|Antananarivo Province (Antananarivo, Antsirabe)
The capital is the arrival point for many visitors, and the hub of both the domestic airline and land transport routes. Outside of the capital are small towns known for their craft workshops, as well as small reserves that are home to lemurs.
|Antsiranana Province (Antsiranana, Masoala National Park, Nosy Be)
Home to the beautiful tropical island of Nosy Be, as well its surrounding sub-islands, this region is where most travellers go for upscale resorts and pristine beaches, and is one of the most popular destinations in the entire country.
|Fianarantsoa Province (Fianarantsoa, Ambositra, Ambalavao, Andringitra National Park, Ranomafana National Park)
The area south of the capital is home to rain forests and mountains, and relatively accessible via RN7.
|Mahajanga Province (Mahajanga, Tsingy de Bemaraha Reserve)
Mahajanga is home to impressive wetlands and some hidden resorts that can be reached only by private plane or boat.
|Toamasina Province (Toamasina, Vatomandry, Ile aux Nattes, Andasibe-Mantadia National Park)
This province is home to Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, where the Indri lemurs sing, as well as some less-visited destinations along the eastern coast.
|Toliara Province (Toliara, Anakao, Isalo National Park)
The southern portion of the country is the land of the spiny forest, with hot and dry conditions leading to an environment of harsh vegetation that is nevertheless home to a vast array of lemurs, lizards, birds and insects.
- Antananarivo- the capital and usually called Tana by locals.
- Taolagnaro (also commonly known as Fort Dauphin)
- Toliara (also commonly known as Tulear)
- Andasibe-Mantadia National Park
- Andringitra National Park
- Ile aux Nattes
- Isalo National Park
- Masoala National Park
- Nosy Be
- Ranomafana National Park
- Tsingy de Bemaraha Reserve
Despite its proximity to Africa, language and DNA studies show that the people of Madagascar originally arrived from Borneo and Polynesia between 350 BC and 550 AD. Later, in 1000 AD, migrants crossed the Mozambique Channel and arrived from East Africa, and were followed by Arabs, Indians, and Chinese immigrants. The Malagasy way of thinking, as well as their appearance and fashion style, is a mixture of cultures.
Madagascar is part of the African Union, but was suspended from the organization from 2009-2013. There was political turmoil in Madagascar in 2002 and again between 2009 and 2010, which led to a decrease in tourism, but the situation was resolved to the satisfaction of the international community with the adoption of a new constitution in 2010 and presidential elections in 2013 that were judged to be free and fair. Any continuing political issues seem likely to be debated peacefully with words and not coups or other drastic actions, for the foreseeable future.
Geographically, Madagascar split from India approximately 88 million years ago, and as a result of its long isolation it is home to a massive number of unique plant and animal species, with over 90 % of its wildlife and 80 % of its plants found nowhere else on the planet. Due to its uniqueness some ecologists refer to it as the "eighth continent".
Madagascar is home to nearly 15,000 plant species, with highlights including the massive and ancient baobab trees, the unique spiny forests of the south, over 800 species of orchids, and the dwindling rain forests. Human activity, particularly the fires used for agricultural purposes, have damaged the environment, and since the arrival of humans approximately 90 % of the island's original forest has disappeared.
Animal life on the island is equally impressive, in particular the more than 100 species of lemurs, nearly all of which are rare or threatened. The island is home to over 300 species of birds, approximately 260 species of reptiles, and a massive number of amphibians and insects.
The eastern, or windward side of the island is home to tropical rainforests, while the western and southern sides, which lie in the rain shadow of the central highlands, are home to tropical dry forests, thorn forests, and deserts and xeric shrublands. Madagascar's dry deciduous rain forest has been preserved generally better than the eastern rainforests or the high central plateau, presumably due to historically low population densities.
The climate is tropical along the coast, temperate inland, and arid in the south. The weather is dominated by the southeastern trade winds that originate in the Indian Ocean anticyclone, a centre of high atmospheric pressure that seasonally changes its position over the ocean. Madagascar has two seasons: a hot, rainy season from November to April; and a cooler, dry season from May to October. There is great variation in climate owing to elevation and position relative to dominant winds. The east coast has a sub-equatorial climate and, being most directly exposed to the trade winds, has the heaviest rainfall, averaging as much as 3,500 mm (137.8 in) annually. This region is notorious not only for a hot, humid climate in which tropical fevers are endemic but also for the destructive cyclones that occur during the rainy season, coming in principally from the direction of the Mascarene Islands. Because rain clouds discharge much of their moisture east of the highest elevations on the island, the central highlands are appreciably drier and, owing to the altitude, also cooler. Thunderstorms are common during the rainy season in the central highlands, and lightning is a serious hazard.
Antananarivo receives practically all of its average annual 1,400mm (55.1 in) of rainfall between November and April. The dry season is pleasant and sunny, although somewhat chilly, especially in the mornings. Although frosts are rare in Antananarivo, they are common at higher elevations.
Visitors from many countries can obtain a Madagascar Tourist visa upon arrival in Madagascar (information accurate as of February 2016). For longer stays visa on arrival of up to 60 days is 45 Euro. and for 90 days is 60 Euro. A return ticket must be shown with the address of your first night stay.
Prior to your trip, you should ensure that your routine vaccinations are up-to-date; these include polio, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, MMR and typhoid (check with your doctor). If you are travelling through a country where yellow fever is present then you will be required to show proof of vaccination for yellow fever before you will be allowed entry into Madagascar.
International flights to Madagascar generally either go to Antananarivo (IATA: TNR) or Nosy Be (IATA: NOS). Air Madagascar ("AirMad") is the national carrier and offers flights from Johannesburg, Paris, Marseille, Bangkok, Guangzhou, Other airlines servicing Madagascar:
- AirLink provides daily flights to Johannesburg,
- Air France or Corsair offer flights to and from Europe via Paris
- Air Austral (French) runs flights to Madagascar form Paris. Flights often transfer on Reunion Island.
- Air Mauritius. to and from Europe via Mauritius.
- Kenya airways operates regular service to and from Europe and africa via Nairobi .
- Air Seychelles from Europe via Mahe.
- Comores Aviation from Moroni.
- Turkish airlines from Istanbul
Air Madagascar serves numerous destinations throughout the country, and provides a much faster option than driving given the poor state of many roads. Be warned that Air Madagascar is notorious for changing flight schedules and cancelling flights. While the airline will provide you with a hotel and book you on the next available flight in the case of a cancellation, beware of booking tight connections and always confirm your flight time the night before.
Passengers who arrive in Madagascar on a long-haul flight with Air Madagascar can get reductions of around 25% on the company's internal flights - call and ask about this discount when booking your domestic flights.
As of 2014 it seems like there's no service connecting Antananarivo. Check madarail for more accurate information.
There are four rail lines in Madagascar :
- Antananarivo-Ambatondrazaka via Moramanga, you can get on the train between Moramanga and Ambatondrazaka.
- Fianarantsoa-Manakara three times a week for both directions.
- Antananarivo-Toamasina: people can travel between Moramanga and Tomasina approximately twice a week.
With the Malagasy railway network dating from the colonial period, breakdowns are frequent due to poor maintenance, and a line may be closed for several weeks.
The train is not the fastest and most comfortable means of travel, but it lets you admire the magnificent landscapes (especially on the line connecting Fianarantsoa to Manakara) and discover the Malagasy fruits and dishes offered at every stop. You can taste what is in season at little cost: crayfish, bananas, cinnamon apples, sambos, zebu sausages, oranges...
Travelling by train is cheap (1st class from Fianarantsoa to Manakara only MGA25,000 (less than €10)). You want to choose a 1st class seat; or get up very early if you want to be sure to get a 2nd class ticket since it is always extremely crowded (the train is the only mean of transport for many villagers) and no booking is possible in 2nd class. Unfortunately, the train that runs between Manakara and Fianarantsoa has become less reliable lately (early 2007) due to poor conditions of the tracks.
For short trips, you might be able to board a goods train. Just ask the driver but make sure you get off the train before entering the big cities since this way to travel is not totally legal.
Madagascar's roads are almost all of very low grade (with the exception of 2 routes leading out of Tana). Many roads are studded with potholes and are quagmires in the rainy season. Be warned that travel by road will almost always take much more time than you would normally expect. Hire of a 4WD vehicle can reduce this problem but the cost will be higher but still very cost effective if you are not traveling alone and able to split the rental fee between the members of your group (at least USD70/day/car, updated October 2014). In nearly all cases a car rental will include the cost of a driver and his accommodation, but verify when booking your rental; most companies will not rent a car without a driver, and in many cases the driver can act as your guide and translator as well.
This is the way most natives travel around the country. There are three major modern roads in the country: RN7 from Tana to Toliara, RN2 from Tana to Tomasina (via Brickaville) and RN4 from Tana to Mahajanga. Trips between those towns take about a day whereas traveling between Tana and Taolagnaro, a south-eastern coastal town, would take about 3 or 4 days due to the condition of the road. Travel is cramped and don't expect air conditioning. Expect dust to be a problem in the dry season. Travel by Taxi-Brousse is guaranteed to test one's patience and sanity, but there is quite possibly no better way to meet and interact with the locals and experience Madagascar as the Malagasy do.
Taxi-brousse is by far the cheapest way to travel, but do not expect to leave or arrive on time. Indeed, the drivers wait for their 15 seats small buses to get full before leaving, therefore a few hours delay is never excluded. However, during the trip it allows you to admire the breathtaking landscapes Madagascar holds. Destinations to most national parks and towns can be reached from "Antananarivo", drivers will happily drop you off en route to their final destination.
In Tana, the cheapest way to get around is by taxi-be, or big taxi, which is a bit larger than a mini-van. There is one aisle with seats to fold down so they can cram in even more people. During peak season, buses run frequently.
If you are looking for an unusual holiday, a yacht charter to Madagascar might be a good choice.
For those who would like to bareboat, a “guide” is usually included in the price of the yacht charter. Although obligatory, he comes with the price and is essential for the multitude of services he will provide. He will prepare the food, recommend anchorages, know where to fish and refill the water tanks. He will speak the local language and have an established relationship with the local people. He will protect the boat from theft when you leave it to explore on land. The guide lives completely on the exterior of the boat and does not require a cabin. A yacht charter to Madagascar is a bit of a “Robinson Crusoe” adventure. Once you embark, you will not be able to stock up provisions again and must live off the fish and seafood you will catch for yourself (or with your guide). So take great care with your provisioning list.
This problem can be avoided by chartering one of the crewed catamarans. The boats are designed for stability so sea sickness is not really a problem. The crew prepare the boat with linen, food and drinks before your arrival -basically these boats are like a personal floating hotel. Depending on which boat you choose you could receive excellent service and food and suggestions of where to go and what to do. Choose your catamaran carefully as there are some really old ones in service- make sure the crew can speak your language.
Madagascar is a great place to tour by bike and staying in small towns and villages along the way gives a real sense of what the country is all about. A mountain bike or heavy duty tourer at least is required as the roads can be in poor to terrible condition. In the rainy season on the East coast the main North-south road can become impassable, possibly leading to a two day walk - over soft sand in one section - this is not an easily rideable route. Generally there is little to no traffic which makes cruising around a great pleasure. The people are amazingly friendly and you'll be greeted with crowds of children shouting 'Vazaha' in every village.
There are few or no facilities for cyclists, so be prepared to camp rough (ask if it is somebody's land and never too near a family grave) or sleep in very basic guesthouses. Likely you will be invited to stay in people's houses. Bring a spare tire, puncture kit, chain, brake/gear cable, derailleur and all the tools you need.
The entire island speaks one language: Malagasy, an Austronesian language. "Malagasy" also refers to both the language and the people of the island. Because the island is so large there are many different dialects. The Merina dialect is the "Official Malagasy" of the island and is spoken around highlands of Antananarivo. Most Malagasy, however, speak Merina across the island. Attempts by foreigners to learn and speak Malagasy are liked and encouraged by the Malagasy people. Today, Malagasy is the daily language spoken by 98% of the population in Madagascar, and since 1972, Malagasy has been used as the language of instruction in some schools. As an Austronesian language, Malagasy is more closely related to languages spoken in maritime Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands than to other African languages.
French is the second official language of Madagascar, and most individuals encountered in parks and other touristy areas will speak fluent French; speaking some French will make any trip to Madagascar much easier. English is increasingly common and most parks will have at least a few English-speaking guides. Italian, German, Spanish and Japanese are understood to a lesser extent in areas where tourists are likely to visit.
Some basic Malagasy vocabulary that will help relate to the Malagasy people (However please note there are many different regional versions of the Malagasy language across the country) :
Malagasy pronunciation treats vowels as if they were French, and consonants as if they were English.
- Tsingy de Bemaraha is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is Madagascar's largest reserve (152,000 hectares). The fascinating raised limestone plateau is decorated with a frail, chaotic razor-sharp collection of pinnacles, the “Tsingy”, also called the Labyrinth of Stone. Areas of deciduous forest also provide the chance to see brown lemurs, a variety of bird life and the rare all white Decken’s sifaka. The great variety of flora includes: aloes, orchids, numerous pachypodium and baobabs. The deciduous forest is home to over 50 species of birds; 7 species of lemurs (including the all-white Deckens sifaka) and the rare stump-tailed chameleon (Brookesia perarmata). The site of Bemaraha is managed under special UNESCO and access is restricted and the areas you are allowed to visit vary from time to time. Located approximately 180 km north of Morondava.
- Avenue of the Baobabs is an extraordinary stand of huge baobab trees. Located 45 minutes north of Morondava on Madagascar's west coast it is one of the most visited sites in the Menabe Region. A candidate as one of the 7 Wonders of Africa; efforts are underway to protect this unique grove of more than a dozen trees. Some of the trees, Adansonia grandidieri, are over 800 years old and reach a height of 30+ metres. A photographer's paradise, and especially beautiful at sunset.
Most people visiting Madagascar do so for the wildlife, and there are a number of national parks and private reserves scattered throughout the country. Some are easier to reach than others - the dual Andasibe-Mantadia National Park area is just a few hours from the capital via a paved road, while other parks require days of driving and trekking to explore.
Scuba diving and snorkeling is exceptional in Nosy Be, and is also possible in other areas like Toliara. Be aware that the nearest hyperbaric chamber lies across the Mozambique Channel, and that outside of Nosy Be scuba equipment may not be up to expected standards, so exercise caution and be careful to minimize risks when diving. The condition of corals varies from pristine at Nosy Tanikely to completely destroyed elsewhere, and depending on time of year the visibility may exceed thirty metres, or may be reduced to zero by the outflow from rivers, which, due erosion caused by deforestation, can turn the ocean brown. In the far north near Diego kitesurfing and windsurfing are exceptional between April and November when a constant 30 knot wind makes the area one of the best surfing spots in the southern hemisphere. Kayaking and deep sea fishing are always rewarding water activities.
The UNESCO World Heritage site Rainforests of the Atsinanana is made up of six national parks along the eastern coast of Madagascar; Marojejy National Park, Masoala National Park, Zahamena National Park, Ranomafana National Park, Andringitra National Park and Andohahela National Park.
Local money is the Malagasy ariary (MGA) subdivided into 5 iraimbilanja, one of only two non-decimal currencies (the other is the Mauritanian ouguiya). In September 2014, €1 = MGA3,327 and the exchange rate has been rather stable for a few years.
Credit cards are not widely accepted outside of Antananrivo and Nosy Be, and Visa is often the only card that will be accepted when payment by credit card is an option. Prices for hotels and other services used by travellers will generally be quoted in euros, but expect to make payment in the local currency. You can withdraw money from ATMs in the cities, using a Visa or Visa Electron card. MasterCard can be used with ATMs of the BNI bank.
Vanilla and other spices are cheap in Madagascar compared to Europe or elsewhere, and the quality (especially of vanilla) is very good. (Vanilla is about €2 for 10 pods in Mada, compared to €15 in France.)
Tipping is a matter of much confusion in Madagascar, and is made more confusing because expectations are different when the customer is a foreigner instead of a local. In restaurants and bars you should leave a tip equivalent to ten percent of the total bill, but be aware that locals will generally leave far less. If someone helps you with your bags consider a tip equivalent to $1 per bag. In taxis, rounding the bill upwards is more than sufficient. If you have a private vehicle with a driver, tipping the equivalent of $10-$13 per day is considered extremely generous, while $5-$10 per day is normal for standard service. A good tip for a park guide is approximately $7-$10 per day. Individuals who clean hotel rooms are sometimes not given a salary, so consider leaving a few dollars in the room when you depart (many hotels will have a tip box in the lobby that can also be used to tip the entire staff). When in doubt about how much to tip, consider that even a doctor or university teacher may be making less than 200,000 Ar per month, and remember that in remote areas your tip may set expectations for travelers who follow you, some of whom may be researchers or aid workers with limited funds available. (information accurate as of October 2014)
The cheapest way to get a meal is to eat at a "hotely". A plate of rice, laoka (malagasy for a side dish accompanying rice) like chicken, beans or pork, and rice water costs about MGA1300. For MGA200 extra you can get a small glass of homemade yoghurt.
Bananas (hundreds of varieties) and rice cakes (Malagasy 'bread') are staple 'street food' and available everywhere. Coffee is very good, usually hand-made by the cup and served very sweet with condensed milk.
Steak-frites is available in restaurants in the larger towns.
Supermarkets - In Tana there is a supermarket chain called Jumbo Score. This Western style supermarket is well stocked with but the expensive prices reflect the need to import just about everything. There are many Casino (a French Supermarket) branded goods but also some more local produce (veg, spices etc., far cheaper from any the street markets). Shoprite is a slightly cheaper but usually smaller alternative.
There is no safe tap water so be prepared with bottled water, which is usually easily obtainable. The only other option is ranon'apango (RAN-oo-na-PANG-oo) or rice water (water used to cook rice, which will therefore have been boiled). It's particularly important to plan ahead if visiting rural areas. It is worth taking with you some chlorine tablets, which can be used to make the local water drinkable.
In towns, roadside drink stands, stores and bars are plentiful. Most sell a range of drinks including bottled water, Fanta, Coca Cola and Madagascar's beer, Three Horses Beer ("THB"). You can also try the bubblegum flavoured 'Bonbon Anglais', which is to South American Inka Cola, although it may be sold as 'limonade' - leading you to think it may be lemonade.
Home brewed rum, and creme de coco, is also available in many flavours.
Lodging quality varies dramatically throughout the country, from bug-infested mattresses in dorm style rooms to luxury five star resorts. In most places room prices will be quoted per room, although many luxury resorts quote prices per person. Insect nets and private bathrooms are provided in nearly all of the more upscale lodging, although in lower-quality establishments you may need to provide your own bug net and bedding.
Learn some Malagasy. The single best thing you can do to have a fun and safe trip is to speak the local language. There are a number of guidebooks you can buy to learn Malagasy, or alternatively you can ask someone to teach you. Just a few words will make all the difference.
Madagascar is a fairly safe country. You must, however, respect some simple principles:
- Don't walk around at night in Antananarivo (other cities are pretty safe).
- Don't exhibit signs of wealth (cameras, jewels, ...).
- Similarly, always carry small notes. Paying with large domination notes shows off your wealth, can insult the seller because they will not have change, and opens you up for becoming a target for crime.
- Keep an eye on your belongings when using public transport or visiting markets where numerous pickpockets swarm.
- Learn the Malagasy word for thief, "Mpangalatra" which is pronounced "Pun-gul-ah-tra". If someone is trying to rob you in a busy market area scream this. The fact that a vazaha is screaming thief will unsettle the thief as well as alert the people near you to help.
- Always listen for the words "vazaha" or "vazongo" when spoken in low tones. If you hear these words be aware that someone is talking about you, for better or for worse!
It should also be noted that, like any other developing country, the presence of beggars never goes unnoticed. This is sometimes uncomfortable for tourists, but these people should be respected none-the-less. They are, predictably, attracted to foreigners and will not hesitate to ask for a hand out. If you don't want to be bothered, a simple "Non, merci" or "Tsy Misy (tsee-meesh)" (I have nothing) will do the trick. If they persist, try shouting "Mandehana! (man-day-han)" (Go Away!). It is recommended not to give money, but other useful items, such as a banana, a piece of bread, etc. It is usually accepted with gratitude, and if the beggar is a child, he will run away with a smile on his face. It is imperative not to encourage begging - in Madagascar the people do not really believe in getting something for nothing and will invariably offer you something first. For example a chameleon to photograph.
Caution: The Australian government has now listed Madagascar under the category of "Exercise a high degree of caution". Be aware as the political situation develops, it has been placed under "Reconsider your need to travel" in the recent past.
Visitors to Madagascar should be aware of a vast number of health concerns. Diseases such as the plague, which are almost unheard of elsewhere, still occur in Madagascar. Drinking water is almost never safe for foreigners; treated or bottled water should always be used, and salads or dishes containing unpeeled fruits or vegetables should be avoided. While the AIDS epidemic has not reached the devastating level found in many southern African countries, it is widely assumed that the incidence of AIDS is underestimated and rising, so you should take no risks and avoid unprotected sex in all cases. When swimming, beware of the possibility of human waste in the water, which can cause cholera, typhoid, and a number of other diseases. Leeches and tropical parasites are also a concern.
Research malaria prophylaxis options, and follow through. If you are not taking any prophylactics, be sure to always use a mosquito net for sleeping, and apply mosquito repellents once dusk sets in. On-skin repellent (only repellents containing ~40% DEET are effective, such as NoBite, Azeron Before Tropics etc.) is good but should be used in combination with on-clothes repellent (i.e. NoBite). The clothes repellent is odorless approximately an hour after application, and clothes can be washed up to 4 times before it needs to be re-applied. If you wear long-sleeve clothing treated with the repellent and apply on-skin repellent to the skin parts not covered, you will be very safe against mosquito bites and can skip the prophylaxis with its notorious side effects. Be sure to take the repellent issue seriously, though, as it's very easy to fall into a more 'relaxed' mode after you've spent some time in the country.
Areas inhabited by humans will invariably have large populations of stray dogs. Avoid stray dogs, and although bites are rare, if bitten seek medical assistance promptly as rabies is not unheard of.
Remember that Madagascar is in the tropics and take precautions against sunburn and heat exhaustion seriously. Wear lots of sunscreen and keep hydrated. Remember that a cloudy day does not mean you won't get burnt.
Everyday life in Madagascar is regulated by numerous fady (taboos) which vary from one region to another. They can forbid foods (pork, lemur, turtle... ), wearing clothes of a particular colour, bathing in a river or a lake. Observance of "Fady" is mostly limited to rural areas, as tourists will most likely not encounter this problem if they stay in the main towns. However, there are Fadys in places such as Antananarivo but most Vazaha are exempt.
Fady are attributed to ancestors, to whom Malagasy adopt a respectful attitude whatever their religion. It is safest to respect these prohibitions and not violate them, even if you feel they don't make sense. Inform yourself about local fady when you arrive in a new place.
When addressing anyone older than you or in a position of authority (e.g. police, military, customs officials), use the word "tompoko (toom-pook)" the same way you would use "Sir" or "Ma'am" in English. Respect for elders and authority figures is important in Madagascar.
Do not ever take photos of a tomb without permission. Always ask permission before taking photos. Also, if you go to a remote village or hamlet it is fomba or tradition that you first meet with the head of the village if you have business in the village. Meeting this person can save you a lot of time if you have work to do there.