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Morondava Baobabs

Madagascar: the definitive guide

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7 June 2019 by Norire Arakelyan

With over 3,000 miles of coastline, vast tropical rainforests, some of the world’s largest coral reefs and an abundance of wildlife – Madagascar really has something for even the most discerning of travellers. The world’s fourth-largest island split from mainland Africa millions of years ago, creating a real-life time capsule of unique plants and animals. Approximately 90% of all plants and animals found in Madagascar are endemic, meaning that they’re found nowhere else on the planet. In short, it’s a true nature lover’s paradise. Without further ado, here’s my complete destination guide to Madagascar:

  1. Antananarivo
  2. Andasibe Mantadia National Park
  3. Antsirabe
  4. Ranomafana National Park
  5. Isalo National Park
  6. Tulear and Ifaty
  7. The West Coast
  8. Madagascan Food
  9. Masoala National Park

Contact a Wexas Madagascar specialist

The highlands near Ambalavao
Ambalavao highlands

Antananarivo

Like me, on your trip to Madagascar you will likely become very familiar with the vibrant and bustling capital Antananarivo, affectionately known by the locals as “Tana”. Travel around the island is, at best, tricky, and requires good logistical planning. This means using Tana as a base when flying to and from different parts of the country. Don’t worry, it’s well-served by international carriers, including Air France, Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airlines.

My journey started with a few days exploring here. Even after almost 60 years of independence, the French-colonial influences are there for all to see, with vintage Renault 4 taxis the norm and many road signs in French. An early-morning start allows you a first chance to try out your bartering skills at the buzzing markets in Pavillon Analakely, found around five minutes’ drive from downtown. It’s also worth paying a visit to the Queen’s Palace, not least for the spectacular panoramic views of the capital on offer from the top. It served as home to rulers of the pre-colonial Merina Kingdom back in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Ambalavao market, Madagascar
Typical Madagascan market

Andasibe Mantadia National Park

From Tana, my driver guide brought me east past small farming villages, colourful fruit stalls and rice paddies until I reached Andasibe Mantadia, around 150km out of the city. This is one of Madagascar’s more frequently visited national parks and the only place in the wild that you can see the largest (and loudest) of all lemur species – the indri lemur. No need for alarms here, as I was unceremoniously awoken by a deafening chorus of mating calls at the crack of dawn. No these weren’t coming from the room next door, but many miles away; we set out on a forest walk and managed to locate a family high up in a canopy foraging for food – just incredible. Alongside numerous other lemur species, you can also expect to spot many reptiles, insects and interesting medicinal plants.

Common brown lemur, Andasibe National Park
Common brown lemur, Andasibe National Park

Antsirabe

Antsirabe, the next major city south of Tana is around 1,500 metres above sea level, with the region cooler than most of the other places I visited. It’s a bit of a refuge if you are seeking relief from mosquitos as it’s generally too cold for them here. The French agreed, so there’s plenty of interesting colonial buildings to explore, alongside the volcanic Lake Tritriva. It’s well worth a stop.

Sample Madagascar itinerary

Antsirabe city centre
Antsirabe city centre

Ranomafana National Park

Continuing south, my next stop for a dose of wonderful wildlife was Ranomafana. Another of Madagascar’s best-known national parks, it has numerous circuits and trails ripe for exploration. I would highly recommend taking a longer and slightly more difficult circuit as, during peak July–September season, the shorter ones can become quite busy, making animal spotting tougher. A night walk is also a highlight here. The jungle really comes to life after dark with countless reptiles, insects and nocturnal lemurs emerging, and I would suggest at least two nights to give you enough time to see everything.

 Borwn Lemur in Ranomafana
Brown Lemur, Ranomafana National Park

Isalo National Park

South on the Route Nationale 7, the nearest town to Ranomafana is Fianarantsoa – the intellectual centre of Madagascar. Its a historic old town, surrounded by rolling hills, is a true delight. Nearby Ambalavao is a further favourite, a crumbling French village of frontier charm. Then, arriving into Isalo, I was especially impressed with the small “Anja” reserve on the way in. It offers a range of different environments for all sorts of wildlife to prosper. I was even able to observe groups of ring-tailed lemurs playing in the treetops, jumping from branch to branch and feeding on fruit – a real spectacle.

The reserve is supported by the community and workers are all local, each aiming to preserve the wildlife and richness of the area. Central to this idea is the system of fady – a collection of taboos which has its roots deep in ancient Malagasy culture, as well as more modern Christian influence. Resultantly, many believe that lemurs are sacred and that they should not be hunted, their habitats kept preserved.

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Isalo
Isalo National Park

It is best to be prepared for very dry days for this southern section of Madagascar as the weather tends to be a lot hotter, regardless of the season. The further south you go, the landscape drastically changes from lush-green forest to semi-desert and savannah. And, among its wide array of environs, deep canyons and world-class hiking routes, Isalo is the best place to spot the island’s cherished and most famous resident – the ring-tailed lemur. Various species of snakes and lizards also reside amongst the rocky terrain and you may spot the occasional ancient tomb high up in the sandstone walls of the canyons. I particularly enjoyed ending a seven-hour hike through the scorching sun by cooling off in one of the national park’s many hidden breath-taking cascades.

Many tiny villages are dotted around the outskirts of the national park. Like most of rural Madagascar, they largely live off the land and those owning zebu are held in high esteem. The more of these spectacularly humped cattle you own, the wealthier and more respected in the local community you are. Alongside these rather alien creatures, you’ll also meet plenty of friendly children playing in the dusty streets. You’ll also often find yourself being called a “vasa”. Although used to refer to a foreigner or someone who does not look like a local, it’s important to understand that this is not meant with any derogatory connotations. The locals I met loved interacting with foreigners and were very accommodating.

Norire in Isalo National Park
Norire with an oasis in Isalo National Park

Tulear and Ifaty

On the island’s south-west extreme, Tulear is famed for its seafood. My top recommendation is the Le Jardin restaurant. Italian-owned and run, it specialises in fresh local fish with a Mediterranean twist. It was by far the best meal I had in the country, a real hybrid of local cuisine with a European twist. Then, about an hour-and-a-half north, the resort of Ifaty prefers a more laidback pace. Indeed, with stretches of stunning beaches, the local mantra is “mora mora”, translating simply as “take it easy”.

Then, if you can pull yourself away from the golden sands, there are also plenty of fantastic wildlife-viewing opportunities nearby. Reniala Nature Reserve has various species of baobab trees native only to Madagascar and is also home to the famous ground and tree boas. A night walk is also highly recommended for a chance to catch the rare hedgehog-like tenrec, amongst other less enticing – but no less intriguing – species. The hissing cockroach, anyone?

Village children near Ifaty
Ifaty village

The West Coast

Given that you’ve arrived in the country’s far south, you’ll have to fly back to Antananarivo, either to see more of the country or head off home. I chose to explore the lesser-visited west coast, not often suggested in classic itineraries. From Tana, I took a short flight up to Morondava, a buzzing market town. From here, it’s only half an hour to the famous Alley of the Baobabs, an avenue of giant Grandidier’s baobabs lining the dirt road. I highly recommend heading there at sunrise for both gorgeous views and fewer tourists.

Avenue of the baobabs
Avenue of the baobabs

It’s also best combined with a full-day trip to Kirindy National Park, which is about three hours away on the same road. It offers your best shot of seeing the elusive and vicious fossa – a cat-like carnivorous mammal endemic to Madagascar. Although it is found around other parts of the country, they are notoriously hard to spot as they are nocturnal and very stealthy. My encounter with an adult male in Kirindy did its fearsome reputation no favours at all. I caught it just as it was starting its late morning snooze, so when I tried getting a little close it decided to charge at me. Be warned. There are also opportunities to stay in Kirindy overnight if you want a better chance at spotting the fossa and more time in the spiny forests.

The same road which takes you to Kirindy also takes you all the way to Tsingy de Bemaraha. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a unique landscape of needle-shaped limestone rock formations picked out against old-growth forests. It’s well worth spending a few days here, traversing the famous suspension bridges that dangle above the sharp rocks. It’s also important to bear in mind that the park is only open during the dry season between April and the beginning of November; the road leading to it is impassable during the wet season.

Sample Madagascar itinerary

 
A vicious Fossa in Kirindy National Park

Madagascan Food

No matter how you choose to see the country, most mornings will involve an early start to maximise your chance of spotting the wildlife. And, every busy day must, of course, begin with a good, hearty breakfast. So, while most establishments serve continental or American, consider making like a local and trying sosoa. It’s a rice dish with the consistency of a risotto, usually topped with smoked meat strips or eaten on its own. Indeed, rice holds the key to Malagasy cuisine. Locals will often invite you to the table simply by saying “Manasa hihinam-bary!” – translating literally as “Let’s eat rice!”. If you ever find yourself struggling with a conversation starter, just talk about rice. The country’s relationship with their biggest export cannot be understated.

Madagascan fruit stall
Fruit stall on National Route 7 near Antsirabe

Masoala National Park

The last leg of my journey took me to what ended up being my favourite destination – Masoala National Park in the far northeast corner of the island. Again, you get here by flying from Tana, this time to a town called Maroantsetra. If you’re looking for an ideal place to stay, I cannot recommend Masoala Forest Lodge enough; instead of relying on domestic flights, they put on their own charters for guests. The experience of flying in a single-propeller plane over forest-covered mountains, lakes and pristine coastlines was one I’ll cherish forever.

Descending over the gorgeous Antongil Bay, I was immediately brought out on a private boat ride to the island of Nosy Mangabe. Almost entirely covered in dense primary rainforest, I hiked through a network of trails, spotting black-and-white-ruffed lemurs along the way. That’s alongside leaf-tailed geckos and plenty of very vocal species of frog. The picnic lunch was a delight.

Beach, Masoala National Park
Beach in Masoala National Park

Then, after a scenic boat ride, I was brought to the lodge proper. It’s a collection of treehouses and beach huts accessible only by foot or water, flung out on golden sands and entirely surrounded by the Masoala National Park. Each guest is assigned a private guide, who’ll accompany you on your excursions. There’s everything from kayaking and canoeing to criss-crossing walks through the rainforest. This is where David Attenborough filmed his Madagascar special, with the park harbouring around 50% of the country’s total wildlife. In fact, over 1% of the entire planet’s flora and fauna is found here in this spectacular region.

My pick of the activities here would be the kayaking, taking you out along the coast to a mangrove-covered river. Be sure to also leave enough time for plenty of hikes in the primary rainforest, which is noticeably different to the largely secondary rainforests found elsewhere on the island. Here, the forest has not been touched or exploited by humans at all, leaving its original flora and fauna immaculately intact. If you can spot it, the red-ruffed lemur is a particular highlight. Some areas are very dense, so your guide is mandatory.

And, once you’ve returned from your day’s exploring, the lodge includes all meals and also offers plenty of local beers, wines and spirits on the house. In all, Masoala is completely unique and unlike anything else on the island – a perfect end to any Madagascan trip.

Lemur in the trees
Red-ruffed lemur, Masoala National Park

Closing thoughts

Anyone familiar and accustomed to traveling around continental Africa may assume that they know what to expect from Madagascar. Indeed, having travelled across the continent’s east and south, this was exactly my expectation, too. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Broadly, Malagasy culture is a lot closer to Asia than to Africa, despite its geography. And, although there are some clear influences from Africa, the food, the agriculture, the architectural techniques and even the language trace roots from deep in the Far East – predominantly Borneo. The more you learn, the more fascinating it becomes, and its friendly peoples are more than willing to teach you.

Madagascan village
A Madagascan highland village

If you are lucky enough to have Madagascar in your sights, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Please don’t hesitate to get in contact to start planning your ideal trip today.

Contact a Wexas Madagascar specialist

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