Say sayonara to gas station hot dogs, creepy rest stops, and boring tumbleweed-filled plains. You’re free of those now. We’ve traded them for ancient villages carved right into cliffs and valleys that will make you mutter holy sh*t under your breath.
Staggeringly magnificent mountain ridges and sporadic film sets are just two of the contrasting sights to behold between Marrakech and Merzouga: a road trip that’s nothing like your typical Route 66 ride. You might think a 9 hour one-way drive to see the sprawling Sahara is an arduous effort, but with killer stops along the way, the drive passes even faster than the velocity at which you’ll devour your delicious Moroccan couscous for dinner (a very fast affair, take it from me).
Cell data in the desert is heinously questionable, so whip out that dusty atlas and mark these 6 stops along the way:
Start in Marrakech
Think fast! There’s a man on a donkey careening towards you while someone else is intently trying to sell some fragrant spices from dozens of giant colorful buckets. Enter the Marrakech medina: a bustling hotspot for the senses with endless trinkets, fresh picked dates for days, and plenty of puzzling streets that fool at least 97% of navigation attempts. Most of the dreamy riads you can stay at are within this area — formidable, oasis-like lodgings that are everything one could possibly envision a Moroccan fairytale setting to be. I could’ve happily moved in at Rodamon Riad, a gorgeous multi-level guesthouse with deep emerald décor and a breezy rooftop to soak up the sun.
Pro tip: If you can afford the time, stay for three days (at least) to experience most of the city. I got a little swept up and wandered around for an entire unplanned week finding new gems around every twisty turn. 10/10 travelers recommend.
Take a gander at the High Atlas Mountains
Ever take a deep breath and say, damn, that’s some quality air? The Atlas range epitomizes that sentiment. Surprisingly cooler air and quiet switchback roads are a stark contrast to the madness of Marrakech, a welcome change of pace after the third time you accidentally play chicken with a random guy on a donkey. The serpentine drive through the Atlas range is chocked full of jaw-dropping views, begging you to pull over at random, and is exactly what you should be doing. If you’re anything like me and enjoy eating sandwiches all over the world from the most fantastic vantage points, then it’s highly advisable to pack a lunch and stop off along the way.
Pro tip: it’s a bumpy ride, folks.
Explore the ancient village of Aït Benhaddou by foot
The ancient cliffside village of Aït Benhaddou looks like a sand castle on steroids with earthy red tones and an impressive vertical sprawl, instantly evoking curiosity. This UNESCO World Heritage Site emulates pre-Saharan architecture to a tee piquing curiosity about historical inhabitants and how they dealt with those wildly toasty desert temperatures. Don’t be fooled by all of the structures, however. Some areas have been built up for various productions including Game of Thrones and Gladiator. Regardless, it’s easy to feel like you’ve been catapulted back centuries while roaming the dusty, earthen walkways (when you can avoid the tour groups, anyway).
Get a taste of the film industry in Ouarzazate
After driving by the first massive film reel statue on the edge of Ouarzazate, it became evident that there was something peculiar about this place. Turns out it’s a middle-of-nowhere metropolis of movie creation, home to Atlas Film Studios—the world’s largest film corporation. The eerie, seemingly forgotten film sets remain littered about the area, slowly decaying with the harshness of the environment. The city was aptly dubbed “Africa’s Hollywood” with a star-studded list of both national and international actors strutting their stuff in the dusty glamor. While I can’t say you’ll bump right into Leonardo DiCaprio, he was there while filming Body of Lies.
Pro tip: It’s pronounced wa-za-zat, so please, don’t sound as foolish as I did trying to say it as ooaarrrzazayt.
Hike through Mars-like valleys in Tinghir
Craggy, Mars-like landscape? Check. Spontaneous eruptions of vegetation in valleys? Yes, ma’am. Tinghir checks all the boxes when it comes to utter Earth beauty, a place where serenity and simplicity buddy up to give you a break from the relentless heat of the day and twist of the roads. The local Todgha Gorge could probably rival the Grand Canyon in a fight, and there are far fewer selfie sticks to combat along the way. These limestone canyons are authoritatively towering, but not enough to keep people from climbing them for sport. I opted to meander my way through the low-flowing creek, but by all means, scale your way up if you feel like being a bit of a nut job in the middle of nowhere.
Bask in the enormity of the Sahara’s beginnings in Merzouga
Absolute mind-boggling madness is the best way to describe the Sahara Desert’s obscenely sprawling sand dunes. I found myself jittery with excitement about one of the simplest things: a crap-ton of sand. Who wouldn’t be? The first sights of Erg Chebbi dunes are undeniably unlike anything else. Ergs, by the way, are massive seas of dunes. Think oceans, but sand.
Take your pick between glamping, riding a camel (if you’re into that), or aimlessly walking as far as you can dune after dune, because you can, damn it. Most photos of travelers on their camel rides look euphoric, but in true Instagram vs. Reality fashion, the jaunts are quite short, follow a route where you can see the flatlands, and are lined with a lot of sun-hardened camel poop. Choose wisely…I had way more fun exploring solo by foot.