“What happens if wait book Sahara tour arrival Marrakech?”
I searched this phrase and others worded similarly before we took our trip to Morocco late last year, but I never really got much for an answer. I read that it’s really easy to find someone to sell you a Sahara tour in Marrakech, but no one really talked much about the trip itself. Are they just as good as the ones booked in advance? Are those higher-priced companies with reviews online only pricing higher because they can? Will we regret booking sight unseen upon arrival?
Well we’ve been there and back now, and I still can’t confidently answer all these questions. But I can tell you about what we experienced, and you can use it as one more anecdote if you’ve been wondering the same things.
Note: I started out writing this as one post, but it got really long, so I’m going to do Part 1 as everything on the way from Marrakech to the Sahara, and Part 2 will be the desert itself.
Okay, so the main reason we didn’t book our tour in advance was because Kevin really didn’t want to ride on a camel (Spoiler: he did ride one), and I struggled to find a tour that said we could take a vehicle to the desert camp. All the forum sites said it wouldn’t be a problem, but I couldn’t find a company that said so explicitly. I even reached out and asked them with no luck!
So I told Kevin, “I know this isn’t our style, but if I can’t find us a tour by the time we leave, then we’re just going to wing it when we get there.” Which is exactly what happened. Our first time “winging it” on a trip. I am Miss PLAN EVERYTHING, so I had to really force myself not to worry about it and trust that everything would work out.
So when we got to our very first accommodation in Morocco (Riad Hamza), having been in the country less than an hour, we asked about how to book a tour. The riad employee brought out a binder with some info and pricing, and we had one option for the proper number of days we had available (3 day/2 night), so we said we’d take it.
There wasn’t much info, but they seemed to do this sort of thing often, so I didn’t worry too much. For around $100 per person, we’d get the van transport there and back, two dinners, two breakfasts, two nights’ accommodation, and the camel trek (we planned to just ask about that when we got there). Much much cheaper than booking in advance.
So the next morning, we were off. Our riad employee gave us fresh orange juice and a baggie of packaged snacks for the road, and we were handed over to a stranger who walked us in the near-darkness of morning to Jemaa el-Fna and a big line of vans. We hopped on one, and once it was full, we were on the road.
The scenery was amazing! There was plenty to see on the first day as we drove through the Atlas mountains.
Our van driver, Hossan, made sure to stop a few times for scenery, bathroom, or souvenir breaks. Our fellow tourists never seemed to be too interested in spending any extra money, though.
Hossan was a nice enough driver, but he didn’t give us a ton of information about what we were seeing.
This was clearly an important place, considering the number of other groups stopped there, but we never caught the name of it.
Ait Ben Haddou
When we got to Ait Ben Haddou, we were handed off to two new tour guides, one in traditional dress and one who seemed more Westernized. I’m not sure why we needed them both. But they gave us pretty good info about the place.
Ait Ben Haddou is an old village that has been used as a filming location for movies and shows including Game of Thrones and Gladiator. It was very beautiful.
To get there, they took us down by the water’s edge and had us cross on a rock path. Children seem to camp out there to help tourists across and get tips.
A few in our party tried to refuse to tip them afterwards and caused a bit of a scene. But if you can’t afford tips of only a couple dirham at a time, then you shouldn’t come to Morocco.
We enjoyed wandering around the settlement and taking photos.
Then it was lunch time, which was not included in the tour price. It’s pretty clear on these tours that the guides are getting something out of bringing people to certain restaurants. They make it part of the tour and don’t really explain what’s next, so you’re just suddenly sitting in a restaurant and the waiter is handing you a menu without you really realizing how you got there.
Despite this, we never really had a bad lunch. We probably overpaid, or could have found more authentic food, but it was acceptable. This day, though, we decided to split a little pizza, but got confused and accidentally ordered one that was not vegetarian, so that part was a bummer. The chicken was not easy to eat around, so I ate the crusts.
Our next stop after more driving was the city of Ouarzazate, which is known for its movie studios!
It was really more of a break to stretch our legs, though, as no tours happened here. We got out of the van for about 15 minutes across from a cool building (never told its name – a common theme on this trip). Other than the cool structures to look at, it was quite underwhelming, considering that all the online tours mention this place as a highlight. Maybe those trips actually get more of a look around and some info of what they’re seeing?
Back in the van. More cool stuff to see.
As the sun started setting, we stopped for some photos at a cool rock formation.
Then it was off to our hostel for the night, Riad Ait Ali.
Riad Ait Ali
We were brought into the dining area of the riad and given some mint tea. The photos are all kind of dark because this place had hardly any windows!
Then they asked us how many rooms were needed, if we could split up in little groups. We all just kind of stared, speechless. We’d been together all day at this point, but we could hardly say we knew each other, really. I certainly didn’t feel up to sleeping in a dorm room that night with a couple strangers (I’ve had some rough hostel experiences).
Eventually they told us to follow them and they assigned rooms along the way. Kevin and I got our own room, thank goodness!
We dumped our stuff and then went back downstairs for dinner. They started with soup.
Then they served a group tagine.
Before going to our rooms, they had kindly asked if anyone was vegetarian, so they made me my own little plate. It was the tastiest meal I had the whole trip! It had veggies, scrambled egg, and a soft buttery cheese.
After dinner, they played music for everyone as we relaxed in the dining area and I wrote in my journal.
The same day I had my best dinner, I also had my WORST SHOWER! The bathroom in our room had really low ceilings, and the toilet, sink, and shower were all part of the same space.
The shower mechanism itself had really weak pressure, and the part that held it to the wall was no longer attached properly. I had to hold it, which made it really difficult to wash my hair with two hands.
But the absolute worst part of this shower?….. no towel!!
*Side note: I’m pretty sure this hotel wasn’t built with any method of heating. The walls were very thick stone, meaning they expected it to work as insulation, but also that there was nowhere for ventilation to be. It felt like a cold basement.
Okay, back to my story. So after my shower, I had to just stand there and drip dry, with my hair sopping wet and quickly losing its heat, and cold air from the room surrounding me like an ice hug. One of the most uncomfortable feelings I’ve ever experienced. It was truly awful. So I threw on my pajamas and flung myself into bed and against Kevin’s body heat. It felt really good except I was still damp and my hair felt slimy.
But fortunately in two days’ time, I was very glad I showered that night.
We woke up pretty cozy from the billion blankets on our bed and made our way down to our big group breakfast. We had coffee, tea, breads, and spreads.
This was when our group started to talk and get to know each other. We had people from Croatia, Catalonia, Japan, Serbia, and us!
After breakfast we hopped back in the van for more sights that we still wouldn’t be told the names of and had to learn later.
Midmorning, our van stopped on the side of the road and we picked up a local man. At first, I thought maybe it was someone Hossan knew personally and we were giving him a lift somewhere. But it turned out he was another tour guide!
His name was Abdel, and our first stop with him was Todra Gorge.
I don’t know much about this area except that it’s amazing and huge.
We got to get out of the van so we could stare up at the massive rock walls surrounding us and take some photos.
Next up was the city of Tinghir.
Abdel brought us around a park-like nature area where the locals harvest olives by shaking the branches with bamboo sticks.
Then we got to see the old part of the village, I think.
And the customary rug shop.
The rugs were gorgeous.
Then Abdel asked for tips before walking us back to our van. We gave him some coins, as I’m not sure if our tour company paid him at all, and he was with us for several hours, so deserved something. He gave us more info than anyone else during these few days.
By then, it was lunchtime. We were brought to a roadside restaurant with an outdoor patio surrounding a pool.
Kevin had started to get tired of tagine, and figured there would be more before the end of the week, so he got a cheese omelet.
I was not sick of tagine yet, so that’s what I got.
Very good, but the one the night before with the cheese was better. However, I don’t think cheese is a traditional ingredient, so I wasn’t upset.
The afternoon was spent mostly in the van. By early evening, we started to see sand and camels, and everyone was getting excited. We had made it to Merzouga!
Bam, cliffhanger!! 🙂 Read Part 2 to hear about our experience in the Sahara Desert!