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 that you will choose the best option for your future trip to the magic land.
Morocco’s most popular desert tours are 3 days/2 night trips to the Merzouga desert and 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 next to M’hamid city. So, how do you choose the right desert in the Sahara?
What is Erg?
According to Wikipedia, an erg, or sand sea or dune sea, or sand sheet, derives from the 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 visiting the Sahara desert, you must know it’s a far drive. Reaching Merzouga town takes around 10 hours of 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 a 7-hour drive plus an approximately 1.5-hour drive with 4×4 to reach the dunes.
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If you have enough time in Morocco for the desert tour, count at least 3 days, or book a 3-day 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-day Sahara tour option is only for people short of 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 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.
The Tizi n’Tichka mountain road is in good condition to drive and was renovated in recent years, so it’s not scary to drive, and you don’t need a special car or 4×4 vehicle.
Morocco’s most famous part of the Sahara desert 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, spanning 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 into the desert from the hotel or have a room with a 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 on the endless scenery of Sahara dunes. To reach the highest dunes, you will need to walk or take a camel ride.
Second, the Merzouga desert experience is more affordable. The town has many hotels, camps, and facilities you can choose a place according to your budget. The desert camp prices vary from 20 euros per night to the luxury glamping experiences for 200 euros/per night.
How to reach Merzouga?
- Shared tour
The easiest and cheapest option is the shared 3 days desert tour from Marrakech. Although many companies do this tour and prices vary, I wouldn’t recommend booking the cheapest trip. Each company has different vehicles and drivers and partners with different budget hotels and camps. Because of the long drive, the 3 day desert trip is not easy in general, so you don’t want to end up in a cheap, uncomfortable hotel or camp.
For almost five years, I’ve been partnering with a trustful desert tours company and have done this tour myself several times. 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 a 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 a private driver in Morocco. I will help you customise your itinerary to 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 at 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 locations. It’s an option if your goal is only the desert.
Take a flight if you don’t want to spend 8 hours of exhausting driving to the Merzouga desert. Royal Air Maroc has direct 1-hour flights from Fez and Casablanca to Errachidia airport, located only 120 km from Merzouga. The 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. The 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 euros. The flight is a great option as the road from Merzouga to Fez (around 9 hour direct drive) is very long, and there is not much to see.
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, you can stay in a desert camp the first night. Then the second day, head to the local hotel to remove all the sand and relax. In the summertime, it gets boiling, and a hotel with a 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 camps to relocate. Camps moved from the ‘middle’ of the dunes to around the dunes’ perimeter. It was done for environmental reasons (waste, sewage disposal, and water usage by camps).
Therefore, most of the desert camps have changed their location. They are still in the desert, but farther from the dunes.
However, don’t worry, all camps organise camel rides to the dunes, and you will meet the sunset and sunrise there. If you dream of waking up in the desert camp in the middle of the dunes, head to another desert, the Erg Chigaga dunes close to M’hamid.
How to reach desert camps?
The camp staff will probably meet you on your arrival at Merzouga village, and you can choose to arrive at and from the desert camp by camel or 4×4. Camel rides are not always included in the prices; they can cost around 20 euros/per person.
Before talking about the Zagora desert, there is often confusion about “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 Zagora town. This desert doesn’t have ergs (dunes), and it’s not considered 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 the Zagora region is located 98 km from 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 the Merzouga and Zagora desert is mainly because of travellers and travel bloggers. Most of them have only been on 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 on 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, the 2 days Sahara desert tour brings you to the rocky desert next to Zagora town. If it’s not a real Sahara desert with no dunes, is it worth spending 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 and 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, you will listen to live Berber music and spend a night in the desert tent. In the end, you will experience a lot in a short time.
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” after the village road finishes. The Algerian border is only 24 km away from M’hamid.
Some Erg Chigaga dunes are over 100 m high with an area of approximately 35 km by 15 km; it is Morocco’s largest and wildest erg.
I love Erg Chegaga because it’s such a wild experience. You can be alone in the desert, and meet the sunset without seeing other travellers around. The town of M’hamid itself is a unique experience. Having been in Morocco for 7 years, I thought this place was exotic and had different vibes. I felt more like I was on another planet where time and regular life didn’t exist.
How to get to Erg Chegaga dunes?
First – M’hamid town
To visit the dunes of Erg Chegaga, you must first travel to the small town of M’Hamid El Ghizlane. The town is 98 km from Zagora or around 8 hours’ drive from Marrakech.
Because it’s a long drive, and you will probably arrive after sunset, I recommend spending the first night in a hotel in the town. If you arrive in M’Hamid El Ghizlane a few hours before the sunset, get ready for a ride to the desert.
Options to reach M’hamid
Then, cross the hamada
The Erg Chegaga dunes are located about 45 km west of 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; it takes around 1,5 hours. However, the route is not obvious, and I highly recommend hiring a local guide/driver to reach the desert (that’s why you cannot drive to the desert in the dark).
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 the temporary homes of Nomad families, and you can stop at the small oasis for tea. So when you book desert camp there and don’t come with your own 4×4 vehicle, the camp will organise a transfer, which normally costs around 100-200 euros both ways. It’s worth it, as you will experience such a beautiful desert road, visit desert nomads etc.
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 are the popular shared 2 days or 3 desert tours 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 they can have the desert view through their hotel window or walk in Merzouga. The Erg Chegaga experience can also be more expensive because you will pay extra for a 4×4 vehicle.
What desert to choose for your Sahara desert experience depends on: how much time you have in Morocco, your budget, and whether you want to take a private or shared tour or maybe drive yourself.
I like the Merzouga desert because it’s easier to access; you can book an affordable shared tour from Marrakech or drive it 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 a camel, and in 30 min ride, you are next to the highest dunes. The Erg Cheggi dunes are majestic and will leave you with 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 the unlimited scenery of dunes, head to Erg Chegaga. In Erg Chigaga, you feel remoteness, a feeling many of us want to have while staying in the desert.
Suppose you are 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 on time and budget. It’s not the real Sahara desert experience, but you will still enjoy the scenic ride and will have the camel ride and stay at the desert camp experience.