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Which Desert, Merzouga or M'hamid?

Although I am loathe to compare, the choice between Morocco's two most accessible desert experiences is one often faced by travelers.

First, let it be known that neither of the dunes most visited -- Erg Chebbi at Merzouga and Erg Chigaga at M'hamid -- is the Sahara desert per se. These ergs are massive sand seas separated from the main Saharan ocean by barren, rocky, predesert plains called hammada. That said, when you're climbing up one of their dunes (Erg Chebbi's are up to 150m/492 ft. high, and Erg Chigaga's double this) and look across to nothing but more sand, the definition becomes a moot point.

A very good tarred road meets up with the southern half of the Erg Chebbi dunes about 30km (19 miles) south of Erfoud. Around the village of Merzouga the dunes are no less than .5km (1/3 mile) from this road, and you can drive right up to them. This easy access allows the traveler to safely wander into the immediate dunes without needing a guide. Erg Chigaga, on the other hand, can only be reached from M'hamid, more than 50km (31 miles) away, and requires a 2-hour 4WD journey or a 5-day camel trek.

Accommodations at the dunes vary greatly between the two. A string of auberges ranging from basic to luxury have sprung up alongside Erg Chebbi due to its direct access, and travelers can now view the dunes from the cool waters of a swimming pool or while sipping a cold drink atop a roof terrace. No such luxuries have been allowed at Erg Chigaga, however, and after the long journey, travelers are housed in temporary Berber tents and will be lucky if they can have a shower in the one concession to civilization, a small communal ablutions block.

At times both dunes witness their fair share of crowds, while at other times you can have the sand to yourself. The guides and villagers that you encounter in both Merzouga and M'hamid are generally of the same desert ilk, with most guides dressed in flowing blue robes in imitation of the famed indigo-swathed nomadic warriors of the Saharan Tuareg tribe.

For some, the choices available at Erg Chebbi are what tip the scales. Trekking by camel farther into the dunes -- it takes about 1 to 1 1/2 hours -- and overnight in Berber tents is still possible. Most travelers take up this option, with a return the next morning to shower and breakfast at an auberge before heading back to Erfoud and beyond. For those heading to Erg Chigaga, there is no choice but to trek into the dunes. The return trip involves the long journey to M'hamid and, for most, continuing all the way back to the relative luxury in Zagora or Ouarzazate. However, for some it's the entire journey to Erg Chigaga that attracts. Travelers truly feel they are heading to the edge by traveling off the tar and past herds of camels, along dry riverbeds and via deep wells to eventually arrive at the secluded dunes.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.