Venturing into the Sahara Desert with Kids
Christmas vacation found us heading to Morocco. There are so many options and itineraries when visiting Morocco. Honestly, we got a bit overwhelmed with the move abroad and life and left most of the planning until a month before our departure date. We knew we wanted to venture out of Marrakech and decided a four-day, three-night itinerary was the best way to go.
Jeff and I typically like to book tours ourselves directly through vendors, but with time running out we turned to Viator. As a clearing house for tours and day trips they always have plenty of offerings. We’ve happily used Viator in the past when planning last-minute trips or looking for things in countries with a language barrier. We also knew we needed a private tour since we were traveling with the littles. Group tours do not work for us with the unpredictable schedule of a one and three-year-old.
Viator offered a Private 4-day tour roundtrip from Marrakech that seemed to fit the bill. It would enable us to see more of rural Morocco, hit some highlights and have a night in the Sahara. The itinerary was more aggressive than we realized when we booked, but it was doable. (Later in the trip when describing our itinerary to another tour operator he informed us we must be confused because we could not make it in the time we were describing!)
Once we booked through Viator we connected with the local company, Mhidi Travel, who would actually be running the tour. We confirmed with them that they could provide two car seats for the little ones. We also confirmed with them our hotel pickup at the beginning of the tour and riad dropoff at the end of the tour. The tour included all our meals, transportation and lodging. Entrance fees to monuments and drinks were excluded. Generally, entrance fees were around 20 Dirhams per person and a bottle of sparkling water was 10-20 Dirhams at meals.
David, our wonderful guide, met us at our hotel early on the first day. He was in a 4×4 with two car seats and plenty of space for the five of us. (My mom was traveling with us as well.) The car seats were not up to U.S. standards but were fine. This trip’s itinerary was too intense for us to bring car seats from Europe so we knew we would face obstacles. I would recommend renting seats from a company like this if you are planning to go to on a road trip from Morocco. We made it work with what the tour companies provided. (Which was typically someone’s personal seats from the company. We know because on another tour, after I rejected a baby seat as being too small for my one-year-old we drove to the tour company owner’s house and his wife brought out her seats for me to use!)
The first day’s itinerary was intense. We wound our way through the Atlas Mountains to spend the night in Dades Gorge.
The road through the Atlas Mountains is no joke. I took very few pictures because H very quickly got car sick, something he has never done before. I won’t go into details but it was not good and resulted in us having him sit on someone’s lap so we could get him out of the car quickly every 30 min or so. When we reached our lunch stop, H was out cold and thankfully slept for the rest of the drive on the first day.
Luckily, when we were not driving H was happy and interested in exploring with us. The first day was full of changing landscapes as we moved closer to the desert and out of the city. The Kasbah is a protected village and the traditional living arrangement for Moroccans.
We stopped at the small Kasbah of Telouet. We paid for entry into the Kasbah but David gave us a tour. David went out of the way to make the kids feel included. Seeing some local kids riding donkeys down the street, David stopped them and had them give H a ride.
The interior of Kasbah Telouet was full of gorgeous tiles, stunning hallways and breathtaking views.
We loved how David took time to make sure that H had a great time. H loved peering through the “kiddo windows.”
We stopped for lunch and ordered some of the traditional favorites – chicken skewers & chicken couscous.
Lunch was in a little town — near the Ait Ben Haddou Kasbah, A UNESCO World Heritage Site. With sleeping kiddos and lost ground due to car sickness we bypassed a visit into the Kasbah. (The only entrance is by walking over a bridge and into the walled city.) David found a perfect hill – I literally thought we were about to fly off a cliff – to get a spectacular view of the Kasbah.
The drive continued to Ouarzazate, a city built up around the movie industry and home to many desert landscape movies and TV shows including Game of Thrones. Ouarzazate is also home to a huge solar plant, one of the country’s largest. At this point the boys were sleeping and I was starting to feel car sick as well.
We arrived in Dades Gourge as the sun was setting and wound down to the bottom in the dark. When we arrived at Hotel Babylon Dades I was sick and everything was a blur. The hotel staff greeted us with tea and nuts, but were happy to show me right to the room so I could lay down. We were in one big family room with many beds. The beds were comfy and the blankets thick. I fell right to sleep while the rest of the group went to dinner in the hotel restaurant. (Dinner sounded fantastic. My mom and Jeff raved about the lamb.)
I woke up a new person and could admire the beauty of the Hotel Babylon Dades. It is built into the gorge. The rock wall makes up the whole back wall of the hotel. The breakfast spread was what we would come to learn is the common spread of breads and spreads with dates and olives. The hotel, actually the whole province, lost power during breakfast, but the staff happily lit candles everywhere so we could finish breakfast and get on our way.
David informed us that the next two driving days would be much easier. Our first stop was the Todgha Gorge and river. David dropped us off allowing us to walk the road through the gorge and enjoy the breathtaking scenery. The river was low so we extended our visit to throw rocks into the river and get some much needed “out of the car” time.
Once we left the gorge it was a long flat ride to Zagora. Zagora is in an oasis and also happens to be David’s hometown. I think he knew we needed some more walking time so after letting us get settled into the hotel he picked us up for a stroll through the palms. This was one of my favorite experiences of the trip. David climbed a tree to pick some dates that were left behind in the November harvest. H ate every date and asked for more! We peaked into yards and wandered around the palms.
Our hotel in Zagora had lovely outdoor areas. The room itself was small but provided everything we needed. The pool area and garden had wifi, plenty of seating and were quite cozy. These were our least favorite meals of the trip. Dinner and Breakfast were both fine, but nothing to write home about.
Zagora is home to the “famous” Timbuktu sign. It supposedly took 52 days by foot or camel to reach Timbuktu and complete the trade route. We of course stopped for a picture. (They’ve actually recreated the sign and moved it due to a new public works building.)
David picked us up on time and took us to his brother’s store so we could purchase scarves for our trip into the desert. This is so Moroccan! It’s so common to be taken to a relative’s store. We loved David though and obliged by getting scarves and a few other souvenirs.
David then took us to his house to have tea with his family. It was so interesting to go visit and meet his wife and little kids. Our kids played with his young boys while we enjoyed some tea. Their home was full of gorgeous tiled rooms. They have a crazy lady who comes down from another village to have tea with them every day. She walks into their living room and has tea. Then she slams the door when she leaves. They always have a glass and some snacks for her to enjoy and chuckle when she slams the door.
We stopped in Tamegroute to visit the Koranic Library and a green pottery place. The Koranic Library tour is given by an old man in a wheelchair who explains in painful detail what each book is about. “Astronomy. Cooking. Medicine,” he would say on and on. In the same stop we walked through a kasbah to arrive at a green pottery making cooperative.
Back into the car and off to the end of the road. We ate lunch at Mhamid which is literally the last place to stop before the road ends and turns into sand.
Then we drove through the desert for three hours. We stopped a few times to let the boys play in the sand. The landscape varies from small sand dunes to rocky moonscape. The 4×4 bumps over all of these with ease. We bumped around enough that after an hour my fitbit registered 10,000 steps!
We arrived at our camp in the Chigaga dunes. We had tea in the sand while the staff readied our camels.
David helped us get our scarves tied, which you actually need due to the blowing sand and sun glare.
We boarded our camels (video here) for a 45-min ride out to the tallest dune. I rode with H and Jeff rode with O. We should have put O in a carrier (and did on a subsequent camel ride with much better results) as he was squiggling around quite a bit. We were let off in time for us to scramble up to the top to see the sunset.
H decided he would crawl up the dune, putting as much of his body into the sand as possible. O, on the other hand, hates the sand and does not want a single piece of his body to touch the sand. We stayed up on the dune for a few minutes before we realized we did not want to ride home in the dark. We headed back down the dunes for our camel ride home.
We had a bit of time to get settled into our tent. We are still a bit confused about what “style” tent we were in. We thought we would be on a mattress on the floor but instead were in regular beds with an attached primitive bathroom. I’m not sure if this is what we booked or if due to the children we were moved away from the other tents. We were in the Sahara camp with only two other travelers, so there was plenty of space.
Dinner was served in another tent – Lamb Tangine! I’m not sure if we were just really hungry, but the food was delicious.
Immediately following dinner we were treated to a Berber drum circle. David and the other guides joined in and even made sure that H got a chance to play along. Typically the stars would put on quite a show as well, however we had a full moon and some wispy clouds that blocked out stars other than a few bright constellations.
It’s cold in the desert but there were plenty of blankets on the beds. We wore our warmest jammies and snuggled into our beds for a quiet night in the desert.
The next morning we were up early for breakfast and a long ride home. David added in one more stop on our way back to the road. H is obsessed with rocks and fossils. David stopped so we could search for fossils. Not 30 seconds after he stopped the car he had found rock upon rock of crinoid fossils for us. What a treat!
It was a full day’s drive back to Marrakech. We luckily avoided any road sickness despite taking the same winding path back through the Atlas Mountains. David made sure we got safely to our riad before saying goodbye.
I’m incredibly thankful we were able to take this trip. It was long and entertaining the littles in the car was challenging at times but they were doted upon at each stop. I loved seeing the changing landscape and really getting a feel for Morocco.