Online guide to visiting Dunes of Merzouga in Morocco

Gateway to the Sahara

Address

Erg Chebbi, Merzouga, Morocco

GPS: 31.135386503496, -4.0136069714129

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The dunes of Merzouga are located on the edge of the Sahara desert, near the Algerian border. This tiny Moroccan village is the gateway to Erg Chebbi, one of several ergs in the region. Ergs are large dunes created by wind-blown sand. This remote region east of Ouarzazate offers a beautiful desert landscape, famous for its camel rides and medicinal sand baths for rheumatism sufferers. Crossing the dunes of Merzouga while riding a camel or on a 4×4 drive through the desert, you will discover an eldorado sought after by many international visitors in search of relaxation, beautiful pictures or an adventurous desert trip or other fun activities.

As the gateway to the Sahara, the impressive sand dunes of the Erg Chebbi desert extend over 22kms and can reach 150m. It is at dusk that the sandy landscape is at its most beautiful, changing colour according to the sunlight with mixtures of yellow, orange, red, pink and ochre. Despite the arid climate, an underground water source and ancestral irrigation techniques favour the emergence of local agriculture in Merzouga for the cultivation of vegetables, fruit trees and the breeding of livestock. A system of gulleys and canals, coupled with a technique for submerging crops called khettara, frees local communities to free themselves from the scarcity of water and water restrictions of the Sahara. These advances allowed several nomadic families to settle in the area in the second half of the 20th century which in turn saw the development of tourism in the large desert areas of south-eastern Morocco.

This extremely hot region of Moroccan desert is home to a saltwater lake, Dayet Sriji, home to flamingos and storks in spring. It is also studied by archaeologists in search of ancient fossils. An excellent base for exploring the desert, the Saharan village of Merzouga is the starting point for 4×4 tours around the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi in this part of the Sahara and from here it is also possible to take a camel with a breathtaking view of the sand dunes while desert trekking, wind-moulded dune climbing, going on caravan excursions and experiencing bivouacs for a beautiful camp under the stars in the desert of Morocco. Camel tours can be short excursions or paired with a luxury camp glamping between the Erg Chebbi dunes in the desert near Merzouga, this luxury desert experience is a great way to experience a night in the desert along with a private bathroom, though you can also camp on your own for free when you depart from Merzouga into the desert – just bring a thick mattress and warm layers as the desert sand can get cold and the temperature varies significantly between day and night. It is also an ideal place for all kinds of leisure activities including sandboarding as a unique way to get to know the desert before going back to Merzouga. The opportunity to spend the night in a tent in the desert, for an overnight stay in the desert in the company of the local Berber population beside a campfire, remains the highlight of any stay for a once-in-a-lifetime experience in the fantastically beautiful Merzouga desert. Climbing a dune from your desert camp to see the sun slowly rise or looking up at the vivid stars free of light pollution are a special experience associated with a trip to Merzouga for a camel trek desert tour, as is the opportunity to hear traditional music when you visit a berber family for mint tea in their place if you want. While the music is played for free, it is considered polite for them to receive a small commission to say thank you so much for the great experience and thank you for sharing local culture in the quiet town of Moroccans. The trip from Marrakech to Merzouga and the Sahara can be made if you rent a car should you prefer to travel that way, or via public transport which is easy to find. If you have not pre-booked, you will be approached by sellers who will tell you everything you need to know before you find where your accommodation or desert hotel is located when you visit Merzouga, the land of Kasbahs and Tajine.

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  • The vast sand dunes of Erg Chebbi dotting the desert landscape as far as the eye can see
  • Excursions and long camel rides in the desert
  • The experience of spending the night in a base camp in the middle of the Sahara
  • Berber houses, kasbahs and villages (Hassi Labied, Khamlia…)
  • The musical culture of the Gnawa people and the nomadic lifestyle of the Bedouins; the local cuisine and the Maghrebi (Moroccan) mint tea
  • The small oases ; the Dayet Sriji lake 3km from the village of Merzouga; the ever-changing patterns of the dunes; the palm groves, the food agriculture, the harvest of dates and the cultivation of medicinal plants
  • Sunrises and sunsets exhibit wonderful colours; observation of the starry sky at night
  • Hot air ballooning activities; yoga, sand surfing and sand bathing sessions; races and sports events: the 4L Trophy car raid (a solidarity rally for students in February), the Marathon des Sables or Trail du Soleil (16km and 35km foot races in March), the Afriquia Merzouga Rally (motorbike and quad rally in March or April) and the Titan Desert (a mountain bike stage race of more than 600km in April, May or November)
  • The Laoun art gallery in the nearby village of Khamlia; the old lead mines near Merzouga; the Berber necropolis of El-Bouiya with its 2,000 year-old tombs, west of the town of Erfoud
  • Local legend has it that God buried a wealthy family under the sand dunes of Merzouga after they refused hospitality to a family in need.
  • Sand bath therapy is said to have numerous curative and therapeutic virtues – the immersion practice is called psammotherapy or arenotherapy. The mineral salts and organic compounds in the hot sand are said to help combat rheumatism, arthritis, polyarthritis, lower back pain and certain skin diseases. It also eliminates toxins and improves blood circulation. However, before trying the experience, it is prudent and advisable to be well surrounded to avoid any medical risk (sunstroke, dehydration, breathing difficulties, etc.).
  • Motor sports events in the area are increasingly threatening the fragile desert ecosystem.
  • Contrary to what one may believe, many animals inhabit the sand dunes. These include birds, fennecs, erg vipers, snakes, sand fish, gerbils, white desert rabbits, Barbary squirrels, lizards, iguanas, desert hedgehogs, polecats, sand cats, caracals, Cuvier’s gazelles and dorcas gazelles. However, many of these animals are becoming increasingly rare in the area.
  • The other major dune system in the Moroccan Sahara is called Erg Chegaga, located in the Drâa Valley region, 60 km by road west of the village of Mhamid El Ghizlane. Larger and more extensive than Erg Chebbi, it is only accessible by four-wheel drive vehicles or by camel ride.
  • There are daily buses to Merzouga from the cities of Fez and Marrakech. Allow 10 to 12 hours for the trip. The village is easily accessible from Rissani, Erfoud, Taouz or Moulay Ali Cherif by car via a tarmac road.
  • November to February is the least hot period, and the nights in this desert region are particularly cool.
  • Trips into the Sahara are offered by the many inns around Merzouga.
  • If you are travelling independently, beware of the dangers of the desert and keep to marked trails where ever possible. You are advised to carry a compass and emergency supplies in case of an emergency situation.
  • In high season, if you want to enjoy the Sahara desert environment on your own, continue on to Taouz in southern Morocco.
  • Due to the scarcity of water in this desert region, save as much as possible for non-food use.

Where to eat

  • Restaurant Cafe Fatima
    (generous Berber cuisine)
  • Restaurant Nora
    (excellent Berber pizza)
  • Cafe Restaurant Merzouga
    (varied dishes)

Where to go

  • Tafilalt palm grove
    (wonderful oasis)
  • Souk of Rissani
    (heady market)
  • Ksar El Fida
    (great Alawite kasbah)

Where to stay

  • Camels House
    (bivouac in the desert)
  • Chez Julia
    (exotic bed and breakfast)
  • Hotel Kasbah Mohayut
    (comfort at the foot of the dunes)