Madagascar is without a doubt the most difficult country I’ve ever travelled in. The reasons for this include the lack of infrastructure in the country which makes booking hotels, flights or buses a difficult and often frustrating task! The language barrier can also make travel difficult. Malagasy is the main language spoken with French being the second most common language. Very little English is spoken in the country, therefore, a basic understanding of French is really useful when travelling in Madagascar. Despite these difficulties, Madagascar is an incredible country to explore and one that is definitely ‘off the beaten track’, so if you’re up for a challenge then Madagascar might just be the country for you!
Getting there, visas, currency etc.
We flew to Madagascar from London Heathrow with Ethiopian airlines, stopping via Ethiopia en-route. Most flights travel via Paris and a return flight generally costs around £570. All international flights will arrive into Ivato airport which is located approximately 30km outside of Antananarivo and taxis charge around 30,000 Ariary (£6.50) to get into the capital.
Visas can be obtained on arrival, however as of November 2018 it is now not possible to purchase a 3 month visa. The maximum length of stay visa available at the airport is for 2 months and costs €40. The reason for this change in visa status is unclear and came into effect after the Presidential elections. This made things difficult for us as we had already planned our 3 month stay in Madagascar, so had to spend a number of days travelling to Governmental and Foreign Offices to extend our visa by one month!
The local currency in Madagascar is the Malagasy Ariary and generally works out as roughly 4,500 Ariary to £1. I arrived in the country with Euros, however other than the Visa payment, euros are not needed. Save yourself having to pay the conversion rate twice and simply use one of the widely available ATM’s on arrival to obtain Ariary.
For travel around Madagascar, we found the Lonely planet book to be outdated and irrelevant, however the most recent version of the Bradt guide is a much more useful book to use with helpful advice written and up to date information. Google maps also does not work very well in Madagascar, however Maps.me is a great app which uses GPS location and is something we relied upon when travelling through the country!
Antananarivo or ‘Tana’ as it is often called is the busy, polluted capital City of Madagascar. Most tourists tend to only spend a night or two here before leaving to explore the country. However, if you do decide to spend a bit longer here there are a range of activities and places to explore!
The main way to get around the city is to hop in one of the local petits taxi’s. You’ll recognise them by their cream colour. A trip in a petit taxi is always a fun one, often the doors will barely close, and they will struggle to get up the steep hills of Tana. It’s like the French cars considered not good enough for the roads of France have come to Tana to spend their final days! What they lack in efficiency however, they make up for in quirkiness!
For journeys outside of the capital the best bus company to use is Cotisse transport. Journeys must be booked and fully paid for at the bus station at least 24 hours in advance which can be difficult given the station’s location in the far North of the City. They have a website but good luck using it as the payment option often tends to fail!
Things to do in Antananarivo
- The Rova: The main tourist attraction in Tana is the old palace overlooking the entire city. The palace ruins and views over the City are definitely worth a visit. Walking a little further round from the Rova will lead you to the hotel Lokanga which is a great location for a sundowner over the City!
- Walking tour from the Rova to the Gare: another alternative is to start your day in the Rova and then walk the steep streets down to the old train station or Gare. The train station no longer functions, however there are a range of lovely boutique shops inside.
- The Digue artisanal market: This market located on the road from Tana to the airport contains hundreds of tiny stalls selling handicrafts and local goods. Be prepared to bargain though as often the price quoted is 4 times what you should be paying!
- Spas and pools: Tana is home to lots of fancy hotels with spas, pools, and patisseries. One of our favourite ways to relax in the City was to visit L’éclair café at the Carlton hotel before relaxing at the hotel pool. Otherwise Patisserie Colbert in the centre of the city has a lovely Patisserie and spa.
- Lemur park: we never made it to the lemur park, however if you don’t have time to visit a National park to see lemurs, the lemur park located just outside the capital is a good choice.
Places to stay and eat
Tana has a wide range of places to stay, including the country’s only hostel, Underground hostel.
- Underground hostel: a backpacker friendly hostel right in the centre of the city with pool table and tasty Mexican food available. Be sure to try their local craft beer Red Island brew!
- L’ouvre: a central hotel located opposite the tourist information centre with gallery located in the bottom floor.
- Buffet du Jardin: restaurant with good WiFi and in the centre of the City opposite the tourist information. Often filled with tourists and a good base to start or finish a City walking tour.
- Infinithe café: located in the Anosy area of the City, a lovely café with tasty brunch options
- La Varangue: Michelin star restaurant without the Michelin star price tag! Set in a beautiful old colonial house opposite the President’s palace. Be sure to try the Chocolate bomb or souffle desserts!
A note on Safety
Tana, being the Capital can often be described as unsafe, however by following a few simple precautions there is no reason that you should feel unsafe during your time in Tana.
- Do as the locals do and carry your backpack or bag with valuables on your front. A padlock on your bag is also a good precautionary measure. Areas like Independence avenue are prime pickpocket locations so be especially careful here!
- Don’t walk around at night. Tana becomes deserted at night, even the locals pack up and head inside by 9pm at the latest. If you do travel at night, ask your hotel or restaurant to call you a taxi and always carry your passport with you at night. Police have been known to complete random spot checks, and if you are not carrying your passport you will likely have to pay a bribe.
- By following these easy steps and having your wits about you, Tana should be a safe and relaxing place to explore!
Andasibe is often most travellers’ first stop after Antananarivo, and for good reason! It’s home to the Indri, the largest lemur, as well as mouse lemurs, brown lemurs, golden sifakas, and a host of other birds and reptiles. We spent a long weekend here and it is definitely one of my favourite places in Madagascar!
- How to get there: Cotisse buses leave from Tana and take 3 hours to get to Andasibe. The journey passes through fields of rice paddies and forests and is most people’s first glimpse of rural Malagasy life.
- Where we stayed: We stayed in Feon’ny Ala which means ‘call of the forest’. I can’t recommend this place enough. Only a short walk from the bus stop and set right on the edge of the forest, you can wake up in the morning, emerge from your cabana and listen to the call of the Indri over breakfast, an incredible experience! Feon’ny Ala costs approximately £10 per night for private cabana with ensuite. Other places to stay are located along the same road and are within a similar price range.
- Things to do in Andasibe:
– Visit the National Parks: The main reason people come to Andasibe is to see lemurs and explore the National parks. Tours of the park can be arranged with guides located at the park entrance. A 4 hour tour including entrance fees and guide cost us £30 for 2 people. Make sure to arrive early in the morning as this is when the lemurs are most active.
– Night walks in Mitsinjo National Park: Mitsinjo is run by a local NGO, to encourage the local people to preserve the forest. A 90 minute tour here cost us £4.50 with proceeds going to the local community. If you don’t fancy a night walk, it is often possible to spot the nocturnal mouse lemur by walking along the road adjacent to Mitsinjo.
Now, it’s worth saying that many of the roads in Madagascar are in a poor state which can make travel difficult or even impossible in some areas of the country! A great travel option which many first time travellers to Madagascar will take is the RN7 route down to the South Western end of the country. This route covers a wide range of territories, from towering rock formations to beautiful tropical beaches! We took about 1.5 weeks to follow this route stopping frequently along the way before flying back to Tana again.
Antsirabe is the first town of note you will reach when heading South from Tana. It is a lovely little town with hot springs, shops and lakes for exploring.
- How to get there: The bus company Soatrans depart from Tana and take approximately 3.5 hours to get to Antsirabe.
- Where we stayed: We stayed in a hotel called Les Chambres de la Voyager, a lovely hotel with it’s own botanical garden complete with tortoises, doves, and a friendly dog who’d often follow us around!
- Things to do in Antsirabe:
– Explore the town: exploring the old churches, shops and streets of Antsirabe is a great way to spend a day. Make sure to visit the amazing Robert’s chocolatier if you’re a chocoholic like me! If you don’t fancy walking, the Pousse Pousse drivers (cycle rickshaws) offer tours.
– Rent a bicycle: If you would like to explore the surrounding area of Antsirabe, it is possible to rent a bicycle and cycle the 48km round trip to the incredible volcanic Lac Tritriva. Be warned, the road is steep, and often a dirt track in many places, but the views are worth it! We rented a bike from Rando’s Raids for 30,000 Ariary for the day which included a helmet, map, and bottle of water.
The next town along the RN7 after Antsirabe is Fianarantsoa, a town with a beautiful colonial area set atop a steep valley with incredible views over the town!
- How to get there: Cotisse transport operate as far as Fianarantsoa. If you decide to travel straight here from Tana the journey takes about 10 hours.
- Where we stayed: we stayed in a lovely B’n’B called La Case Madrigal. It is run by a friendly French woman and includes a restaurant which serves delicious food!
- Things to do in Fianarantsoa:
– Visit the old town: The old town is well worth exploring, with it’s cobbled streets and colonial buildings making you feel like you are in Europe instead of Africa! The streets are easy to navigate so don’t bother hiring one of the local guides who will likely accost you on your way to the town.
– Ranomofana National Park: Ranomofana is actually famous for it’s hot springs nearby, but most people often skip this in favour of the National park to see lemurs. It’s worth seeing the springs if you have the time. The National park is home to red fronted sifakas, golden bamboo lemurs, and brown lemurs, as well as a range of reptiles and amphibians.
Ranohira/Isalo National Park
Ranohira is the gateway town to the incredible Isalo National park, which is essentially a Malagasy grand canyon!
After Fianarantsoa, the Cotisse bus services stop and taxi brousses or local buses are now the main form of transport. These are essentially mini buses but can be quite an experience! It is amazing to see how much luggage, fruit and vegetables can be strapped to the top of these buses, and how many people can be squeezed inside the bus! Taxi brousses will stop at every village enroute so it can make for a slow journey. On our first taxi brousse experience a wasp flew in through the window and stung me, and then our tyre blew whilst we were travelling at 60mph! It all makes for a fun experience and good story though!
- How to get there: Taxi brousses run from Fianarantsoa to Ranohira taking anywhere from 5 to 7 hours. Try to book your ticket a day in advance to ensure you get a seat.
- Where we stayed: We stayed at the ITC lodge which had the trekking company Momo trek attached. However I would not recommend staying here! The rooms were cramped and dirty, and the food wasn’t great either! An alternative place to stay is Pizzaeria Italiana Liberta located just a short walk from the centre. It is run by an Italian/Malagasy family and rooms have views overlooking the canyon. The pizza here is the best we’ve ever tasted!!
- Things to do in Ranohira:
–Trekking Isalo National park: trekking in the park affords incredible views up and through the canyon, before travelling down into the pools and oasis’ below. Be warned, the heat in the canyon is relentless with little shade in the 35 degree heat, and the hike is challenging! You will have the opportunity to see ringtail lemurs in the park and swim in the beautiful waterfalls and pools inside the canyon. We chose to embark on a 2 day trek with 1 night camping in the park. Guides and tour packages can be arranged from the park office.
Tulear is the last town on the RN7 route, but most tourists don’t stay here as it is a large commercial port. Instead, people make a beeline for either Ifaty in the North or Anakao just South of Tulear. We decided to travel to Anakao.
- How to get there: Buses travelling to Tulear are often full by the time they reach Ranohira, however we managed to find a Taxi brousse which left Ranohira at 6am to make the 5 hour journey to Tulear. Be prepared, taxi brousses don’t leave until they are full so will often drive up and down the streets trying to get customers which can take a few hours!
– If travelling on to Anakao the boats leave at 9.30am for the once per day crossing. The boat is called the Anakao express and takes 1 hour from Tulear to Anakao. We were not aware of this so had to spend the night in Tulear and catch the boat the following day. Anakao does not have ATM’s so make sure you stock up on cash in Tulear before making the crossing
- Where we stayed: In Tulear we stayed in Escapade which is right next to the Taxi brousse station. In Anakao we stayed in Prince Anakao, however I’d recommend the hotel next door to Prince Anakao called Lalandaka which had a much nicer atmosphere, better food, and helpful staff.
- Things to do in Anakao:
– Enjoy the paradise beaches! The deserted sands of Anakao are beautiful and worth spending your time relaxing, swimming and exploring. The main way to get around is walking along the beach stopping at the beach side hotels for a drink if needed along the way!
– Snorkel trips: Most hotels can organise snorkel trips to nearby islands. The boats used are sail pirogues and they’ll often catch fish along the way and cook it on a beach barbeque for you. It doesn’t get much fresher! The trips cost about 35,000 Ariary per person.
From here, all roads lead back to Tana, you can travel back the way you came along the RN7 by road, or take the 1 hour flight back to the Capital like we did.
In addition to travelling down the RN7 route, we also had the opportunity to visit a number of other Cities during our three months of working in Madagascar:
Tamatave is a large port City on the East coast of Madagascar. We spent 2 weeks in Tamatave working in the local hospital, but we also managed to make good use of our weekends to explore!
- How to get there: Cotisse run a bus service which takes approximately 8 hours from Tana.
- Where we stayed: We stayed in Generation hotel, a locally run, cheap hotel with friendly staff and a tasty breakfast. It is also quite central and just a few streets away from the harbour.
- Things to do in Tamatave:
– Tamatave itself has little to keep you here for longer than a night or two. Most people tend to use it as a gateway to Isle Sainte Marie in the north, or the Pangalanes canal in the south.
– Visit the Pangalanes canal: A trip on the pangalanes canal can easily be arranged from Tamatave, with the main tour operators using the boat Reine Tina. Tours can last from 1 day to a week. We chose a 1 day tour and feel that this was a nice way to see the canal if you have less time.
– Sample the food: the food in Tamatave is some of the best I have eaten in Madagascar! Restaurants such as The Villa, Ocean 501, and Cote Cour all have incredible food worth enjoying!
Isle Sainte Marie/Isle Aux Nattes
For many people, a trip to the islands of Isle Sainte Marie and Isle Aux Nattes are the highlights of their time in Madagascar! The islands are on the East coast and a good alternative to the busy, touristic island of Nosy Be in the North. These islands are also great for whale watching in season. We spent 4 nights on Isle Aux Nattes, an island just south of Isle Sainte Marie, and 3 nights on Isle Sainte Marie.
- How to get there: Getting to Isle Sainte Marie from Tamatave involves travelling 80km by road which takes 3 hours due to the poor state of the road, and then a 2.5 hour ferry crossing. The company El Condor run a joint bus and ferry service, so is a good option to ensure you catch the ferry on time! Tuk tuks run from the ferry entry point to the South of the island where you can get a local pirogue sailor to take you across to Isle Aux Nattes and directly to your hotel.
- Where we stayed Isle Aux Nattes: We stayed in Baboo Village, a lovely hotel with little log cabins and friendly staff set right on the water.
- Things to do Isle Aux Nattes:
– Explore the island: The island is car free, so spending a day walking the sandy trails to explore the island and visit the beautiful beaches on the South coast is worth doing! The sunsets and beaches on Isle Aux Nattes are incredible!
– Snorkel trips: the reef off the East coast is beautiful and full of coral and fish!
- Where we stayed Isle Sainte Marie: We stayed in La Bigorne on the main street of Isle Sainte Marie. It is cheaper to stay along the main street and then travel the island than staying in the larger, more isolated resorts further into the island.
- Things to do Isle Sainte Marie:
– Whale watching tours: Isle Sainte Marie is one of the best places in Madagascar to see whales. Unfortunately we were not there in the right season, but this did make the island a lot quieter and peaceful than it would usually be when tourists flock here in whale season!
– Rent a quad: the best way to explore the island is on a quad! You can hire one for the day and explore all the way to the North of the island to visit the Natural pools and beaches. To explore the beach you must have a guide due to the ‘fady’ or sacred areas.
Boats back to the mainland take about 3 hours, leaving at 5am and the crossing can often be quite rocky (the cabin crew will be on hand for you with sea sick bags!).
The final place we visited in Madagascar was Mahajanga in the North West of the country. Again, we were here mainly for work and only for 4 days, but there is plenty to explore in this seaside town!
- How to get there: Cotisse run a bus service from Tana to Mahajanga which takes 12 hours. It is not possible to travel straight to Mahajanga from Tamatave in the East as the road stops, therefore you will have to travel back to Tana in order to travel North.
- Where we stayed: we stayed in a hotel called Anjary hotel which is a good central option.
- Things to do in Mahajanga:
– Walk along the promenade: Mahajanga has a lovely promenade to walk along, or join the locals in watching the sunset with a beer or ice cream!
– Sample the food: Mahajanga has lots of tasty restaurants including The Patisserie or the Baobab hotel and spa, the Promenade restaurant, Thi Lin, a Vietnamese restaurant, and Chez Madam Cheuboard if you’re wanting something a bit fancier!
– Cinq Terres: the impressive rock formations of cinq terres can be easily reached by taxi from Mahajanga. Arriving at sunset makes the red rocks even more impressive!
Madagascar is a fascinating country to explore. Out of all the countries I have travelled to it truly felt like the most ‘off the beaten track’. This can make exploring challenging but very rewarding!
To watch a video of our travels through Madagascar and the places mentioned above, click on the Youtube link below!
I hope you have found this blog post helpful. If you have any questions or comments feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy Travels!