One Desert Destination; Two Great Ways to Get There
Let’s review: it’s 7:00am… and we’re in Aït Ben Haddou… the camels and desert camps that await us in Merzouga are 246 miles (396 km) away… we’ve been told to arrive by 5:00pm… which gives us 10 hours… No problem… riiiiight? Well, that might be possible if we don’t stop for food and fun along the way…
… but since the spirit of travelhelix does involve frequent stops, snacks and spontaneity, this journey ended up taking us nearly 12 hours. Well justified – however – when you consider that we stopped a couple dozen times, and also took the incredible DADÈS GORGE DETOUR.
So here’s the deal: we’re going to break this trip into smaller, more manageable segments, and provide you with two different options for making the drive from Aït Ben Haddou to Merzouga: the DIRECT route, and the TRAVELHELIX route.
Whether or not you choose to follow in our footsteps, we’ve got some great suggestions for BOTH routes:
DIRECT ROUTE: Google Maps says: 6 hours → we recommend 7-9 hours
TRAVELHELIX ROUTE: Google Maps says: 7 hours→ we recommend 9-12 hours
PART 1: AÏT BEN HADDOU → BOUMALNE DADÈS
90 miles (145 km)
This is the first section of BOTH routes. So enjoy it, regardless of which path you choose later on!
travelhelix says: 3 hours is more realistic
The Hollywood of Morocco
The first 22 miles (30 km) of this drive will move quickly. About 20 minutes in, you’ll encounter two famous film studios that are worth a look if you’re interested in cinema: first, you’ll reach CLA Studios Morocco and less than 5 minute down the road, Atlas Corporation Studios – the world’s largest movie studio.
Both studios offer very reasonably-priced tours, but if you’re a serious film buff and interested in a longer overnight visit, accommodation is available at the nearby Oscar Hotel.
The Door of the Desert
Another 10 minutes past CLA & Atlas Studios, you’ll reach central Ouarzazate. Known locally & globally as “The Door of the Desert,” this city has served as a major regional hub for travel & commerce for hundreds of years. Ouarzazate also features the area’s only international airport, making it extremely convenient for actors, actresses, film crews and equipment flying in and out for the local film industry.
The City of Roses
Continue driving another 60 miles (94 km) past Ouarzazate and you’ll reach El-Kelaâ M’Gouna – the “City of Roses.” This town is home to Morocco’s rose industry and largest producers of all-things-rose-related, including rosewater, rose perfume, rose soap… and the most delicious item on the list: rose jam.
travelhelix tip: plan your visit during early May and experience the “Festival of Roses,” a local celebration of the annual rose harvest. Enjoy delicious food and local music during the 3-day festival (typically Friday – Sunday). On the last day, watch the crowning of the “Rose Queen” or “Miss Rose.”
The Festival of Roses usually takes place within the first two weeks of May, but the dates – like the harvest – vary from year to year. Check with the Morocco National Office of Tourism for the official dates.
After another 15 miles (22 km), you’ll reach Boumalne Dadès. At this point, you have a major choice to make!
PART 2: BOUMALNE DADÈS → TISDRINE → BOUMALNE DADÈS (ROUNDTRIP)
37 miles (60 km)
This is the OPTIONAL part of the drive, but we highly recommend it and we promise you will love it!
travelhelix says: definitely give yourself 3 hours for this detour
How could it take 3 hours to drive less than 40 miles?! Fair question! Here’s how:
- Boumalne Dadès to the top of the Serpentine Road: over an hour
- Photos at the top of the Serpentine Road: 30-60 minutes
- Drive back down to Boumalne Dadès: another hour
reflections from A: It was during this drive that we made the realization: if you stop to take a picture every time you see something beautiful in Morocco, you’d cross the country in a decade.
Just north of Boumalne Dadès, you’ll notice these legendary rock formations – referred to locally as “Monkey Fingers” – that line the side of the valley for miles.
The Serpentine Road
Shortly after passing the Monkey Fingers, you’ll approach the grand finale: the iconic Serpentine Road. Follow the winding road up to the top and stop at Café-restaurant Timzzillite Chez Mohamed, where you can enjoy the breathtaking view with some hot mint tea.
After coming back down the Serpentine Road, you’ll make your way back through the same villages on your way to Boumalne Dadès. This give you the opposite perspective – and a second chance – to appreciate the beauty of the Dadès Valley.
PART 3: BOUMALNE DADÈS → MERZOUGA
157 miles (253 km)
Whether you decided to take the DADÈS GORGE DETOUR or not, this final stretch of highway will be a part of your journey to Merzouga.
Google Maps says: 3.5 hours (this is pretty realistic)
travelhelix says: give yourself 4 or 4.5 hours, to allow for stops, snacks and the unexpected!
The last couple of hours of the journey were quiet and relatively uneventful. The rich fertile greens of the Dadès Valley eventually disappeared, and gave way to dry, rocky desert.
As far as our mission to make it in time for our night under the Sahara stars, well… we finally arrived to Riad Madu just before 7:00pm. This gave us exactly three minutes to check in, pack absolutely nothing for the evening, and begin our sunset camel excursion into the desert.