As a travel destination Morocco just about has it all: beaches, mountains, deserts, vibrant cities, great food, ancient architecture, incredible scenery, fascinating culture, stunning arts and crafts, and great weather. No wonder more than 11 million people visited Morocco last year.
And I was one of them. I was tempted by the chance to see and photograph all of Morocco’s many and varied attractions, but the thing that I was most looking forward to was the chance to go glamping in the Sahara Desert. Not camping, glamping. Not for me, roughing it under basic canvas – sure, I wanted to see the beauty of Morocco’s famous sand dunes, but I wanted to do it in luxury and comfort!
I visited Morocco as part of a group tour that took us all round the country in two weeks. If you want know more about where we went and what we did, head over to my Morocco two-week itinerary.
But if you’re here to find out more about what you can expect if you visit the Sahara Desert in Morocco, and gather up some helpful tips that’ll help you plan your own luxury desert camping experience, then read on!
Why Visit the Sahara Desert in Morocco
You probably already know that the Sahara Desert covers the majority of North Africa and is the largest hot desert in the world (and the third largest overall once you count cold deserts like Antarctica and the Arctic). At 3.6 million square miles it’s roughly the same size as China or the USA, and stretches into 11 countries including Egypt, Algeria, Mali, Tunisia and, of course, Morocco. Sounds pretty epic, right?
And indeed it is. It’s arguably one of the seven natural wonders of the world: where undulating sand dunes, some up to 300m high, roll away as far as the eye can see in every direction. The colour changes minute by minute: bright yellows and oranges contrasted by browns and deep blacks during the day, mellowing to pinks and purples as the sun sets and the shimmering night sky comes to life.
Obviously, at that size most of it is far out of the reach of tourists, unless you plan on doing a super hardcore overland desert adventure. But don’t worry, because in Morocco you can still visit the edges of it for a day or two and soak up the epic beauty of the Sahara Desert sand dunes and the crystal clear night sky for yourself.
And if like me you’d rather enjoy all of this while sipping a glass of wine under the stars before going to sleep in a luxury tent with a proper bed, then Morocco is definitely the place to do it.
Glamping in the Sahara Desert, Morocco
One of the most popular ways to experience the magic of the Sahara without spending too much time or money is to do an overnight trip from Merzouga, which is in the south of Morocco about 600 miles from either Marrakech or Casablanca. From here a 4WD vehicle – or, if you’re feeling adventurous, a camel train – will pick you up from your hotel and take you out into the desert where you’ll be able to watch the sunset, bask in the feeling of insignificance as you gaze up at the heavens, and spend the night peacefully free from traffic and phones, before returning the next day.
Sahara Desert camps range massively in quality and comfort, from the very basic, where you’ll sleep on the ground in standard tents wrapped up tight in blankets, to the super comfortable glamping-style camps, where every luxury is included.
Merzouga Luxury Desert Camp
Which is, of course, exactly what I did. Our night in the Sahara Desert had been billed as one of the highlights of our tour of Morocco, and they weren’t exaggerating. For one night only, we were staying at one of the most luxurious places in the area, Merzouga Desert Camp.
Not for us shivering in blankets in the freezing desert night air, shared bathroom huts and uncomfortable mats on the ground. We had the full five-star treatment: welcome drinks, a four-course dinner, giant safari tents with comfy beds, heating, electricity and en-suite bathrooms, and an enormous breakfast the next day. It might not have been quite the authentic Berber experience, but it was a damn sight more comfortable
Getting there was easy too: after stopping to buy the obligatory Berber headscarves (called a tagelmust, fact fans!), our bus dropped us at the edge of the nearby town, where we were met by a convoy of 4WD vehicles. Then it was just a short 15-minute drive along a sandy track to get to the campsite. Not quite as romantic as a three-day camel trek, perhaps, but much less seasicky or chafy!
Climbing the Sand Dunes
Once we’d claimed our tents and stowed our bags, we wasted no time in exploring the area. Merzouga Desert Camp is set in a valley between the dunes, so the first order of business was to hike up the enormous hill just behind the last row of tents and check out the view.
Easier said than done, of course. Have you ever tried to hike up a sand dune? It’s not easy, let me tell you! You have to dig your heels in hard to avoid slipping, and every step you take up can see you sliding back down again. But it was a great workout after spending so much time on the bus, and we made it eventually.
And what a view. Rolling Sahara Desert in every direction, casting heavy shadows in the late afternoon sunshine, and below us the camp, looking pristine in its dusky orange setting. It was like a scene from the English Patient – I half expected a World War Two plane to come buzzing overhead with Ralph Fiennes in the cockpit.
And off in the distance I spotted a lone man in white, marching purposefully up the next dune. Where was he going, I wondered?
I would soon find out. The next order of business in our busy schedule was to meet our guide for a camel ride up to the top of the highest dune, where we’d be able to watch the sun set with a glass of wine. It’s a tough life! But first, I had some questions.
Camel or Dromedary?
I’m pretty sure I remember from school that camels have one hump and dromedaries have two. So from looking at our friendly transport I’d say they were camels.
I was wrong.
Even though these only have one hump, they are in fact dromedaries, also known as Arabian Camels. And actually, 90% of the world’s camels are actually dromedaries! Confused? Me too. Put simply, they’re dromedaries, but everyone calls them camels, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it. I’m going to stick with ‘camel’, because that’s what everyone else was calling them and it’s less of a mouthful.
Is It Safe To Ride Camels?
Getting on a camel can be pretty scary, especially if you’ve never ridden an animal before. They’re big and noisy, making all sorts of weird grumbles and grunts, they blow big bubbles of spit, and sometimes belch unpleasantly. Plus the way they stand up, rocking from back to front, and the way they walk with a rolling motion like you’re on a boat on particularly choppy seas, can be pretty alarming.
But the seats are padded and comfortable and they walk very slowly. Tied to its neighbours and led by a guide your camel is unlikely to run away, and if you hold on tight to the handlebars you won’t fall off. An even if you do, well, there’s no shortage of soft sand to break your fall!
Is It Ethical or Responsible To Ride Camels?
This is an important question, and one to which at the moment there doesn’t appear to be a clear answer. We know for sure that wild animals like elephants and tigers should not be used in the tourist industry, but what about camels, which have been domesticated and used as beasts of burden for thousands of years?
Animal charity SPANA (Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad) and the Born Free Foundation both stop short of saying that riding camels is intrinsically harmful to them, as long as they’re being looked after properly. All animals have a right to basic standards of care, so if you are going to do a camel ride, make sure they are being looked after properly and being given adequate food, water and rest.
This is only a very brief summary, so if you want to know more, check out the Bemused Backpacker’s post on ethical camel tours.
As our camel tour was organised through Merzouga Desert Camp, we were safe in the knowledge that this was not a low-budget operation, but one where the animals were being treated properly. As I hope you can see from the photos, they were well-rested and looked calm and healthy.
It was also just a very short trip, up and over a couple of sand dunes to the highest point in the area. I was at the front but I wanted to take photos, so I swung my leg over into a sidesaddle position so I could turn and photograph the group behind me. I love this photo of me in action taken by our guide – I really think it sums me up rather well!
And here’s the photo I was taking.
At the top we were greeted by another fantastic sight: a table and cushions had been laid out on the sand, and a waiter in a crisp white uniform with a red turban (the mystery man from earlier, as it turned out) stood poised with a bottle of wine.
We relaxed, drank, ate Moroccan olives and dates, and watched as the shadows lengthened and the colours of the desert turned from gold to orange to pink to purple to blue.
Ok, I say ‘we’, but really I mean everyone else. I, of course, went nuts trying to capture it all with my camera!
As the last rays of the sun disappeared most of the group got back on the camels to return to our luxury camp, while I walked down, stopping to take photos of the ever-changing landscape.
I stayed for a while at the top of the same dune we’d climbed earlier, taking photo after photo as the sky darkened and the stars began to come out.
Photographing The Stars
Later, after an amazing dinner thanks to the chef at Merzouga Desert Camp, the rest of the group headed out to sit around the campfire. With the sun long gone it had turned bitterly cold, and most people were in puffy jackets and hats with blankets wrapped round them, huddling as close to the fire as possible.
Meanwhile I took my tripod back out into the dunes behind the camp to try and capture the perfect shot of our glamping site, lit up at night, with the Milky Way sweeping overhead. It took a few goes to get it right, but I’ve gotta say I was pretty happy with the results.
In case you’re wondering, this image was taken on my Canon 5D Mark IV with a 24-70 f/2.8 L lens at 24 mm and f/2./8, ISO 2500, 30 seconds exposure. I used a Manfrotto BeFree travel tripod mirror lockup mode and a 2-second timer delay to avoid camera shake. I would have preferred to use a lower ISO but 30 seconds is the longest my camera will do without bulb mode, for which I needed a remote shutter release and I stupidly forgot to bring one. So I had to compensate! Happily, as you can see, even at ISO 2500 the 5D IV does brilliantly!
Sunrise Over The Sahara Desert, Morocco
The next morning the plan was to get back on the camels at 7.30 am to ride up and watch the sunrise. No way was I missing that photo op, so I duly set my alarm.
I was sound asleep when something woke me. “Bella! Wake up! You’ve missed the camels!”
It was my tent mate, who’d decided not to go. My alarm had failed to go off and the time was already 07.45, well after we’d been due to leave! I was going to miss my only chance to see sunrise over the Sahara! Disaster!
I had about twenty minutes to throw some clothes on and get up to the viewing point before the sun came over the horizon. Remember that big dune and how hard it was to climb? Well I had to get up and over that one and up and over three more, to get to the east-facing dune where the others were already gathered, waiting.
And so I marched. Uphill, slipping and sliding back with every step, as fast as I possibly could. On and on, following the camels footprints, carrying my backpack full of heavy camera gear. If I’d been complaining about spending too much time on the bus and not getting enough exercise, I certainly wasn’t complaining now!
Apparently the others could see me coming across the dunes and were taking bets on whether I was going to make it in time.
But yes, I’m proud to say I did. Just!
If all this has whetted your appetite for your own glamping experience in the Sahara Desert, here are some useful tips.
Getting To The Sahara Desert
The two main places to visit the Sahara Desert in Morocco are M’Hamid, tucked up in the south of Morocco near the Algerian border, and Merzouga, about 150 miles to the northeast.
The best way to get to both is by road from either Marrakech (which is slightly closer) or Casablanca. We travelled to Merzouga by bus from Casablanca – a 660-km journey that would take you about 10 hours if you did it all in one go – but we took our time and stopped at several places along the way.
M’Hamid is the gateway to the largest sand sea in Morocco, made up of thousands of large and small dunes with names like Erg Chigaga and Erg Ezahar (‘erg’, in case you hadn’t guessed, means ‘dune’). Some of them nestle right up against the town, but to get away from the day trippers, try an overnight or 3-day camel trek and spend the night off-grid in a Berber desert camp.
If it’s the real wilderness experience you’re after, the star attraction is Erg Chigaga – an enormous sand sea with 300-m high dunes 56 km from M’Hamid. It takes a week to get there by Lawrence of Arabia-style camel trek or, if you’d rather speed up the process, a few hours by 4WD. Once you’re there, however, you’ll feel like you’re truly alone, just you and the sand dunes and the stars.
Merzouga, where we went, is much more accessible – and therefore cheaper to get to. Just a couple of miles from the town is Erg Chebbi, a 28-km wide sea of sand with around 70 different campsites of varying degrees of luxury to choose from.
This accessibility comes at a price, of course. In peak season the roads get busy with busloads of tourists, and if you thought it was just going to be you and your loved one alone under the stars, think again. But time it right, and pick the right camp, and you’ll still be able to escape your fellow travellers and enjoy one of the most spectacular vistas on earth as the sun sets over the rolling sands.
Top Tips For The Best Sahara Desert Glamping Experience
1/ Do your research. Camp size and quality can vary widely.
2/ Book in advance. Don’t wait until you get there, by which stage you camp of choice may be booked up or you might end up somewhere you don’t want to be. Ask for full details of your camp and its facilities to make sure there are no nasty surprises.
3/ Check that your guide will speak your language. It could be pretty frustrating being stuck out in the desert with no real way of communicating and some guides don’t speak all that much English.
4/ The easiest way to do the full Sahara Desert Moroccan glamping experience is to book a tour from Marrakech.
5/ If you’re going to ride camels, make sure you use a recommended company that looks after its animals.
6/ If you’ve never ridden a camel before, it’s probably best not to book a long trip. It might seem romantic to spent three days trekking across the desert by camel, but the thrill wears off pretty damn quickly once your going. Camel riding can be seasicky, chafy, and dull after a while, so be prepared!
5/ Bring a hat, headscarf or turban, and sunscreen, but also bring warm clothes. Even when it’s hot during the day, temperatures plummet in the desert at night, and if you want to sit out and enjoy the stars you’ll need to wrap up warm. I recommend a padded jacket, gloves, hat and scarf.
Have you been glamping in the Sahara or elsewhere? What did you think? I’d love to hear your comments below.
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