Exploring Western Sahara

When Daniel and I first started planning this trip, we thought we would spend a while in Morocco and then travel overland south through Western Sahara and Mauritania to Senegal, then continue down the west coast of Africa. Once we researched this more, we found that traveling through Mauritania was not safe enough for us to be comfortable trying it (the State Department website said “the chance of kidnapping is high in Mauritania” — no thank you!). So we lingered in Morocco and our plan started to unravel. Daniel and I split ways and when we talked about our next steps, we never seemed to be able to arrive at a mutual decision.

“I think we’re being called in different directions,” he said over the phone. He was right. He was feeling the pull of Europe, whereas Western Sahara was calling to me.

Western Sahara is the disputed territory that lies south of Morocco (or IS the southern part of Morocco, if you are talking to a Moroccan).

WesternSahara(On Moroccan maps, there is no border at the green area – it is all Morocco)

Western Sahara is a sparsely populated desert territory. About 567,000 people live in the country, whose area is roughly equivalent to the state of Florida (a state which is home to over 20 million people). Western Sahara has excellent fishing waters and an important share of the world’s phosphate, which is a vital ingredient in fertilizer.

To make a very long story extremely short, Western Sahara was a Spanish colony until 1975 when Spain ceded control of the territory to Morocco. However, the people who live in Western Sahara, the Sahrawi, didn’t want to be part of Morocco and had founded an independence movement called the Polisario Front a few years earlier. This group rose up to fight for Western Sahara’s independence, an armed struggle that lasted for 15 years. When there was eventually a peace agreement in 1991, part of the agreement was that there would be a referendum where Western Saharans could vote for independence the next year. Now, in 2018, that referendum has still not happened.

So Western Sahara remains a disputed territory, almost completely under Moroccan control, but with the Polisario still active and controlling some territory on the eastern border of the country. A lot of the original population is currently living in refugee camps in Algeria.

There is little information available about life in Western Sahara, because the Moroccan government does not allow journalists to enter the territory. (Morocco is actually oddly suspicious about journalists in general – when I worked at the hostel in Chefchaouen, we had to send the check-in sheets from every guest that stayed at the hostel to the police, and they would often call to check up on the journalists who stayed with us.)

This all made me curious to see for myself what was going on in Western Sahara. I did a lot of research and talked to other travelers who had been through the territory, and everything I learned said it was quite safe to travel along the coast of Western Sahara as long as one was not a journalist.

Several other travelers were interested in going with me, but they were ultimately dissuaded by the fact that it is an EXTREMELY LONG JOURNEY to get to the major cities in Western Sahara, from even the most southern cities in Morocco. And there is not much in between:

IMG_8140This part of the Sahara looks kind of reminiscent of Star Wars to me

It took me 24 hours on the bus from Essaouira to get to Dahkla, which is a coastal city in the southern part of Western Sahara.

They have a big kite surfing industry there and some very nice beaches, which is why I chose Dahkla instead of another city. Funnily enough, the beaches turned out to be quite far (25 kilometers) from the city itself, where I was staying and there wasn’t public transit there, so I never ended up going! There are a bunch of tourist resorts right in the beach area, but they are extremely expensive and that was simply not in my budget.

I couldn’t find any hostels in the city, so I stayed in a hotel where I got a private room for only $10 a night. It was actually a much-needed break from hostel life and living with 20-30 other people in close quarters. The hotel was clean and quiet and the staff were absolutely lovely. And it was two blocks from the water, though this part of the coast isn’t a sandy beach.


The  bus journey there was one of the most interesting parts of the trip. I left Essaouira in the mid-afternoon and caught another bus from Agadir that evening, which would take me all the way to Dakhla.

The first twelve hours or so were uneventful, just a bus ride through a dark night. I did see the sun rise over the Sahara, which was pretty incredible.

Then around 7am, we passed a military checkpoint and I woke up to a police officer standing over me, asking for my passport.

It was a startling way to awaken, but I expected passport checks from what I had read online and heard from other travelers so I wasn’t surprised. I gave him my passport and he got off the bus with it. A few minutes later, he came back and asked me to please come with him to answer a few questions. Yikes.

I grabbed my purse and followed him, unsure whether I would be getting back on this bus, and hoping that my bag wouldn’t be going to Dakhla without me. He led me to the side of the road to a tiny concrete shack where another police officer was waiting inside. There was one table in the room, with one chair and no windows. They left the door open, though, and we had a simple conversation.

They asked me where I was going (Dakhla), what my profession was in the US (I’m a student), why I wanted to go to Dakhla (I want to go to the beach), if I knew people in Dakhla (this one, I didn’t know what answer they were looking for, but I think the correct answer was no. It was also the true answer, so that’s what I said). I smiled at them and kept the tone light. They made a phone call and reported my answers, and then they gave me my passport back and said to enjoy Dakhla.

IMG_7905Desert city on the road to Dakhla

We stopped at probably at least 8-10 more checkpoints before we arrived in Dakhla. My passport was checked four more times, and each time the officer asked me what my profession was, but I never had to get off the bus again. Interestingly, I also never had to pay a bribe, though I was not sure if the bus driver gave them a little something as he was handing them his papers.

Along the highway through Western Sahara, I mostly just saw desert on one side and ocean on the other side. There were a few herds of wild camels, which was a pretty exciting sight to see. A lot of the road is under construction, part of the infrastructure development the Moroccan government is funding in Western Sahara. There are also quite a few unexploded land mines visible from the highway – though they have cleared all those that were dangerously close to the road. These land mines are marked by towers of rocks and I spotted a startling amount of these towers from my window as our bus sped by. Remnants of war…very sobering to see.

IMG_8295Daily life in Dahkla

After all this, once I arrived in Dakhla, I was surprised by how normal life in this city was.

In this pastel-colored city rising out of the desert with its square, masculine buildings and wide roads, people went about their daily lives. They were buying things at the market, fishing in the ocean, drinking coffee at cafés, and walking along the coast with their families on the weekends and evenings. I found some excellent street food, a good breakfast place, and lots of friendly people.

There were some indicators of the ongoing conflict, but you might have missed them if you weren’t paying attention. The main thing was that the Moroccan flag was EVERYWHERE. I saw so many more flags in Dakhla than in any other Moroccan city. There was also a very visible police, army, and navy presence in the city. There were several large military bases in visible and strategic places throughout the city, and I saw many uniformed men walking around. I also met a lot of off-duty military folks out and about in the city.

The other interesting thing was that 9 out of 10 people that I met were not originally from Western Sahara; most were from other places in Morocco. The Moroccan government has been encouraging settlers to move to Western Sahara so they can cement their power in the region, and it seems to have been very effective.


I did meet a few Sahrawi people. One night, I somehow ended up having coffee with a Libyan business man, a Malian truck driver, and a Moroccan shop keeper. We were sitting outside at a table along the road at a café and the Libyan guy called out to someone walking by that he knew; this guy turned out to be a member of the Polisario. He spoke excellent English and he gave me an thorough education about the conflict.

He told me about the excellent fishing waters and valuable minerals that Western Sahara has, and about how that was one of the reasons that Morocco so desperately wanted to maintain control of the region. Other Sahrawis talked about this frequently.

He told me that they will keep fighting for independence until they get it.

Mr. Polisario welcomed me, the Libyan, and the Malian as guests in his country, but said he did not feel the same about the Moroccan man, because he was an occupier. The two were good natured with each other – they obviously had met before this day – but Mr. Polisario was very clear about the way he felt. He had the fast-talking air of one of those people who is constantly busy, always on his way somewhere, and after he felt he had sufficiently educated me about the conflict (and offered to buy my coffee as a welcome to his country), he ran off to his next commitment.


Another day, I met an older Sahrawi gentleman at a shop where I was buying water. He was overjoyed when he learned that I was American. He insisted that I join him and his grandson for tea. He said that he remembered a time in the 70s when there was a drought in the region and USAID helped by delivering food aid to the people.

Though more than 40 years has passed, that memory still colored his opinion of the United States and Americans.

We should remember this at a time when our government is considering cutting a lot of foreign aid programs. These things, which cost little in the grand scheme of governmental spending, can make such a difference in the way people view our country.

He also told me about the conflict with Morocco, but he was more resigned to the state of things in his country. Tellingly, he was nervous to talk to me about this in front of other people because he feared police surveillance.

My visit to Western Sahara definitely added a dimension to my Morocco experience and my understanding of the place and global politics in general. After meeting the people who live here, I’ll be following the news about this region and watching to see if they ever get their independence.


The Sahara, my love


We disembarked the night bus in Merzouga around 5:30am, in the total darkness of an unfamiliar town, which was so still that it seemed uninhabited. The bus had emptied out as the 10-hour journey from Fez went on and people got off at small villages along the way, so there were only three of us, all foreign women, left on by the time it reached Merzouga, the final stop. We tumbled out of the bus onto the dusty street, clumsily hoisted our bags, and suddenly the bus was gone. Was there actually a tumbleweed blowing gently towards us or is that my memory playing tricks? “Whoa, where are we?,” I thought groggily.

IMG_7625Camels on the move during a sandstorm

Merzouga is situated just at the edge of the Sahara Desert, on the way to nothing else, other than Algeria, but the land border between Algeria and Morocco is closed. There’s no way to convince yourself that you can stop here on the way to somewhere else. If you come to Merzouga, it is on purpose, and it is to experience the desert. The town is a 10-12 hour bus ride away from each of the two nearest major cities, Fez and Marrakesh, though both trips are significantly faster if you have your own car instead of taking a bus. I almost skipped this part of Morocco because of the distance, but wow, I am so glad I decided to make the journey.

Put simply, the Sahara Desert is one of the most incredible places I have ever experienced.

I fell in love with this peaceful, sand-colored town and the desert that blends into and out of it like I have not fallen for a place in a very long time.

IMG_4137(Photo courtesy of Rachel McCoy, my travel partner and amazing photographer)

Merzouga, with its unassuming mud and concrete buildings, is laid back and peaceful. In the mornings, the sun peeks over the dunes and the town wakes up slowly from the cold night. Lone men wearing long djellabas (a Moroccan cloak that looks like a wizard’s, complete with a pointy hood — think Gandalf in Lord of the Rings) quietly drift down the middle of the dusty main road. As the sun gains strength, traffic comprised mostly of old bicycles and rickety motorcycles with a few tourism vans thrown in kicks up the dust and sand coating the road. The men trade their djellabas for long tunics and colorful turbans to combat the blowing sand. In the evenings, the dust settles and the air fills with the smell of meat being roasted over charcoal fires on a few grills along the street as people congregate in cafés, drinking tea and exchanging news. After sunset, most people are back in their homes or out in the desert and the town is quiet.

IMG_7799Merzouga main street at sunset

Life in the desert is intense and inextricably tied to the mother nature.

As soon as we arrived in this desert town, I felt the moisture instantly sucked out of my skin, hair and throat by the dry air and wind. Dust coated my entire body and all my clothes the whole time we were there. Though it is winter, the sun is still intense (but the temperature is moderate, even cold at night) and I was perpetually sunburnt and windblown, despite an obsessive use of sunscreen. But maybe the intensity is part of what makes this place so arresting.

Most people who live here depend on the desert in one way or another. Some are nomads who move through the desert with their camels, relying on the desert to provide water and plants while coming to town occasionally to buy or trade goods, and some are permanent town-dwellers who make a living from the tourism provided by the desert. Regardless, no one can forget the desert, and everyone here respects it. There is no other way.

The first day we arrived in Merzouga, we were greeted by a sandstorm.

Rachel and I had walked out to the edge of the dunes when the wind started picking up and we realized we should turn around. It was unpleasant and painful, being whipped by flying grains of sand that got in the eyes, nose, mouth, everywhere. But it was also exquisitely beautiful – the power of the desert was clear and magnificent that day.

img_7626-1Sand blowing in a storm

And after it ended, everything was clean and new. The dunes had shifted shape slightly, all footprints and traces of human activity had been erased, and the desert looked untouched, as if it had just been reborn. There is something mystical about a place that is ever-changing, never the same. To know that what you are witnessing is only there for that moment that you see it, that later it will be different, that it can never be recreated quite in the same way…wow.


What a phenomenal place. What an incredible world we have.




Coming soon: More desert! A post about trekking with camels into the Sahara on its way in the next week.