Just Deserts: Unlocking the Mystery of the Sahara Desert Tour

Just Deserts: Unlocking the Mystery of the Sahara Desert Tour

I’ve never come across such a puzzling economy that is the Sahara desert tour industry of Morocco. The more research I did, the more confusing choosing a tour became. Turns out, it is simply a unique beast. Many agents selling the same tours which are run by a mystery third party operator. Some private tours. Lots of conflicting prices and at least for shared tours, little guidance. But you know what? It all kinda works in a way. Here’s a snapshot of my experience on a Sahara desert tour.

To tour or not to tour?

There’s mixed reports of Sahara desert tours, with some people praising the beauty of the scenery, others lamenting the poor tour guides and the long drives. Across all the reviews, articles and discussions a few things stood out, which I’ve added my own thoughts onto:

Pros

  • Beautiful scenery
  • See the desert and key sights and ride a camel
  • Relatively cheap
  • Chance to meet some cool fellow travellers
  • Well organised*
  • Handy pickup/ drop offs/ airport pickup
  • Plenty of stops and toilet breaks
  • Scenic way to get to Fes

Cons

  • Long drives, early mornings, long days
  • Average accomodation
  • Average meals
  • No commentary
  • Little overview of the itinerary
  • Extra costs (minor) plus shopping pushes

Based on all of this, I did decide to do a tour myself. I had over a week in Morocco and seeing more of the country would be desirable. In retrospect, I’m so glad I did it. My favourite moments of my time in Morocco were all outside of the crowded, hectic cities. And I met some amazing people here. The peaceful and dreamlike scenery of the dunes make for some memorable panoramas. So how do you even book these things?

Your tour options

For organising a Sahara desert tour, there’s not much luck via the usual Tripadvisor/ Viator type sites. It’s so different.  I started with various Google searches of permutations on “Sahara desert tours” as well as studying the providers that had Tripadvisor pages. A lot didn’t. I’m surprised even the ones outsourcing the tours do anyway. Not sure exactly who or what is being reviewed.

First mini-dilemma: private or shared? If you have a group definitely go private. You can tailor a much better itinerary, guarantee a guide and generally have much more control. Shared was the option for me, being a solo traveler, cheap and unfussy. I was told by one agent that shared tours aren’t always guaranteed so pays to book in advance. Also, to avoid paying for accommodation which may not get used.

The tour operators I contacted included the following names: Marrakesh Desert Tours, Plan It Morocco Fes, Sahara Desert Trips, Thrill of Morocco, I Go Morocco, Authentic Sahara Tours, Tamlot Tours, Morocco Excursions, Sahara Gate Tours, Mouhou, Marvelous Morocco, Morocco Cheap Travel, Discover Morocco, Morocco Desert Adventures, Trail Nomad, Morocco Sahara Adventures, Desert Trips Morocco and Discover Morocco Sahara. Phew! There’s also options to book when you’re in the city as well.

Who she?

Some of them are indeed proper operators (generally private) but I’d hazard that the rest outsource them to this weird third party. To their credit, most agents replied to my request readily, with some (unintentionally) hilarious and some helpful replies.

Most won’t mention prices on their site, and none have options to book directly online. Usually it’ll be an email confirmation and PayPal deposit (or cash payment on pickup). Some included transfers from the airport but it wasn’t such a biggie for me since it’s only 30dh for the bus return. A few agents give availability, some tell you how to book, and some don’t even reply. It’s a weird encounter to have before you’ve even arrived.

Differences?

The itineraries provided (where provided at all) were pretty generic, all of them had the same exact stops in the same exact order. The date options did vary widely, so my choices ended up being actually quite limited despite the number of operators there seemingly was.

I needed a tour that would end in Fes. Most of the Sahara desert tours go back to Marrakech after Merzouga, but a few agents suggested taking the bus or shared cab to Fes from there. It’s a six hour ride via cab, or nine on the bus. Also with the bus, I wasn’t sure how much would be in English/ how lost I would be. With six of us (other people from my tour) the cab was 250dh each, otherwise a smaller group would cost 300dh. That’s quite decent for such a long journey.

Price variation across the tour companies were as expansive as the Sahara! I was quoted anything from €100 to €169, €200, €220 for a single person on a shared tour. Double or triple for a private, but that makes sense since the cost is fixed irrespective of passengers. If it makes any difference, I booked with Morocco Desert Adventures for the €100 option. Not sure if the more expensive options would have had better guides, at least some promised private accommodation and less shopping stops.

The result – Day 1

Marrakech – Atlas mountains – Ait benhaddou – Rose valley – Dades gorges

Well, I guess I was shocked. That my Sahara desert tour actually ran extremely smoothly. Here’s how the first day started: my pickup was at the time stated, the driver identifiable by name and then I paid him (in cash) for the tour. No receipt of course. We get another couple and then stop at some transition area where other buses are waiting. We swap over to another mini-bus and then get on our way, everyone here seems friendly and the people aspect was definitely a highlight.

Well, there’s no guide and the driver speaks limited English. We really have no idea what’s going on. The driver start the drive and we do a couple stops before arriving at Ben Ait Haddou. I’m surprised no-one else is freaking out, I guess we all go with the flow. We combine with another group and have a guide magically appear to guide us around the area (there was an extra 40dh cost which was kinda of out of nowhere).

This place lovely, the views beautiful. Lunch is not included in the tour but we don’t get a choice of where to eat. Not that there seemed to even be a second option. Overpriced I’m sure, but it was actually alright, if not very slow. I wasn’t so pleased with the scarf shop we got taken to, 80dh was over double the street price.

Some of the companies do promise more time in Ouarzazate, though it did look a bit boring so I didn’t mind. There’s a lot of driving and very little information being provided about where we go. It’s not the worst thing, but not enlightening in the slightest. We end up at a hotel (the term is used loosely), have a late night dinner (though a third of the tour are missing, we later found out they were staying elsewhere).

Day 2

Dades – Todra gorges – Tinjdad – Erfoud – Rissani – Merzouga

Day two involved lots more driving, a visit to a Berber village with another mystery guide (25dh please!) and a visit to a rug shop and an artist studio (commission cough) which didn’t feel too cheesy despite what I’m saying. Don’t let the long list of cities/ towns trick you, most of it is passing through these places. I do love the drive and most of us were sleepy and tired. Try stay awake as Morocco is so jaw droopingly gorgeous and the scenery is often surprising.

We end the day jumping on camels, and doing a medium-length ride to the camp. The sunset viewing is lovely (we head out after dinner again to see the stars – this is quite a workout). The camp itself is decidedly average. Like, the tents are nice but the toilet is foul and the meal was basic as. The folk are lovely, if again, not overly educational. Sand gets everywhere and unpack and pack carefully as there’s little light and easy to lose things here in the desert.

Day 3

Merzouga – Erfoud – Errachidia – Midelt  – Cedar forest – Ifrane – Fes

The final day is a bit of a cop out (but I was fully aware of this going in). You do a sunrise trek with the camels exiting the desert and then we head back home (or to Fes) after a hearty, bread-based breakfast. There’s a few grungy showers but no-one used them, plus we didn’t know when we would be leaving.

Regardless of which way you’re going, it’s a massive day of driving. Our private cab driver gave us a couple spots (monkeys in the (rain?)forest was a fun highlight, and a very dodgy lunch option. He does call each of our accommodation providers so we get dropped off perfectly. I admire how good the organisation on this is – they do care and you do feel looked after. Naturally, I’m sure it does very by driver.

(Fun?) stats: 18 people (+driver), no empty seats, solo travellers (4), couples (4), trios (2); Kiwi (1), American (1), Japanese (1), German (2), Chinese (2), Polish (2), Chilean (3), Spanish (3), Brit (3). Everyone seemed around 20s- early 30s.

Sahara desert tour verdict

So overall, it was a bit of a surreal experience to me both in what we saw and how we got there. I was a bit gutted to miss out on the informative commentary you usually get with a tour. Even with the lack of info about what we happening, everything was so smooth and efficient. The staff (even the ones popping in for a day) always seemed to know what was going on – there were some people swapping over to other places/ other tours for example.

Accommodation was quite shared (that’s five people in a room in the hotel and five people in the tent) and short of luxurious. It was nice to get back to some more homely comforts after the tour, and for a proper clean.

For the cost, it’s fair value though it is easy to see the countless up-sells/ commission projects along the way. Try bring everything you need, but it’s inevitable to have to eat where you’re told to. In my mind, it’s the nature of the way things work around here, so it’s either up to us to enjoy it or protest it. I go for the former.