Last Updated: 2020-07-15
Are you a traveler or a tourist? This question leads to many debates and often aims to position one way of traveling over another, as if in our globalized world the route or how a trip is organized determines its authenticity.
A few days ago I came across my neighbor, a British guy, who’s not been living in Seville for long. He showed me his collection of ceramic tile fragments that he found on the streets of the city. He was able to use these old shards of tile to tell the story of this city in a fascinating way. I’ve lived here for seven years and never given these pieces of tile a second thought. It just goes to show, we’re all tourists of a sort. Even locals don’t know everything about the places where they live.
For one reason or another, it’s a fact that people tend to visit some places more than others. Today we’ll talk about the Erg Chigaga desert, which is considered by many to be a preferable alternative to Erg Chebbi. Let’s find out why.
Erg Chigaga: what it has to offer and where it’s located
The Sahara is the largest hot desert on the planet and has a variety of different landscapes. One of its best known geographic phenomena is ergs, or sand deserts. Two of the biggest in the Moroccan Sahara are Erg Chebbi and Erg Chigaga.
Erg Chigaga has a greater surface area but its dunes are not as tall (62 meters (200 feet) vs. 150 meters (500 feet)). Although, since the dunes gradually get taller this difference in altitude is hardly noticeable, unless you compare panoramic views of both places.
The main difference is accessibility—and therefore the amount of tourist traffic—due to the distance from the closest town: Merzouga in the case of Erg Chebbi, is only a few meters away; M’Hamid, in Erg Chigaga’s case is, 50 km (30 miles) away and the access road is unpaved, so only a 4×4 can reach this area and tour operators don’t usually even consider it.
Along the way
In Morocco, places are as important as the roads that lead to them. If we compare the routes that lead to both ergs from Marrakech, they share the route until they reach Ouarzazate, passing first the Tizi n’Tichka pass and the ksar of Aït Ben Haddou.
From here the path forks, and although both roads take about the same time, the landscape is really different. The path to Erg Chebbi has kasbahs and rocky landscape dotted with palm trees and patches of greenery throughout the journey. The path to Erg Chigaga changes after the halfway point as the landscape slowly becomes increasingly flat and arid.
The road to Erb Chebbi ends in a stark contrast of scenery when you enter, while the route to Erg Chigaga subtly and gradually transforms into the dune landscape.
Arriving at Erg Chigaga
Probably the biggest difference is the distance from civilization. The Dunes of Erg Chebbi are a half-hour camel ride or walk from Merzouga.
Getting to Erg Chigaga is quite different. Once we leave the town of M’Hamid behind, there’s still a two- or three-hour journey ahead of us. It feels like a classic film in three acts:
- In the first act, the exposition, we cross a huge plain scattered with dark stones and hills, also known as the black desert.
- In the second, the rising action, we cross mounds of bushes with sand so fine that the slightest wind lifts it into a ghostly viel that fills the air.
- And in the final act, the climax, a welcoming committee of poisonous plants awaits us at the erg.
It’s a journey that requires some patience, but at the same time is very rewarding, as you can enjoy the suspense of gradually anticipating the destination.
Nearby Places of Interest
The experience of being miles away from any vestige of civilization should be reason enough to make this trip, although you can always check out nearby places of interest, either adapting your route to visit them, or using the erg itself as your starting point and exploring nearby places of interest. Here are some of those places:
With a name that is misleading, this enormous petrified mud plain, that at one time took in the waters of the Draa River, has been dry for more than 20 years. It’s worth going here on the way back. The only signs of life are illusory landscapes in the form of mirages or, occasionally in the rainy season, small pools that attract birds from the area.
Although mostly known for being the closest town, this old caravan crossing is well worth a visit, mainly because of its mud construction. Also noteworthy are the ksars in an advanced state of decomposition on the outskirts of the town.
A former center of education and religion, it’s well known for its characteristic green pottery. Probably the most recommended nearby city, having a library with more than 4,000 manuscripts, a zawiya (religious center) that is an active pilgrimage site and an underground kasbah built to withstand the high temperatures where hundreds of families still live.
This is a strategic place to stay overnight before reaching Erg Chigaga. Inside is the Kasbah Caid Ali, and on the outskirts is Tamnougalt, with two kasbahs, one of the same name and the other called Kasbah des Caids, where many movies have been filmed.
The Sacred Oasis of Oum Lâalag
A few kilometers from Erg Chigaga, there is a 15-hectare oasis, surrounded by an adobe wall, and where water continues to flow and palm trees continue to grow, giving it a sacred quality due to its miraculous proximity to the desert.
For those who can’t resist traveling without taking back a souvenir, this small town is the main producer of Berber carpets in the country. A visit to one of the cooperatives here—with a good dose of patience and haggling—will help you avoid the middleman.
At this point, the options are clear: Erg Chebbi or Erg Chigaga? There is no right answer; either one will be a wise decision, and the choice will depend on what you want out of your trip.
The best option of all is taking advantage of a first trip to Marrakech to visit Erg Chebbi, and planning a second trip with more desert landscapes with Erg Chigaga as the finish line. This is the option for those who fall in love with the unique beauty of Morocco and possibly the only option fair to both ergs.
If you want to know more, visit our page on the Sahara desert.