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Flag Source: CIA World Factbook
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 exp
lored; it virtually defines “off the beaten track.”
The Top 6: What to Do in Western Sahara
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.
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.
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.
When to Go
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.