Madagascar is one of the world’s cheaper countries for travellers. Prices for hotels, transport, meals and basic commodities are low and more comparable with Southeast Asia than with continental Africa.
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Travelling on a shoestring budget with a companion and a flexible schedule, largely using taxis brousse, staying in budget hotels, and visiting national parks, you could manage between you easily enough on £60/€80/US$90 per day (a little more than 260,000ar). If you were doing the same thing, but planning the occasional splurge in a nicer hotel, with some days of vehicle-and-driver rental, you would need to at least double this. And if you want to travel by private vehicle and stay in comfortable-to-luxury hotels throughout, a daily budget of £200/€270/US$300 (around 900,000ar) for the two of you should suffice. You would still need to factor in any internal flights.
Crime and personal safety
Despite some official government travel advisories about Madagascar, it is not a dangerous country and crime affecting tourists is generally quite limited. On the contrary, you may well come back wondering how anyone could get anything but a wonderful impression of friendly locals and a safe, hospitable island. Madagascar, however, does have its dark side: short-term visitors are rarely impacted, but you should certainly heed the warnings about night-time travel and avoid it if you can. Most private drivers never drive at night, especially in certain areas. The RN7 has police controls outside some towns to partly enforce this, while some of the lonely dirt roads in the south are prone to banditry, partly as a result of traditional Bara cattle raiders or dahalo (if there are no convenient zebus to rustle, flag down a taxi brousse and rob the passengers…).
Urban and tourist resort crime is also an undercurrent that you should be aware of: pickpocketing, muggings and hotel thefts (especially if your room is not very secure or the hotel doesn’t have a secure compound) could all spoil your trip, and are most likely to happen before you have had time to survey your location. Avoid late arrivals in towns, and if arriving at night always have a destination to go to, and take a taxi.
Lastly, natural disasters in the form of huge cyclones batter the island with relentless frequency. The cyclone season, from December to March, usually includes at least one whopper that can inflict enormous damage, particularly on eastern coastal regions. If you happen to be in a cyclone area when a storm is forecast, cancel that boat trip, get yourself as far inland as possible and take shelter on the ground floor of a solid building.
The electricity grid in Madagascar provides 220V AC current and uses two-pin Continental-style plugs, either a “Type E” or “Type F” Schuko or a flat, “Type C” Europlug. Many hotels have backup generators to fill in during frequent blackouts. In remote areas, solar panels feeding to inverters and big storage batteries are used to provide power, in which case there may not always be power points in your room. Battery- and mobile-charging can usually be done in the office or central area.
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). Your passport should have at least six months’ validity from your date of arrival and contain at least two blank pages. 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). Extending your visa within the 90-day limit is possible, but overstaying your agreed term and then leaving is not advisable, and can result in a fine. The only health requirement is a yellow fever certificate if you’ve been visiting a country in the yellow fever transmission zone.
While internet cafés are still around, and offer very cheap online access, the spread of free wi-fi hotspots continues apace in restaurants and hotels, and these are likely to be more useful for most travellers. Only in very small towns are you likely to have to resort to the local cyber, with its usually rather old computers with azerty rather than qwerty keyboards. Expect to pay around 5000ar/hr.
Most hotels will happily do your laundry, and usually have a sheet of charges per item. Cheaper places will probably suggest a flat price of 3000ar or something similar. Remember that it may take longer than expected for clothes to dry.
Most towns have a post office, but with the decline in the volume of traditional airmail, postal services tend to be limited and cards and letters may take weeks to reach their destination. To send any object of value, always use a courier service such as DHL. As for incoming mail, it’s best to forget it: use friends and family as couriers or, again, a courier service.
By far the best general map of Madagascar is published by the German travel guide publisher Reise Know-How in their World Mapping Project series. Printed on virtually indestructible Polyart synthetic paper Madagaskar 1:1,200,000 shows the whole country on two sides at a scale of 12km:1cm, clearly marking roads, national parks, relief and other features in French. Best of all it can be folded any which way and will survive many taxi brousse journeys. As a backup, try Google Maps and Google Earth, which show satellite imagery of the whole country at quite high resolution: if you’re using a smartphone while in Madagascar, you will often be able to find your way or follow your route, just as you would with a satnav at home – quite handy when that taxi brousse journey really begins to pall. For larger-scale topographical maps, the national mapping body, Foiben-Taosarintanin’ i Madagasikara in Tana (FTM, www.ftm.mg), is your best bet.
Madagascar has more than 300 radio and TV stations and more than a dozen newspapers that appear daily, at least in theory. All media broadcast or print in either Malagasy or French. For many years, press freedom has frequently been curtailed by the government for political reasons, though there are signs that the government is showing a more mature, law-abiding approach. Probably the most informative of the local newspapers is L’Express de Madagascar (lexpressmada.com). There is some limited regular tourist information published in Antananarivo – notably No Comment, a fat, monthly booklet of lifestyle articles and countrywide hotel and restaurant listings well padded by advertising. You can pick copies up in many hotel lobbies. Finding international English-language magazines or newspapers is very difficult now that most of the market for Time, the Financial Times or the International New York Times has migrated online.
You can listen to the BBC World Service in Antananarivo on its FM relay on 89.2 FM and rebroadcast on the following FM local partners on 99.3 FM: Ambatondrazaka, Antsirabe, Diego Suarez, Fianarantsoa, Fort Dauphin, Majunga, Tamatave and Tuléar.
The Malagasy currency, the ariary (ar) was introduced in 2005 to replace the Franc Malgache (fmg) at a rate of 1000ar to 5000fmg. Unfortunately, nobody seems to have told the Malagasy, especially in markets and rural areas, who still say “cinq mille” (5000) when they mean 1000ar (the notes in fact still have the fmg value in small print beneath the ariary value). The extraordinary speed at which people compute their five-times table has to be heard to be believed, but do be careful: sharp operators sometimes take advantage of slow-witted visitors, especially with prices so low in the first place. The other local currency issue to be prepared for is the very low value of Malagasy notes. The largest note is 10,000ar, currently worth around £2.25, €3.10 or US$3.50, and the smallest note is 100ar, worth around £0.02p, €0.03 or US$0.04 (there are no coins). So a handful of low-denomination notes is worth no more than one small coin in hard currency, while a modest 200,000ar hotel bill (value £45/€60/US$70) would require twenty of the highest denomination notes.
While the official currency is the ariary, which is steadily declining in value, prices for hotels and tourist services are often quoted in euros, based on an approximate conversion rate. The actual price in ariary will be adjusted accordingly, depending on the current rate, and usually turns out to be lower than expected.
Cash, cards and ATMs
Madagascar is largely a cash-based economy. Credit cards can be used to settle bills for some services, but most business are not set up to accept them. Travellers’ cheques are rarely carried and very hard to change as banks are not familiar with them. The best strategy is to carry a Visa debit card to withdraw local currency from ATMs and to keep a separate cache of high-denomination euro notes to pay for airfares and the like, securely stashed about your person.
Most towns have one or more ATMs (GAB) and you can usually withdraw up to forty notes (ie, a maximum of 400,000ar, worth about £90/€120/US$140). This is quite a sizeable pile of money, and you may need to make two or more withdrawals if you’re paying for vehicle rental or a tour. So it’s a good idea to take a purse or pouch specifically for carrying your local currency, tucking away the 10,000ar notes in separate bundles and keeping smaller denominations to hand for buying street food, paying for taxis and the like. It does take some getting used to, and it’s a good idea to be prepared in advance when you have to make any payment.
Business hours in Madagascar are notoriously fickle, but places tend to open roughly 8am–noon and 2–6pm Monday to Friday, with a short morning on Saturday (around 8–11am).
Like most countries in the developing world, Madagascar has embraced mobile phone technology enthusiastically. Most people have a cell phone; many of them are smart phones; and airtime/data credit can be purchased on any street corner, even in rural areas. Cell phone masts are fairly well distributed, and 3G quite widely available, so you will rarely be unconnected for long – if that’s what you want. And it is certainly useful to be able to call hotels, your driver or a national park. Telephone landlines, by contrast, often don’t work.
Malagasy landlines start with (0)20 for Telecom Madagascar, followed by 7 numbers, while mobile lines start (0)32 for Orange, (0)33 for Airtel and (0)34 for Telma, also followed by 7 digits. Most businesses rely on Orange and Airtel lines, which generally have better coverage. It’s common for hotels, for example, to have a mobile at reception, rather than an unreliable landline phone. Network-to-network calls are cheapest.
If you bring your mobile to Madagascar, the chances are that as soon as it is turned on it will automatically search for the partner network of your phone provider and enable you to make calls and download data – on an extremely expensive roaming tariff. Unless someone else is paying, that isn’t a great option. However, as long as your phone is “unlocked” (usable by another network, once you’ve switched your main SIM card for the SIM card of the other network provider) you will be able to make and receive calls and use the internet using one of the inexpensive Malagasy 3G networks. You can check if your phone is unlocked by trying another SIM card in it before you leave: if not, you will need to ask your provider to unlock it.
On arrival at Ivato airport, you’ll find desks for all three networks and the staff will register a new SIM for you and load airtime and data on it as you require. You will have a temporary Malagasy number, and your usual number will be unobtainable while that SIM is out of your phone, but all your email and internet usage will be seamless. Expect the whole set-up to cost around £20/€25/€30 for around three weeks of average-usage airtime including 1GB of data. Further top-ups, if necessary, can either be done by buying a scratch card (they’ll talk you through it or do it for you) or by “tele-charging” from a sales person’s phone to yours. In remote areas, top-up cards will invariably be low-value (1000ar or 2000ar), and usually sold for higher than the face value.
If all this sounds like too much trouble, remember you can still use your phone’s wi-fi function to stay in touch by email, social media or apps wherever there is a wi-fi hotspot, though remember that you won’t be able to make or receive calls or SMS texts unless you turn on your own provider’s roaming function.
You might also consider buying a cheap local phone to use for your trip: you can always leave it behind with someone. Prices start at around 60,000ar.
Madagascar is a paradise for keen photographers. Not only is it scenically stunning, and bursting with fascinating and colourful animals that very often show little fear of humans, but the Malagasy people themselves generally have no objection to being photographed, and even more so now that so many locals have their own cameraphones. You can wander along the beach in Diego Suarez, Île Sainte Marie or Morondava and photograph the fishermen bringing in their catch, the boats on the shore, and an old gentleman wobbling past on his bicycle and nobody will bat an eyelid. This doesn’t mean that you should snap away regardless: there are occasions, around private events, including famadihana ceremonies and other rituals, near tombs and sacred sites, and in cities, when you may incur someone’s displeasure if you take a photo. Use your judgement of the people around you: take some innocuous shots before aiming at your intended target, giving them the chance to say no in advance. What you will rarely find is someone holding out their hand for payment: more often people, especially children, will line up to pose for you.
Getting a little technical: firstly, be aware that at least some of the time you are likely to be taking photos in quite low light. All the rainforest parks and even the dry deciduous parks involve walking on footpaths though dense vegetation. If you’re using a DSLR, then the first consideration should be to have lenses that are as fast as possible, with the largest maximum aperture you can afford. An f/5.6–f/6.3 kit zoom lens won’t hack it and your shutter speeds will be way too slow to capture leaping lemurs and fluttering birds. If you have to compromise on focal length to get a fast lens, you might even find that something like a 105mm or 135mm macro, with an aperture of f/2 would serve you much better, and give you wonderful close-up insect options as well. Ideally of course, you’d also have a 200mm or 300mm lens that opens up to f/2.8. The investment would be major, but the photos will be far better.
The other item that’s more or less essential for good photos in the forest is a sturdy tripod. Lemurs are often practically overhead, so get a ballhead tripod that doesn’t weigh too much and be prepared to get a cricked neck. The Manfrotto BeFree isn’t too expensive and works well. As well as the tripod, it’s very useful to have a little remote controller for your shutter.
Madagascar’s time zone is three hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (UTC) all year round, so it’s 3pm in Madagascar when it’s noon GMT or 2pm in Madagascar when it’s noon British Summer Time. It’s eight hours ahead of North American Eastern Standard Time, and eleven hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time. Take off an hour from these (ie seven hours and ten hours ahead respectively) during summer daylight saving time. Madagascar is seven hours behind Sydney and nine hours behind New Zealand; add an hour to these during summer daylight saving time. And it’s one hour ahead of South Africa.
Sunrise in December comes at roughly between 5am and 5.30am and sunset at between 6.15pm and 7pm. In June the sun comes up between 6am and 7am, and sets between 5.15pm and 5.30pm. Dawn arrives earliest on the east coast and the sun sets latest in the southwest. There is therefore a small variation in day length throughout the year, greatest in the far south which sees Madagascar’s shortest winter days in June and July (10hr 30min) and its longest summer days in December and January (13hr 30min).
The main sources of official visitor information about Madagascar are the various regional tourist offices in every large town around the country reporting to the Office National du Tourisme de Madagascar (madagascar-tourisme.com; addresses in the relevant town listings throughout this guide). These range from fairly dopey and unhelpful to efficient and responsive. They often have useful leaflets and maps, and sometimes further magazines and other items for sale. There are no Madagascar tourist offices abroad.
Travellers with disabilities
Travelling in Madagascar with restricted mobility is a major challenge – as any Malagasy wheelchair (fauteuil roulant) user would be likely to tell you. Although Madagascar has a coordinating body for relevant organizations, La Plateforme des Fédérations des Handicapés de Madagascar, it doesn’t have a website and there is very little support for disabled people outside of specific health campaigns driven by overseas NGOs.
But if you are prepared for a considerable amount of lifting and bumping, as wheelchair-using Malagasy people have to be, and already have some experience of this kind of thing, then there are few truly insurmountable hurdles. Assuming you’re not contemplating a solo independent journey, you could start by contacting our recommended tour operators and see if they can help with your specific requirements. While there are one or two African safari operators who specialize in trips for wheelchair users, for example Go Africa (go-africa-safaris.com), Madagascar isn’t on offer. It is likely to come down to what adapted vehicles are available on the island and how accessible the most convenient rooms are at each place you want to visit. Air Madagascar’s internal flights all require passengers to board via the plane’s steps; for advice on assistance when flying with Air Mad call the helpful people at Aviareps.
Exploring the more rugged parks may prove to be impossible – though with enough time and flexibility there’s no absolute barrier to getting at least to the gates, and possibly driving inside for a way. Parc National Montagne d’Ambre has drivable routes within the park, as do Ankarana and Ankarafantsika. Other possible venues offering a less circumscribed visit would be some of the private reserves, such as Berenty and Nahampoana, near Fort Dauphin, and Kirindy and the Avenue of the Baobabs near Morondava. All of these smaller protected areas feature reasonably flat, hard terrain and the odd well-graded path, where a wheelchair and helper would be able to move around relatively easily.