Merzouga / Erg Chebbi
Last Updated: 2021-04-28
Click Moment: an experience that happens along a journey, whether planned or not, that leaves a lasting impression first on your eyes and then on your heart. After a click moment you’re never the same again.
Travel Dictionary by Maria Luz Bejarano
I find it hard to understand a trip if I don’t experience moments that shake me. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve also enjoyed my holiday at a resort, spending half the time on a sun lounger in front of the pool face up and the other half face down.
But I don’t consider it strictly a journey; because for me it doesn’t just happen on the physical plane; it’s also an experience of the mind.
My travels to Morocco have always stimulated my mind, but my first trip to Merzouga was especially inspiring. Hopefully this article will convince you to give this off-the-beaten-path destination a try. Let’s get started!
Although we usually call it Merzouga, in reality this changing landscape is called Erg Chebbi. Chebbi is the proper name and erg is a type of desert composed completely of sand dunes. The more common type of desert, hard and stony with hardly any sand, is called a hamada.
Undoubtedly, this is the most famous desert of Morocco, and if you can’t tell why from the accompanying photos, check out the numbers: it’s about 30 km (20 miles) long and 8 km (5 miles) wide on average; in addition some dunes can reach up to 150 meters (500 feet) high. Another notable Erg from Morocco, although not as popular, is Erg Chigaga.
Travelers depart for Erg Chebbi from Merzouga and other nearby villages such as Hassi-Labiad, Tanamoust and Takoujt. However, Merzouga has most of the available accomodations, so most people stop off there. Therefore, saying “the dunes of Merzouga” is common but inaccurate (although I even say it myself).
There are several ways to get to Merzouga, the most common being from Marrakech or Fez. It’s an eight hour road trip from Fez and from Marrakech it’s ten hours.
If you decide to take public transport from Fez it will take you one day; a guided trip will take you two. This is not, in my opinion, a disadvantage, because the journey is as important and enjoyable as the destination: adobe cities, kasbahs, palm groves, gorges,… all a visual spectacle to enjoy along the way.
From Marrakech, we usually stop the first night in Dades (stopping before at Aït Ben Haddou) and the second night at a tent camp in Erg Chebbi. The next day, we get up early and return to Marrakech in a single day. Most travellers snooze on the way back, since the night in the tent settlement is normally filled with stargazing and deep conversation and not much sleep. Plus, the return route is practically the same as the route we take to get there, unless you visit Ouarzazate on the way back.
However, there are those who choose to take a more personal and leisurely journey, either in their own 4×4 or with a private tour, visiting Ait Ben Haddou on the way back and staying at one of their kasbahs, this way they can spend an entire morning on the dunes instead of leaving first thing in the morning.
On the journey from Fes the natural scenery is more varied and interesting, crossing the Middle Atlas Mountains, with their evergreen trees and occasionally some snow. Then, as we approach Merzouga the rough landscapes begin to emerge. The main places where we usually stop on this route are Rissani, Ifrane and Midelt.
Where to Stay
Most travellers choose to spend the night in a tent in Erg Chebbi. These tents are simple portable structures usually made of wood, but sometimes metal or masonry and covered in fabric. Since there are so many different types of tents, many travellers are curious what to expect.
With this in mind, here is a list of features that contribute to a different tent experience:
- Construction Quality: there are simple traditional tents or luxury tents which are industrially manufactured and more spacious.
- Location: some are adjacent to an inn, others are at the foot of the dunes.
- Services: some have continuous electricity, others have solar power; some have heating, some don’t (it can get cold in the desert at night).
- Shared Areas: some tents just have a common dining room, some have canopies, others have common toilets. Others have private toilets and showers.
As you might have guessed, these options come at different price points: from 300 dirhams per person per night for a standard tent to 600 for a luxury tent, or even 2000 for a deluxe multi-tent camp with all the trimmings. Of course, feel free to choose the option that best suits you, but I recommend at the bare minimum a traditional tent with a bed frame and mattress and shared toilets. They often just lay a mattress right on the sand, which is not a good option, because it can be bone chillingly cold being that close to the ground at night.
Another option is staying at one of the inns located in one of the cities that surround Erg Chebbi. This option is more comfortable and affordable but not as adventurous of course. If you plan to spend several days in the desert I recommend spending your first night in a tent and the rest of your time in an inn. Although sleeping in a tent is a wonderfully authentic experience, it’s not exactly comfortable, so if you spend several days in a tent you’ll start to feel it, believe me.
What to do in Merzouga
The best thing to do at Erg Chebbi is simply to relax and enjoy the immensity of the desert. But for travelers who like having a packed schedule, here is a list of activities you can plan:
Traveling over the dunes
There are multiple ways to travel over the dunes. In my case, there are two options I enjoy the most.
- 4×4: Flying over the dunes is great for adrenaline junkies like me.
- Quads (ATVs): a caravan of riders follows a guide. If you worry you might fall, don’t. It’s impossible to fall, I assure you.
You don’t need a vehicle to feel the emotion of the desert. Even if you do not have a board designed for it, in all likelihood one of the inns in Merzouga can provide you with one, either for a price or free if you have contracted some other service with them, for example.
Nearly everyone goes to the tent camp via camel caravan. Many people have misgivings in the beginning, since the camels are huge and climbing up on them requires some skill, but after the first 10 minutes the tension disappears and you can enjoy the rest of the ride.
I recommend wearing baggy, comfortable pants specifically for the camel ride, because you probably don’t want to smell camel for the rest of the trip (no worries, just bring a plastic bag to keep them until you can wash them when you get home).
The desert has its peculiar and varied fauna, from insects to foxes. Even if the explorer spirit does not run through your veins, you can at least try to deduce what animals the footprints and burrows you find belong to.
Sunset and Sunrise
At Erg Chebbi the landscape doesn’t just change in form, but also in color: at dawn the sand turns reddish, and as the sun rises, it becomes more yellow. So, from moment to moment you can enjoy a unique scene of desert beauty.
Nightlife around the Campfire
During the day the landscapes of Erg Chebbi are like living artwork, but it doesn’t end there. When the sun sets, there’s nothing left but the most absolute blackness, the coldness of the sand and the star-filled sky. Enjoy it around a campfire with your traveling companions and the gentle sounds of live Moroccan music.
Learning about another Culture
I always say Morocco’s greatest asset is its people. The desert people with their unique worldview and their special sense of the passing of time are especially interesting. I don’t know if maybe the harsh environment teaches them to be so wise and easy-going, but I assure you that if you pay attention to them, you can learn some great life lessons.
What to see in and around Merzouga
Erg Chebbi is not only an important destination in and of itself, but also a strategic base for exploring several nearby places of interest. As previously mentioned, from the second night it’s best to stay in accommodations in Merzouga. This way you can explore the terrain while being well-rested.
It’s fascinating to see how there are those who decide to live in the desert with some livestock for sustenance, living in one or two tents with a small adobe room to cook and preserve food; although, as they will tell you that their home is much larger than ours, since the sky is their roof. You should not be afraid to approach them: most likely they’ll gladly accept your presence and treat you to a delicious cup of tea.
Sub-Saharan Africans are an integral part of the Moroccan people, especially as we head southward. This is because their ancestors were brought as slaves from Central and West Africa.
After their emancipation and a period of nomadism, they ended up forming settlements. This is how Khamlia was founded, a town that I strongly recommend visiting and where Gnawa music is omnipresent with influences, as you may have guessed, both from traditional Arab music and from African percussion.
Dayet Srij Lake and Yasmina Lake
Dayet Srji Lake is located in the southwest and it is only possible to appreciate it in rainy seasons (otherwise it’s more like a swamp), but it is especially recommended in June and September, as it receives many migratory birds, including pink flamingos.
Another lake with similar characteristics is the Yasmina lake, located to the north and that although it is somewhat smaller, its location at the foot of the dunes offers at the same time two apparently contradictory manifestations of nature.
Orion City, the Stairway to Heaven and the Golden Spiral
For those passionate about architecture and art in natural areas (commonly known as Land Art), located on the Marha plateau, there are three objects (or sculptures, depending on how you look at it) that, at the same time, impact the terrain but seem to belong to it.
Erfoud and the Fossils
One of Erfoud’s main attractions is the extraction and polishing of fossils from nearby quarries (if you like adventure you can go hunting for fossils scattered between the outskirts of the city and Erg Chebbi).
The visit to the craft workshop begins with an explanation and a glimpse of the polishing process that turns the stones into the most varied objects (figures, plates, sinks…) and then they take you to the store and hope you make a purchase.
The Kohl Mines of M’Fis
These mines were opened by the French to extract mainly lead and zinc. Although practically abandoned, it is not difficult to imagine the harsh conditions that the workers were subjected to due to the high temperatures and the more than 40 meter (130 feet) depth of the shafts.
Its name derives from the fact that kohl, a cosmetic used by most Moroccan women as eyeshadow, is blackish and has lead sulfide as its main component, although the nature of this place has little to do with this product.
If you are in Erg Chebbi on Tuesday, Thursday or Sunday, you have to check out the Rissani Market. These are the days when the most authentic and lively market in the area takes place. If your tastes are as particular as mine, you’ll definitely need to get a picture of the donkey parking lot, as this is the means of transportation for most of the merchants who attend the event.
Taouz. Necropolis and Cave Drawings
On the outskirts of Taouz there is a series of prehistoric dwellings formed by vertical flagstones with a small door and a window being the only openings to the exterior. Nearby there are also testimonies from another era in the form of rock engravings, with hunting as the main motif.
The difference between Zagora and Merzouga
I want to finish this post talking about a Plan B for if you don’t have time to go to Merzouga from Marrakech. I’m talking about Zagora, a town much closer to Marrakech (6 hours away, almost half the time) and that allows you to experience a similar experience as it offers a desert area for travelers with limited time.
However, it’s important to note that it doesn’t have the same bucolic landscape. It’s much more arid and rocky and has lower dunes. Therefore, I recommend it strictly if your time is limited. Once you make the decision, just know that although it’s not as spectacular as Merzouga, Zagora still allows you to experience two of the main characteristics: the beauty of the journey and the magical night under the stars with your travel companions.
Although they probably converge into a third peculiarity: you get an experience that marks you for life. The first time I saw the sunrise in the Merzouga desert, a thought invaded my mind: “Did it really take me more than 20 years to see something so breathtaking?”
I also went during the holidays when logic and tradition dictate that you should stay with your family. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. On that day, I decided to give my body and soul to Morocco.
If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be this: if you hesitate between making the same decision as always or a different and more risky option, get out of your comfort zone and opt for the second one. It’s probably the best way to spend your time and cultivate your mind. Much love to all and see you in the next article!
If you want to know more, visit our page on the Sahara.