Getting to the Sahara Desert can be a pain, but it is certainly doable – even without a camel!
Marrakech is a magical place, and it remains of the best cities I have visited in the Northern Africa/Mediterranean region. However, most of us want to experience the wonders of the desert, and being so close to such world famous dunes, it would be a crime not to at least plan an overnight trip to the gateway to the Sahara, Merzouga.
Merzouga is the main access point to the rolling Erg Chebbi desert dunes. You can travel directly from Marrakech to Merzouga using Supratours, which is a reliable bus company in Morocco. I was told that there were a few journeys each day, but for whatever reason when I was there, only one was being made daily and that was the first one of the day at 8.30am. The whole journey will take around 9-10 hours. It is, however, highly recommend to break up this lengthy trip with overnight stops at some of the spectacular destinations outlined below. I personally stopped off only at the township of Ouarzazate, principally for Ait Benhaddou, which is a magnificent sight and one of the finest in the whole of Morocco.
To get out of Marrakech in earnest, you have to head to the bus station which is conveniently located adjacent to Marrakech Train Station (which incidentally is where you go when you want to catch the train to Fes). Your hotel can provide quick transport to the bus station, but make sure you get there around an hour in advance – which means an early morning! Supratours buses are air-conditioned and comfortable, and the trip takes around 4 hours, which usually includes a 20 minute stop somewhere along the way. The Supratour bus to Ouarzazate cost me Dh80 (less than £6), although I didn’t have much luggage with me on this trip.
I spent a night in Ouarzazate, which added to my accommodation budget, but I did really want to see Ait Benhaddou, so it was something I just had to pay for! The town itself is quite unremarkable, but the people certainly add something extra to your stay!
From Ouarzazate, you may want to consider visiting Dades Gorge, to see more of the amazing western Moroccan landscape. The Supratour bus travels past it enroute to Merzouga, although I did not have time to stop off and experience this myself. That said, the Supratour bus departs Ouarzazate at 1pm (according to the schedule, but be prepared for a delay) and arrives in Merzouga – via Dades Gorge – in the dark at 9pm. I was told this leg of the trip only took about 6 hours, so by the end of the bus ride I was getting very angst-ridden. Still, at least the air-con was working well, and the driver was driving safely. I also paid around Dh115 (about £9) on this leg of the trip.
Having experienced a lot of Morocco, I must say that Merzouga was one of the most enchanting laces in the whole country. To be at the gateway to the Sahara was a wonderful experience, and it always feels very thrilling to be so far away from civilisation (excluding the city of Merzouga itself). I have walked through dense jungles, and hiked up active volcanoes, but this at Merzouga was my first major desert experience, and it makes the arduous journey from Marrakech very worthwhile!