The 3 days tour from Fes to Marrakech was our first experience with organized tours. We prefer to discover the countries at our own pace and not to commit to any plan. In the end, travelling is about the experience, about learning a new culture and way of life. Because nothing is more eye-opening than surrounding yourself with another culture that chooses to live their life completely different from yours. And for that, plans that you lay out from the comfort of your couch don’t work very well. But this time, we thought a tour might be in our interest.
We wanted to see the Sahara and, if possible, spend the night there. After some research, we found it wasn’t difficult to get to the Sahara, or the start of it anyway, from any Moroccan city. The problem would come when trying to find where to sleep. Our best option seemed to be an organised tour. The tour operators have permanent camps at the middle of the dunes and could arrange to take us there and add in a few more interesting visits on the way. We checked out a few companies and found out Desert Day Tours was an interesting option. They had great reviews online, especially from travel blogs we like and follow. So, we contacted them, discussed a few options and booked the 3 days tour from Fes to Marrakech staying one night at the dunes of Erg Chebbi, in Merzouga. We would be able to spend a night at Merzouga’s dunes, Erg Chebbi, and they would take us to Marrakech after that. Where we were planning to end our trip.
Day 1: Fez – Ifrane – Midelt – Ziz Gorges – Erfoud – Rissani – Merzouga
Our driver picked us up at our riad in Fes, Riad Sara, an excellent choice if you are looking for accommodation in Fes. He was a knowledgeable young man from the Merzouga region. His English was excellent and he was always ready to answer our questions or strike a conversation on any topic. From the August weather in Merzouga to Moroccan marriage traditions or Spanish football. He made the entire trip very entertaining and is part of the reason we liked it so much. This came as a relief to us. The thought of having awkward situations during the many hours we were going to spend in the car dreaded us.
From the riad, he took us to the car, a fairly new Toyota Landcruiser, ample and comfortable. We drove south towards Merzouga, where we would spend the night, our much-expected night in the desert. In front of us, we had a 9-hour drive and several stops along the way.
We went south via Ifrane and Azrou. Our first stop was at the Cedar Forests near Azrou, in the northern end of the Middle Atlas. The town offers a curious sight, its buildings were constructed in the European alpine style with red-tiled roofs. There is a colony of Barbary macaques living in the forest nearby and drawn to the car park by the tourist activity. You can take photos of them and buy them some food from the stalls if you will. But don’t be surprised if they outsmart you and get more than you were prepared to give. They do this for a living…
As singular as this place can be, it wasn’t yet what we were expecting from our 3 days tour from Fes to Marrakech.
Our next stop was on the way from Azrou to Midelt, through the Tizi Ntalghamt pass. This time we only stopped to buy some figs in a roadside market. We bought a large bag of Moroccan figs. Tender, ripe, and lusciously sweet, they made a nice snack while we drove towards Midelt.
As we wandered around, we could sense the vendors weren’t delighted to see us roaming with a camera rather than a wallet in our hands. We checked with the driver and he confirmed our fears; photographers weren’t welcome. The scenery, the fruit stalls, the vendors, and the kids running around, it all made a great composition that we would have loved to capture. Instead, we had to resign ourselves to a few shots from the hip. Surprisingly, the results weren’t bad at all.
We continued our way down south driving through the Atlas Mountains. Taking in the dramatic scenery, we tried to make the best of it stopping now and then. Eager to enjoy the astonishing views and take some more pictures. The road followed the lines of the mountains before entering the area known as the Ziz Gorges. The gorges run along the Ziz River and have been carved through the volcanic stone. For centuries, it has been part of the traditional caravan trading route between the settlements in the Northern Sahara. Today, you are more likely to find old trucks overloaded with unhappy livestock, but it is not difficult to imagine how harsh it must have been for a camel train traversing the northern edges of the Sahara.
Lunch at Bab Sahra
After the gorges, we stopped for lunch just before entering Errachidia, at Bab Sahra. The restaurant was a rather big service area of sorts where most of the tours going south probably stopped. We were the only ones when we arrived, but you could see the place was prepared for large groups. We ordered a chicken tagine that although delicious looking, left us a little bit underwhelmed. The meat was quite dry and difficult to swallow. The heat inside the restaurant didn’t make it any easier.
The road to Merzouga continues south along the Oued Ziz and the Ziz Valley, we didn’t descend into the valley but the views from the road were gorgeous. There are many places where you can stop and look down to the Ziz Valley. After the hectic life in Fez, having the opportunity to contemplate the palm groves and lush vegetation, punctuated by small sand-coloured houses in the afternoon light gives you yet another different view of Morocco, peaceful and calm.
After Erfoud, we stopped at Rissani, the last city of considerable size before Erg Chebbi, the large sea of dunes where we would spend the night. Rissani is also known for being the birthplace of the Alaouite dynasty, the mausoleum of Moulay Ali Cherif, third great-grandfather of Moulay Cherif, founder of the Alaouite Dynasty of Morocco is located on the edge of town. It also holds a lively market, especially Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, a livestock market, and a (not to be missed) donkey parking lot! It’s where the people who travel to the market via donkey leave their animal tied up while they do their shopping. Sadly, it was almost empty when we arrived.
We had a short rest in a cafe and then got into the car again for our final drive to Erg Chebbi. When we arrived our camels and the guide were already waiting for us. It was a bit late and we had to make the camp before it got dark. The camel guide was an affable Berber man dressed in traditional robes. Although a bit stressed about our tardiness, never lost his smile. He prepared the camels for us, strapped our backpacks to the camels, and helped us to get on the hump.
After an hour and a half through the dunes and many beautiful shots, we arrived at our camp. Surrounded by several other camps but far enough of them to give you the impression you were alone in the middle of the Sahara, and it certainly did the trick. We were welcomed by a young man that helped us to the camp and offered us mint tea and nibbles. Being mid-august, there was no one else in the camp but us, as expected.
We were allowed some time to unpack and take a quick shower while they prepared dinner. The camp formed a large rectangle, with the tents placed along three sides, leaving one clear for the entrance. And enough space at the centre to set the dinner tables for all the guests.
Erg Chebbi is a touristic place and, as such, prepared for the comfort of the tourists. The landscape is astonishing but, in the end, it’s a hotel on the dunes with amenities and activities for tourists. It is not a survival adventure.
They set up one small wooden table and chairs on top of a Moroccan rug in the middle of the camp. The only light came from a single candle that created the perfect atmosphere under the starred sky. We enjoyed a delicious dinner with a sharing platter of Moroccan starters and a main of lamb couscous. After dinner, the men sat down with us next to a campfire and played traditional Berber music for us.
After the long day, we were looking forward to a good night sleep. We welcomed the moment they told us it was time. We knew the days in the desert were hot, but we expected the nights to be chillier. Sadly for us, this was not the case in August. The temperature was still above 30C in the open, a few degrees more in our tent. We were offered to sleep outside, above the dunes, only covered by a thin blanket, as they were about to do. Being urbanites as we are, we thought it safer to sleep inside the tent. In our mind, the dunes will be packed with scorpions at night.
Day 2: Merzouga – Todra Gorge – Dades Valley
The next morning, we woke up early to enjoy the sunrise and take some stunning pictures before the camps came to life. We wanted to have the Erg Chebbi dunes for ourselves. After another quick shower, we had mint tea and breakfast at the camp and rode the camels back to Merzouga, where our driver was waiting for us.
The plan for the day was to drive to Dades Valley, where we would spend the night, with just a couple of stops along the way.
The first one was the Amazigh city of Tinghir, in the middle of a spectacular oasis. It was probably the most spectacular oasis we have seen yet, about 30 kilometres long and 4 kilometres wide. We just stopped at the viewpoint next to the road to take some pictures. We would have loved to get in, but we were already pressed for time.
After Tinghir we went to the Todra Gorges, where the river has carved deep cliff-sided canyons through the mountains. You can admire the canyons while you drive by but there is nothing like parking the car and wandering the trails on foot. Towering red cliffs tinted with greens and golds that stretch up to 160 metres above you make a breathtaking scenery, especially when the canyon gets very narrow towards the end.
Another few hours driving through the Dades Valley as the road snakes up and down the mountain pass and we got to our destination for the night, Kasbah Auberge Tifawen. There wasn’t much to do around the hotel, but we enjoyed lazing around on the terrace and welcomed the cooler temperatures.
Day 3: Dades Valley – Skoura – Ouarzazate- Ait Ben Haddou Kasbah – High Atlas mountain – Marrakech
After breakfast, the road was calling again. The final day of our 3 days tour from Fes to Marrakech would take us the city of Marrakech. Before that, there were still a few wonders to discover.
The Dades Valley is also known as the Way of the thousand Kasbahs. We took every opportunity we had to stop the car and take in the magnificent scenery.
The road took us through the Roses Valley and the village of Skoura. We went past the village of Ouarzazate and decided not to stop at the famous Hollywood studios. We preferred to have more time to enjoy the natural beauty of Morocco.
Ait Ben Haddou kasbah
Just before lunch, we stopped at the famous Ait Ben Haddou kasbah. It is, probably, the most famous in Morocco, thanks to Hollywood films and Game of Thrones, rather than for being a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was a scorching hot day and not many were visiting the Kasbah at that moment. The souvenir stalls were empty, the only queues were to buy cold water. The Kasbah is an extraordinary ensemble of earthen buildings surrounded by high walls, is a traditional pre-Saharan habitat.
Tizi n’Tichka pass
The journey continued through the majestic Tizi n’Tichka pass. Our driver was eager to take us to it. Not just because of the magnificent views, the road was difficult, and it was better to attempt it early. From the moment we tipped over the peak and began our descent, the views were astonishing. The road followed the lines of the mountain with short, straight sections, then sharp bends. After each bend, another impressive view where we wanted to stop and take some more pictures.
Once we reached the bottom of the Atlas Mountains, only the required visit to an argan oil cooperative separated us from our destination. We reached our riad by late afternoon.
After more than a thousand kilometres and a 3 days tour from Fes to Marrakech we were back in the frenetic streets of an imperial city. We collected countless memories and many astonishing pictures but we were glad that the road itself was an amazing trip.