Sahara Desert

Crossing Morocco to the Sahara Desert

Driving from Marrakesh to Erg Chebbi, the last settlement before the Sahara Desert, is a punishing experience, but, paradoxically, pleasurable and unforgettable. Do not underestimate the distance of approximately 600 kilometers, which in other parts of the world could be completed in around six or seven hours. Crossing the Moroccan territory, from the middle of its southwest to the extreme south, is a challenge, with the difficulties and unforeseen events that are presented to the traveler, no matter how much the route has been researched and planned.

Col du Tichka

From Marrakesh to Ouarzazate, it is approximately 200 kilometers – which may make the unsuspecting suppose that it is a simple walk of just over two hours. Nothing like that. Leaving Marrakesh, at 466 meters above sea level, you reach Ouarzazate, 1,151 meters above sea level, not without first traveling on a winding road, the N9, with ascents, descents, closed curves and whose quality of The floor varies a lot: bumpy stretches, well-paved spots, parts of earth and a lot of dust, pieces covered by boulders …

The N9 is one of the main roads in Morocco and also one of the most picturesque in the world, as it crosses the Atlas Mountains to reach the path that leads to the Sahara Desert. In fact, it is the only way. Built in 1936 by the French to be a military road, the road has more than 100 curves.

The first leg of this journey connects Marrakesh to Tizi n’Tichka (Passo n’Tichkaou, or Col du Tichka in French). It is a traditional stopping place for travelers to rest and take some pictures, as it is the highest point of the road in the Atlas Mountains. The plaques are written in French, the result of the colonization that took place between 1911 and 1956, when the country gained its political independence.

Through the car window, you can see portraits of the original Morocco on the side of the highway, somewhat different from that found in tourist cities such as Marrakesh, Casablanca and Fez. The majority of the population is Islamic and is mainly engaged in agricultural activities or mineral extraction (quartz, amethysts and agate, among others) or even pieces of fossilized rocks, with traces of insects or pieces of bones from larger animals.


Next to the highway, there are constructions that keep the ancient characteristics of the Berber culture – the first inhabitants of the Moroccan lands, and many of the ethnic groups had nomadic habits (like the touaregs). These are the kasbah, buildings that bear many similarities to European medieval castles.

The Kasbah had great walls, imposing residences that were inhabited by sultans and also smaller houses, occupied by their servants. Its shapes reflect the characteristics of ancestral Moroccan architecture, with walls built with adobe bricks (made with a mixture of clay, manure and straw).

Near the city of Ouarzazate there are several kasbah. The most famous is Aït Benhaddou, for being the largest and having served as a location for several films, such as “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), “Jesus of Nazareth” (1977), “A Mummy” (1999), “Gladiator ”(2000) and“ Alexandre ”(2004). Built in the 17th century, it was of great importance as it was a trade posot for trade routes between the Sahara Desert and Marrakesh.

Pashá stronghold

One of the most preserved in Morocco, Kasbah Telouete was built by the Pashá Thami El Glaoui, who was one of the main allies of the French colonists. This alignment with foreigners made him one of the most powerful men in Morocco: he charged tithes from the producers of almonds, saffron, olives and even (as they said) from Marrakesh prostitutes. He lost strength with the independence movements and died in 1956.

Stony desert

Going from Ouarzazate to Merzouga, a distance of 670 km, means going through literally deserted lands. But the road crosses a territory where the soil is covered with stones, not sand dunes. The hamada (rocky desert) is an empty immensity as far as the eye can see, you don’t see a living soul. There are miles and miles at the same time monotonous and thought-provoking, a landscape that impresses with its vastness and for being completely different from anything that a Western traveler is used to seeing.

What eventually breaks this monotony is the passage of one or another shepherd – of lamb or camels – who, without ceremony, crosses the track with his animals. The heat and the distance (the highway never seems to end) make the journey tiring, but, even so, the traveler needs to realize that it is an unprecedented and unforgettable experience and should enjoy every minute of it.

At the end of the road, a village

After hundreds of kilometers and many hours behind the wheel, you arrive at Merzouga. In the past, the place was a mere stopping point for Berber nomads to rest before going on a trip through the desert, on account of Lake Dayet Sriji – it is the famous desert oasis.

Over time, it ended up becoming a village and then became a city – small to this day. It is the last human settlement before the Sahara Desert, just 20 kilometers from Algeria – the country that houses most of the desert.

Thus, the traveler has a spectacular image when arriving at Merzouga. The road just ends and, ahead of you, you can only see sand. On the side of the highway is the city, with its mosque, houses and hotels.

It is from Merzouga that visitors leave for tours in the Sahara Desert, in a region called Erg Chebbi. Berber legend says that a wealthy family refused shelter for a poor woman and her son and, as a punishment, God buried them in piles of sand.

It is possible to get to know this portion of the Sahara Desert by hiring a tour with local guides. Part of the route is done in 4 x 4 vehicles and the rest in camels. There is the option of just going to watch the sunrise or stay overnight – in a typical Berber hut or sumptuous modern facilities.

Traveling this part of the Sahara Desert closer to civilization is a unique experience. Despite not having the same degree of difficulty faced by the ancient Berber nomads, it is still possible to have the exact dimension of the grandeur of the desert and the difficulties it imposes on human beings.

There is no point of reference to guide visitors who are not familiar with the place. The scenario is practically identical, no matter how far you go: dunes and more dunes.

Walking through the desert brings several teachings. Among them, give the exact dimension of what we represent in the universe. We are just a grain of sand from the desert.


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