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“In Sahara, you are free.”

Abraham, one of the locals who hosted us throughout our time in the desert, repeated this phrase over and over again during our trip. His point was simple: when it’s just you and a sprawling sea of sand, you can do as you wish. You truly are free.

That is, unless you’re with a tour group.

In fact, most visitors who arrive at the desert gates of Merzouga do so by tour. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Tours can be great for travelers on a short schedule, or those who simply don’t want to deal with the planning process.

The only problem is when someone who wants to be independent and wants to do things on their own, can’t or is afraid to for lack of information. Planning your own trip to the Sahara Desert in Morocco is a prime example of this.

I spent countless hours researching how to explore the area without a tour operator and came up empty on several occasions. We figured it out eventually. But you don’t have to. I recorded every detail of the process so that I could hopefully make your own DIY trip a little smoother.

Or, if you are going with a tour, at least give you a better idea of what to expect, if the tour company you are going with happens to respond to your inquiries with texts like these:

Let’s get to it.

What and where exactly is Merzouga?

Merzouga is the most popular “gateway” for accessing Erg Chebbi, one of Morocco’s two dune-desert landscapes.

The town is located on the far eastern edge of Morocco, close to the border of Algeria. Marrakech lies about 350-400 miles (600 km) west, while Fes is situated around 300 miles (500 km) north. Most excursions leave from Marrakech.

Zagora is the second most popular access point to the desert. While it’s much closer to Marrakech (250 miles/400 km), the views are less dramatic than what you’ll find in Merzouga. Unless you’re on an extremely tight schedule, I suggest skipping this spot and focusing your time on Merzouga.

How do I get there?

Supratours is currently the only bus operator which offers direct itineraries between Marrakech and Merzouga. There are other providers who serve this route as well, but you will have to transfer at least once along the way.

Buying Tickets

You can purchase your tickets at any Supratours location across most major cities around Morocco. I’ve heard that the website only accepts Moroccan credit cards, but the server was partially down at the time (and still is) so I can’t confirm this. Most people book in person.

If you want to leave on a specific day, you should get your ticket at the station at least one day before. Our bus was filled when we went in March.

The Marrakech office is located near the main train station. Don’t go to the tiny room that reads “Supratours” inside the station itself. It’s located at the bus terminal on the side of the building. A taxi to the bus terminal from the medina in Marrakech cost us 30 dirhams (although the driver originally quoted us 50 dirhams). It’s a nice, one-hour walk through new town if you want to skip the cab altogether.

Day of Departure

It costs 5 dirhams per bag if you want to store your luggage under the bus. You can pay at the office when you arrive on the morning of your departure. They will give you a tag for each bag as proof of payment.

There is a small café and snack stall at the terminal if you want to purchase any food or drinks before leaving (Joel and I picked up a container of olives and a loaf of bread from the market the afternoon before for 8 dirhams).

The buses are relatively comfortable, albeit a bit dusty (pretty understandable considering they drive through the desert). Your ticket comes with an assigned seat, so there’s no need to arrive early to secure a good spot. There are no outlets or wifi. There’s also no bathroom.

The driver does make stops along the way but they’re not exactly what I’d call “frequent”, so take it easy on the water if you suffer from smallbladderitis like I do.

Bus Schedule (from our experience)

8:30 AMDeparture
10:30-10:50 AMRest stop/bathroom break
12:30 PMStop in Ougazazara to pick-up/drop-off passengers, the driver might let you off to use the toilet if you ask
3:00-3:30 PMLunch stop in Boumalne Dades (tajine, sandwiches, small grocery store)
8:30 PMArrive in Merzouga, bus drops off at Trans Sahara Restaurant
Total Time12 hours
Total Cost220 dirhams per person.

There were brief stops in between to pick-up/drop-off passengers, but only for a few minutes. The only true toilet and food breaks were at 10:30 am and 3:00 pm.

Traveling by Car

For more flexibility, car rentals are an inexpensive option. Other travelers we spoke to said they paid around $15 USD/day, plus the cost of gas (around 10 dirhams per liter). *Ample courage required for navigating the streets of Marrakech upon departure.

If you’re against driving but still want the ability to make stops along the way, you can also hire a grand taxi (the term for larger taxis) to bring you all the way to Merzouga. Our hotel quoted us at €500. I personally wouldn’t pay someone the price of a Coachella ticket to drive me for 12 hours down a desert road, but you do you.

Is there any sight-seeing along the way?

The drive itself is absolutely breathtaking. It’s the only place I’ve ever seen viridescent hills, snow-capped peaks, and terra-cotta desert all in one, sweeping view. There are sheep farmers, rose water distilleries, palm tree groves, and Indiana-Jones-style ruins scattered across the landscape. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a few wild camels.

There are a handful of attractions and towns along the way that are worth a stopover. You won’t be able to properly visit any of these on the bus route (unless you book an overnight stay in one of the villages to break up the journey), but if you’re traveling by car, they are easily accessible.

Ouarzazate: Ouarzazate is home to Ait Benhaddou, a mud-brick village and UNESCO site that’s been featured in several movies and shows: Game of Thrones, Gladiator, and Lawrence of Arabia, to name a few.

Dades Gorges & Valley: A series of valleys and gorges which stretch between the Atlas and Jebel Sahro mountains. There are many opportunities for hiking and adventure sports here if that’s your thing.

What should I expect when I arrive?

Merzouga accommodations don’t work like normal hotels.

Each company has its own traditional hotel structure in Merzouga, Hassilabied, or any of the other surrounding villages. This is where you’ll likely be taken to stay on your first evening in the area if you arrive after dark.

Most of the hotels also have a sister camp located out in the actual desert. You’ll need to travel to the campsite by camel (ours was a 45-minute ride away) or ATV.

You’re usually free to travel between both sites as you wish. If you want to shower, charge your gadgets, or access wifi, you’ll need to return to the hotel.

This is why it can sometimes be confusing when booking accommodation on your own. Booking a hotel in town or a campsite in the desert usually gives you access to both.

The Supratours bus drops off passengers at the Trans Sahara Restaurant in Merzouga. Being a small village, there aren’t really any street signs or addresses. You’ll need to have your host pick you up when you arrive (or at least meet you and lead you to the hotel, if you’re arriving by car). Arrange this before getting on the bus, and make sure that you know which stop to get off at (for example, our hotel was actually located in Hassilabied, and so there was a little confusion when we got off in Merzouga proper). Most people use WhatsApp as their main point of contact.

You can book your accommodation either on arrival or in advance. Plenty of hotel touts will be waiting for you at the bus stop when you arrive. You can either follow one of these guys or walk around looking for accommodation on your own, although I don’t recommend it. The town is sparsely populated and it might be difficult to navigate at first attempt. You will probably get a better deal by waiting until you arrive, though.

For advanced bookings, traditional search engines like Booking.com and Tripadvisor.com will work just fine.

Along with access to both sites, you have many options for activities. Just tell your host what you want to pursue while you stay with them and they’ll hook you up with a provider. Sample activities with prices quoted by our hotel:

Full-day 4×4 tour: €80

A driver will take you to whichever sights you wish to see. This is a great opportunity to visit the surrounding villages and landscapes.

4×4 riding through dunes: €100

 If you want a more thrilling journey with a 4×4 (like kicking up sand on the top of dunes), you’ll need to pay extra.

1-hour ATV ride: €40 per person, or €60 to share one vehicle

This pays for your guide (you can’t ride out in the desert alone or you might get lost) and the vehicle. You’ll drive between, on top of, and down different dunes out in the desert. Purchasing extra hours cuts down the hourly rate. I highly recommend this if you can fit it into your budget!

Sand boarding: Free

Most camps have sand boards (old snowboards used to slide down dunes) available to use at your leisure.

Camel riding: Free

Camels are the main form of transport between Merzouga and the desert. Since they’re necessary for getting to camp, it’s almost always included.

Things to Note

1. There is only one ATM located in the area (Al Barid Bank) so try and bring as much cash as possible with you.

2. You will get sand EVERYWHERE. Protect anything that could get damaged, like a camera or laptop.

3. The desert can get extremely chilly and windy not only during the evening, but in the middle of the day as well. Make sure to pack layers.

4. Be wary about Booking.com promises. Our hotel said that the campsite had wifi and each room was equipped with a flat-screen TV, which were flat-out lies.

5. You don’t need to bring food with you. Your hotel should provide you with breakfast for free and lunch/dinner upon request (we paid €10 for each meal), served at either the hotel or campsite.  There are also a handful of restaurants and shops in town.

How many days should I spend there?

A lot of people will tell you without hesitation that you “can’t” do the desert in two days. Personally, I think it depends on what type of traveler you are. Here’s what’s most likely to happen based on how many days you choose to stay:

2 Days/1 Night

If you enjoy having a packed itinerary and moving quickly, and you don’t find the idea of camping out in the desert to be particularly enchanting, then you could certainly do the trip in two days. This works best if you have a car available and leave Marrakech extra early in the morning (I’m talking 4am). You’ll need to arrive before sunset and have your host ready to take you into camp immediately upon arrival.

If you’re taking the bus, then you’ll have to stay overnight in town and head to the campsite early in the morning. You can spend the day there and return back to Merzouga before sunset and catch the bus to your next destination.

I don’t recommend either of these options (it will be exhausting), but if you’re dead set on visiting the desert and don’t have much time available, then it’s certainly possible.

3 Days/2 Nights

This is the most popular option, although it’s also a little rushed. You can arrive in the evening, sleep at your hotel, then do a desert activity (ATV, 4×4, etc.) the next day. You’ll head out to camp at sunset, then leave the next day.

This is also the minimum number of nights you’ll need if you want to sleep in the campsite overnight and plan on traveling via bus.

4 Days/3 Nights

The sweet spot for medium-paced travelers. You sleep at the hotel the first evening, spend two full days camping and enjoying desert activities, and have enough time to recover from the 12-hour drive. Less relaxed travelers might get a little antsy with the extra time (we had quite a bit of downtime to hang out in the desert or at our hotel).

5 Days/4 Nights

Venturing into “slow travel” territory. This might be too much time unless you have a lot of activities planned.

*A day trip to Merzouga from either Marrakech or Fes is impossible.

How do I know if a tour or an independent trip is right for me?

While I usually prefer to DIY my trips over taking a tour, Merzouga is actually one of the few exceptions where I would have been comfortable joining a tour group. I don’t regret making the trip on our own and I really enjoyed being able to come and go to the camp at our leisure (We had the whole campsite to ourselves on the first day!). However. Tours are very inexpensive and considering the limited infrastructure and information, I think there’s a lot to be said about using a tour operator for your trip. They can be especially affordable if you wait to book with your hotel upon arrival in Marrakech (and yes, there will likely be spots open).

The 3 days/2 nights tour offered by our hostel in Marrakech were around €80, all-inclusive. Not a bad deal if you ask me.

The only downside is that you won’t have the freedom to do as you please when you arrive. And like I said in the beginning—the Sahara is a place meant for freedom.

Before you go…

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