Merzouga is a small village, a kind “end of the road” before you reach the Sahara desert… or in more romantic words, Merzouga is the gateway to the desert. It’s the most popular and the easiest way to reach the desert in Morocco, but in the other hand, this makes Merzouga an uncharacteristic and awkward place that apparently only exists because of the tourism, that come here to see the Erg Chebbi, the big sand dune.
Erg Chebbi is commonly referred as part of the Sahara desert but in fact is just a “mountain” of sand located in the dry rocky soil that surrounds the Sahara desert, which is located a bit more southeast, on the way to Algerian and Mauritanian borders. But this geographic detail does not draw interest to the place, with Erg Chebbi offering beautiful landscapes, particularly at sunset and sunrise, when the dunes get the warm magic color.
In resume, there’s no reason to stay in Merzouga. It’s a ghost town without a local lifestyle, with empty and dusty streets fill up with an atmosphere of abandon and desolation that gets worst under the strong sun rays, that even in November are sharp and cruel.
In the modern part of Merzouga, there’s the main street, a straight wide boulevard, along which is concentrated the commercial part, with cafes and restaurants, groceries, travel agencies, some accommodation and the usual souvenir shops, where there’s always an herbalist and a spice shop.
Separating this modern part of Merzouga from the local town there’s a small palm field, which constitutes the only green area that you can see in this arid place that doesn’t see much rain. Apparently, there’s a nearby lake where the flamingos use to stop but there are only a few chances to see them, so double check if it’s the right season, as several people that visit the place around October/November, didn’t spot any.
Imagine…. imagine a thick darkness of the night during a new moon… imagine the milky way that make you realize how small we are in the solar system… imagine the sky as a dome full of stars surrounding you in an absolute silence… imagine nature in its most intact state… imagine untouched dunes… imagine Erg Chebbi and forget all this!
Erg Chebbi is noisy, crowded, far from being an untouched natural place, already spoiled by the tourism business, where it’s easier to spot the trail of the 4WD tired than the footprints of a camel.
Although, early morning is still possible to enjoy a quiet atmosphere as the light of dusk gives way to the first rays of sun that illuminate the dunes, giving life to the fantastic colors of the desert, revealing almost unnoticed footprints that lizards, frogs and small rodents, left on the sand from their night activity. The sunset walk provides also nice views and a certain nostalgia, maybe because of the swinging walk on the top of the dromedary, that are such a peaceful and chill animals that perfectly match the desert landscape.
The use of animals to make this short desert trip is very controversial, as the animal shouldn’t be used for entertainment… but the use of cars creates an impact in the wildlife of this ecosystem, plus atmospheric, visual and sound pollution. A subject to think about….
How to visit the desert in Merzouga:
Erg Chebbi is far from being a quiet and untouched place. Basically, walking about one hour from Merzouga (on foot, by camel or quicker by jeep), you’ll reach the limit of the big dune where several of the “desert camps” are located, all associated to the hundred of tourist accommodations of Merzouga. Each of these desert camps occupies a bottom flat area between dunes, creating a sequence of permanent camps, that stay empty during the day, gaining life near the sunset with the arrival of tourists who spend the night here, and wake up next day to watch the sunrise and take the breakfast before return to Merzouga.
All this is part of a classic desert tour that with a few more Dirham it’s also possible to visit the “nomad tribes”, these also established permanently in neighboring areas. All these desert camps offer more or less the same services, including a dinner with local food, and a bit of entertainment with music around a bonfire in the evening. The only thing that changes is the comfort of the tents and quality of the service. The trip can be made in camel or by jeep.
Trip cost: 250 Dihram (after 1 hour bargain), that includes a dromedary ride, to and from the desert camp, dinner, sleep in a desert tent (there’s a toilet but no shower) and breakfast. The tents were basic but confortable for one night and much warmer that I could imagine.
Maybe because of these lack of interesting things to see or do in Merzouga, almost all people come here in organized desert tours, don’t even stay overnight in the village. But if are an independent traveller, moving by bus, try to reach Merzouga around the middle afternoon, to have time to arrange the trip to the desert (usually they start around 4 p.m.) and try to get a bus out of Merzouga around lunchtime, as the desert tours end up after the sunrise, dropping you again Merzouga around 9 p.m.
You can easily arrange the tour in Merzouga for the same day, and it’s not necessary to book in advance, as there are lots of choices offered by local agencies but mostly by the hundred of accommodations… much more the number of visitors that were there in November.
Where to sleep in Merzouga:
As there’s no reason to stay one night in Merzouga, and if possible, go straight to the desert and spend one night there, in the so-called “bivouac”, a kind of permanent camping area, which can be more or less charming or glamorous according to your budget. All this is very far away of the romantic idea of being in contact with desert away from the civilization… forget the milky way as the camping areas have generators, toilets and are easily reached by a road that surrounds Erg Chebbi from the South. So don’t feel surprised to hear motorbikes and cars moving around and the staff doesn’t cross the dunes to reach the desert camps.
But if you need to stay in Merzouga due to the transportation logistics, wait for the offers of the local guys that will approach you as you come out from the bus. This is a good opportunity to bargain the prices.
We stay in Chez Ousaadi (Chez Ousaadi Appartements et excursions) with a double room by 100 Dirham. Charmless place, reasonable clean, lacking in atmosphere, but cheap.
If you arrive by bus (Supratours) they make one stop before Merzouga, called Takojt. I’m not totally sure about the name of the place, but it seems less touristic, more interesting and alive, with a bit of local life.
Where to eat in Merzouga:
Along the main road of the modern part of Merzouga, there are a few restaurants, most of them tourist orientated but where you can find a tagine, just a bit more expensive than in others places, but still with a reasonable price.
There are also a few local eateries serving harira and lubia (white beans soup). You can also find two groceries, in the main road, that also sell bread.
How to move around Merzouga:
In Merzouga, you can walk on foot, even if you want to visit the more local area of the village, on the other side of the palm tree field.
To visit the flamingo’s lake you can rent a motorbike or a taxi/4WD. Ask the guys from your accommodation as they are prepared for all these tours and are flexible to adjust it to your will and schedule.
To visit Khemlia, a small village 6 kilometers south, where you can watch the Gnawa music performance, you can take a local bus that stops in a kind of square located between the mosque and the post office (in front of the chez Zakaria) in the less touristy area of Merzouga. There’s a local bus every hour to Khemlia, and the ticket costs 10 Dirham.
How to move away from Merzouga:
There isn’t a bus terminal in Merzouga, but all the buses drop (and pick) the passengers in the main road where the restaurants and shops are concentrated. The Supra tours office is located in this area. The opening schedule is hard to figure out but you can buy the ticket in the same day of the trip. Check schedules below.
CTM buses don’t come to Merzouga. It only goes until Rissani, from where you need to take another bus.
The bus from Merzouga to Meknes (that continues to Fes) departure at 7 p.m. from main street, and costs 180 Dirham. The trip takes about 8 hours, arriving in Meknes at the middle of the night. It’s an easy going trip without stops.