Erg Chigaga Luxury Desert Camp
A Diary of the Desert Camp
Before planning our trip to Morocco, my friend Lacey (who ended up doing all of the planning—a totally new thing for me, which I actually enjoyed) and I went back and forth on how much time to spend in the desert. We knew we wanted to do a desert camp, but the hesitation regarding the length of a trip to do was because of the fact that we only had a week in Morocco and wanted to make sure we had enough time to spend in Marrakech as well. We inquired about the possibility of doing a three day trip—and although we were told it could be done—we were strongly advised against doing so. We soon found out that in light of how much driving is involved to get to the desert, a three day trip would mean that you actually only spent one night in the desert, which is not ideal.
We ended up doing the 4 day trip, choosing 4 days after hearing repeatedly that just one night at the camp was not enough (but also not wanting to spend almost the entirety of our 8 day trip in Morocco in the desert). Since it takes two days to get there and one full day of driving to get back, the four day trip is the only way that you can stay two nights in the desert. And boy, were we glad we chose the four day trip! Not only is there a lot of driving involved, but once we got there we actually were pretty sad to leave. If I had to do it all over again (which I am sure I will because Lacey and I agreed that we must go back to this place), I would stay much, much longer. Like maybe a week (even with the shower situation... more on that below). Overall, it was an absolutely incredible, once-in-a-lifetime kind of trip.
Our first day started off at 10 am, after we specifically requested a slightly later start time so we could take advantage in the 8:30 am breakfast that was included at our hotel booking. Promptly at 10 am, our driver Shtuki (phonetic since I don’t know how to spell it) arrived to pick us up at the Riad, which was in a part of the Medina where cars are not allowed, so he parked several blocks away and walked to meet us, greeting us at our hotel and then carrying our bags to the car. Then we were off on our full day of driving, which ended up being about 5 hours of driving time with several stops along the way.
Though long, the drive out to the desert camp was almost as fun as being at the camp itself. The drive includes an eclectic mix of mountain passes, lush valleys, Berber villages clinging to the mountain side, dilapidated kasbahs, palm groves and awe-inspiring rock formations. It is also a relaxing journey, away from the bustling activity of Marrakech and off into the calm and open vistas of the desert.
The two day trip to the desert is quite long—about 9 hours total. What was great about the drive was that we were encouraged to stop at various locations, which not only helped break up the long drive but also allowed us to do some site-seeing along the way. Though there is an itinerary, there is no need to arrive anywhere at a specific time and you can pretty much choose what you want to do and see.
Another wonderful thing about doing a “private” tour is that you get your own personal driver. Even though there were only two of us, we had our own driver and car all to ourselves. This not only meant that we felt safe leaving our belongings in the car when we went off on excursions, but we were the ones who got to decide what to do and where to go. We got to decide where to stop, how long to stay there (still sticking to a loose timeline that would allow us to get to our Riad before nightfall) and choosing what we wanted to see.
As we drove out of the frenzy of Marrakech, it was not long before we started to climb in elevation. After about 45 minutes we started climbing, and after another 90 minutes we reached the top of the Tizi n’Tichka pass (elevation 7,414 feet). I was shocked at how we even saw bits of snow at the top of the pass. Typically when you think of Morocco, you think of the desert, so the thought of seeing snowcapped mountains was not even on my mind. It was such a pleasant surprise to see the different topography and watch the rock formations and greenery (and sometimes a lack thereof) change as we traveled up one mountain and then down again into a valley toward the next set of vistas.
We spent the first two hours driving, stopping only once for a quick picture of the old town in the Atlas Mountains. After the two hours were up, we stopped at a small cafe to use the restroom and enjoy some coffee. Then we set off to drive some more, planning to stop again and eat lunch at a place near Aït Benhaddou. Since we were staying at a guesthouse en route to the desert (to break up the driving time and ensure we could get to the camp in the afternoon the following day), we had time to turn off the main road and take the spectacular route via Telouet and the Ksar of Aït Benhaddou before re-joining the road about 2 hours later.
At around 2:15 we stopped at a lookout where you can see Aït Benhaddou off in the distance (which offers an epic photo opportunity) and then ate lunch at a place nearby. This place was very touristy and frankly not all that good, but I’m guessing most places right off that route are like that, as that area is such a major tourist attraction in between the Tizi n’Tichka mountains and Ourzazate.
Then we drove a bit further and opted to spend about 45 minutes in the old city of Aït Benhaddou. Aït Benhaddou (Berber languages: ⴰⵢⵜ ⵃⴰⴷⴷⵓ; Arabic: آيت بن حدّو) is an ighrem along the former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech in present-day Morocco. According to Wikipedia, this is the most visited Kasbah in Morocco, a UNESCO heritage site and well preserved historical location thanks to funding received from the production of films like Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. Most Moroccan residents attracted by the tourist trade live in more modern dwellings in a village on the other side of the river, although there are four families still living in the ancient village. Inside the walls of the ksar are half a dozen Kasbahs and other individual dwellings, and are often touted as a great example of Moroccan earthen clay architecture.
I must say, though we almost skipped the opportunity to get out and walk up to the top of the village, it was the best part of our day and I am so glad we chose to do it. You can easily walk over the bridge and up the windy steps to the top in about 15 minutes, or 30 minutes round trip. I think it took us about 40 minutes total walking slowly, stopping for photos often, and spending a significant amount of time at the top. So even if you’re short on time, I would still recommend seeing this place. You can probably see it all in 20 minutes. The views from the top are incredible and you can stop and shop with the local merchants on the way up to the top.
Then we drove on for a bit longer, stopping only for about 5 minutes in Ouarzazate at Atlas Film Studio. The town houses various film studios, of which Atlas is probably the most famed. If you are into movies, the props are apparently pretty interesting. Apparently you can go into the premises on a tour that takes about an hour, but we opted not to. Neither of us were all that into seeing the film studio, so we decided to move on.
Then we continued on from Ouarzazate to Agdz. The scenery from Ouarzazate to Agdz (a one-hour drive) is full of awe-inspiring rock formations, resembling those found in Zion National Park and even some parts of the Grand Canyon. Apparently the film Babel was shot here (though I haven’t seen the film so I didn’t recognize anything).
After a long day of driving we reached our destination for the night, in Agdz. We stayed at the Kasbah Azul, which ended up being a cute, quaint kasbah with the nicest staff. I’m not sure if it’s just because my expectations were low because it was organized as part of the tour or if I just assumed it wouldn't be great because it was out in the middle of nowhere, but Kasbah Azul is really quite beautiful.
The rooms are actually rather spacious—we had a queen-sized bed, a very large bathroom, a sitting area with two twin-sized day beds (with pillows up against the wall so they felt more like couches) and a beautiful balcony that looked off into the date palms, with a small mosaic table and two chairs. The linens where were nicer than other hotels we stayed at and the bathroom had body wash, shampoo, conditioner, and even a blow dryer! This was an upgrade from the place we had stayed just prior. Though cute and quaint, most riads and kasbahs don’t offer a lot of the usual amenities that we have grown accustomed to.
Dinner was downstairs in their communal dining room, which felt like a traditional restaurant with separate tables and chairs. They served a lovely three course meal by the crackling fire, and the woman who served the food appeared to possibly be the cook as well. The first course was a turnip and carrot based soup, with traditional Moroccan spices. We then enjoyed a tagine of chicken and vegetables and later had some type of custard for dessert. They served wine too, which was a nice treat since most places in Morocco don’t serve alcohol.
Overall, it was the service that made this place so special. Everyone there seemed as though they really cared about the guests and made sure that if something was wrong, they would be sure to fix it. The gentleman who runs the kasbah found out that I live in Ventura where the wildfire had just roared through and was so concerned that he sought out one of the French speaking women that was also traveling in our group to ask her to translate to me that he hopes my home is okay and that we were not affected by the fires. It was touching to have a complete stranger so concerned about a guest’s well being, and it felt genuine—not in any way contrived or insincere.
There are only a few negatives I have to note about this place: the hot water is temperamental, our room was quite cold, and the WiFi didn’t work all that great. Thankfully we got a warning about the hot water (we were told to run the sink until it got warm and then turn on the shower), but I found myself standing naked in the bathroom, while running the sink, freezing after waiting about 15 minutes for the water to turn warm. And this was compounded by the fact that even though we turned the heater up to high, our room was still rather cold. I should note that I am almost always hot, and so for me to say a place is cold is a pretty big deal. Do keep in mind though that we were traveling in the middle of winter, during a time that was probably the coldest time of year for Morocco. We were told several times that they were experiencing a cold spell. Perhaps this is why they had issues with the heat.
Regarding the WiFi—I feel bad even complaining at all about the WiFi since we didn’t expect to have any WiFi at all on our trip to the desert—but once we found out they had a connection and got a taste of it, it made us crazy that it only worked here and there. The WiFi really only worked in the office and the nearby common room, and not in the rooms upstairs or the dining room at all. We found ourselves huddled around the WiFi in the office just to get our Instagram photos to post. Oh what girls will do to get a good photo to post…
The next morning we had a lovely breakfast of yogurt, cakes and breads with jam, coffee and juice. We soon learned this is a rather traditional breakfast in Morocco, as a similar breakfast was served at most of the riads. Then just before 9 am our driver arrived, grabbed our bags, and we set off on the road again.
The first hour and a half of driving followed the Drâa river from Agdz to Zagora. We learned that there are over 3 million date palms in the Drâa, and 18 different varieties of dates. The Drâa, which is about 3,600 feet long, was once the longest river in Morocco, rising in the High Atlas and following a route to the Atlantic. Apparently they built a dam about a decade ago, so what was once a river is now filled with millions of palms instead. It’s truly a magnificent sight to see. We stopped briefly to snap some photos and then headed off again. After about an hour we made a pit stop in Zagora, where we had a brief coffee and then got back on the road.
After Zagora, the topography slowly starts to get more arid. After about 15 minutes we reached Tamegroute, home of a zaouia (an Islamic religious school) and Koranic library that travelers on the tour have a choice visit (though we opted not to).
There is also a pottery co-op in Tamegroute, which is famous for its green glaze. We stopped here, where we were lead into the cooperative by a young boy and shown how they make pottery. They explained that each family has their own kiln, but that items purchased in the adjacent store get split between the entire co-op. I purchased a small bowl and a tajine. We soon realized this was a usual thing in Morocco—there are a number of different “co-ops” that specialize in making different products (things like pottery, rugs, shoes and tiles), where you are guided through the property and given a tour of the cooperative, and then lead to their shop afterwards where you are expected to purchase something. That part didn’t necessarily bother me, because even though I ended up purchasing a small item that I’ll probably never use, it was worth it for the experience and nice to contribute a small amount to the co-op.
We continued driving, and it was at this point that it started to finally look like the desert we had envisioned in our minds. This was the first point where the topography was and not the type of “desert” that we were familiar with, as most of what we had seen before looked similar to places in Palm Desert or the high desert in California, Utah and Nevada; this was the first time we started seeing bright red orange sand dunes.
The paved road finally ended in M’Hamid. It really did feel like the end of the world (and for reference, we had driven so far at that point that we were almost to the Algerian border). We started seeing more and more sand, as well as camels just roaming as they pleased through the desert.
Lunch was at a place called the Sahara Stop, just before the end of the road in M’Hamid. Lacey and I each had greens to start and then tajine chicken cooked with olives (this, we later found out, is a rather common dish in Morocco). It was delicious. And anyone who knows me well knows I have an obsession with olives, so this was always a treat for me. The more olives the better. Load ‘em up!
And then it was off-road to the camp, where the desert meets the end of the road. The ride was very bumpy, so I ended up having to take Dramamine so as not to get carsick. A word to the wise: don’t look at your phone if you get carsick!
After what felt like forever (but was actually only about an hour and a half), we finally arrived at the desert camp. The camp itself is a mix of traditional Berber design, coupled with many modern comforts. There are 11 canvas tents, all surrounding the main hub, with nothing but sand dunes as far as the eye can see. The camp is adjacent to the highest dunes in Morocco.
Immediately upon arrival, we were quickly greeted with tea and shown their full bar, and were told to relax in the common area of the camp, which is set up with sections of bench seating and Moroccan style pouffes, with rugs and rugs galore. They took our bags and headed off to our tent while we relaxed and enjoyed some tea first, and then a cocktail (which was well deserved after that travel). We were also told that we were to treat the camp as if it were our own home, and that we could help ourselves to drinks whenever we wanted. They also noted that they were happy to make the drinks for us as well, though we opted to just make our own drinks from that point forward.
Then we were shown to our tent and given an explanation of how to use the amenities. We were guided by a staff member and given the low down on the camp. In addition to the 11 private sleeping tents for guests, there are also several other shared tents—one that is open-sided tent with sun loungers, another with a sofa and chairs, and another with hammocks.
The sleeping tents all have en suite bathroom facilities, and a proper toilet over by the communal area. The tents are very spacious (about 100 sq. ft.) and quite luxurious for being in the middle of the desert. Each tent has a king-size bed that can be made into 2 singles, so in our tent we had two singles. Rugs seem to be everywhere, covering every inch of flooring, with similar Moroccan blankets and pillows to match. They use high-quality mattresses, percale cotton sheets, duck down duvets and down pillows. There is also a full-length mirror, bedside tables, solar-powered lighting, an armchair and ottoman and a space to hang your clothes. The private bathroom has its own toilet, dressing room and wash area (which is really just a large bucket and a privacy screen.
Though I certainly didn’t expect running water or a proper shower, the bathing situation did throw me a bit. Thankfully we were only there for two nights, so after taking advantage of a nice long hot shower back in Agdz and loading up on dry shampoo, I was able to avoid the cumbersome bathing situation altogether. On a longer stay though, this would be a tricky one, and I suppose I would be forced to try out the sponge bath. I have to say, what I found most unappealing about the bath was not the act of having to ladle water over yourself while standing on a wooden pallet, it was the fact that since it was winter time it was really, really cold most of the time so the thought of sitting there naked with semi-hot water spooned over you was not at all appealing to me. I would think the summertime would not only be easier but also refreshing to get some respite from the heat. But since it was so cold most of the time, even just getting naked for a few seconds to change was tough. Again, thank god for dry shampoo.
After getting situated in our tent, we had about an hour to relax and just chill before planning to join everyone at the top of the nearby dune to enjoy the sunset. This, like all other activities, was optional but definitely not something we were going to miss. We waited just a tad bit too long to head over there, as we underestimated the time it would take us to get up to the top. It’s quite a hike—and very steep toward the end—so we found ourselves winded and gasping for air once we finally made it to the top. I would give yourself a good 20 minutes to make the walk.
Once we made it to the top though, it was incredible. We all sat there—a group of about 10 of us—bottoms positioned at the apex of the dune, with our legs dangling down the other side. As the sun slowly began to set, we sat and watched in awe as varying colors of orange, red, purple and blue danced across the dunes. It was one of those moments where you feel tingly inside, and you suddenly feel grateful for this beautiful life we live, the friends you are with, and the people who love you back home. Lacey and I looked at each other at one point with that same “OMG” expression on our faces, each knowing exactly what the other was thinking about this incredible experience. It’s pretty crazy that a sunset can have such a profound impact.
After the sunset, we made our way about halfway down to the bottom of the big dune, where they had a beautiful seating area set up with wine and drinks at the base, overlooking the camp off in the distance. Lacey and I enjoyed some red wine and some olives by ourselves the first night before making it back.
On the second night, everyone stayed for “happy hour” and we all enjoyed some wine together while Lacey and I tried our hands at sandboarding. The straps on the boards aren’t in great shape, so it’s difficult to keep your feet in (which makes “carving” nearly impossible), but at the very least it was still super fun to go straight down the dune on a sandboard. I fell of course; Lacey did not. Then we went back and changed for dinner, meeting up once again at the “lounge” where the cocktails are, and chatted with our fellow guests until dinner time.
Though meals are generally served outside under the stars, all our meals were served under cover in an adjacent Berber tent because of the frigid temperatures. All of the camp guests ate family style dinners, and the staff each night set up one long, beautifully decorated table and then brought out varying courses of soup, vegetables, different tajine meat dishes, dessert and of course all the wine your heart desired. Dinner the first night consisted of olives, dates with lemon, vegetable soup, pasta, tajine of lamb and another of chicken, plus a custard-like dessert.
We actually enjoyed eating family style, as it not only gave us a chance to get to know our fellow campers (whom we liked very much) but since not all of the daily activities were together, it also gave us an opportunity to hear the different things that everyone did. We would swap stories about visiting the Nomad or sandboarding and then switch over to conversations about where we are from and what we do back home, where our travels our taking us, and how much we all love Morocco.
Then after dinner we all migrated to the fire pit outside, in the middle of the camp, where we sat on pouffs and listened to a local Berber band that they had playing. We later found out that because the camp was fully booked, the owners wanted to give us a bit of a treat and brought in a rather popular traditional Berber band from a nearby village. They were actually quite good. Then we smoked hookah while marveling at how clear the night sky was. The stars were so clear that you could identify any constellation and even see the Milky Way clearly. It was one of the most incredible, awe-inspiring sights I’ve seen (coming from a mountain girl who grew up with the ability to see stars at night, not blocked out by city lights, this means something).
After enjoying quite a bit of wine and staying up quite a bit later than we were both used to (which, by the way, made me realize how we are totally getting old), we slept in until around 10 like a couple of teenagers. Since we slept so late, all the other guests had already enjoyed breakfast and were off on their respective adventures. So this meant Lacey and I got a quiet breakfast to ourselves, which consisted of yogurt, fruit, muesli, an omelette and coffee or tea.
After breakfast I hit some golf balls with the ancient golf clubs and golf balls that they seem to have accumulated over the years at the camp, though this activity got old rather quickly in light of the fact that I had to then go and retrieve all the balls. So we decided to set off on our first camel ride, which ended up being just the two of us (again, because everyone else had gotten up early and left). This whole sleeping in thing actually played to our advantage. We spent about an hour traversing up and down the dunes on our private camel ride, which was both relaxing in some strange way and also exhilarating at the same time. And of course the selfie opportunities were many.
After the camel ride, Bubu (one of staff members) took us out to see the nomad. I’m not sure why he trusted a couple of American women to drive, but he actually let us drive his personal off road truck. I drove first, and we were soon whipping around in the sand, up and down small dunes and bouncing up and down in the cab like bobbleheads. Lacey and I each dumped the clutch a few times (or was it just me—I can’t remember), so I felt a little bad, but we were absolutely having the time of our lives.
Seeing the nomad was an eye-opening experience. We met a woman who lived only with her husband and a few hundred goats out in a “house” made of rocks, sticks and a few tapestries. The herd of goats were out grazing with her husband, while she stayed back at home with a baby kid—which was the cutest thing by the way—making bread cooked in the sand, fresh goats milk cheese and brewing tea. She kindly offered us tea, some hot freshly made bread, and goat cheese made from her goat’s milk. It was humbling to see the simplicity of the way they lived—with no running water, electronics, electricity or beds to sleep on—and gratifying to experience how giving they were even though they had so little in the way of possessions. It truly gives meaning to the phrase that happiness is not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement (and I would add: family, friends and loved ones). I think when I need a reminder of this I will think back on the experience we shared with he nomad.