If you are planning a trip to the Sahara desert, it can be confusing what desert to choose. In this article, I will explain the differences between the locations of the Sahara desert in Morocco, so you will choose the best option for your future trip to the magic land.
Most popular desert tours in Morocco are 3 days/2 nights trip to the Merzouga desert, Erg Chebbi dunes. A shorter option is the 2 days/1 night trip to the Zagora desert. The latter one is a bit confusing. Tours bring travellers to the rocky desert formation next to Zagora town while the real Zagora desert is located next to the M’hamid city. So, how to choose the right desert of Sahara?
What is Erg?
According to Wikipedia, an erg, or sand sea or dune sea, or sand sheet, derives from Arabic word ʿarq” – dune field. Erg is a broad, flat area of desert covered with wind-swept sand. The most famous and biggest Ergs in Morocco are the Erg Chigaga dunes next to M’Hamid and the Erg Chebbi dunes next to Merzouga town. The desert next to Zagora town doesn’t have ergs.
Before even considering visiting the Sahara desert, you need to know it’s a far drive. To reach Merzouga town takes around 10 hours direct driving from Marrakech. Zagora town is closer, about 6 hours driving. If you want to see the Erg Chigaga dunes next to M’hamid town, it’s about 7 hours drive plus approximately 1,5 hours drive with 4×4 to reach dunes.
If you have enough time in Morocco, for the desert tour count at least 3 days, or book 3 days tour to the desert. The Erg Chigaga dunes next to M’Hamid are more secluded. I would recommend spreading this experience in 4 days. The popular 2 days Sahara tour option only for people short in time to visit Morocco.
To reach any desert town from Marrakech, you will need to pass the twisty road of Tizi n’Tichka Atlas mountain pass. It reaches 2,260 metres above sea level and is the highest major mountain pass in North Africa. Even though the Tizi n’Tichka road lasts for around 100 km, it takes about 4 hours to pass it. You will also want to make some stops to enjoy the breathtaking scenery of the High Atlas Mountains.
Almost half of the Tizi n’Tichka road is in good condition, another half is still under reconstruction. If you rent a car, make sure you have some experience in driving mountains roads or at least rent a better car. Often, travellers get sick from the twisty turns, so prepare some emergency sickness bags. I would suggest not to eat breakfast before the trip or at least don’t drink orange juice.
The most famous part of the Sahara desert in Morocco is located next to Merzouga town and the nearby villages, like Hassilabied. These towns are positioned next to the famous Erg Chebbi dunes. In some places, the dunes of Erg Chebbi rise to 150 meters, and altogether it spans an area of 28 kilometres from north to south.
Why is the Merzouga desert so popular? First of all, the Erg Chebbi dunes are easy to access. Merzouga is literally on the edge of the impressive dunes. You can step to the desert from the hotel or have a room with the desert view.
Often you don’t even need to stay in the desert camp; it’s enough to book a hotel next to the dunes. You immediately embark into the endless scenery of Sahara dunes. To reach the highest dunes, of course, you will need to walk or take a camel ride.
Second, the Merzouga desert experience is more affordable. The town has many hotels, camps, facilities you can choose a place according to your budget. The desert camp prices vary from 20 euros night to the luxury glamping experiences for 200 euro/night.
How to reach Merzouga?
- Shared tour
The easiest and cheapest option is the shared 3 days desert tour from Marrakech. Although many companies are doing this tour and prices vary, I wouldn’t recommend booking the cheapest trip. Each company has different vehicles, drivers, partner with different budget hotels and camps. Because of the long drive, the 3 days desert trip is not easy in general, so you don’t want to end up in cheap uncomfortable hotel or camp.
For almost three years, I’m partnering with a trustful desert tours company and did this tour myself a couple of time. Read more about my 3 days shared desert trip here. You can book this tour through me; all the information is here.
- Private tour or driver
You can also book a private desert tour, so you can be in control of the pace, choose either basic or luxury desert camp. Private desert tours can cost around 800-900 euros for 2-3 people.
Another option is to hire a private driver and book the accommodations yourself. This way, you can make your trip itinerary and stay in less touristy places. Contact me to book the private driver in Morocco. I will help you to customise your itinerary so you can have the best desert trip experience.
- By bus
The cheapest option is to take a Supratours bus from Marrakech to Merzouga. From Marrakech, the bus leaves 8.30 a.m. and arrives at 9 p.m. Downside – there are no stops to visit the Todra Gorge, Dades valley or Ait Ben Haddou or other beautiful location. It’s an option if your goal is only the desert.
If you don’t want to spend 8 hours of exhausting driving to the Merzouga desert, take a flight. Royal Air Maroc has direct 1 hour flights from Fez and Casablanca to Errachidia airport, located only 120 km from Merzouga. Last time I checked, the price for the return flight was around 60 euros. Unfortunately, there are no direct flights from Marrakech.
Many travellers plan to start the desert tour in Marrakech and finish in Fez. The majority of the shared desert tours don’t offer this option. If you take the shared tour, you will need to pay extra for the private transport from the desert town to Fez. If you book the 3 days shared desert tour through my website, I will also arrange the private transfer to Fez (around 130 euros in total).
There is also a Supratours bus from Merzouga to Fez. It leaves at 7 p.m. and arrives at Fez at 4.15 a.m. Ticket cost 180 Dh (18 euros). Another perfect option is to fly from Errachidia to Fez. Royal Air Maroc often has good deals for 30 euro. The flight is a great option as the road from Merzouga to Fez (around 9 hours direct drive) is very long, not much to see on the way.
Where to stay in Merzouga?
In Merzouga, there are many camps and hotels. You can either stay in the desert camp or a hotel. If you are planning to stay in Merzouga for a few nights, the first night you can stay in a desert camp. Then the second day, head to the local hotel to remove all the sand and relax. In the summertime, it gets boiling, and the hotel with swimming pool will save your life.
For relaxation, I would recommend Hotel Kanz Erremal located at the base of the desert dunes, surrounded by the fascinating landscape of Erg Chebbi.
Regarding the desert camps, where to stay depends on your budget. You can choose from the cheap ones, like Desert Berber Fire Camp (40 euro/night tent) to the luxury glamping experience at camps like Sahara Desert Luxury camp, Ali & Sara’s Desert Palace, Sahara Majestic Luxury camp etc. (around 100 euro for a tent). Often, the price includes breakfast and dinner.
Where are the desert camps located?
In the spring of 2019, the local government of Merzouga forced all desert camp to relocate. Camps moved from the ‘middle’ of dunes and to around the perimeter of the dunes. It was done for environmental reasons (waste and sewage disposal and water usage by camps).
Therefore, most of the desert camps have changed the location. They are still in the desert, but farther from the dunes.
However, don’t worry, all camps are organising camel rides to the dunes, and you will meet the sunset, sunrise there. If you are dreaming of waking up in the desert camp in the middle of dunes, head to another desert, the Erg Chigaga dunes close M’hamid.
How to reach desert camps?
The camp staff probably will meet you on your arrival to Merzouga village, and you can choose to arrive at and from the desert camp by camel or 4×4. The camel rides are not always included in the prices; it can cost around 20 euro/person.
Before talking about the Zagora desert, there is often a confusion “where is the Zagora desert”? If you book the affordable 2 days/1 night tour from Marrakech, you will spend a night in a black rocky surface desert close to the Zagora town. This desert doesn’t have ergs (dunes), and it’s not considered as a part of the Sahara desert. In the South of Morocco, only M’hamid and Merzouga towns are places in Morocco where Sahara begins.
The real Sahara desert of Zagora region is located 98 km from the Zagora town, close to M’hamid village. There, the desert has beautiful dunes called Erg Chigaga. To reach the dunes, from the village you will have to take 4×4 and drive for another 1,5 hours.
The confusion between Merzouga and Zagora desert is mainly because of travellers and travel bloggers. Most of them only been on the shared or private tours to the Sahara desert in Merzouga or to the rocky desert next to Zagora town. Therefore, the Internet is full of articles Merzouga vs Zagora desert forgetting to mention the real Zagora region Sahara desert at M’hamid. It’s mainly because there are no shared tours to M’hamid and the desert experience there is more expensive.
2 days Zagora trip (next to zagora town)
As mentioned already, the 2 days Sahara desert tour brings you to the rocky desert next to Zagora town. If it’s not a real Sahara desert and has no dunes, is it worth to spend a night there? Yes! This trip is for those who are short on time in Morocco. As well, if you are travelling on a budget.
On this tour, you will cross the breathtaking, twisty Tizi n’Tichka mountains pass. You will enjoy the High Atlas scenery, visit the historical kasbah Ait Ben Haddou. You will cross the road surrounded by hundreds of palm trees oasis. In the desert, you will have the camel ride experience, at the desert camp, will listen to the live Berber music and spend a night in the desert tent. In the end, you will experience a lot in a short time.
The shared 2 days tour option cost around 75 euros and does not include lunch (you can book this tour through me, here is a link).
Erg Chigaga dunes in M’hamid
Now, let’s talk about the Sahara desert close to rural M’Hamid El Ghizlane town and the beautiful dunes of Erg Chigaga. M’hamid village is “The end of the road” as after the village road finish. The Algerian border is only 24 km away from M’hamid.
Some of Erg Chigaga dunes are over 100 m high with an area of approximately 35 km by 15 km; it is the largest and wildest erg of Morocco.
I love Erg Chegaga because it’s such a wild experience. There, you can be alone in the desert, meet the sunset without seeing other travellers around. The M’hamid town itself is a unique experience. Even for me, living in Morocco for 5 years this place was exotic and had different vibes. I felt more like on another planet where time and the regular life doesn’t exist.
How to get to Erg Chegaga dunes?
First – M’hamid town
To visit the dunes of Erg Chegaga, you have to travel to the small town of M’Hamid El Ghizlane first. The town is located 98 km from Zagora or around 8 hours drive from Marrakech.
Because it’s a long drive, and you probably arrive after the sunset, the first night I would recommend spending in a hotel in the town. If you arrive in M’Hamid El Ghizlane a few hours before the sunset, then get ready for a ride to the desert.
Options to reach M’hamid
The easiest option is either to rent a car or hire a private driver. In M’Hamid, jump to 4×4 and drive to the desert camp (around 1,5 hours of the road). The driver can usually arrange by your desert camp for an additional price. You can also book a private tour to M’hamid desert and don’t worry about any details (contact me).
From Marrakech, you can take the direct CTM bus to M’hamid (listed by the CTM as “Lamhamid Ghozlane”). The bus leaves Marrakech at 11.15 a.m. and arrives at M’Hamid at 9.15 p.m. Price is 165 DH (around 16 euros). Then, stay a night in M’Hamid hotel.
You can also fly from Casablanca to Zagora via Ouarzazate (with Royal Air Maroc). I found some return tickets for only 75 euro. Flight duration is 2.45 hour with the quick layover in Ouarzazate.
Then, cross the hamada
The Erg Chegaga dunes are located about 45 km west from M’Hamid. The road to the dunes takes you through a stone desert, or “hamada”. You can only reach the desert by off-road 4×4 vehicle; takes around 1,5 hour. However, the route is not obvious and would highly recommend hiring a local guide/driver to reach the desert (that’s why you cannot drive to the desert at dark).
If you come to M’hamid with a rented car; contact me, and I will organise you an excellent local guide with 4×4 who can show you the desert. The M’hamid desert camps are often more expensive than Merzouga ones because of the additional 4×4 drive cost.
You can always choose to stay in a hotel in M’hamid town and only make the day trip to the desert. The off-road from M’hamid town to the desert is a lifetime experience. On the way, you will spot hundreds of wild camels, and goats will pass temporary homes of Nomad families, can stop at the small oasis for a tea.
There is not much civilisation around, only a few jeeps jumping through the low dunes and shepherds. Once, I remember seeing a camel giving birth while walking. You can have the camel ride after arriving at the desert camp.
Why is Erg Chegaga not as popular as Merzouga?
Why the popular shared 2 days or 3 desert tours are not going to M’hamid? As you see, the Erg Chigaga dunes and desert camps are not so easy to access. Many travellers don’t want to put so much effort when in Merzouga they can have the desert view through their hotel window or simply walk. As well, the Erg Chegaga experience can be more expensive because you will pay extra for 4×4 vehicle.
Wrapping up, what desert to choose for your Sahara desert experience depends on: how much time you have in Morocco, what’s your budget, you want to take a private or shared tour, or maybe drive yourself?
I like the Merzouga desert because it’s easier access, you can book an affordable shared tour from Marrakech or drive yourself. On the way to Merzouga, you can stop at Ait Ben Haddou, Skoura oasis or Tordra gorge.
The Erg Cheggi dunes in Merzouga are very close to the town, you can easily walk there or hop on the camel, and in 30 min ride, you are next to the highest dunes. The Erg Cheggi dunes are majestic and will leave you unforgettable memories.
However, the Merzouga desert is a tourist destination, so don’t expect a romantic experience riding a camel and meeting the sunset on the dunes alone. There will be other tourists around.
The Zagora desert next to M’hamid with Erg Chegaga dunes is wilder and less touristy. If you want to feel that there is nothing around you, only dunes if you’re going to immerse yourself in freedom and unlimited scenery of dunes, head to Erg Chegaga. In Erg Chigaga, you feel the remoteness, a feeling many of us want to have while staying in the desert.
Erg Chegaga is more expensive than the Merzouga desert. You can find some cheap camps even for 30 euro, but then you will need to hire 4×4 to reach the desert.
If you a solo traveller, or like being surrounded by other travellers, book the shared tour and head to the Merzouga desert. Meanwhile, Erg Chegaga is more for adventurous travellers who appreciate silence and wilderness.
The last, the Zagora rocky desert next to Zagora town is only an option if you are short in time and on the budget. It’s not the real Sahara desert experience, but you will still enjoy the scenic ride and will have the camel ride and staying at the desert camp experience.
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