Rabat - It is not every day that one finds themselves sitting between the two humps of a camel, looking out at the afternoon sun setting over miles of powdery-soft sand dunes, following a beaten path toward a campsite in the middle of the Sahara Desert.
Rabat – It is not every day that one finds themselves sitting between the two humps of a camel, looking out at the afternoon sun setting over miles of powdery-soft sand dunes, following a beaten path toward a campsite in the middle of the Sahara Desert.
But for adventurous travelers visiting Morocco, a camel trek to the Zagora or Merzouga desert regions of the Sahara desert brings that very scene, plus much more.
The decision between Zagora and Merzouga is a choice based on many factors, two of these being the amount of travel time and money available. While the trip to Zagora is typically two days and one night in the Berber tents of the Sahara Desert, the slightly more expensive trip to Merzouga is three days and two nights, with one of these spent in the desert and the other in a hotel room. Regardless of your decision, the trip is sure to be unforgettable.
Popular for its “Timbuktu 52” sign indicating the amount of days it would take to get to the town in Mali on foot or camel, Zagora is located about five hours southeast from Marrakech. The best way to go about traveling to Zagora is to book an excursion online with a partner hostel.
For about 600 dirhams or €55/$61, a Zagora desert excursion may include transportation to and from the desert, two camel treks, dinner at the campsite, a bed in a Berber tent, and breakfast. Prices and accommodation will differ from hostel to hostel, so be sure to research extensively before you book your excursion.
Once you have your excursion booked, backpack stuffed with comfortable and cool clothes—temperatures reach 43? C/109? F on a typical afternoon in the desert—the real fun starts.
The 6:30 am wake-up call is welcomed by the aroma of fresh bread, tea, and coffee brewing in the kitchen of the hostel, where fellow camel-trekkers gather to meet each other before embarking on the long bus ride that awaits them. The bus ride to Zagora can be anywhere from 5 to 11 hours depending on how many stops are made. Excursions typically stop every few hours at a picturesque mountain overview, cafe, or restaurant for a bathroom break, so prepare to be sitting on a moving vehicle for the majority of the first day of traveling.
Although the bus ride is long, it is a necessary component of the desert experience. Hours in a bus full of friends or strangers moving through winding mountain roads away from the busy city of Marrakech and all of its charming fervor, lulled by the sound of rocks and pebbles being swept away under the rubber tires and nothing else is exactly what a traveler needs to clear their mind in preparation for the stunning experience that awaits them in the middle of the vast Sahara. Plus, the scenic route from Marrakech to Zagora is mesmerizing.
A few hours into the bus ride toward Zagora, the excursion groups will make a stop in the ancient Berber city of Ouarzazate, home to Morocco’s famous film set, the Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou. Films such as Lawrence of Arabia, Kingdom of Heaven, The Mummy, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Gladiator were filmed at this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most recently, the popular TV show Game of Thrones was filmed on the ksar. With the help of a tour guide, visitors will be led up the walled ksar, where they will come across booths of artists painting with tea and indigo and shops filled with unique Berber jewelry and clothing. Once the tour reaches the top of the ksar, the view is unlike any other.
From here, the group will be led to a restaurant overlooking the ksar. Lunch options range from couscous to chicken brochettes, all with a side of salad or soup and fruit for dessert.
Be aware of what exactly is included in your package; many low-cost excursions fail to mention that for stops like these, you must pay an additional entrance or tour guide fee of about 20 dirhams (about $2/ €1.8) and purchase your own lunch, even if dinner is included later in the day, so bringing some extra cash if needed would be beneficial.
The groups will return to their busses after lunch, and the journey to the Sahara will continue for a few more hours, with stops here and there for bathroom and snack breaks.
The next full stop will be at the proclaimed “Gate to the Sahara,” where locals sell and wrap headscarves recommended for those trekking to the desert via camel to combat the extreme heat for 50MAD/5USD/4.6EUR. The headscarves also shield the eyes from sand once the sun goes down and the evening gets cool and windy.
A short bus ride will drop travelers off at the camel site, where they will climb on to the sitting camels and prepare for their journey into the dunes, away from the noise and bright lights of the city.
Depending on your balance skills, your ride on the camel may be a quite comical one. These gangly giants have a tendency to wobble and run in quick bursts, which can make for plenty of laughs among the group. Camels are gentle and patient, however, so you may also be nuzzled softly by your new travel companion. Domesticated, camels live for up to 50 years, so it is more than likely that your camel has been working with the agency for many years and has a known name, age, and personality.
The trek into the Sahara will be bumpy, but relaxing. After sitting in a hot bus for over six hours, the image of the vast, unknown land in front of you will cleanse your mind of the worries and stress of your ordinary life. Be sure to snap some pictures, but also take a few moments to distance yourself from technology and take some mental photographs instead—these will be the memories that will last you a lifetime.
Arrival at the Berber camp will occur right before sundown, giving travelers just enough time to settle into their tents and come together in the center of the campsite for much needed relaxation, socializing, and stretching, before the sun tucks away behind the horizon and millions of stars emerge.
In this communal area, the energy among the campers dies down into a haze of relaxation and reflection, although it is hard to keep from dancing once the Berber locals initiate their first drum circle. The beating of the drum awakens the sleeping campers, and like ants they trickle in from their tents to join the party.
After the drum circle and a hearty dinner of tajine, harira, and fruit, the campers are free to roam the dunes and stargaze under the active starry night sky, known as “Berber Television” by the jokester locals that accompany travelers during their stay. This nickname is fitting; the night sky can provide hours of entertainment with its flickering stars, constellations, and the inevitable conversations that come from feeling so small under nature’s massive blanket.
Some travelers opt to sleep outside of their tents, wrapped in wool blankets for protection against the cold air and sand which can be harsh on the eyes during windy nights. The tents are warm and cozy for those less on board with sleeping outside.
In the morning, the sun rises at around 6:30 am in soft hues of yellow and orange as the campers once again trickle out of their tents to clear skies and a light Moroccan breakfast. The campsite provides a bathroom and sinks for those who want to refresh their sleepy faces and brush their teeth before embarking on the camel trek back to the bus. The rested camels yawn and stretch like their human companions, and soon the morning trek is underway.
Remember to tip the generous Berber locals that led your camel through the desert and accompanied the group throughout their stay—many of them go days without sleeping to make sure that the desert stays are safe and comfortable for visitors. The trip would not be complete without their humble hospitality and extensive knowledge about the history of the original nomads that traveled through the Sahara on camels centuries ago. Strike up conversation with them—you just might learn something new.
The bus ride back to Marrakech is much less interrupted than the ride to the desert, with only a few stops for lunch and an optional trip to other Ourzazate film studios (at an extra cost). The bumpy ride is helpful in reflecting on the past few days and for preparing oneself for a swift return into normal life, which will undoubtedly never be the same after experiencing the magic of the Sahara.
Photos credit: Natalia Correa
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