Morocco Part 2: The Atlas Mountains and Sahara Desert

That feeling that comes with being in the presence of dramatic natural beauty is one that I’ve come to crave. It’s a combination of feeling both incredibly small and completely inspired. It’s renewing and restorative and humbling and makes me feel more connected to this beautiful planet we inhabit. I felt this a million times over on our trip to Norway, and I felt it again in Morocco.

For the second half of our trip, we took a three-day, two-night tour through the Atlas Mountains and into the Sahara Desert. During the short trip, we drove on winding roads through towering mountain peaks, stood at the bottom of deep gorges and looked out in the distance from the backs of camels and saw nothing but gently sloping orange sand dunes. They were each stunning, but the process of getting to them was nothing short of organized chaos.

After being picked up in an unmarked car from our riad and dropped in the main square of the medina, we were ushered into a small van by a guy with a clipboard who was clearly orchestrating the morning. He didn’t have our names, I’m sure, but he made sure we were doing the two-night trip, not the one-night trip. After sitting in this van alone for about 40 minutes, he came back and told us to get in a different one that was almost full. “Two nights, three days?” he confirmed again. Yep. He shut the door behind us and we were off.

A quick tip if you’re considering a similar trip: Although we spent a lot of time trying to figure out which company to book a tour with (and ultimately ended up booking through our riad), it turns out that it does not matter AT ALL if you want a group tour. As we started to get to know the (awesome) people we were sharing a bus with, we learned that most of us had booked through different companies — and paid different amounts. Also, you don’t need to book ahead, unless going to the desert is the first thing you want to do in Morocco. We booked our trip the night we arrived and left for the desert three days later, but we easily could have waited.

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Over three days, we drove from Marrakech, almost to the Algerian border and back. It involved A LOT of driving. Luckily, we ended up with a really fun group of people from all over (Germany, the U.S., Spain, Japan, China and Casablanca). We became fast friends, which made the trip that much more enjoyable — and made it easier to overlook things like our driver refusing to stop as quickly as possible when multiple passengers were in severe need of a toilet.

The first and last parts of our trip took us through the Atlas Mountains. When I wasn’t focused on trying not to barf (I don’t do well with windy roads), I was staring out the window taking in the stunning views. From snow-capped peaks to lush river valleys dotted with tiny villages, it was an incredible few hours.

Our first stop was in Ait Ben Haddou, a town near Ouarzazate where numerous films/TV shows have been shot, including Gladiator, Game of Thrones and Lawrence of Arabia.

Next we drove to the Dades Gorge, where we spent the night. To be honest, half the time we didn’t know where we were because our driver was strictly that: a driver. Unfortunately, that meant we didn’t learn a ton about the places we visited, but I think that’s how it goes unless you have a private tour.

We got up bright and early the next morning and headed toward the desert. On the way, we stopped to take in some views and see a farming community that had established an impressive irrigation system. On the same stop, we learned about Moroccan rug making (a real art) and walked through a giant gorge.

After our trip to the gorge, we had a few more hours of driving before we reached the desert. Eventually, we started to see sand dunes in the distance. When we arrived in Merzouga, we rearranged our bags (you have to carry everything you bring with you on your camel), got in one last bathroom trip (no toilets in the desert!), and hopped on our camels. Our Berber guides led us for two hours through the sand dunes. For the record, two hours is plenty of time to spend on a camel. They’re impressive animals but not particularly comfortable. The scenery, however, was incredible. All you could see was sand. Once we arrived at camp, our guides rushed us off the camels and told us to hurry up and climb the sand dune so we could watch the sunset. I learned two things from this experience: Climbing a sand dune is HARD, especially when you’re trying to do it quickly. Also, watching the sun set from the top of a sand dune as you overlook a sea of sand dunes is breathtaking, and worth the difficult climb.

After we watched the sun set, we had a chicken and vegetable tagine for dinner and drank some beers under one of the starriest skies I’ve ever seen. We listened to our hosts play some music, and then we headed to bed.

The next morning, we had a 5:30 wake-up call. We were hurried back onto our camels and began our trek back to Merzouga. Feeling sore from the previous camel ride, this ride was much more painful. About halfway through the trip, our guides brought the entire chain of camels to halt so we could watch the sun rise over the dunes. Then we continued on our way.

We had breakfast in Merzouga then set out on our long drive back to Marrakech. Unfortunately, Andy got sick with Shigella, we think, on our way back. After his symptoms got worse when we tried to wait it out, we decided to skip the last leg of our trip (Agadir) and head home early. With the help of friends here and at home, we got him the care and medication he needed to get back on his feet.

Sickness aside, what I will remember most about these three days is the beautiful scenery and the people we saw it with. This adventure would not have been nearly as much fun without Alex, Daniel, Chris, Annika and others.


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