Located in the Draa Valley region of southeastern Morocco, the desert town of Zagora has an interesting history. The town itself was founded in the 20th century as an outpost of the French colonial regime, but before that the area was an Almoravid stronghold, a Saadian military base and an important stop for traders on the caravan route across North Africa. Today, the town is the last major settlement before Erg Chigaga, one of the country’s largest dune fields. Travelers use it as a convenient base for adventures into the Sahara Desert or for exploring the lush oases and date plantations of the Draa Valley.
It’s also a center for southern Berber culture with several fascinating annual festivals.
Planning Your Trip
Climate: Zagora has an arid desert climate. The weather is often scorching in summer, with average highs of over 112 F/44 C in July. It is much cooler in winter, with average highs of around 68 F/20 C in January and night-time temperatures that dip towards freezing. Throughout the year there is very little precipitation and days are usually clear and sunny.
Best Time to Visit: Zagora is a year-round destination. However, the most pleasant times to visit in terms of weather are spring (March to May) and fall (September to November). These months also coincide with the watermelon and date harvests respectively. See below for the best times to travel if you’re interested in attending the town’s annual cultural festivals.
Languages: Arabic and Berber are the most common first languages in Zagora. However, most tour guides and hoteliers will speak some English and/or French as well.
Currency: Like the rest of the country, Zagora uses the Moroccan dirham.
Getting Around: Zagora is a small town and easily navigable on foot. If you don’t feel like walking, hail a petit taxi instead.
Travel Tip: If you can, plan to visit Zagora on a Wednesday or a Sunday so that you can attend the twice-weekly regional souk.
Things to Do
Most tourists visit Zagora as part of a desert tour on their way to Erg Chigaga. It is also possible to arrange day tours into the desert (either by 4×4 or camel) to admire its spectacular scenery and to discover traditional Berber villages. The surrounding Draa Valley is kept green by Morocco’s longest river, the Draa; and its date plantations and historic kasbahs are also major attractions.
- Zagora Souk: The town’s market is held on Wednesdays and Sundays and sees vendors from all over the region gather to sell everything from local produce and live animals to traditional clothing, jewelry and crafts.
- Timbuktu Sign: On the town’s western edge a famous hand-painted mural bears the phrase “Tombouctou 52 Jours.” From this point, it would have taken the camel caravans of the past 52 days to reach the fabled city of Timbuktu in Mali.
- Musée des Arts and Traditions de la Valleé de Draa: Housed in the mud-brick Ksar Tissergate, this excellent little museum includes three floors of exhibits about traditional life in the Draa Valley. Look out for jewelry, weapons and wedding outfits, all carefully explained by signs in French and English.
Festivals and Events
For some travelers, the main reason to visit Zagora is to soak up the unique culture of the country’s southern Berber tribes. Consider planning your trip around one of the town’s colorful annual festivals.
- Moussem of Sufi Moulay Abdelkader Jilali: A religious festival held in honor of Sufi saint Abdelkader Jilali, this moussem attracts pilgrims from all over the Draa Valley who come to honor him with music and dancing. The date varies every year, as it is held on Mawlid an Nabi (Prohpet Muhammad’s birthday) in accordance with the Islamic calendar.
- Festival of Nomads: Held every year in the nearby village of M’Hamid El Ghizlane, this cultural festival celebrates the nomadic way of life of the Draa Valley Berbers. Various tribes congregate to attend music and dancing performances, poetry readings, craft workshops and storytelling events. You can sample local cuisine and place bets on camel races. The festival lasts for three days and is usually held in March or April.
What to Eat and Drink
There are an array of different restaurants in Zagora, but most of them serve the same thing: authentic Moroccan and Mediterranean cuisine. This is the perfect place to try mouthwatering pastillas, couscous and grilled meats, while delicacies include tagine kefta (a kind of meatball stew) and salade morocaine (made from fresh tomatoes, onions and peppers). Restaurant Marwa and Villa Zagora are two of the best restaurants in town. The former is located on the main street and has a reputation for generous portions, affordable prices and friendly service.
The latter is part of a riad located on the outskirts of town and serves sophisticated meals in a lush garden setting complete with a swimming pool.
Because Morocco is an Islamic country, most establishments do not serve alcohol (although a few offer locally produced wine). Wash your meal down with a cup of fragrant mint tea or fresh orange juice instead.
Where to Stay
There is a wide choice of accommodation in Zagora, with many of the better and more scenic options located in the adjacent palm grove hamlet known as Amezrou. Some are full-service hotels like Kasbah Sirocco, a beautiful Moorish-style building with a swimming pool, terrace restaurant, hammam and spa. Others are atmospheric riads(the word for a traditional Moroccan home repurposed as a boutique guesthouse). Traveler favorites include Riad Marrat, whose giant wooden doors open into an oasis complete with palm trees, gardens and a plunge pool; and Riad dar Sofian.
The latter is a particularly fine example of Moroccan architecture, with ornate carved screens and Arabic mosaic work.
You can also camp (either in a tent or a camper van) at the recommended spot, Camping Palmeraie d’Amezrou, or sign up for a night in a nomadic desert camp. Many accommodation options offer excursions which range from bivouac experiences under the stars to hiking tours and camel rides.
The town has its own airport – Zagora Airport (OZG) – with direct Royal Air Maroc flights from the international airport in Casablanca. The journey takes around one hour and 50 minutes. If you’re traveling to Zagora from Marrakesh, you can’t fly there directly. As such, it’s often cheaper and easier to fly to Ouarzazate instead and then travel onwards by road (a 2.5-hour drive), or travel by road directly from Marrakesh. Zagora is intersected by two national highways, the N9 and the N12. You can hire a car and drive there yourself, or catch a long-distance bus from most major Moroccan cities.
With national bus company CTM, the journey from Marrakesh takes 8 hours and costs 140 dirham. From Ouarzazate, it takes just over 3 hours and costs 55 dirham.
Several tour operators also offer desert excursions that take you from Marrakesh to Zagora, stopping at major attractions like Aït Benhaddou and spending the night in a Berber camp en route. Most of these itineraries travel at least part of the way on camel back for a truly authentic desert experience.
Culture and Customs
Like the rest of Morocco, Zagora is strictly Muslim and tourists should be respectful of local customs to avoid causing offense.
- For both men and women, this means dressing conservatively with shoulders covered at all times. Women should also cover their knees with long skirts or pants.
- It is normal to eat with your fingers in Morocco, but remember that your left hand is considered unclean. Avoid using it to transfer food to your mouth, especially if you’re sharing with Muslim guides or guests.
- If you are traveling during Ramadan, remember that practicing Muslims are not allowed to eat or drink during the day and most local restaurants will be closed during daylight hours. Tourist attractions may have different opening hours too.
- Public toilets will typically be of the squat variety, with no bowl or seat and a hose pipe instead of toilet paper. If you aren’t familiar with squat toilet etiquette, read our helpful guide and make sure to carry wet wipes with you!
Money Saving Tips
- If you’re looking for a budget meal, opt for street food over a sit-down restaurant. In addition to costing just a few dirhams, the food is usually freshly made and 100% authentic. If you’re not sure which stall to buy from, remember that the busiest is usually the best.
- Don’t forget that in Morocco, prices are rarely fixed – especially in the souk. Take the opportunity to practice your haggling skills, remembering that if the price isn’t right, you can politely decline and walk away at any time. Learning a few local phrases will help a lot.
- Haggling is expected for taxi fares too, and if you don’t negotiate, you’re likely to be charged way over the odds. Taxis are rarely metered so make sure to agree on a price before getting in the car.
- When choosing a desert tour, make sure to find out what is included before automatically opting for the lowest price. Sometimes, a slightly more expensive tour that includes meals and transport ends up being cheaper in the long run.