The desert is a major draw for tourists in Morocco and with good reason.
Who could beat the feeling of watching the sunset atop a huge sand dune, feasting on a meal of couscous and then camping under the brightest of starry skies? With a little luck, you may also spend some time with the nomad families who live in the desert, crossing its surprisingly varied landscape in search of water and food for their camels and troops of goats.
This route links Merzouga and Zagora. Both towns that have built their reputation on the desert but to very different effect. Merzouga is right on the edge of the dunes, giving you a stunning view from your campsite but one you have to share with many other tourists. Zagora, on the other hand, is a base from which to book a tour into an altogether more remote desert, with the great dunes only accessible by 4×4 or by trekking for a few days on foot. Between the sandy landscapes, pedal your bike through small villages and down the oasis-filled Draa Valley.
Duration: 4-5 days
Terrain: Flat terrain most of the way, with a downhill run as you approach Zagora. Nothing very strenuous.
Climate: September through April are the best times for cycling in the south of Morocco. Watch out for sandstorms in the desert areas around March. Summer will be diabolically hot.
Highlights: The desert scenery is without question the main highlight but also look out for the chance to camp close to nomad families (its okay to stay within a couple hundred meters of them, just go over to introduce yourself) and visit some desert kasbahs near Zagora.
Lowlights: Lots of tourists means lots of begging, from children especially, in this part of Morocco. Resist the temptation to give them sweets or any other presents as it only encourages further begging. Similarly, you’ll have to be on your toes when shopping as some merchants try to take advantage of tourists.
Tips: Don’t be afraid to walk away if a price is too high. Learn to joke with the kids instead of giving them candies.
Section 1 – Merzouga – Rissani (50km)
Your trip starts in Merzouga, the more commercial of the two desert centres but also the one where you can view the sand dunes from your hotel rooftop or the door of your tent. The town is well set up for tourists so you’ll have a choice of accomodation and probably endless offers to take a trip by camel or 4×4 around the desert. Plan to spend at least one night here to admire the shifting sands, then head out on the main road towards the next major town, Rissani. Traffic is moderate and the road is in decent shape. Entering Rissani, you’re likely to be overwhelmed by people trying to sell you something or drag you to a restaurant, which can be annoying if you’re just looking for the vegetable stalls in the large souk. There are hotels here if you’d like to stay the night.
Section 2 – Rissani to Alnif (95km)
Once out of Rissani, the population quickly thins as you take the left-bearing turn to Alnif, although even here if you stop within sight of a house don’t be surprised to see children running out to sell you fossils or other trinkets. There are hardly any towns or even villages along this stretch, just a few camels grazing and the occasional goat and sheep herd. There are a few hotels to choose from when you reach Alnif but be prepared to bargain. A steady enough trickle of tourists seems to come through, giving locals the courage to ask for more than they should. We successfully bartered down the price of our ensuite double room from 200DH to 100DH, in line with what we’ve paid elsewhere, but dinner remained expensive in relative terms. All of the restaurants on the main street cater to tourists and your hotel will likely try to encourage you to eat from their menu. We couldn’t find any local-hangouts as a more affordable alternative for an evening meal.
Section 3 – Anlif – Tazzarine (65km)
The ride from Anlif is a fairly easy one, aside from the children who come running out of villages en masse to ask for candy, money and pens. In Tazzarine, you’ll find plenty of cafes and restaurants as well as a small but well stocked marketplace where the merchants didn’t mind us making up a bag of mixed vegetables and fruit. Your two main accomodation choices are on the edge of town just before you turn to carry on towards Zagora. Over a bridge is an overpriced tourist complex which looked sterile and desolate when we arrived to inspect it. A better choice is the campground in the oasis. Instead of crossing the bridge, look to your left for a small road (more of a track) that runs alongside the riverbed and into the alleyways of the oasis. Follow this for a few hundred meters and you’ll come to the campground. It’s relatively expensive but facilities are nice. You can spend the night in a Berber tent if you don’t want to erect your own roof.
Section 4 – Tazzarine – N9 Junction (75km)
Follow the signs to the right out of Tazzerine, towards the N9 junction and Zagora. On some maps you will see what appears to be a shortcut road heading straight out of Tazzerine for Zagora but this road is in dubious condition. Locals told us it wasn’t paved and also unsigned so not an easy time saver. Better to take the longer main route. There are several little villages from Tazzerine to the N9 junction but not many shops on the road so get what you need before leaving Tazzerine. Kids and adults alike continue to badger for sweets, cigarettes and just about anything else they think you’ll give them. We found our best tactic was to respond with a joke. The scenery makes up for the hassle; date palm groves and blooming almond trees in the spring. The long oasis can make it difficult to find a place to camp far from people, although we found a place to tuck ourselves away into just before the N9 junction. There is one well very near to the road as you approach the N9 junction but it’s very deep so bring lots of string! We saw some nomad families along this stretch.
Section 5 – N9 Junction to Zagora (70km)
The junction itself marks a turn into some very touristy parts of Morocco, the main road leading down the Draa Valley. All along this stretch you’ll not have any problem finding supplies but be prepared to bargain and if the price is too high just walk away. There’s sure to be another store before long. You have a mostly downhill run into Zagora but beware the winds which strengthen in the afternoon and can nearly stop you in your tracks. Zagora is the biggest city around for some distance and as a result you’ll find everything you need here: hotels from budget to luxury, dozens of internet cafes, bank machines, souvenir shops and a huge souk. We stayed at the mid-range La Palmeraie, about 220 DH a night for a double room with satellite TV, including breakfast.
Once you’ve rested up a bit, Zagora is a great place to arrange a tour into the desert. By bicycle you can go another 100km further to M’hamid and you’ll see a few sand dunes by the side of the road but to experience the real desert you have to hire a guide to take you either on foot or by 4×4.
For a desert tour, we recommend Brahim Elaabdouli of Caravane Desert et Montagne. Brahim has guided us in the desert and Morocco’s anti-Atlas mountain range three times and is now a good friend. He’s very organised, trustworthy and won’t take you to a carpet shop or anywhere else trying to earn a commission. In the interest of full disclosure, we liked Brahim so much that we designed his internet site as a thank you. You’ll find him in the Lonely Planet guidebook to Morocco as well.