A perfect combination of culture, adventure, and relaxation, this 8-day itinerary covers the imperial city of Marrakech and crosses the High Atlas mountains into the desert. Explore desert towns, camp in the Sahara, and relax in the coastal town of Essaouira.

Highlights

  • Watch dancers, henna artists, and acrobats in lively Jemaa el-Fna Square
  • Explore sand dunes, oases, hidden valleys and old kasbahs in the desert
  • Enjoy traditional Berber music by a campfire under a starry Sahara Desert sky
  • Climb seaside ramparts and enjoy fresh seafood in coastal Essaouira

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive; Explore Marrakech Marrakech
Day 2 Over the High Atlas mountains to Ouarzazate and Boumalne Dades Boumalne Dades
Day 3 Desert towns and camping in the Sahara Erg Chebbi
Day 4 Date palms, Alnif, and Aït Benhaddou Kasbah Aït Benhaddou
Day 5 Return to Marrakech Marrakech
Day 6 Essaouira: seaside ramparts, kitesurfing, and fresh seafood Essaouira
Day 7 Return to Marrakech Marrakech
Day 8 Depart   

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Explore Marrakech

Ben Youssef Madrasa Koranic School, Marrakech Morocco
Ben Youssef Madrasa Koranic School, Marrakech Morocco

Nicknamed the "Red City" (for its 1000-year old red sandstone city walls and buildings), Marrakech is a major economic center and home to a thriving medina (old Arab quarter). Orient yourself around Africa's busiest square, Jemaa el-Fna, and begin your day exploring the 12th-century Koutoubia Mosque and take a respite from the heat in its gardens amid fountains and palms. From there, find the Islamic school, Ben Youssef Madrasa, for a taste of 16th-century architecture and marvel at the exquisite details: arabesques, Islamic calligraphy, and colorful zellij (intricate tilework).

As you walk Marrakech's alleys, notice the Fondouks—medieval traveler inns along ancient trade routes that provided merchants with shelter and supplies. Today some have been converted into residential properties, while others are large shopping areas and workshops that you can explore. You may wish to visit a few sites south of Jemaa el-Fna. Some options to consider are the 500-year old Saadian Tombs, the extensive courtyard and sunken gardens of the 17th-century El Badi Palace, or the intricate woodwork and painted ceilings of the 19th-century Bahia Palace.

Day 2: Over the High Atlas mountains to Ouarzazate and Boumalne Dades

Boumalne Dades Valley
Boumalne Dades Valley

Leave the busy city behind and head east toward the desert, ascending the High Atlas mountains. See if you can spot Mount Toubkal, the highest peak at 13,671 feet (4,167 m). Along the way, you will pass many Berber villages—made up of traditional mud-brick buildings. Lunch in Taddert and tour the local Argan Oil Cooperative and discover how the local women extract the precious oil from the argan nut to make oil used in the health, food, and cosmetic industries. Follow the winding road to the Tizi n'Tichka pass and stop to appreciate the panoramic view. 

Continue east to the desert hub and filming location of Ouarzazate. Join a movie studio tour and discover which of your favorite movies were filmed in the nearby desert regions. Movie buffs may appreciate a visit to the Musée du Cinema. Travel along the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs towards Boumalne Dades, passing many small towns where you will see traditional farming methods in use. Be on the lookout for nomads tending to their animals as you make your way through fragrant Kela'a M'gouna, the "Valley of the Roses". You'll eventually arrive in Boumalne Dades, a major town bridging the Dades River.

Day 3: Desert towns and camping in the Sahara

Sand dunes of Erg Chebbi, near Merzouga, Morocco
Early morning trek over the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi

Today you will drive further east to your final destination: the sand sea of Erg Chebbi outside of Merzouga. Along the way, stop in Tinerhir to admire the river oasis that extends on either side of the town. The surrounding desert landscape reveals impressive buttes, mesas, and plateaus. Nearby, you will have the opportunity to explore the Todra Gorge, a 984 feet (300 m) deep ravine, cut by the Todra River. Continue to the desert town of Erfoud. Known for its figs and fossils, visit a craft workshop and discover how the fossil-rich rocks are skilfully transformed into practical and decorative objects.

As you near Merzouga—the town closest to the Sahara—stop in the market town of Rissani and be sure to visit the livestock auction as well as the "donkey parking lot". Leaving Rissani behind, you will start to see the beginnings of the massive sand sea of Erg Chebbi, looming on the horizon. Upon reaching Merzouga, switch gears and transfer to your personal camel to begin your trek over the sand dunes and to your Bedouin-style camp. Hike to the top of a nearby dune to watch the setting sun, before enjoying a warm meal by the fire, listening to traditional music.

Day 4: Date palms, Alnif, and Aït Benhaddou Kasbah

Aït Benhaddou kasbah, Morocco
Aït Benhaddou

Rise early to witness a Saharan sunrise, before exploring more of the Desert: rent a sandboard, join the Erg Shibi tour (around the sand dunes) or a quad ATV tour. Head south to Khemliya to explore this traditional Saharan village. You will have a second chance to stop in Rissani to visit Maison Tuareg, a storehouse selling traditional carpets, jewelry, and leather goods. From there, pass through umbrella-shaped trees of the acacia forests before reaching Alnif for lunch. Continue on through the Draa Valley, dense with date palmeries and the opportunity to pick up a box of dates for the drive.

Travel west to medieval Aït Benhaddou. A protected UNESCO site, Aït Benhaddou is the most famous kasbah (fort or fortification) in Morocco and once upon a time, held an important position along the trans-Saharan trade route between Marrakech, Ouarzazate, and the southern desert. Spend the night in the old town and wander the empty alleys after the day-crowds have left. Pay a nominal fee to enter a few of the kasbahs and climb up to the rooftop for pretty views. You will have the option of staying here for the night or stopping in Ouarzazate 45 minutes earlier.

Day 5: Return to Marrakech

Jemaa el-Fna Square, Marrakech, Morocco
Jemaa el-Fna comes alive in the early evening

Before the crowds filter into the old kasbah, explore the narrow passageways and alleys to get a real feel for this 11th-century fortified city. Leave Aït Benhaddou behind, and return to Marrakech, traveling one more time up and over the High Atlas mountains and through the Tizi n'Tichka Pass. As you descend the north facing slopes of the High Atlas you will notice a dramatic change in climate and landscape. After all the tranquillity of the mountains and the desert, soon you will be in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Marrakech.

You may want to spend the rest of the afternoon at a slower pace. In the early evening, Jemaa el-Fna comes alive with musicians, performers, snake charmers, and games. As the Square is best experienced in the evening, roam its stalls and vendors taking in the spectacle. Grab a bite at one of the many food stalls or if you want to enjoy the goings-on from a distance, choose one of the cafés surrounding Jemaa el-Fna and enjoy a cup of mint tea and a meal. Take an evening stroll and walk the short distance to admire the floodlit Koutoubia Mosque, before retiring to your accommodation.

Day 6: Essaouira: seaside ramparts, kitesurfing, and fresh seafood

Seafront ramparts along the Atlantic in Essaouira
Seafront ramparts along the Atlantic in Essaouira

After breakfast, make your way west to the Atlantic coast and to the laid-back beach town of Essaouira. The route along the way takes you over extensive, rolling plains and through endemic argan forests. If you're lucky, you may see goats in the trees grazing on the argan fruit, a sight seen when grass pasture is limited or unavailable. 

Arrive in the port city of charming Essaouira, a nice contrast to frenetic Marrakech, and spend the rest of the day as you choose. Walk the Skala de la Kasbah (the 18th-century seafront ramparts) along the coast. Designed by European engineers, old brass canons line the walls and offer viewing access over the Atlantic. Explore the UNESCO-protected medina before making your way to the windswept beach. Jimi Hendrix fans may want to take a short taxi ride to Diabat at the end of Essaouira's beach where he reportedly spent some time. Walk back to Essaouira and enjoy a meal of freshly caught seafood.

Day 7: Return to Marrakech

The labyrinth of souks and shops in Marrakech
The labyrinth of souks and shops in Marrakech

Known as the "Windy City" for its strong Alizée trade winds that hit its crescent beach, Essaouira is a popular kitesurfing destination. Take the morning to watch the kiteboarders or for the more adventurous, take a lesson, before saying goodbye and returning to Marrakech. Along the way, there is an option to stop at an Argan Oil Cooperative to see how the precious and expensive oil is extracted from the nut.

Spend some time exploring Dar Di Said Museum (also known as the Museum of Moroccan Arts) to see exhibits of clothing, antiques, jewelry, and beautifully carved Hispano-Moorish decorations of carved cedar wood. Afterwards, indulge your senses as you explore the complicated labyrinth of souks (markets), tucked behind ordinary restaurants and shops. Check out Souk el AttarinSouk Chouari, and Souk Smata for a selection of spices, woodwork, and babouche (traditional Moroccan slippers). Visit Souk des Teinturiers (the dyers’ souk) to see how cloth and yarn are dyed using traditional methods. 

Day 8: Depart Marrakech

Almoravid Koubba, Marrakech, Morocco
Almoravid Koubba

Depending on your flight details, discover the only surviving Almoravid monument, the 12th-century Almoravid Koubba before spending some time in the Marrakech Museum. Housed in the 19th-century Dar Mnebbi Palace, the museum is home to a large exhibit of both modern and traditional art and includes artifacts of Berber and Moroccan Jewish and Islamic cultures. 

Map

Map of Marrakech, Grand Tour of the Desert & Essaouira - 8 Days
Map of Marrakech, Grand Tour of the Desert & Essaouira - 8 Days