Why You Should Visit Merzouga: Sahara Sand Dunes
Morocco is a land of amazing contrasts. Seeing the cities of Casablanca, Fes, and Marrakesh provides such a striking comparison with Merzouga.
In Merzouga, you see the desert and the Sahara sand dunes, one of the top draws to visit. This article will share what you can expect when you visit Merzouga and why you should go when you visit Morocco.
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Welcome with Sweet Mint Tea
Just like most places in Morocco, Merzouga warmly welcomes you with a cup of hot mint tea. We arrive at our hotel after a long ten-hour day of driving. It was pretty grueling, especially as I really can’t sleep when I’m sitting up!
When we arrived, we were given our keys and got settled into our room to relax for a few minutes. Then we met in the back of the hotel, which backs up to the sand dunes. We were poured a steaming hot cup of sweet mint tea to refreshen us while looking out on the Sahara sand dunes.
Mint tea is customary to drink for locals and tourists alike. It’s always poured in small, ornate glasses. People drink it during meals and between meals as well. It’s sometimes called “Moroccan whiskey” and is definitely the drink of choice in this country.
Sometimes it’s made with a fresh sprig of mint and other times with dried mint mixed with the tea. It’s generally very sweet (as in a spoon could stand up in the cup)!
So, when you’re ordering it at restaurants, if you don’t like super-sweer tea, ask for it to be unsweetened but request sugar cubes to add to it.
Erg Chebbi is the Sahara sand dunes in Morocco (technically the pre-Saharan steppes, but I say that’s close enough)! They are the primary reason people come to Merzouga and other small villages in the southern parts of Morocco.
In fact, visiting the sand dunes makes Merzouga one of the best places to visit in Morocco. The Sahara sand dunes are made from wind-blown sand that collects in an area.
It may sound funny to read this and how amazing the Erg Chebbi are (and yes, I’m giggling as I type it!) but they are really pretty amazing to see.
First, they seem to rise up above the height of the hotels when you’re driving up to them. In some places, they are actually as high as almost 500 feet (150 meters) above the rocky desert (called hamada).
And they seem to come from nowhere—the area in Merzouga is dark soil and what looks like scattered lava rock. It appears almost like you would expect the surface of the moon to look like. So, when you see the sand dunes rising up above that, it’s pretty impressive.
The sand is believed to have some healing properties. Moroccans come to Erg Chebbi to treat rheumatism and some other conditions. During the hottest times of the year, they will be buried up to the neck in the hot sand for a few minutes at a time.
And yes, though it’s just sand, it turns the most amazing colors with the shifting sun. It paints such an impressive palate of tans, golds, and browns, but then seems to turn pink, purple, and violet as the sun shifts. It’s really quite beautiful.
It’s also so peaceful, albeit challenging, to walk on them. When you get even a short distance from your hotel it’s like you are in the middle of nowhere. You can see nothing but the shifting sands. So, yes, it may just be sand but it’s pretty amazing to see.
Camel rides, or more accurately, dromedary rides, are very popular in this area. The difference between camels and dromedaries is that camels have two humps but dromedaries have only one.
You can take them into Erg Chebbi, watching these awkwardly-shaped creatures easily navigate walking on the Sahara sand dunes. They are so strangely shaped with their long and skinny legs carrying their round and large body. But somehow they manage to navigate walking on the sands, something that was quite challenging to do.
Riding a dromedary is interesting, and you have to be very careful when they are rising up or going down. They are extremely jerky and buck forward and backward as they get their legs under them while rising.
You could easily get thrown if you are not paying attention and holding on tight. You have to also lean in the right direction at the right time, so make sure your guides advise you.
It takes a few moments to get the rhythm, much like riding a horse though it does feel very different. After you get used to it, the ride is quite relaxing. Particularly as you’re enjoying the scene and the setting (or rising) sun lighting up the sands in beautiful colors.
Some animal rights activists feel strongly about not going on camel and dromedary rides as they believe the animals are mistreated. That may be the case in some places, so I would encourage you to take a look around and do your research before supporting this.
We took a really interesting tour for a few hours organized by the G Adventures group tour in Merzouga. We took a 4×4 jeep from our hotel and got to explore the area.
First, we stopped at an area where the camels roam. There is an underground spring that provides water, and people provide food and some shelter for them. The camels were roaming loosely here.
There is a great sign nearby indicating the way to the Sahara Desert from there which was fun. Then we did some driving over the Sahara sand dunes which was fun and exhilarating.
There were times where it felt as if we would drive off them, and then the dunes would somehow rise up to meet us.
Merzouga Lake (Dayet Srji)
We went to visit the small but impressive Merzouga lake and saw some flamingos way off in the distance. Though the lake was small, it was impressive to see it in the middle of the desert. I have read that the lake is a seasonal thing so we got lucky to get to see it.
Next, we visited a Berber home. The Berbers are traditionally nomadic and this home included several tents. We were offered some bread and sweet mint tea (of course!) and got to dine with an adorable and shy little girl.
She wouldn’t say a word and wouldn’t make eye contact, but we caught her checking us out when we were not looking at her. I’d be so curious to go back 15 years from now to see what the exposure to tourists does and if it changes the course of her life any.
She was holding henna in her hands (we weren’t sure what it was and it’s a scoop of dark brown that looked awfully suspicious)! Our guide explained they use henna to keep their hands clean and to disinfect them.
The family had some goats and sheep and a tied-up pet fox!
Next, we went to listen to Gnawa music. The Gnawa are an ethnic group living in Morocco. The Gnawa ancestors were brought from West and Central Africa as slaves across the Sahara Desert in caravans.
They were probably from Mali, Senegal, Chad, and Nigeria. They now live in Khamlia, just a few miles from Merzouga and right next to the Erg Chebbi Sahara sand dunes.
This group is known for its traditional music. There are actually two groups that you can visit who receive tourists and play music for them, Bambara and Pigeon des Sables. They don’t ask for money, but of course, it’s a nice gesture if you enjoy the music to buy a CD to support them.
The music was interesting and I absolutely love live music and learning about music from other countries. However, this felt a bit forced and a little awkward. And they may have been having an off day but they were a bit off tempo!
Having said that, I had a similar experience in Palenque, Colombia, which was a lot of fun and I do think it’s a great thing to do. If you’re interested in visiting, ask for information at your hotel or hostel or check out this 4×4 tour which visits Khamlia.
Last, we went to an old kohl mine. This is not coal used for heating, but kohl used for things like eyeliner and cosmetics. When you see pictures of ancient Egyptians with their eyes darkly lined in black, that’s kohl that they used.
There were the ruins of an old abandoned adobe settlement where some of the workers lived nearby. We climbed up the hill and got to see some of the areas where the kohl was processed. And of course, there were the ever-present vendors with items for sale.
It was interesting to get to see these things in Merzouga and I would have liked to have had a little more time exploring the area. If you’re interested, this Merzouga tour is similar and offers some of the same things that we did.
A little tip: make sure to keep your windows up, especially in the back seat. If not, you may “eat couscous” (get a mouthful of sand) going around some sharp turns on the sand dunes! Not that I would know… 🙂
Other Things to do in Merzouga
If you’re more adventurous, you can actually go sandboarding on the sand dunes. It’s quite soft and takes a little bit for some people to get used to, even if you have gone snowboarding as it feels a bit different.
If you’re interested, ask at your hotel or hostel if they have boards to use. There are some tours do include sandboarding as an option.
How to Get to Merzouga
Merzouga is in southern Morocco, a distance away from the popular tourist cities in the country. It is not served by an airport, but there is an airport two hours away.
There are a number of options to get to Merzouga including renting a car, taking a group tour, taking a bus, taking a taxi, or flying to the airport in Errachidia.
By Car Rental
Merzouga is around a ten-to-twelve-hour drive from Fes and from Marrakech. You can rent a car and drive from either city, though you should know that driving through some parts of the High Atlas Mountains from Marrakech can be rather, ahem, “exhilarating”.
And renting a car is one of the most costly transportation options and can be challenging in Morocco. If you do decide to rent a car, consider stops at Ait Ben Haddou and Todra Gorge.
By Group Tours
Or, you can take group tours to Merzouga from Marrakech or Fes, which can often be the most affordable option and is certainly the easiest. Tours usually last several days and include a guide, organized activities, and 4×4 transports in the desert.
Another option to get to Merzouga is the bus, and Supratours has a bus daily from Marrakech that makes the entire trip leaving at 8:30 a.m. (as of this writing). There are more options if you are open to switching buses along the way.
Fes has an overnight direct bus or there are other options with stops and bus changes. Your last option is to take a taxi but make sure to negotiate the cost for your taxi up front.
If you want to avoid the long drive, you can fly into Moulay Ali Cherif Airport in Errachidia, Morocco, on Royal Air Maroc. It’s then a two-hour drive from Merzouga.
There are no direct buses to Merzouga so you can take a taxi to Merzouga, or you can take a bus from Errachidia to Rissani or Aoufous and then take a taxi to Merzouga.
Where to Eat in Merzouga
There are more than 30 restaurants in the small village of Merzouga. We arrived after 10 hours of driving from Fes so we ended up eating in our hotel.
I believe the food was brought in, but unfortunately, I don’t know from where. It was a really long day driving then we went on the trek in the desert, so I was grateful to stay put in our hotel!
Some popular places in Merzouga for local Moroccan cuisine include:
- Restaurant Cafe NORA
- Nasser Palace Restaurant
- Cafe Restaurant Tenere
Where to Stay in Merzouga—Merzouga Hotels
Merzouga has a number of hotels, hostels, and riads in a range of prices and they also offer options for camping in the desert. I stayed in Auberge Les Dunes D’or.
It was a nice place that backed up to the dunes as many there do. The staff was great and we even had a drum circle with singing and dancing in the evening.
The rooms were basic but comfortable. (And in fact, it was the most comfortable bed I slept in while I was in Morocco).
The hotel had everything we needed though there was a curtain to the bathroom instead of a door. Some of the rooms had access to a second floor with great views of the sand dunes.
Another place that I have seen recommended by several bloggers is Auberge Les Roches. This place has a number of different room size options and even offers tents.
If you decide to camp on the dunes, there is a wide range of options from budget to luxury tent accommodations. Some Merzouga luxury desert camps even have bathrooms with hot showers right in the tent!
I didn’t get a chance to stay at a Merzouga luxury desert camp as I was only in Merzouga for a day, but it’s a popular thing to do if you have the time. You can do it through some of the hotels for a night or for multiple days.
The Best Time of Year to Visit the Merzouga Desert
The best time of year to visit Merzouga is during the spring and the fall, from March to May and from September to November. At these times, the weather in Merzouga isn’t too hot and you can really enjoy the desert more.
In the summer, the temperature can reach 104°F (40°C) and even at night it only cools to around 80°F (26.7°C).
No matter the time of year you visit, it’s a good idea, and even critical, to cover your head. You can wear a wide-brimmed hat or a scarf (there are a lot of scarves in markets all over Morocco).
I wanted to share a few things you may not think about when you visit the sand dunes in Merzouga. First, and I mentioned this earlier, bring a scarf. It’s useful and often necessary to cover your head from the harsh sun here.
A longer scarf is helpful as you can also use it to sit on the sand. Definitely bring lots of sunscreen and slather it on, and make sure you have plenty of water to stay hydrated. It’s amazing how quickly the heat and dryness can catch up with you.
You will want to pack some warm clothes as it can get cold in the desert at night all year round. Warm wool socks and a fleece jacket at a minimum are a good idea. During the day, consider cotton or linen flowy pants and a loose cotton or wicking top.
Also, sand gets absolutely everywhere here. So, be careful with your electronics and you may want to clean your lenses in your room and not outside where light sand can be blowing. You may not really feel it but it’s there! These helpful travel tips for Morocco may also be useful while you’re in Merzouga.
Why You Should Visit Merzouga and the Sahara Sand Dunes
Merzouga is a worthy location to add to your Morocco itinerary even though it’s in a remote part of Morocco. I haven’t been anywhere like it before and really wish I had more time there. And seeing the Sahara sand dunes is such a buzz!
It’s surprising how cool the Sahara sand dunes are how beautiful they can be when they reflect the changing colors of the sun. If you go to Morocco, I highly recommend Merzouga and think it’s worth the trip.
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Would you say it’s safe to travel to Mergouza as a UK national? Hate to sound naive, but I’d really like to visit! Many thanks
I can tell you I felt safe when I went. It’s always a good idea before traveling to check with your government. In the US, I’d go to the State Department. I’m unsure of the UK equivalent but take a look to be sure!