Why You Should Visit the Merzouga Desert Dunes in Morocco
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Morocco is a country of many striking contrasts: grand cities, both modern and historic, crumbling fortresses, towering mountains, lush valleys, and harsh deserts. One of the most beautiful areas in the country is Merzouga, on the edge of the Sahara Desert in Morocco. In fact, the Merzouga Desert Dunes is one of the best places to visit in Morocco and is a great addition when visiting the most heavily touristed city of Marrakech.
This charming small village has a backdrop of picturesque long stretches of towering sand dunes in every direction. The red sandstone buildings blend into the warmth of the desert backdrop that turns into a kaleidoscope of colors at sunrise and sunset. This is not the frenetic beat that comes to mind when you think of Morocco—this is the Merzouga Desert.
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Erg Chebbi – the Merzouga Desert Dunes
The real attraction and the primary draw for people to visit Merzouga is to see Moroccan sand dunes, Erg Chebbi. These Saharan sand dunes (technically, pre-Saharan) are made of wind-blown sand that has collected in this area. They are as high as almost 500 feet (150 meters) in some areas over the rocky desert, called hamada.
The terrain in the area actually looks as if you might be walking on the moon, and then seemingly from nowhere, you look up to see these towering sand dunes that rise higher than the hotels. I know it seems strange to be in awe of something like sand, right? But when you think of the Sahara Desert and the harsh beauty of the area, it puts it into perspective.
Not only does the sand make for some great pictures, but it’s also believed to have healing properties. People from all around Morocco come to Erg Chebbi to treat medical issues like rheumatism and arthritis. They are buried in the hot sand up to their neck during some of the hottest times of the year. It doesn’t sound appealing to me, but if it works, then maybe it’s worth the experience.
The sand turns the most brilliant colors with the shifting sun. It’s like the Merzouga desert dunes come alive in a rich palette of reds, pinks, and violets reflecting the beauty of the sky as the sun rises or sets. It may just be sand, but the Merzouga desert dunes can be truly breathtaking.
One of the most popular things to do in the Merzouga desert dunes is to ride a dromedary. These look like camels with only one hump and they are so awkwardly-shaped, yet they navigate the sand dunes like a champ! It’s not an easy feat walking on them—picture walking barefoot on the beach, but the beach has very high hills. And these gentle and sassy creatures with their large, round bodies and spindly legs navigate it like it’s no big deal.
The ride is interesting and a lot of fun. Getting up and going down is really jerky as the dromedaries buck forward and backward as they get their legs under them. You have to be really careful to hold on so you’re not thrown. But once you get moving, you can find a rhythm, somewhat like riding a horse. There is no better place to take in the sunset over the sand dunes than on the back on a dromedary.
Listen to Ethnic Gnawa Music
There are a number of other fun things to do in the Merzouga desert dunes, including visiting the Gnawa people. They were brought by caravan as slaves to the area from West and Central Africa. They settled in Khamlia, next to the Erg Chebbi a few miles from Merzouga.
The Gnawa are known for their traditional music and they will play for visitors. There are two groups that will perform called Pigeon des Sables and Bambara. They will play for free but, of course, a gesture of support with a donation is appreciated or purchase a CD to enjoy their music at home after your visit.
The music is very rhythmic and heavy on percussion. It has a great beat and it’s a lot of fun to listen to and to dance to it. Morocco is such a diverse country in its landscape and its people. Visiting the Gnawa is a great way to see another facet of the tapestry of Morocco.
Explore the Merzouga Desert Dunes
There are a number of other fun things to see and do in this small village area.
Visit Merzouga Lake
This lake looks like a mirage but when you drive up to it, you realize your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you, it actually is a lake! The size of it ebbs and flows a bit throughout the year and it’s generally fairly small. But it’s impressive to think of a lake in the middle of the desert. You can see a lot of interesting birds here including white flamingos.
See an Old Kohl Mine
There is an old kohl mine on the outskirts of Merzouga along with the ruins of an abandoned adobe settlement where some of the workers once lived. This is kohl that was used for makeup (think: Egyptian Pharaohs) and not heating coal. You can climb up the hill where the mine was and take in the barren landscape.
Why should snowboarders have all the fun? Have you ever heard of sandboarding? You can rent or borrow boards from many of the local hotels and hostels to go sandboarding on the Merzouga desert dunes. It’s a great way to get to know the area and to really appreciate the sand dunes. And added bonus: sand is so much softer to fall on than snow usually is!
Have Tea in a Berber Home
Moroccan tradition is to welcome people with sweet mint tea and you’ll find this popular drink everywhere in the country. Be prepared as when I say sweet, I do mean it! I joked that the spoon could stand straight up in the cups from the sugar and though I didn’t test this theory, it’s very possible. It’s a nice refreshing drink and a lovely welcome.
The Berber people are the native tribe of Morocco that is traditionally nomadic and live in tents. You will see a number of tented areas around Merzouga where the Berber people live. You can take a tour to have tea with a Berber family to see what this life is like. It’s an interesting way to learn more about the history of the Moroccan people and one of the cultures that have withstood the test of time in this harsh environment.
Travel to Merzouga
Merzouga is around a ten-hour drive from Marrakech or Fes and it’s in a very remote area in the country. There is a small airport around two hours away in Errachidia, however, then you’d miss some beautiful places to see on the way from Marrakech. Instead of flying, consider renting a car and driving or taking a tour. You also have the option to take buses or a taxi. If you take a taxi, make sure you negotiate the cost up-front so there are no surprises.
Ait Ben Haddou
If you have heard about any of the historic Moroccan kasbahs, chances are you have heard of Ait Ben Haddou. It is a ksar, or fortified village, located on the former caravan route that once brought supplies from the Sahara Desert to Marrakech. This UNESCO World Heritage site was made famous in many movies like Gladiator and Lawrence of Arabia and was featured on Game of Thrones (the city where Daenerys battled with the Second Sons to liberate the slaves).
Ait Ben Haddou’s high earthen-clay walls protected the village from raiders. Inside the walls are several merchant’s homes where you can buy locally-made souvenirs. Though most of the inhabitants have now moved across the river, there are still a few people living in the settlement.
is around a three-hour drive from Marrakech and it’s worth seeing. Ait Ben Haddou is located in the southern slopes of the High Atlas mountains in the Ouarzazate Province. Ouarzazate is often called “Morocco’s Hollywood,” or jokingly, “Mollywood,” as there are two film studios that are often used where desert scenery is desired.
Todra Gorge is a stunning canyon carved through the rocks by the Todra and Dades Rivers. It features cliffs of stunning shades of oranges, reds, and browns and lovely cool weather, even during the hottest times of the year in Morocco. The canyon walls are quite high—over 500-feet tall (or 152 meters).
Though the river is mostly a small trickle now, it leaves a stunning legacy worth seeing.
You’ll see buses near the entrance to the gorge and vendors line the canyon walls selling their Moroccan handicrafts and souvenirs. The path is dirt but well maintained.
Todra Gorge is around a three-hour drive from Ait Ben Haddou and around three hours from Merzouga. It’s on the eastern side of the High Atlas Mountains and the nearby town of Tingri is where most people stay in the area in case you want a break from driving. Todra Gorge is in a remote area but it’s a popular tourist destination and a place locals visit as well, seeking a cooler area from the scorching sun.
Merzouga is a magical place to visit in Morocco. It’s a quieter, more laid-back place in Morocco and a welcome break from the frenetic pace of some of the larger cities. The harsh desert environment provides a quiet and tranquil backdrop filled with a kaleidoscope of color and beauty. Though Merzouga may be considered off-the-beaten-path for many tourists, it was one of my favorite parts of the country and a place you shouldn’t miss seeing.
Bio: Sam is a travel-obsessed animal lover with big plans to travel the world with her dog. When she’s not blogging about her travel adventures at My Flying Leap, you can find her volunteering with her pet-therapy cat and dog, on the top of a mountain, or enjoying a glass of bold red wine planning for her next trip.
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