One of the top things to do in Morocco is to go see the famous dunes of Merzouga. Go on a camel ride and stay in a camp in the dunes. Most people are scared to go on their own and book a tour to take them from Marrakech or Fez to Merzouga and back. But this is not necessary. How do I know? Because I went on my own. And I am currently living in Merzouga, so I think I can judge how safe and easy it really is.
Merzouga is a small village with around 500 people at the edge of the dunes of Erg Chebbi. It is the starting point of all trips into the dunes, but because most tourists only pass through, it doesn’t feel particularly touristy. The cafés and restaurants are full of locals drinking tea and chatting and only after the Supratours bus arrives will you see some tourists wandering around the main street.
Do you need a tour to see the desert?
No! At least not to get there and back. You can easily take public transport from Marrakech or Fez and find a guide to take you into the desert when you get there. There are plenty of options for any price range.
At the moment (April 2019), the government is removing all the camps from the dunes, so I’m not sure how the situation will look like in the future. But you will always be able to take a camel or car ride into the dunes, watch the sunset from the top and then stay in a hotel in town or in a camp besides the dunes, where they are being moved to at the moment.
If you want, I can hook you up with a guide I trust, just send me a message here or on facebook!
The best time to go to Merzouga
The best time to go to the desert in Morocco is between October and April. Temperatures range from 15-25°C during the day to 5-15°C at night.
The summer is hot with temperatures up to 50°C and it will be dangerous to go into the dunes during the day. You would leave Merzouga just before sunset and return early, just after sunrise. You will not be able to stay for a few days in the camps.
In March there is a higher likelihood of sand storms, so you might want to be a bit flexible with your plans as it can be very uncomfortable.
How to get to Merzouga
Depending on your starting point and budget there are multiple options to get to Merzouga.
From Marrakech and Fez, you can take the Supratours bus to Merzouga. The one from Fez is an overnight bus, arriving in Merzouga at around 7 am. The one from Marrakech takes all day and arrives at ca. 9 pm. Costs are around 15-18 € one way. And of course, you can also get on these busses in any town along their routes.
Of course, you can also rent a car and drive yourself. 4-wheel drive is not necessary as the road is paved all the way to Merzouga. This gives you the most flexibility in terms of stops on the road and arrival times, but it is also the most expensive option.
I rented a car out of Errachidia for a week at 35 € per day, just to give you an idea. It was a brand new Renault Clio, enough for the regular roads around here.
I was very happy with the service of the rental agency, they also deliver cars to other locations for a little increase in the rental fee. Let me know, if you want the contact information.
I also wrote a post with much more information on how to get around Morocco with public transport.
Where to stay
Of course, there is accommodation of any kind for any budget available in and around Merzouga. All of them can organize a trip into the desert for you at the budget you have available. Just ask them when you get there.
I haven’t stayed here, but it is the only real hostel in Merzouga, so if that is your thing, this is your place.
When I was in Merzouga in November 2018 I stayed 2 nights at Maison Adrar. It is a really nice hotel at the edge of the dunes with ensuite rooms and also the option to book a “tent” in the courtyard with shared bathrooms. Everything is really clean and you can get breakfast, lunch and dinner if you like.
Moha, the owner, organizes trekking tours into the desert, with camels or car assistance, from 3 days to 3 weeks. I went on a camel trekking tour from Zagora to Merzouga in 16 days through him and it was the best experience ever! So, if you are up for a real adventure, he is your man.
Riad Ali is just around the corner from where I live and it’s a really nice hotel. I love the location because you are at the edge of town and there is nothing between the hotel and the big dunes but a few palm trees and the odd camel. The rooms are all colourful and clean and there is air conditioning if you choose to come in the hotter months. The staff is great, friendly and helpful.
They have a pool and a few roof top terraces with awesome views of the surroundings.
There are lots of luxury hotels along the dunes, but beware, they are quite a way from the centre of Merzouga.
The two I was told are really nice, are:
The camp situation is a bit unclear at the moment (April 2019). A few weeks ago, the government started enforcing all camps to be removed from the dunes. So most camp owners have at least started the process. There is one area behind the dunes where camps are allowed, but it seems to be/become a very crowded place. Some have also moved their tents next to their hotels in Merzouga. So just make sure to ask where you will sleep before booking any camping for the next few months!
One option is always to ask for mobile camps to sleep in the dunes, but this will most likely be normal tents without any comforts like bathrooms, etc. But definitely an unforgettable experience!
Where and what to eat
When visiting Merzouga, you should eat some traditional Berber and Moroccan food. During my time here in Merzouga I am eating my way through all the restaurants one by one and I am only recommending my favourites here.
For a traditional breakfast or even just for a coffee or orange juice head to Café Itrane on the south end of the main street. Order Berber Omelette with or without cheese (cream cheese), some olives, bread and a coffee. WiFi is pretty good here, so I am usually spending my mornings here working on the computer.
Soup – If you just want a small meal for lunch, I recommend Harira, the traditional Moroccon soup. You can get it with a boiled egg and bread to make it more filling, if you like. My favourite place is Chez Youssef, a little shop to the right of Café L’Expert and the soup only costs about 1 € per portion.
Berber pizza – If you’re feeling hungry and are in a group, I recommend having a traditional Berber pizza at Café Nora in Khamlia, a small village 7 km south of Merzouga. You can either walk there or rent bicycles or take a taxi of course. The pizza is basically a flat bread filled with either beef, chicken or vegetables and very good.
Tajine – You can, of course, find tajine in pretty much every restaurant in town, the best ones in the shops the locals frequent. But, if you hire a guide for your trip into the dunes, maybe you get lucky and he invites you for dinner at his family’s house, where you would get the best possible version, believe me!
Kofta – One of my favourite things to eat here are Kofta, meatballs, grilled on the little fireplaces they have outside the restaurants, with hot sauce and bread. My favourite place for this is La Grotte, where they get the meat fresh from the butcher next door. You can also choose to get
Burger – If you don’t feel like Moroccan food (I know it happens every now and then) you can have good burgers at Le Cedre. They are freshly grilled, there is a choice of veggies and they all come with fries and sauces. My favourite is the cheeseburger with hot sauce.
They also have wraps with chicken or turkey which they call tacos and you can get everything to go if you prefer to eat at your accommodation. Also, they have the best salads in town, my favourite is with everything (not on the menu), it comes with veggies, fruit, avocado and gouda cheese and a side of fries. Sounds weird, but is very yummy!
Rooftop drinks – There are a couple of places with rooftop terraces on the main street where you can enjoy a view and a drink, alcohol free only though. My favourite is Café Ténéré, where you can actually enjoy a view of the big dunes at sunset and where I sit frequently in the evenings writing for this blog.
What to do
Desert camp – The obvious thing to do is,
Afterwards you can sit around the fire, listen to some Berber music and look for shooting stars. In the morning you can climb up the dunes again for sunrise or ride straight back to Merzouga. You only take what you need into the dunes in a small bag/backpack, your other luggage with be kept safe in one of the hotels.
Most camps (and this is where the price makes a difference) have a tent with toilets/showers. Not all have running water, in some you have to “flush” the toilet from a bucket and also take a bucket shower if you really want one. But the hotel you kept your things at will offer a shower once you get back.
Taouz petroglyphs – If you are a bit of an archaeology nerd like me, you will enjoy the petroglyphs in Taouz. They are located all over the mountains apparently, but there is one small area with parking close by, only accessible by 4×4 though. You could also leave your car in Taouz and walk, it shouldn’t take more than an hour to get there. You can find a guide in Merzouga to show you the way.
Rissani market – If you happen to be here on a Sunday you might want to consider going to Rissani. Sunday is the big market day and the city is full with people coming in from the surrounding villages riding donkeys or driving horse pulled carts. You can buy everything from fruit and veggies to donkeys and sheep. It is really fun to watch everyone going about their business.
There are plenty of little cafés just around the corner from the taxi station with rooftop terraces and WiFi to have lunch at once you are all shopped out. My favourite place for tajine in Rissani is the Café Esslimania, they have one with plums and apricots and it is really good!
To get there you can take a shared taxi for 15 Dirham (about 1.5 €) for the 30-minute drive. The taxis leave from the south end of the main street and stop in Rissani right next to the souk. It is also where they will leave again from to Merzouga. Be aware, if you plan on going anywhere else from here, you need to walk to a different taxi station.
Multi day trekking around Merzouga
If you are up for a real adventure you should consider a multi-day trek to or from Merzouga. It can be anything from 3 days to 3 weeks or more. As mentioned above, I went on a 16-day-trip from Zagora to Merzouga in November 2018. The landscape is amazing and more varied than one would think when imagining what the desert looks like.
The best time to do this is October to February, but it might get really cold at night in December and January. March is also good temperature wise, but it tends to be very windy with sandstorms every few weeks (or sometimes days).
If you are interested in more details regarding longer treks, please reach out via comment, email or Facebook message.
Turbans – You can find plenty of shops selling turbans in every colour along the main street in Merzouga. There is a quality difference, mostly in terms of longevity of the colours. Also, they differ in length. Generally, prices are up for discussion, the more you buy in one shop, the better the price.
Shoes – There is a small shop called Desert Fox right at the southern end of the main street selling really good quality shoes made from camel leather by the Berber women in the mountains. The quality is better than what I have seen in Fez or Marrakech and the price is really good at 12-15 € for most pairs. You can also get a range of really cute camel leather handbags here and of course turbans, dresses etc.
Kaftans, jalabas, etc. – You can also find these in pretty much any shop, beware though, there are big quality differences. You want to look out for natural materials, for jalabas camel or goat wool for example, not synthetics.
Herbs and Rose products – There are plenty herborists on the main street selling all kinds of herbal products, teas, oils, etc. The rose products are from the valley of roses around Kelaat M’Gouna, so if you can’t make it there, buy some rose oil, rose water or soap here in Merzouga. You can also find argan oil at good quality. My favourite of the shops is called Herbier Elmazouar and towards the north end of the street.
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