Ever since I watched (and re-watched) the movie The English Patient, I’ve dreamed of seeing the Sahara Desert sand dunes in North Africa.
When I planned our family trip to Morocco in October, I was determined to include sand dunes in our itinerary. A task that proved challenging and ultimately, affected every stop we made on our trip. I quickly realized that no matter how you organize sightseeing stops in Morocco, a trip to the dunes involves 10+ hours of driving through remote parts of the country.
Moreover, the logistical challenge isn’t just about getting there, it’s also about what you do once you arrive. Staying in a hotel outside the dunes is possible, but will not immerse you in the experience. Staying in a tent in the dunes is the way to dig into this destination.
Together these trip requirements mean that a tour operator to handle the driving, touring, and camp selection is a must. Safety and security are top of mind. Moreover, you need a way to make an inherently tiring trip, fun for all.
I had an extensive search for an operator who would and could find a way to make this long journey kid-friendly. I had a few operators try and talk me out of going, while others quite simply couldn’t provide enough details or customization. The company we used, however, didn’t shy away from the challenge.
As I scoured the web for information, Erg Chebbi came up again and again as the hot spot for sand dune excursions.
Admittedly, I was in a dangerous trip planning place as I had a very specific vision (huge, reddish dunes that go on forever) for what I wanted to see which meant that anything “less” than that would leave me disappointed.
As a consequence, I ended up selecting Erg Chebbi as our dunes venue as it was the “safe” bet for meeting my vision. The trade-off is this area has more tourists than more remote desert spots like Erg Chegaga. In the end I weighed priorities and determined being solo in the desert wasn’t important to us.
That said, in the end, the number of groups we ran into were very small. I go back to point one here. It takes time and effort to get to the Sahara Desert in Morocco and only determined travelers will keep it on their itinerary. There’s no “just passing through” these dunes.
Sunset Camel Trek
Getting to the dunes involves an hour of on- and off-road driving through a barren stretch of desert. Experienced “desert drivers” and well-equipped cars ensured this trip was stress-free. We arrived at the Erg Chebbi sand dunes just in time to hop on camels for a sunset ride.
Was it worth it?
Every expectation was exceeded. Everything about these dunes is surreal and vivid — the color, the shadows, the sky. There’s nothing about this place that is familiar or usual — the very essence of experiential travel in my book.
As soon as the sun went down, we headed back to our accommodations for the night, a private tented camp run by the Xaluca group called La Belle Etoile.
Given the middle-of-nowhere inhospitable setting, these tented camps are decadent with beds, running water including an in-room toilet and shower, and electricity. The highlight is the campfire in the middle of the tents under the brightest stars I’ve ever seen, with enough pillows and carpets to keep you comfortable for hours.
A night at La Belle Etoile includes live Berber music and dancing, and a typical Moroccan feast. Electricity is turned off at 10p but lanterns and battery-charged night lights are available.
We woke up at 5:30a to watch the sun rise up over the dunes. A must-do desert activity as the morning light rising over the sand is magic.
At the end of this journey you are left with nothing short of utter amazement that these hardy people have found ways to live in the midst of miles and miles of sand.
Editor’s Note: Xaluca La Belle Etoile hosted us as part of our media tour. They did not ask us to express any particular point of view.
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