For me, there were two MUST DO things while I was planning our Morocco trip. I wanted to see the desert stars at night and wanted to ride a camel (ok three things, I also wanted to eat a lot of tangine). Lucky for me, this trip did all of them! We booked a two day tour to Zagora from Marrakech through Viator, and it was reasonably priced. They picked us up near our Riad and transported us by van (there were 7 of us in the tour) to Zagora. While it was an awesome experience, it is definitely a lot of driving!
We began by heading through the Atlas Mountains, taking the Tizi-n-Tichka pass. This windy road leads from Marrakech to Zagora, climbing through the mountains, and is considered the “gateway” to the Sahara Desert. While the drive was beautiful, many portions of the road were under construction and extremely bumpy. It made for a long, slow, ride at times. Our guide stopped at a restaurant in the mountains so we could enjoy coffee or tea with a view (I’m pretty sure if you’ve been following my blog you understand our obsession with Moroccan mint tea, so of course we had some). While the views of the Atlas Mountains were incredible, the temperature dropped significantly, so bring a warm jacket if you do this trip!
As the van motored on, we talked along the way, a diverse group made up of American, Japanese, and Australian. Our guide shared interesting information about Morocco and the sites along the way. Our second stop was at the Ksar of Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ait Ben Haddou is an old fortified village that was along the trade route from Marrakech to the Sahara. Made from clay, and surrounded by high walls for defense, the interior houses several kasbahs and dwelling places. While a few families still remain in the complex, it is mostly known as a filming location for movies, in particular, Gladiator, along with many others. After leaving, we headed to lunch before making the rest of the trip to Zagora. We passed through Ouarzazate, but didn’t visit until the way home from Zagora.
When we arrived in Zagora, we were greeted by camels and guides. Our trek to the traditional Berber camp, where we would spend the night, was a one hour trip by camel. Anyone who has ridden a camel before will tell you that 60 minutes on a camel, is about 45 minutes too long! It definitely was a challenge to stay stable and upright, and it used core and leg muscles to stay on correctly. However, it was an experience that I didn’t want to miss! My camel was quite friendly and let me pet him. I didn’t see any camels spit, which is supposedly their stereotype. We arrived at the campsite around sunset, and had beautiful views of the sun dipping behind the sand dunes. We were greeted at the campsite with Moroccan mint tea, and we sat around talking until dinner. Dinner was served family style, inside a large dining tent. After dinner, we gathered around a bonfire as our hosts entertained us with traditional Moroccan music. It was amazing to see the stars on a clear night in the desert. While we were with a large group of locals and tourists alike, it felt like we were so far from civilization, which was a nice departure from the crowds and tourists in Marrakech. We slept in our two person hut, in the complex. Each hut has a bed, but the bathrooms are in a communal area. It gets very cold in the desert at night in December, so I was bundled up and slept in a jacket.
After a delicous breakfast, many of us set out to climb the highest sand dune to watch the sunrise over the desert. Climbing a steep hill in sand is quite difficult, but it was worth it to see endless views of more sand. I know that sounds crazy, but seeing sand where there is no beach is surreal. It wasn’t actually the beautifully windblown dunes of the Sahara that you see in the movies, it was a rockier sand as this place is basically the entrance to the desert. Our morning concluded with our one hour camel ride back to the van.
On the trip back we made two stops. The first stop was a town in South Central Morocco named Ouarzazate. Ouarzazate is nicked the “gateway to the Sahara” and was a fun stop on the trip. I wished we had more time to explore, but it was also nice to get back and enjoy the evening in Marrakesh. Ouarzazate has a large Kasbah and Palace, and is also used for filming movies. There are large studios and movie sets in the area because of it’s popularity for filming. After our stop in Ouarzazate, we made stop for lunch in a secluded area, where we welcomed the bright sunshine along with more traditional Moroccan food. We were back in Marrakech by early evening. This trip was great, and something to consider if you have extra time in Morocco.
Tips for Visiting Zagora from Marrakech or elsewhere in Morocco
- The temperature changes quickly as the altitude changes, plus the desert gets cold at night. Wear layers and bring warm clothes.
- The journey is LONG, you spend almost as much time in the car as you do at the camp, so be prepared for a long trip.
- The roads are not great, and there is a lot of twists and turns. I was glad I took bonine to prevent motion sickness.
- Bring tissues or toilet paper. As mentioned in a previous post, once you are outside of the tourist areas in Marrakech, many stops do not have toilet paper. Also be prepared to use a hole in the ground, not an actual toilet.