Merzouga; this small and sleepy little town won’t catch anyone’s attention but where it leads to most certainly will. To the west, the Sahara is a mysterious and mythical place. The backdrop for many books we have read and movies we have watched, the Sahara is the place where many fantasies transpire. Located on the fringes of this dreamy desert, Merzouga does not disappoint.
Merzouga is situated along the edges of the Erg Chebibi, located a few kilometers from Morocco’s border with Algeria. The town itself lies just a short walk from the beginning of the dunes, some of them towering high over the rooftops and dominating the skyline. With paved roads all the way to Merzouga, this has become the most popular place to catch a glimpse of the Moroccan Sahara.
Dunes That Will Take Your Breath Away
The first time I walked from my hotel into the foothills of this desert, I could not believe what my eyes were seeing. The flowing dunes, with knife sharp edges, endlessly being shaped over and over again looked straight out of a dream. From afar they appeared as smooth as silk, winding into the horizon. I had my eyes set on conquering one of the highest dunes that looked more like a mountain than a dune, and within one hour I was sitting at the top, taking in the view as the morning sun began to bake this unforgiving environment. As the temperature rose, so did my need to get back to the shelter of my hotel for the day. Even in September, the heat of the desert can be unbearable (it got up to 106 degrees during our stay).
We spent most of our late mornings and afternoons in the hotel. Although not cool (there was no AC), it provided us with plenty of shade to take refuge in as we waited for that semi cool breeze to relieve us until the next one passed by. Although these afternoons were not spent in the desert, it allowed us to take in the atmosphere of the Sahara; hot, unforgiving heat that never seems to sleep. Nights in our room were still unbearably hot as the heat really doesn’t start to wear off until 1 am, forcing us to sleep outside on one of the many lounge areas in the hotel compound. Heat dictated our days, as we slugged about this harsh climate. But the dunes kept our spirits up, it gave us a reason to stay. Our trip into the desert by camel was worth all of the sweat.
Staying in the Desert
Our hotel arranged a one night tour for us into the dunes of Erg Chebbi. Around 5:30 pm, our guide arrived at our hotel, dressed in the traditional blue robes that locals used to traditionally wear. Leaving the gate of our complex we were greeted by two camels ready to take us into the Sahara. We got on our camels and rode into the dunes gracefully with our guide leading the way. Well, ok… that’s not exactly how it happened. Camel riding is actually not the most graceful experience that it appears to be. While camels are great in the sand, sand is still sand, forcing the camels to shift up and down, left and right as the dunes gave way. While it is an amazing experience to ride across the dunes of the Sahara on a camel, our inner legs were very thankful when our hour ride into the desert was over. After arriving at camp, we climbed up onto the tallest dune in the area to watch the sun fall behind the distant horizon. It didn’t disappoint as a giant orange fireball slowly disappeared from view, and allowed the stars to begin to peak out in the darkening sky. While not the brightest sky I have seen (due to Merzouga and other small towns nearby) the atmosphere was breathtaking. The sand, the whispering wind, the milky way above our heads, it was a moment to remember.
After taking in the stars we returned to our camp for what we thought would be a simple dinner, just enough to get us through till morning. To our surprise, we were welcomed with a feast. An endless supply of mint tea was poured into our glasses as we chowed down (we were very hungry) on a wonderfully spiced salad and a tajine that looked like it was meant for four people. After stating how full we were, a plate of fresh fruit was brought out as dessert. With our seams bursting, we crawled back up to the top of the dune to take in the stars until it was time to rest. Once it was time for bed, we fell asleep peacefully under the stars (later in the early morning the wind picked up and we took to shelter in the tent).
Early morning, we woke up for sunrise to watch the dunes change colors once more, took a few more photos, and set off by camel to go back to the hotel. Once back at the hotel, the fairy tale was over and it was back to bearing the heat of the day once more at the hotel.
Where to Stay
Our stay at Soleil Bleu, despite being hot, was an unforgettable experience as well. Situated on the edge of the desert in a compound with a garden and made from traditional mud bricks, we were welcomed with tea and a very large dinner. The atmosphere of the hotel feels like it should cost a lot more than it actually does. For only 300 dirhams ($32), we had a room, breakfast, and dinner each day. The staff was extremely friendly, hospitable and made us feel like family during our stay. Meals were some of the best we had in Morocco (so far) and the value of this place was unbeatable. We highly recommend Soleil Bleu if you ever make it out to Merzouga.
Tourism in a Fragile Environment
As mentioned earlier, Erg Chebbi’s beauty and Merzouga’s accessibility make it one of the biggest tourist destinations in Morocco. This does not come without its consequences. Due to the heavy volume of people in the area, the edges of the Erg Chebbi are littered with garbage which take a little bit away from the desert feel (and is bad for the environment). It is also not a desert to escape and get lost in due to its proximity to many towns. Although beautiful, you will not get that starlit sky that will take your breath away. To get lost in the desert, one must travel to M’Hamid, a very small and isolated town situated at the edge of Erg Chigaga, another Desert to the southwest of Merzouga. There are less tourists here, and with little light pollution, the stars are supposed to be spectacular.
Why didn’t we go there? First off, Erg Chigaga is much more expensive. Keeping to our budget, Merzouga was the more economical choice. Secondly, M’Hamid was way off of our intended path through Morocco. It was much more convenient for us to go to Merzouga instead. That being said, Merzouga is still a wonderful and enjoyable place to experience the Sahara.
Merzouga: Tourism Driven but Still Worth the Trip
Despite being more ‘touristy’ Erg Chebbi is an incredible set of towering sand dunes. I couldn’t get over the fact how beautiful they were during my entire stay here. The dunes are a photographers dream and for a first time Sahara experience, it was perfect. Claire and I look forward to visiting the Sahara once more as it was very difficult to leave the dunes of Erg Chebbi.
Have you been to the Sahara? What was your experience? Have questions? Comment below!