The Sahara is quite massive. It’s just huge – at 11 million km2 it’s bigger than the whole of the United States. It is by far the largest desert in the world (outside the polar regions). The sands of the Sahara are filled with history and stories of the past – but this region has also been plagued by instability and poverty. Fortunately, the Sahara also has a number of top tourist destinations and more stable countries to visit.
One of the best ways to explore the Sahara is to take a camel ride with the Bedouin tribes – Marrakech in Morocco is particularly famous for its camel rides. The Sahara is much more than sand and desert – in fact, only small amounts are sand desert. The Sahara is an enchanting place that few people have the opportunity to fully explore.
What is the Sahara and where can you see it?
The Sahara is a huge desert that covered most of North Africa. It extends from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean in the south until one reaches the Sahelian transition zone (the Sahel is a belt of semi-arid tropical savanna in the south).
- Cut: 9.2 million km2 or 3.5 million square miles or 11 million km2 to 4.2 million square miles (depending on definition)
- A third: Of the land area of Africa
Countries that are wholly or partially within the Sahara include: Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara (claimed and controlled by Morocco) , Sudan and Tunisia. Naturally, the best time to see the Sahara is during the cooler months before the scorching heat of summer.
Some of these countries are failed states and/or there are travel advisories about visiting (such as Libya, Chad and Sudan). Others are safer and for intrepid explorers (like Algeria and Mauritania). The most popular countries to visit the Sahara are Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt – these countries have extensive tourist infrastructure and are relatively safe.
The Best Places To See The Sahara
Arguably the best place to see the Sahara is Morocco – specifically Marrakech. Marrakech is a one-of-a-kind place and is the gateway to the great Sahara Desert, as it has been for thousands of years. Marrakech was an important oasis trading city that traded all the way south across the Sahara into sub-Saharan Africa.
- Best place to see the Sahara: Marrakech, Morocco
Today, Marrakech is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and offers so much for adventurous tourists – like camel rides in the desert, the city’s impressive architecture, traditional cuisine, breathtaking entertainment and culture. and fantastic shopping in its bazaars.
- When should we go: All year round (although it is particularly hot in summer)
- Point: Beware of pickpockets
- The biggest: Marrakech has the largest traditional market in Morocco (called the souk)
Camel ride and desert camping
Camel riding and camping in the desert are a very big part of the attractions in Marrakech. There are selections of desert excursions for everyone – these range from overnight in the desert to expeditions of up to two weeks.
For those who only have a short stay in Morocco, a night in the desert and a camel ride may be the right option. This trip guarantees that one will spend at least one night in the Sahara. The trip includes an overnight camel ride in the desert near the sand dunes.
- Duration: The camel ride takes approximately 1 hour 30 minutes
- Drum music: At the camp in the desert, one can listen to traditional drum music
- Lodging: In the nomadic tents (in the morning breakfast and shower at the hotel)
See the prehistoric cave paintings of the Sahara
The Sahara was not always desert, sometimes it turned into grassy savannah – at that time it was inhabited by many hunters and gatherers. Today, one can visit many sites around the Sahara where its ancient inhabitants left cave paintings of the animals like giraffes, ostriches and crocodiles, which once lived there.
The Sahara has gone through 20,000-year cycles of greening and desertification caused by the precession of the Earth’s axis as it rotates around the sun. Cave paintings and rock art from 14,600 to 5,000 years ago show us that the Sahara was a very different place. These cave paintings can be seen all over the Sahara, but Egypt is one of the best places to see them.
Cavern of Beasts: This is a large natural rock shelter in the Western Desert of Egypt with Neolithic cave paintings. The paintings are believed to be over 7,000 years old.
- Located: In the Libyan desert southwest of Egypt
- Animals: Include elephants, ostriches, gazelles and giraffes (do not exist there today)
Cave of swimmers: The Swimmers Cave is located very close to the Beast Cave above. Both are in the Gilf Kebir region of Egypt
- Animals: Includes giraffes and hippos (do not exist there today)
- Date: About 10,000 years ago
This crusader castle is considered the most impressive in the world