marrakech to merzouga: our moroccan road trip itinerary

Planning a road trip in Morocco? Want to have a route which brings you to both the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert, as well as places like Dadès Gorges and Aït Benhaddou? Then you'll be happy to know that we did a Moroccan road trip in 2017 which ticks all those boxes!

In this post, we've given you the key details of our trip and experience, alongside insider knowledge, to help you plan your own. You'll find our route, itinerary recommendations and cost breakdown, as well as useful tips to know before you set out on your own Moroccan road trip. 


 

Our Road Trip in Numbers

 

Our Morocco Road Trip Route

Over 6 nights, 7 days, we set off from Marrakech and drove our little rental car through winding mountain passes, dusty and potholed back country roads, hectic cities, lush African plains, a hidden oasis, a bewildering array of hairpin bends and on an arrow-straight road to the Sahara Desert.

It. Was. Fantastic.

And, because of the size of Morocco, it's something we highly recommend to people who want to see and experience a lot of the country in a relatively short space of time, whilst also having a sense of adventure. Although the popular 3 day / 2 night tours (like this one) to the Sahara from Marrakech do cover some of the route we drove, we both know that we prefer independent travel and all the challenges and opportunities it brings. Further, although it's certainly possible to reach the Sahara desert and a few of the destinations on our road trip by public transport, the network is patchy and its schedule will mean you lose a lot of days of your Moroccan adventure to sitting in a bus seat.

We've outlined our Morocco Road Trip route and itinerary in the interactive map below - the A-J marks off the route itself, whilst the red stars indicate our recommended 'sights' and the green houses indicate where we stayed each evening. 

 
 

We did a lot of research and our route was chopped and changed more than a few times. However, our main recommendation is to start off by leaving Marrakech and heading towards Ouarzazate (point D) on the map. This direction of travel means that you will see a number of Morocco's 'must sees' with time and enthusiasm on your side at the start of the road trip and before you reach the desert. As with every road trip we've taken, time always slips away from you at the end and you often have to chase miles and sacrifice stops on the last couple of days; our route means you won't have to miss out on some of the highlights. 

 

DAY ONE: MARRAKECH TO Aït Benhaddou

We rented a car via Auto Europe, and picked it up at from Marrakech Menara airport. Our goal that evening was to take on the Tizi n' Tichka mountain road, before taking the road less travelled via Telouet Kasbah in order to reach our accommodation just outside Ait Ben Haddou. 

A later than anticipated departure from the car rental and underestimating some road conditions meant that we had to navigate the last hour or so of winding deserted mountain roads in pitch black - in hindsight a very fun experience but not really what we wanted to do!

Tip: The road to reach Telouet Kasbah is very easy to miss and is a slow-going road of gravel, dust and sand - it's definitely worthwhile but just be aware that it will be slow-going for a couple of hours and we would not recommend anyone trying it at night or if you're behind schedule.

Where we stayed: We decided to spend a couple of nights in this area as it contains a number of gems, some of which we wouldn't have been able to reach without the car. We recommend staying nearby to Aït Benhaddou, rather than in Ouarzazate (15 minutes drive away) as it's a beautiful area and also means you'll be closer for sunrise and/or sunset at this popular attraction. Accommodation-wise, we chose to stay in Auberge le Defat, a wonderful hotel with pool, restaurant, extremely helpful staff, parking on-site and free breakfast. The rooms were basic but adequate and, at around £18 a night, reasonably priced.

If you're looking for a little more luxury, don't miss Kasbah Tebi with its fantastic terrace and beautiful rooms. 

 

DAY TWO: Aït Benhaddou - Ouarzazate - Fint Oasis

If we had a pound for every post or guide we've heard referring to Ouarzazate as the 'Hollywood of Morocco', we'd have enough for our flights back to the country.

We'll put it up front and centre and say that, if you lower your expectations for Ouarzazate, you might actually really enjoy your time there. CLA film studios were slightly bizarre and underwhelming (dusty props and costumes), but a visit to the empty medieval castle set used in Kingdom of Heaven and Game of Thrones made up for it - purely on that basis we'd suggest visiting it rather than Atlas Studios just down the road. Be aware that the castle is a couple of minute's drive away from the CLA studios, but you need to purchase your ticket (50dh per person) at the main site before heading over there.

That afternoon, unconvinced that Ouarzazate had much more to interest us, we instead chose to take the car off-road towards Fint Oasis. An hour or so later, bodies shaken to the bone, we arrived at the most idyllic spot - palm trees and fresh water hidden deep in a valley. 

We'd recommend heading up to Terrase des Delices for a rooftop drink with views to die for. If you have a couple of spare days, there would be worse places to spend them than in this delightful, isolated B&B.

NB: a word of warning about car parking in Fint. The roads are not good, and unless you have a four-wheel drive, heading off down tiny tracks and across the river to park at Terrase des Delices is probably not advisable. Instead, we settled for handing 10dh to a local to watch our car in the village whilst we headed off to explore (we of course took all our valuables with us). We were worried, but reassured when we returned to discover the car was still there!

After this, we knew there was only one place to go - Aït Benhaddou at sunset. There are various vantage points, some well-known and other less so, to enjoy this moment - some will prefer to look at Aït from a distance, whilst others will prefer to be within the famous kasbah (where both Game of Thrones and Gladiator have been filmed) enjoying a mint tea. 

Tip: Finding your perfect vantage spot takes time, so unlike us, make sure you arrive nice and early so that you're not scrambling through the kasbah as the sun is setting!

Where we stayed: As above

 

DAY THREE: Aït Benhaddou to Dadès Gorges

A chance encounter meant that we woke at 6 a.m. to return to Ait to experience the sunrise - we were there before a single shop owner or tour bus had arrived and it was certainly worth it.

Packing up the car, we hit the road and via a few diversions through small villages and spontaneous right turns to see what we'd find, we made it to Dadès Gorges (or Gorges du Dadès) in plenty time. This is a wonderful piece of road to navigate, through picturesque villages and bizarre rock formations (Monkey Fingers since you ask), leading up to perhaps the craziest stretch of tarmac you'll ever see:

Once you've reached the top, you'll find a parking lot on the left hand-side, and a rather impressive restaurant called 'Timzzillite Chez Mohamed' - the best views are from inside here, although you should buy a drink or food before trying to take a photo. 

They also have an adorable cat and dog in residence!

It is possible to continue further up this road (we understand there are waterfalls) but we wanted to have a bit of time to chill out and enjoy the beautiful setting before darkness fell, so we found an affordable hotel and somewhere with a terrace overlooking the valley that could make us a tip-top veggie tagine.

A perfect day's driving.

Tip: There are some excellent hiking opportunities in and around Dadès Gorges, so if that's your thing it may be worth spending an extra night here. 

Where we stayed: Family run, Le Bleu Ciel offered everything we needed - a room without a reservation, clean rooms full of charm, parking, free breakfast and a terrace to enjoy the view. It was also one of the cheapest in town!

Although we thoroughly recommend Le Bleu Ciel to those looking to keep costs down, if you prefer somewhere with better facilities, consider Auberge Chez Pierre - it comes very highly recommended. 

 

DAY FOUR: Dadès Gorges to Merzouga 

We had a big day of driving ahead of us in order to reach the Sahara in time for a sunset camel ride. There are a couple of ways to head from Dadès Gorges to Merzouga, the gateway to the Erg Chebbi dunes. You can take the 'northern' route via Tinejdad or the 'southern' route via Alnif.

With distance and road conditions being our main consideration at this stage, we opted for the latter.

And we were rewarded by spectacular, diverse landscapes, unlike any other we had seen on the road trip - it was a true highlight. We can't say it is better than the other way, but we definitely didn't regret our decision!

Driving into Merzouga, you need to have an advance reservation at a desert camp due to their popularity and so that the owners can meet you in town and drive you out to the dunes. If you're doing this, make sure to bring all valuables (including car documentation) with you. 

Tip: There is actually a petrol station just outside Merzouga, but we would recommend filling up before making your way there - you wouldn't want to run out in the middle of nowhere!

Where we stayed: Of all the amazing experiences we had planned for this Morocco trip, it was the Sahara Desert for which we had the highest expectations - unsurprisingly then, picking the perfect desert experience for us, and our budget, took some time. Ali and Sara's Desert Experience was worth all the research! For lots more info, and some wonderful photos, see our review here. 

For alternative accommodation or camps in Merzouga, click here.

 

DAY FIVE: MERZOUGA TO TODRA GORGE

We eked out every moment we could in the desert, with both of us wanting nothing more than to spend another night - if you have the time, then absolutely do.

Yet, with several hundred kilometres ahead of us, it was with heavy hearts that we departed Merzouga in the early afternoon, with the hope of making it to Todra Gorge before dark.

Turns out, the desert had one last thing to say before we left Merzouga, as a train of 40 camels emerged out of a crazy, sweeping, whirling sandstorm and crossed the road right in front of us.

It's a moment that neither of us will ever forget.

IMG_6303.jpg

Despite limiting our stops for photos (this is more difficult than it sounds - this part of Morocco is simply breathtaking), we didn't quite manage to make it to Todra Gorge for sunset, instead opting for a much-needed cup of coffee in Tinghir and the opportunity to find accommodation nearby before the sun set.  

Tip: If you happen to pass through Tinghir on a Friday, be sure to check out the weekly berber market. It's huge, not terribly touristy and you'll be sure to pick up some excellent value souvenirs.  Also, keep an eye out for how the clothing of most women here is different to elsewhere on your Moroccan road trip.

Where we stayed: La Belle Etoile. As with at least 50% of places on this road trip, we picked this spot because it was a good location (a couple of kilometres away from the gorge) and relatively well priced at £22 a night. It's not going to win any fancy awards, and you may have to check a couple of rooms to find a bed that doesn't sink but it's secure, the staff are friendly and they have a good breakfast (their wifi's also pretty good, which we've discovered is a rarity in these parts!).

If you're looking for something a little more fancy but still budget-sensitive, consider Hotel Tomboctou or Kasbah Taborihte. Both come with pools, lovely roof terraces and very comfortable rooms. They're also less than £38 a night so unlikely to break the bank.

 

DAY SIX: TODRA GORGE TO Ouaouizerth

An early morning drive through Todra Gorge (a little over-rated if you ask us, but you have no choice but to pass through - at a cost of 5 dh), and then it was on to.... well, quite frankly, as far as we could make it! And if you take a look at the map above, you can see that we got pretty far.

Todra Gorge, Morocco

This was the most stressful day of our road trip due to variety of elements conspiring against us all at once. We dilly-dallied a little too much, stopping to take photos and enjoy the scenery, when we should have been picking up time; we underestimated the distance we'd have to cover; we got stuck behind a variety of slow-moving trucks on single-track roads; we got slightly stuck in a flooded road; we discovered that the road to and from Imichil in this section is just as challenging as the TizI n' Tiki and in much poorer condition; we found out that a large stretch of the route was undergoing re-paving and works (between Tizi N'Isly and Naour if you're wondering) which meant that it was a mess of loose gravel where we couldn't go quicker than 20km/h, and just at that moment, it of course started to rain for the first time since we'd left Marrakech. 

By around 5 p.m., we finally made it off the road which was under development and had to make a decision. We had lost a lot of time that day and we were nowhere near our intended overnight stop - we could either continue on our pre-planned route via another back mountain road in rainy conditions, or make an abrupt change and hit the highway nearby to bring us towards Beni-Mellal where we would rejoin our intended route back to Marrakech.

We went for the latter and, after a day of hard driving avoiding potholes, donkeys and generally falling off the edge of a cliff, it was a relief to eat up some distance on smooth asphalt - even if it did mean driving through a pretty large city at night (not good for the stress levels considering Moroccan driving habits and the propensity of pedestrians to use the main road like a pavement).

We had hoped to spend the night in Bin El Ouidane (a beautiful lake) but dead phones and darkness meant we couldn't find an affordable hotel, so ended up in a nearby town, in a hotel that was most definitely not on everyone's bucket-list! The silver lining however? The best harina soup in all of Morocco was served just next door for only 3dh each!

Now, this description may make it sound like it was the worst day of the entire road trip; that couldn't be further from the truth. It was stressful and tiring but this day's driving took us into parts of Morocco which were extremely remote and very unused to tourists. They had isolated, impoverished communities and some people were living an existence which looked like it belonged in another century.

We've travelled all over Latin America and are used to seeing indigenous and poor rural poverty, however it doesn't make it any easier. 

Tip: We're pretty happy to change plans last-minute, stay in hotels others may reject on sight and generally fly by the seat of our pants, but we understand that not everybody can, or wants to travel like this. In this case, you may find it much better to book ahead.

Where we stayed: Yeah, we're not going to recommend that place. However, we will recommend staying on the lake - it's beautiful, as is the top accommodation in the area. It's not cheap, but it doesn't come much better than the Widiane Suite and Spa

 

DAY SEVEN: bine el ouidane TO MARRAKECH

For the final leg of our Moroccan road trip, we had a deadline in mind - 4 p.m. The decision the previous day had also been made with a view to ensuring we weren't rushing and stressing to return the rental car / make our flight and, thankfully, it did mean that our last day was pretty stress free (or as stress free as driving a rental in Morocco can be!)

We set off quite early and, after checking out the stunning lake in Bin El Ouidane, our only other intended stop was the Cascades d'Ouzuoud (the Ouzuoud Waterfall), a popular day trip from Marrakech. We'd heard from a number of people that the falls were a must-do when in the area; unfortunately for us however, these same people probably hadn't visited on a Sunday.

Carparks teeming with visitors and local tourists everywhere meant that all hope of a peaceful nature-based experience disappeared fast! However, coming out this way meant we got to enjoy one last breakfast and fresh orange juice under the Moroccan sun and chanced upon the local Sunday market - a curiously wonderful event to behold and observe.

Re-entering Marrakech in good time, we stopped for a coffee in a quiet part of town, before arriving at the airport to drop off our little warrior of a rental.

We had made it!

Tip: You can literally not park anywhere in Ouzoud without an angry Moroccan man chasing after you for a fee - even if you eat at a restaurant and park in their carpark.... This may have been worse for us given the hordes of tourists there on a Sunday but they're pretty persistent and can get a little aggressive if they think you're not paying your way.

If in doubt, pay.


So, that's our own experience 

Are you ready for yours? It's going to be epic! Just remember that, as with much in life, it's the journey that's most important, rather than any single attraction, and no matter which route you end up taking, you'll undoubtedly make Moroccan memories that will last a lifetime.

Be sure to check out our '21 Things to Know Before a Moroccan Road Trip' and '9 Great Pieces of Advice for Renting a Car in Morocco' - trust us, it'll help!


 

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Tours are okay, but the real way to experience Morocco is on an awesome road trip! Here is our itinerary from Marrakech to Merzouga.
 

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