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Millions of people go to Morocco every year specifically for its desert experience. The Sahara Desert that dominates North Africa’s geography stretches all the way west to Morocco. With its golden dunes and peaceful atmosphere, Morocco is arguably one of the best desert destinations in the entire world.
If you’ve never experienced what it’s like to spend some time in the Desert, Morocco might come to your mind, especially since many people online talk about it positively. The Moroccan desert experience is unique because Morocco is a unique country. In a sense, Morocco is a country that unifies the opposites (more about this later).
Anyway, since you’re here, I’m sure you’re the curious type of person who likes to know everything about where you’re traveling on a mental level before going there. So, here’s your complete guide to the Moroccan Desert and the kind of experiences that make a Moroccan Desert trip an exceptional experience.
Are There Deserts in Morocco?
Morocco is home to many desert destinations, some of which are radically different than what you’d expect. However, when it comes to iconic dunes such as the ones you see in documentaries and movies, Eg Chebbi Dunes and Erg Chigaga Dunes are the two most prominent locations.
It’s not only that Erg Chebbi and Erg Chigaga Dunes are the perfect dessert destinations because of their natural beauty, but they’re also equipped to receive tourists and offer luxurious accommodations.
And it goes without saying that one of the main highlights of every trip to the Moroccan Desert is riding the camels and experiencing the lifestyle of the nomadic folk who inhabit the Sahara.
So, there are deserts in Morocco. Most of the territory is rocky and with plenty of valleys. However, a few iconic places also look exactly like the scenery in the movie Dune.
I like the dunes’ aesthetic more than anything; it’s a pleasant view to look at; that’s why I’m equating it with the movie Dune; I liked how the movie’s cinematography portrayed the planet Dune. I’m not sure if I love the aesthetic of the Sahara dunes because it reminds me of the movie. Or, perhaps, I like the cinematography of Dune because it reminds me of the Sahara Dunes of Merzouga (it’s a chicken-or-the-egg-? kind of situation).
What Is the Moroccan Desert Called?
The Moroccan Desert is part of the Great Sahara Desert that stretches all the way from the Red Sea in the east and the Mediterranean in the North to the Atlantic Ocean in the west. Aside from a few fertile places, such as in the North of Morocco and the Nile River in Egypt, the Great Sahara Desert makes up most of North Africa.
Morocco is considered the North-Western portal to the Sahara Desert. The city of Ouarzazate is often referred to as the Doorway to the Sahara. However, that’s usually just used as a catchphrase.
Put simply, you call the Moroccan Desert the Sahara. As a matter of fact, all the Moroccans refer to it simply as the S’h’ra, which is Moroccan Arabic for Desert. If you’re going to Merzouga Desert Dunes, for example, you’re going to the Sahara of Merzouga.
There are multiple names for the Sahara destinations in Morocco, the most popular one is the Merzouga Desert and M’Hamid el Ghizlane. But the term Sahara is often used as an umbrella term to refer to all of them.
How Many Desert Destinations Are there in Morocco?
The Moroccan Sahara is home to many prominent desert destinations. While some of them are more popular than others, to each their own charm. And the charm of the Sahara doesn’t only come from its natural uniqueness and beauty.
While the most important characteristic of a desert in the Sahara is experiencing what it’s like to be in such an extreme environment, that’s only one side of the equation.
The customs and the lifestyle of the Sahara inhabitants are the other side of the equation that makes the Moroccan Sahara Desert Experience memorable and unique.
Anyway, here are some of the most important desert destinations in Morocco that attract hundreds of thousands of people every year:
Merzouga/Erg Chebbi Dunes
Situated in the Moroccan South-East near the Moroccan-Algerian border, Merzouga is a small touristic town famous for its Sahara Desert trips. Visiting Merzouga is considered a rite of passage in everyone’s Morocco itinerary.
The golden dunes of Merzouga are found in every stock footage of desert pictures. In fact, if you type desert dunes on Google, the first pictures that will pop up are very likely to be from Erg Chebbi Dunes, Merzouga. There is a certain charm to the desert landscapes near Merzouga that gives you the impression of being part of an Arabian Nights Story.
Many people equate the Erg Chebbi dunes with spirituality because there’s a certain kind of spirit to the place that stimulates your soul in a way that you’ll never experience in a modern city.
Here’s some footage from Erg Chebbi:
Zagora/Erg Chigaga Dunes/M’Hamid El Ghizlane
Erg Chigaga, near the Desert city Zagora and the small town M’Hamid el Ghizlane is the largest area of wind-swiped desert dunes in Morocco. The second largest one is Erg Chebbi, which I talked about above.
Erg Chigaga is very similar to Erg Chebbi. Both desert destinations are known for their high-quality accommodations and desert activities that attract hundreds of thousands of people every year.
Ouarzazate Desert: The Gateway to the Desert
Often referred to as the Gateway to the Sahara/Desert, Ouarzazate is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Morocco. When we’re talking about the Sahara, we’re not necessarily only referring to the Desert Dunes.
Even though the terrain here might have more valleys and rocks than soft sand, it’s still a Sahara. And what’s very cool about the region around Ouarzazate is the abundance of oases. Because let me tell you this, there’s no life in the Desert without oases. It’s true that most of the terrain is deserted. It’s the few oases in between that give life to the place.
Oases like Skoura near Ouarzazate are often regarded as a high spiritual place in people’s minds. As Muslims, the Moroccan desert inhabitants regard sources of water and oases as highly reverent.
Often overlooked, the Agafay desert is one of Morocco’s few true desert landscapes, as in truly deserted. The few visitors who are aware of the Agafay Desert appreciate the raw nature of the place and its remoteness, which almost completely removes it from any trace of the modern world.
Aside from a few nomadic tents here and there, there’s nothing but deserted terrain, which you’ll appreciate since Marrakech is only an hour’s drive away from Agafay. And as you might already know, Marrakech is one of the loudest and most vibrant cultural hubs in Morocco, which is at the other extreme of what the Agafay Desert is all about, i.e., quiet and peaceful.
While not as popular nor as iconic as the Erg Chebbi Dunes or the Erg Chigaga dunes, the small dunes near Laayoune city in the deep south of Morocco are also a common tourist attraction.
Generally speaking, not many tourists visit the Western Moroccan Sahara because of the warnings you often find online about it being disputed territory. I think those warnings shouldn’t be concerning anymore because that’s Moroccan territory, and everyone in the world agrees.
Anyway, the point is that Laayoune Desert is often underrated, which is a shame since it’s super beautiful and worth seeing.
Dakhla: Where the Dunes Meet the Ocean
Further in the deep south is Dakhla, which is Moroccan Arabic for “the one that’s in.” I find this contradictory because Dakhla is actually Kharja (the one which is out). Do you find this confusing? Take a look at a Moroccan map, and you’ll notice that Dakhla is like a finger that stretches out of the Moroccan territory into the ocean; the keyword here is out.
Anyway, that’s just a side note. Dakhla is actually a very popular destination because of its surfing culture and amazing bay area. All the hardcore surfers have visited Dakhla once in their lifetime to experience what it’s like to surf in the windy Atlantic and camp in the desert dunes at the same time.
The Life of Nomads in the Moroccan Desert
When talking about the Moroccan Sahara Desert, we should never forget to mention the nomadic life of its people. Moroccos is one of the few countries where true nomads still keep their lifestyle. The last nomads of Morocco still keep the same lifestyle of the old ages before the advancement in industrialization and even agriculture. Moving from one region of the Sahara to another to seek food for their herds and water is the main thing that motivates the nomads.
While this lifestyle might seem primitive to you, and it is, the nomads of the Desert find it liberating. They’re not bound by the restrictions of modern society. To the nomads, the whole Desert is the territory of God, which makes it also theirs, at least temporarily. Those people thrive in raw nature.
Where Do Moroccan Nomads Live in Morocco’s Desert?
The Sahara Desert, especially the region near Merzouga and Zagora is home to Morocco’s last nomads. Those people usually live in small communities, often apart from one another. Even though it’s a harsh place, their lifestyle is harmonious with their environment.
Nomads usually live in tents, which makes it easy to move around. They often have goats and camels. However, a certain group prefers to live in caves, especially those to go to the valley region near Dades and Toudra gorges.
Some semi-nomads only live the nomadic life during a certain period of the year. And another type of semi-nomads who works in the tourism industry. They interact with tourists and make a living by offering accommodation to visitors.
How Does Tourism Help the Desert Nomads Preserve their Lifestyle?
Since many people appreciate the desert nomads’ lifestyle, many still preserve their lifestyle because that’s how they make a living. It’s really hard to make a good living in the modern world from such a primitive way of life. And many children of the nomads abandon the lifestyle of their parents to live a modern life.
The last nomads who still preserve their lifestyle are incentivized to keep doing so because they’re encouraged by the tourists who appreciate spending time with them. You often find these nomads offering trekking tours and luggage-carrying services. And of course, you can also camp with the nomads in their tents, which is a very special experience.
Spending the night with the nomads is a spiritual experience like the one you can have with a shaman or something like that. It’s often accompanied by ritualized rites of passage like camping around the fire and playing drum music, stargazing, and sacrificing cattle in the name of God.
Even if you don’t believe in the spiritual practices of the nomads and you’re just in the Desert to have fun, you’ll certainly find a sense of connection to their rituals when you take part in them.
The Wildlife of the Moroccan Desert
Though it may seem deserted, the Sahara actually pumps life. And let me tell you this, some of the cutest and most dangerous animals live in the Sahara Desert. Well, you’ll have to decide for yourself if you’re more interested in finding cute or dangerous animals.
The wildlife that inhabits the Moroccan Sahara Desert has adapted to its environment and evolved its special evolutionary tactics to survive. The Sahara is an extreme terrain with melting heat and freezing cold are the norm. The animals and plants that survive in the Sahara and propagate. Actually, many of these species that inhabit the Sahara are threatened by extinction.
And aside from the wild animals, the Sahara is home to one of the unique species of domestic animals: the dromedary camel, the one-humped camel. These glorious desert ships are everywhere in the Moroccan Sahara Desert. The camel is a sacred animal to the Sahara inhabitants because it’s a symbol of patience and perseverance. Of course, camels have their humps where they store resources, which is their secret, but humans have wisdom. And that’s why the Sahara nomads co-live with camels in harmony to make the best out of their secret to survival.
Anyway, here’s a list of the animals that you can find in the Sahara:
Common Animals in the Moroccan Desert
Dromedary Camel: As stated before, the dromedary camel is the most fascinating animal you’ll encounter during your trip to the Moroccan Desert. What’s even more exciting is that you can actually ride the camel and experience what it was like to travel in a caravan like the old merchants who used to cross the Desert on the back of camels to distribute goods from the sub-Sahara to the North.
Beetles: You’re very likely to encounter the tracks that beetles leave behind when they move around during your stroll across the Erg Chebbi or Erg Chegaga dunes. Keep following one, and you’ll eventually find the beetle that left those tracks, and it’s going to be a small boring beetle. Unless you’re fascinated by beetles, there’s no need to do what I said above. I’m just saying there are a lot of beetles in the Desert.
Uromastyx: also known as the Spiny-tailed Lizard, this lizard can be found in great abundance in Morocco. Though it’s a small herbivorous animal, this lizard can look scary because of its spiny tail. Some of these lizards have a beautiful color scheme that displays shades of orange and green, which look beautiful under the sun. The sun actually has an important function in its color. The Uromastyx appears with a dull color during the cold night. It’s the heat of the sun that changes its colors into eye-pleasing oranges and greens.
Rare Animals in the Moroccan Desert
Fennec: Also known as the Desert Fox or Qrchan in Amazigh (local language), this nocturnal animal is one of the cutest things you can lay your eyes on. Of course, if you ever get that privilege. The fennec is a very shy animal that doesn’t trust humans. And for a good reason too. When you’re that cute, you always risk being the primary material for some fancy coat for some rich lady out there.
Saharan striped weasel: Known locally as Tadghagha, the species of the weasel is a beautiful nocturnal animal that only appears rarely in the Moroccan Sahara Desert. Unless you’re specifically looking to see one, you’ll probably spend your vacation without ever spotting this weasel.
Sandfish: It’s called a sandfish, thanks to its amazing ability to slide in the dunes as if it’s swimming. And by the way, it’s one of the cutest lizards you can lay eyes on.
Saharan Horned viper: Now, here comes the danger zone. This is an animal that you really don’t want to encounter, especially at a close distance. You don’t want to surprise this venomous snake because most of its fight or flight responses involve venom and its teeth. However, stay assured the horned viper is a rare animal and if you’re with the locals (who got used to dealing with them), you’ll feel less scared. You might even enjoy looking at this special kind of animal. Not all vipers have horns.
Desert Mice: known locally as Jerboa, this species of rodent has some special features. First of all, it shares more similarities with a kangaroo than it does with other rodents like hamsters or rats. If you’ve ever spotted one on your journey to the Desert, you’ll find it like a miniature kangaroo, especially since they also use their hind legs to hop.
Sand Cat: You ask me what’s the cutest feline species, and I’ll say the desert cat. With their oversized ears, unique eyes, and sand color, desert cats are among the most beautiful creatures and such an extreme environment provides shelter. Their eyes look like the wise eyes of Master Yoda. Just looking at this animal is enough to fuel one with joy.
However, it’s not easy to spot one. Sadly for me, it’s a cruel thing for these creatures to live as pets. And even if I want to have one, I’ll have to acquire it from a black market, which is something risky.
Here’s a YouTube documentary about the Glorious Sand Cat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8kTYCex8RU
There are plenty of other animals in the Moroccan Sahara desert, some of which are endangered. Here are some of them:
- Golden wolf
- Palm rats
- Elephant shrew
- Golden Jackal
What Is the Best Desert in Morocco?
To each their own best Desert in Morocco, according to their taste. However, when it comes to the most popular ones among the tourists who have visited Morocco, Erg Chebbi and Erg Chigaga are the best.
Erg Chebbi and Erg Chigaga Dunes are Morocco’s most popular desert destinations. The two sites feature the iconic dune hills and palm trees that people often associate with the Desert. Camping in Erg Chebbi and Erg Chigaga and accommodating in the desert camp with the nomads is a rite of passage in Morocco.
So, if you just want to head to Morocco to experience what it’s like to live in the Desert with a no-brainer, just book your tour to visit Merzouga or Zagora and book at one of the luxurious hotels there. The accommodation standards in Merzouga are top-notch. So, when you hear it’s the Desert, don’t just expect a deserted area with no sense of civilization or modernity.
What Activities And Things to Do in the Moroccan Deserts?
You can do all sorts of things in the Sahara Desert of Morocco, ranging from extreme sports to spiritual experiences and even traditional exorcism. And yes, you can get yourself exorcized in the Desert of Morocco. And it’s nothing like the movie Exorcist.
At least not that scary or disgusting. Part of the Sahara Desert culture is artistic and spiritual, especially in the town called Khamlia, mainly inhabited by certain people: the descendants of Gnawa spiritual musicians. In Moroccan culture, the Gnawa night is when you get entranced by the special beats of the Gnawa music until you get an out-of-body experience. Many Moroccans find that experience liberating the psyche, hence why I acquainted it with exorcism.
You can also ride a quad-bike or do sand-surfing if you think all of the above is just shenanigans.
The Best Time to Visit the Moroccan Desert
The Sahara Desert is an extreme place not just because it gets meltingly hot during the day, but also because it’s freezing cold during the night. It’s actually crazy how the Desert gets cold at night.
Generally speaking, the best time to visit the Sahara Desert in Morocco is during the early spring season and late fall (autumn). If you want to avoid the extreme heat of the summer days and the super cold winter nights, visit the Sahara desert from late March to Early June and from late September to early November.
I generally recommend visiting Morocco during the period I talked about above because that’s the best time. Morocco is a sunny country, which tends to be very hot during the summer and it’s a little bit rainy and depressing during winter. So, the best time is Spring and Fall (Autumn).
Can You Fly Directly to the Sahara Desert?
What’s typical is that you land in a big city like Fez, Marrakech, and Casablanca, before you head to the Sahara desert in a journey of a few days in a private car or other means of transportation. Usually, the third and fourth day of your Morocco itinerary is when you reach the Sahara Desert.
However, if you want to fly directly to the Sahara Desert upon arrival, a plane journey from Casablanca or Marrakech to the Airport of Errachidia (which is very near to Merzouga), will take you to the Desert in less than 3 hours.
So, suppose you want to head to the Sahara ASAP. In that case, you might want to consider taking a plane from Casablanca or Marrakech upon arrival.
Can you cross the Sahara on foot?
Well, yes and no. If you have the same training as adventurer Alice Morrison who embarked on a walk across the Sahara Desert in Morocco, from the far North of Morocco to the deep south, then you can do that. Let’s be honest; not everyone in the world can do a 2,000km walk, and those who do usually get media coverage and sponsorships.
So, if you’re willing to do something like that, make sure to make it public and make some money from it.
What’s Typical in a Morocco Desert Itinerary?
Remember when I told you that Morocco is a unifier of the opposites? Let’s talk about that. First of all, when you travel to Morocco you’ll not only visit the Sahara desert and that’s it. Unless you’re specifically heading to Morocco for the Desert, you’re very likely to visit everything else Morocco has to offer. And Morocco has it all.
A typical Moroccan itinerary starts from Fez or Marrakech, both of which are historical cities with rich tradition that goes back hundreds of years. Such cities are considered important cultural hubs in North Africa and the world.
Your trip will also take you to mountainous forest landscapes like the cedar forest near Ifrane, a region with a similar climate to Switzerland. How can a small country like Morocco have European Alpine weather and a desert climate at the same time? Well, It’s Morocco.
And if you’re the type of person who likes maritime fun, there’s no shortage of all-year-round sunny beaches in Morocco with pleasant coastal cities with a vibrant nightlife. Agadir, Essaouira, Casablanca, and Tangier are always great vacation spots.
Anyway, a typical Morocco Desert itinerary will have a pinch of everything. While your trip to the Sahara might be the highlight of your Morocco vacation, it’s only the cherry on top.
I hope you found this article entertaining. This is not an objective source of information. I’m leaving that kind of information to our customer service team, who can answer all of your questions very accurately.
So, please reach out and contact us if you’re interested in the Moroccan Desert Experience. We’re happy to answer all your questions accurately and to the point.
You can also check out our itineraries if you’re interested in anything else that Morocco offers besides the Sahara Desert. Let me give you a hint. It’s a whole bunch!