There’s lots of info on this tour already posted on the internets, but here are some things that I think may be helpful. It’s helpful to know what you’re getting into, since many of us went in half blind. Most of the people at the final camp site seemed to be from hostels in Marrakech or Fez.
There is a one day, two day, or three day tour. Do the three day tour to go to the the dunes that are worth seeing.
$$$$$$ The price varies but it’s all pretty much the same tour. It just depends on who is selling it to you. And like all things in Morocco, the price is negotiable. People we met paid anywhere from 65-86 Euro, with the average price being about 70ish. I paid 86 because I didn’t know any better. You will be expected to tip your tour guides and the camel/camping staff.
You will be brought to touristy places to eat with menus that are double what you’d pay in Marrakech. I was in a group of about 16 very young kids, mostly students, who were shocked by the menu prices, so it was pretty easy to negotiate down the menu prices to about 50-60 a plate (from 100). Smaller groups may not have as much negotiating power. We met other tourists that paid the full price. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for things off the menu. Some kids on a tighter budget just got a fruit platter or french fries for 20 dirham.
You will also be brought to a place to buy scarves for the Sahara tour for about 60 dirham. You can get these scarves everywhere for about 30-50, so don’t from pressured to buy at this stop.
So, the entire operation isn’t great at filling you in with what’s going on, where you’re going, or where you’re stopping. You’re left in the dark often and sometimes you just go with it. You don’t always get answers, but ask questions along the way.
The first day you stop by the ancient site Ait Benhaddou, famous site used in many films.
Here is where you’ll be brought to the 60 dirham scarf place. At the end, you tip the guide 20 dirham. I tried to buy a nice cotton scarf I really liked from another vendor but the tour guide intervened in my transaction, telling me we’re getting a group discount elsewhere. He lied. It was twice the price, plus they didn’t have the nice cotton hand dyed scarf I wanted, only the mass produced ones with the dark dyed ends.
After this site, you arrive at a hotel where you spend the night. There were rumors of bedbugs from other people that had taken the same tour. Turns out, each tour group stays in different hotels. We stayed at Hotel Tamlalte, which had a nice rating on TripAdvisor. Luckily our hotel was pretty nice (no bedbugs!) and the staff were great. Dinner was lovely. At night there was a social time with a drum circle on the terrace.
We stopped at an oasis Berbere Nomad village. Again we were very fortunate as we had a really great, upbeat, and cheery guide Ali. We took a nice stroll through the cool greenery of the agricultural land which was a nice break from the scalding heat of the desert sun.
I particularly liked how he got semi political in stressing peace and unity with all the turmoil going on in the world. Let’s face it, Muslims have a bad reputation with all the terrorism going on at the moment, despite being a religion of peace. I think some others didn’t like the political speech plug, but I’m all for anyone spreading love and peace.
We were brought to a Berber “home” where we were served mint tea and sold hand woven Moroccan rugs. Another tourist trap if you’re not trying to lug around a carpet. Again, there’s plenty of info out there regarding Moroccan rugs so I won’t get into it. I didn’t intend on buying anything at all but I couldn’t resist getting a great price on a very nice rug. They go for much more in NYC and I know I could never afford one at the import price, so I did some hard negotiating for something I really liked for a price I was very comfortable with. Never feel pressured into buying!! I felt really great about my purchase because I did my research beforehand.
The people in my group (mostly students) were not in any position to spend any real money, so I was the only one who made a major purchase. I did manage to spread the peer pressure of buying, so some others made some smaller purchases after I broke the ice.
Right before we got to the camel site in Merzouga, we stopped to buy water. Two bottles minimum were recommended. For once, we were brought to a non tourist spot. We bought them for 7 dirham for frozen bottles. I bought a not frozen bottle for 6 dirham and was later envious of those who had bought the frozen ones. Next door was a last minute scarf stop for half the price of the tourist trap we were brought to the day before.
Three tourist groups were combined at our camp site. At the camel site, they tell you to only bring what you need to the camp site.
My suggestion: water, long sleeves, toilet paper/tissues, snacks, wear sandals. Keep in mind that the sand WILL get into everything. I happened to have a sleeping bag that a friend had left in Marrakech for me. She said I would need it. Nobody believed that I would need a sleeping bag. I had read and was told that it gets cold in the desert. Two staff members said it does not get cold. My faith in the staff was pretty low, so I brought extra clothes and the sleeping bag just in case.
I hate the use of animals in tourism.. the chained up monkeys, the drugged tigers, the beaten elephants.. I guess I had my hopes up about the camels, but I felt pretty terrible fueling the camel slavery. The first thing I noticed was that they always pulled away when approached. The neck branding was sad and I hated that they had the rope pierced through their noses. They were also hit when they got fiesty or slow, either on the side of the face/jaw or on their behind. I understand that this is how people here make a living and that their treatment of animals is culturally different than from where I’m from. I know nothing about how to train a camel. I also willingly participated in this tour. There were several of us who felt uneasy about the camels (vegetarians it course), but use your judgement whether this type of tour is for you. I realized later that other tours offered 4×4’s instead of camels. Much better on the conscience if you’re against animal exploitation. Our camels had a “Hi tourist, I hate you and my job really sucks” kinda vibe. I secretly felt like setting all the camels free.. but I’m not sure how that would go down. (Later during the ride home we saw some free walking camels crossing the roads that looked super happy with life. My instincts about our sad tourism camels were pretty spot on.) #freethecamels
The ride itself is somewhat similar to horseback riding. I found that the sand made the ride softer that hard ground, but you also have to keep your balance descending the dunes. If possible, get a larger camel as they are more stable. You will be in pain afterwards. Some people had reported bruising as well. My body felt sore the next day after arriving in Marrakech.
You may pass two pretty white campsites. Unless you paid the extra 40 euro for the upgrade, you will end up at the simple regular site (we called it the ghetto site). The upgraded site looked like it had a shower and lights, but I can’t say for sure.
When you reach the site, take as many pictures as you can because once the sun goes down, it’s over (you leave the site before sunrise). You are assigned a tent by gender. I went in July and it was hot AF. You may want to sleep outside since it’s much cooler than the tent, and in that case, grab a mattress from the pile and hide it somehow. They will become a hot commodity once people figure out how hot the tents are.
Bring snacks because they didn’t serve to dinner until 10pm. We were all pretty hangry and delerious. We ate a group tagine in a dining tent by candle or mini lamp light. The watermelon was divine in the desert heat. Some kids had bought their own lamp so they could see the food while eating.
You pee in the sand. I waited until it was dark so I wasn’t peeing in open desert in front of everybody. I also happened to have tissues and a small plastic bag that I used for a garbage.
After dinner they had a drum circle with singing and dancing. Our crew had our own circle and played the Heads Up app.
At bedtime, grab that mattress that you previously hid away and find yourself a flat spot on the dunes. Bring the heavy blanket from your tent. At first it was unbearably hot, then the breeze cooled everything down. By about 2am, I was cold and disoriented and had to wrap myself in the thick blanket. Expect to eat sand. I had considered going back into the tent when it became colder. I let someone else borrow the sleeping bag so he could sleep on the dunes, as all the mattresses were taken.
Sleeping in the desert is surreal. I’ll leave it at that.
Before sunrise, you hear the camels crying and sounds as if they were being hit to be woken up. The tour guides come around to wake everyone up. You pack up, mount your camels, and ride back to the pick up site. Many of us felt this second camel ride was unnecessary, or maybe we were just tired. It was still cool so I wore my long sleeved shirt. The distance through the dunes was walkable. One guy walked because the camel ride hurt his back. One girl felt sick and dizzy, and another, for whatever reason, couldn’t stay on her camel. The camel trail through the dunes was lined with baked camel poop pellets.
The ride home is about 10-12 hours with a lunch break and pee breaks. I’m writing this now because I have nothing else to do… All of us are fantasizing about our nice showers we’ll have once we get to Marrakech…
Overall, a great once in a lifetime experience.. because I’m not sure if I’ll ever do it again anytime soon. I’m vowing that this will be the last tour thing I ever do involving animals. I left out my personal experience and feelings.. make the experience yours!