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Western Sahara Travel Guide

Western Sahara

Travel & Tourism

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.”

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.

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.

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.

Getting In and Around

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 easie
st 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.

Safety and Security

Concerned about your safety as you plan travel to Western Sahara? We at Africa.com, together with our friends, family and colleagues, travel extensively throughout the continent. Here are the resources we consult when thinking of our safety in Western Sahara:

• UK Government Western Sahara Travel Advice Guidance

Africa.com comment: Very timely and frequently updated. Perspective assumes that you ARE going to travel to Western Sahara, and seeks to give you good guidance so that you understand the risks and are well informed.

• Mo Ibrahim Personal Safety & Rule of Law Score for Western Sahara

Africa.com comment: An annual ranking of the 54 African countries based on their relative personal security as determined by a highly qualified staff of an African foundation, funded by a successful African philanthropist. See where Western Sahara ranks relative to the other 54 nations in Africa.

• U.S. State Department Travel Advisory on Western Sahara

Africa.com comment: Can sometimes be considered as overly conservative and discourage travel altogether to destinations that many reasonable people find acceptably secure. On the other hand, they have the resources of the CIA to inform them, so they know things that the rest of us don’t know. See what they have to say about Western Sahara.

Local Advice

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.

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