love getting a deeper insight into different languages and cultures.
We arrived in Marrakech before 5pm. Ibrahim suggested a few places to visit and gave some logistical tips of getting around the city. We arrived at
Le Méridien N’Fis and said goodbye to Ibrahim who had been such a nice friend and guide. He made sure that we were comfortable, and he was always very helpful. We highly recommend Sahara Desert Crew and Ibrahim for your adventure into this part of the world. They were fantastic! They also organize tours in the rest of Morocco. We appreciated that they didn’t stop at any souvenir shops, which is a given when you go on any organized tour. This standard practice takes up valuable time, just to ensure that a guide gets a cut of the souvenir sales. Ibrahim told us that Sahara Desert Crew drivers are paid the best in the country, and it’s their company policy to skip souvenir stands unless requested by a guest. This is especially important because there is a ton to see in 3 short days, and time is of the essence.
We hope the pictures and tour review inspire you to book your trip to Morocco and Sahara Desert! We rate it as a quintessential stop in any Moroccan itinerary.