Updated: Oct 27
Visiting Morocco, it's easy to get lost in the romance of the desert. Mirages of heat bouncing off the dunes gives way to fire red sunsets and you've got your heels kicked up like Indiana Jones after a long day on a camel. Yea, it's pretty romantic alright in theory, but what about glamping in a desert camp outside Marrakech for real?
I had this notion of romance and allure, and even thought my then-boyfriend now husband would propose to me on one of those romantic dunes. It seemed like the perfect place to do it. I was so caught up in the idea of glamping in the desert outside Marrakech that I didn't consider the possible realities.
Here I'll share with you my experience at the Zagora Desert Camp near Ouarzazate in Morocco.
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Getting To a Desert Camp From Marrakech
The first thing I wish I had realized was that getting to the desert isn't as easy as it looks on the map. We hired a private car through our riad in Marrakech, which cost about 200 euros at the time, for a long 6-7 hour car ride into the desert.
The driver graciously stopped off at the beautiful Taourirt Kasbah, where we explored the stunning architecture, followed by an enjoyable meal across the street at one of the many rooftop restaurants.
Unfortunately at that point we were still three hours from camp. Having passed through Ouarzazate on the way to the kasbah and lunch, I eyeballed a Hertz Rental Car in the center of town.
Tip 1: After seeing the good road conditions in Morocco, I 100% suggest renting a car.
We did rent a car on the way back, but we're not there yet...
So finally we get to Zagora and our private driver dropped us off at a gas station meeting point to connect with our desert camp host. We piled into his car after some exchanges on WhatsApp to make it all happen, and got dropped off at camp.
It was a long travel day, but we made it.
Arriving at Camp - What to Expect
Camp was beautiful in pictures and for the most part met our expectations from a distance. We were greeted with adorable seating areas on carpets and pillows and a welcoming tea to relax from the journey.
Because we were first of the group that would be staying the night, we were graciously upgraded to their honeymoon suite, for lack of better terms, which included a full bathroom with shower, western toilet and sink. It even had a sitting area.
The linens appeared clean, but the tent felt musty and damp from the previous evening rain.
Program of Events at a Typical Desert Camp
This was not a glamorous place. It was very basic, yet still accommodating. After the welcome tea and biscuits we were left to our devices...for hours....and hours.
Dinner was meant to be at a certain time but the other group hadn't arrived and it was turning to dusk. Apparently they chose to take the camel ride into camp, which was an option for either in to camp in the afternoon or around camp at sunrise. They were terribly late, and the whole evening was pushed back because of it.
I got super cranky (let's face it, hangry) waiting and the evening was super long because of it.
Tip #2: Be patient and enjoy the tranquility.
Aside from a camel ride, dinner was the main event. Finally the late-comers settled in and the fun began.
We all sat in a damp and smelly tent (again, it had rained the night before) and it was pleasant enough, but kind of like dining with a wet dog.
The berbere staff were kind and the feast they brought out was good, albeit unmemorable.
After the meal, however, there was a fire circle. Everyone got to beat on drums and holler and sing into the evening. It was really a great experience and fun to share with strangers.
Sleeping in a Desert Camp
If you are a fan of camping, you'll have little issue with the glamp style set up, but I'll tell you what - it was one of the most terrifying nights sleep I've ever had.
The desert is dark. Literally nothing but the light of the stars can help you see, and it was humbling to get lost in it.
Tip #3: Bring a headlamp or flashlight!
In the middle of the night the desert wind blew open our metal door frame with a loud smack, the dogs were howling and barking, and due to my unfortunate bout of sleep paralysis, it was a very haunting scene.
The beds were comfortable enough and I have no complaints, considering I've slept on tatami mat flooring in Japan and used wood blocks as pillows.
This was fine and comfortable, but super spooky!
Morning in a Typical Moroccan Desert Camp
The morning started with a before sunrise camel ride. Breakfast would be served later.
We had been told the night before that because we didn't take the camel in, we'd be able to take the camels in the morning. You got one ride only.
Imagine how mad I was to find out that the people who had ridden in the night before were mounting the only camels for a second ride, leaving us without a ride at all. The berbere folks don't care, so I had to wake up and get all cranky again. Not exactly honeymooning.
I had to basically demand we get our sunrise camel ride and stood my ground until we got on a camel. The other folks were of course oh-so-indignant, but fair is fair!
Camel Rides at a Desert Camp
So after an upsetting struggle there, we finally got on our way, just me and my man, our two camels, a dog and a guide.
All at once the stress of damp dining, scary sleeping and rude guests was behind me - that moment was what it was all about. The camel ride was so worth it.
Other notable camel rides I had been on were in Egypt at the pyramids and in Dubai at a desert camp dinner, both which were all of five minutes in length.
This was a full hour with the cold desert morning to ourselves.
Shadows of the rising sun bouncing off the dunes gave us fantastic photo ops and we had one of the most memorable times of our trip thus far.
What to Wear in a Desert Camp
When you ride a camel, be sure to wear long pants (no skirts) and I suggest having socks and sneakers for walking through the desert. I had flats with no socks and the desert sand continued to be a bother.
Tip #4: Pants and sneakers with socks are the way to go in the desert.
It was in the desert that I first discovered the scarab beetle is a legit, real, giant bug that doesn't just exist in Brendan Fraser's The Mummy. There were so many creepy crawlies at the camp fire at night that I 100% recommend wearing closed toed shoes.
Also, it gets COLD in the desert at night and in the morning. Pack appropriately.
Leaving the Desert Camp
It may seem like the way you get into camp is the way out of camp, but unfortunately it is not. In our case, we were driven in by the host but come time to leave no one said anything about driving us back to civilization. We had planned to take something called a "Grand Taxi" back to Ouarzazate, but didn't plan on how to get to the taxi area in town.
The host begrudgingly brought us for free, but it seemed like it was a total ordeal to him. Not a pleasant way to leave. The others had come in on camel, so who knows how they were getting out!
Tip #5: Have transportation figured out both ways in advance
Once at the Grand Taxi place, we had no idea what we were doing. It's like a car meet where a bunch of cars and vans wait in a parking lot and then once full of passengers, will leave to a common destination.
It was a little chaotic, but we figured it out. We stuffed into a van with 5 strangers and made our way to Ouarzazate, stopping only once for a guy who needed a snack fix. He was nice enough to buy everyone in the car something for the inconvenience.
When we got to Ouarzazate I was so done-zo with public transportation, so we stopped at the Hertz Rental Car and got ourselves a vehicle for the rest of the trip.
Overall Marrakech Desert Camp Experience
Overall, the experience was good and memorable. I would not recommend trying to do what we did, coming all the way from Marrakech.
If visiting Ait Ben Haddou or Ouarzazate, perhaps it is a good option, but even then it is three hours into the desert near Zagora from those towns.
Expect that from food to service it will all be fairly mediocre, and that you have to set your own scene for success.
Would I do it again? Probably, but I'd find something a little bit more organized. If you are curious about where we stayed and want to do some research of your own, we stayed at the Zagora Desert Camp for about $100 for the night, including meals.
Hopefully some of these tips help you to understand what you're getting into in reality versus the expectation of what a desert camp may seem like on paper.