The Avenue of Baobabs near Morondava, Madagascar. Photo by Bernard Gagnon.
Madagascar also offers the inquisitive tourist the bizarre burial sites of the Mahafaly tribe, strange rock formations, spectacular landscapes, the French-speaking capital in Antananarivo that is just about worth a couple of days and good beaches with diving and snorkelling locations.
What the place doesn’t have is too many travellers!
• Public transport is unreliable and some grasp of French is vital for individual travellers, so horrible as it may seem, consider a package tour if you have special interests and/or limited time in Madagascar.
• Appalling deforestation (85% gone up in smoke) is putting the exotic flora and fauna on the endangered list.
• Crime is on the up, especially in Antananarivo (Tana), so observe Safety suggestions.
• It can get extremely hot (we recorded 61C/142F there on one occasion, in the shade).
• Malaria, see more below under Safety.
• Just about every park/reserve requires a permit.
Madagascar’s main attractions
Antananarivo, the capital
Also known as simply Tana, this over populated, polluted and bustling city is not an attractive place at first look. But tourists should perhaps experience the cultural side before heading off to see natural wonders. Antananarivo offers a few historic buildings and museums to explore, such as Rova, the Royal Palace and Musée Andafivaratra, a colourful lakeside market at Lac Anosy, especially flower market and also a quite few gourmet restaurants – French and Creole – can be found downtown.
East for the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park
Three hours easy drive east from Antananarivo the Andasibe-mantadia National Park is a rainforest hosting a large number of rare and endangered species including 11 lemurs species.
Tourists generally take hikes ranging from 1-6 hours around the park under the supervision of an informed (hopefully! ) local guide.
Adjacent slash-and-burn cultivation for rice plantations, logging and replacement of rainforest with non-indigenous eucalyptus and pine trees is putting this nature reserve at risk.
A ‘wild’ Ring-Tail lemur mother enjoying a piece of pineapple in Berenty Reserve.
South for the Berenty Reserve
Berenty Reserve is a private nature reserve, home to various lemurs including Ring-tailed Lemur, chameleons and birds beside the Mandrake river. It’s in a semi-arid spiny forest in the Atsimo-Andrefana region of the far south of the country.
Also do not miss the elaborate carved and painted Mahafaly (ethnic group) tombs in the area and the extraordinary wind cut sandstone, funny friendly lemurs and wacky plants in Isalo National Park in the Ihorombe region.
West for Morondova
A small coastal town with airport if you don’t fancy a 9 to 12 hour drive drive, Morondova is a relatively relaxing place with few beggars, several decent beaches with small beach hotels and near to a couple of brilliant nature reserves as well as the famous ‘Avenue of Baobabs’ 45 minutes drive away, a grand line of ancient and magnificent specimens that are particularly spectacular at sunset.
Morondova’s just 50 kms south of the Kirindy Forest Reserve that is home to some stunning baobab trees, a huge number of small primates including 8 species of lemur, 60 species of exotic birds, and plenty of peculiar flora.
The newish Kirindy Mite National Park is about the same distance in the opposite direction, south of Morondova, offering the rare tourist a look at baobab forests, many lemur and bird species, beautiful lakes, sea beaches and offshore islands.
Then there’s the Tsingy de Bemaraha 200kms away, a bit of a hike but strewn with weird limestone pinnacles, 50 species of birds, varied lemurs, strange plants and more. 370mi west of Tana.
Nosy Kely near Morondova town is a good place to stay, with comfortable beachside chalets and good French food. Chez Maggie Hotel is well known, offers excellent tours in many languages and worked well for us, though there was a bit of excitement about a snake. Ours, not theirs, and in our defence it was not deadly (there are no deadly creatures in Madagascar, apparently), but it was quite big and coiled peacefully in the middle of the dining table.
North for Montagne d’Ambre National Park
The rain forest stuffed with the usual unusual species including the blue nose chameleon. No shortage of leeches either. Lots of hiking trails and two lovely waterfalls. It’s 500 miles north of Tana and cooler than the coast so you don’t need shorts.
Nosy Be island for expensive beach package hotels, Lokobe Nature Reserve and the usual beach activities plus Deep Sea Fishing.
Ile Ste Marie island (Nosy Boraha) for beach bungalows, coral and kayaking.
Superb, panoramic landscapes, though deforestation is an ever-present issue that is not being seriously addressed.
Many rural villages have neither electricity nor running water, roads are dirt poor and schools are fundamentally useless. The burning of forests to plant rice and manioc happens through ignorance and desperation and has been happening for many years, enough time to strip the island of thousands of hectares of unique plants and animals.
A recent president, Marc Ravalomanana, established a conservation plan to triple protected areas and give alternatives to slash-and-burn culture. Sadly he was ousted in a coup in 2009 and since then commitment to the island’s precious and fragile bio diversity seems to have disappeared down the river, along with the rosewood logs. More.
One of Nosy Be’s many beaches. Photo by Susi4.
Madagascar is embraced by hundreds of fine sand beaches but few are accessible to tourists. The most common are on the centre-west coast near Morondava, further up on the northwest coast and two little islands up north, Ile Ste Marie (east) and Nosy Be (west).
Nosy Be is the most popular tourist island 8 kms (5 miles) off the northwest coast offering a variety of superbly organised, attractive and expensive beach resort hotels, mostly all-inclusive and parked on fine, large beaches, a lot of volcanic lake craters, a 450m peak and some reasonable wildlife sightings in the Lokobe Reserve.
Apart from fooling around on the beach with traditional marine toys such as windsurfers, airbeds and snorkels, Nosy Be also offers brilliant scuba diving served by a couple of friendly and efficient dive centres as well as the obligatory forest walks spotting lemurs and chameleons.
Like the rest of Madagascar Nosy Be, meaning ‘big island’ in the Malagasy language, has a tropical climate that is most oppressive in summertime, December to February.
Most visitors reach Nosy Be by plane directly from Europe, including flights from London and Paris. Visas are issued at Nosy Be airport which is about 30 minutes drive from most hotels.
Ile Ste Marie (island), otherwise known as Nosy Boraha, caters to rather lower budget, more active visitors, with modest beach bungalows, brilliant coral snorkelling, diving, kayaking and whale watching (humbacks breed in the channel between Ste Marie and Madagascar, July to September).
The island is also famed as the base for celebrity pirates such as Captain Kidd, many of whom are buried in a pirate cemetery. Ste Marie climate is considerably wetter than that on Madagascar’s west coast.
Get there by plane from Antananarivo.
Antananarivo – Madagascar’s capital city – looking unusually attractive from this perspective.
When go to Madagascar?
The Best weather May-October (winter, dry season)
Worst: December-March (rains and storms)
This is a massive island with different climatic zones, ranging from an extremely dry southwest zone to often wet east zone so a lot depends on your target activities and areas.
A Malagasy bush taxi in default mode.
The easy answer is by plane, but of course it’s more costly than road transport, you see little and meet no one, so travelers with time and an adventurous attitude should consider car hire, buses (but destinations are limited ) or bush taxis (taxi-brousse). The last way is the toughest but cheapest, most interesting and the way to meet real Malagasy folk, especially when it breaks down. And it firms up the gluteus maximus too.
A Radiated tortoise frequently travels faster than a taxi-brousse.
• Check the current malaria situation. If need be prepare to take anti-malaria tablets, starting before the trip. The best are doxycycline and Malarone (atovaquon-proguanil). Mefloquine (Lariam) works well but can have unpleasant side effects such as psychosis. Our choice would be Malarone but it’s quite pricey. Don’t buy the pills cheap on the internet, they may well be fakes. A million people die from malaria every year around the world and millions more are yellow and sick for weeks. See our Malaria page.
• Leave valuables in the hotel safe and carry only small bills with you.
• Be especially wary in Antananarivo in the market area or transport hubs where pickpockets lurk.
• Don’t take walks in Tana at night.
• Beggars, particularly children who may just pester but older ones could step up to bag-snatching. Do NOT give them anything, whether it’s cash, a pen or sweets. Say firmly “Non, merci” or “Tsy misy (tsee meesh)” or even “Mandehana! (man-day-han)” (Go Away! ).
• Stray dogs, especially in packs, can be threatening. They usually back off if they see their target picking up a stone, but don’t hesitate to fling the largest rock you can find, aiming to damage. These animals are a pest and frequently aggressive.
• Don’t drink the tap water and beware of buying water bottles that have been refilled with the stuff! Check the cap is tight.
The ariary or possibly the French franc in extreme cases. Large towns mostly have ATMs that will provide ariary to Visa or Mastercard holders.
Free at the airport for up to 30 days if you have at least 6 months left in your passport.
A fishing fleet heading out from Madagascar’s west coast.