Once in a Lifetime
Glamping in the Sahara Desert is a truly magical adventure that perhaps everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime. Most travellers book an overnight stay as part of a longer countrywide tour and while independent stays and explorations are less common, they are still perfectly possible if planned thoroughly, and will probably prove much more rewarding. It may take a lot of time and research to find the perfect desert camp to satisfy your needs and requirements, especially if you are planning a visit to the desert with kids or babies. I have collected my tips and hope my little guide will be useful for your escapade to the Sahara or any other sand desert across the globe:
When to go
Deciding on when to go is one of the major factors that will determine your trip to the desert. Temperatures vary immense and can differ up to 45C in extreme cases on each given day. The days are generally hot, on the hottest days temperature may reach 40C and above. The nights are incredibly cold, temperatures may drop to -18C in the worst case. This extreme range can be hard on anybody, but it is up to you to decide if your body easily can cope with this climate and you will know your children best to decide if a stay would be a good idea.
Best time for a Stay
The best time for a stay in the desert is the months from October to March, whilst in this period the nights may be cold the heat of the day is more bearable for most than the other months of the year. We stayed in the desert camp during the cold of January and even had snow a few days later. However, we felt comfortable at night in our tents and were not too cold at any point, having taken adequate clothing. Crowds may fill the available tents during late December and it is therefore also wise to travel plan a trip during the quieter winter months. Please also note that a large number of the camps are closed during the hottest summer months anyway!
Sand storms may happen during anytime of the year and are not predictable until a few days before. If you end up staying during a sand storm in the desert be prepared to not leave your tent, as this may be a rather painful experience! It is clearly a risk but one we felt worth the reward. In extreme cases sandstorms may prevent travel at all so it is good to have a backup plan and insurance cover for this.
There are camps for every budget in Morocco’s desert. You may find a camp bed in a shared tent with strangers for a few Euros including basic food and a transfer, this especially applies when you book a cheaper tour. For those who want to spend the night in luxury (glamping), without giving up the pleasures of a private toilet and even a shower, electricity and a proper bed with duvet and pillows, there are options available too. Families may want to book a tent for themselves rather than sharing with others, also do not expect to get so much sleep when staying in a large camp as the nights may be filled with noise by other guests staying up late into the night, but of course a good crowd round a camp fire in a clear night could also be an experience.
Check the Amenities
It is always advisable to double check what amenities are offered in the camp and be aware that some of these camps are in need of attention. You most certainly pay for what you get! Check in advance if children or even babies are welcome in the camp, as some will not allow them. Ask for extra beds if needed!
Should you stay in Erg Chigaga or Erg Chebbi or any of the other dunes?
The Sahara desert is not as most people imagine a vast sea of sand dunes but the landscape is largely flat, sandy and is punctuated by stony ground, with accumulations of dunes in certain areas. The sand dunes in Morocco certainly will not match some of those found in other countries like Namibia or Libya. The largest collection of dunes are located at Erg Chigaga, over an hours drive from Mhamid or Erg Chebbi, also called the great inland sea of dunes, near Merzouga. Plenty of other dunes are within closer reach from Marrakesh but they most likely will feel like a sandpit on a children’s playground and anyone staying there may be hugely disappointed. Therefore if you want to be enveloped in the large dunes you should head for a camp in the Erg Chigaga or Erg Chebbi dune regions.
Erg Chigaga Dunes
From our experience, we stayed among the Erg Chigaga dunes, 56km from Mhamid, the dunes lived more than up to the hype and provided us with a truly, unforgettable stay in the Sahara. The golden dunes can reach a height of 300m at times and Erg Chigaga is the largest sand sea in Morocco. There are other collections of dunes that may be reached from Mhamid, but most of them, are either too far away from the town or have no desert camps for visitors. Also note, that Erg Chigaga is generally less frequented by tourists than the dunes near Merzouga. I had mainly chosen the dunes near Mhamid due to its proximity to Marrakesh, Merzouga, just seemed to far away for our trip this time although it could be one for another trip.
Erg Chebbi Dunes
The Erg Chebbi dunes near Merzouga on the other hand have paid their price since the tarmacked road has made access much easier for visitors wanting to fulfil their dream stay in the Sahara desert. It has since received an ever growing influx of travellers and desert tourism is booming in the area. Many hotels have built along the dunes and there is no need to head onto long drives or camel rides before reaching mounds of sand.
Many tour groups make the journey from Marrakesh to the Sahara in one day, which in our opinion, unless you are really tight on time, this is a long way to go for just one night and I doubt it is as enjoyable, especially if you have kids, no matter what age, travelling with you. Take time to enjoy the mountains and the stony desert en route rather than rush there and back fast.
Anyone not wanting to stay overnight in the desert, has the option to go on day trips from either Mhamid or Merzouga to discover the ethereal beauty of the sandy dunes. Although the night under a star studded sky should not be missed!
Turning up Without a Booking
It is quite possible if you turn up in town without a pre-booked guide or tour, that you will most likely be approached by someone, who wants to take you into the desert. Think carefully as the desert is a dangerous place, for obvious reasons, and therefore if you feel uncomfortable or being pushed into something you do not want to do, step away!
Both Mhamid and Merzouga are about 7-8 hours drive from Marrakesh over the Atlas Mountains and through the stony dessert, the standard route for most tourists visiting the Sahara desert in Morocco. If you have not already booked in advance – which I advise – once you have reached the gateways to the desert, you should either hire a guide or book an overnight stay at one of the dunes locally, but this is certainly more risky than research in advance. You then have the possibility of either reaching the sandy dunes by 4×4 or in some cases on the back of a “camel” actually a dromedary to be correct.
Whilst a ride on a camel sounds like the ultimate experience to venture into the desert, a ride can be quite uncomfortable and is very slow, not to mention smelly. Some kids might find the animals cute but many could also be terrified at the prospect of riding one. Not every dromedary may be ridden on, a large number serve the purpose of transporting goods across the desert. If you have the urge to go for a camel ride, book ahead to avoid disappointment buit do not expect to reach the distances that the 4x4s cover.
Do Not Drive on Your Own!
Driving in the desert on your own should never be attempted, unless you want to end up getting lost, unable to find your way out and or stuck wheel deep in sands!
Activities in the desert
Savour the Serenity
The desert is a lonely place…not everyone is happy to spend hours in serenity, without access to mobile phone or internet connections. The vast expanse of sand might initially strike you with sheer and utter awe but then boredom may take over rather fast. Particularly younger kids may enjoy the enormous sand box for a while but then get annoyed by the lack of toys and other occupational possibilities so travel prepared.
Things to do
Many camps offer camel rides, board games, telescopes, hammocks, sand boarding and desert hikes to their guests. Jerome had immense fun in sand boarding and could have done so for days on end.
Watch the sunset and sunrise
Watching the sunset and sunrise from the top of one of the dunes should not be missed and even just reading a book in this beautiful landscape can be equally be rewarding.
Under a Starry Sky
At night, try to locate star constellations, Milky Way and even some of the planets through a telescope or with your own eyes, you will be surprised at how clear the sky in the desert really is. Many camps offer music by the bonfire and even sleeping outside underneath the stars is a possibility at some.
Dinner and breakfast is generally included in an overnight stay, it is always worth double-checking if there are any extra charges for food or drinks as they may not all be in the price. The dishes generally contain the standard Moroccan fare of tajines, couscous and salad. If you are a fussy eater or have picky children, it might be imperative to stock up on some basic food in one of the supermarkets or souks before heading to the desert. In all cases drink plenty of water, days in the desert are hot!
What to bring:
- Sun protection, sunglasses, hat and light weight clothes to protect yourself from the blinding sun rays and the heat of the sun daytime.
- A scarf! Be aware that the winds in the desert can cause fierce sand storms, they may even be painful and stop you from leaving the safety of your tent. The sand gets everywhere, even on the drive into the desert, the scarf will protect you from the dust and make breathing easier.
- Medications. Take all medications with you, the closest doctor may be a few hours away. Be aware that dromedary hair might cause an adverse reaction if you are allergic to animal hairs!
- Warm clothes! Night time temperatures drop to below 0C at night and therefore you should pack long trousers, jumpers and even a warm jacket might come in handy. For sleeping, thermal or warm underwear might be useful for those who are easily perceptive to cold, although the camps usually have copious bedding. There is nothing worse then not being able to sleep because you are shivering from the freezing temperatures.
- Books, games… to keep you entertained during your stay. Pack some toys for the little ones, even a bucket and spade!
- Charged spare batteries and/or power pack! Wouldn’t it be a shame if your battery just died before keeping that incredible sunset forever?
- Earplugs! You might share a tent with unknown people that snore or talk deep into the night. Guests sit around the bonfire until late at night or constant noise from the electric generators.
Most camps have some form of electricity supply, either from a generator or perhaps preferably by solar, sometimes both. However this might be limited and your access or opportunities of charging any electronic devices during your stay in the desert maybe likewise limited.
Animals in the Desert
Horror stories about snakes, scorpions and spiders in the desert are plenty. There are plenty of animals that call the desert home but most of them are harmless, like rabbits, mice and beetles – you will usually see the tracks in the smooth sand in the mornings. In fact children will love to guess which animal made which track. Any snakes that do live among the sand generally only appear during the hottest summer months and are rarely seen be human beings.
The desert is an empty void, generally inhabited by only few creatures. To keep the beauty of this amazing landscape pristine you should keep in mind that anything you take into the desert should also has to leave the desert again. Take your litter with you and stay in a camp that has an eco friendly approach, even if this means paying a few Euros more… The sun is a free commodity in the Sahara and there should be no reason why this should not be used to produce the electricity needed for a camp. Be sparingly with water. I admit to not being able to succumb a life in the desert without some water for the toilet or the possibility to washing my hands and feet after running across the dunes before bedtime! I am aware this is not eco conscious at all but we used it very sparingly and only had a shower once we were in our next hotel in Agdz.
Taking Children and Babies
We can certainly recommend taking your older kids, although we would probably refrain from a night in the desert with a baby or toddler. I believe it goes without mentioning, just in case you travel with a very young child, bring all necessary essentials, like nappies, food and drink with you. Please also read my post about exploring Morocco with kids.
Enjoy Your Trip to the Desert
I hope my tips will help you plan your trip to the Sahara desert and you will be able to enjoy a magical stay among the dunes, just like we did at La Kahena Camp among the Erg Chigaga Dunes.
Follow us on Social Media