Morocco (Part 2): Our Road Trip From Marrakech To The Sahara
The second stage of our Morocco trip was a road trip into the desert to spend a night in the Sahara. Driving from Marrakech to Merzouga—a village on the edge of the desert—straight through would take at least 10 hours, which wasn’t very appealing, especially since there are some noteworthy stops along the way. So we did the drive over three days, stopping for two nights before getting to our desert camp outside of Merzouga. On the 4th day, we drove 8 hours straight from Merzouga to Fez with only a few restroom and stretch breaks.
Ryad Dyor arranged a taxi transfer to the airport for us, where we picked up the car. Driving in Morocco is not for the faint of heart, but it’s by no means third world. If you’re comfortable driving on tight, mountain roads surrounded by aggressive drivers (who often change lanes or pass at will with no indication), then you should be OK. Drive defensively but confidently. And stick to main roads! Don’t dare drive on the many unpaved roads that crisscross the country unless you’re in an appropriate vehicle (4x4) with the right insurance. If we could do it all again, we’d rent something more durable just to be safe, as we found that well-paved roads often turn to long stretches of gravel with little notice. Oh, and one more thing: gas station restrooms vary in quality from bad to horrible, so bring your own toilet paper, hand soap, and hand sanitizer!
From Marrakech we drove over the Tizi n'Tichka pass and headed for Telouet. The P1506 between Aguelmouss and Telouet was gravel, but it looked like work was being done to widen and pave the road. We stopped in Telouet for lunch (lamb skewers, vegetable tagine, and oranges with cinnamon from Auberge Restaurant Chez Ahmed) and a visit to Kasbah du Pacha el Glaoui, beautiful both for its architecture and for its views of the surrounding mountains and rolling hills. We met two friends from the US who generously let us tag along with them and their personal guide for a tour!
We continued down the P1506 (luckily the rest of it is well-paved!) and eventually got to Aït Benhaddou, where we stayed in the old ksar at Kasbah Tebi. We were greeted with some mint tea by candlelight—the hotel does not have electricity or Wi-Fi. We were forced to unplug from the world and spent the whole evening (and dinner—harira, chicken and vegetable tagines) by candlelight! It was one of the most unique and memorable evenings in all our travels.
Marching on, we drove into Dadès Gorge, a stunning spectacle, especially as the gorge narrowed. The drive culminated with a dizzying series of switchbacks, bringing us up to Café Restaurant Timzzillite Chez Mohamed, where we stopped for lunch (kefta and vegetable tagines) and to appreciate the views. We stayed overnight at Auberge Chez Pierre, which served one of our biggest and best dinners of the trip (fried artichoke, cauliflower soup, cream of mushroom, duck breast, vegetarian tart, crème brûlée).
Fueled by another filling breakfast, we set off on the final leg of our drive to the desert, but it didn’t take long for the wind to leave our sails. On the N10 between Boumalne Dades and Tinghir (a major, well-paved road), we hit a big bump and soon realized something was wrong. We pulled over on the outskirts of Tinghir to find one of our tires was flat! We approached a group of older men resting in the shade of a nearby building, but quickly realized they spoke no English. Despite the language barrier, they tried their best to help. Once they realized what had happened, they waved over a mechanic from the garage across the road and worked together to switch our tire out. They were in good spirits the whole time and didn’t ask for money, though of course we gave them some, and less than a half hour after pulling over, we were back on the road! Moroccan hospitality strikes again.
When looking for the hotel in Merzouga where we were to meet someone from our desert camp, we ended up on a very rough road speckled with mini sand dunes. We tried to go over one, but when the car reached the apex of the dune, it just sunk in. Luckily, a man was coming by on his motorbike and helped us dig out. He explicitly asked for “a little something” for his trouble, but we couldn’t really blame him!
Finally, we got to the hotel and piled into a 4x4 to drive a couple of miles out into Erg Chebbi (one of Morocco’s sea of dunes in the Sahara). We got to Ali’s & Sara’s Desert Palace and relaxed for a few hours to appreciate the surreal surroundings, and then all the guests were rounded up for camel rides to a large dune to watch the sunset. Though we had ensured we were staying somewhere that treated their camels very well (and from what we could see, that was indeed the case), we really struggled with the ethics of riding camels. We’re still not quite sure what to think, but we’ll certainly be very picky about these kinds of things going forward.
The guys from the desert camp, mostly younger locals with infectious energy, brought out a “dune board”, and we all took turns sledding (and some brave souls “snowboarding”) down the dune. It was a blast! Back at camp, dinner (salad, soup, rice, beans, goat and vegetable tagines, fruit and yogurt) was followed up with music by the fire. After the guys played a few songs, they handed their drums to us to join in! It was a perfect evening under the stars.
The day we had been dreading the whole trip. After breakfast we were driven back to our car, and we set off on the 8-hour drive. Luckily, it was an interesting drive (the N13 north from Merzouga, then the N8 north from Azrou), as we passed through a wide variety of landscapes, from desert to mountains, valleys, and pine and cedar forests. We even spotted a handful of wild monkeys in the Atlas Mountains! Unfortunately, we got caught in one of the many speed traps dotting Morocco’s highways and had to pay a 150 dh fine on the spot. Not to be deterred! Eventually we got to Fez, dropped the car off at the airport, and took a taxi to the medina. The drive wasn’t as bad as we’d been expecting!
Stay tuned for the third stage of our trip: three nights in Fez, the best-preserved medieval city in the Arab world!