Last Updated: 2020-07-17
At the tender age of five, I set up a makeshift camp inside my home. At 16, I set up my tent in a friend’s yard for a sleepover. The summer I turned 20, I used it again when I went to a music festival. Just before I turned 30, I enjoyed for the first time the experience of sleeping in the desert in Morocco.
Despite the fact that the circumstances and limitations of each experience are very different, I can’t help but think that there’s a common thread; that, in a way, all of these are experiences full of excitement that allow us to connect with that little person inside us who enjoys small adventures.
When I spend the night in a tent among the dunes of the Sahara, I go right back to being that excited little girl, with those four chairs and two blankets as a ceiling in the middle of the room. Despite its apparent simplicity, this experience often provokes numerous doubts that I hope to resolve in this article. Let’s get started!
Which Desert to Choose
It’s usually the first question that we ask, and probably the one that we need to answer first, since each desert is located in very different locations, and it’s very important to know how long we’ll be on the road to plan our trip.
To address this issue, we’ll divide the different deserts into two large groups: those that are part of the Sahara and those that are not.
Erg Chebbi and Erg Chegaga
In the Moroccan Sahara, there are two main deserts: Erg Chebbi and Erg Chegaga. They consist, in a nutshell, of sand dunes. If you’re looking for a varied landscape of great mountains and rugged, natural beauty, this is your place.
Any endeavor requires some sacrifice and you’ll have to spend a considerable amount of time on the road. Don’t let the mileage fool you: despite the fact that it’s 330 miles (550 km) from Marrakech to Erg Chebbi and 180 miles (300 km) to Erg Chegaga, in both cases it’s at least an 8-hour drive. The road time is similar despite the distance, because the road to Erg Chegaga is in worse condition and you have to go off-road for two hours in the desert.
If you leave from Fez, both to Erg Chebbi and Erg Chegaga the distance is similar, just under 300 miles (500 km), or about 7 hours of driving.
From Marrakech, it’s customary to spend two days on the way to the desert and one day back. From Fez, it’s typical to spend one day going and one day coming back. We usually only make necessary stops, otherwise we risk reaching the desert after dark. Despite this, it’s surprisingly enjoyable, thanks to the spectacular and varied landscapes along the way.
Many groups of first-time visitors choose Erg Chebbi, the typical desert with large reddish dunes. The road less traveled is Erg Chegaga, with lower dunes and a slight touch of brown. This option involves arranging your own transportation, but you get a somewhat more authentic experience. Many second-time visitors give Erg Chegaga a try.
It never hurts to spend a little more specific reading time on each one. In this article, I talk about Erg Chebbi, and this is my partner Rafael’s article about the Erg Chigaga desert. We also describe in more detail how to get there, the landscapes along the way, etc.
Zagora and Agafay
If you’re staying in Marrakech and your time is limited you can also check out the Agafay desert, on the outskirts of Marrakech (1 hour drive) and the Zagora desert, 210 miles (350 km) or about 6 hours by car.
These deserts, I must clarify, are rugged and rocky with hardly any dunes and, without a doubt, less photogenic. I’d like to emphasize this point because it often happens that a clever salesman uses images of Erg Chebbi to sell a trip to Zagora or Agafay. Here are pictures of both:
But you shouldn’t discard these options outright, as they are perfectly valid and even necessary if your time is short. In addition, I assure you that you will still enjoy an unforgettable night together with your travel companions.
Since these two deserts are similar, to choose one of the two you should take into account your time and budget. There are group tours to Zagora but not for Agafay. The camps at Agafay are also usually more luxurious, since this is a typical option for families who want to provide their children with this experience without subjecting them to long hours on the road.
From now on, I’ll focus on Erg Chebbi and Erg Chigaga, although I’ll make sure to make the necessary notes so that the main idea can be used for Zagora and Agafay as well.
When to Travel to the Desert
Once you have a rough idea of your itinerary and how many days your trip is going to be, the next decision, while you compulsively look at the multiple flight options, is when to go. If you have some scheduling flexibility, knowing the weather will help you decide.
Regardless of the season, there’s a huge temperature difference between the day and night. The two most particular seasons are summer, with very hot days but pleasant nights and winter, with pleasant days but very cold nights.
My recommendation is to visit the desert in spring or autumn. Even the summer is an option since we’ll be arriving in the Sahara at sunset and leave shortly after dawn and won’t have to face the heat of midday.
Curiously, winter is the most requested season, since it’s when most travelers have vacations and dream of finishing the year in a unique way. If that’s your case, you shouldn’t worry more than necessary, simply take some precautions which I’ll mention at the end of the article.
If you want to go deeper, check out our page about the climate in the Sahara. If you choose Zagora or Agafay you won’t have to take as many precautions, because they have an inland climate, similar to Marrakech.
Spending the Night in a Tent
In the desert we usually stay in tents like those traditionally used by nomads. They have a simple structure, usually made of wood or masonry, that is covered with fabrics and rugs.
Despite its humble origin, the nomad tent has adapted well to the tourism industry, and today there are a wide range of options at every price point. There are four characteristics that you should take into consideration before deciding on one: construction materials, location, services and layout.
We can divide them into traditional tents with a wooden structure and leather and carpet coverings, and luxury tents, with a metal structure and covered with higher quality or synthetic textile materials. The standard ones are smaller, usually with space for a bed and little else, while others even have a full bathroom inside and, sometimes, even air conditioning.
In the case of Erg Chigaga the camp will be at the foot of the dunes, but in Erg Chebbi it may also be adjacent to an inn. In the second case, the inn will provide different services (electricity, showers with hot water, a lounge, Wifi, etc.) while in the first case, the camp will have to be self-sufficient for everything, although the experience will be much more immersive.
There is a matter that I would like to emphasize: I said “at the foot of the dunes” and not “among the dunes”, since for some time now the camps have been restricted to certain areas to prevent damage to these ergs, which caused many to close and others to relocate. There’s no doubt that it’s a pleasure to have breakfast surrounded by mountains of sand, but I understand and agree with the decision made.
Some camps don’t have any type of energy source. Some get their electricity from a neighboring shelter or through buried cables from a distant transformer. The most common is solar panels that provide light and hot water. It’s unusual to have heating, although they will always provide you with all the blankets you need. Sometimes they have a gas stove and in the most luxurious cases even air conditioning. In any case, they will always provide you with dinner and breakfast.
All the camps have a central area with carpets on the ground, as well as a larger tent for dinner and breakfast. Usually they also have a canopy and common toilet and bathroom areas, although sometimes they even have toilets and a bathroom inside the tent itself.
As expected, with a variety of options comes a wide range of prices, 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 bells and whistles. 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 at night.
If we talk about Zagora and Agafay, the question is polarized: in the first, most of the tents camps are standard, of similar price, while in the second they are usually luxurious, with prices starting from 800 dirhams per person per night.
In Erg Chebbi, another option is staying at one of the inns located in one of the surrounding cities, mainly Merzouga. 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 probably wish you listened to my advice.
Arriving to the Desert
Except in the case of Erg Chigaga, where a gradual change occurs until we take the 4x4s off-road on the way to our ultimate desert destination, it’s impossible to keep on driving. In the other deserts we experience the drastic change from the villages and town to the vast expanses of sand of the Sahara. It depends on each case, but there are approximately between 1 and 4 miles (2-6 km) from the road to the tent camp.
At that time, we switch to the noblest means of transportation of the nomads and a faithful traveling companion, that is, a camel. It’s a way of travel that, although recommendable and immersive (I cannot think of a more proper way of touring the desert) usually makes a certain impression.
A trainer will keep an eye on us and assign a camel to everyone, depending on our size and the age and strength of the animal. He’ll make it get down on its knees and let us get on. Then it’ll raise its front legs and while we lean slightly forward. Then, he’ll raise his rear, to which we’ll respond by leaning back.
The fact that taking a ride on the back of a camel usually causes some slight misgivings is no coincidence: after all, there is a distance of between 5 and 7 feet (1.5 and 2 meters) from where we sit down to the ground. However, after the first 10 minutes we’ll feel in control and enjoy the spectacular view from the height of the dunes.
In any case, there are alternatives, such as getting to the camp in a 4×4 (for which we’ll probably have to pay extra) or, simply, walking alongside the camel. It’ll be an experience somewhat similar to a walk on the beach, although the terrain is more rugged and the sand is finer, so that your feet will sink more.
Sunset to Sunrise: A Night in the Desert
Once we arrive at the camp we’ll focus on getting settled. With the excitement in the air, the afternoon will give way to the night without us hardly realizing it. The next day we’ll have the opportunity to admire the sunrise, which will be even more spectacular.
Despite the fact that some people paint it like a great party that lasts until the wee hours of the morning, a night in the desert reflects the simplicity of our surroundings. A Berber dinner, impromptu music around a bonfire and conversation with other travelers are the only three necessary elements.
Dinner, which will start at sundown, usually consists of harira, tajin and fruit served in a larger common tent. Then we’ll enjoy a bonfire in the center of the camp enlivened with drums and chants. At midnight, some choose to go to their tent to sleep. Others choose to stroll around the camp in the pitch black of the night or lie on the cool sand while looking at the starry sky and chatting with travel companions.
This intimate experience among the 15 or so travelers who share the camp lasts at least until midnight, sometimes as late as 1:30 in the morning. It’s nothing like the party that it’s sometimes made out to be. You’ll see that not only do we not need that kind of rowdiness to enjoy a night in the desert, but that it would even take away from the experience.
Sunrise in the Sahara
Although the atmosphere at night is magical, I’d dare say that the dawn is even more so. Nowhere else have I felt the sun draw and paint the landscape. Unfortunately, it has two downsides: getting up very early to see the sunrise (between 6:00 and 7:30) and hiking up to the highest dune to get the best vantage point.
There are two types of people: morning people and non-morning people. In my case, I eat breakfast in absolute silence and I need at least an hour to get used to the fact that a new day has begun. So the idea of getting up very early and, without even having breakfast, climbing dunes and more dunes while I sink deeper and deeper into the desert sand, is not something that exactly appeals to me.
Despite this, I’ve never been to the desert without drawing strength from weakness. Contemplating how the mountains of sand, gradually and subtly, turn reddish, should be top priority for every traveler.
After that we’ll have breakfast and, with luck, we’ll be able to enjoy a comforting shower, either because the camp has them or even, in the case of Merzouga, because we’ll go to an inn where we can do it.
Later we’ll return to the vehicle to continue the route and check which of our traveling companions snores because, being honest, there are very few people who don’t take advantage of the return trip to catch up on some sleep.
My mom always said, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. So, I’ll provide you with a series of recommendations to cope with ease in this magical but inhospitable space:
Only take a backpack: Ideally you add a backpack to the travel suitcase that you normally use where you’ll keep a change of clothes and a few other items that you consider essential. Doing this you’ll have more room in your tent, and you won’t have to drag a suitcase through the middle of the desert.
Include a warm hat in your luggage: temperatures drop a lot at night, which added to the humidity will make it advisable to cover the one part of our body that our blanket can’t, or you risk getting up with a considerable headache .
It’s also recommended to bring a cap and a scarf: the cap will help you avoid sunstroke if you spend a lot of time outdoors during the day, and the scarf will protect your face from any sandstorms that may come your way when you ride a camel.
Wear good footwear, if possible boots, because the sand is so soft that our feet sink in and it easily gets into our footwear. So, wear thick socks and robust, wide-soled footwear, covering well above the ankle, to avoid chafing and other discomfort.
It’s a good idea to bring some food and water: although breakfast and dinner will be provided, you’ll probably need an additional bottle of water for the rest of the day, and you may also need something to snack on.
If you want to liven up the evening, I recommend bringing alcohol. Upon arrival, bury the bottle in the sand so it’s cool when you open it.
Take a powerbank, although there won’t be any internet (unless the camp is next to an inn), you’ll want to take photos and videos with your mobile phone and/or camera during the night and the next day, and, since energy is limited, managers will most likely cut the electricity at night.
Finally, if you use contact lenses, I advise you to put them away and wear glasses instead. As careful as you may be, it’s quite likely that some fine sand will end up in your eyes, which would be very annoying.
And with these recommendations we finish the article. I hope it’s been useful to you and that you listen to your inner person who wants to go on a new adventure. Much love to all!
If you want to know more, visit our page on the Sahara desert.