Imagine riding atop a single-humped camel into a seemingly endless sea of rolling sand dunes. The evening sun to the west creates a dramatic contrast of boldly colored golden sands and dune-curved shadows. By night, after finishing a fresh tajine dinner by candlelight, you gaze up toward an enormous moon, surrounded by more stars than you’ve ever seen in the night’s sky.
Venturing into the Sahara Desert is one of Morocco’s iconic experiences, and overnight desert tours are especially popular with visitors. Those who shop around for desert excursions face a choice between two main destinations: Erg Chigaga or a Sahara Desert Tour in Erg Chebbi.
Both sets of sand dunes are southeast of Marrakesh, toward the Algerian border. Erg Chebbi, the northernmost dunes in Morocco, is the more popular destination of the two. Hotels line the edge of the desert, giving travelers the option of spending the night in the comfort of a traditional hotel room and then exploring the nearby desert by day.
A 30-minute camel ride from the desert’s edge renders the hotels out of view and can make you feel like you have entered the heart of Erg Chebbi’s vastness. Those who prefer to bypass the camel ride can opt to enter the desert by foot or hire a 4×4 driver—either option offers an opportunity to admire the sloping views in daylight and return to the hotel by evening. Travelers who wish to spend the night in the desert can accomplish a sense of solitude after journeying only a few kilometers. When morning comes, campers can continue their adventures in the desert or wander back to a hotel for breakfast and a hot shower.
The Erg Chigaga dunes, located further south, reside off of a road less traveled. In fact, they’re located over 60 kilometers away from the nearest, lightly traveled road. Those opting for an Erg Chigaga excursion should expect a rustic experience, without access to nearby hotels. Visiting these sands by camelback requires a few days of travel through a rocky desert landscape before reaching the towering dunes. Many who prefer to experience the novelty of a bumpy camel ride in a smaller dose hire a guide to take them into Erg Chigaga by 4×4.
Both destinations offer opportunities to ride a camel, climb dunes, run the cinnamon-and-sugar sand grains through your fingers, admire picturesque views and sleep under the stars. Erg Chebbi receives more visitors due to its easy accessibility and the flexibility offered by nearby hotels. While tour operators offering excursions to Erg Chigaga can provide a rustic yet comfortable experience, this less-frequented destination requires more time to reach.
Regardless of which you choose, try to pack light to accommodate the limited space in a 4×4 or camel’s pack. Even if you brought a large suitcase to Morocco, plan to leave it with the tour operator and only bring a small bag with basic essentials out to the desert. Ensure that your bag of essentials includes protection from the sun and warm clothes to keep you cozy through a chilly desert night.
Additionally, many who visit the desert especially look forward to a camel ride. While the memorable and unique experience is worthwhile, it is also one of the more uncomfortable ways to travel—even if a guide pads the saddle with thick, wool blankets. On level ground, a camel’s unsteady gait causes constant swaying. Riding down a sand dune can feel especially jarring. Despite that, the novelty of sitting perched atop a tall hump while easing into the Sahara makes the discomfort easy to ignore for a while. For many people, a 30-minute camel ride is long enough to take in the experience, yet short enough to recover quickly from the bumpy ride.
Written by Shelley A. Gable, instructional designer and freelance writer.
Photo by causalien.
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