Travel to Madagascar and discover an extraordinary storehouse of natural and cultural riches. Separated from Africa and Asia at the time of the dinosaurs, Madagascar's animal life has evolved in a startling myriad of forms, with endemic species found nowhere else on earth.
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Humans first colonized this huge island less than 2000 years ago. Before then, Madagascar was a primal Eden, inhabited only by its bizarre and marvellous zoological cornucopia. As biologists continue to discover more about this remarkable place, calling Madagascar the eighth continent barely does it justice: second planet seems more appropriate. Read our Madagascar guide for everything you need to know before you go.
Madagascar travel facts
- Size: Madagascar is the fourth-largest island in the world. Measuring 587,040 square kilometres, it is more than double the size of Texas and nearly two-and-a-half times the size of the UK.
- Population: At the last official estimate in 2011, Madagascar’s population was just under 21 million, with a population density of 35 per square kilometre.
- Language: The country’s official languages are Malagasy and French, though English is increasingly important.
- Conservation: Madagascar has more than 40 national parks and reserves, managed by Madagascar National Parks.
- Religion: Traditional religious beliefs are still widely upheld in Madagascar, with some 4 million Roman Catholics, and 3.5 million members of the FJKM (the Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar).
- Politics: Madagascar’s independence was returned to it, from France, on June 26, 1960. After years of chaotic dictatorship, the country now has a presidential, multi-party democracy.
- Biodiversity: Dozens of new species are discovered in Madagascar every year: more than 100 species of lemurs are now recognized and nearly 80 species of chameleons are endemic to the island.
- Leaping ahead: While Andasibe-Mantadia National Park’s most famous resident is the lemurs, the forests are also home to at least a hundred species of frogs – a figure that makes this the most frog-rich area on earth.
- Exports: Madagascar is associated with vanilla or rum and sugar cane, but the national crop with no equal is rice (vary in Malagasy), with the highest consumption per capita in the world – around 150kg per person (400g) or a pound of rice a day.
Where to go in Madagascar
Madagascar has an entrancing tableaux of landscapes: dripping emerald rainforests, baobab trees like giant windmills towering over the savannah, and crazy outcroppings of limestone pinnacles, like a million wonky Gothic church spires.
The human landscapes are equally captivating. In the highlands, a thousand shades of green dazzle from the terraced rice fields, framed by dykes of red earth; water-filled nursery paddies reflect a cerulean blue sky and towering granite mountains, daubed by the pastel images of rows of multicoloured Hauts Plateaux houses.
On the east coast, you’ll find golden beaches framed by huge boulders and palm trees, lapped by the bath-warm Indian Ocean.
Out to the west and south, rolling plains of dry savannah and range lands intersperse with dense and alien spiny forest and carved by broad meandering rivers.
Here are some of the best places to visit in Madagascar:
There’s no other capital in the world like Antananarivo (Tananarive to the French, “Tana” colloquially to everyone). A necklace of emerald rice paddies trails around lakes, canals and jagged hills, while a huddle of pastel-coloured houses crowds the still-partly cobbled streets of a crumpled central lattice. Even the sprawling shanties seem somehow prettier than the average urban slum: still largely built in the traditional manner, using fired-clay bricks, they blush radiantly pink in the afternoon sun, packed together between the glimmering rice fields.
The highlands of central Madagascar stretch from north of Antananarivo far towards the south of the island, undulating wildly across dramatic granite mountain ranges, lava ridges and outcrops. While there’s very little indigenous natural forest left, the human landscape is captivatingly beautiful. Deep valleys are filled by terraced rice fields and traditionally built towns, from the busy provincial agricultural hub of Antsirabe to the historical city of Fianarantsoa. Explore towns by horse-drawn buggy and immerse yourself in cultural traditions such as Malagasy crafts and famadihana (reburial) ceremonies. Beyond these urban centres lies the Réserve Villageoise Anja, where you can hike through the home territories of delightful ring-tailed lemurs, and rugged Parc National de Ranomafana, whose rainforest conceals the rare golden bamboo lemur.
Southern Madagascar has some of the island’s most compelling attractions, from the gaunt sandstone plateau of Parc National d’Isalo to the towering mountain fastness of Parc National d’Andringitra. Elsewhere, you’ll discover spiny forests and glorious beaches, surfing and diving in the dry southwest, and the seductive rolling landscapes and scalloped bays wrapping around the port of Fort Dauphin in the far southeast. This is also Madagascar’s poorest region, however, and more prone to lawlessness – generally manifested in cattle rustling and highway banditry – than the rest of the country.
Way off the tourist trail, the vast region of western Madagascar has some unexpected surprises for those who slog to this barely visited backcountry. Western Madagascar may not be blessed with interesting towns or picturesque beaches, but its weird and wonderful natural spectacles make up for it. Hikers can strike out among the giants at Morondava’s Allée des Baobabs, where 300-plus baobabs loom above scattered bush and farmland, some reaching heights of 20 metres. After dark, seek out the exhilarating nocturnal animal life of Kirindy Private Reserve, whose rich wildlife includes fossas. But, without a doubt, the region’s crowning glory is Tsingy de Bemaraha, an extraordinary expanse of otherworldly limestone pinnacles, cut through by winding rivers.
The rainforests of northeastern Madagascar are some of the most biodiverse areas on the planet. These hilly landscapes support a riotous display of jungle trees, lianas and other flora, which shelter extraordinarily rich wildlife, from minuscule chameleons to weighty indri lemurs. While the northeast’s natural vegetation is dense forest, the majority of trees had been cut by the time of independence, and today rice paddies, sugar-cane fields and plantations of vanilla and fruit trees account for much of the more level ground. The sizeable remaining pockets of forest are major strongholds of Madagascar’s natural heritage, now flagged by UNESCO as the “Rainforests of the Atsinanana” group of World Heritage Sites in Danger.
Off the sheltered west coast lies the fabled island of Nosy Be, with smaller and even more alluring islands dotted around the warm waters of the Mozambique Channel. Madagascar is swathed in largely deciduous dry forest, interspersed with pockets of highland and lowland rainforest – a biome known as the Sambirano ecosystem. The southeast corner of Nosy Be is still shrouded by a cloak of primary rainforest sheltering a number of rare and endemic species. The majority of those who visit Madagascar make a beeline here, lured by the balmy weather and warm seas, plus regular charter flights from France and Italy. Diving and snorkelling are popular pursuits, and kite- and windsurfing are big around Diego.
Far out on the west coast, the town of Morondava has some compelling assets nearby that draw visitors from across the globe. Foremost among these is the iconic Allée des Baobabs, or Avenue of the Baobabs, just a short drive out of town. As you arrive by plane, you’ll see the big baobabs as you descend, looking like stumpy wind turbines on the flat plain among the fields of sugar, cotton and rice. Further north is the lesser-known Kirindy Private Reserve, the only place you can travel in Madagascar with the near-guarantee of seeing a fossa – a ferocious puma-sized creature that looks like a cross between a cat and a mongoose.
Ambatolampy was a traditional Merina iron-smelting and forging town, and is still associated with metalwork and crafts – and nowadays souvenirs. Clusters of craft-sellers gather along the roadside, selling basketry and raffia-ware, brightly painted metal toys, even statues of the Virgin Mary. The stalls of musical instruments are particularly appealing, with nicely made local violins, banjos and other instruments on offer for around 20,000–40,000ar. South of Ambatolampy, you can trace the meandering Onive River by car, passing picturesque rural scenes of verdant emerald-tinted rice paddies; rust-red hillsides brimming with iron oxide; and rows of colourful houses.
Up to the west of Ambatolampy, you can see the looming mountains of the Massif de l’Ankaratra. This ancient volcanic range is occasionally dusted in snow and still bubbles with a little activity in Antsirabe’s hot springs. Antsirabe was founded in 1869 by Norwegian missionaries attracted by the curative powers of its mineral-rich thermal springs, and today is Madagascar’s third-largest town – and one of its most prosperous. Relatively clean and quiet, this is a town where many Tananariviens aspire to live, and where a few have holiday pads. The thermal baths are currently closed, but there’s no shortage of good hotels, restaurants and interesting crafts and jewellery shops.
Vehicles arriving from the north plunge down the road to Ambalavao, with the valley spread out beyond and the peaks of the Massif d’Iandrambaky poking up dramatically on the horizon. The town makes a good base from which to stock up if you’re heading into the Parc National d’Andringitra. Otherwise, you don’t need to stop here for long, but the town’s crafts workshops are accessible and worthwhile, and its famous old Betsileo houses, with their ornate verandas known as lavarangana, are very photogenic.
Andasibe-Mantadia National Park
The country’s most famous national park, Andasibe-Mantadia is located in the eastern rainforest and is home to twelve species of lemurs, including the largest – the wonderful, wailing indri. The otherworldly chorus of a family of indris, reverberating through the misty early-morning forest, is an unforgettable sound. Two hundred species of orchids bloom magnificently here, and the forests are also home to around 110 species of birds, over seventy species of reptiles and at least a hundred species of frogs – a figure that makes this the most frog-rich area on earth.
Isalo National Park
One of the best places to travel in southern Madagascar is Parc National d’Isalo. Midway between Fianarantsoa and Tuléar, this 810-square-kilometre sandstone plateau is a dramatic spectacle; its towering mesas and sculpted pillars creating a Monument Valley-style landscape. It is especially striking at its southern extremity, where the tarmac highway twists past the cliffs. The whole region, however, is a hiker’s mecca, cut by streams and springs into countless, forest-filled canyons, dotted with alluring natural swimming holes of crystal-clear water.
Tsingy de Bemaraha
The huge Parc National de Bemaraha and its far-flung northern extension, the Réserve Naturelle Intégrale du Tsingy de Bemaraha, are located on Madagascar’s largest plateau of tsingy (limestone) karst pinnacles. It’s a region that competes for remoteness with the most inaccessible parts of the island, incorporating a spectacularly strange landscape that is home to a host of endemic plants and animals. In recognition of its uniqueness, it was the first region in Madagascar to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Sheltered on what were once mud and sand flats behind straggling stands of mangroves, the port of Tuléar (also known as Toliara or Toliary) is not the most prepossessing place to visit in Madagascar. This former slaving port has been sidelined by recent history – a fact reflected in the rebellious political stance often taken by the townspeople to matters being decided in Tana. As you wander around, look out for the town’s zebu carts, sometimes painted with bright, symbolic imagery derived from popular culture – typically music and film stars. The best attraction in Toliara is the Arboretum d’Antsokay, a 25-acre patch of spiny forest heavily planted with the flora from a lifetime’s botanical collecting by its Swiss founder, Hermann Petignat.
Best time to go to Madagascar
The best time to visit Madagascar depends on where you are going and your interests. A hot, wet summer, from November to March, drenches the eastern slopes and highlands in heavy rain. Ferocious cyclones hit the east coast and ravage their way inland, making travel extremely difficult. However, down in the southwestern semi-desert, rain barely spatters the parched earth. From April to October, Madagascar experiences a dry, cool season, which is overall the best time to travel to Madagascar for bright, warm days and mild nights.
However, if you’re travelling to Madagascar for the wildlife, whale-watching is best from June to September when the creatures pass the east coast during their northerly migration. November is often recommended as the best time to visit Madagascar for wildlife, with the first rains bringing out an explosion of courting, mating and spawning among amphibians, reptiles, birds and the fabulous fossa. August to October are ideal months for diving and snorkeling.
Read our guide on the best time to travel to Madagascar.
How to get to Madagascar
The only practical way to travel to Madagascar is by plane. There are no direct flights from the UK or Ireland to Madagascar, but you can fly to Nairobi or Paris and connect onwards. Similarly, visitors from the east coast of North America will have to fly via London or Paris, but from the west coast it may be cheaper to fly via Bangkok. From South Africa, there are direct flights to Madagascar from Johannesburg. There are various options for travelling to Madagascar from Australia and New Zealand, notably flying via Johannesburg or Nairobi, or hubbing through Bangkok; however, the best-value route is via Mauritius and/or Réunion.
Read more in our Madagascar travel guide.
How to get around Madagascar
In this section, we’ll look at how to travel around Madagascar.
When considering how to travel around Madagascar, the most important thing is to give yourself time. It’s a big country, and most of the roads (such as they are) radiate out like spokes from the capital, so getting around needs planning, you’ll probably need to include some internal flights.
Most transport, however, is by road, and the road network is steadily improving. There are various options for getting around by car, the easiest (but most expensive) of which is hiring a vehicle and driver – many of whom double up as local Madagascar guides.
Budget travellers are better off using the slow and cheap shared taxis brousse (bush taxis, or taxi-be in Malagasy). These are privately or cooperatively owned minibuses running regular services to a vague timetable. Urban transport varies from town to town, but the main options are car taxis (taxis-ville), Bajaj motorized trishaws (tuk-tuks), cyclo-pousses (cycle rickshaws) and pousses-pousses (handcarts).
Best places to visit in Madagascar
Fianar’s hilltop old town is one of Madagascar’s most picturesque, with narrow lanes and views across the modern city and its rice fields.
- Parc National d’Andasibe-Mantadia
The best place to visit in Madagascar for lemur-watching, including troops of habituated indris. Night walks and decent hotels make this as easy diversion, just a three-hour drive from Antananarivo.
- Île Sainte Marie
This beautifully unspoiled island is quieter than Nosy Be, with the jewel of Île aux Nattes at its southern tip.
- Réserve Spéciale de Nosy Mangabe
Heaven on a plate for beach-bum natural-history buffs, with leaf-tailed geckos camouflaged obligingly on every other branch and a glorious golden beach.
- Parc National de Masoala
The real-life version of your local rainforest experience, complete with tumbling streams, buttress-rooted forest giants and thousands of life forms.
- Nosy Be
Madagascar’s most developed concentration of tourist resorts is low-key by global standards. Get away from the beach hotels and out to the offshore reefs or up to the hilly interior.
- Allée des Baobabs and Kirindy Private Reserve
Two of the finest places to visit in Madagascar, these are worth the special journey for the towering “tree-elephants” and the exhilarating nocturnal animal life of Kirindy, including fossas.
- Tsingy de Bemaraha
Hard to get to, but worth every ounce of effort for the extraordinary expanses of weirdly eroded limestone pinnacles, cut through by winding rivers.
- Parc National d’Isalo
A park of big landscapes, lush canyons and wide horizons in the dry savannah. Plus, it’s easy to access and has good hotels and camping.
- Sainte Luce Reserve
Moist coastal forest and creeks, home to lemurs and chameleons, with glorious beaches and onshore whale-watching, as well as some excellent Madagascar guides.
Itineraries for Madagascar
Our Madagascar travel guide wouldn’t be complete without mentioning our Madagascar itineraries. These routes will take you to every corner of the island – and you’ll learn plenty about the country no matter where you want to go or what you want to do. You’re unlikely to complete the list, but it will give you a flavour of how to travel around Madagascar and a deeper insight into the country’s natural and historic wonders.
Want some help with the travel planning? Speak to us about our Tailor-made itineraries, where a local expert can plan your route and transport for you.
Itinerary 1: The North – parks and beaches
Almost all Madagascar trips start and end in Antananarivo. Allow 3–4 weeks to cover the north by a mixture of road and air travel, or skip half these stops and do it in 10–14 days.
Give yourself a couple of days to visit the Rova palace compound and the old royal capital of Ambohimanga.
- Parc National d’Andasibe-Mantadia
Get up early to walk into the indris’ territory and hear their extraordinary call. Then plan a night walk looking for chameleons and mouse lemurs.
- Île Sainte Marie
Fly or ferry out to this old pirates’ hideaway, then rent a scooter and explore its jungle paths, clean beaches and limpid waters.
- Nosy Mangabe
Organize a boat and local Madagascar guide to this fabled, forest-stacked island. You’ll discover aye-ayes, leaf-tailed geckos and a host of other species, some almost certainly still to be discovered.
- Parc National de Masoala
The steep paths of the Masoala rainforest start at the doorstep of Nosy Mangabe, with every minute of every hike yielding wonderful sights and discoveries, from vangas to boas, from tenrecs to sportive lemurs.
- Diego Suarez
Diego Suarez is the perfect rest stop between national parks, with its picturesque views and superb watersports.
- Parc National de la Montagne d’Ambre
Much easier to explore than the other rainforest parks, and still bursting with life, the Amber Mountain and the little town of Joffreville are worth a day and a night.
- Parc National d’Ankarana
If you don’t have time to take a boat trip to the Tsingy de Bemaraha, then this fascinating eroded plateau is the next best thing. Lemurs and plenty of reptiles inhabit this rocky fortress.
- Nosy Be
Nosy Be’s beaches are beautiful, the resort trappings pretty tame and the interior well worth exploring. Don’t forget a trip to the wonderful Lokobé reserve.
- Parc National d’Ankaranfantsika
Deciduous dry forest meets lakes and erosion gulleys in this enjoyable and accessible park between Majunga and Antananarivo.
Accommodation in Madagascar
Madagascar has no shortage of hotels, and on the whole they offer good value, certainly by international standards. There’s only a handful of top-end options scattered across the island, from urban city hotels to beach resort hotels through to national park lodges and tourist safari camps. The highest concentrations of luxury accommodation are in Tana and on Nosy Be and Île Sainte Marie. A good step down in standards will give you mid-range places, stretching from charming and extraordinarily good value to very ho-hum and rather overpriced. The budget accommodation in Madagascar is plentiful and typically great value; mostly consisting of a group of wooden, thatched bungalows; some en-suite, some with the option of air-conditioning.
Food and drink in Madagascar
Madagascar’s food culture is built around the country’s national staple, rice (riz, or vary in Malagasy), and even enthusiastic rice lovers tend to tire of it eventually. Happily, there are plenty of interesting flavours to accompany it.
The main options for eating out in Madagascar are hotelys (local Malagasy restaurant with a simple menu of staple favourites); your hotel dining room; and foreign imports. These range from pizzerias and crêperies to Italian, French, Indian and Chinese specialist restaurants. Street food can be very good and very cheap, and may include rice and sauce, brochettes of beef, fish or prawns, roasted or baked plantains, bananas, cassava or sweet potato, stews and vegetable fritters.
Madagascar’s two great drink offerings are spiced and flavoured rum in an almost infinite variety of flavours, known as rhum arrangé, and THB beer pronounced “Tay-Ash-Bay” (short for Three Horses Beer).
Read our Madagascar guide to food and drink.
Activities in Madagascar
Though most travellers visit Madagascar for its wildlife – lemurs and chameleons in particular – the island has so much more to offer besides curious critters. If it were only for its landscapes, beaches and warm seas, the island would still be one of the world’s most alluring destinations, and there’s plenty here to please adrenalin junkies and outdoor enthusiasts. This part of our Madagascar guide will look at the best activities on offer.
Walking is the default way in which to explore the national parks dotted across the island. Multi-day park hikes, with a local Madagascar guide and porters, are not difficult to arrange, especially in the national parks of Andringitra, Marojejy and Masoala.
With its many sheer granite and sandstone rock walls, Madagascar is full of excellent climbing opportunities. Standout areas include the Montagne des Français near Diego Suarez, and the Isalo and Andringitra national parks.
Mountain biking is only allowed in some areas of the national parks but cycling can be a great way to get around remoter areas where the rewards combine a mixture of culture, nature and landscape, rather than providing a more purely wildlife experience. Many hotels also have a few mountain bikes to loan or rent for short trips, but for something longer, check out Rando Raid, based in Antsirabe who also offer horse riding, or VTT Madagascar who organize bike tours in remote parts of southeast Madagascar.
Snorkelling and diving
If you’re travelling to Madagascar for underwater adventures, the easiest diving and snorkelling is around Nosy Be. The best options are less from the main island itself, and more from some of its smaller neighbours – Nosy Tanikely, Nosy Mitsio and Nosy Radames are particularly good. The reefs of southwest Madagascar, between Andavadoaka and Anakao, are also spectacular, and the waters around Diego Suarez have numerous wrecks to explore.
Most larger beach hotels around Madagascar can offer windsurfing, or organize it for you. Surfing tends to be a speciality of the south, notably the areas around Tuléar and Fort Dauphin. The other key spot for kitesurfing is the Mer d’Émeraude, near Diego Suarez. Kayaking and rafting can be pursued on larger rivers such as the Namorona, Tsiribihina and Manambolo.
Several traditional sports are still popular with visitors to Madagascar. Moraingy, a bare-fisted combination of boxing and kick-fighting, comes from the Sakalava country of western Madagascar and can be seen on weekends in the dry season.
Travel advice for Madagascar
For visitors to Madagascar, staying healthy should not be a big issue. You need to be aware of malaria but generally, so long as you take sensible precautions, you should have no problems beyond the occasional stomach upset.
Despite warnings from some official government travel advisories, most people visit Madagascar without incident. However, you should certainly heed warnings about night-time travel and avoid it if you can, particularly the lonely dirt roads in the south, which are prone to banditry. Also be aware of pickpocketing, muggings and hotel thefts (especially your hotel has no safe), avoiding late arrivals in towns or taking a taxi.
Lastly, if you’re travelling Madagascar during cyclone season (December to March) and a storm is forecast, cancel any boat trips, get yourself as far inland as possible and take shelter on the ground floor of a solid building.
A few items to avoid when shopping are timber products, which often have a dubious source, and anything with a wildlife origin, which is likely to get you in trouble when leaving Madagascar. Other items on the banned exports list are all items connected to the country’s many funerary customs, including grave posts.
Read more advice and tips to make your Madagascar trip stress-free and safe.
Travel visa requirements for Madagascar
This section will look at travel requirements for Madagascar. Visas are required by all nationalities. Non-immigrant visas are currently granted free on arrival for most nationalities at Ivato airport for stays of up to thirty days, and it’s generally easier to get one there than in advance (which usually requires photos and possibly a processing fee). If you want to stay longer, the fees are €55 for up to 60 days or €77 for up to 90 days. Longer than that, you’ll need to leave the country in order to re-enter (Réunion is the cheapest place to fly to and an overseas French département so part of the EU and the Eurozone). The only health requirement is a yellow fever certificate if you’ve been visiting a country in the yellow fever transmission zone.
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