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Explore Marrakech, Atlas Mountains, and Sahara Desert in 11 Days

Explore Marrakech, Atlas Mountains, and Sahara Desert in 11 Days

Explore Marrakech

Discover Morocco’s Hidden Gems: Small Group, Self-Drive Tour from Marrakech to the Sahara Desert

Explore Marrakech and Morocco on this guided 11-day journey through the heart of the Kingdom, away from the bustling streets of Marrakech, to the tranquil expanses of the Sahara Desert and Southern Oases. Discover the magic of Morocco with our carefully curated self-drive itinerary designed for an immersive travel experience in a small group of like-minded travellers. Our self-drive 4×4 adventure takes you through the majestic High Atlas Mountains, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and the serene Draa Valley. Experience the vibrant culture, stunning landscapes, and unique heritage of Morocco with your own 4×4 vehicle, trying off-road adventures, and staying overnight in traditional guest houses and desert camps. Join your guide for an unforgettable exploration of Morocco’s hidden gems, including the picturesque Ounila Valley, the stunning Dades Gorge, the awe-inspiring dunes of Erg Chigaga, and the unspoilt Anti-Atlas mountains.

The 11-day Itinerary

Day 1 – arrival to Marrakech and check-in at the group hotel, centrally-located in the new town. Meet your tour guide early evening to discuss logistics for the following morning.

Day 2 – Marrakech to Ounila Valley (Ouarzazate region), overnight guest house. Driving hours approx. 5 hours, via Tizi n Tichka mountain pass and Telouet village.

Travel towards the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the fortified village of Ait Ben Haddou. Traverse the High Atlas Mountains via the highest main road pass in Morocco (at 2260m, the Tichka Pass), offering some exhilarating driving via lush valleys and traditional villages. Take the single lane route to Telouet (for the ruins of the Kasbah Glaoui) and then follow the course of the beautiful Ounila Valley to reach Ait Ben Haddou. Check in to the hotel (short distance from Ait Ben Haddou) and visit the UNESCO site next day, or visit early evening today. *Ait Ben Haddou is essentially a living museum, comprising a ksar and has been used as the backdrop in many international movies. You will overnight just outside this village in a restored kasbah guest-house in a traditional village.

Please click the images below to enlarge.

Day 3 – Ounila Valley to Dades Gorge, overnight guest house. (Optional afternoon guided walk in the Dades Gorge – request at time of booking). Driving hours approx. 3.5 hours. If you take the guided walk (max. 2.5-3 hours), we will tailor this to the level of the group, it will not be strenuous. In the Dades Valley, climb up into the hills for views of the Gorge and outlying mountains.

After the UNESCO site, follow the main road to Ouarzazate and start to follow the Dades River, which charts the self-titled route of a thousand kasbahs. We may suggest to travel to the Dades Valley by way of the Mgoun Valley to allow for some off-road driving between the two valleys (approx. 1 hour off-road). These areas are dotted with ruined kasbahs on vantage points and surrounded by other-worldly rock formations and cliffs. The riverbanks are cultivated and lush, in comparison to the red hillsides, and the Mgoun Valley is otherwise known as the Rose Valley (roses harvested in Spring). Overnight close to the entrance of the Dades Gorge in a traditional guest-house on a hillside.

Day 4 – Dades Gorge to Tagounite (Draa Valley), overnight wild camp in the palm oasis. Driving hours approx. 4 hours (cross the Tizi n Tazazert mountain pass on 40km single-track road). Drive down the Dades Valley to the town of Boumalne Dades. Heading south-east from the town the route gradually climbs to join a single lane road to cross the volcanic Jebel Saghro mountain range (at 2280m, the pass of Tizi n Tazazert).

The mountain scenery is stark, with ravines and canyons, the occasional village nestled in an oasis. This is isolated territory and affords multi-day hiking routes. The mountains here are essentially a buffer between the Sahara Desert and the High Atlas mountains. You will descend to the town of Nkob, famed for its kasbah architecture. Then join the magnificent Draa River valley (the Draa is the longest river in Morocco, flanked by vast palm oases and crumbling kasbahs). Overnight in the palm grove, away from the town of Tagounite, where wild camp will be established.

The Draa normally runs dry at this point, except after seasonal rains and/or the opening of the dam upstream. However, rains are less reliable than ever before due to drought conditions in recent years.

Day 5 – Tagounite to dunes of Erg Chigaga, via Erg Zahar dunes and Erg Smar. Overnight fixed camp Sahara desert for this and the following night. Optional walk to the summit of the Zahar dune field en-route. Driving hours approx. 4 hours (of which 3.5 hours off-road in the desert).

Following the course of the Draa and its palms, reach the end of the tar road at Mhamid, next joining a tar road on the other side of the Lake Iriqui salt flats after 3 days. The frontier town of Mhamid marks the start of the desert proper.

Your time spent in the desert will be within Morocco’s Iriqui National Park. Created in 1994, Iriqui National Park was established to protect the biodiversity, flora and fauna across 123,000 hectares of south-eastern Morocco, and in particular to preserve the temporary wetlands of Lake Iriqui, at the heart of the desert. Since the Draa River was dammed in the 1970s, near its source, the river no longer feeds into Lake Iriqui after the autumn floods. The lake dried up, leaving a vast salt bed.

It is the largest park in Morocco (re: surface area) and is unique in that it is Saharan. It lies between the outer reaches of the Anti-Atlas mountains (to the west) and the Draa River Valley (to the east).

The area’s vegetation is characterised by arid savannah with acacia trees and, amongst the dunes, tamarisk trees. The park is home to one of the largest acacia forests in North Africa. The (elusive) wildlife of the national park includes the dorcas gazelle, fennec fox and the houbara bustard (an endangered species, hunted for sport), amongst a variety of other bird species and reptiles.

The off-road journey encompasses a variety of desert terrain, including sand, dried lake beds and wadis, desert stone (hamada), and numerous shrubs.

Day 6 – Optional foray out in the vehicles to visit a nomadic family for tea. Overnight fixed camp Sahara desert. Guided walk or camel trek to the summit of the Erg Chigaga dune field for sunset. The round-hike from the camp takes around 90 minutes (and a short walk to the top). Driving hours approx. 2 hours (off-road, mostly desert stone and scrub).

Day 7 – Erg Chigaga dunes to Tissint, overnight guest house. Driving hours approx. 4 hours (of which 3 hours off-road in the desert).

Leave the desert to the north-west, join the tar road at the frontier town of Foum Zguid. Driving through the desert, leave the dunes behind, cross the dried Lake Iriqui (salt flats), and drive beneath the canyon mountains (‘madouar’) across stone/hamada.

At the foot of the Jebel Bani mountain relief reach Tissint. The area from here and east is rich in archeological and geological interest.

Day 8 – Tissint to Tafraoute region, overnight guest house for this and the following night. Driving hours approx. 4.5 hours.

On reaching the Tafraoute region, overnight in the lush Ameln Valley, at the foot of the Jebel Lkest mountain relief. The guest house has open views of the mountain. The area is renowned for its almond cultivation and excellent climbing opportunities on the outlying cliffs. Tafraoute itself is a busy little market town and fairly unspoilt by tourism.

Day 9 – Overnight guest house. Options today, with the cars visit the Ait Mansour gorge (a short drive away), or further afield the historic hill-top village of Amtoudi. Alternatively, visit the Ameln Valley by foot through the villages and gardens and keep the driving to a minimum.

Day 10 – Tafraoute to Taroudant, overnight guest house. Driving hours approx. 3.5 hours.

Leave this mountainous part of south-west Morocco to travel north to the fertile plains of the Souss Valley, the bread-basket of Morocco. There is plenty of local country driving, via Irherm, through small villages and on winding lanes, before the descent to the town of Taroudant, at the heart of the plain.

Taroudant is described as a smaller version of Marrakech but the main similarity is the town’s remparts and views north to the High Atlas mountains. Overnight just outside the town in a hotel with verdant gardens and pool.

Day 11 – Taroudant to Marrakech. Driving hours approx. 5 hours, via Tizi n Test mountain pass.

Head north-east out of Taroudant to join the road across the High Atlas mountains. The mountain road is single track for the most part and in rough condition. Concentration is required as local taxi drivers and buses also use the route.

The mountain pass, the Tizi n Test, sits at 2100m with far reaching views to the south. The descent from the pass is less steep yet still very winding. The scenery becomes more lush, and you will descend via the villages of Ijoukak and Ouirgane, and alpine peaks.

The group will drop the vehicles off at the Marrakech airport by mid-afternoon.

 

Please refer to our Instagram feed for more images.

Moroccan Photography Tour Overlay

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Meet the Amazigh

Meet the Amazigh

Who are the Amazigh of Morocco?

The Amazigh are the original inhabitants of the Maghreb (North Africa) region. The Amazigh identity is strong in Morocco but hasn’t always been so. Reclaiming identity has been gradual over recent decades (see below) and the present monarch went some way in the 2011 constitution to address this.

Originally coastal-dwellers, until from about 1200BC onwards, with the arrival of the horse, the Amazigh moved inland, across the mountains and south to the encroaching Sahara desert. Gradually they populated those regions leaving only small numbers of the indigenous black population to continue to this day (e.g. the Haratin in the south of Morocco).

There are few peoples in the world that can equal the Amazigh length of title to their land – they are descendants of ancient Stone-Age cultures farming the same lands today.

Meet the Amazigh of Morocco

The term Berber

With the Arab invasion in the 7th Century, it was the Arabs who, purportedly, classified the distinct groups of peoples in the wider Maghreb region as ‘barbar’ (the name originates from the ancient Greek for ‘foreigner’). However, the Berbers’ own definition ‘imiazen’ (plural term) means the noble ones.

The Arabs drew upon the Moroccan warriors to capture the Iberian peninsula during the 8th Century and the subsequent Amazigh (Berber) dynasties enjoyed prominence alongside the Arabs until the 16th Century.

As more Arabic peoples migrated to the Maghreb, the Arabic language took hold. The Amazigh identity weakened and the Amazigh populated the mountains and the desert regions, moving away from the fertile plains and cities.

Amazigh in Morocco

Amazigh rights in Morocco’s constitution

‘Berberism’ in Morocco has led to the creation of a Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture, to schoolteaching in Tamazight (one of the Amazigh languages), and, since 2011, to the recognition of Tamazight as one of Morocco’s official languages, all in the interest of national unity. There are also numerous TV and radio stations.

Today, communities of Amazigh groups in Morocco mostly inhabit the mountains (Rif, Atlas, Anti-Atlas) and the Sahara desert and southern oases (such as the Draa Valley).

An Amazigh wedding

Having attended several weddings over the years in Morocco, mostly Amazigh, here’s a snapshot from the biggest one I had the fortune to be part of.

Most weddings are multi-day events, with hundreds of guests in attendance, and a genuine community celebration. There is very little sleep to be had, and depending on the time of year, most events (including eating and singing) will take place long in to the night and through the small hours.

The symbolism is paramount (please refer to our featured image above, and more below) – i.e. the style of dress (women and men), henna and saffron tattooing (women), and henna-washing (men), jewelry, head and clothing adornments, colours, and songs. What can’t be anticipated beforehand is the collective emotion and spirit of the three day wedding. It was very moving, in particular the first full day.

The first full day is before the bride and groom really meet one another, this day embodies their union.

Meet the Amazigh in Morocco (wedding image)

In the morning, the new bride is veiled and adorned with a head-piece (above). She already has the henna tattoos on her hands and feet at least two days prior. She is seated with key family members, her mother behind her, and elder women of the village. The women chant while the bride’s head-piece is decorated and tied. Traditionally, this takes place in the bride’s family home, as she would marry a man of the same village.

Amazigh wedding in Morocco

Then she is taken to be seated on a camel, which will carry her to her husband’s home. During the journey to her new home there is actually a ‘battle of wills’ (all tradition of course). The women of her family try to slow her progress down, while the men of his family encourage it. This ‘battle’ prolongs the procession to the new home and all the while there is singing and drumming to accompany the slow walk onwards. The women of the village walk en-masse together and they also chant and ululate. On reaching her new home, the bride is seated on a small podium in a caidal tent, with female relatives. The rest of the women sit in small circles inside the tent.

Amazigh wedding in Morocco

Meanwhile, the groom is kept apart, and is not permitted to leave his home all day. Family and friends may visit him, but he is kept inside. Much drinking of tea takes place with the male visitors. The groom also wears traditional white garments and make-up.
In traditional Amazigh weddings, this would usually take place over two days. On this occasion, the bride and groom were reunited at the end of the first day.

In the evening, while we wait for the bride and groom to return to the celebration in the village, there is much singing and drumming – the style of music known as ‘ahidous’. Men and women sing and play together, but in separate line-ups facing each other. The lines move in time, to and fro, side-to-side, then rotate, all seamlessly. The songs are very old Amazigh, speaking of marriage and love. It feels like a festival, not a wedding.

Thereafter, bride and groom are brought back to the wedding party in a convoy of cars driving slowly through the village, the cars are decorated with flags and there is much blasting of car horns. The newly-weds are kept apart once more until the bride can be unveiled by the groom. The groom joins in singing and drumming with his family. The bride in the caidal tent.

After the bride is indeed unveiled to family and friends (which would usually take place at the end of the second day) we congratulate the couple and sit down to hearty plates of food.

 

Wherever you are travelling in Morocco you are certain to experience the Amazigh culture, not least of all because your driver/guide is likely to be Amazigh from the south of Morocco.

Further information on Amazigh history may be found here.

Contact us with queries on your trip in Morocco.

Group self-driving tour by 4×4

Group self-driving tour by 4×4

Embark on a Thrilling Adventure – group self-driving tour

Discover the excitement of group self-driving through the enchanting landscapes of Morocco led by our experienced guide. Join a small group of fellow adventurers and journey through the southern parts of Morocco to unique destinations, including exhilarating desert drives.

If you’ve hesitated about doing this kind of trip independently, our group self-driving option is perfect for you. Immerse yourself in the breathtaking scenery, rugged terrain, and vibrant culture of this North African gem. Explore remote dunes, charming valleys, and ancient gorges while indulging in the ultimate off-road experience in the Sahara Desert.

self-driving in Morocco

Ten Nights of Unforgettable Exploration

Experience a mix of camping under the stars and staying in cosy guesthouses at each stop. Our carefully selected guesthouses are nestled in rural Morocco, offering you the best of each location and its surroundings.

Begin your group self-driving journey with a night at a convenient hotel in Marrakech before venturing into the wilderness for the next 9 nights, returning the vehicles to Marrakech airport.

Spend a night camping in a mobile camp at the Draa Valley and the following two nights at a fixed desert camp at Erg Chigaga dunes. Get ready to navigate through Morocco’s stunning landscapes in your own 4×4 vehicle.

Our overnight stops during the group self-driving tour will be –

Ait Ben Haddou, Dades Valley, Tagounite, Erg Chigaga dunes (2 nights), Tissint, Tafraoute (2 nights), Taroudant.

Self-driving in Morocco

4×4 driving in Morocco

We limit the group self-driving tour to 5 guest vehicles (two passengers per car). The group trip is not suitable for children. Should you wish to travel with children, please contact us for a bespoke trip offer.

The group travels in convoy behind our lead guide vehicle, and remains in contact through radio (which we provide). Your guide will schedule regular stops.

Self-driving in Morocco

We provide Toyota Prado (TX) vehicles which are automatic. You do not need any previous experience of off-road driving for the group self-driving tour.

The off-road element through the desert is approx. 200km (split across 3 travel days through the Iriqui National Park). Your guide will be on hand to provide tips on handling the desert terrain (which in fact is less than 20% sand driving).

Self-driving in Morocco

Visit Morocco in October or February

Please contact us for dates of our next scheduled departures. We plan for 11 October (2024), and 21 February (2025).

Pricing starts from Eur €2600 per person (based on two people per vehicle and per room/tent).

We travel in Autumn and early Spring when conditions are most comfortable to travel.

Self-driving in Morocco

 

For further images of the South of Morocco please refer to our Instagram feed.

Ryanair invests in Morocco network

Ryanair invests in Morocco network

Ryanair’s investment from Summer 2024

New European routes with Morocco, and domestic routes

You may have missed this news announced back in mid-December 2023 on Ryanair’s website. The airline plans to invest more than $1bn (USD) in new and existing routes with Morocco, from this Summer.

Ryanair will be adding 24 new European routes to/from Morocco, alongside 11 new domestic Moroccan routes. The airline’s domestic routes are particularly interesting, given that only the national carrier has offered these to date and on a limited scale (pre-pandemic, at one point there was another entrant).

Ryanair’s aim, working with the Moroccan authorities, is to stimulate Morocco’s connectivity and tourism, and to develop Morocco’s infrastructure.

It is no secret that the authorities are keen to grow visitor numbers. One recent quote aims to see 26m visitors by 2030 (in parallel no doubt with the 2030 World Cup which Morocco is jointly hosting).

The airline will also open a new base in Tangier.

Fly Ryanair to Ouarzazate and then hike from Mhamid

Ryanair flies to the gateway to the Sahara

Since mid-2023 Ryanair has offered a route from London to Ouarzazate (currently twice-weekly). Ryanair also connects other European hubs with the airport, namely Paris and Barcelona.

One of the new domestic routes from Summer 2024 will link Tangier to Ouarzazate, the only new domestic service with Ouarzazate.

Ouarzazate is a 4 hour taxi/bus ride to the desert frontier (Mhamid), a more manageable proposition than the 10 hour bus ride from Marrakech (one bus daily).

We have used the Ouarzazate-London route ourselves and have recommended it to clients whose plans are primarily for the south of Morocco (and who may prefer to skip Marrakech in favour of spending more time with a slower holiday in the desert).

If you arrive at Ouarzazate at 11am, you can comfortably travel to Mhamid same day and then be well-placed to start hiking the following morning. Alternatively, travel direct to camp at Erg Chigaga dunes and be sitting on a dune in time for sunset.

Fly Ryanair to Ouarzazate and then hike from Mhamid with Wild Morocco

Slow travel once you land

If you are able to consider swapping out the car and taking public transport once you’re in Morocco then this is very straightforward. Furthermore, taking one of our multi-day desert hiking options will guarantee you an off-grid holiday.

Please ask us about our own experience on travel between Ouarzazate and the desert. Information on our desert hiking is here, and on our desert camping is here. Both holiday options are aimed at slowing the pace and disconnecting.

For more inspiration on slow travel in the desert, please visit our Instagram feed.

 

[Desert images credit Chris Phillips.]

 

Tangier and Assilah

Tangier and Assilah

Pauline de Villiers Brettell, author of the longstanding blog ‘Tea in Tangier‘, and resident of Assilah, has written the following guest post about why you should make time to visit the North. Pauline shares some of her favourite places to visit.

We include Tangier and Assilah on our Essence of Morocco tour itinerary. Please click here for the full itinerary and for further details of the 16 days route. We can adapt the itinerary to offer this in reverse order, or to extend it.

Tangier and Assilah

 

Tea in Tangier and Atay in Assilah

Why Tangier and its neighbours should be included on your Moroccan itinerary

Tangier has quietly been undergoing a transformation over the past several years and is now emerging from its previously somewhat dissolute reputation. It is quite literally spreading its newly paved and painted wings. Historically Tangier has always stood a little apart from mainstream Morocco and it still, in my opinion, offers something a little different to the stereotypical image of Morocco. The obvious reasons for this being both its proximity to Europe, and Spain in particular, along with its distance from the desert. As a result, paellas are often on the menu, beach life is pretty laid back, and Spanish is more often than not a comfortable second language. This was one of the things that drew me to this part of northern Morocco in the first place. I felt like it was taking me back to a more exotic version of my South African roots, yet I was within touching distance of Spain (another country that is close to my heart). Tangier has always been a busy port city, but with the creation of the Tanger-Med port beyond the Tangier city boundaries, the medina port is now a more tranquil base for sea-bound tourism.

Tangier and Assilah

Tangier

Start your journey through Morocco in Tangier

Tangier is the perfect starting point to your Moroccan adventure if that is your point of entry.

The medina is a lot smaller than cities like Marrakech and Fez. It is also a lot easier to navigate because you have a clear sense of geography with the sea on one side and the city behind. Uphill takes you to the Kasbah, downhill you will end up in the port. Although there may be fewer of the “big-five” type of attractions here – no Majorelle gardens or Fez tannery or dunes of the Sahara – there is still a city to experience in a quieter way, which can in fact be more interesting.

A lot of my recommendations to people visiting Tangier seem to involve tea or coffee and generally a slower pace. e.g. take mint tea on the terrace of The Continental hotel admiring the view and taking in the Sheltering Sky hotel aesthetic; or coffee in Café Tingis in the Petit Socco in the middle of the medina simply watching the passers by and getting an idea of who’s in town. There is still a small town feel to Tangier despite its sprawling development.

Move up to the Grand Socco for again more tea or coffee, possibly a bit of cake at this point at the Cinema Rif. You will need the cake to fuel your journey up the Rue de la Kasbah – but make it a slow walk and stop off at various design studios on the way before reaching the top and turning right into the kasbah. I love the kasbah area as it is light and airy compared to the medina of Tangier and has wonderful views across the straits. Being thirsty after the climb, this is the spot I find a place for my favourite Tangeroise drink, lemon and mint juice. Explore the Tangier kasbah at your leisure and you will find a wonderful combination of museums, galleries and boutiques in which to peruse and purchase.

Tangier and Assilah

Tangier

Beaches are obviously something that sets this Moroccan city apart from its landlocked sisters. Tangier is spoilt for choice with the Atlantic on one side and the Mediterranean on the other. The beaches are the centre of all activity in the summer months with a melting pot of people and a cosmopolitan mix of costume. For the best beach experience my advice is to do a bit of research and find the more remote beaches with good summer chiringuitos for a great day out from Tangier.

Although I love Tangier, it is not where we base ourselves when we are in Morocco. My home from home is in fact the small seaside medina of Assilah, just a 40 minute drive up the coast. I am biased, but I love the quieter pace of life and the village feel of Assilah. Everything is within walking distance, such as markets, restaurants, and shops. The medina is tiny, yet full of wonderful quality artisanal crafts, some are made locally while others are brought in. Several people I know in Tangier travel to Assilah to do any carpet shopping. Feel free to contact me for some recommendations if you find yourself uncertain of where to turn when in pursuit of the perfect Moroccan carpet to wrap up and take home.

Tangier and Assilah

Assilah

Assilah is also a great place for independent travel – there are some beautiful riads to rent on platforms like Airbnb and recent years has seen a few more chambre d’hote type of accommodation opening in the medina itself. Stroll out of the medina in the evening and choose to eat at one of the restaurants serving fresh fish with a cold glass of Moroccan Gris. Find a café you like and make that part of your morning routine and you will soon be greeted like a local. A visit to Assilah is more about stepping down the pace and immersing yourself in medina life rather than a place to visit sites and tick off items in your guide book.

Again, do a little research and discover places hidden up and down the coast like Chez Mounir or Chez Abdou – both a little off the beaten track but well worth the visit. Find out about the local country markets (souks). These can be a bit of an eye-opener (I try and avoid the chicken section!) You will find a lot of utilitarian plastic for sale, but amongst it all are local olives, wonderful oils and cheeses and other seasonal produce. One of my favourite purchases at the Monday market were some donkey saddles, which like so many things in this part of the world come with an element of beauty alongside practicality.

And of course there are the paintings and murals in the Assilah medina, a result of the ongoing annual Art Moussem that takes place in the summer. Every year the walls are whitewashed in preparation and ladders bearing brush and paint-wielding artists are found unexpectedly around corners as they put their stamp on a corner of the medina. Until next year . . . when they will be painted over in preparation for the next artist.

Tangier

Tangier

So, put Tangier and Assilah on your itinerary, the walls are white rather than red, the closest you will get to the Sahara is the dreaded shawki winds that make everyone grumpy, but you will discover a laid back blue and white skyline punctuated with clear Tangier sunshine that will draw you into the north and maybe, like us, you will simply never leave!

 

Further images on Pauline’s Instagram feed. Details of Dar Ambrosia accommodation here. Local guide options with Pauline and Jonas in Tangier and Assilah here.

FAQ on desert camps

FAQ on desert camps

Where are the desert camps located?

The desert camps are located at Erg Chigaga dunes, at the heart of the Iriqui National Park (see below). The Erg Chigaga is the longest erg, ‘sand sea’, in Morocco at approx. 40 km length. Being 60 km from the nearest village/road (at Mhamid) makes it an opportune location for star-gazing and immersion in nature.

Camp Al Koutban, see image above, is ideally-placed for the tallest dune in the entire Erg (and some wildlife spotting), but all desert camps offer plenty of viewpoints from dunes closer to camp.

*NB: if you are taking the short 4 days tour between Marrakech and Fes, we offer alternative camping at Erg Chebbi dunes, to minimise driving hours. However, on the 5 days tour between Marrakech and Fes we offer desert camps at Erg Chigaga dunes.

How do we travel to the desert camps?

The Erg Chigaga dunes are approx. 20 hours round-trip from Marrakech (or on the Fes-Marrakech route, approx. 26 hours trip).
We arrange the stays at the desert camps as part of a complete package round-trip from Marrakech, or a through-trip between Marrakech and Fes. The packages include private driver-transport and hotel accommodation either side of the camping stay.

We can also arrange to collect you from Ouarzazate, or from the coast (Agadir, Taghazout, Essaouira).

Please look over our 4×4 tours page for various options with the desert camps. The most comfortable minimum round-trip is 4 days/3 nights (with 1 night camping). We recommend you spare an extra night to allow yourself a full day in the Sahara to really switch off.

Alternatively, we can put together a self-drive package for you, and arrange for a desert guide to join you in your vehicle at the village of Mhamid. Or you may finish a multi-day desert hike with a night in comfort at one of the desert camps.

What is the Iriqui National Park?

Iriqui National Park was established 30 years ago to protect the biodiversity, flora and fauna across 123,000 hectares of south-eastern Morocco, and in particular to preserve the temporary wetlands of Lake Iriqui, at the heart of the desert. The lake bed is normally a dried salt flat, which you will drive across.

Iriqui National Park is the largest park in Morocco (re: surface area) and is unique in that it is Saharan. The dunes of Erg Chigaga are simply a small part of the Park.

How big are the desert camps?

We offer desert camps with no more than 14 tents.
At the heart of each camp is the campfire, and the restaurant tent (*and bar at the luxury camp).
If you want to camp in privacy away from others, we recommend staying at the private nomadic camp (but with your own staff).

What should I pack/bring to the desert camps?

Please bring good sun protection, including lightweight long sleeves and hat – even in Winter, the sun remains very strong.
Please bring clothing you can layer easily as temperatures will fluctuate greatly day to night. You will certainly need a down/warm jacket, hat and warm sleepwear in the months from late November through to mid-February.
For footwear, trekking sandals (with socks) are ideal. Running shoes/trainers will be suitable for hard terrain, and note that sand/dust will get underneath your insoles.
Please bring a personal travel kit (e.g. immodium, antihistamine, painkiller, rehydration powders, support bandage, band-aids, antiseptic wipes, dressing, hand gel, eye drops).
Please protect cameras/phones/tablets from desert dust, even with a sealable plastic bag.
Lastly, please pack a book or two if you plan to disconnect.

What is there to do in the desert?

You can be as relaxed or as active as you like. Key times of day are sunrise/sunset, and meal times.

The stays at the desert camps include a camel trek before sunset (or walk if you don’t wish to ride). The round-hike (or camel trek) from Camp Al Koutban to the tallest dune in the Erg Chigaga is approx. 90 minutes.
Other hiking options are possible if you request a guide at time of booking. Without a guide, you can walk out from camp, but ensure to keep the camp in sight at all times.
The camps have shared sand-boards.
There are outdoor relaxation areas and hammocks.

Lastly, you may want to find a quiet vantage point and practise some yoga against the backdrop of the dunes.

Do you cater for a vegetarian/gluten-free/vegan diet at the desert camps?

Dietary requirements are catered for at the desert camps. Please mention your dietary restrictions/allergies at time of booking.
The emphasis is on fresh vegetables and fruit, tagines, couscous, soup, salads, bread/pancakes.
We provide bottled drinking water, which you should also use for brushing teeth.

What is the bathroom situation?

The desert camps source water from a natural spring, several kilometres from Erg Chigaga dunes.
We encourage you to use water sparingly in the desert, especially in light of recent drought conditions in the south of Morocco.
The tap water in the bathrooms is not drinkable.
Towels are provided (*and toiletries at the luxury camp).
The luxury and private nomadic camps have private bathrooms adjoining the sleeping tents (bucket shower, Western toilet).
Camp Al Koutban has a shared bathroom block (Western toilets/showers).

Will there be electricity at camp?

The electricity supply at the desert camps is generated by solar panels.
At Camp Al Koutban, should you need to charge your phone, camera battery, or other kit, please ask the team and they will use one of the sockets at the kitchen.
At the luxury camp/private nomadic camp, the sockets may be used in the tent.
However, you may want to bring an external power bank if you need to charge equipment while you’re travelling.

What sort of weather can we expect?

For queries about Morocco weather, we find the ‘meteoblue’ forecasts reliable. Search for Mhamid or el Gouera for the Sahara desert – www.meteoblue.com
The best times of year to visit the desert are from the end of September through to early May.

It’s not unusual to have windy conditions in the desert. These tend mostly to occur around the change of seasons/temperature changes (i.e. early Spring). Conditions can change quickly, it is a fact of life in the Sahara.
Winters see cold overnight temperatures (even as low as freezing by dawn) with warm daytimes. However, climate change has affected what were once seasonal patterns and Winters are shorter/drier than before.

Will we see animals near the desert camps?

There is abundant desert wildlife to be found in the Iriqui National Park.

For an overview of what to expect, please click here.

 

Please also visit our Instagram feed.

 

Desert wildlife

Desert wildlife

Desert wildlife near camp

We love encountering wildlife on our travels, and our part of the desert, in the Iriqui National Park, is teeming with animal and birdlife. Despite first impressions, there is abundant desert wildlife to be seen if you know what to look for.

Sometimes all you need is a little patience or luck to stumble upon some of our local species and migratory visitors. Some of the species are nocturnal (staying active in cooler temperatures), while some are endangered and, naturally, elusive.

Endangered Dorcas gazelle - desert wildlife in Morocco

Dorcas gazelle

Below is a glimpse of the desert wildlife we’ve been fortunate to spot out from our camp, Camp Al Koutban. We’d be keen to know if you’ve seen any other species.

Our camp is ideally-placed at the heart of the Erg Chigaga dunes for the tallest dune in the Erg, and we also have plenty of other viewpoints nearby. When we say we want to bring you close to nature, we mean it.

One way to know we’re surrounded by desert wildlife, look down at all the tracks in the sand when you’re out walking, especially early morning.

White-crowned black wheatear - desert wildlife in Morocco

White-crowned black wheatear

If you want to get even closer to nature, then join us for a desert hike and camp wild across several days.

Desert wildlife – animal life

Desert wildlife in Morocco - The small rodent Jerboa (hunted by the fennec)

Jerboa

Dorcas gazelle (pictured at top) endangered, but numbers in the Iriqui National Park have increased over recent years (NB: the village of Mhamid El Ghizlane is named for ‘the plain of the gazelles’)
Jerboa, pictured
Hare
Fennec fox, pictured

The Fennec fox - desert wildlife Morocco

Fennec fox

Hedgehog
Berber skink (aka ‘sand-fish’, pictured)
Dab lizard
Saharan striped polecat (rare)
Addax antelope (endangered, re-introduced to the Iriqui National Park recently)
Jackal

Desert wildlife in Morocco - The Berber skink (or 'sand fish') which seemingly swims through the sand

Skink, which seemingly ‘swims’ through sand

Desert wildlife – birdlife

Desert wildlife in Morocco - desert birdlife

Blue-cheeked bee eater (migratory)

Sand-grouse, pictured below (distinctive call in flight, groups fly in V formation, and you may see them at ground level amidst small shrubs)
Wheatears, pictured (both the white-crowned, and the desert wheatear)
Desert sparrow

Desert wildlife in Morocco - wheatear

Desert wheatear

Lark
Bee-eater, pictured (typically February/March – look for birds in/above the calotropis trees)
Houbara bustard, pictured (endangered)

Desert wildlife in Morocco - Houbara Bustard

Houbara Bustard

Stork (group, in flight in circular motion)
Egyptian Vulture (rare, alone or pair)
Brown-necked raven (common)
Little owl (common, palmeraie)

Desert wildlife in Morocco - sand grouse

Sand grouse

For further images of desert wildlife in Morocco and camping in the Iriqui National Park, please follow us on Instagram.

Sahara desert hiking – FAQ

Sahara desert hiking – FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions on our Desert Hiking trips

We’ve captured your imagination, and now you want to understand a little more about what’s involved. Please read on.

Where does the desert hiking start from and how do we travel there?

The cheapest way to reach the start of the hike (the village of Mhamid) is by public bus from Marrakech (this service starts from Casablanca). This is a 10 hours journey from Marrakech, crossing the Atlas Mountains and driving along the Draa Valley oases. The bus operator that travels directly to Mhamid is CTM with one daily departure. Their website is ctm.ma and your destination is ‘Lamhamid Ghozlane’. CTM, and operator Supratours, also offer a route to Zagora if the Mhamid timetable isn’t suitable.
You will need to buy tickets in advance online.
CTM has a dedicated terminus in Marrakech (‘la gare CTM’ if you ask a taxi driver to take you there).

The alternative would be to rent a small car to self-drive and break up the journey to Mhamid with an overnight stop en-route (e.g. at/near Ouarzazate, 4 hours from Marrakech, or at Agdz, 5.5 hours from Marrakech).

A private 4×4 vehicle transfer with driver from Marrakech to Mhamid is costly. The direct car transfer takes approx. 8 hours, excluding any time for stops and visits en-route (i.e. make the short detour to visit the Ait Ben Haddou UNESCO Site near Ouarzazate).

You may consider taking the bus down to Mhamid one-way and arrange a private 4×4 vehicle transfer out of the desert back to Marrakech – this works with either of the linear trekking routes to the Erg Chigaga Great Dunes (3 nights or 4 nights). The driver will collect you at the dunes and take you out of the desert via Lake Iriqui and Foum Zguid (3 hours off-road travel) and then 6 hours via the tar road and back across the Atlas mountains.

Is flying an option?

There are direct flights with Ryanair to Ouarzazate airport (approx. 4 hours from Mhamid by taxi). You can fly directly from London, Paris, Barcelona. 

For domestic options we recommend travelling by the public bus (please see above).

What kit essentials do I need to bring for desert hiking and is there any weight restriction to my luggage?

We advise you to bring a sleeping bag in the Winter months. We provide blankets and sleeping mat but you will be more comfortable with a sleeping bag or a thermal sleeping bag liner on the cold nights. For warmer months, no need to bring anything additional unless you prefer to bring a sleeping bag liner for underneath the blanket.

Please bring clothing you can layer easily as temperatures will fluctuate greatly day to night. You will certainly need a down jacket/warm jacket, hat and warm sleepwear in the months November through to mid-February. A long-sleeved shirt for protection against the sun.

Footwear should ideally be worn-in, and trekking sandals (with socks) are ideal. Running shoes/trainers will be suitable for hard terrain, and note that sand/dust will get underneath your insoles.

There is no weight limit to luggage but about 15-20kg per person is fine. Your luggage (and the camping equipment) is transported by your camels in large baskets, therefore a soft duffel-style bag works well for packing purposes.

Other essentials for desert hiking should be sun protection and personal medication kit. We offer further guidance on packing here.

How many hours each day can I expect to hike for and is it possible to ride by camel for some of the time?

On average, you can expect to hike for up to 5 hours each day (with a break for lunch under shade of trees of up to 2 hours – which allows time for the camels to be unloaded, Moroccan tea prepared, lunch cooked, and camels reloaded). The lunch pause is a good opportunity to take a nap, read a book, take photos or help chop some vegetables with your crew. The camels will wander in search of a snack too.

It is possible to ride by camel-back for some of the hike. You should simply mention this to your guide before the camels are loaded with the equipment (so that the camels each carry a fair weight distribution). We don’t provide a ‘spare’ camel during the desert hiking unless you anticipate riding for most of the route (an extra camel at extra charge).

Do you cater for a vegetarian/gluten-free/vegan diet? Do I need to bring my own water for desert hiking?

Dietary requirements are catered for and the meals are mostly vegetarian-based (with seasonal fresh produce available from Mhamid). There will be pasta and bread so please do mention if you aren’t able to eat this.

We provide bottled drinking water, which you should also use for brushing teeth. We don’t ration drinking water.

Please mention your dietary restrictions at time of booking.

Can I take a shower during the desert hiking?

Water is a precious resource in the desert. We don’t carry enough water with the camels to allow for showering/washing every day.

We are able to provide water for hand and face washing in the evening once camp is established. Please ask your guide.

We suggest you bring wet-wipes and dry soap (hand gel), and bag your litter to hand to your guide.

If you plan to camp at the Erg Chigaga dunes on your final night of the desert hiking, please enquire with us on the possibility to camp at our fixed camp at the dunes (Camp Al Koutban), which has hot showers. Please note, camping on the final night at the Erg Chigaga dunes is at additional rate.

Who are we hiking with? What if I’m travelling solo?

Unless you specifically request to join up with other hikers, we currently run our desert hiking on a privately-arranged basis for any group size – whether you are a solo traveller, family, couple, or group of friends. You will hike with your own guide, cook and camel caravan.

We’ve had lots of solo female hikers join us. Should you still want to enquire further about doing this, we’d be happy to connect you with one of our previous guests.

We do have plans to introduce ‘open’ group departures on fixed dates for the new 2025 season. Please enquire with us.

Our guides all speak French and English – please let us know if you do require an English speaking guide.

 

Please refer to additional images of Sahara desert hiking here.

Prehistoric rock art in Morocco

Prehistoric rock art in Morocco

Cataloguing Rock Art in Morocco

Rock art is found throughout the Sahara, principally in the desert mountain and hill ranges, where stone ‘canvas’ is abundant: including the highlands of Adrar in Mauritania and Adrar des Ifoghas in Mali, the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and Algeria, the Tassili n’Ajjer and Ahaggar Mountains in Algeria, the mountainous areas of Tadrart Acacus and Messak in Libya, etc, as well as the length of the Nile Valley.

Explorations in the early twentieth century by celebrated travellers, ethnographers and archaeologists brought the rock art of the Sahara, and rock art in Morocco and northern Africa, to the awareness of a European public.

Rock art in Morocco (Ait Ouazik gazelle)

Since 2013, the British Museum has engaged in a project to study and catalogue the rock art images of Africa, including rock art in Morocco in both the Atlas mountains and the Sahara, digitally preserving African rock art, ensuring global open access well into the future. Their research provides new information and perspectives on the collection and the ancient and modern cultures it represents.

Please visit the British Museum’s website for more information, click here.

Rock Art in Morocco – the site of Ait Ouazik

More than 300 rock art sites have been documented in Morocco, mainly located in two areas: the High Atlas Mountains, and the Sahara desert region to the south and east. They comprise mainly engravings (as opposed to paintings), which could be up to 5,000 years old, and include domestic and wild animals, warriors, weapons and scenes of battles and hunting. Antelope and cattle are the most represented animals in Moroccan rock art, although elephants and rhinoceros are common. 921 images have been catalogued across the various sites.

Rock art in Morocco at Ait Ouazik (antelope)

One of the most renowned and well-preserved sites of rock art in Morocco is that at Ait Ouazik near Tazzarine/Zagora. Getting there involves at least a half day’s round-trip out of Zagora and some of that on piste (unsurfaced tracks). This can be combined with one of our longer tours to the desert.

Being in such a remote location you may find the site at Ait Ouazik to yourselves. There is a local guardian/caretaker who has taken a special interest in the rock art and shows visitors around. Over the years some stones have already been removed to use in construction down at the village and the guardian is ensuring no more are taken.

Rock art in Morocco (wheel)

We were captivated by the images carved on the stones and representation of animal life on the continent thousands of years ago (the Sahara desert is, after all, relatively young). The site lies in a broad, dry valley with occasional palm trees and Acacia trees providing verdant relief. It is easy to picture a greener landscape of savanna in this part of Morocco.

We hope you enjoy some of the images we took. If you’re at all interested in extending your tour in the south to visit the Ait Ouazik rock art site near Tazzarine/Zagora please let us know.

Rock art in Morocco at Ait Ouazik

Further images are on our highlights reel (rock art in Morocco) on Instagram.