The Sahara is an absolute must-see for anybody planning an itinerary to Morocco, even those with a limited budget. While the journey can easily eat up several days’ worth of your trip, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.
The Sahara is known for its awe-inspiring dunes, legendary sunsets, and unmatched stargazing, but it’s also an important cultural hub for the Berbers, Morocco’s original pre-colonial inhabitants. I highly recommend speaking to some of the local people about the Berber way of life.
An overview of options: Tour group or freestyle?
Any major hostel or hotel in major tourist hubs will offer to arrange a Sahara tour for you. These packages generally include transportation, camel rides, bivouacs, and everything else you might need to organize, but will also involve paying up for the convenience. Additionally, your visit will be structured around the needs of the group, leaving you with little time to explore the desert on your own terms. These usually run upward of one hundred euros.
There are so many ways to visit the desert, from luxury vacation to quick overnight trip. While you could easily spend a week or so exploring the dunes, and it’s certainly possible to squeeze the experience into one, I recommend two nights for any traveler trying to get the most out of their Sahara experience without sacrificing other destinations.
Choosing your destination: Erg Chebbi or Erg Chigaga?
First, in order to reach the Sahara on a budget, it’s important to understand what going to the Sahara means. Morocco’s piece of the world’s largest consists of two major dune seas, or ergs: Erg Chebbi and Erg Chigaga.
Erg Chebbi is by far the more popular branch of the desert for visitors. Its dunes can reach up to 150 meters and it is very close to major transport hubs like Merzouga and Rissani. Although smaller in area than Chigaga, Erg Chebbi is still big enough to give the illusion of endlessness. It has a more developed bivouac scene, meaning that there are both more cheap options and significantly more visitors than Erg Chigaga. The views here are absolutely stunning, but it will be rare that you don’t have to share them with several other tour groups. If your goal is to see some camels and sand dunes, Erg Chebbi will offer more inexpensive options for travel.
Erg Chigaga is located further to the south, close to the town of M’Hamid. Its nearest major city is Zagora. Accessing these dunes is significantly more difficult than Erg Chebbi, and the dunes generally only reach about 60 meters, but the payoff for making it out here is a relatively unexplored space. There are still plenty of companies offering tours, but you won’t see nearly the density of tourists that you’d encounter at Erg Chigaga. Erg Chigaga is a great choice for visitors who are looking to feel fully engulfed by the beauty of the desert and experience the awe-inspiring sights undisturbed. However, it will take more time and expense to reach it. Your options for bypassing the cost of organized tours are limited, as the dunes here are only accessible via 4×4 or camel, unless you fancy walking.
The best times to visit the Sahara
The Sahara is a tricky climate to optimize. Like most deserts, it fluctuates between scalding daytime temperatures and freezing nights, meaning that it’s never going to be truly temperate. However, your best bet for visiting is probably in Fall and Spring, between September and November, or March through May.
In the summer time between June and August, many of the desert camps are actually closed due to the dangerously high temperatures and difficulty of finding shade. While these camps are generally open during the winter, the cold temperatures may put a damper on your stargazing endeavors.
Getting to the Sahara on a Budget
By far the most difficult thing about visiting the desert is getting there. Because the Moroccan Sahara is all the way out toward the Algerian border, it’s not really day trip distance from any of the popular coastal cities. In general, to see Erg Chebbi, travelers take buses or book tours from either Fes or Marrakech, two major tourism hubs. If you’re comfortable making the trip on local buses, then major lines generally run through Rissani and Rabat.
Option 1: Tourist bus from Fes
This route makes sense for travelers coming from Tangier, Chefchaouen, or any of the northern tourism areas. Fes is one Morocco’s most developed bus hubs and runs regular routes into the Sahara. If you’re taking this route, it’s worth checking out Meknes while you’re in the area.
Go to the Supratours or CTM website and you can book a bus to Merzouga or Rissani for about 200-250 dirham (about 20 euros) Generally, these are overnight buses since the journey will take about 10 hours. (This is actually a massive benefit for travelers who are short on time)
Option 2: Tourist bus from Marrakech
This route is perfect for travelers looking to make a quick trip to the Sahara while they explore the south. Tourists taking this route might also be interested in checking out Ouarzazate on their way in or out. The journey from Marrakech to Merzouga takes about 12 hours, and once again, you can book these by going to the Supratours or CTM website, or by speaking with a travel agent in person at the bus station. These bus lines do fill up, so it’s in your best interest to organize this in advance. Once in Merzouga or Rissani, it will be simple to organize a grand taxi to your auberge or bivouac site.
Option 3: Local bus from Rabat
The local bus from Rabat usually runs through Errachidia into Rissani (only a short taxi ride away from Merzouga) This journey usually costs about 70 dirham and takes around 10 hours. Like the more expensive tour bus options, this is usually an overnight bus, but unlike the tour buses, you may have a hard time booking these. Your best bet is to speak to a proper travel agent at the bus station. These buses are also in general a bit less comfortable and don’t always have amenities like air conditioning. I don’t recommend this for first time visitors, since it’s difficult to book these buses in advance, meaning you’ll have to be comfortable with the possibility of getting stranded on your way out. Nevertheless, for travelers with comfortable French or Arabic skills and a willingness to improvise, this is by far the cheapest option for traveling to the Sahara. If you do take a local bus, be prepared to dress more conservatively and act a little more reserved than you might on a tourist bus, since the other passengers will definitely notice a foreigner on this bus line meant for true Moroccans.
Where to stay in the Sahara
Generally, the bivouac camps provide accommodations in outdoor tents. These can range from high-end luxury destinations with swimming pools and proper beds, to simple tents with rugs and sleeping bags. The benefit of these is that you’ll generally be able to find cheap options, and the camps are usually located right at the foot of the dunes. As usual, to get the best deals head into Merzouga, Rissani or Zagora and talk to tourism professionals in person.
These offer proper private rooms are are usually located a short walk away from the dunes. They usually include amenities like food, events, and themed rooms. For a cheap option near Erg Chebbi, I recommend Auberge du Sud, which can be as cheap as 30 euros per night for a room with all meals and events included. And there’s a pool!
Cheap hostels out in the Sahara may be hard to find, but there’s a small hostel that just opened up right next to the bus station in Merzouga, putting you within walking distance of tour operators and taxis to the sand dunes. While we’ve never stayed here, we’ve met the hostel owner and he’s incredibly nice and helpful
Many Moroccans have caught on to the fact that their home country is quickly becoming a top tourist destination. As such, Airbnb in Morocco is becoming a more and more reliable option for accommodations. Options may be sparse the closer to the desert you’re looking, but these are often affordable and have the benefit of putting you in touch with a local host.