Stretching along the northwestern coast of the African continent, this former Spanish colony remains a disputed territory and is one of the most sparsely populated regions on Earth. Its people look to either the Moroccan government or the Algerian-backed Polisario Front for leadership, or perhaps even the hope of independence in the future.
Because of its political past and isolated desert location, Western Sahara doesn’t enjoy the developed tourism infrastructure of some of its neighbors. It can, however, offer unforgettable experiences to adventurers who are drawn to the territory’s life and culture and who are tenacious enough to withstand desert winds and stinging sands: this is the place where the Sahara collides with the waves of the North Atlantic Ocean. Western Sahara is better suited to travelers who feel comfortable forging their own paths, but it truly is one of the world’s most stunning paths to be explored; it virtually defines “off the beaten track.”
1. El Aaiún (Laayoune): Western Sahara’s largest city, with a population of roughly 195,000, was founded by the Spanish in 1928 and has been under Moroccan control since 1976. The city is small and easily navigable by foot. It is a great place to spend a day or two before you venture out to explore other desert towns and villages. El Aaiún sits right on the coast of the territory in the north, and visitors can spend time on the El Aaiún beach, though they shouldn’t expect perfect white sand and palm trees; this is a desert beach, after all.
2. Tarfaya: This small town lies on the coast just over the border between Western Sahara and Morocco, just a few hours’ drive from El Aaiún. During the colonial period in this part of North Africa, Tarfaya was the administrative capital of Spanish South Morocco. Tarfaya can be hard to reach by public transportation and has only one main paved road. Its real claim to fame is literary: this is where Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of the much loved French novella The Little Prince, was stationed in 1929. A small statue of an airplane on the beach commemorates the writer and pilot. Also visit the Castle Dar Mar, a 200-year-old castle that sits in the ocean 45 kilometers from the shore.
3. Smara (Semara): With a population of roughly 45,000, Smara is the only large town in Western Sahara that was not founded by the Spanish. Once a trade hub for camel caravans passing through the Sahara, Smara was built with red stone around a fortress known as the Zawiy Maalainin that enclosed a mosque. Ruins of the fortress can still be seen today. In the early 20th century, Smara was the battleground for territorial disputes between Spanish, French, and Sahrawi rebels and is now under Moroccan rule.
4. Guelta Zemmour: Located inland and south of El Aaiún, this small town was built around a guelta, or oasis. Sahrawi nomads used the oasis as a camping ground for hundreds of years. The town was at one time under the control of the Polisario Front but is now home to a Moroccan military base. Though this town is a wonderful place to catch a gorgeous desert sunset and a star-spangled night sky, visitors should be very aware of minefields located near the town.
5. Moroccan Berm: This Moroccan-built sand wall divides Western Sahara into Moroccan and Polisario territories. Several Moroccan military bases are located along the berm, as well as several minefields, so though the wall is worth seeing from a distance, we advise against going in for a closer look.
6. Dakhla: Once known by the Spanish as Villa Cisneros, this town is home to approximately 68,000 people and sits on the Western Saharan coast, 341.7 miles (550 kilometers) from El Aaiún. The Spanish founded Dakhla in 1884 as the capital of the Rio de Oro province of Spanish Sahara. Whitewashed houses line the idyllic bay overlooking the brilliant blue Atlantic. Points of interest in the town are the Catholic churches and military fortress built by the Spanish. Venture out of the town to see the old Spanish lighthouse that sits alone on a cape a couple of miles from Dakhla. Climb the lighthouse’s 240 steps for sweeping views of the ocean and the town. You can also feast on delectable fresh fish caught daily by local fishermen. This area of Western Sahara’s coast is famous for its surfing opportunities, so if you’re a water enthusiast, this would be an excellent and relatively secluded spot to catch some waves.
Western Sahara is always hot and dry, though temperatures do tend to be higher in Northern Hemisphere “summer” months. Remember, you will be in a desert: nights can be very cold, so prepare accordingly.
Visas: You do not need a separate visa to enter Western Sahara, though you will need a Moroccan visa. At the border between Morocco and Western Sahara, you may have your passport checked, but it will not be stamped. See the visa requirements for Morocco.
Transportation: It is best to hire your own vehicle and driver if you are planning on traveling around Western Sahara or across borders between Western Sahara and Morocco. Roads in Western Sahara are usually not in very good condition, and many are unpaved.
Buses run regularly between Marrakech and other Moroccan cities to major towns in Western Sahara. There are also ground taxis, which are small minibuses, that take passengers between several of Western Sahara’s largest towns; travel in ground taxis is far from comfortable, though.
If you’re flying into Western Sahara, the easiest way is via Morocco. Fly Royal Air Maroc into El Aaiún or Dakhla from Casablanca or Agadir.
Mobile Phones: Few land lines and even fewer mobile phones are available in Western Sahara. It is unlikely that mobile phones with international plans will work here, especially in areas farther from the border with Morocco.
Because Western Sahara is so sparsely populated, and because both Morocco and the Polisario are in control, there is no Western Saharan police force or emergency services. There is an obvious Moroccan military presence in the Moroccan-controlled territory. Beware of minefields is these areas.
The United Nations Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) is based in El Aaiún, so that city does tend to be safer for foreigners than others and has more-accessible medical services. Check out the U.S. Department of State’s consular website’s entry on Morocco for more detailed security information about Western Sahara.
The Mo Ibrahim Foundation has created a security ratings system called the Ibrahim Index, wherein scores are based on each country’s quality of government. Before traveling to Western Sahara or anywhere on the continent, check the index and do your research.
The area known as Western Sahara was first inhabited by the farming Bafour tribe and later by Berber tribes and Arab migrants from Yemen. Islam arrived in the region in the eighth century, and with it trade began to increase across the Sahara. Western Sahara came under Spanish rule in 1884 and became a province of Spanish Morocco in 1934.
In the 1960s, the nomadic Sahrawi began to settle in the area, and a nationalist movement got under way. In 1973, the Polisario Front was created to represent the Sahrawi people.
In 1975, Spanish colonial rule of the region ended, and before Western Sahara could seize the opportunity to become independent, the territory was partitioned between Mauritania and Morocco. In 1976 the Polisario Front declared a Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and elected as secretary-general its current president, Mohammed Abdelaziz.
In 1978, after a political coup shook the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott, Mauritania decided to hand over its territory to the Polisario Front. Soon afterward, Morocco began to invade and occupy Mauritania’s former territory and claimed it as its own. Many Sahrawi were forced from their homes and today continue to live as refugees in the Algerian town of Tindouf. The Polisario Front fought a guerilla war against Morocco’s occupation until 1991.
In 1991 the United Nations Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was established in the hopes of achieving peace in the area. The U.N. brokered a cease-fire between Morocco and the Polisario Front and planned to hold a referendum that would let the people of Western Sahara choose between independence and Moroccan rule. The plan was unsuccessful, owing to disagreement on both sides as to who should be able to vote in the referendum.
In 1997 and 2000 the U.N. special envoy James Baker brokered peace talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front with the goal of setting up another referendum, preceded by a transition period in which the SADR would have semi-autonomy. Neither side was able to agree on the terms, and Morocco and the Polisario Front remain in a deadlock today.
1. Western Sahara is located on the northwestern coast of Africa, between Mauritania and Morocco. It is separated into two sides: Moroccan authorities control the west, and the Polisario Front, also known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, controls the east.
2. Arabic is the official language of both Morocco and the Sahrawi Arab Republic. The Sahrawi people speak a dialect of Arabic known as Hassānīya.
3. The population of Western Sahara is 260,000. Most of the population is Sahrawi, of mixed Arab and Berber descent. Some Moroccans also settled in the territory in the 1970s.
4. Western Sahara is a predominantly Muslim territory, but because of the nomadic roots of the Sahrawi people, many observe their religion in a more informal manner, visiting mosques less frequently, drinking alcohol, and the like. That said, be as respectful as possible, especially when visiting sacred sites.
5. The currency most widely used in Western Sahara is the Moroccan dirham (MAD), though in some areas the Algerian dinar (DZD) and Mauritanian ouguiya (MRO) are used. We suggest having enough cash of all currencies with you before you cross into Western Sahara.