From Marrakech to Zagora desert

We booked a tour with GetYourGuide to visit a Berber camp and sleep between the Sahara’s dunes. It cost a total of 204€, or 68 per person. It takes about 7-8 hours to get to the desert’s entrance, but they were more entertaining than it seemed, because of the various stops we did along the way…

WEDNESDAY 28th JUNE (2017) – ROAD TO THE DESERT

We left the Riad at 7am and went to the nearest square, where the tour’s van picked us up. They were very punctual, they were there 10 minutes before, just like us. Then, we went to pick up another family that would come with us (because the tour wasn’t private, but in group, which is cheaper). This family, which was Australian, didn’t come on time, and we had to wait for them.

When they finally arrived, the driver took us to the official minibus which we would start the route. It was full! Probably they had divided into several vans to pick up the others. They were all waiting for us, we were the last ones. In total we were about 17 people, all from different places of the world.

We couldn’t choose a seat, because they were all occupied, so there was only one place next to the driver and another two behind him. But being close to the driver benefited us, so we were really lucky and did everything to maintain those seats after the different stops we made (they were obligatory every 2 or 3 hours).

That man was a simple driver, not a tour guide (it was already specified when we booked the tour), but we ended up having a conversation along the way, because were so many hours next to him. So, we could say that we were the privileged ones, because he taught us some curiosities about the landscape or the moroccan culture that the rest of the group didn’t get to know.

Another benefit of sitting with him was that he had the window open, so we felt more the direct air than the people on the bottom, that didn’t stop complaining about the heat (although there was air conditioning, but the temperatures were too high). In fact, we could see the degrees in a device that was on the vehicle… We even got above 48ºC!

The first stop we made was in a bar that had toilets, but you had to pay to enter. There, we met some Catalans from Girona that were at the bottom of our minibus. We get along very well during the whole trip.

The trip wasn’t as long as we expected, because of the different stops along the way that made it more entertaining. For example, the area of the Atlas Mountains and its colorful landscapes (green, yellow and reddish tones). We also passed trough Tizi n’Tichka, which according to the driver was the highest road crossing in North Africa (2260 meters).

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In addition, in the roadtrip we could see what the rural life was like: women carrying weight on their heads, donkeys full of straw on their backs, craft stalls in the middle of nowhere (if you book a private excursion you can ask to stop in any of them). We also passed through a kind of “oasis” with abundant water, surrounded by a large palm grove. The driver told us that it was a long river that cross the valley, and that those palm trees reach the border with Algeria! Their fruit, the dates, are collected at the end of October and there are more than 24 different varieties.

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The most significant stop on the journey was Ait Ben Haddou, where we would also have lunch. A guide was already waiting for us when we arrived, and we had to pay him 20 MAD per person because it wasn’t included in the price of the tour. The guide, dressed in blue, was called Mohammed (Moha for friends) and was very nice and funny! He explained in English, but when he realized that my cousin didn’t understand him, he began to translate everything to us in private: Ait Ben Haddou was declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987 and has been the scenenery of films like Indiana Jones, The Mummy, Gladiator, the Prince of Persia… or series like Game of Thrones.

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The river in front (Ounila) is salty and was dry, although in winter there’s still water and they use sacks as a path to pass. Recently, a bridge has been built to reach the other side, but before its existence the only way to cross the river was in donkeys or dromedaries. Most of the population moved to the other side, so there are very few families that still live inside the ksar. The kasbahs are fortified houses, and a ksar is a walled city which can have several kasbahs inside.

The visit to Ait Ben Haddou was probably one of the most tiring and hot moments of our stay in Morocco, with the midday sun hitting our heads and with many slopes until we climbed on top of everything.

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Then we had lunch in a near restaurant that wasn’t included neither, and was a little bit expensive to be Morocco but we already knew that all the places in that tour wouldn’t be cheap. We spent 190 dirhams (about 17€) and ate the same as usual, couscous and tajine.

We also ate some salad and watermelon for dessert, which actually you have to avoid eating, because maybe they’re washed with water in poor conditions. That’s why it is advisable to drink only bottled water there, but in that restaurant we took a risk because it seemed of good quality and we wanted something different. It is recommended to carry with you some anti-diarrhoeal drugs for what may happen, but luckily we did not use them. We finally went to the toilet in that restaurant, because it was the only one of the few that we had seen that there was no need to pay! There are places that even if you have consumed there, you have to give money for the toilet.

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When we left the restaurant, we said goodbye to Moha and continued about 30 km from Ait Ben Haddou to Ouarzazate, known as “the Door to the Desert”. There, we bought some provisions for the stay in the dunes, because we had a included dinner in the Berber camp, but the drinks weren’t. So we bought a few bottles of water (some frozen to make them last longer) and we distributed them among our 3 backpacks. We also caught some “survival snacks” in case we needed something sweet for possible dizziness. We spent about 70 MAD.

After all the day on the road, we finally arrived at the Zagora desert. It is more arid and with less dunes than the Merzouga desert, but if you have as few days as we had, it’s more appropriate because of the proximity (about 360 km from Marrakech). On the other hand, from Marrakech to Merzouga there are like 550 km that take more than 10 hours of travel, so usually you need to sleep one night on the way and another one on the way back.

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The driver of the minibus left us on the side of the road, where the Berbers were waiting with their camels, and he said goodbye to the group. He was going to sleep at a hotel, and then he would pick us up the next morning at the same point. We still had 1h and a half of camel ride (actually they are dromedaries, because they only have one hump) until we reached our camp. We made a stop midway because the sun was setting, so we were able to take more static photos of the sunset.

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When we arrived we saw the large area that the dromedaries had to rest, and the Berbers removed all their ropes so they feel comfortable. The first thing we did was divide the tents (used by Arab nomads) and luckily we had one for 3 people. We thought they would be bigger and we would share them with other families, but we had more privacy!

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The central area of the camp was covered with colorful carpets where we all met and the Berbers offered us tea, pasta and peanuts. We talked a little with them and also with some other travellers, so we could get to know better the rest of our group, because until then we had only spoken with the Catalans. There was a couple of Brazilians, a Chinese boy who traveled alone, the Australians that had arrived late, etc. After that, we sat at the dinner tables and waited for the traditional Berber food, which was more couscous and more tajine (although it was the best we tried on the whole trip!).

After dinner we invaded the showers before there was too many people, so we were the first ones. The truth is that the area of the toilets surprised us for good. There were 3 showers (which could have been 5 perfectly) because they were quite spacious.

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Before going to sleep, the Berbers gathered us around a bonfire and played their traditional music under the star-filled sky (we could even see the Milky Way!). But our group was somewhat dull and most of the people didn’t even applauded, and they started to leave little by little until we were only the 3 of us alone with the tribe. So they sat in front of us and offered us their instruments to play with them, they even knew Spanish songs better than us! We asked one of the guitar player how did he learned, and surprised us by saying that he just play hearing the songs of other tourists (Hotel California, for example).

Then, we left the music aside to talk a little bit more about their traditions and families. They told us the difference between the 3 ethnic groups of the Sahara (Berber, Tuareg and Bedouin) that is practically that each one has its own dialect.

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They told us that we were at the very start of the desert, and that to get to know the Sahara better, it takes at least a couple of days more… We would have spent all night talking with them and watching the show that the stars were offering, but it was time to rest, because the next day we had to get up early if we wanted to see the sunrise.

We wore sweatshirts thinking it would be cold at night in the desert, but actually it was hot in the tent so we didn’t use them. There were some little desert insects in the tent, but we pretended not to see them and went to sleep! At least they were not scorpions.

THURSDAY 29th JUNE (2017) – WAY BACK FROM THE DESERT

We got up around 5 am with the intention of climbing to the top of a dune that did not seem very high, but it was horrible. Each step we took we fell 3, and when we finally reached the top we were practically without air! My cousin even got dizzy and had to lie down and close her eyes for a while. The sunrise was not as spectacular as the sunset of the previous day, since a mountain was a little in the middle. Even so, sitting on the sand and seeing how its color changed matching the sky was so relaxing!

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I would have spent the whole morning there (or at least until the sun started to burn) but the breakfast was prepared for us at the camp, so we had to go down. The Berbers prepared juices, coffee, pastries and yoghurts.

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After breakfast, we took everything we had in the tent and went to the dromedary area, we were ready to leave. Once we meet up with the driver, we started the return journey, keeping our same privileged seats. The most significant stop was in Ouarzazate, where we had free time to visit the kasbah or the Museum of Cinema, but the ticket wasn’t included in the price of the tour. Most chose to see the kasbah, but we went with the Girona family to the museum (because if you went in groups of about 10 people the entrance was cheaper). Even so, we did not reach 10, we were 7 people, so the ticket would have cost 30 dirhams per person anyway if it wasn’t the driver’s help, who got to reduce the price to 15.

We saw different sets where several films have been shot. Everything seemed real but it was made of cardboard: there were from cells to thrones, Egyptian decorations, caves, airplanes, lions, etc.

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We finally continued until the last stop, which was at a road bar to eat something. We spent 120 dirhams on an omelette and something else, but what surprised us most was the high price of ice cream!

We arrived to Marrakech in the afternoon, so we had some time left to do the last shopping in the souk before returning home.

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