Madagascar is situated off the southeastern coast of Africa and due to its stunning wealth of natural beauty, it has sometimes been described as the eighth continent of the world. Few places on earth offer such an intense kaleidoscope of nature as Madagascar. The Island is covered with such a unique fauna and flora, of which 80% is found nowhere else. Madagascar is huge (4th largest Island in the world) and it would be impossible to visit all its attractions in one trip. Here I list my top 5 places to visit in Madagascar, I delve into the country’s unique nature, culture, landscapes, and more.
1. Antananarivo – the capital city
Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar is a mandatory stop for any visitor visiting the country. The city has a wide range of things to see. Among them is getting to experiencing the culture and interacting with the people as they go on with their day to day activities.
Hangout at the downtown local market and discover some local street food which is a fusion between African, Asian, Indian and European cuisine. Walk around the upper town and visit the ancient Queens Palace, located at the highest point of Antananarivo (the building is still under repair after being gutted by fire back in 1995). Here you get to learn Malagasy history and culture shaped by the first inhabitants of the Island, the Polynesians who arrived more than 1000 years ago. The architecture is among its main attributes, the charming façade a clear reflection of the French colonial influence. Additionally this location affords you the sweeping views below over the capital city.
Some general info plus tips when visiting Antananarivo
- You will need to stay more than one day to get a feel of the town and make the most of your experience.
- Bear in mind, Antananarivo is always crowded. The best time to visit the crowded areas (like the downtown) is between 9:00 am to 11:00 am and 2:00pm to 4:00pm. This period is convenient if you are to avoid being stuck in the heavy traffic during the rush hour.
- Security is also a concern to many a visitor visiting the city. Like in many big cities pickpockets are not uncommon in Antananarivo especially in crowded areas such as the market. It is advisable to leave your valuables locked in the hotel safe. Make a point to avoid wearing any conspicuous items, such as watches, jewelry, or cameras. It is also advisable to snap pictures with your smartphone instead of using your expensive DSLR camera. Last but not least stay where the action is, keep close touch with your guides or local friends.
2. Antsirabe – experience a glimpse of Malagasy culture
Antsirabe and its surrounds, is a must visit if you want to immerse yourself in Malagasy culture. Located at 170 km south of the capital, Antsirabe is the third largest city in Madagascar, with approximately 300 000 inhabitants.
Surrounded by an inactive volcano, the region is famous for its thermal springs and visitors can get to experience a range from relaxing hot water pools, to steam baths and mud pools. The city also lies at a high altitude (about 1 500 m), and thus experiences a fairly temperate climate and is reputed to produce some of the freshest fruits and vegetables in the country.
Get to visit the outskirts of the city and interact with the locals. The people are some of the friendliest people you will ever come across. The hospitality is so palpable that people will willingly invite you to join them in their daily routines. Among the routines is joining the people in their rice field as they plow and harvest the rice. At the end of the day, you will get to enjoy a meal – a bowl of rice, porridge with spinach accompanied by marinated grilled slice of zebus meat or melted pork ribs. Sumptuous!!! Later in the evening hang out at the local joint and enjoy the country’s most popular beer Three Horses Beers as you mingle with the locals and experience the kindness and respectability of the Malagasy people.
The Famadihana exhumation ceremony
Come August to September don’t miss the chance to attend the Famadihana -an exhumation ceremony where the Merina tribe exhumes the remains of their ancestors for a celebration-cum-family reunion. In this sacred ritual, which occurs every five to seven years, a number of deceased relatives are removed from an ancestral crypt. Living family members carefully peel the burial garments off the corpses and wrap them in fresh silk shrouds. The festivities begin and guests drink, converse, and dance with their forebears.
This ceremony lasts several days, the highlight being the day when people exhume the remains of the body from the tomb then rewrap it with new silk before burying it again. You could attend this process with a consents of the elder of the family. He is considered as a Wiseman.
General info and tips to optimize your stay in Antsirabe and its environs:
- Spending at least 2 nights will enable you to visit the numerous attractions in the city.
- Stroll around the city and experience its laid-back vibe, Norwegian-influenced architecture (The city emerged as a spa town in the late 1800s when Norwegian missionaries built a health retreat here), and wide, pleasant avenues and also explore the local colorful market.
- The Antsirabe Thermal Bath is one of the top reasons the city is visited by thousands of travelers and locals. Immerse yourself in the thermal bath experience ranging from relaxing in hot water pools, to thermal spa’s with personal specialized treatments, massages and hydrotherapy among other things and not forgetting to taste the naturally sparkling mineral water, called Vichy Thermal Waters (Eau de Vichy).
- The thermal spring are often crowded. So the smart decision is to book one day in advance or, simply get there very earlier in the morning (by 5:30 am).
- Last but not least it is important if you can get a local guide. The local guide will definitely add a deep insight into the tour for example show you a more in-depth and authentic version of the city plus act as a translator while advicing you on the do’s and don’ts when it comes to dealing with the locals.
3. Andasibe – a place to experience Madagascar’s unique fauna
Madagascar is a biodiversity hotspot: about 75 percent of the species found in Madagascar live nowhere else on the planet, with signature animal obviously being the Lemur. Andasibe is one of the best place to encounter them in the wild. Andasibe is a small town that is surrounded by several parks and reserves and is a 3-4 hr drive from the capital making it extremely popular with travelers.
The area is split into 2 major zones: the special reserve of Analamazaotra and the primary forest of Mantadia, a lush forest spanning over 17000 ha.
Encountering wildlife in Andasibe
Most Lemurs are active during the day. Expect to encounter the INDRI, the biggest of all Lemur species. The Indri feeds on canopy fruits and leaves and is best known for its eerie yet beautiful song, which can carry for more than 1.2 miles (2 km). The best place to spot them is the special reserve in the Analamazaotra (Perinet) reserve and surrounding forest.
You can spot another species of lemurs, such as the Diademed Sifaka which is the second largest after the Indri. You will be amazed by the agility of these creatures, scampering up and down whilst swinging from canopy to canopy. Additionally, you can encounter one of the smallest world’s’ primates (the Mouse lemur), Dwarf lemur and Woolly lemur.
Insects are also abundant and some are quite spectacular, such as the Madagascar necked weevil. Other creatures include Chameleons, frogs, geckos, various bird species and colorful Butterflies flitting among the foliage.
It is a mandatory to hire a local guide when exploring the forest, as it is very easy to get lost if you are not familiar with the terrain. The guides are also experts, displaying a genuine passion for the park’s conservation and are extremely knowledgeable about everything in the forest. They effortlessly interpret animal sounds, natural paths, nibbled plants to discover which animal has recently been foraging, or resting in a certain area and even which way an animal is heading.
The park is a prime example of sustainable eco-tourism, promoting habitat conservation and at the same time sustainably working with the local communities by offering economic opportunities from tourism while also pursuing their day to day life. 50 % of your park’s fees go straight to the local community. Part of it has been used to build a school for the children, create a CSB I or II (a kind of public hospital in the countryside), and providing the community with crops for commercial use. The other (50%) is remitted to the Madagascar National Park.
General info and tips to enjoy Andasibe
There is a wide range of lodges in Andasibe to choose from, offering a variety of accommodation and amenities. From basic accommodation to mid-priced and top-range lodges offering the ultimate luxury.
It is wise to temper your expectations, do not expect to encounter all of the wildlife advertised in the brochure. Many animals will hide or camouflage themselves whenever they hear someone approaching that is why it is important to get a reliable guide who can direct you how to approach some of this animals stealthily.
4. Palmarium Reserve – encounter more wildlife
The Palmarium reserve, a 2hr drive from Andasibe gives you a chance to encounter more wildlife. A further 45 min drive on a rough dirt truck you arrive at Manambato, a small fishing village on the white sandy shores of Lake Rasoabe. You can either take the regular ferry, or take the speed boat for a cruise across the famous Pangalene channel while spotting fishermen doing their thing.
The Palmarium reserve is also known as “Akanin’ny nofy”, loosely translated as the nest of dreams. The reserve is a peninsula, covered by a tropical forest, with a profusion of exotic palm and native tree species. Take a walk in the forest, you will encounter lemurs everywhere! Screeching and jumping all over the place … Black and white ruffed Lemur, Common Brown Lemur, Coquerel’s Sifaka, Crowned (Coronatus) Sifaka, Varecia Variegata Lemur, Eastern Lesser Bamboo Lemur and more. The Lemurs here are used to people so it is fairly easy to capture that memorable snapshot.
Palmarium is a reserve and not a zoo, so lemurs are free to roam about. Scientists are consistently studying them, more specifically analyzing their behavior and diet.
Besides lemurs, other wildlife attractions such as the Parson’s Chameleon which is the second largest chameleon in the world, tree frogs and a variety of snake species. There is also a botanical garden where you can learn about the endemic Madagascan flora such as the Dypsis (a native palm) and the littoral forest.
Finally, there is also the opportunity to soak up the beach experience. Frolic along the white sand, lie on the beach, listen to the rustle of palm trees swaying in the wind and the hush of the foaming waves gently lapping on the shore. Alternatively get to ride on a kayak, the waters in the lake are clear, calm and shallow enabling you to see the bottom of the lake. Don’t forget your swimming gear – the water is perfect, cold and refreshing, just the right temperature to cool you off in the heat.
General info and tips to staying at Palmarium reserve:
- Make sure to include the “Aye-Aye” reserve in your itinerary. This section of the Palmarium reserve is normally only visited by tourists in the evening, as the ‘Aye-Aye’ is a nocturnal species and can only be seen from evening onwards.
- According to the local superstition, the “Aye-Aye” is a believed to be a harbingers of evil, a superstitions that has threatened the existence of these silent nocturnal hunters. As a result the species have been decimated to the point where they are now listed among the planet’s critically endangered species. Steps are however being taken to conserve the “Aye-Aye” and the Palmarium reserve is a sanctuary where the species can thrive.
- It takes a 15 min boat ride to get to this section of the reserve and the visit usually lasts for about 45 min before heading back to your lodge. Ensure that you have enough cash at hand in case as there is no bank or ATM and all transactions are done in cash. There is also no internet connection, probably a good thing since you get the opportunity to detox from all the digital overload by reconnecting with nature.
- Avoid visiting the reserve during the rainy season (December-March). It rains a lot during this period making the place virtually inaccessible. The roads are impassable, the Lemurs are less active and the beach is normally flooded.
5. The sunset/sunrise at the Baobab Avenue
The Baobab is one of Madagascar’s iconic trees. The island is home to 7 of the 9 species of the Baobab tree.
Located on a dirt road between Morondava and Belon’i Tsiribihina in the west of the country is the Avenue of Baobabs – a famous stretch of dirt road, bordered by gigantic baobabs on both sides. The baobabs on the Avenue are the Adansonia grandidieri, the tallest baobab species. The real draw is the sunset, you get to watch as the giant orb of the sun transforms the light bathing the Baobabs and the backdrop in a blanket of gold, a moment that takes a matter of minutes, but will literally take your breath away!
Both the sunset and sunrise are wonderful times to visit the Avenue of Baobabs, but if you want to skip the crowds, the best time is the morning for the sunrise. The nearest city to the baobab avenue is Morondava about 17 km and you need to drive roughly for 45 min to get there.
- Morondava is a coastal city at the Middle West part of Madagascar and the best way to get there is by taking the regular or charter private flight from the capital.
- You can also combine the Baobab Avenue with a visit to the Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park. The word tsingy is a Malagasy word roughly be translated as “where one cannot walk barefoot.” The tsingys are karstic plateaus where groundwater has undercut the elevated uplands, gouging caverns and fissures into the limestone creating dramatic “forests” of limestone needles.
- Most expeditions to the area find a plant or animal previously undescribed by science. The whole protected area, designated a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 1990
- Getting there; the road is really in a poor condition, bumpy and dusty. It is advisable you take a private charter flight from Antananarivo or Morondava, then land on the Tsingy of Bemaraha airstrip. Visiting the park probably take you 4 hours max. Afterwards you can fly back to Morondava and take your pre booked car and head to the avenue of baobabs.
Madagascar is huge and diverse with lots of attractions to visit. The above list is by no means exhaustive. I have selected these places to visit in Madagascar based on my own preference and experiences (safety, wildlife highlights, authenticity, and culture).