Like pyramids of exotic spices stacked across the horizon, subject to sculpting by the whimsy of the wind, the cumin- and cinnamon-colored sands of the Sahara have long lured intrepid travelers.
Caravans stretching hundreds of camel lengths once traversed the Sahara desert shipping routes, transporting cargo of gold, ivory, salt and slaves. And while desert nomads called Tuaregs still move goods (mainly salt from the interior) along the traditional trade routes today, the tourist trade does a brisker business in North Africa, enticing visitors from around the world to dip their toes in the powder-fine Sahara sand.
From the Red Sea to the fringes of the Mediterranean coast, the Sahara spills across more than 3 million square miles in North Africa -- an area that is vaster than Australia. Most of the desert is inaccessible to tourist itineraries -- not to mention darn inhospitable -- but the good news is that you don't have to venture far from urban oases to feel very far removed from the rest of the world.
Most travelers plan their visits between November and March to escape the scorching summer heat -- summertime temperatures regularly exceed the century mark. Read on to learn about the best spots to launch your Sahara sojourn:
MOROCCO: Quintessential Dunes and Desert Oases
Well-tracked on the tourist trail and loaded with cultural attractions, the mesmerizing imperial cities of Fes and Marrakech, Morocco, are both good places to get your first taste of the Sahara. The most popular desert trip involves an overnighter from the small sandy village of Merzouga, located about 400 miles east of Marrakech. Sitting atop camels led by guides, you'll head from the village into the dunes.
Within an hour or so, you'll find yourself surrounded by the blown offspring of Erg Chebbi -- Morocco's largest sand dune. It's a ritual to climb the nearest dune to witness the sinking sun. And from up high, you'll see you're really not as far removed as you thought -- Morocco's stretch of Sahara peters out into a rocky form of desert called hammada, which stretches to the sharp cliffs marking the Algerian border.
But back down at the oasis, with the stars for a ceiling and the majestic dunes embracing a patch of palm-tree-studded greenery, it definitely feels exotic. You'll eat a typical Moroccan tajine for dinner and listen to Berber drumming before spending the night under a Bedouin tent woven from goat wool.
Farther south but within easier reach of Marrakech, the desert hamlet of M'hamid makes an excellent desert destination. The stretch of Sahara near M'hamid doesn't boast the postcard-perfect sand dunes of Merzouga -- the terrain is more rolling and rocky, but desert nonetheless -- and fewer crowds mean you're more likely to spot animals such as the desert fox and desert owl.
TUNISIA: Escape the Resorts for the Sandy Interior
Consider Tunisia "desert light." Most tours depart from the town of Douz in Western Tunisia, and you can decide whether to spend 1 night or more exploring the Grand Erg Oriental dune by camel or 4-wheel drive. The geological formations in Tunisia differ from those in Algeria and Morocco, with table mountains presenting an alternative desert view of the desert that contrasts with standard images of sculpted sand.
Star Wars fans should put a visit to the otherworldly village of Matmata on their list -- here you'll see the cave-like dwellings from the movie, which have been dug from the ground by Tunisian cave dwellers called troglodytes. The caves make a comforting respite from soaring summer temperatures.
ALGERIA: Longer Tours in Rocky Hinterlands for Intrepid Travelers
Spend time surrounded by beautiful dunescape and an authentic nomad lifestyle in the South of Algeria, a good destination for tours that pair walking itineraries, camel treks and travel by 4-wheel drive. Itineraries from tour operators like Touareg Voyages range from one week to 15 days and longer. Follow ancient caravan routes, and you'll journey through terrain that alternates between sandy dunes and rocky plains, stopping off to see cave drawings along the way. Leave from the Southern Algerian town of Tamanghasset to explore the Ahaggar Mountains, where spiky volcanic formations rise abruptly from the rocky desert for a surreal scene.
LIBYA: Keep it on Your Future Radar
For the moment, securing a visa to Libya as an American -- even if you're part of a guided tour, which is requisite -- is a tricky, confusing and most often unsuccessful task. But keep this country on your radar, as it's a stunning country of welcoming people that offers one of the most exciting desert experiences on Earth. The World Heritage-listed Jebel Acacus region can only be visited with an official guide, but it's worth the red tape -- black rocky monoliths rise from the sand and prehistoric rock paintings and carvings date back 12,000 years.