How to Book a Moroccan Desert Tour
There are 1 million companies that offer the desert tour. You can either book in advance or through your riad in Marrakech or Fes. You also have a group or private tour option. Through your riad, the price is around 195 Euro for 3 nights and 4 days in the desert for a group tour. You’re on a bus, and they do the usual stops. If you book in advance, you can arrange a private tour through a company but they all basically have the same itinerary. The pricing depends on the number of days and number of people. For a 3-night, 4-day tour of the desert, the prices start at around 350 Euro and go up to 650 Euro depending on your accommodations, number of people, and how much your driver wants to rip you off. I paid $370 USD/person for a 2-person private tour.
If you are a vegetarian, this trip will be a little difficult. You’ll need to remind your tour guide constantly that you need special dishes and they won’t always be able to accommodate you. If you’re a vegan, just don’t come. Kidding! But bring your own meals just in case.
What’s included in your Desert Tour
Listed below is your typical 3-night, 4-day itinerary:
Day 1: Pick up in Marrakech – High Atlas – Ait Ben Haddou – Ouarzazate
Day 2: Ouarzazate – Dades Valley – Todra Gorges – Erfoud – Merzouga
Day 3: Merzouga Dunes Camel Excursion in Erg Chebbi
Day 4: Erg Chebbi – Ziz Valley – Midelt – Azrou – Ifrane – Fes
You can also do this itinerary in the reverse from Fes to Marrakech and shorten and elongate it as you wish. Usually what’s included is a car with a private driver, gasoline, hotel overnight stays (breakfast & dinner), turban, sand boarding, camel trekking and night in a tent in the desert.
Day 1 Do’s & Don’ts: Breakfast apparently is not included on this first day, you’re supposed to eat at your own riad from the night before, which is impossible since the tour starts at 8AM. But I made my guide pay for mine since he didn’t specify that.
The High Atlas Mountains are mountains…not as dramatic as the Alps, if you’ve been. The snow is minimal, you couldn’t ski it or anything. There are places you can bootleg toboggan, though.
Ait Ben Haddou is the only thing worth seeing this day, in my opinion.
It was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987 and is marked as being important because it used to be something like a toll back in the day when slaves and salt were being traded across Africa to the Mediterranean, and people had to pass through this city. The entire structure is made of clay and hay, and it’s amazing it hasn’t crumbled yet. The towers represent how many wives a clan leader had. The structure itself is great, but the merchants along the way selling shit are annoying and most of it is fake.
The only cool thing was the demonstration of saffron art in which they mix the saffron with tea and do a painting, but in order for the painting to show, they have to burn it. They said this is how they used to send secret messages during war.
Ouarzazate is the Hollywood of Africa in that every movie that has a desert scene was filmed here. Don’t go to the museum. It lasts 10 minutes max and I want my $3 and 10 minutes of my life back. Talk about a tourist trap.
Day 2 Do’s and Don’ts: Before reaching the Dades Valley you pass through the Valley of the Roses. Every second week of May there is a rose festival in which 1 of 12 girls gets chosen to be Queen of the Roses where she is responsible for quality control of the roses for the entire year. Your guide is bound to stop at one of the many stores selling rose scented products. Don’t be freaked out if they Klaa Meguomi your ass. Which means someone is going to come and mace you without warning with rose water. Then when you go to wipe it off of your eyes, they yell DON’T TOUCH IT! It’s better if the rose water dries on your skin, it’s a natural cleanser.
The Dades Valley is a region full of date trees against the terracotta walls. It’s quite stunning.
The last place on this day is Todra Gorges, which is COOL. My travel partner was just like, “it’s a rock.” But I felt like I was in Lord or the Rings or some shit. The passage between two massive rocks is the only passage connecting Morocco to the desert. If these rocks collapse, there won’t be a way through. However, this will take you only 5 minutes to pass by and is definitely tourist trap-py. But I feel like it’s a rock climbers dream.
The other best thing about this experience is this is where the carpets that you see in Marrakech and other medinas are made. I would advise you to buy your carpets here since the carpets haven’t been passed by so many hands yet and are therefore much cheaper (after negotiation).
Every medina is going to tell you about the women who weave these Berber carpets, but I refused to buy one until I saw the woman actually weaving the carpet. This is where you’ll find them, although you are still doing business through a man because he is translating for her. But best believe boss lady is doing all the business here, and as a feminist, I like that shit. See How Not To Shop In Morocco Like A Basic Bitch for more details regarding carpet buying.
You’ll continue onto Merzouga where the landscape changes from volcanic rock to an ocean of sand dunes. You can check into a hotel or do the night in a Berber tent, which needs its own section to explain what exactly to expect.
A December Night In The Desert Do’s and Don’ts
Point blank, the tent is a romanticized experience. It is not nearly as romantic as people make it out to be. First, make sure you shower before coming out here. There are actually showers and flushing toilets in the camp, which I wasn’t expecting, but it’s so fucking cold at night you won’t want to go near water. Also, don’t expect a bath towel to be provided, bring your own.
Second, you’ll arrive in Merzouga at sunset and then you can either do a 4-wheel drive car tour through the sand dunes or take a camel caravan and watch the sun turn the dunes pink.
The 4-wheel drive through the sand dune was actually the most romantic experience on this trip and I would recommend it to anyone. I dream about doing it again someday (not in Morocco, though, as the Sahara Desert spans Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan, and Tunisia, also).
Third, after you arrive at the camp, they serve dinner in a larger communal tent, then start the Berber festivities which include sitting by a campfire, singing Berber songs with drumming and smoking shisha.
The next morning a man will come to your tent clapping to wake you up at around 630 to watch the sunrise. And then he’ll come back around clapping for breakfast. You can either take camels or a car back to civilization.
The tents are made of not so thick tapestry and there are two people to one section and there are two sections within a tent. So you can whisper to the couple on the other side of the tapestry and be like, “Are you guys still awake?” as you shiver in the cold together. Also, the tents are so close together, you can hear people snoring from 3 tents away.
The mattresses are hard and made of plastic. They’ll give you 3 or more heavy blankets, but they don’t help. The desert drops to sub zero temperatures and it’s impossible to sleep because 1) you can’t feel your numbed body from the cold and the plastic 2) you have to put your face under the blanket also to keep your nose from getting frostbite so you can’t breathe either. (I do want to mention we did this tour the last day of December so this experience may change with the season.)
During the day the weather is perfect, you can wear shorts. During the night you need seven layers of socks, a scarf, a hat, gloves, your ski jacket, another sweater, and then another one just in case. They say it gets warmer in the summer and so the tent is heavenly at night, but you can’t touch the sand during the day because it’s well over 131 Fahrenheit or 55 Celsius. I guess pick your poison.
But do yourself a favor and just book a hotel in the desert, it’s literally 5 minutes away. You can still do all the tent activities, but just not sleep in the tent. Or splurge and get a luxury tent with a space heater. Worth it. Or just rough it out for one night in your life, but expect not to sleep.
Aside from the tent, the whole desert experience is really cool. You get to meet other travelers from all over the world, smoke shisha under the trillions of stars (we even saw planet Venus!), have some wine, jam out to Berber drums and songs over the campfire, all in the valley of sand dunes and camels nearby. But remember, just book a hotel and participate in all of the experiences except sleeping in that God forsaken tent. It took me 12 hours to de-thaw from that night.
Day 3 Do’s and Don’ts: You’ll be brought to your hotel by camel from the Berber tents and then you can finally shower and wash the sand out from between your ass. Then you’ll move onto visit some nomad families. Idk how nomad they were considering one lady had a solar panel on her clay roof.
Then, depending on your company you either have the afternoon free to connect to wifi or go swimming in the hotel pool, or your guide will cook you lunch in the dunes out of an oven he made out of clay bricks.
You’ll eat with your hands on a carpet under a tree, and enjoy it cause you’ve been starved and you’re finally starting to defrost from the night before. At sunset, you can do the camel caravans again or the car tour. I thoroughly enjoyed both.
Day 4 Do’s and Don’ts: Starting at 9, you’ll start the journey to Fes where you’ll be able to toboggan down the Atlas Mountains if you want and stop at fossil shops. I didn’t care to do either. But honestly, the landscape was so badass, you’ll go through all four seasons in one day. You’ll drive from sand dunes, through an oasis of date trees…like thousands of millions of date tress with this terracotta backdrop. Absolutely gorgeous.
Then on through the Atlas mountains again with snow and monkeys running around through the forest.
Right before hitting Fes, you’ll drive through the city of Ifrane, also known as “The Switzerland of Morocco” by foreigners, but by Berbers it means “cave” because before the conquest Berbers used to live underground in the limestone caves. However, when the French came they started building homes above ground, and now the caves are used as animal pastures. Dead ass, I thought I was in Europe. They even had elliptical machines in the playground, like what the fuck. So modern!
I booked in advance after reading blogs who said they booked through their riad and had a horrible time with both their guides and the fact that it was a group tour where you couldn’t stop where you wanted to stop. I read on Trip Advisor about fantastic private tours. After pricing out three companies I went with Moustafa (literally all the desert tour guides are named Moustafa, it’s so bizarre) from Morocco Cheap Travel because surprise! He was the cheapest. He also had such raving reviews on Trip Advisor, I was like OK, this guy is legit.
He was different than the others because he sent me a detailed itinerary and then when I changed my mind on how many days and where I wanted to be picked up and dropped off, he was extremely accommodating and changed my itinerary without a moments hesitation. The other companies either waited too long to respond or refused to adjust their prices or times according to what I wanted. Moustafa from Morocco Cheap Travel never made me feel like I was a burden and was in constant communication with me, even one month before our actual arrival.
However, all of the guides try to convince you to add days or change your starting location, so don’t be thrown off by this. That’s just what they do. I would say just stick with what you had originally planned because they’re going off what other tourists would like, and most tourists feel like they can’t do shit by themselves, but 100% most stuff you can do on your own. Or just not at all.
Once on the actual tour, my opinion of Moustafa changed. He went from accommodating to insane. Both in a good way and a bad way. He speaks 7 languages: Portuguese, Italian, Berber, Arabic, French, Spanish, and English. He gives tours. He cooks. He translates. He parties. He drinks. He buys you beers. He arranges drivers. He arranges your rental car. He brings you groceries. He gives you free rides from the train station to your riad. He plays the drums. He sings. He dances. He gives you his sweater when you’re cold. He does it all. He’s a one-stop shop like 7-11 open 24/7. He made me feel like Aladdin and was my genie in the magic lamp. Anything I said, my wish was his command.
But not without a fight. One moment he’s yelling at me over the phone saying he’s going to switch my itinerary and that I’m a hard person to work with just because I asked if I could do the camel ride in the morning since the sun was setting. Next thing he shows up at my hotel, rubs my head, and takes me on a 4-wheel dune ride into the sunset. As I’m enjoying myself, he abruptly yells at me to get out of his car and takes off, leaving us in the desert, and the next moment he’s bringing me gloves, a jacket, and some beer. Another time he picked us up in Marrakesh but ignores me the entire time, talking on his phone and walking rapidly ahead that I lose him in the crowd. The next moment he comes back with a fresh red rose. Another moment I’m asking him if he’s good to drive us to a hotel party since we’ve all been drinking (we’re in the desert, there’s not really any traffic) and he’s like, “if you don’t trust me, I’ll just leave,” and just jumps out of the car WHILE IT’S STILL MOVING only to run back a minute later and jump back in.
Berber New Years Eve congo line be like…
Another time, I asked if I could change the color of my turban since he was already irritated with me and I irritated with him, so I might as well ask for what I wanted. He turns up the music in the car extra loud so he can’t hear me talk anymore, basically telling me to shut the fuck up, and then pulls over in a small village 5 minutes later and buys me a new scarf in exactly the color I wanted, and was like, “What else do you want? I’ll give you my life.”
After he asked to talk with me privately away from my male travel companion and I said no thanks, he made me sit in the back of his car and then drove extra fast through the dunes causing me to hit my head on the roof of his car. It was the most bipolar experience of my life. It was exciting and exhausting. I didn’t know if he liked me or hated me. If I was the diva, or if he was. I still don’t know.
He checked in on me throughout the remainder of my stay. I told him I wanted to do Volubilis, but did not have the money. He offered to drive from Marrakech to Fes that day, pick me up, and take me for free. But I lost internet and then fell asleep before I could respond and woke up to voice mails of him cussing me out saying I was a bitch and don’t deserve his help since he was willing to drive through the night to help me. TRUE. I deserved that. He apologized the next morning.
So would I recommend him? It’s hard to say since I only did the desert tour once and have nothing to compare. I can say he’s an extremely busy man, often going days without sleep to tend to his clients. He was with us for the first day and then passed us off to a different driver so he could go pick up a Spanish group and met us again on our 3rd day. Our new driver was named Moustafa (what a surprise) and was extremely nice, responsible, and kind-hearted, but didn’t explain things in nearly as much detail nor was as lively (but maybe that was a good thing).
Update: I wrote this blog post while on the desert tour, and at the end the driver asked for the tip and we had arguments over payment so I take back what I said. Also, I Google’d a lot of the things he tried to explain, and only half of the things were true. But I’m sure he will be nice to other people as long as he gets a tip at the end. I only tip when I feel someone has done an exceptional job. Considering he skipped over the last day of our tour and also ASKED for a tip, I wasn’t going to give him one. Your choice!
I would say I trust Moustafa from Morocco Cheap Travel to take care of your needs, yes. No matter how much we fought and yelled at each other, he always delivered on time. As for having rest and relaxation, he is not that kind of person. If you want a crazy experience and like to be slightly abused, you’ll definitely get that.
Update:Moustafa has since contacted me and said he would pay for me to come back and visit him. Then said my review on Trip Advisor wasn’t good enough and he would offer a full refund to remove it. I did not take the money. I did not remove my review. I am not returning to Morocco on his dime. He also continues to leave voicemails and email me and tell me I ruined his life.
I have since blocked him on my phone, Instagram, and email accounts. But my initial review of him still stands. He will deliver. I don’t think he would pester a man as much as he does me. Nor do I think this is abnormal of how desert guides act after speaking with multiple women about this. I also did this tour with two Spanish women, and he treated them with a lot more respect than he did me. You can check his other reviews on Trip Advisor for other people’s accounts. But just keep in mind that he did offer to pay me to remove mine. All in all, if you’re a young pretty girl, just don’t give the Berbers a long enough period of time for them to fall in love with you. If you’re looking to fall in love with a Berber (which there were plenty of women who came for just that, you should definitely book this tour!)
If I was to do it all over again, I would do all the shit myself.
How to do the Moroccan Desert Tour by your damn self:
Step 1: Download Maps.Me, a GPS app that functions without needing to connect to wifi.
Step 2: Download the map for Southern Morocco (you need wifi for this).
Step 3: Book your hotel in whichever place you feel like you should stop in. You can find them all over trip advisor, just search the city. Within Merzouga, I recommend the hotel L’Homme Du Desert.
Step 4: Rent a car from my boy Jawad at Jaouadlaaziz@gmail.com, +212 (6) 60 02 10 78, +212 (6) 68 01 17 62 in Marrakech at Lhoch Car Rental for 25 Euro/day. (Keep in mind most car rentals are manual, if you want an automatic, you need to rent a car from the airport.)
Step 5: Enter the destinations listed above in the itinerary section.
Step 6: Put on your road trip jams and drive it yourself. There’s literally just 1 road the whole way and it’s safe. The sites aren’t hard to get to and I honestly passed the fuck out for most of the drive cause it was so boring. Also, it would be cheaper since you won’t have to pay for your driver and you can eat where you want since your driver will want to take you to really nice restaurants where he gets a commission and I wasn’t tryna pay $12/meal. I’m more like a $4/meal type of girl.
Step 7: Once in Merzouga, I would call Moustafa’s crazy ass and tell him meet me in the desert, go 4-wheeling, party with the Berbers, smoke shisha, spend the night in a hotel, and then continue onto my next destination.
Merzouga is a small place, so even if you don’t call Moustafa, just ask someone at your hotel to take you into the desert. They def will find someone who will do it just for the day.
Life and Culture of the Berbers
The Berbers are the original peoples of Morocco and means “Barbaric” in Greek but to them it means “free man.” They have their own language, their own alphabet, their own way of life that is very different from those of the Arabs of Morocco.
When you’re shopping throughout Morocco, people refer to items as Berber like a brand name or high-quality (they’re 9 times out of 10 lying to you about that). Also when you’re shopping and negotiating and winning your negotiation, people may refer to YOU as a Berber. They are basically calling you a savage or someone that demands respect. So shout out to all those shopkeepers who kept saying, “You look like nice girl, but actually you are Berber,” cause yea, if you ain’t savage, you’re average. Now give me my damn price.
Berbers are some of the oldest merchants and traders in the world, dating 5000 B.C. and forced Greeks, Romans, then Arabs to form alliances with them, but sometimes were left marginalized as they are now. Their religion is polytheist having to do with nature and animals. They are semi-nomadic and specialize in handicrafts and herding.
For tips on Morocco in general check out my blog post An Overview Of Morocco: Laws, Language, And A Travel Advisory.
If you are a Berber man or woman reading this and would like to add additional details and history, please feel free to do so in the comments below!