15 Issues I Want I Knew Earlier than My Sahara Desert Tour

March 12, 2020

Taking a Sahara Desert tour and riding camels into the orange-hued sand dunes was a big bucket list item of mine. Perhaps I watched Aladdin far too many times as a kid (sorry Mom). Or maybe because after riding horses and going dog-sledding, this seemed like the logical next step?

Whatever the reason, when I was in Morocco I spent nearly two days of my life in a van from Marrakech to the Sahara Desert. Was it worth it? As the kids say… it’s complicated.

Like with much of my Moroccan experience, there were some serious highs and lows, and I wish I had been better aware of what the Sahara tour would actually entail – which is why I’ve written this post for you.

So, if you’re wondering if a Sahara Desert tour is worth the money, I’m here to break it down for you – the good, the bad, and the truly WTF. 

Without further ado, here are the top 15 things I wish somebody told me before my Morocco desert tour. 

You cannot do a Sahara desert tour on a day trip from Marrakech

Merzouga, the gateway to the Sahara, is 350 miles or around 560 kilometers of winding mountain passes and dizzying curves away from Marrakech. As a result, you shouldn’t expect to be able to reach the Sahara in a day from Marrakech. At a bare minimum, you need three days, all of which will entail serious amounts of driving. It’s about 12 hours of driving in a van each way between Marrakech and Merzouga, not including stops, so expect to spend a good portion of your 3 day Sahara desert tour on the road.

If you only have time to do a day trip from Marrakech, you will simply not be able to see true sand dunes like you can see in Merzouga and Erg Chebbi, full stop. Readjust your expectations so you won’t be disappointed. If you only have one day, you can do a camel ride through the rocky desert and palm grove outside of Marrakech. Prices are quite reasonable – you can check prices for one-day tours here.

With two days, you’re a little better off – you can get to the Zagora Desert and do a sunset camel ride, a desert overnight, and a sunrise camel ride the next day.

Tours to Zagora are a little pricier than the day trip, obviously, but still a good value at under $50 per day –

You need a full three days to get to and from the Sahara, and if you can spare it, then I highly recommend it. In my opinion, the rock desert and palm oasis is nowhere close to how spectacular the Sahara Desert is, and as a result, it should only be booked if you have extremely limited time or funds and have a camel ride on your Morocco bucket list.

The Zagora Desert is closer to what you want from a Sahara Desert tour, but it’s still a ton of driving plus an overnight, so I’d urge you to just go for the full three day tour instead. It’s not much more money (about $30 more than the Zagora tour), and absolutely nothing in my life compares to the beauty of seeing the sun rise and set in the Sahara Desert for myself with my own eyes.

The Sahara Desert is even more magical than you expect

In my 60+ countries of travel, I’ve still never seen anything quite as beautiful as the Sahara Desert. There is something otherworldly about the contrast between the orange sand and the blue sky, and the way the sand rippled in perfect formations that look drawn by an artist’s hand

As sunset fell, I almost wanted to pinch myself to confirm that it was real. But if it was a dream, I didn’t want to wake up.

The softness of the orange sand, the seeming infiniteness of the rolling dunes, the way that footsteps looked as they left magical trails in the sand, and the inky blackness of the sky punctured by a million tiny stars at night — there’s simply no comparison to the Sahara Desert.

Getting to the Sahara Desert from Marrakech is a royal pain, and yet it is completely and utterly worth it.

Book your Sahara tour in advance so you can read reviews

The worst piece of advice that I got about taking a tour to the Sahara desert is that you shouldn’t book it in advance and rather wait for a tout in the souks to offer you a better price.

Here’s the thing: you will likely get a cheaper price, but you will not get a better deal, as you will make up for that price difference somewhere, either with poor quality service or through scams and upsells along the trip. Whether it’s getting told that the A/C in the van is “broken” on a 115 degree Fahrenheit day so they can save on gas, or the constant up-charging on everything from lunch to the made-in-China scarves that they insist you need for the desert, or getting scammed by a rug vendor (more on that later).

Instead, I highly recommend booking your Sahara desert tour in advance with a company with a good reputation and a strong online presence. Quite frankly, it’s because a company with a solid online presence has a ton more to lose than the hundred or so indistinguishable tour companies who make their profit off of selling to tourists on the street, for whom reputation means little. They will be more scrupulous and careful as to protect their reputation and their livelihood, and that’s a good thing for the consumer.

After carefully researching several Sahara Desert tour offerings and comparing them to my own experience, the company that I’m comfortable recommending to my readers is Snoubi Travel.

With an average of 4.4 stars out of nearly 1,000 verified reviews, including several positive reviews from women, this company is tried and tested in a way that I’m comfortable with recommending, despite not having tried this exact tour for myself. You can check tour specifics, itinerary details, and prices.

There are some bad reviews, mostly from people who said that there’s too much driving — unfortunately, this is true no matter what company you go with. The Sahara desert is basically on the border of Algeria, and you have to cross through the Atlas Mountains, so there is simply no avoiding the drive. Any shorter tour will not take you to the Sahara, but instead to far less impressive rocky deserts closer to Marrakech.

If you want to go onward to Fes after your trip instead of returning to Marrakech [a common choice to avoid backtracking], they also run a tour from Marrakech to the Sahara ending in Fes.

Be cautious and do your research if you are a solo female traveler

I’m telling you this because I, in my eternally stupid penny-pinching ways, did exactly the opposite and paid the price. I don’t remember what the exact name of the tour company I went with: something incredibly generic, literally like Sahara Tour Morocco (I did this tour before becoming a more diligent note-taker as a blogger).

I followed the (bad) advice of others and just went wandering through Marrakech and booked it in person from one of the men selling tours, as I was told it was the best (read: cheapest) way to book a Sahara desert tour by other backpackers.

While sure, it was cheaper (I paid about the equivalent of $75 USD for a 3-day trip in July, after some haggling), I ended up having a pretty horrible experience. They lied about the A/C, I got scammed at a rug store (more on this later), they lied about how I’d get to Fes after my tour was over, and the worst of all – I was sexually harassed and nearly groped in my sleep on my tour.

It all started innocently enough, sitting after dinning chatting with a guide trying to learn more about Berber culture. Without victim blaming myself, I must say that I need to remind myself that North American friendliness is not always the smartest move with people from other cultures, as some men take talkativeness as an invitation.

After a while, this guide got progressively creepier and creepier as the night got darker, angling closer to me as we talked. Then he asked me if I wanted to go somewhere alone with him to see the stars better (um, they’re plainly overhead, but k), despite my repeated insistence that I just wanted to sit and enjoy by myself.

Eventually, I had to tell him quite directly that he was bothering me and needed to leave me alone, and he went away. It may sound simple enough, but for a nonconfrontational girl like me who hates conflict, it was excruciating. Luckily, he left without much protest, and I enjoyed the next few hours a lot, chatting with my fellow travelers and admiring the vastness of the sky and the hints of the Milky Way overhead.

Later that night, choosing to sleep outside where there was a breeze instead of the stuffy, impossible to breathe in tents (as all the other travelers were doing), a different guide set up his sleeping site about five feet from me. He placed a large pillow as a buffer between us, which I took comfort in, and I fell asleep. I honestly remember feeling glad that I had a benevolent guardian to keep me away from the creep who was hitting on me earlier.

I woke up maybe an hour later to him staring at me, saying “shhhhh,” just a few inches away from my face, the pillow he had placed between us nowhere to be seen. It was terrifying. He tried to tell me to go back to sleep, but you better believe my ass was up and in my hot stuffy tent as quickly as I could manage in my sleep-drunk state. I didn’t sleep much the rest of the night, obviously.

Since I didn’t book online or have any papers confirming who I went with, I didn’t really have a way to review it or report things to without going to the police, which I wasn’t comfortable with for a variety of reasons.

If I had booked it online, I could have read reviews from other female travelers, and in the event that something happened, it would have been much easier to report the bad behavior I experienced on this tour and to ensure it wouldn’t happen to other female travelers down the line. This is why I recommend booking in advance with a reputable company.

For solo female travelers, I recommend booking online. I suggest this tour if you want to go onward to Fes, or this tour if you want to go back to Marrakech at the end of your trip.

Sadly, this kind of behavior is not that uncommon for Morocco. Other women have had similar experiences with their guides in the desert (read Lauren of Never Ending Footsteps’ experience here and my friend Kiona’s experience with Morocco) I’ve also, of course, heard positive stories as well, though these usually come from men or people who traveled as a couple. 

As a solo female traveler, I can tell you though that it’s better to spend the extra money and book a tour in advance so you can read all the reviews.

I vetted the companies and pored through the reviews pretty thoroughly, and the tour I recommend above looks to be the best, safest option for solo female travelers; however.

Read what is included carefully

My Sahara desert tour included round-trip transportation to and from Marrakech and the Sahara Desert. When booking my tour with one of the tour operators in the medina, I told them I wanted to go onwards to Fes, a common thing tourists do to avoid backtracking.

The tour operators said that they’d include that in the price they gave me, but I never got that in writing, and surprise surprise – when it came time to get a shared taxi towards Fes, we ended up having to fork out about $20 USD or so per person to get there. But at this point, after nearly being groped by one of the guides, I was ready to get out of there no matter what the cost.

Tip: If you want to go onward to Fes like I did and avoid backtracking, be sure it is included on your tour! I suggest this Marrakech to Merzourga to Fes desert tour.

The shuttle bus was comfortable enough, but they kept insisting that the AC was broken after the first day, which was annoying, as I was overheating with only the fan on. After enough of the minibus complained, they turned it on again and voila: it was magically working. Strange.

The tour included two nights accommodation, one in a hotel on the way to the desert and one in the desert camp itself. The accommodations at both were of decent quality, better than I expected for the price, to be fair. It included the camel ride as well.

What it did not include: no lunch on any of the days, so add on another $10 USD or so for each meal since no matter what tour you go on, you can be guaranteed that you’ll be forced to eat at expensive, crappy restaurants where your tour guides get a kickback.

Most tours don’t include any beverages, water, personal expenses, etc. If you choose to not return to Marrakech and instead go onwards to Fez from Merzouga, that transportation is not included, either.

Keep your expectations in line with reality

The price range of Sahara Desert tours varies wildly based on the lexel of luxury. One blog post I read said their (comped) tour cost $700 USD for a 3 day tour, which is expensive for many, but definitely worth it for a special occasion like a honeymoon when you won’t want to be crammed in a van with 15-odd other travelers.

Meanwhile, on the low end, you can spend as little as $70 USD for a 3 day – but with significant sacrifices in comfort, luxury, and flexibility. You won’t be staying at the luxury desert camps you’ve seen the Instagram girls enjoying, but rather bare bones tents with an outhouse and very few creature comforts. But who needs showers when you can bathe in the gorgeous light of a million tiny stars in the clearest night sky you’ll ever get a chance to see?

Most tours cost somewhere in the ballpark of $100-200 USD for a 3 day, 2 night Sahara tour, and that’s a fair price. The tour that I recommend above is a little more expensive than I paid, costing around $130 USD, or about $43 per day – which I think is fair given all the inclusions.

There is also this private tour option by the same company which routes Marrakech – Merzouga – Fes, great if you are continuing onwards north to places like Fes, Meknes, Chefchaouen, and Tangier.

Riding a camel is not at all like riding a horse

If you’ve romanticized a camel ride in the desert, let me demystify that for you. This is no pleasant horse ride through a field.

Riding a camel is among the least comfortable things I’ve done, and I’m amazed that people actually even trained camels to be ridden after feeling how freaking uncomfortable it can be. My thighs were sore by the end of the first hour and I could barely feel my butt when I got off the camel. The camel slid in the sand quite a bit, leaving me lurching and clutching on for dear life (camels are even taller than they look).

Anyway, the next day, I was given the option to ride on the roof of their ATV or get back on a camel – you better believe I chose the roof (mostly to avoid the creepy guide).

Despite my complaining about the discomfort, however, I’d do it again – the views are simply that magical.

Going in the summer isn’t the worst idea ever

I did my Sahara Desert tour in July… aka the stupidest time in the world to go to Morocco.

It was 115 °F (46 °C) in the desert the day we arrived… so that may have had something to do with why the prices were so low. The car was hot and stuffy, but that was because my driver purposely shut off the A/C, something that won’t happen on a reputable tour.

Still, I’ll say that 115 °F in Morocco isn’t nearly as bad as 90 °F and humid in NYC, so to me, the desert heat wasn’t a deal breaker, especially since we arrived at the desert at sunset when the night breeze was already coming in nice and cool.

And at night, it cooled down to a nice 75 °F (24 °C) or so, making the tents like an oven that is impossible to sleep in, but outside underneath the stars downright pleasant (minus the would-be gropey guide…)

On the other hand, it will be freezing in the winter

Many people approach the desert with the misconception that it’s hot year round, but this is patently false. The desert is home to wild temperature swings – even in the summer, a 115 °F day dropped to a 75 °F night, a 40 °F temperature variation.

This is true even in the winter. In the peak winter months such as January, the desert will be around 65 °F / 18 °C in the day and hovering around 32 °F / 0 °C at night.

You’ll want to bring some thermal tops (I like these from 32 Degrees) as well as a thin down jacket if you visit the Sahara Desert in the winter.

Be prepared for long days of driving and dull stops

It’s about two long days in a van from Marrakech just to get to the Sahara desert (not including the 12 hour drive on the way back). If you have 2 or 3 weeks in Morocco, that’s fine – but if you have a really limited amount of time for your trip, it’s a lot of time in a car.

The views are simply beautifully, particularly the Atlas Mountains and the Dades Gorge, so keep your camera at the ready to snap some shots, as you’ll pull over a few times at scenic overlooks.

Besides stopping at the UNESCO site of Ait Ben Haddou (where some scenes of Game of Thrones were filmed) and a pretty gorge, most of the stops are pretty uninteresting and often aimed at getting as much money out of you as possible. I will say that they did give us a lot of bathroom stops, which as someone with a clinically small bladder, I really appreciated.

Bring some anti-nausea pills

There are so many twists and turns on the road to the Sahara Desert because you have to pass through the Atlas Mountains and later the Dades Gorge, both of which involve countless hairpin turns.

I get motion sickness quite easily, so I lulled myself into a state of near-constant semi-slumber for the two days with the help of my Sea Bands, which worked okay at keeping me from barfing but I would have preferred actual Dramamine (personally, I’d choose the normal version over the non-drowsy, to better help me sleep of all those hours in the van).

I’d also bring some stomach medicine like Pepto Bismol tablets just in case, as Morocco has some issues with food safety and undrinkable tap water that can end up messing with some travelers’ stomachs. I was fine during my two weeks in Morocco, but I know several people who got food poisoning while they were there, so better safe than sorry.

Bring plenty of cash (about $100 USD worth)

There are plenty of little add-ons throughout the Sahara Desert tour that end up driving up the price quite a bit. Figure about $1 per bottle of water (unless you come equipped with your own Steripen or LifeStraw water purifier, which I recommend to help reduce plastic waste), $2 per soda, money for tips for various people you encounter along the way, and extra for souvenirs and strongly “recommended” purchases along the way.

Your guides will also take you to expensive and uninspiring restaurants for lunch, though since I wasn’t a big fan of Moroccan food to begin with, that wasn’t a huge loss in terms of flavor. The cost of lunch about $10 USD per meal, about 3 times the price of a meal elsewhere in Morocco.

This is pretty standard for every tour and is part of the reason why the price of your Sahara Desert tour is so low – clearly, the tours are getting a kickback for bringing people here.

Be aware that most stops are designed for the guides to make more money

Pretty much every stop we made along the way to the desert was rushed and not that interesting.

All of these stops seemed designed for us to spend extra money, such as the stop at the rug store, the gift shops at Ait Ben Haddou, and the completely unnecessary stops to encourage us to buy specific scarves to wrap around our heads for the desert tour, which I didn’t buy.

I understand this is how they make up for their slim margins, but I just wish the tour cost a bit more and we didn’t spend so much time making weird souvenir stops and instead spent more time at the few stops that were interesting, like Ait Ben Haddou and Ourzazete and the Gorge. But anyway, that’s how organized tours go, I guess.

Buy a rug with caution

In a moment of weakness, I splurged on a gorgeous hand-woven Berber rug at the village near Tinghir, paying about $35 USD for a small lambswool rug.

Mind you, when I took this Sahara desert tour, I didn’t even have a home — so why I needed a rug was beyond me.

Anyway, when I unwrapped it, I discovered they had swapped it out for another one entirely – it was completely and totally falling apart at the edges, and I ended up trashing it rather than lugging around a fraying rug for the rest of my trip. Nice one, friendly-seeming rug guy. Nice one indeed.

Consider the pros and cons carefully

While I had a mixed bag of experiences, in my opinion, it was still absolutely worth taking a Sahara Desert tour, as it was a huge bucket list item. However, if I could do it again, I would have researched what tour I took, and not have just gone with the cheapest desert tour option that a tout offered me on the streets of Marrakech. My safety is worth more than a few dollars.

I don’t want to scare you from taking a Sahara desert tour: thousands of solo female travelers take them, and take them safely.

But in the spirit of full transparency, I want to share my experience with you so you can be prepared should any shadiness occur in the Sahara. Traveling Morocco can be frustrating as a woman. Adjust yourself accordingly: be courteous, but distant; not rude, but not friendly, and you’ll likely have a more positive experience than I did.

I’m of the belief that you shouldn’t let fear dictate what you do or take away from your dreams. Even though I had a bad experience on my Sahara desert tour, there are a few things I could have done differently – I could have stuck closer to female traveler companions rather than chatting with the guides. I could have vetted the tours more carefully and picked one with better reviews rather than the lowest price.

To be clear, this is not to victim blame myself, nor to victim blame anyone who has had something similar happen to them – it is solely upon the predator to not be a predator, and not on the victim. However, just like there are measures to can take to avoid theft, there are a few things you can do to make yourself slightly safer against harassment from men. I hate that I have to write this here, but my experience is so not out of the ordinary that I feel compelled to share these tips. Sadly, these are just facts of life for traveling alone in a country as unfriendly to solo women as Morocco is.

If you don’t like the idea of a Sahara desert tour, you could take the badass alternative and rent a car and driving out to the Sahara Desert, like my friends at Along Dusty Roads did.  But again, if you’re solo, this may not be the best course of action – road trips are always best enjoyed with a travel buddy.

Ultimately, you’ll have to make the call, but in my gut and despite what happened to me, I say go for it – the Sahara desert is something that must be seen to be believed. Even with all the crap I dealt with on my 3 day Sahara tour — I wouldn’t take it back. I’d just go with another company, obviously

More Morocco Travel Resources

I’ve written quite a bit to help you plan the perfect trip to Morocco! First, start with my Morocco travel planning checklist – it walks you through every step of the planning process.

Next, check out my Morocco packing list with specific advice for what women should wear in Morocco.

If you are starting your trip in Marrakech, like most people do, I have a guide to the best riads in Marrakech on any budget, as well as a guide to spending 3 days in Marrakech with recommended tours and outings.