I may have fallen in love with the intricate mosaic tiles and luxurious riads of Marrakech, but the birthday boy’s favorite part of our trip was most definitely our three-day trek into the Sahara. I organized this trek with Viaggiare in Marocco, a small tour company I found online after painstaking research. For about $530, our package included private transportation with a guide named Mohamed, one night at a hotel, one night in a desert camp, two camel rides, and all of our breakfasts and dinners throughout the trip.
Mohamed met us at our riad at 8 am, and we began our long journey to the southeast edge of Morocco. Mohamed is of Berber descent and can speak six languages, which he picked up all on his own. (Meanwhile, I’ve studied Russian, Mandarin, and Spanish in school and am fluent in absolutely none of them). Since he was slightly better at Spanish than English, Anthony practiced his broken Spanish to communicate while I took intermittent naps in the backseat. Mohamed was an incredibly skilled driver, whizzing us up mountains, through crowded village streets, and around exasperatingly slow drivers (at one point, he expertly passed five cars and a huge truck while driving along a cliff!). I’m a firm believer that only those who can drive stick shift — i.e., those who actually drive, not just passively fumble along with automatic transmission — should be allowed to own cars. I think the world would be a much safer and more efficient place.
We were stunned by the wide range of landscapes in Morocco, from snowy mountains to palm tree plantations to staggering gorges. Mohamed considerately pulled over whenever we wanted to take photos. One of the most impressive things we saw was Aït Benhaddou, a fortified village located on the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains. Crammed within defensive walls is a clay brick kasbah. While most residents now live on the other side of the river in the newer part of town (just like in Marrakech!), many still work in the old town, which caters to tourists. I wonder if they’re confused by Western foreigners, obsessed with the old architecture and lifestyles that they just recently escaped. Aït Benhaddou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been the setting of various films and TV shows such as The Mummy, Gladiator, Kundun, and Game of Thrones. Mohamed led us up to the very top of the kasbah, offering a panoramic view of the medina and new town. After we took an embarrassing amount of photos, he took us to a secret restaurant inside someone’s home, where we had a chicken tagine and a tray of fresh fruit on the rooftop offering another magnificent view of Aït Benhaddou.
During our drive, we noticed that schools seemed to be letting kids out throughout the day. Mohamed explained that since there are not enough teachers or classrooms, students either attend school in the morning or in the afternoon, and switch times halfway through the year. It might seem confusing but it actually makes more sense than the American school schedule, which consistently punishes anyone who isn’t a morning person or struggles to get to school that early.
We also noticed an Arabic phrase written on the hillsides of almost every town — “Allah, al Watan, al Malik”. It means god, country, and king, which are the three pillars of the Kingdom of Morocco. Mohamed explained the differences between the Moroccan flag and the Berber flag, both of which we saw repeatedly. The Moroccan flag is red with a green five-pointed star to signify the five orders of Islam. Meanwhile, the Berber flag is composed of horizontal bands of blue, green, and yellow, with a large letter in the center. The blue represents the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, the two bodies of water that surround Morocco; the green represents the land and green mountains; and the yellow represents the sands of the Sahara Desert. The letter means “free man,” which is what the Berbers call themselves, and its red color is the color of resistance. The Berber flag might be my new favorite!
We spent our first night in the Dades Valley, at Hotel Babylon Dades. It’s built into a cliff! We had a lovely room with a view of the mountains from our balcony. Breakfast and dinner were served in the dining hall downstairs, and after dinner we were entertained by live music, as Berber musicians sang and drummed for the rest of the night.
We learned a lot about Berbers on our trek into the desert. For example, the majority of Moroccans are actually Berbers, not Arabs. Most Berbers live in North Africa, especially in Morocco, Libya, and Algeria. Originally a nonreligious society, Berbers were conquered by the Arabs in the 7th century and were converted to Islam. After independence from France in the 20th century, North Africa established Arabic as its official language; most Berbers haven’t been able to use their own language in public until very recently, when some private schools started teaching Berber. The Berber experience is sadly reminiscent of those which so many indigenous populations face.
The next morning, Mohamed collected us and we continued our journey, stopping by the impressive Todra Gorge with its huge vertical rock walls, a rug shop at which we bought a couple of turbans for our camel ride, and a fossil excavation site. Apparently the Sahara Desert used to be underwater (and near the Gulf of Mexico!), which explains why Morocco is filled with fossils of fish and other prehistoric creatures. Berbers used to be nomadic, moving across the African continent freely, but since borders now restrict their movement, many of them are stuck in one place and go into the tourism industry, make rugs, or dig up fossils.
Finally, we made it to Merzouga, a village just 30 miles from the Algerian border and where we were introduced to our camels. We got onto each of our camels one by one and were led by two Berbers into Erg Chebbi, a part of the Sahara known for its stunning sand dunes. This is why we came to Morocco! If you’re only going to ride a camel once in your life, Erg Chebbi is where to do it. We rode our camels into the increasingly quiet desert for about an hour. It looked like every movie you’ve seen of a desert. We took a break to climb up a high dune to watch the sun set, transforming the golden-yellow slopes into a rose-colored dreamscape. Anthony was able to take some cool Metal Earth shots of his Star Wars droids since Erg Chebbi happened to be the perfect setting for Tatooine and Jakku.
Eventually we arrived at our camp, which was nicer than I was expecting! It was a whole complex of Berber tents, some for sleeping (with real beds and even an overhead light!), a large one for dining, and three small ones for private toilets. Paths were lined with beautiful Berber rugs, and there was a large fire pit surrounded by chairs, which is where we’d end the night drumming and dancing with the Berbers.
One of the wonderful things about camping in Erg Chebbi is that if you want to see a breathtaking amount of stars – definitely the most I’ve ever seen – all you have to do is walk a few seconds to the next dune to completely isolate yourself from everything. And when you’re ready to return, just walk back from your “private” sand dune and find the campfire. I think this campsite has ruined me from camping anywhere else for the rest my life!
Our bed was covered with thick Berber blankets that kept us nice and toasty overnight. When we woke up at 5:30 am, it was still pitch black and near freezing outside. We slowly rode our camels back to Merzouga as the sun rose. It was incredible.
Mohamed met us back at a hotel just across the street from where we said good-bye to our camels and Berber friends. We fueled up with a quick breakfast before our long nine-hour drive, taking a slightly different route back to our riad.
Marrakech was impressive enough, but to fully understand Morocco you need to get out of the city and experience the indigenous Moroccan culture. We learned so much just by speaking to Mohamed and encountering different Berbers along our journey. This desert trek was easily one of the biggest adventures of my life. More importantly, this has been Anthony’s best birthday so far. (Success! Clearly, everyone should spend their 30th birthday in Morocco.)
Tips for future travelers:
- Do some research and figure out which desert is most suitable for you. I highly recommend Erg Chebbi. There are other deserts, such as Zagora (which is more of a rock desert), but these won’t have the epic sand dunes that were really the highlight of our desert trek. To tell you the truth, without those sand dunes you might as well be riding camels in Arizona. Erg Chebbi is also a great place to go sandboarding, thanks to the dunes again. Erg Chigaga is another option, which beats Erg Chebbi in terms of size (great for those who want to feel completely secluded!), but is much harder to reach.
- It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when trying to choose a tour company. Even my usual technique of sifting through TripAdvisor reviews was exhausting. In the end, I narrowed it down to a handful that met my requirements and went with whichever one responded to my email first. Make a list of your requirements (e.g., number of days, which desert, sites to see, activities to include, price) and just go with the first company that can accommodate you. They’re probably all pretty good.
- What to bring into the desert? Bottled water (for drinking and brushing your teeth), tissue (in case there’s no toilet paper), pajamas, warm clothing, a turban (you’ll most likely purchase this on your way to the desert), some coins to tip your Berber guide, toothpaste and toothbrush, sunglasses, and a portable battery pack (there are no outlets, so make sure you can charge your electronics).
- Wear pants when riding a camel. It doesn’t matter how many photos you’ve seen of models wearing stylish dresses while standing near a camel. Trust me — they didn’t actually ride that camel. You’ll want to wear pants because your legs are going to be very open and it’s possible the camels might have fleas (though I didn’t see any on ours). Feel free to bring your purse or backpack because camels can easily carry those.
- Travel, travel, travel. One thing that Mohamed taught us particularly struck me — he hasn’t left the country because it’s relatively difficult for Moroccans to travel; without a visa, Moroccans can only visit 56 countries, which is roughly a third of the countries that Americans can visit. I sometimes forget how privileged I am as a U.S. citizen, and the more I travel, the more I realize that it is my duty to travel. In other words, if you’re not at least attempting to travel to new countries every year, you are being a bad American.