Madagascar, the world's fourth largest island, is a giant wonderland of natural sights and experiences. It's a place of diverse landscapes, climates and tribal systems, where traditional beliefs in taboo (fady) and animism remain strong alongside imported Christianity from 19th-century missionaries and European influences from colonial days gone by.
Madagascar both delights and challenges travellers, and if you can get to grips with its distinct character, the rewards are endless – including what is arguably the best camembert outside of France. Now is the time to visit Madagascar and here's why.
1. The abundance of wildlife
What gets people most excited about Madagascar is its wildlife. Thanks to millennia in splendid isolation, Madagascar evolved unlike anywhere else on Earth. It's an ecological gem, with a thrilling selection of endemic species; 5% of all the world's plants and animals can be found in Madagascar alone, the reason many refer to it as the 'eighth continent'.
Lemurs are the big celebs: with more than 100 species dotted across Madagascar, these delightfully endearing primates are inquisitive, playful and easy to spot (especially with an expert guide adept in the art of lemur calls).
Of course, lemurs aren't the only mammals on the block: from tiny tenrecs and bats to the main predator of the pack, the elusive fossa, there's plenty to look out for, not to mention the varied collection of birds and reptiles.
Sadly, Madagascar's wildlife is at great risk, with deforestation (mainly giving way to destructive rice paddies) and poaching the two main culprits. Go now to see as many of these species in their natural habitat before it's too late.
The elusive fossa, Madagascar's largest predator © Vladislav T. Jirousek/Shutterstock
2. The magnificent tsingy
The razor sharp tsingy rock formations are yet another Madagascan phenomena. Roughly translated as "where you can only tiptoe", the tsingy are rugged expanses of eroded limestone peaks that mask caverns and deep waterways where hardy flora and fauna manage to eke out an existence.
The star of the show is the westerly Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park (also the country's first UNESCO site), closely followed by the Tsingy de Namoroka National Park, Ankarana Special Reserve, and iron-rich red ridges of the Tsingy Rouge Park in the north.
Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park © Dennis van de Water/Shutterstock
3. Memorable island escapes
In true Indian Ocean style, Madagascar serves up some of the most sensational sandy beaches going with the added bonus of being pretty crowd-free. What's more, the waters surrounding Madagascar are as diverse as the interior. Fish of all sizes call the corals of The Great Reef (the fifth largest in the world) home, while dolphins and manta rays are easily spotted at the right time of year.
Head to Nosy Sakatia to swim with grazing sea turtles, while day trips from Nosy Be will have you face-to-face with placid whale sharks from October to December. Meanwhile, glorious Ile Sainte Marie is ideal for whale watching between June and September, when humpback whales head to the warm waters to breed. If you dive, the ocean is your oyster.
Ile Sainte Marie, Madagascar © Charles-Henry Thoquenne/Shutterstock
4. Bountiful baobabs
If ring-tailed lemurs don't leap into your mind at the mention of Madagascar, then surely the bulbous baobab tree will. All eight of the world's baobab species can be found in Madagascar – six of which are endemic.
With the look of being planted roots up, baobab trees are the camels of the forest, able to retain up to thousands of litres of water, making them well suited to arid environments.
The Avenue of the Baobabs in western Madagascar is rightly considered the place to see them (best viewed at sunrise and sunset), however, other species of baobabs can be found island-wide if getting there is tricky.
Baobabs, Madagascar © Dennis van de Water/Shutterstock
5. Experience Antananarivo
Madagascar's hilltop capital city, affectionately known as Tana (from the French 'Tananarive'), is a sprawling urban centre that many travellers make the mistake of leaving off their itinerary.
Yes, it's busy, a little gritty, and pollution is a problem but it also stands in stark contrast to the rural landscapes and vast national parks Madagascar is known for. It has a cooler climate thanks to its elevation and is where you'll find the country's only cultural UNESCO site; it's the throbbing heart of the nation, the official seat of government, and a night or two here is time well spent – remember, all thigh-burning steep climbs are rewarded with exceptional views!
Madagascar's hilltop capital city, Antananarivo © Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock
6. Tasty sweet treats
Madagascar is the world's leading producer of vanilla. The sweet spice of Mexican origin is painstakingly hand pollinated in plantations, which is what makes it such a luxury item. July welcomes the vanilla harvest when the 'Vanilla Coast' in the northeast is the place to be.
Large quantities of cacao, cloves, pepper and cinnamon, among other spices, are also cultivated, while bananas, pineapples and mangoes grow freely. Don't miss mango season throughout October, when the trees that thrive in the tropical climate to the north drip with juicy ripe fruit, and lychee season, which kicks off in November.
Madagascan vanilla pods drying in the sun © aaabbbccc/Shutterstock
7. Learn to "mora mora", man
If ever a nation had a mantra, this is it. Meaning 'slowly slowly', 'mora mora', is the go-to answer for everything in Madagascar, especially if you're in a hurry. If you're held up by potholes or displaying any signs of impatience, the response is likely to be 'mora mora', so you may as well get in the zone and give in to the truly island vibe that will serve you well during your travels.
Verreaux's Sifaka dancing in Madagascar © Hugh Lansdown/Shutterstock
8. The plague epidemic is over
Cast aside medieval thoughts as, sadly, the plague is still endemic in Madagascar, typically aggravated by the wet season from July to November. Normally relatively isolated, 2017 saw a vicious epidemic that hit the headlines and put many would-be visitors off. Look past the sensationalism, however, and you'll see that not only is the epidemic over, but the risk of catching it while touring Madagascar is low, provided sensible precautions are taken.
Traditional Vezo fishing boat in southwestern Madagascar © Pierre-Yves Babelon/Shutterstock
Top image: Ring-tailed lemur carrying twin babies © Hajakely/Shutterstock