This Morocco travel guide covers regions just outside Marrakech including the Erg Chebbi sand dunes, Atlas Mountains, Benhaddou, Dades Valley and more.
Morocco has wonderfully diverse geographic regions ranging from mountains, canyons, deserts, forests, and coastal regions both on the Atlantic and Mediterranean Oceans. The medieval city of Marrakech, a popular tourist destination, offers various day and multi-day trips that explores these regions.
Touring the popular Erg Chebbi sand dunes is a multi-day trip that involves taking a 2-hour camel ride to a Berber camp site to spend the night eating traditional food while experiencing some Berber culture. Along the way to the sand dunes, tourists cross over the Atlas Mountains and have the opportunity to visit stunning canyons and ancient villages.
Crossing the Atlas Mountains is required in order to get to the Erg Chebbi Sand Dunes. As the journey moves along from Marrakech to the Mountains, the scenery changes from dry and flat landscapes to forested mountains in the span of just a couple of hours. Once in the mountains, the air is fresh and scenery stunning. A stop at one of the mountain top cafes is a must for enjoying a coffee and soaking in the views.
Valleys and Canyons
Once the Atlas Mountains are crossed, several ancient fortified villages can be visited along with magnificent valleys and canyons. The fortified village of Aït Benhaddou is a UNESCO world heritage site featured in the Gladiator, Mummy, and Game of Thrones.
Tizi Ntichka is the highest major mountain pass in North Africa and is the gateway to the Sahara Desert.
Dades Valley contains many palm groves, oases, and elaborate kasbahs. The sides of the valley are a colorful pink, red, and beige with a deep green lush valley floor fed by the Dades River. Hiking in the lush valleys or visiting the various kasbahs are a must.
Todgha Gorges are deep cliff-sided canyons carved by the Dades Rivers. The highest walls of the canyon reach 1,312 ft tall.
Since the distance from Marrakech to the sand dunes takes about 8 hours, tours typically stop about half way near the Tizi Ntichka mountain pass for the night. The hotel I stayed at had a bed and breakfast vibe with interesting Moroccan decorations.
Best part of this hotel was the group of locals that played several Moroccan songs after dinner using Moroccan instruments. They even let guests join in by handing out musical instruments for us to use as well!
Erg Chebbi Sand Dunes
Without a doubt, riding a camel across the seemingly endless Saharan desert with the sun setting behind me was one of the best travel moments I have ever experienced. Almost like being on another planet, the whole thing felt surreal as I sat atop a tall camel as we lumbered along the orange sand dunes.
Visitors usually arrive at the Erg Chebbi sand dunes just before sunset when the temperatures are lower. A two hour camel ride through the desert at high noon temperatures would not be ideal.
About an hour into the ride, we got off the camels and hiked up one the tallest dunes that over looked much of the area and watched the sunset over the desert. For some reason, sound does not travel well here, making this one the most quiet and peaceful places I have visited. If you want to meditate and clear your head, I can think of no better place.
Once at the campsite, the camels were parked and tents were assigned to travelers where bags could be dropped off. A giant feast was being prepared and camp fires were set to keep people warm. For those that wanted to “Sand Board” down a dune, snow boards were available.
A large dining tent with tables was setup and all kinds of delicious local Moroccan food was served.
The tents were comfortable with elevated mattress beds. However, somehow a cat got into the tent in the middle of the night and started screaming like crazy. Being completely tired and in pitch black darkness, I just screamed back at the cat and pass out.
The following morning the tour group woke up before sunrise and the camel trek out of the desert began. About half way out we dismounted the camels, climbed a tall sand dune and watched the magnificent sunrise over the desert.
Marrakech has a robust and mature tourism market with seasoned guides and professional management. This is based on my experience coordinating with several tour operators before the trip and the execution of the tour by my guide. For this trip I used Discover Morocco Tours and the entire trip was flawlessly executed with no issues whatsoever. Our super friendly guide Karim was funny, up beat, positive, and safely drove us all around Morocco for hours on end.
I recommend joining a small group tour. Larger tours are bigger, but can be crowded and completely non-flexible. Private tours are more expensive and unless your travel partner is new, you are going to run out of stuff to talk about after being in the car for hours. Small groups have the added benefit of meeting a few new travelers without being overwhelmed by a bus full of people.
In conclusion, taking a multi-day tour from Marrakech to the Atlas Mountains, Kasbahs, and Moroccan desert is an incredibly unique experience and a bucket list must. There are not too many places that combine delicious food, friendly people, and gorgeous dynamic landscapes like Morocco does. To top it off, all that comes at an incredibly affordable price, especially compared to European destinations.