Travel & Tourism
The Mozambique Channel isn’t the only geological feature that separates Madagascar from Africa. With a natural environment that has evolved in relative isolation and a culture that’s influenced not only by neighboring African countries but also by India and Southeast Asia, this expansive island offers a singular, enjoyable experience to visitors.
The local cuisine, heavy on seafood and marked by French, Chinese, and Indian flavors, is delicious and not to be missed. Madagascar’s wildlife ranges from the rare (giant jumping rats) to the adorable (aye-ayes) and the bizarre (canopy chameleons). Tourists are rarely seen in the cities, which they often use only as jumping-off points from which to visit Madagascar’s world-renowned beaches and nature reserves. Madagascar’s cities nonetheless offer excellent shopping, topflight accommodations, gorgeous scenery, historic palaces and churches, and opportunities
to experience the country’s extraordinary culture through festivals and open-air markets.
What to Do in Madagascar
1. Diving: Madagascar has some of the world’s most pristine coral reefs, and you won’t have to deal with the seaweed of eastern Africa or the ubiquitous tourists of other diving destinations. The most popular destinations for diving are Nosy Be, in the northwest, and the beaches in the southwestern part of the country. Both areas have a broad spectrum of accommodations, ranging from small hostels to large seaside resorts, and equipment rentals are easy to come by.
2. Famadihana: Every seven years, families in the Malagasy highlands exhume the bodies of deceased relatives for Famadihana, a traditional festival involving dancing, food, drink, and contemplation. In Antsirabe, it is possible to arrange an invitation to one of those gatherings through a local tour agency; families who agree to this are generally quite welcoming to foreigners, and it makes for a poignant cultural experience.
3. Isalo National Park: Tourists often claim that Isalo National Park, situated among the grasslands of Madagascar’s southwestern region, evokes the American West. While the park’s jaw-dropping sandstone formations, hot springs, and vast plains certainly recall the films of John Ford, there’s plenty to remind you that you’re not in Kansas anymore. The Canyon of Monkeys and the sacred Sakalava tombs are perennial Isalo favorites.
4. Restaurant Tour: Perhaps the most universally appealing attraction in Madagascar is the country’s cuisine, considered by many to be unforgettable. Incorporating a broad variety of influences that evoke the Indian and Chinese roots of the Malagasy, the food here makes broad use of seafood, rice, vegetables, and other meats. It is not uncommon for high-end restaurants in Antananarivo and elsewhere to add a Malagasy twist to French specialties, using such spices as cloves, cardamom, and even the famed vanilla bean, treasured by chefs around the world.
5. Nosy Be and the Islands: Hands down, the best beaches to be found in Madagascar are along the northwestern island of Nosy Be, which is large enough that, with a little effort, you can avoid the crowds even in the high season. The island’s main city, Hell-ville (no, no, it’s not what you think; the town is named after Anne Chrétien Louis de Hell, a 19th-century French military officer), has several good resorts. It also has access to the island’s other sites, including an ylang-ylang perfume distillery that’s open to visitors, and the highland crater lakes. Several small islands can be reached by water (usually on small boats called pirogues) from Hell-ville, including Nosy Komba (Lemur Island), popular for its pleasant village, crafts, and luxurious accommodations, and Nosy Tanikely and Nosy Iranja, both of which offer superb snorkeling and diving.
6. Trekking in Central Madagascar: There’s a reason that, after Antananarivo and Nosy Be, this region is more frequented by tourists than any other in the country. Some of Madagascar’s best local art and crafts can be found here, and it is home to several of the country’s national parks, including Andringitra National Park. One of Madagascar’s most beautiful and diverse parks, Andringitra has trails and mountains that are appropriate for a broad range of skill levels in trekking and climbing; experienced climbers may want to attempt the Tsaronoro Massif, a sheer rock face that is considered one of the most challenging in the world. The park has well-appointed campgrounds with running water and rental facilities.
7. Antsirabe: Historically, Antsirabe was a popular vacation destination for French colonists and wealthy locals, who sought out its temperate summer climate and spas. Today, this highland city is famous for the workmanship of its arts and crafts; it also provides access to camping at the beautiful Lac Tritiva, which is rumored to rise mysteriously in the dry season and fall during the rainy season.
8. The Vanilla Coast: Madagascar exports enormous amounts of vanilla, and the aroma hangs in the air all along the country’s eastern coast. The tourist infrastructure here is less developed, but adventurous trekkers should know it’s a fairly untouched destination. Mananara Nord National Park, though lacking the facilities of parks in central and southern Madagascar, is a pleasant place to visit; it affords access to watching aye-aye (a kind of lemur) on Aye-Aye Island, as well as Nosy Atafana, which has excellent snorkeling and the country’s only remaining coastal forest.
9. Lemur Watching: Madagascar is the only place where lemurs exist in the wild, and even if you don’t think you’re an “animal person,” these adorable, large-eyed primates are bound to impress you. The best places to spot them are Montagne d’Ambre National Park, Ankarana Special Reserve, and Berenty Reserve.
10. Rain Forest Helicoptering: It may require a splurge, but a helicopter tour provides a unique view of Madagascar’s rain forests, mountains, and coral reefs. Helicopters leave from Antananarivo and Nosy Be.
11. Avenue of the Baobabs: The dirt road linking Morondava and Belo Tsiribihina in Madagascar is framed by dozens of rare and ancient baobab trees creating a setting so beautiful and unique that it may become the country’s first official natural monument. These giant, dry season-deciduous trees (members of the Mallow family), many of which are more than 800 years old with trunks that are over 150 feet.
12. Tsarabanjina: This a small island located off the northwest coast of Madagascar. It’s a great place for those looking for an escape or a honeymoon spot. It received a small amount of fame in 1994 when BBC Reality TV programme Girl Friday featured Joanna Lumley spending 10 days on the island and living firstly on an A Frame bed, and then in a cave “The Albert Hall”.
13. Whale Migration: Watch The Whale Migration Around Baie D’antogil. This bay plays a crucial role each year to the humpback whales as they make their yearly migration that takes place from the months of June through to September.
14. Dhow Sailing: Nosy Be is one of the main islands in northern Madagascar that provides a unique sailing experience. During the sailing journey, visitors can participate in various activities such as snorkelling, a marine reserve tour and fishing.
15. Zoma Market: Did you know that Zoma Market is the second largest market in the world? Join the locals and blend in through the central plaza and adjoining alley ways to experience the magic of this amazing open-air market.
When to Go
The best time to visit Madagascar is in late spring (April through May) and early autumn (September through October). The southwestern and coastal areas can get quite hot during the summer, and at that time of year throngs of European tourists crowd the island. Madagascar’s rainy season, between January and March, renders many roads impassable, and from June through August the northeast is vulnerable to cyclones, some of which obliterated the country’s vanilla crop in 2003.
Although most of Madagascar has a pleasant, equatorial climate, keep in mind that highland locations such as Antsirabe can get quite cold at night, even in the summer. Dress appropriately.
Getting In and Around
Visas: You must have a passport (valid for at least six months) and a visa to enter Madagascar. Visas can be purchased at the airport, but if you plan on extending your visa, you will need to get one through the Malagasy embassy in your country before departure. If you are staying for fewer than 30 days, the visa is free.
Transportation: Most international flights will arrive at Ivato International Airport in Antananarivo. First-time visitors are often surprised by Madagascar’s size; on the world’s fourth-largest island, getting around can be time-consuming. Fortunately, the country offers several transportation options, of varying cost and quality. The most convenient way to get around the island is via Air Madagascar, which boasts reliability and quality—for a price. Most flights leave from Antananarivo. If you are taking domestic flights, call your airline beforehand to confirm departure times, as they are subject to change. If you’re looking to travel like a local, consider a taxi-brousse (bush taxi), a pousse-pousse (rickshaw), or a regular taxi, all of which are cheap and abundant but should be used only during the day.
Safety and Security
Concerned about your safety as you plan travel to Madagascar? 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 Madagascar:
Africa.com comment: Very timely and frequently updated. Perspective assumes that you ARE going to travel to Madagascar, and seeks to give you good guidance so that you understand the risks and are well informed.
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 Madagascar ranks relative to the other 54 nations in Africa.
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 Madagascar.
1. Malagasy is the official language of Madagascar, as well as the term for the people who call the country their home. French is also used extensively, for example on public signs and in restaurants. In urban areas, English is widely spoken.
2. Madagascar switched its currency from the Malagasy franc to the ariary in 2006. Old Malagasy francs can still be used, although you won’t see many in the major cities. Ariary can be withdrawn from ATMs in the cities via Visa or MasterCard. Do not rely on credit cards and traveler’s checks; most merchants accept only cash.
3. Tap water is not safe to drink, but if you are in a rural area and run out of bottled water, see whether you can purchase ranomapango , or “rice water.” That is water that has been used for cooking rice and will have been boiled. It is cheap and safer than water in bottles, which rural vendors sometimes fill with tap water.
4. Internet cafés are easy to find in Antananarivo, the capital city, and public Internet access is available in most other cities. Although FM radio and the Internet have allowed a somewhat substantial independent press to form, all the major newspapers and television stations are owned by the state. There are no English-language newspapers; La Gazette de la Grande Île is published in French.
5. Madagascar’s rain forests and wildlife are among its primary attractions. Whether you want to hike, raft, bike, or drive through the country’s stunning reserves and natural parks, it’s best to do so with a guide. The most reliable ones can be booked through travel agencies that cater to Westerners and are well worth the higher price. A list of agencies that specialize in outdoor travel in Madagascar can be found at Eco Tour Directory.