Desert tours and Excursions to the Sahara

For many visitors to Marrakech, a journey into the desert is an unmissable part of their holiday. But where’s the best place to go – Erg Chebbi or Erg Chegaga? Here’s an overview with some recommendations for desert tours and information about tour providers, prices, destinations and what to pack. 

The Sahara — a desert of unending breadth, an ocean of sand, is located just a stone’s throw from Marrakech, and inspires romantic evenings spent under the most impressively starry skies in the world?

Many people imagine the Sahara along these lines. Therefore they are keen to experience it for themselves with a short excursion into the desert during their stay in Morocco. Unfortunately, the reality is rather different, as the two areas with more gigantic dunes – Erg Chebbi and Erg Chegaga – are both located an 8-10 hour drive away from Marrakech.

The journeys involved are fairly onerous, although the passage through the Atlas mountains and between the spectacular, palm-smothered valleys of Draa and Dades offers a feast for the eyes, with stunning panoramas.

Desert tour in Morocco

(map: Google Maps, photos: Travelguide Marrakech, Wikimedia)

Sand dunes, camels, Berber tents, campfires and starry skies

Countless travel agencies offer short or longer tours into the desert. For those who have little time but are determined to see the dunes, a brief visit, including an overnight stay in a Berber tent can be accomplished in two days. This involves an early morning departure from Marrakech, a brief stop in Ait Benhaddou and arriving at the dune camp in the early evening. After a night in the desert, one returns to Marrakech the following morning.

Longer excursions are more worthwhile, allowing for more sightseeing along the way. Highlights include the imposing Todra Gorge or the Taourirt Kasbah near Ouarzazate.

Erg Chebbi or Erg Chegaga?

In Morocco, there are two well-known duned zones: “Erg Chebbi” near Merzouga to the south-east of Erfoud, and “Erg Chegaga” near M’hamid, south of Zagora. The dunes are accessed via a dirt road through the extensive scree landscape of the Hamada. Opinions differ as to which of these two duned areas is the more beautiful.

Some feel that Erg Chegaga has more of an authentic, Sahara-feel due to its remote location. Others prefer Erg Chebbi for its proximity to the hotels in nearby Merzouga.

Dunes of Erg Chebbi, Morocco
Erg Chebbi dunes (Photo: Travelguide Marrakech)

En route to Erg Chegaga, there is ample opportunity to visit the two river valleys of Dades and Draa. If time is very limited, however, the Agafay desert near Marrakech is a good alternative.

The cost of organised desert tours departing from and returning to Marrakech will vary considerably, depending on the agency and the size of the group. Prices for a two-day tour start from around 85 euros per person. A more extended excursion for a small group may cost about 500 euros.

Desert tours and excursions to Erg Chegaga

The Erg Chegaga occupies an area of approximately 150 square kilometres near to M’hamid and attracts fewer tourists than Erg Chebbi. Its impressive dunes rise to a height of 100 metres or more. Avoid visits during the Summer months, from June to August, due to the exceptionally high temperatures. Desert tours are organised by countless travel agencies in Marrakech, Ouarzazate, Zagora and M’hamid. You can book them online via GetYourGuide.

Desert tours from Marrakech (2 days)

This sort of tour is ideal if you have fewer than 3 days at your disposal, but would like to experience some of the ambiences of southern Morocco’s deserts.

A tight schedule over two days: the tour begins with an early morning departure by car from Marrakech to the UNESCO-World Heritage Site at Ait Benhaddou. After a break for lunch, you will continue on to Ouarzazate and through the Draa-valley to Zagora. Then, after a one and a half-hour long camel ride through the desert, spend the night in a traditional Berber tent. 

In the morning, return to Zagora by camel. From there, travel back to Ouarzazate. After a visit to the Taourirt Kasbah, the group returns to Marrakech. This tour takes in some of Erg Chegaga, but not the most famous, massive dunes.

Dunes near to the Sahara
Dunes near to Zagora (Photo: Travelguide Marrakech)

Desert safari from Marrakech to Erg Chegaga (3 days)

Enjoy a fabulous desert experience over three days. This tour provides an authentic sandy desert experience. As part of a small group, you will experience a journey across the Atlas Mountains and the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Ait Benhaddou. From there, the tour continues to Zagora. After a one-hour camel trek, you will arrive at the desert camp.

On the following day, travel by Jeep into the heart of the sandy dunes at Erg Chegaga. The second night spent in the desert camp is genuinely spectacular. The third day includes a break in Ouarzazate on the way back to Marrakech.

 2-Day Desert Excursion from Marrakech3 Days 2 Nights From Marrakech To Chegaga (My tip!)
Duration2 days3 days
AttractionsAit Benhaddou, Kasbah Taourirt, Zagora, Ait Benhaddou, Kasbah Taourirt, Zagora, Erg Chegaga
FeaturesSmall tour group, overnight stay in a desert camp, camel trekkingSmall-group tour, minibus and Jeep, 2-night stay in a desert camp, camel trekking
Price 1 personfrom 85 EURfrom 185 EUR
Feedback
Read my review about this tour!
BookingGetyourguideGetyourguide

Desert tours and excursions to Erg Chebbi

The Erg Chebbi dunes cover an area of around 110 square kilometres and are located close to the village of Merzouga. The dunes here are even more colossal than those at Erg Chegaga, reaching heights of up to 150m. The local area is also more developed, with tourist accommodation and facilities nearby. As a result, it also attracts a larger number of visitors. Many holidaymakers travel here in off-road vehicles and Four-Wheel Drives. However, try to avoid visits to Erg Chebbi between June-August, due to the high summer temperatures.

Desert tours and camel rides are offered by an array of tour providers in Marrakech, Erfoud, Rissani or Merzouga. You can also book them online at GetYourGuide.

Desert Safari from Marrakech to Merzouga (3 days)

This tour is ideal for those travelling on a small budget, who would like to visit Merzouga. Although they are offered by some providers, two-day tours from Marrakech to Erg Chebbi are excessively tiring. You should avoid them.

This tour, however, is a different matter altogether- and may be regarded as the crowning glory of a holiday in Morocco.

desert camp merzouga morocco
Desert Camp at Merzouga (photo: Travelguide Marrakech)

The day begins with an early morning departure from Marrakech, travelling on to Ait Benhaddou via Ouarzazate through the Valley of Roses to Boumalne Dadès. After a night at an hotel, the tour continues to the Todra Gorge in Tinghir and then leads to Erg Chebbi. There, you spend the night in a Berber tent, before a camel ride back to Merzouga for breakfast. The return journey to Marrakech includes a stopover in Ouarzazate.

From Marrakech: Off-road tour of the Sahara (4 days)

This tour is ideal for those with a slightly higher budget and a preference for more private travel.

Spread over four days, it’s possible to see a bit more of southern Morocco. This organised tour sets off from Marrakech by car and journeys via Ait Benhaddou to Ouarzazate, to visit Africa’s largest film studios. After lunch at the Taourirt Kasbah, the tour continues through the Valley of Roses to the Amerhidil Kasbah in Skoura. The first night is spent in an hotel. The next stop on tour is the Todra Gorge. After a hike around the gorge, the journey continues to Merzouga.

Trek on camelback to the dunes at Erg Chebbi, where you will spend the night in a traditional Berber tent. The following day, return to the desert to visit Rissani. The journey continues along the Draa Valley, pausing at the Tamnougalte kasbah before returning to Ouarzazate. The final night is spent in a riad there. The following morning, you can explore the Taourirt kasbah before the return trip to Marrakech.

  • Attractions: Ait Benhaddou, Atlas Film Studios, Amerhidil kasbah, Dades-Tal, Todra Gorge, Erg Chebbi, Draa-Tal, Taourirt Kasbah
  • Highlights: camel ride, overnight stay in Berber tent
  • More information and bookings at GetYourGuide
 Desert Safari to MerzougaOff-road tour to Erg Chebbi3-Day Desert Tour from Marrakech to Merzouga
Duration3 days4 days3 days
AttractionsAit Benhaddou, Dadès Valley, Todra Gorge, Erg ChebbiAit Benhaddou, Atlas-Film Studios, Amerhidil Kasbah, Dadès-Tal, Todra Gorge, Erg Chebbi, Draâ-Tal, Taourirt kasbahAit Benhaddou, Dades Valley, Todra Gorge , Erg Chebbi
FeaturesOvernight stay in a desert camp, camel trekking, group tourPrivate off-road tour, overnight stay in a desert camp, camel trekkingdesert camp, guided grouptour
Price per personFrom 110 EURfrom 478 EUR101 EUR
Ratings
Read my review about this tour!
BookingsGetyourguideGetyourguideGetyourguide

Excursions into the Agafay desert

For those who are very short on time, but still keen to experience an authentic desert experience, a trip to the Agafay desert may be the answer.

The less-well-known Agafay plateau is located just 30km away from Marrakech. Although visitors to this desert will search in vain for majestic sand dunes soaring 100 metres or more into the sky, the vastness and scale of its sandy landscape can still be appreciated.

You can book tours to the Agafay desert at GetYourGuide. For those interested in spending a night beneath the stars, the eco-friendly desert camp at Terre des étoile is worth a look.

Agafay Desert Marrakech
Agafay Desert near Marrakech

Equipment to take on organised tours and excursions into the desert

During most tours, the amount of time actually spent in the desert will be reasonably limited. Nevertheless, there are a few useful things you can take along to make your stay in the Sahara more pleasant. It’s best to bring these items in an old travel bag or a daypack.

Clothing

On desert tours, its advisable to wear long sleeved shirts and loose trousers made from cotton or linen. During the day it will be very hot, and you will want to be protected from the sun. But after dark, the temperatures can fall to below zero. Because of this, you should always bring a warm jumper or a fleecy jacket and some thermal underwear along.

In terms of footwear, some sturdier shoes, as well as a pair of sandals, should be adequate. Leave any running shoes with mesh materials at home, because the fine sand can penetrate the material.

  • More about the weather in Morocco’s desert regions

Other equipment

  • Sleeping bag
  • Water bottle
  • Pocket torch and spare batteries
  • Sun cream with high SPF, lip balm
  • Sunglasses, hat
  • Camera (sandproof case)
  • Toiletries, wet wipes, basic first-aid kit
  • Toilet roll
  • Plastic bag for rubbish

Understandably, given the inevitable water shortages in the desert, many tours won’t offer opportunities for showering. In emergencies, wet wipes can be a good substitute for improvised hygiene.

Conclusion

Due to the distances and travel times involved, excursions into the Sahara desert can last several days and really eat into your holiday schedule. Those who are short on time but still determined to see something of the desert should allow at least 2 days for this part of their trip. Even then, one will spend most of this time in the car. A day trip to the Agafay may prove a convenient alternative.

Desert tours spread over a minimum of three days will enable you to see some of the more giant dunes, as well as other notable attractions. For a truly memorable desert experience, a slightly longer tour is highly recommended.

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