The image of camels crossing a sea of dunes seems integral to most people’s imagined idea of Morocco. This is ironic, as the borders of modern Morocco only contain two areas of sand, the most popular of which is only 10 miles across. Both areas are difficult to get to, but this doesn’t stop many tourists from thinking that riding a camel is the “thing to do” in Morocco, just as riding an elephant is the “thing” in Thailand, and snorkeling is the “thing” in Belize.
If the object of these “things” is purely to have fun, then go ahead and ride your camel. But shouldn’t a country’s “thing” involve something truly emblematic of the country, something representative of the local climate or culture? So often I see people asking for help with a 7-day visit to Morocco tearing their hair out over the logistics of getting to the desert. I propose a cultural shift where we change our image of Morocco as a green and mountainous expanse whose Saharan quarter is filled almost entirely by rocky mountains, canyons and oases. Morocco has far more square miles of forests than of sand dunes.
But I get it. You just want to have the experience regardless of how contrived it is. And no kidding, sand dunes are fun to kick around in. So if you want to make the dunes a part of your trip, consider the following:
-It will cut a lot of time out of your visit to the country (three days minimum coming from Marrakech or Fes, for one night in the desert).
-Think about what you want to get out of the experience — those nights in the “bedouin tent” advertised by tour companies are less romantic than they sound. There will be mint tea in the desert, drumming by firelight, stargazing. There will also be bedbugs and bad food and your ‘Bedouin’ guides have probably commuted from their condos in Marrakech.
If you want a recommendation for what to do instead of ride a camel, I suggest shopping around for a hiking tour which will take you around some of the villages in the High Atlas. Here’s a company which looks affordable and ethically run. Unlike camel treks, a trek through the mountain villages is a chance to score a point for responsible tourism while having an authentic experience of Moroccan life and culture.
I think you’d be a fool to leave Morocco without visiting the desert, but I’d emphasize that the ‘Sahara’ can include a lot of things, such as the epic, alien peaks of the Jbel Sahro, or the oasis jeweled ‘great gorges’ region east of Tafraoute, where camel caravans laden with gold drove prosperity and warfare in Morocco for centuries. Nonetheless, there’s no denying that running around in a sea of dunes is truly unforgettable. I wouldn’t discourage anyone with lots of time to burn from seeking out the sand dunes; only remember the Sahara =/= simply sand, and take the camel-riding meme with a grain of salt.
For all the things I have to say against it, I have indeed done it. A few years ago My wife and I were too tired after a month in Southeast Asia to go trekking in the mountains, so after a series of overnight buses from Meknes to Merzouga, we set up base in a hotel and negotiated a bare-bones price for one night in the desert for two people. We were fully aware the frills would be trimmed for what we paid. The camels were uncomfortable as promised. The guide took our camera and snapped lots and lots of photos. The tents were basic. Our two guides kept us in hysterics with their banter around the campfire, and put on a stellar drumming performance. The tagine they served was terrible. It was December and there was frost on the sand when we woke the next morning, which I’d never seen before. We hiked up into the high dunes before dawn so we could watch the sun rise over the cliffs which mark the border with Algeria. At no point did I experience what could be described as an exultation of oriental mystery.
As I said, there are two options for sand dunes in Morocco. If you have a little extra time and money, you may consider trying to get to Erg Chigaga. But it’s far more likely you’ll end up heading toward Erg Chebbi via the town of Merzouga. Look up Erg Chebbi on google earth and you’ll see that it’s really an insignificant little splat of sand, ten miles across, a stone’s throw from the Algerian border. Due to its popularity the dunes are pockmarked with 4×4 tracks and camel droppings; getting your photos to look as pristine as the ones on Google can be difficult.
My first visit there in 2010 I was lucky enough to arrive in the middle of a sandstorm, which had left the dunes looking pristine and lead to the cancellation of all camel treks, thus clearing out many of the tourists. I was with my friends Kamal and Hakim, city boys from Casablanca, and we had a whale of a time. Already giddy from having weathered out the sandstorm, we ran up the hill of sand behind our hotel and sank in our legs like kids at the beach. We dressed each other up in headscarves. We stomped out into the dunes at night drinking wine and singing songs about scorpions. Star-struck by my first encounter with a legendary desert, in my journal I wrote the words “The Sahara should be met with stout heart and bare feet.”
I understand most people want the whole camel experience because it’s the “thing to do” in the Sahara. But here in this tourist hotspot we three were able to have a bit of fun and enjoy the natural beauty of the dunes, without any kind of pretension. Rather than an artificial Orientalist experience in a “Bedouin” tent, bring some friends, bring your own tent, watch out for scorpions and have a good time. When you abandon your preconceived notions about what an experience in country X ‘should’ be like, you leave behind a lot of limitations.