Morocco's Saharan sand dunes are the stuff of legend, and sitting astride a camel as the sun sets over the golden sands is surely the best way to experience them. The dunes are called ergs, or islands of sand fed by the Sahara Desert to the south, isolated from the main ocean of sand by a hard, stony barrier called hammada. Their ageless scenic beauty and sense of tranquillity, combined with their close proximity to the rest of the country, make desert trekking one of the country's most popular and rewarding experiences. The most easily accessible sand dunes are Erg Chebbi, at Merzouga, and Erg Chigaga, 55km (34 miles) south of M'hamid. There are other smaller dunes closer to M'hamid (Lehoudi and Messouira) and Zagora (Nakhla and Tinfou), as well as along the road between Tinejdad and Erfoud, but they will disappoint if you have come looking for waves of dunes rolling into the horizon.
Exploring the desert can last as little as a couple of hours to a multiple-week caravan trek. Most travelers opt for an overnight excursion, with the mode of travel -- camel, 4WD, or a combination of both -- dependent on your choice of sand dunes. It's possible to organize this independently, but if you wish to head straight out to overnight in the dunes, you'll need to arrive very early at your auberge or prebook. Camel treks should include all of your meals; some will also include bottled water, but it's worth taking an extra personal supply as well. I normally budget on two large bottles per night, plus a bottle of red wine for sunset on the dune. Blankets and rugs are provided, but they are usually communal, so you may want to take your own sleeping bag or inner sheet. Very rarely will any medical supplies be carried.
Desert camps are usually a collection of semipermanent Berber tents, made from goat's hair. They keep the sand out if the wind is blowing, and are also naturally heated by the sun, which is good for the colder months when nighttime temperatures are decidedly chilly. Some camps, however, might not be as solitary as you'd imagined. The camp may be used by more than one company, or your individual booking may have been combined with others. If you're looking for solitude rather than company, remember that you can simply pick up your blankets and rugs and move out of the camp onto your own secluded dune. Even sleeping 30m (100 ft.) away will give you your own little piece of starlit Sahara.
Visiting the dunes is possible year-round, but from June to August the heat can be distressingly overwhelming. If you must visit at this time, I recommend Erg Chebbi due to the choice of auberges at the dunes' edge -- especially if you're traveling with children -- rather than the long, hot drive out to Erg Chigaga.
Camel treks organized locally start from 200dh per person for a 2-hour excursion and 350dh for an overnight stay in the dunes, including dinner and breakfast. Some companies offer 2-day/1-night return excursions from Fes or Marrakech, but they may only visit the smaller dunes near Zagora or will be traveling exceedingly long days to fit everything in within the 2 days.
Tour Operators -- There are numerous operations -- local and international -- that organize desert experiences, but most of these companies include a desert trek as part of a wider tour of Morocco. Most of the hotels and maisons d'hôte that we review also organize desert excursions for their guests. Apart from those recommended operators, other desert specialists include:
- Blue Men of Morocco (tel./fax 952/467562; www.bluemenofmorocco.com) is run by American Elena Hall, who divides her time between her two bases in Spain and Merzouga. Married to a local Berber, she is a desert expert and personally organizes each traveler's itinerary.
- Desert Dream (tel./fax 0524/885343; www.sahara-desert-dream.com) is an Ouarzazate-based outfit specializing in desert excursions by both camel and 4WD, and recommended by fellow travelers.
- Desert Majesty (tel. 0661/235636 or 0671/660494; www.desertmajesty.com) is a little gem of a tour company, operated by ex-Brit Felicity Greenlaw-Weber and desert legend Abdelhadi Slimani. Their combined experience affords clients excellent organization, honest advice, unparalleled experience, and expert local knowledge. As the name suggests, their specialty is the desert fringes of central and southern Morocco.
- Equatorial Travel (tel. 01335/348770; www.equatorialtravel.co.uk) is a small U.K.-based outfit operating on fair-trade principles and specializing in central and southern Morocco desert excursions, especially the area encompassing the Dra Valley down to Erg Chigaga.
- Mountain Travel Sobek (tel. 888/687-6235 toll-free or 510/594-600; www.mtsobek.com) was one of the pioneers of adventure travel, offering trips since 1969. Their 2-week "Morocco Camel Trek" travels from Marrakech to Fes via the Dra Valley, Erg Chebbi, and Meknes, and includes a 4-day vehicle-supported camel trek.
With its four distinct mountain ranges -- High Atlas, Middle Atlas, Anti-Atlas, and the Rif -- Morocco offers the walker, hiker, and mountaineer an incredible and rewarding variety of scenery, climate, and terrain. Besides Jebel Toubkal and its northern approaches, Morocco's mountains see relatively few travelers and can feel practically deserted when compared to those of Europe and North America. Just as rewarding as exploring the mountains themselves is encountering the Berbers who live in the valleys and on the lower slopes. These resilient mountain folk are renowned for their hospitality, and along with their picturesque kasbah villages -- often surrounded by steep terraces of crop and fruit and nut trees -- never fail to leave an impression.
If you have the time, trekking through the mountains is one of the must-dos in Morocco. The variety of terrain and differing degrees of access offer something for everyone, from walking through aromatic forests to scrambling over granite boulders.
One of the most popular mountain treks is the ascent of Jebel Toubkal (4,167m/13,671 ft.), North Africa's highest peak and part of the Western High Atlas. The mountain is the centerpiece of the Toubkal National Park, created in 1942 and Morocco's oldest. The usual starting point for this trek is the trail head village of Imlil, and to a lesser degree the ski-resort village of Oukaïmeden. Soft trekking is also popular here, with many trails passing through the region's valleys and villages, providing pleasant day and multiday walks, especially during summer when the heat in Marrakech can become unbearable. Other trekking spots include the Aït Bou Guemez Valley in the Central High Atlas, a beautiful part of the High Atlas range and trail head valley for ascents of Morocco's third-highest peak, Ighil Mgoun (4,071m/13,356 ft); Jebel Sarhro and Jebel Siroua, two ranges on the south side of the High Atlas requiring a degree of trekking self-sufficiency; the cedar forests, lakes, and craters around Ifrane in the Middle Atlas and only 2 hours' drive from Fes or Meknes; the boulder-strewn Anti-Atlas cliffs and fertile palmeraies around Tafraoute; and the peaks and valleys of the Rif mountains, to the south of the relaxed village of Chefchaouen.
It's possible to walk, hike, and climb in Morocco year-round. Some regions, however, are better explored during certain seasons. Generally speaking, Morocco's mountain ranges are at their most pleasant during late spring, when winter snows are almost entirely melted away, visibility is good, and the days are warm, while nights are still fresh enough to require warm bedding and a cup of hot mint tea. Trekking in snow-topped regions during early spring (Mar-Apr) requires some caution, as this is a time for flash floods caused by melting snow. November to February can be bitterly cold in Morocco's mountains, and some of the higher passes and peaks -- including Jebel Toubkal -- may be impassable, although others such as Jebel Sarhro, Jebel Siroua, and parts of the Anti-Atlas can still provide sunny days and pleasant trekking. Heading to the mountains during summer (June-Sept) is a great way to escape the heat from the plains (coastal or desert) below, although trekking in the exposed Rif mountains and in some of the Atlas's lower valleys may not be so pleasant.
The Islamic fasting month of Ramadan can also be a time to avoid trekking. Although Morocco's mountain Berbers are generally relaxed about most things, most will be reluctant to work during this time. Most trekking companies will have made prior arrangements for this, but independent trekkers may have to modify their plans to fit in with the locals.
An increase in visitors exploring Morocco's mountains over the past 10 or so years has coincided with a general upsurge in Morocco's economy, and today some regions have become decidedly more developed, boasting recently acquired services such as electricity and telecommunications, a more organized trekking infrastructure providing qualified guides, and a wider choice of accommodations. In a farsighted attempt to balance the needs of the environment with those of the people, the High Atlas Tourist Code has been developed by the villagers living in the Aït Mizane Valley, below Jebel Toubkal, which has led to a waste-disposal service and a 4WD ambulance service. Development is less evident in other mountainous regions, and trekkers will have to be more resourceful when it comes to accommodations and guiding services, and be aware of their environmental impact, such as using gas heating rather than firewood and waste disposal.
Besides the comparative luxury available in the Western High Atlas, most other trekking regions offer limited, and sometimes very basic, accommodations options. The Club Alpin Français (CAF) operates five refuges in the Toubkal National Park, including the Neltner-Toubkal refuge, from where most ascents to the Toubkal peak depart. Right next to this refuge, a new and decidedly better-appointed private refuge opened in June 2007. Some trekking regions are equipped with gites d'étape, basic village houses licensed to serve hot meals and provide lodging for tourists. Gites d'étape have proven to be an important boost to the local economy, with the revenue generated from lodging a relatively low number of trekkers equivalent to a year's farming.
All of the trekking regions listed above have at least one principal village where independent trekkers can engage the services of mountain guides, mules to carry bags, and cooks if required. Hiring a qualified guide de montagne (mountain guide) is recommended, even for experienced trekkers, for their all-purpose benefits of translator, navigator, negotiator, and first-aid officer, and also for the purely economical benefit it brings to their family and village. Officially accredited mountain guides have been trained at the Centre de Formation aux Métiers de Montagne at Tabant in the Aït Bou Guemez Valley, and should carry a photo identity card to prove it. Note: Also trained at the center, but for only 1 week, are accompagnateurs. These "escorts" are not qualified to a lead a trip on their own, and should only be hired as trek assistants. More than 400 accredited mountain guides operate throughout Morocco, many of which can be hired from bureaux des guides (guide offices) located in Imlil, Setti Fatma, Azilal, Tabant, and El Kelaâ M'Gouna, near Boumalne du Dadès. To locate a guide in other regions, asking around normally yields quick results; just be sure to check his credentials.
When negotiating an independent trek with a guide, make sure to discuss in detail your desired itinerary, objectives, and expectations, and assess the need for a cook and mules. Also ensure that everyone is in agreement on the accommodations and catering situation while on trek. Before setting off, also agree on a price for all services provided. The daily rate for a guide currently starts at 500dh per group, but this can vary according to the season and location. A mule (including its handler, called a muleteer) currently costs an extra 150dh per day. Your guide will usually receive free accommodations, but you may have to cover his food costs. Budget on also giving the guide (and muleteer) at least a 10% tip on top of all of these costs. El Aouad Ali (known simply as Ali; tel. 0666/637972; elaouad_Ali@yahoo.fr) comes highly recommended by renowned Atlas guru Hamish Brown .
Trek Hire UK (tel. 01483/209559 in the U.K.; www.trek-hire.co.uk) can supply hikers with sleeping bags, warm jackets, walking poles, crampons, and ice axes, delivered to any of the accommodations in Marrakech.
Maps -- topographical or otherwise -- of Morocco's trekking regions are notoriously hard to come by, especially within the country. The only maps to be consistently found are the Moroccan Division de la Cartographie topographical map of the Jebel Toubkal Massif, including the lower valleys around Amizmiz, Oukaïmeden, Taliouine, and the Tizi n'Test; and a more basic map of the Ighil Mgoun Massif, published by West Col, which also has some useful information on possible routes and circuits. These are available online at Map Shop (www.themapshop.co.uk), Maps Worldwide (www.mapsworldwide.com), and Stanfords (www.stanfords.co.uk).
Michael Peyron's two-volume Great Atlas Traverse (West Col, 1990) remains the definitive guidebook on trekking in the Atlas mountains. It covers the author's linear traverse from the western Anti-Atlas across to Midelt, and gives a fair bit of background information. Trekking in the Moroccan Atlas (Trailblazer, 2000), by Richard Knight, is well researched and offers lots of useful "before you go" information, though is slightly unambitious and only covers the most popular trekking routes, with only sketched maps. The revised edition of Karl Smith's Trekking in the Atlas Mountains (Cicerone, 2004) is a compact, waterproof guide with route descriptions of some Toubkal, Mgoun, and Sahro treks, unfortunately with hardly any maps. Climbing in the Moroccan Anti-Atlas (Cicerone, 2004), by Claude Davies, is an excellent, compact guide for experienced climbers heading to the crags near Tafraoute.
If your French is up to scratch, then the website for the Moroccan branch of Club Alpin Français (www.caf-maroc.com) contains a wealth of trekking information. Nomadic Morocco operates a very handy and informative blog (http://nomadicmorocco.blogspot.com) with regular updates on trekking conditions, mainly in the Western High Atlas.
By far the easiest way to trek in Morocco is through a specialist operator. Nowadays, travelers are spoiled for choice, as the number of operators, both local and international, offering mountain treks is considerable.
- Bureau des Guides d'Imlil (tel./fax 0524/485626; email@example.com) is located in the trail head village of Imlil. They coordinate the availability of the region's accredited mountain guides, and can arrange everything from overnight ascents of Jebel Toubkal to multiday hikes that include a guide, mules, accommodations, and meals.
- Kasbah du Toubkal (tel. 0524/485611; www.kasbahdutoubkal.com) has its own mountain guide office in Imlil and offers a range of trekking options for guests as well as for nonresidents at an additional cost. Along with all-inclusive ascents of Jebel Toubkal, among other trekking options offered is a full-day "deluxe" trek into the surrounding countryside, complete with lunchtime picnic. The kasbah itself is also a nice lunch stop for day-trippers and has a million-dollar rooftop view.
- Nomadic Morocco (tel. 0678/875057; www.nomadicmorocco.com) is run by Irish-French couple Des and Nathalie Clark, who are based in Taroudannt. They specialize in high-quality, personalized mountain treks throughout Morocco, and are also involved in numerous health projects in some of the villages they trek through. Sister company Toubkal Mountain Guides (www.toubkalmountainguides.com) specializes in climbing Jebel Toubkal, including 3- to 5-day winter ascents.
- Hamish Brown (tel./fax 01592/873-546) is an Atlas expert, having visited Morocco's mountains for more than 40 years. He occasionally leads specialist tours, and it's worth getting in touch with him. His U.K.-based Atlas Mountains Information Services is a good source of information, and often has copies of maps that are hard to come by.
- Journey Beyond Travel (tel. 765/387-4404 in the U.S., 020/8123-8708 in the U.K., or 0672/882529 in Morocco; www.journeybeyondtravel.com) is a small-tour operator offering a range of itineraries to the Toubkal, Mgoun, and Rif trekking regions.
- Sherpa Expeditions (tel. 020/857-7217; www.sherpaexpeditions.com) has been specializing in guided walks since 1973, and offers two tours to Jebel Toubkal and one to Jebel Sarhro. For the past 10 years, it has also offered unique self-guided walking holidays, and the 8-day "Inn-to-Inn" walk, although accompanied by a local guide/muleteer, is a great combination of organized and independent.
- Walks Worldwide (tel. 01524/242-000; www.walksworldwide.com) has a great range of Morocco trekking itineraries for all levels of interest and fitness. Besides Jebel Toubkal, they also have guided tours to Jebel Sarhro, the Rif mountains, and a deluxe, easygoing 7-day "Morocco In Style" itinerary.