Daniel and I really enjoyed Marrakech, but as I mentioned in my last post there’s not actually a lot to see as a tourist. You shop in the souks, you go to some of the gardens and palaces, but you can easily do all of this in four or five days. If we were going to spend more time in Marrakech I think we would have moved from our riad to some all-inclusive resort so that we could spend a couple of days chilling by the pool. Instead we opted to get out of the city.
When we did some research online we found a bunch of options for various multi-day desert tours. Some are longer, some are shorter, some leave from and arrive at different cities, but all of them basically drive you out to the Sahara desert where you camp out overnight in a really ritzy tent. Also, you get to ride a camel!
These tours are definitely the “thing to do” for tourists in Morocco. We met a traveler in Porto who said that he had done one last year and that it was the best part of his trip. In Marrakesh we met a couple on their honeymoon who were planning on doing one as well. There are many different companies who offer these tours and almost all of them have glowing reviews–like 99% five star reviews out of thousands of reviewers.
Daniel and I thought that sounded like fun–I wanted to ride a camel and we wanted to get out of the city–so we booked a three-day/two-night tour from Marrakech that would take us to the Sahara and end in Fes. We wanted to visit Fes and otherwise we were going to spend seven hours on a train to get there, so this tour seemed like a good idea at the time. (Does this seem like ominous foreshadowing? Because it is.)
To catch our tour bus we had to wake up before dawn and roll our luggage though the cobblestone medina streets to the main square. When we got to the meeting point we found literally dozens of identical white tour vans and a huge crowd of tourists waiting to board them. A van would drive up, a driver would get out with a clipboard and call out 20 names or so, and they would load up and leave so another van could repeat the process. Eventually a van pulled up that called our names so we hopped on and were off.
Driving is the main means of transit Morocco, and if you are in Marrakesh and want to see the Sahara, your only option is to drive there. There are no trains or public transit that run that route. Our itinerary was to drive from Marrakesh to Tinghir the first day–a six hour drive, to the Sahara the second–three hours drive, and then to Fes on the last–a whopping seven hour drive. Even though both Daniel and I read the tour description I don’t think we were prepared for how long we were going to be on the road. Maybe because it was described in distance as opposed to time, and the distance was in kilometers which we don’t have good intuition for? Or because no review seemed to mention it? Who knows, but we were not ready.
That first day of the tour Daniel and I were in the back row of a completely full van of about twenty people. The other travelers were an eclectic group from all over: a couple of dudes from the Netherlands, a female photographer from Munich, a lady and her dad from Denmark, a couple on a baby-moon from Manchester, a backpacker from Boston, a Scottish lady traveling with her South African friend, etc. They were a fun group and we got to know each other pretty well after spending three days in close company.
However, being in the back row of that van for six hours was utter misery. The seats were very small and the roads were awful–about half of the first day’s drive was totally unpaved–and our little van did not have the suspension you’d need to comfortably off-road. The fact that the “major road” was one lane each way and basically dirt for long stretches was not what I expected. The swerving and constant bumpiness made both of us (and several others) feel nauseous almost instantly. And despite what the booking website said, there really was no “tour.” Our driver would stop now and then for us to use the restroom (some of which were really sketch–like, a pit with no running water), but there was no commentary about any place we drove though.
In the beginning of the day we drove through the Atlas Mountains, which were beautifully forested and dotted with little villages. It was lovely. We took pictures. However, this scenery soon gave way to… nothing. Imagine a totally dead landscape without homes, plants, people, or animals that stretches on for hundreds of miles. There wasn’t even dirt, just rocks and a thick dust that blew in the wind and settled on everything. It was like being on Mars, just a huge expanse of dead, red landscape stretching to the horizon on either side. Something about it gave me a seriously eerie feeling–like there was no reason to be in that place other than to die. I had never been anywhere so utterly desolate.
In the afternoon we stopped to stretch our legs near one of the few little villages in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t imagine what life looked like for the people who lived there, miles from any other town.
“What do the people who live here do for a living?” I asked our driver.
“Most have a family member who works in Europe and sends money. Otherwise they might have goats.” he said.
That shocked me. The biggest source of income for these people were family members working overseas? What did that say about their local economy and work opportunities?
Near the end of the day we started to come into some bigger towns. We stopped in Aït Benhaddou, a town that’s famous for being the setting for several big-ticket movies looking to get the “desert look”: Lawrence of Arabia, parts of Game of Thrones, etc. This town was on a river, so it wasn’t as bleak as some of the other places we passed. Even still, the poverty was extreme. The homes were hundreds of years old, and we were told that at least half of them did not have electricity or running water. (And in a part of the world where it’s routinely 110 in the summer, no electricity would be a terrible thing.) In addition, roughly 90% of rural Moroccan women are illiterate and spend very little time outside of the home, and in an area where there isn’t enough water to pursue agriculture in a commercial way the financial opportunities available for the working men are meager.
We spent the night in Tinghir, in a dingy hotel that had a strong musty smell. It didn’t matter because everyone on the tour was exhausted and glad to be out of the van.
The next day was by far the best day of the tour.
We took a tour of the Dades Valley, which included visiting a nomadic Berber family. The Berbers are the indigenous people of northern Africa and in Morocco you will often see Berber carpets for sale. Shop keepers will always try to get you interested in a specific carpet by telling you that it took a Berber woman months to make, but I’m not sure if that’s true or just a part of the sales pitch.
That afternoon we drove to the edge of the Sahara. You come upon it suddenly: one minute you’re driving through the dusty emptiness and then you see big sand dunes rise up out of nowhere. At the edge of the sand our camels tied into a line, waiting to take us into camp.
Riding a camel is very bumpy, but getting on and off is the hardest part. They’re so tall that you have to mount them while they’re seated, and when they stand they do so hind-legs first which pitches you forward. They are weird, cute animals. They’re covered in scratchy wool and sound kind of like Chewbacca. Camels have only two toes that sink into the sand as they shuffle along. I looked it up because it was curious, and apparently camels are much smarter than horses, but less forgiving. There is a saying in Arabic that goes “anger a camel and await your death.” If you make one mad, it will remember, and it will seek revenge. (I spent a half-hour reading about “camel revenge” online, and there are some craaaazy stories.)
Our desert camp was beautiful–way nicer than the hotel we’d been at the night before. It was definitely a “glamping” experience. Our tent was huge and had running water; there was even wifi!
There were snowboards provided to go “sand sledding”. It was much harder than it looked. The key seems to be picking a steep slope since the sand has more friction than snow does. This was fun but I got a huge amount sand in my shoes, hair, and even my ears. (Two weeks later, after washing them multiple times, I’m still finding sand in my socks.)
When it was dark we were served dinner and as we ate we talked politics. I was surprised at how closely non-Americans seemed to be following the Democratic primary. Everyone wanted to know how we voted, and if we thought Trump would be re-elected. Then, the couple from Manchester gave us their view on Brexit, the lady from Scotland about the possibility of her country leaving the UK, the photographer lady from Munich gave her thoughts on Merkle’s stepping-down, and a student from Hong Kong gave us his take on the protests. It was great–it was so interesting to hear first-hand about different political situations.
After dinner we climbed the dunes again to see the stars. Since it was a clear night and there was no light pollution the view was amazing.
Other than riding our camels back out of camp to the van, the last day of the tour was as miserable as the first. Maybe more so because the drive was even longer. At least on the last day the road was paved most of the way. Spending seven hours boxed into a cramped seat while driving through a landscape that looked like hell was agonizing.
The only interesting thing we saw on the last day was a city we drove though called Ifrane. I had fallen asleep and woke up when we stopped here for a rest break, and I was totally disoriented. This city looks like Switzerland. Unlike all of the desert landscape and flat-topped clay houses we’d driven past the previous days, this place was forested and all of the buildings looked European.
Ifrane is way up in the mountains, which is why the landscape is totally different. When Morocco was a French colony it was a popular tourist destination for French nationals looking to escape the heat or ski in the winter, which is why the architecture is French rather than Berber. Ifrane is just a strange little oasis of totally different climate and building style in the middle of Morocco. As soon as you descend the mountain the trees stop, the ground gets rocky again, and you’re back to the oppressive loneliness of the lifeless, empty landscape.
We got into Fes around six in the evening and we were soooo glad to be done with the tour. I really cannot articulate how horrible it is to sit in a vehicle so small your knees are touching the seat in front of you and go over super bumpy roads for hours and hours. I also have a hard time describing just how barren the scenery was and how uneasy that made me feel. It creeped me out–it was just so dead and forsaken. I just asked Daniel if this had bothered him, and he was like, “No. I grew up in Texas.” So, uh, maybe it depends on what types of terrain you’re used to seeing.
Would we do it again? Um, probably not. With this tour I’d say that the highs (the camels and the Sahara) were really high, but the lows (two 10 hour days in a car) were really low.The second day of the trip was wonderful, but I still think I’d have rather taken the train to Fes. There are camps about a half-hour from Marrakesh where you can ride a camel and spend the night, and next time I’d do that instead. It wouldn’t be the Sahara, but I also wouldn’t have spent two full days totally claustrophobic and nauseous with car-sickness.
I would say that if you really want to see the Sahara to look for a longer tour. It sounds counterintuitive, but I think if you broke up some of the driving into smaller chunks it would be a better experience. We did see some five-day tours that also went to the desert, and maybe those would be less awful. I’d also say to look for a tour happening in a big greyhound-type bus, and not a little van because those unpaved roads are no joke. And maybe look for one with a real tour guide and not just a driver who can’t tell you anything about what you see. Personally, I will not be seeing the Sahara again until Morocco builds the infrastructure to visit it by train.
Honestly though, what I really want to know is how that tour got such good reviews. No one in our entire van seemed to be having a good time the days we were on the road. I don’t think Daniel and I are particularly wimpy when it comes to travel–I think we thought this tour was miserable because it kinda was. So, I guess we learned not to trust reviews? Or that we don’t like car travel? Who knows, but while I got to ride a camel (which was awesome) I don’t recommend this tour.