The fourth-largest island in the world was created more than 125 million years ago when a piece of the African mainland broke away and drifted into the Indian Ocean. Isolated from the mainland, this tropical Eden known as Madagascar, evolved into a safe haven for some of the most unusual life forms on earth - a zoologist’s dream island teeming with chameleons, mongoose and lemurs and an apothecary’s laboratory with precious medicinal plants and herbs.
Relatively undiscovered until a few decades ago by tourists, the ‘Great Red Island’ of Madagascar has seen an increase in tourist traffic with travellers discovering and appreciating the unique delight of virgin rain-forests, pristine beaches, warm blue waters of the Indian Ocean, sandy deserts and an astonishing array of unusual wildlife and truly impressive flora.
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MADAGASCAR QUICK FACTS
- Capital: Antananarivo
- Currency: ariary (MGA)
- Area: total: 587,040 km²
- Population: 26,26 million (2018)
- Language: Malagasy (national & official) French (official)
- Religion: Indigenous beliefs 52%, Christian 41%, Muslim 7%
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MADAGASCAR PUBLIC HOLIDAYS
- 8 March, Women’s Day
- 29 March, Martyrs’ Day
- 1 May, Labor Day
- 26 June, Independence Day
- 15 August, Assumption
- 14 October, First Republic Proclamation Day
- 1 November, All Saints’ Day
- 11 December, Fourth Republic Day
- 25 December, Christmas Day
Also, the Christian holidays of Easter, Easter Monday, Ascension, Whit Sunday, and Whit Monday.
BEST TIME TO VISIT MADAGASCAR
In Madagascar, two seasons are recognised: a hot, rainy season from November to April and a cooler, dry season from May to October. The west coast of the country is generally drier and is subject to significant coastal erosion. The southwest and the extreme south are semi-desert environments, receiving less than 800 mm of rainfall annually. The average annual temperatures vary between 23°C and 27°C along the coast and between 16°C and 19°C in the central mountains.
The dry season (May – October) is considered the best time to visit Madagascar. Madagascar's dry season falls in the winter months, however, the island's winter season is not to be mistaken for gloom and cold. Winter on the island signifies the end of the rainfall and humidity, and it welcomes cooler temperatures.
- High Season (Jul & Aug) - It’s winter – balmy temperatures by day and cool nights (cold in the highlands).
- Shoulder Season (Apr–Jun, Sep–Dec) - The best time to go: warm temperatures and fewer visitors.
- Low Season (Jan–Mar) - Cyclone season on the east coast; rainy season everywhere.
SPORT & ACTIVITIES
HIKING & CYCLING IN MADAGASCAR
The best time for outdoor activities in Madagascar is from April to November. December to March can be very wet and is also the cyclone season.
BEACH OPTIONS IN MADAGASCAR
Madagascar has plenty of stunning beaches and no matter the time of the year, the weather should be good somewhere. February is the peak cyclone season, so you might want to avoid that. The best time to visit the beaches is from September to December.
SURFING IN MADAGASCAR
You can enjoy excellent surf somewhere in Madagascar all year round. The best time for consistent bigger swell is from March to November, but you'll find good smaller waves from December to April too.
KITESURF IN MADAGASCAR
Madagascar has great wind for wind and kitesurfing from March to November with the most consistent winds found from June to September. The most popular spots for kitesurfing are Sakalava, Babaomby and Anakao.
For more details on kite surfing in Madagascar expand this section!
HEALTH RISKS IN MADAGASCAR
Be aware of possible health risks in
Malaria - Malaria is a serious and sometimes fatal disease caused by a parasite that commonly infects a certain type of mosquito which feeds on humans. People who get malaria are typically very sick with high fevers, shaking chills, and flu-like illness. Although malaria can be a deadly disease, illness and death from malaria can usually be prevented.
MADAGASCAR TRAVEL COSTS
Here are some of the best ways to save money during your trip to Madagascar:
- Travel during the shoulder seasons - If a cheaper flight and more affordable accommodation is what you’re after, aim to visit Madagascar during the shoulder seasons, that are from April to June and from September to November. During these months rainfall is also at its lowest.
- Stay in guesthouses or B&Bs - In the capital, Antananarivo, you should expect to pay between US$ 10 – US$25 per night as a budget traveller. At that rate, it would be best to aim for a standalone guesthouse or bed and breakfast, rather than a hotel. For that price, you can expect to rent a double or twin room with a private external bathroom with one meal included. Staying in Antananarivo will also prove more cost-effective than staying elsewhere, due to its proximity to most of the major tourist sites.
- Dine in or out on the cheap - One way of keeping your dining costs really low is to buy ingredients at the local markets and prepare your own food – provided that you’re staying in self-catering accommodation. Alternatively, takeaways are really cheap in Madagascar and you can pick up some great local cuisine for next to nothing. If you’re longing for a taste of home, you won’t have to go very far. Madagascar has its fair share of global cuisine from American style hot dogs and hamburgers to Korean food. Good restaurants are everywhere.
- Explore Madagascar’s many budget attractions - Madagascar offers its fair share of tourist sites and activities, whether you’re interested in the history of the island, local culture or its natural sites. Plus, many of them are incredibly budget friendly. It won’t cost you a dime to visit one of Madagascar’s beautiful beaches.
MADAGASCAR TRAVEL TIPS
Madagascar is a huge place, the roads are bad and travel times long (it takes 24 hours to drive from Tana to Diego Suarez, 18 hours to Tuléar etc), so be realistic about how much ground you want to cover or you’ll spend every other day in the confines of a vehicle
- Private vehicle - If you can afford it, this is the best way to explore Madagascar. You'll be able to go anywhere, whenever suits you. The off-road driving can be great fun too. Due to the often-difficult driving conditions, most rental agencies make hiring a driver compulsory with their vehicles.
- Taxi-brousse (bush taxi) - They are slow, uncomfortable and not always safe, but they are cheap, go (almost) everywhere and you can't get more local than that. Despite the general appearance of anarchy, the taxi-brousse system is actually relatively well organised. Drivers and vehicles belong to transport companies called coopératives (cooperatives). Coopératives generally have a booth or an agent at the taxi-brousse station (called gare routière or parcage), where you can book your ticket. Although the going can be slow, taxis-brousses stop regularly for toilet breaks, leg stretching and meals (at hotelys along the road).
- Plane - Can be huge time savers, but they can be expensive and subject to frequent delays and cancellations. Certain routes, such as Morondava–Tuléar (Toliara) during the high season (May to September) and all flights to/from Sambava during the vanilla season (June to October), are often fully booked months in advance.
SIGHTS & HIGHLIGHTS OF MADAGASCAR
- Parc National de l'Isalo - Take a dip in natural swimming pools after a day's trek.
- Nosy Be - Snorkel and dive to your heart's content.
- Anakao - Snorkel, dive and paddle at Madagascar's Great Reef.
- Tropical Haute Cuisine - Sample a divine strand of fusion cuisine in Antananarivo.
The capital of Antananarivo is all about eating, shopping, history and day trips. The town centre itself, with its pollution and dreadful traffic, puts off many travellers from staying, but bypassing the capital altogether would be a mistake: Tana has been the home of Malagasy power for three centuries and there is a huge amount of history and culture to discover, as well as some unexpected wildlife options. Central Antananarivo is relatively compact, which means that it is easily explored on foot. The catch is that it's hilly, with plenty of stairs. The Haute-Ville, with its numerous old buildings, is a great place to explore. Don't linger on Ave de l'Indépendance in the Basse-Ville, however; pickpockets are rife.
The classic tourist route from Antananarivo takes you south along the RN7 through central Madagascar, a high plateau stretching all the way to Fianarantsoa. You’ll twist and turn through these highlands, a region of scenic hills and rice paddies that resists generalisation. Here you’ll find a potpourri of travellers' delights: bustling market towns clogged with colourful pousse-pousse (rickshaws); a distinctive architecture of two-storey mudbrick homes; a mountain stronghold of lemurs, the legacy of French colonialism; national parks with landscapes ranging from thick jungle to wide-open grandeur; and some of the best hiking Madagascar has to offer.
Antsirabe is best-known for its thermal springs. The city emerged as a spa town in the late 1800s when Norwegian missionaries built a health retreat here (still in use to this day). French colonists then turned it into a chic getaway from nearby Tana, hence the numerous turn-of-the-century villas and the broad tree-lined avenues so typical of French cities. Much of this colonial heritage is fading now, nut the city itself is full of life.
Fianarantsoa, or Fianar for short, is like a mild version of Tana. Surrounded by hills, it is both a regional commercial, administrative and religious centre as well as a major transit point. Tourists typically come here to spend the night on their way to Ranomafana or Isalo, or to take the train to Manakara. But visitors can enjoy a historic old town, a great local market, some interesting places to stay and a more laid-back ambience than that of the capital.
(Loads more location information and points of interest are available in the above map)
Southern Madagascar is a wide-open adventure among some of nature’s most dramatic forms. The stark desert canyons of Parc National de l'Isalo rival those of Arizona. The west coast offers gorgeous coastal settlements that serve as gateways to the fifth-largest coral reef in the world. And vast kilometres of spiny forest contain the strangest and most formidable plants on earth.
Toliara is where the sealed road (the RN7) ends and many adventures begin – its main appeal is as most travellers' gateway to The Great Reef (found both north and south of the city). Your most enduring memory here is likely to be a sea of pousse-pousse bouncing down dusty lanes – the city itself has little to detain you beyond an outstanding out-of-town arboretum and some fine hotels and restaurants.
The Great Reef stretches over 450km along the southwestern coast of Madagascar, making it the fifth-largest coral reef in the world. Running from Andavadoaka in the north to Itampolo in the south, it's the main attraction in the region, with its own changing personality. The reef comes in three forms: a fringing reef close in, a patch reef of coral heads and an outer barrier reef. The last creates very broad and shallow inshore lagoons and makes for dramatic scenery, with large waves crashing in the distance, forming a vibrant line of white. The beaches range from broken coral to spectacular white powder. There are many activities to pursue here: sunbathing, snorkelling, diving, fishing, whale watching (mid-June or early July to September), surfing and sailing among them.
Despite being Madagascar’s number-one beach destination, the island of Nosy Be remains relatively low-key. It’s the most expensive destination in Madagascar, and rooms can cost twice as much here as on the mainland. Still, compared to Europe, prices are competitive (except for the most exclusive resorts), and many visitors find the lack of major development and mora mora (literally, 'slowly slowly') lifestyle worth the extra euros. The climate is sunny year-round, and Nosy Be is paradise for water-based activities. Diving is the island’s top draw, and there is plenty of swimming, snorkelling and sailing for those keen to stay close to the surface.
With its wide streets, old colonial-era buildings and genteel air, Antsiranana is a lovely base from which to explore Madagascar’s northern region. It's a slow-moving place; nearly everything shuts between noon and 3pm while residents indulge in long afternoon naps. There are no beaches in Antsiranana itself, but plenty of amazing views of the bay, and the town encourages visitors to explore its fascinating architecture and history.
Eastern Madagascar is travel the way it used to be. Travelling here requires a combination of plane, car, 4WD, dirt bike, scooter, pirogue (dugout canoe), ferry, cargo boat, taxi-brousse and motorboat. This inaccessibility results in isolated communities and, for the traveller, a constant sense of coming upon undiscovered locales, including entire national parks. There’s no doubt it can be frustrating at times, but eastern Madagascar produces more travellers' tales than anywhere else. If you value that, come here first.
The small town of Andasibe is surrounded by several parks and reserves whose unique wildlife and close proximity to the capital have made this area extremely popular with travellers. The largest is the Parc National Andasibe Mantadia. This is actually the organisational union of two separate parks, the northern Parc National de Mantadia and the much smaller Parc National Analamazaotra. To these are added Parc Mitsinjo, Réserve de Torotorofotsy and Mahay Mitia Ala (MMA).
Nosy Boraha (formerly and still more commonly known as Îl Sainte-Marie) is a sliver of paradise off Madagascar's northeast coast. The best thing about Nosy Boraha is that it contains all the ingredients for a great holiday and great travel. This is a very long (57km), thin, lush and relatively flat tropical island surrounded by beaches and reef and spotted with thatched villages. The port of Ambodifotatra, a quarter of the way up the western coast, is the only sizeable town. South of here, the shore is lined with a great variety of hotels and resorts, which don't overpower the setting, culminating in the small island of Île aux Nattes, a postcard tropical paradise where you can easily imagine pirates coming ashore with treasure chests in tow. In contrast, the upper half of the island is quite wild, and its great length means that there is plenty of room for exploration.
WHAT TO EAT IN MADAGASCAR
Food in Madagascar is based around the country’s main staple: rice. You’ll find it on every menu and, at most meals, usually accompanied by seafood or zebu. Since zebu is quite tough, it’s often stewed. Beef or prawn skewers are another common offering. For food on the go, be sure to try the nem (spring rolls). They cost just a few cents and are delicious!
Eating rice three times a day is so ingrained in Malagasy culture that people sometimes claim they can’t sleep if they haven’t eaten rice that day. In fact, the verb ‘to eat’ in Malagasy, mihinam-vary, literally means ‘to eat rice’. To keep things interesting, the Malagasies have developed an arsenal of aromatic condiments, such as sakay (a red-hot pepper paste with ginger and garlic), pimente verde (a fiery green chilli) and achards (hot pickled fruit, such as tomato, lemon, carrot or mango, used as relish – you’ll see bottles of the stuff sold by the roadside).
LOCAL FAVOURITES INCLUDE:
- Romazava - A beef stew in a ginger-flavoured broth. It contains brêdes mafana, a green leaf reminiscent of Indian saag in taste that will make your tongue and lips tingle thanks to its anaesthetic properties!
- Ravitoto - Another well-loved Malagasy dish, it is a mix of fried beef or pork with shredded cassava leaves and coconut milk; truly delicious.
- Pizza - Just like Europeans and Americans, Malagasies have succumbed to pizzas! They are a popular treat among middle-class families and you’ll find an inordinate number of pizza joints (often with takeaway) in every large town and city.
What you eat in Madagascar will largely depend on where you eat. Hotelys or gargottes are small, informal restaurants found in every city and town. Restaurants, which range from modest to top-end establishments, serve various types of cuisines, including fancier versions of Malagasy standards. In most tourist areas, hotels have the best (and sometimes only) restaurants, which means you'll eat most of your meals there.
LGBTQ IN MADAGASCAR
Homosexuality is legal in Madagascar, but not openly practised. The age of consent is 21. Overt displays of affection – whether the couple is of the same or opposite sex – are considered to be culturally inappropriate.
WHERE TO STAY IN MADAGASCAR
Accommodation in Madagascar is relatively cheap when compared to Europe or North America, but not as cheap as you might perhaps expect. Madagascar’s winter months (July to September) are the busiest and it’s a good idea to book ahead during this time of year, particularly in popular destinations such as Nosy Be, Île Sainte Marie or Parc National des Tsingy de Bemaraha. Few hotels have official low-/high-season prices, although many offer discounts in quiet periods, notably during the rainy season (January to the end of March).
Accommodation in Antananarivo is pricier than in the rest of the country. A number of hotels offer ‘day rates’, which allow guests to keep their room until early evening, as many flights out of the country leave late at night. Antsirabe offers a wide array of sleeping options and caters particularly well to budget travellers. Just ask for extra blankets on winter nights.