The fourth largest island in the world, Madagascar is world famous for its unique wildlife, diverse fauna and flora, and melting pot of cultures. Situated just off the east coast of Africa, Madagascar is distinct from its African neighbour. The Malagasy culture is an interesting mix of Indonesian, French and Southern African. All these influences can be seen in the island's architecture, food, and music.
Madagascar is a biodiversity hotspot, being home to thousands of species of plant and animal life of which about 90 percent cannot be found anywhere else on the planet. Tourists and scientists alike come to the island to see the 103 different species of lemur, as well as the dwarf chameleons, tomato frogs, fossa, and hedgehog-like tenrecs. The country's isolation has also enabled the development of plants into remarkable shapes, like the swollen Baobab, and the spiny forests. Wilderness areas such as Isalo National Park and Tsingy Nature Reserve allow visitors to explore Madagascar's exotic fauna, flora, and striking geological features.
Madagascar has its share of beautiful beaches and coral reefs, such as those found on the cluster of islands off the northeast coast. Best known is Nossi Bé, while Ile Ste-Marie off the east coast, and Toliara in the south, are also major attractions for divers, snorkelers, and sunbathers. The bustling capital of Antananarivo, or 'Tana', has a distinctly French flavour and is an excellent place to shop for Malagasy arts and crafts. Holiday makers searching for an off the beaten track experience will revel in all that Madagascar has to offer.
Boasting miles of verdant landscape with pretty beaches, wild and beautiful rainforests, and scenic towns and ports, Madagascar offers some lovely attractions for those who choose to visit this inspiring and unique land. With a number of reserves and national parks boasting a variety of magical wildlife, including the famous lemurs, Madagascar's unique creatures and botanicals have earned the island the title 'the eighth continent' and visitors will be enchanted by the beauty of this mysterious land. Madagascar is not easy to get around and sightseeing can be challenging as a result, but with a little effort travellers can reap exciting rewards.
Head to the town on Antsirabe to view the volcanic lakes of Andraikiba and Tritriva, or relax in the therapeutic thermal baths; visit Ile Sante Marie for some of the best whale watching opportunities, to wander through herb gardens and enjoy the scents of vanilla and lemongrass, or to take a spooky tour of the pirate cemetery; explore Toamasina to see some fantastic architectural wonders as well as the popular Jardin D'Essel and the Parc Ivoloina.
For active travellers, water sports abound off the island, including scuba diving, swimming, snorkelling and canoeing, to name a few; while landlubbers can enjoy the plentiful walks and hikes through the many reserves Madagascar offers, while viewing some of the most fascinating birds and animals on the planet.
The Andasibe-Mantadia National Park situated in the eastern rainforests is Madagascar's most popular reserve for good reason. The park contains unique wildlife, including 13 species of lemurs, more than a hundred bird species and fauna and flora unique to the area. Andasibe has two sections. The more accessible of the two is the Indri Special Reserver. Here, visitors can take a hike at dawn to hear distinct siren-like Indri call over the misty and observe the lemurs in their natural habitat.
The second section of the park, Mantadia, has a greater variety of wildlife and a more challenging trail for the adventurous. Night hikes allow guests to see a whole new side of the forest as nocturnal animals emerge. Hikes in the park range from three to six hours. A local guide is required for entry into the park. Private tours need to be booked in advance.
The Royal Hill of Ambohimanga is the ruined remnant of the 15th century Madagascan kingdom. Located just 12 miles (20km) from Antananarivo, the Hill features a ruined royal city, several royal tombs and numerous holy sites. This spiritual attraction is widely lauded as the premier symbol of the cultural identity of the Madagascan people. It is still a place of worship to both locals and foreigners. Set in lush green countryside overlooking a rice paddy, visitors can explore the burial grounds, historic village and palace complex. The palace itself houses artefacts which include gifts from Queen Victoria.
Explore the lush and misty rainforests of the Ranomafana National Park, with its rare species of flora and fauna, and unique wildlife. This UNESCO World Heritiage is home to 12 species of lemurs and an incredible selection of indigenous birds. Visitors can explore the park on its numerous trails and hikes, escorted by guides that can call the animals using a series of clicks and whistles. There are also jungle waterfalls and pools to cool off in after a long day trekking through the humid jungle.
The best time to visit Ranomafana National Park is between August and December. The park office is located at the entrance to the reserve in the village of Ambodiamontana. This is where visitors will find the privately owned and eco-lodges to spend the night. Guided night walks are available to seek out the nocturnal animals in the reserve. Ranomafana is relatively well-developed for tourism and has comparably good facilities and infrastructure including a decent access road
The Berenty Reserve is a small private reserve set along the Mandrake River in Southern Madagascar. Its gallery forest and array of indigenous wildlife and birds, such as ring-tailed lemurs, white-browed owls and giant couas make it an eco-tourist's dream. The de Heaulme family first formed the Berenty Estate to conserve the natural forest in the area. Through their efforts with the Tandroy tribe, more than 2500 acres (1000 ha) of forest has been maintained. For its relatively small size, the reserve has a remarkable variety of topographies, ranging from dry, open scrub, 'spiny' forests, and closed canopy jungles. Day visitors can enjoy a walking tour through the wilderness, while others can stay longer at the guest lodge. Get up close and personal with nature at the Berenty Reserver, where the semi-tame sifaka and ring-tailed lemurs often sit with guest as they eat.
One of the finest natural harbours in the world, Antsiranana Bay is a vibrant and cosmopolitan seaport located at the northernmost tip of Madagascar. Formerly known as Diégo Suarez Bay, this tiny island is haven for nature lovers with wonderful lakes, rainforests and waterfalls to explore, and wildlife such as lemurs, crocodiles, and an array of indigenous birds. Visitors can relax at the quiet beach at Ramena, while others can take a boat to nearby Nosy Be to explore the lush inland areas. The bay has been the setting for some major historical events, such as the invasion of Madagascar by the Allied forces in 1942, to protect the territory from the Japanese after the surrender of France, and a submarine attack on the British fleet by Japanese submarines.
According to the Madagascan legend, the Baobab tree was planted upside down, so its roots are on top and its branches underground. There is no better place to observe these giant trees than at the Avenue of the Baobabs. it is located in the Menabe region of Madagascar, along the road between Morondava and Belon'i Tsiribihina. This distinctive cluster of trees stands 100 feet (30 metres) high, each roughly 800 years old. The Avenue of the Baobabs is truly an escape into nature, unspolit as it is by mainstream tourism. It contains a simple picnic area and a baobab 'farm' where visitors can see the different kind of baobab saplings.
Madagascar's most famous park, Amber Mountain (Montagne d'Ambre) National Park is known for its array of colourful orchids found exclusively on the island. Located in the northern part of the island, the mountainous park is predominantly tropical rainforest. The altitude and lush vegetation makes it pleasantly cool compared to the surrounding lowlands. Animal lovers will delight in the unusual animal species that inhabit the park like the blue-nosed chameleon and seven different kinds of lemur. The park is also a treat for bird lovers, with 75 different bird species, 35 of which are endemic. There are many waterfalls and some beautiful volcanic lakes to hike to. The trek to the Sacred Waterfall (Cascade Sacree) is one of the most popular.
Amber Mountain is one of the most accessible parks in Madagascar, with comparably good infrastructure including wide trails and camping areas as well as an in-park lodge. However, electricity is not always available, and the nearest banks and medical facilities are several hours away in the town of Antsiranana. The tracks and landmarks are well-maintained and signposted, making it easy to explore the park without a guide. In fact, it is the only park in the country where tourist can visit without the compulsory assistance of a guide.
The best time to visit the park is between September and November, when the animals are at their most active and are most easily observed.
Generally the climate of Madagascar is subtropical, with a hot and rainy season between November and April, and a cooler dry season from May to October. However, there is a big variation in climate depending on altitude and geographical position within the country. Travellers should be sure to check up on the climate of the particular region they are visiting. For instance, the west coast is drier than the east coast and the central highlands, while the far south and southwest is a semi-desert region that experiences very little rainfall. The east coast receives the most rain and is hot and humid during the wet season, and also prone to cyclones between February and March. Temperatures are much cooler in the highlands. Antananarivo has a pleasant, temperate climate. Along the coast temperatures range from 81°F to 90°F (27°C to 32°C) in the wet season, and 64°F to 72°F (18°C to 22°C) in the dry season. The cooler and drier months between May and October are generally the most pleasant time to travel to Madagascar.
The official currency is the Malagasy Ariary (MGA), which has been reintroduced to replace the Malagasy Franc. Coins and notes display both currencies, but newer notes display the Ariary more prominently than the Franc. One Ariary is equal to five Francs. Foreign currencies can be exchanged at banks and official bureaux de change, but the Ariary cannot be changed back into hard currency. Some banks will only accept US Dollars or Euros. ATMs are available in Antananarivo. Most major credit cards are starting to be accepted in top hotels and major travel agencies in the capital and other major towns, but have limited usage elsewhere.
Malagasy is the official language, but French is used in business and government and is widely spoken in the main cities in Madagascar. A few people involved in the tourism industry might be able to speak some English, but it is not widely spoken.
Electrical current is 220 volts, 50Hz. Plugs are generally of the two-pin variety.
US citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Madagascar. A 90-day visa can be obtained on arrival.
British citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Madagascar. A 90-day visa can be obtained on arrival.
Canadian citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Madagascar. A 90-day visa can be obtained on arrival.
Australians must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Madagascar. A 90-day visa can be obtained on arrival.
South African citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Madagascar. A 90-day visa can be obtained on arrival.
Irish citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Madagascar. A 90-day visa can be obtained on arrival.
US citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Madagascar. A 90-day visa can be obtained on arrival.
New Zealand citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Madagascar. A 90-day visa can be obtained on arrival.
Foreign visitors to Madagascar of most nationalities can obtain a tourist visa on arrival, provided they have at least one blank page in their passport reserved for the Immigration Authorities of Madagascar, and return/onward flight tickets. Tourist visas are valid for a maximum of 90 days and cost around MGA 200,000 (or equivalent in USD or EUR). Shorter stays cost less. A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required to enter Madagascar, if arriving within six days of leaving or transiting through an infected area. NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
Malaria is a risk throughout the year and the risk of infection is highest in coastal areas; visitors should take appropriate measures to avoid contracting the disease. All travellers coming from a country with yellow fever risk are required to prove they have been vaccinated against the disease to enter Madagascar. Vaccinations are also recommended for hepatitis A, hepatitis B, typhoid and influenza, and those at risk of animal bites should also consider a rabies vaccination. Tap water should not be drunk unless it has been boiled or chemically treated.
Medical facilities are severely limited in Madagascar, and outside of the capital medical care may be difficult to find. Limited French medications are available in Tana; however, it is advisable to bring along a medical kit for private use. If you require specific prescription medications it is best to bring them with you, in their original packaging, along with a signed and dated letter from your doctor stating what they are and why they are needed. Comprehensive medical insurance is advised.
The political situation in Madagascar is unstable, especially in central Antananarivo and the Ambohijatovo, Lac Anosy, Antaninarenina and Analakely areas. Violence is possible at any large gatherings and political or military installations. It is advised to travel with an established agency, and solo travellers should continually monitor the local media. Precautions against opportunistic crime, especially in the urban areas, should be taken. Pickpockets operate at the airport and in crowded areas such as markets. Travellers should carry a photocopy of their passport at all times. At night, avoid walking around city centres and road travel outside urban areas as there have been occasional hold-ups on the main routes. The height of the cyclone season is from January to March and affects the coastal regions. Piracy is a significant concern in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, and there have been several attacks against private vessels and kidnappings.
Do not photograph military or police establishments while in Madagascar. Identification should be carried at all times by visitors. In rural areas, locals may abide by a number of taboos called fady, which should be respected by visitors at all times.
The international dialling code for Madagascar is +261. The outgoing code is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0027 for South Africa). To make an international call to Madagascar, the dialling code of 261 must be followed by a two-digit operator code (e.g. 34 for TELMA, the most reliable), then the regional code (e.g. 22 for Antananarivo) and then the five-digit number. A GSM 900 network is in use, covering major cities and main roads, and some operators have also introduced 3G networks. Public internet access exists in large cities.
Visitors may bring 500 cigarettes or 25 cigars or 500g tobacco, as well as one bottle of alcohol into the country without incurring import duty.
Madagascar Tourism Website: www.madagascar-tourisme.com
Madagascar Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 265 5525.
Madagascar Embassy, Paris, France (also responsible for the UK): +33 09 83 32 45 15.
Madagascar Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 567 0505.
United States Embassy, Antananarivo: +261 2023 480 00.
British Honorary Consul, Antananarivo: +261 2022 33053.
Canadian Consulate, Pretoria, South Africa (also responsible for Madagascar): +27 12 422 3000.
South African Embassy, Antananarivo: +261 20 224 3350.
Australian High Commission, Port Louis, Mauritius (also responsible for Madagascar): +230 202 0160.