So you’re going to Morocco (great choice by the way), and fancy yourself a wannabe T. E. Lawrence. After all, what can be more romantic than riding a camel into the desert sunset. Yet just how do you choose whether to adventure at Chebbi or Chigaga? One is more popular and has higher dunes, whilst the other is harder to reach but equally photogenic.
Well, never fear. I’m here to help since I’ve visited both. Although I do have a clear favourite, it really does depend on your own personal criteria for what a successful desert adventure would involve for you. Either way, you’ll probably hope you never have to ride a camel again!
So to the question…Chebbi or Chigaga?
The better known of the two dune areas is Erg Chebbi, near Merzouga. An 8 hour drive from Fes in the north, and also from Ouarzazate in the west. The bivouac scene is better established and sees more visitors than Erg Chigaga, mainly due to the easier access and superior dune size.
Due to disputes over the nearby border with Algeria, Erg Chigaga is a much more recent tourist destination, and as such has only been admitting visitors since the 1990s. It lays south of M’Hamid, about a 9 hour drive from Marrakech. It’s a good idea to break the journey half way around Ait Ben Haddou, or at my personal favourite spot at Kasbah Ellouze, a Moroccan fortress guest house in Tamdaght. The last leg of the journey south of Ouarzazate through the Draa Valley is indeed a destination in itself.
So, which is best, Chebbi or Chigaga? Let’s look at the most important issue first…
This one is easy. Chebbi is famous for it’s high dunes, some of which can reach 160m, thus affording spectacular views across this breakaway piece of Sahara. Chigaga on the other hand has fairly low dunes in comparison, only reaching around 120m. It is worth bearing in mind however that climbing a dune is incredibly hard work, and despite all best intentions, most sunrise-baggers only make it half way up the huge dunes in Chebbi (still a fanastic view) so in reality you probably don’t end up being any higher than in Chigaga.
Chebbi 1 – 0 Chigaga
Whilst Chebbi wins on the vertical scale, Chigaga must take the lead for vastness as it appears to go on forever, giving a real sense of being out in the wilderness. To just reach the dunes here involves around a 60km journey from M’Hamid through the hamada, a flat rocky area which acts as a bone shaking prelude to the sand. The landscape is breath-taking and there is a real sense of anticipation with every mile as the terrain becomes a bit more sandy, and the undulations steadily increase. In Erg Chigaga you definitely feel the remoteness. This makes the experience seem much more ‘real’.
The other bonus with Chigaga is that you can drive a circuit in the 4×4, without having to retrace your steps back to M’Hamid and Zagora. The off road route follows the Algerian border, passing the vast dried up Lake Iriki (where there used to be crocodiles!) before rejoining the sealed road a few hours on at Foum Zguid. This route is part of the original Paris – Dakar rally route, and experiences some incredible rocky desert scenery reminiscent of that in the USA.
Chebbi 1 – 1 Chigaga
This one is simple. Chebbi is relatively easy to reach – just drive down to Merzouga, hop on a camel and off you go. However this ease of access does unfortunately result in higher visitor numbers, and the feeling of being less remote. Erg Chigaga on the other hand requires more time, thinking and expertise to reach, with the last 60km of off-piste driving from M’Hamid only accessible in a 4×4 with a competent driver. Whilst it is this very inaccessibility that makes Chigaga feel like more of an adventure, in the interests of fairness, this one must go to Chebbi since anyone who can drive a car can reach it without trauma.
Chebbi 2 – 1 Chigaga
Due to it’s relative remoteness, Chigaga wins this one hands down if you’re looking for remote and wild, although perhaps the fact you can drive in a 4×4 all the way to camp brings you back to reality, just for a moment. Chebbi still has the majesty of the desert to boast about, and despite the proximity of all the other camps which you can hear as you approach, after a 2 and a half hour camel ride you certainly don’t feel you want to be any more remote if that means longer on the damn beast.
Chebbi 2 – 2 Chigaga
Now I’m only comparing the more basic camps here, since I don’t consider a luxury tent with an en-suite and all the trimmings to be what a true desert experience is all about. Both bivouacs were a lot of fun, and it really depends on what floats your boat as to whether Chebbi or Chigaga is best.
For us, we preferred Chigaga since we stayed in a tiny camp where we were the only visitors. Although there were other little camps in the vicinity, each was tucked away behind other dunes so you could neither see nor hear anyone else the entire time. We had a tent to ourselves, and there was even a little toilet hut just behind the camp which we weren’t expecting. The chap who ran the camp, and his assistant (who also appeared with camels for us to ride that evening) live there for about 6 months of the year, rarely seeing their families, and having a somewhat lonely existence. They relish the company of visitors, and despite the language barrier we enjoyed an evening chatting with our hosts.
Find out more about Erg Chigaga in my Sirocco in the Sahara post.
Chebbi on the other hand has larger camps, all set more closely together, and not only can you hear the beating drums from the other camps as you approach on your camel, when daylight breaks you realise that you’re practically camping on top of the neighbouring tents (see above, under section 1). Each camp is large enough for several visitors, which if you want a social evening around the campfire making a fool of yourself on the musical instruments, then perhaps this would be the better option.
However, we went for peaceful solitude and to experience the landscape rather than to party, so being rather antisocial types we enjoyed Chigaga much more. Have a look at my post on Chameau 2531 to read more about our Erg Chebbi experience.
We actually found the music emanating from all the dune camps at Chebbi rather irritating, and although it was quite fun to watch our own camp musicians play beside the light of the flickering flames, when they tried to force us all to sing and dance against our will, I found the experience a little spoilt for me. There were no toilets (which is what I’d expected), and tents although communal, were partitioned with large rugs so that each couple did have their own private bed area.
The food was surprisingly tasty in both camps, with breads, tagines, fruit and mint tea equalling any restaurant we’d eaten in during our Moroccan travels.
So, bottom line, if you’re social and want the whole Bedouin campfire experience, go to Chebbi. If you want calm, contemplation and solitude, go to Chigaga.
Chebbi 2 – 3 Chigaga
I have to give them both a point here, as we had the pleasure of seeing spectacular sunrises each time.
Chebbi 3 – 4 Chigaga
So which is the better choice, Chebbi or Chigaga?
In my view, the winner is…ERG CHIGAGA, for having the highest overall Lawrence of Arabia potential.
So have I convinced you? If not, then go see them for yourself and make up your own mind. Whether you choose Chebbi or Chigaga, I guarantee you will not be disappointed.