Riding camels in the Sahara Desert was a big bucket list item of mine. Perhaps I watched Aladdin far too many times as a kid (sorry Mom). Or maybe because after riding horses and going dogsledding, this seemed like the logical next step?
Whatever the reason, when I was in Morocco I spent nearly two days of my life in a van on my way to the Sahara desert. Was it worth it? As the kids say… it’s complicated.
The Price is Right
For three solid days of transit to and from the Sahara Desert – including stops by various villages, two nights of accommodations, two breakfasts, and two dinners – I thought $70 US was a steal.
Honestly, we didn’t even try to bargain down the vendors in Marrakech much when they started at $75, since it was such a good price to begin with. Perhaps we could have gotten it for as little as $60, but I thought the price was quite fair, as I don’t have the world’s strongest stomach for bargaining.
The Desert Is Amazing
I’ve never seen anything quite as beautiful as the Sahara Desert. There was something otherworldly about the contrast between the orange sand and the blue sky, and the way the sand rippled in perfect formations.
As sunset fell, I almost wanted to pinch myself to confirm that it was real. But if it was a dream, I didn’t want to wake up.
It’s about two long days in a van on the way to the desert, and besides stopping at the UNESCO site of Ait Ben Haddou and a pretty gorge, most of the stops are pretty uninteresting.
I get motion sickness quite easily, so I lulled myself into a state of near-constant semi-slumber for the two days. They’ll also take you to expensive and uninspiring restaurants, though since I wasn’t a big fan of Moroccan food to begin with, that wasn’t a huge loss.
The Rug Store
In a moment of weakness, I splurged on a hand-woven Berber rug, paying about $35US for a small lambswool rug – mind you, I don’t even have a home, so why I needed a rug was beyond me.
Anyway, when I unwrapped it, I discovered they had swapped it out for another one entirely – it was completely and totally falling apart, and I ended up trashing it. Nice one, Berber guy.
I need to remind myself that North American friendliness is not always the smartest move. I started chatting with one of the desert guides, and he got progressively creepier and creepier as the night got darker.
Eventually, I had to tell him quite directly that he was bothering me and that I wanted to enjoy the stars in silence. It may sound simple enough, but for a nonconfrontational girl like me, it was kind of excruciating. Luckily, he left without much protest.
Later that night, choosing to sleep outside where there was a breeze instead of the stuffy tents, a different guide set up his sleeping site about five feet from me. He placed a large pillow as a buffer between us, which I took comfort in, and I fell asleep. I honestly remember feeling glad that I had a benevolent guardian to keep me away from the creep who was hitting on me earlier.
I woke up a few hours later to him staring at me, saying “shhhhh,” pillow nowhere to be seen and him mere inches from my face.
He tried to tell me to go back to sleep, but you better believe my ass was up and in my hot stuffy tent as quickly as I could manage in my sleep-drunk state. I didn’t sleep much the rest of the night.
Sadly, this kind of behavior is kind of par for the course in Morocco. I’ve heard of at least three other women who have had similar experiences with their Berber guides in the desert. I’ve also, of course, heard positive stories as well.
I wish I could tell you which company I used to advise others to avoid them, but all companies are virtually all the same with extremely generic names, so unfortunately I can’t be of much help. That said, if you’re a woman traveling alone, it’s best to not get too friendly with the guides, and to find other people on the tour group to be your buddies in case things start to get weird. While many Moroccans will be respectful, North American friendliness can sometimes be construed as flirtation or an invitation for more.
In my opinion, it was still 100% worth the experience to get there. But in the spirit of full transparency, I want to share my experience with you so you can be prepared should any shadiness occur in the Sahara. Traveling Morocco can be frustrating as a woman. Adjust yourself accordingly: be courteous, but distant; not rude, but not friendly, and you’ll likely have a more positive experience than I did.