With so many things to do in Madagascar it’s literally impossible to experience the entire country in just one visit. So it’s highly advisable to choose just one or two regions to focus on for your first visit to this amazing country.
Once you’ve managed to do that (and it certainly isn’t an easy task!), you need to plan your trip very carefully to ensure you maximise your time here. However, to help you decide how best to explore it, here are a selection of things to see and do in and around the stunning area of Madagascar.
Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. Photo by Rod Waddington .
Known locally as “Tana” (it’s full name being Antananarivo) and occupying over 33 square miles, the capital city of Madagascar is a truly wondrous place to explore whatever time of day you choose to do it. Steeped in history and speckled with beautiful colonial buildings, Tana simply bustles with vibrant activity and, whilst both the pollution and traffic tend to put tourists off staying for any more than a day, it certainly makes for a truly cultural experience in every sense of the word. If you fancy a spot of shopping then you’ll find some excellent markets dotted throughout the city; not to mention quaint little shops stocking authentic crafts from across the country, all of which you’ll find at very competitive prices.
To get a real insight into the country’s history, no visit to the capital could ever be complete without a trip to the Rova, the magnificent Royal fort which sits at the highest point of the city, overlooking a maze of steeped slopes, a labyrinth of narrow lanes and an interesting blend of accommodation types.
Ambohimanga, one of the best-preserved monuments of the precolonial Merina Kingdom. Photo by Sherwood .
Head around 15 miles north east of Tana and you’ll find Ambohimanga, one of the best-preserved monuments of the precolonial Merina Kingdom since it was once the original capital of the Merina Royal family. Meaning, ‘blue hill’ or ‘beautiful hill’, the entrance to Ambohimanga village is notably marked by a large traditional gateway featuring a large flat stone, previously used to seal off the gates utilising the strength of up to 40 slaves in the event a threat was detected to it. In 2001 it became listed as a Unesco World Heritage site who noted it as being ‘the most significant symbol of the cultural identity of the people of Madagascar’. However, as with most places in Madagascar, just be sure to set enough travel time aside to reach the monument since some of the local roads are, at best, extremely tricky to negotiate!
Furry Lemurs in Madagascar.
Renowned as being the most well-known nature reserve in Madagascar, a visit to the Berenty Private Nature Reserve is an absolute must for both mammal and animal lovers alike – not least of all because you’ll get to see its famous population of ring tailed lemurs, fruit bats and ‘dancing’ sifakas. There’s also a small cultural museum where you can learn all about local cultures, including the Antandroy tribe, before setting off on one of the forest trails to meet some of the local residents, including over 103 different species of birds, various chameleons, spider tortoises and even the Madagascar boa!
Another notable park to visit whilst in Madagascar is the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, which is around 150km from Tana and comprises of two very separate and distinct areas – the Reserve Speciale d’Analamazaotra and the much larger Parc National de Mantadia which is located further to the north.
Renowned for the somewhat peculiar call of the Indri, Andasibe is an incredible place to observe these unique families of Lemurs; not to mention the other 13 species that reside in the forest alongside them, such as the woody lemur and aye-aye. It really does have to be seen to be believed.
Beaches in Madagascar are excellent.
For those seeking a little R&R (and let’s face it, you’re on holiday after all), then you’d be very hard pressed to find anywhere more relaxing than the beautiful island of Nosy Be.
Renowned as being Madagascar’s top beach destination, the mora mora lifestyle (meaning slowly, slowly) is exactly that. Boasting golden sandy beaches, sparkling turquoise waters and regular boat trips to the neighbouring island of Nosy Komba, it’s almost impossible not to relax and the whole island has a certain ambience which quite literally soothes the soul. That said, if beachside lazing isn’t quite your thing then you only have to head slightly inland to find lively, bustling markets, a selection of fine rum distilleries and (perhaps surprisingly) a good, vibrant nightlife! Although it’s certainly not a cheap place to visit it’s definitely worth popping by; if only for a day.
Head to the south-east corner of Madagascar and you’ll find the pretty fishing village of Manafiafy. Since it has its own micro-climate the island tends to attract an abundance of humpback whales and dolphins, usually between June and October, making boat trips from here an absolute must. For something a little different you can also take a kayak excursion through the mangroves, do a guided night walk through the rainforest or even picnic on a nearby desert island.
Silhouette of avenue of the Baobabs.
For something entirely different why not visit the Alley of the Baobabs? Popular with tourists from across the globe – not to mention the centre of local conservation efforts – these amazing Adansonia grandidieri trees, standing around 30m in height, line the dirt road between Morondava and Belon’I Tsibibihina. Known locally as renala (Malagasy for “mother of the forest”), the trees act as a legacy of the dense tropical forests which once thrived on Madagascar and are currently up to 800 years old.
Whilst you’re in this particular area it’s also worth heading just 7m further to the north west to see the equally famous Baobab Amoureux – two Adansonia za trees which are naturally twisted together. Local legend suggests these two loving baobabs came together and continued to grow across the centuries following an impossible love between a young couple from the nearby village, since both were already set to marry different lovers. However, having longed for eternal life and having a child together the legend goes on to say that the secret prayed to God, both baobabs were born and they now live for eternity as one – just as the couple had wished.
For those brave enough to spend a night under the stars, then why not try a short camping expedition at Amber Mountain National Park? Here you can either stay at a basic shelter (although remember to take a sleeping bag and overnight provisions, since facilities are limited) or camp at the Station de Rousettes; which is slightly more ‘upmarket’ since it has basic facilities, including running water.
The park itself can be found around 30km south of Diego Suarez and covers a surface over 185km with a mass of biodiversity, ranging from a huge tropical forest to breathtaking waterfalls and lakes.
As you might expect from a park of this size there are a huge number of animal species within it – not least of all 25 different mammals, 6 carnivores (such as the ring-tailed mongoose), 8 lemur species and over 75 different types of bird.
Locals suggest that the best time to visit the park is between September and November since the warmer temperatures throughout this period tend to encourage more activity from its local residents.
Unlike other parks in Madagascar, visitors are at liberty to explore the park without a guide and there are different levels of circuits to suit all abilities.
There are numerous diving opportunities across Madagascar – hardly surprising giving that it has the third largest coral reef in the world – the Toliara reef; which can be found just off the south-western coast. If you’re new to diving then there are various instructors across Madagascar offering all levels of training – from the very basics right up to PADI standard so if you’re looking to take it a bit more seriously it’s certainly a unique place to learn!
There’s really little doubt that, wherever you choose to visit in Madagascar, you’ll never be disappointed by all it has to offer – it’s simply a question of trying to fit as much as possible into just one visit (which most tourists find impossible!)
When planning a journey remember there are two main seasons – a hot and rainy season which starts in November and lasts until April, then a much cooler dry season which starts in May and lasts until October. Depending on where you want to visit you might want to take the weather into account since this can massively affect your opportunity to see certain wildlife. Remember, over 90% of Madagascar animals and wildlife can’t be found anywhere else in the world so if you’re looking to see something specific make sure you research it well in advance to avoid any disappointment.