Aït Ben Haddou → Merzouga: Sights, Smells and Serpents of the Dadès Valley

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…

With another long day of driving in front of us, we sacrificed our extra hour of sleep for a spectacular sunrise photoshoot & an early departure from Aït Ben Haddou.

… 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!

Google Maps says: just over 2 hours

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.

Museum of Cinema in Ouarzazate. Another great option for soaking up some cinema trivia!

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.

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The Kasbah of Taourirt in Ouarzazate. Considered by many to be one of the most architecturally beautiful in all of Morocco.

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.

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In El-Kelaâ M’Gouna, ask your driver, guide or riad for information on visiting a women’s coop. Learn about rose production, sample rosewater products and find great gifts for your loved ones back home!
Channeling our inner Axl Rose in the City of Roses

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!

Google Maps says: 1.5 hours

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

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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.

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Local Berber villagers doing laundry in the Dadès River. This is both a weekly task and a social opportunity. Simply a different way of life.

Monkey Fingers

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.

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The “Monkey Fingers” of the Dadès Gorge.
Panoramic shot of the “Monkey Fingers” of the Dadès Gorge.
Can you see them?!
Dadès Valley Monkey Fingers
How about now?!

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.

DADÈS VALLEY DETOUR.
The Serpentine Road: Morocco’s most dramatic drive?
Dadès Valley Café
View from the Serpentine Road, looking up at Café-restaurant Timzzillite Chez Mohamed.
View from Café-restaurant Timzzillite Chez Mohamed. Enjoy the breathtaking view – and a delicious meal – from the balcony.
Dadès Valley Berber nomads
Berber nomads of the Dadès Gorge. 1 of 2.
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Berber nomads of the Dadès Gorge. 2 of 2.

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!

During our stop for lunch at a random restaurant along the highway, a young girl sees D, stops in her tracks, beams the largest smile imaginable, and runs toward D with her arms outstretched. She wraps her arms around D’s legs, then runs away smiling.
We then noticed that about a dozen family members of the girl were overlooking from a terrace while enjoying their lunch. They all smiled warmly and nodded their heads at us as we walked past, both appreciative & glad for the cross-cultural love that had just been shared. It was a beautiful moment!

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.

Cheers!

-DnA

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