Filled with dramatic landscapes that highlight its extreme biodiversity, Madagascar is a travel destination unlike any other in the world. On this island nation, there are over 200,000 known species and more are being discovered every year, but what makes the country unique is that 80% of the known species can only be found on Madagascar.
Lemurs are the most famous animals that are only found on Madagascar and its neighboring islands. While lemurs may be the most famous representation of Madagascar’s biodiversity there is plenty of wildlife to see.
Tonga Soa – Welcome to Madagascar
From rock canyons to mountains, rice paddies, turquoise waters, lush rainforests, and the famous baobab trees, Madagascar boasts an impressive array of landscapes. Along with its biodiversity, Madagascar also blends together different cultures from East Africa, Southeast Asia, and France. With friendly locals, tourists are encouraged to explore the cities before they take off into nature. With a limited number of tourists, Madagascar is a wild place and king of adventure travel.
Exploding with color and the very opposite of peaceful nature, Antananarivo is the capital of Madagascar and the heart of its culture. Locally called Tana, the city highlights Madagascar’s past through historic sites and colonial architecture. The capital is also the center of the government. While overwhelming at times, Antananarivo is not a place to skip. Travelers who take the time to explore the hilly streets will soon fall in love with the capital’s charm.
Culture and Language
Part of what makes Madagascar so unique today is its dramatic history. The island was created 88 million years ago, when it separated from the Godwana supercontinent. The separation influenced the country’s biodiversity, as the plants and animals began to evolve and thrive in the island’s isolation. The earliest known inhabitants, the Malagasy, came to the island in 490 CE and were of Austronesian origins.
As the centuries went on, traders and explorers came to the island, starting in the 7th century with the Omani Arabs. By the 8th century, people from Southeast Asian countries like Java found Madagascar and spent time on the island. By the 1500s, Europeans began to settle the country with large groups of pirates and slave traders. With the influence from Europe, Madagascar began to construct a feudal system with the Malagasy in power. Various kingdoms ruled Madagascar until 1885, which is when the French began to colonize the island.
The French influence on Madagascar continues into today with colonial architecture and through the language. But France is no longer the ruler of Madagascar and the country became independent in 1960. However, due to their global past, Madagascar has become multi-ethnic and diverse.
Tradition is greatly honored within the culture and a large portion of the population believes in myths, legends, and folklore. Witch doctors are also common throughout the society and they and balanced between the Christian and Muslim faiths. But a variation between culture is also prevalent as you change from region to region or socialize with specific groups or tribes.
There are two official languages in Madagascar – Malagasy and French. Malagasy is an Austronesian language and is often spoken as a first language by a large portion of the population. The language is also the main language that is used throughout educational institutions.
From the days of French colonization, French is also an official language in Madagascar. French was once taught in schools during the days when Madagascar was a colony, but now it remains a popular language among educated locals.
Finally, English was once listed as an official language in Madagascar, but it was ultimately removed. The government thought that by making English an official language it would open the country up to more international business, but voters choose to remove it in 2010.
For US citizens who are interested in visiting Madagascar, you are required to obtain a tourist visa for the duration of your stay, but it is available upon arrival if you are staying for less than three months. An e-visa is also available and is often more convenient and faster than a visa upon arrival.
A 30-day visa costs $37 US dollars, while the 60-day visa costs $45 US dollars. Both visas can be applied for online or in person upon your arrival. If you choose to apply for the visa upon arrival, you should pay in cash and with US currency. If you plan to stay for more than three months in Madagascar, you will need to check with the Embassy of Madagascar for how to apply for a 90-day visa.
Other requirements for entry into Madagascar include having a US passport that has 6 months validity at your time of entry. Your passport will also need 3 blank pages for the appropriate entry and exit stamps. There are no currency restrictions for entering or exiting Madagascar.
If you have traveled to a country with yellow fever within 6 months of your arrival to Madagascar, you will need to provide proof of a current yellow fever vaccination. There are no other vaccination requirements for entry, but it is recommended that you are up to date on all boosters before you travel.
Finally, the US government has issued a Level 2 Travel Advisory for Madagascar due to the prevalence of crimes, such as robberies. Travelers should be extra cautious in tourist areas like Antananarivo for people who may wish to steal or assault travelers. While it is safe to travel to Madagascar, the warning is in place to remind people of local dangers. The STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) can be helpful for travelers, as it will give you up to date alerts from the US Embassy.
While a tourist visa should always be one of the first items on your travel checklist, another important part of planning your vacation is to outline your spending budget. Madagascar is an expensive place to visit because it is an island and most tourist destinations are rather remote, which means that it can get expensive as you hop from place to place. The most important considerations within your budget will be airfare, accommodation, food, drink, and transportation.
Airfare is a large portion of your budget and while your dream of exploring Madagascar, it is important to understand that it isn’t always easy to get to your destination. There are not a lot of airlines that have service to Madagascar and those that do will often make connections in Johannesburg or from European cities. A round trip ticket from the US will start at about $1,2000 US dollars, but it could cost up to $2,000 US dollars if you travel during the high tourist season. Flights from Europe are less expensive with prices starting at about $800 US dollars from Paris. However, it will be more expensive to fly from the US to Paris and then to Madagascar, than it would be to simply book a direct flight from the US to Madagascar.
The tourist high season in Madagascar runs from July to August, which is when airline tickets will be the most expensive. What is normally summer for the United States, July through August is winter in Madagascar, which means you can beat the heat and travel in cooler temperatures. It will also cost you more to book a last-minute ticket than to plan ahead. There won’t be many last-minute deals to Madagascar, so it’s better to book a ticket quickly.
While you will have to spend a large portion of your budget on getting to Madagascar, the good news is that you can choose how much you wish to spend on accommodation. There is a large range of prices in accommodation and you can travel on a backpacker’s budget or in luxury. Hostels in Madagascar are affordable with basic rooms and shared amenities costing $8-$14 US dollars per night.
A nicer room that has more privacy would cost $14-$28 US dollars per night. Guest houses are also a popular accommodation option, but they are a little more expensive with most prices ranging from $30-$50 US dollars per night. If you prefer to stay in a luxury resort, you should expect to pay up to $500 US dollars per night for a full-service accommodation experience. With the wide range in prices, you can help tailor your budget to afford more time or experiences in Madagascar.
Food is also important while you travel because it helps you keep up your energy and connects you with the local culture. While Madagascar or Malagasy cuisine is not world-famous, it is affordable and delicious. With low prices, you can dine out in Madagascar without going over budget. But the capital, Antananarivo, does have quite a few fine dining options, if you wanted to splurge on a meal.
Romazava is a traditional meat stew that is served with rice and leafy greens. It is also Madagascar’s national dish and can be eaten for lunch or dinner. For vegetarians, lasary is made of carrots, onions, cabbage, and green beans with a light vinaigrette. A unique take on stir fry is the foza sy hena-kisoa dish, which is a seafood-based dish with rice, ginger, and lime. Mofo gasy is a bread like breakfast food, which often resembles small pancakes. Finally, koba is a sweet dessert, which is made of bananas, vanilla, and peanuts. Popular snacks or finger foods, which are often sold in the street include mofo-anana and nem, which are both fried dishes.
When you’re eating out in Madagascar, you should expect to spend less than $10 US dollars per meal. Touristy restaurants will be the most expensive with prices ranging from $3-$8 US dollars per dish. Local restaurants are even cheaper, and you can often purchase a plate of food for less than $2 US dollars. Street snacks like nem are the most affordable with a single roll costing about $0.05 US cents. Nicer restaurants in the capital are more likely to have Western prices and may charge up to $20 US dollars per dish.
Drinking is another activity that you may wish to partake in, and it is legal in Madagascar. However, due to the remoteness of the country, there are not many bars or restaurants outside of the big cities. Beer, rum, and Toaka Gasy are the three most popular types of alcohol. But it is recommended that you stick to larger labels or imported alcohol. Toaka Gasy is a local drink that is illegally brewed, but often sold on the streets. Most drinks will cost less than $3 US dollars.
Overall, Madagascar is an expensive place to reach, but once you are in the country, you don’t have to spend a fortune to have a good time. There are many affordable options in terms of accommodation, dining, and entertainment. A budget traveler should expect to spend about $68 US dollars per day in Madagascar, while a more moderate amount would be to spend up to $168 US dollars per day. A luxury vacation will cost more, and you could easily spend hundreds per day on accommodation alone.
How to Get Around
Madagascar is certainly an adventure and travelers who choose this as their next vacation destination will need to feel comfortable going off the beaten path and using local transportation. Due to the limited number of tourists each year, Madagascar is still developing their infrastructure and the majority of destinations that you’ll be interested to visit will be on limited roads or in remote areas.
Most travelers will choose to visit Madagascar as part of a guided tour or hire a private guide for the duration of their stay. A guided tour will most likely be all inclusive and you will safely travel on a designated bus with a group of people. An organized tour for two weeks in Madagascar normally costs $2,500-$4,000 US dollars.
If you don’t want to be part of a tour group, you can travel on your own by hiring a private car and driver. Travelers who form their own groups with friends or family, will find that this is the easiest way to travel. A private car and driver will cost about $50 US dollars per day, unless you need an off-road vehicle. For off road destinations, you should expect to pay $10-20 US dollars more per day.
True solo travelers who aren’t afraid to go far off the beaten path can use local transportation and save on their budget. Local buses or taxis are packed with people, but usually cost less than $2 US dollars per ride. But you should be aware that local transportation is not always reliable or comfortable.
For travelers who are on a tight schedule, you can fly around Madagascar using domestic flights, but you should expect to spend about $220 US dollars per flight. For most people, domestic flights will be too expensive to use, which is why joining a tour group or hiring a private driver is often the preferred method of travel.
Finally, you should take caution when you are walking around Madagascar, especially in the big cities like Antananarivo. Crime is common in the cities and tourist stick out as target of petty crime like having their belongings stolen. During the day, walking in groups is safe, but it is highly recommended that you do not walk anywhere at night. Even in groups, the nighttime can be dangerous, and the best hotels will often hire personal security to escort their guests to their desired destination when the sun goes down.
Top Places to Visit: Cities
Due to the remoteness of the entire country, there aren’t a lot of cities that have made it as a top tourist destination in Madagascar. But nevertheless, here are some of the cities that tourists do explore in this wild country.
Antananarivo is the capital of Madagascar and it is often the first destinations that tourists see when they visit the country. The international airport is located in Antananarivo and while many eagerly escape into nature, the capital still has its charm. Here, you can divulge in the local cuisine and learn the country’s history. There are multiple museums and you can often hire an English-speaking local student as a guide. Markets are also abundant in the capital and you can often find beautiful local crafts for sale.
Mahavelona is one of the most idyllic beach destinations in Madagascar and has become a top tourist destination. The beaches are pristine, but you should be cautious when swimming due to sharks. However, dipping your toes in the water and walking along the sand is a great way to relax. The town itself houses an abandoned fort from the 19th century and is a quiet place to escape for a day.
A resort town that is still thriving from the days of French colonization, Toamasina is filled with old and crumbling colonial architecture. While the city is not the most attractive, tourists are often entertained to see the various cargo ships docking or explore Boulevard Joffre.
As a quiet colonial town, Joffreville does not have too much to offer, but the landscape does. The town is located close by to the Parc National de Montagne d’Ambre, which is one of the places that showcases the biodiversity of the country. Here, tourists relax on the beaches and bask in the impressive landscapes.
Points of Interest
Most visitors will find that there are more points of interest to visit in Madagascar than there are cities. This is partly due to the remote destinations, which means that many points of interest are located closer to small villages. Here are the top points of interest in Madagascar.
Ile Saint Marie
With turquoise clear water, Ile Saint Marie is a popular place for snorkeling and scuba diving. However, the place is actually a series of islands off of the coast of Madagascar, which were once frequented by pirates. Now the wrecked pirate ships are a popular tourist attraction and the various bays are ideal for viewing the local wildlife.
Isalo National Park
With a steep and drastic terrain, Isalo National Park is a unique landscape that is dotted with palm trees, pools of water, and sandstone towers. The beauty of the rock is a beautiful, but it is important to remember that guides are required to stay safe. You can easily hire a guide for a few hours or multiple days.
Tsingy de Bemaraha
With stunning limestone pinnacles, the Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve is one of the main attractions along the West Coast of Madagascar. The pinnacles are the main attraction, but the national park also boasts mangroves and 7 different lemur species. Here, visitors can catch a glimpse of the famous Deckens sifaka, which are easily distinguished by their white and black markings.
Avenue of the Baobabs
Aside from the lemurs, the baobab trees are an icon of Madagascar that are easily recognized by their unique shape. The Avenue of the Baobabs is one of the most visited points of interest in the entire country and has become world famous. The trees line a small section of dirt road between two villages and now stand on their own. The area, which was once rainforest, has been cleared out by the people and now only the baobab trees are left standing.
Andasibe-Mantadia National Park
Home to the largest lemur species, the Indri, this park is one of the most accessible national parks in Madagascar. Technically the area is a national park and reserve that has been combined into one large protected area. At Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, you can hire a local guide to search for the famous Indri lemurs and spend a full day explore the lush landscape.
Masoala National Park
With ten species of lemur, Masoala National Park is most famous for housing the strange looking strepsirrhine primate the aye-aye. Here this nocturnal weirdo clings to the branches in search of a grubby snack. But biodiversity is also expressed in this national park and you also have the chance to view various bird and reptile species.
Ranomafana National Park
Ranomafana National Park is one of the most popular parks in Madagascar that annually draws large numbers of tourists. The park is most famous for being the home to the golden bamboo lemur, which feeds on the bamboo shoots. But the scenery is also beautiful, and you can explore the mountain hills and clear streams.
Get Out and Go
While Madagascar is not suited for every travel, the adventure enthusiasts who have a love for nature will jump at the chance to visit this biodiverse gem. Here, the road less taken will reward you with unique wildlife, exclusive views, and satisfaction as you learn to navigate the remote terrain. With a growing tourist industry, the time to visit Madagascar is now before it explodes with visitors.