The Sahara desert is a premier travel experience in Morocco – but be warned. Before you go booking anything, you should know the facts. I want to share why you should NOT book a Merzouga tour.
That’s right. DON’T DO IT!
I have to admit. Lindsay and I were dumbfounded by some of the amazing photos we saw online, and the stories people were sharing. The massive dunes, quirky camel caravans, and a night under the desert sky had us clamoring for what we thought would be our most incredible adventure yet.
The Sahara desert was everything we could have hoped for, but the tour was, well, too touristy!
We took the popular 3 days/ 2 night desert tour from Marrakech to Merzouga. To make sure you know what to expect, we will share the details of the tour, reasons why we were left disappointed, and lessons from our experiences so you can have the desert trip you were dreaming of.
3 Day / 2 Night Tour Lite
We paid 800Dr for the tour ($110 CAD) by haggling with shopkeepers in Marrakech. The operator makes NO difference as they usually pool clients together. There is no need to reserve in advance.
Leaving early on your first morning, your group of 14-16 people will set off for the High Atlas mountains in your small tour van.
The first tour stop after crossing the Atlas mountains is Ait Ben Haddou, which is a historic Berber village. Included is a one hour tour along with a stop for lunch.
Load back up in the van to continue to the Dades Gorges, where you will spend your first night. Unfortunately, there is not much time to get out and experience the beautiful landscape.
Rise early the second morning, and stop by the Todra Gorge for a short tour through a village and the canyon itself. Snap a couple of photos, and file back into the van to reach your final destination.
You will reach Merzouga late in the afternoon, and quickly straddle onto your camels to embark into the desert. With good timing the sun will be primed to set just as you arrive to your camp. Enjoy a spectacular night underneath the stars while listening to the berber guides sing and drum around the campfire.
To our surprise, we were woken up WAY before sunrise to ride our camels back into the town of Merzouga to begin the long ride back to Marrakech. You will also have the option to take a grossly overpriced shared taxi to Fez, or get dropped off in Erfoud to catch a bus.
The Tourist Trail
I feel stupid for not seeing this at first, but this tour is by definition a tourist trap. It was like being mezmorized by a snake cahrmer as the tour operators flipped through one jaw-dropping photo to the next. The kitchy scrapbook of glossy photos should have been a dead giveaway if the hundreds of tour operators prowling the streets were not already! We thought the low price we haggled for was a steal! But then we saw how they make their money….
Hundreds of travelers are doing the same thing as you on any given day. Our van was packed to the rafters with people and we left with a fleet of other tours behind us.
I know what you are thinking, and yes, it is terrifying.
For our Ait Ben Haddou tour we were parked beside 10 other tour buses. The village was flooded, and it was difficult to enjoy the historic site as anything but a tourist trap. It does not help that at the end of the tour all travelers are herded to the same, over expensive restaurant serving average food.
There is no escaping from it. Leaving behind your tour group to explore on your own won’t do you any better.
The biggest tragedy of all, and what is simply is the reality of over-expanding tourism, is the exploitation of the Merzouga desert. Your private camp is one of the dozens dotted around the landscape. Off in the distance there will be more camel caravans with more tourists exploring the same space. The magic o the Sahara desert is lost amongst the crowd.
The whole trip was a big tease! We decided to go with one tour operator because he promised us a relaxing trip with plenty of time to enjoy the beautiful scenery. He struck the right chords, but these were just empty promises to get the final sale.
We were told there would be plenty of time to enjoy each of the destinations visited along the way. Not true. Ait Ben Haddou is a 2 hour stopover (mostly for lunch), but everything else waters down to a simple photo stop. Our group even decided to skip the film studio tour in Ouarzazate (more uncanny valley then Hollywood) thinking it may save some extra time! It didn’t. Your “time to enjoy the scenery” will be what you see from the car window.
One ridiculous scam had to ruin the desert as well! Maybe the biggest draw to the desert is to witness the spectacular sunrise and sunset. Not only did we barely make it to camp in time for sunset, but we were given an “option” for the sunrise.
OPTION! I thought this was included!
The option was to pay an extra 100DR for a 4×4 tour to the top of the dunes for a sunrise vista. Otherwise, the default option was to wake up and ride camels at 5 a.m. to get back to town in time. While you are riding out the sunrise comes up behind you.
Looking at the big picture it’s a small fee for a fun side trip, but to be led along by so many broken promises left a bad taste in my mouth. Just be prepared for tons of tiny nuisances. From the godly uncomfortable transport vehicles, the photo booth tours, and little regard for you except your money.
Safe to say the last thing I would recommend is a 3 day Merzouga tour, especially when you consider these other options.
Skip the Desert!
Sounds crazy, right!? You may have more fun doing this anyways. Maybe you don’t have to miss out on the desert entirely, but you could use the extra days to surf in Essaouira instead!
Take a night bus to Merzouga
Book your trip in town or beforehand. This way spend multiple nights in the desert while giving you time to travel deeper than the crowds will follow.
Why not DIY?
If the Dades Gorge, Ait Ben Haddou, or other points of interest are a must, do yourself a favour and make your own tour of it. Taking buses and shared taxis are possible between towns like Ouarzazate, Skoura, and Dades. Just know you will have to run on their schedule as there may be only one departure a day.
If you have 5 to 6 days for the journey this can be a rewarding, off-the-beaten-path experience. All I wished for was a little more time to explore each destination, and to do it with not so many tourists around. If you are interested, Roaming Around the World has a great guide for a DIY Merzouga tour.
Check out Zagora instead
If I could do it all over again, I may opt to check out the Erg Chegaga desert near Zagora. Not as convenient, but the rugged adventure to get there means there are far fewer tours. There is a better chance you will find serenity and the isolated desert experience you are looking for here.
The Merzouga Desert is nothing but a mirage. What you see from photos and hear from other testimonials will vanish before your eyes.
There are so many reasons for why you should NOT book a 3-day Merzouga tour. I am writing this post not to scare you, but to let you know what to expect. A Merzouga tour may be just great for you if you’re short on time! However, if your goal is to have an off-the-beaten path adventure, or to thoroughly enjoy Morocco’s natural wonders, a tour is not right for you.
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Thank you for sticking around and reading our post. If you have done a desert tour yourself and loved it, we want to hear that too! For more stories and photos from our adventures make sure you check out our Instagram and Facebook pages @brightintheworld