Travel Tips Madagascar for planning and on the go

AS A COUPLE
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More travel information for Madagascar

Costs

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.

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.

Electricity

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.

Entry requirements

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.

Internet

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.

For unlimited Wi-Fi on the go whilst travelling Madagascar, buy a Skyroam Solis, which works in 130+ countries at one flat daily rate, paid for on a pay-as-you-go basis. You can connect up to five devices at once. Prices start from as little as €5 a day.

Laundry

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.

Mail

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.

Maps

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.

The media

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.

Money

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.

Opening hours

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).

Phones

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.

Using mobiles

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.

Photography

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.

Time

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).

Tourist information

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.

Tipping

Tipping isn’t deeply established in Madagascar. When you’re living and travelling among Malagasy people, you’ll be unlikely to feel the need to tip anyone: cheap hotels and restaurants are often run by their owners, using family staff, and when travelling by taxi brousse, it’s more a matter of ensuring you’re not paying over the odds for your seat or bag than of considering leaving any extra. The idea of a payment for services rendered is quite common, however, so any kind of assistance, such as someone showing you the way or helping with luggage (notoriously, when arriving at the airport and fending off unwanted “porters”) would normally demand some kind of recompense. Keep some small notes (200ar, 500ar) handy for this kind of thing.

When travelling more as a wealthy tourist, staying at expensive resort-style hotels for example, it’s best to leave a common tip at the end of your stay with reception or in the tip box in the foyer. You would probably also do the same when parting company with your driver at the end of a tour. Guides in national parks don’t always expect tips, but an extra 5000ar after a few hours of trekking and lemur-watching is a very acceptable way of offering thanks.

Health advice for Madagascar

Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest countries, and for locals it’s their poverty that largely determines general health and life chances. For visitors, staying healthy should not be a big issue. You need to be aware of malaria but generally, so long as you take sensible precautions – including taking care of cuts and scrapes and avoiding food that has been left out after cooking – you should have no problems beyond the occasional stomach upset. Beware of the strong sunlight: brightness rather than heat is the damaging element, so wear a hat and use high-factor sun block, especially in your first two weeks. Check that your travel insurance (which is essential for Madagascar) covers medical care, including emergency evacuation, and all the activities you might want to do, including diving. If you’re going to Madagascar for several months, get a thorough dental checkup before leaving home. Be aware that sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, are rife: using condoms will help to protect you – though abstinence is even more effective.

Vaccinations

For arrivals by air direct from Europe, Madagascar has no required inoculations, though if you’re stopping over in an African country that is within the yellow fever transmission zone (bit.ly/YellowFeverRules),you may well be required to show an International Vaccination Certificate for yellow fever. A yellow fever certificate only becomes valid ten days after you’ve had the jab, but is then valid for life. You should ensure that you’re up to date with your childhood tetanus and polio protection: boosters are necessary every ten years for tetanus and once as an adult for polio. If you’re going to be living for some time in unhygienic conditions, doctors will usually recommend jabs for typhoid, hepatitis A and hepatitis B – although these are not necessary for an ordinary holiday. Depending on the health service provision in your area, or your personal circumstances, some of these jabs may be free, but be prepared to pay.

Malaria

The whole of Madagascar below about 2000m is a malaria zone, though the parasite (transmitted by the female Anopheles mosquito, which habitually only bites after dark) is much more easily picked up in crowded urban areas and struggles to survive much above 1700m. You need to be most careful when in coastal towns, especially in the northern half of the island, where you should use mosquito repellent on exposed skin in the evening, sleep under a good mosquito net and of course take your malaria tablets diligently.

The commonly recommended preventatives are the antibiotic doxycycline (doxy), taken daily, or atovaquone-with-proguanil, taken daily (sold as Malarone), which, while expensive, has few side effects. These drugs are often available only on prescription, though in some countries you can buy them over the counter. It’s important to maintain a careful routine and keep taking the tablets after your trip. If you’re going to be staying in Madagascar for some time, it’s worth knowing you can buy doxy and other tablets much more cheaply from pharmacies in-country.

Even if you have been taking tablets, if you come down rapidly over the course of a day with severe, flu-like symptoms (aching joints, temperature) you may have caught malaria and should get yourself to a doctor as fast as possible for a blood test and treatment.

Water, food and stomach upsets

While some of Madagascar’s piped water supply is safe to drink, it’s probably safer to rely on the local plastic-bottled Eau Vive, sold absolutely everywhere in 1.5-litre bottles. As for picking up bugs from food, there’s really no evidence that the meals emerging from the hidden kitchens of fine hotels and restaurants are any less likely to give you a stomach upset than street food freshly prepared in front of you. That said, it’s easy to find yourself tucking into street food immediately after handling another bunch of filthy low-value bank notes, so it’s useful to keep a small flask of sanitizer gel to hand.

Happily, the tummies of most short-term visitors, at both ends of the budget spectrum, survive unscathed. Should you go down with diarrhoea, it will probably clear up without treatment within 48 hours. While you’re battling the bug, it’s essential to replace the fluids and salts lost, so drink plenty of water with oral rehydration salts, which most pharmacies carry. If you can’t get these sachets, make your own solution by dissolving half a teaspoon of salt and eight teaspoons of sugar in a litre of water.

Bugs and wildlife

Madagascar’s native fauna is not only beautiful and often unique but largely quite harmless. With the exception of the rarely seen fossa, there are no threatening large animals here, nor dangerous snakes (some snakes are rear-fanged but can’t deliver a dangerous bite to humans unless offered a little finger to chew on). Various invertebrates – scorpions, ants, bees, centipedes, biting flies and the odd spider – can give a painful sting or bite, and you should always be wary of touching hairy caterpillars (or plants for that matter: ask your guide first), but there are no mortally dangerous bugs on the island. While hiking in the national parks, you should be prepared to be occasionally assailed by biting flies, mosquitoes and ticks, and it can be useful to carry mossie spray, liquid or impregnated wipes with you into the forest. In damp, rainforest areas, leeches can be an unpleasant pest, but as their attacks are painless you often don’t realize you have one hanging from your ankle until it’s filled itself with your blood. Use a fingernail to break the seal then flick the leech off.

Health care in Madagascar

Madagascar’s government health system is challenged on all sides, with the treatment of childhood diarrhoea and malaria absorbing much of its limited resources, and occasional outbreaks of cholera (treatable) and bubonic plague (spread by rat fleas) not uncommon – though neither disease is likely to be of any concern to travellers who are not living in squalid conditions in the affected locations. Pharmacies usually have professionally trained staff and are a useful first port of call if you are unwell. Local hospitals and clinics may be able to help, but if you need treatment for serious illness or injury, flying to Réunion (part of the European Union) might be a better plan: it’s what many affluent Malagasy do if they need private treatment.

Culture in Madagascar

Madagascar’s cultural heritage is fascinating, and completely unexpected if you have any experience of travelling on the African continent: this is not Africa. Traditional Malagasy culture derives in large part from the other side of the Indian Ocean, blended with strong influences from the African mainland, and more recently with the traces of the French colonial experience and with the Creole culture of the Mascarene Islands – Mauritius, Réunion and Rodrigues. There are distinct variations among the various ethnic regions of Madagascar, but on the whole, it’s an informal, welcoming society, and relations with vazaha (foreigners) are usually relaxed and uncomplicated.

Fady

In counterpoint to the surface gaiety of street life, traditional culture is infested with the deeply woven threads of rigorous and often seemingly bizarre restrictions, known as fady. Fady are traditional injunctions and mandates regulating everyday life. Mostly not as strong as taboos, they are believed to derive from the wishes of the ancestors, or razana, and people believe they bring bad luck if disobeyed. The razana include not just the long dead of the distant past but recently deceased relatives – whose remains, in the central highlands region, are regularly exhumed and paraded at famadihana ceremonies. The personalities, habits and whims of the ancestors are transmuted into the fears and desires of their descendants and their extended families. Over time, certain fady have become widespread across districts and entire ethnic regions.

On the whole, fady don’t impact greatly on short-term visitors, and most Malagasy understand that vazaha don’t know about their local fady. Educated and westernized Malagasy fear them much less, and at their mildest they are little more than superstitions, like not walking under a ladder. Many fady relate to the hunting of certain animals and how to behave in forest areas which often have spiritual significance: national park guides may explain certain rules of behaviour to you before you start your walk, which might include not smoking or eating, or avoiding amorous contact.

Fady become much more significant if you’re living in Madagascar, when you’ll discover that there are places you can and can’t go, depending on circumstances, actions you can’t perform on certain days, colours you must avoid wearing in certain conditions, and so on. The only way you’ll come to understand your area’s fady is to talk to locals: you won’t get a uniform response, but you can soon build up a picture of how much the fady control people’s lives.

Greetings and body language

Greetings are fairly straightforward, with handshaking the norm especially between men, and in an urban setting or in a Western context such as an office, between both sexes. French-style cheek-to-cheek greetings are also de rigueur among people who know each other. As a vazaha, you’re not likely to be made to feel uncomfortable by any minor gaffes in social etiquette. Watch what others do, and take note of the following general rules: the left hand is reserved for unclean acts, at least in theory, so don’t use it to pass things or eat with; avoid pointing with an outstretched finger, but crook your finger instead; and beckon with the palm down, not up.

Religion

A century and a half of Christian mission work across the island has had a major impact on religious beliefs. Around twenty percent of the population are Roman Catholics and a quarter follow various Protestant churches, including the largest, the Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar (Fiangonan’i Jesoa Kristy eto Madagasikara or FJKM), with perhaps eight percent being Muslims. But people everywhere tend also to adhere to traditional beliefs, for example happily mixing the practice of confession with planning the next exhumation ceremony. Only the more extreme evangelical churches have pushed hard against traditional practices.

Dress and modesty

Every Malagasy tribe has its traditional dress, hair and hat styles, but these are often hard to discern as people move, intermarry and follow global fashion trends rather than traditional styles. Modern Malagasy dress styles tend to split along rural and urban lines for women, although there isn’t a lot of difference as far as men are concerned, calf-length trousers and loose shirts being the norm, along with a good solid hat. Older rural women typically wear long cotton dresses or lamba wraps, often with straw hats. However, their younger counterparts, and the majority of women in towns, are often strikingly attired in tight, brightly coloured leggings or shorts, and skinny T-shirts. It’s an outfit that looks more fit for the dancefloor than walking to market, and dramatically reveals an absence of traditional restraint. And it means that as a visitor, refreshingly enough, your own choice of dress is not apt to faze the locals. This informality extends to relations between the sexes: physical contact between men and women is relatively unrestrained, and you’ll often see couples out for a stroll, arm in arm.

Sexuality

Malagasy sexual attitudes are less conservative than you might expect. Sex outside marriage, divorce and remarriage are common, and casual sex and informal prostitution are very widespread. Parts of Madagascar, particularly Nosy Be, have acquired notoriety for sex tourism – not in any organized sense, simply as a result of women heading to the bars to make some extra money, or possibly even to find a husband. In turn, many European men, drawn by the allure of what they perceive to be Madagascar’s uncluttered mores, end up trying to establish a business with a Malagasy business partner (a legal requirement) who is their girlfriend. These relationships often end badly and many Malagasy are offended and deeply uncomfortable about the widespread exploitation of young people. There is strong support for efforts to eradicate child sexual exploitation (sex workers have to be 18 and carry ID cards).

Unlike many countries in the region, Madagascar has never had any laws governing male or female homosexual relationships, and gay couples are unlikely to experience any problems here. That said, there is no gay or lesbian scene to speak of.

Alcohol and other drugs

Rum and other spirits, beer and local wine are cheap and available throughout the country, and alcoholism is a serious problem. Most Malagasy are tolerant of booze, even if in the case of strict Muslims and some Christians they don’t touch it themselves. However, public drunkenness and associated misbehaviour is strongly disapproved of: people are expected to behave decently and that includes visitors.

The main illegal drug is marijuana, smoked in herbal form, and grown all over the country. While it is illegal on the statute books, discreet use in private is usually tolerated. Don’t make any assumptions however, or buy or smoke pot without being very sure of your surroundings: if you fall on the wrong side of the law you will get no sympathy from your embassy.

The herbal stimulant khat is legal and quite popular in the north – but something of an acquired taste that there is no special reason to acquire. Other illegal narcotics circulate in Tana and other cities: stay well clear.

Famadihana

Most Malagasy burials are simple: the corpse is tied in a white cotton shroud, wrapped in a raffia mat and placed inside a sealed tomb or in a secure dry cave or a cleft in the rocks traditionally reserved for the purpose. That isn’t always the end of the story, though: the people of the central highlands practice famadihana – ritual reburial, or literally “the turning of the bones”, a custom believed to derive from Indonesia.

Roughly every seven years, in the cool, dry austral winter months between July and September, relatives consult an astrologer to determine the right date, and then gather for a two-day family party to celebrate the lives of their ancestors, with hired bands and plenty to eat and drink. They will usually slaughter a zebu, and then the remains of their nearest and dearest – usually labelled with their names – are retrieved from the family tomb to be lovingly unwrapped and tended. The remains are tidied up, given libations of rum or wine and squirts of perfume. The living have a chance to pass on news and make any requests that they feel their ancestors might assist with, from health and wealth to legal disputes and affairs of the heart. Gifts and photos are sometimes tucked in among the bones, before they are carefully rewrapped in fresh white shrouds, made ideally of finely woven silk, and bundled up for safekeeping. Once reclothed, retied and re-labelled with marker pen, the dead are paraded shoulder-high by the dancing crowd, amid further well-lubricated dancing, and accompanied by appropriately long and rambling eulogies, called kabary.

The practice of famadihana, once staunchly rejected by all Madagascar’s churches, is no longer opposed by the Catholic Church, although evangelical Christians and Muslims have no truck with it. More secular Malagasy these days oppose such close communion with the dead on economic grounds: a good reburial party is extraordinarily expensive. But the intangible social benefits are equally huge. As a passing visitor, you can often participate in a famadihana simply by being in the right place at the right time: you’ll be invited. They are intrinsically public gatherings, and occasions for inclusivity and empathy, so respectful visitors are always welcome – though you will be expected to join in properly by buying some rum and showing off your dance moves.

Khat

There’s a controversial crop that you’ll soon come across if you travel much in Madagascar – khat (Catha edulis), a bushy tree whose leaves and green twigs contain a mildly bitter stimulant sap, not dissimilar from caffeine or kola nuts in effect. It is mainly cultivated around Montagne d’Ambre in the far north and while it has been banned in many countries, in Madagascar it is still legal.

Travelling with children in Madagascar

Travelling with young children in Madagascar is hard work. Journeys are long and unpredictable, it can be very hot and uncomfortable and there’s often a lot of waiting around. Persuading little ones to take malaria pills can be very hard: be sure to cover them carefully with a DEET-based mosquito repellent early each evening and ensure they sleep under secure nets. Every morning, smother them in factor 40 sunscreen, insist they wear hats, and make sure they get plenty of fluids.

Despite the difficulties, French and Italian families flock to the Nosy Be resorts using charter flights (admittedly, few of them are doing much real travelling on the island) and expatriate families manage perfectly well in Tana and other towns. Almost anything that you might need is obtainable, if not always widely available, but you’d still do best to take all your own essentials. You’ll need to take car seats, too (which should go free on the plane, and can also serve as dining thrones when high chairs are unavailable).

The rewards are great, with safe, engaging and approachable wildlife, wonderful beaches and an instinctively child-friendly host population. While taxi brousse travel isn’t really practical with children (you don’t have sufficient control to ensure they’ll be happy or safe), it is possible to work out an itinerary that isn’t too ambitious using either a tour operator or independently booking a vehicle and driver. If you spend some time touring, on the RN7 for example, you might also consider staying in one of the top-end beach-and-rainforest lodges as a relaxing special treat at the end – such as Anjajavy (great for little ones) or Manafiafy (wonderful for teens).

Top 5 national parks for children

Andasibe-Mantadia The closeness to Tana and the proximity of the remarkable indris are always a hit, as are the semi-tame lemurs at Vakona Forest Lodge.

Isalo Wonderful rocky scenery, canyons, easy walks, swimming, climbing, riding and ring-tailed lemurs.

Masoala Combines fabulous rainforest with Robinson Crusoe lodges and safe snorkelling.

Ankarana and Tsingy de Bemaraha Both parks boast extraordinary limestone pinnacle landscapes, through which only lemurs, lizards and active children (on the pathways and footbridges) can move with any ease.

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