Madagascar travel introduction to the fourth largest island in the world
Due to its proximity, Madagascar, the second largest island state in the world, is part of the African continent. But unlike other mainland African nations, most Malagasy people, the original inhabitants arrived in Madagascar from South East Asia, special Indonesian islands, a couple of thousand years back. Therefore, we conclude, it’s an African country. Africa is a pretty diverse continent anyway.
Madagascar is a highly interesting hotspot of biodiversity and over 80% of its plant and animal species are found only on the island. Being the fourth largest island in the world, visitors are often amazed by the range of different habitats and landscape diversity.
The climate of Madagascar is generally tropical, pleasantly sunny and warm all year round. Summer is September-April, winter May-August and dry season (May-September). Cyclones occur from January to mid-February.
What to do in Madagascar
There are many places to explore on your journey through Madagascar.
Analamazoatra Special Reserve
Located about 90 miles east of the capital Antananarivo, the Analamazoatra Special Reserve (which is part of the Adasibe-Mantadia National Park), is an attraction not to be missed for all nature lovers. The reserve is home to the beautiful and exceptionally rare lemur, the largest surviving lemur in the world, along with a great variety of other lemurs, reptiles, birds and small mammals. The compact size of the reserve makes it easy to explore on foot along a series of paths that require between 2 and 6 hours to complete. The best time to see and hear the distinctive indri call is early in the morning before 11 am.
Ambohimanga Hill is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the province of Antananarivo in northern Madagascar. The hill of Ambohimanga was a royal city and a burial site, and later a summer palace for the Malagasy royals. The city was protected by a huge stone wall and 14 exterior doors, the largest of which featured a huge stone disk that was over 130 feet in diameter and required at least 20 strong men to move it into position. You can explore the site at your own pace or with the assistance of a guide, who will be able to explain many details that you might miss if you visit alone. Highlights include the two palaces, the sacrificial ox hole, four royal tombs, two sacred basins and the huge main gate.
La Corniche – Take a beach walk out of this world
Mahajanga in Madagascar is all about the picturesque La Corniche. The beautiful promenade along the beach is lined with palm trees and street food carts. Taking a walk in the shade of palm trees in the evening is counted among the best things to do in Madagascar. Immerse yourself in the goodness of the sun and feel the freshness of the sea breeze that touches your skin while munching on local Malagasy delicacies from food carts. This is one of the most amazing things to do in Madagascar for all ages.
Amber Mountain National Park
The Amber Mountain National Park is located on the northernmost tip of the island of Madagascar, about 20 miles south of the city of Diego Suarez. The park covers a vast area of over 18,500 hectares, parts of which reach an altitude of almost 5,000 feet, including mountain forests, rainforest, waterfalls, crater lakes and an abundance of unique wildlife. You can explore the park at your leisure with a guided tour or with the assistance of a local guide, who will lead you to see the highlights, which include three beautiful waterfalls. The park is renowned for its extraordinary biodiversity and one can expect to see different species of lemurs, chameleons and geckos, as well as a wide variety of birds and small mammals.
Avenue of the Baobabs
Near the fishing town of Morondava, on the west coast of Madagascar, you can find a fascinating avenue of ancient baobabs – all that remains of what once must have been a majestic forest of these primordial giants. Baobab trees are a wonder of nature and can be exploited for water during drought, they provide young edible leaves in the shape of salads and fruits that contain a nourishing acid pulp used in various drinks and foods throughout Africa. It is believed that some of the powerful trees that make up the famous Avenue of the Baobab are up to 800 years old and many have a diameter of up to 20 feet. Try to plan your visit for the sunset, when the otherworldly landscape is at its best.
This park near the west coast (known for its eerie limestone peaks) is not an easy place to visit. It takes a full day via four-wheel drive on very rough terrain to get there. It is very remote, with few tourists. The positive side? It is one of the most incredible sites in the country. Water and wind have spent centuries sculpting limestone into jagged peaks that look like a row of endless knives; to move, use rope bridges, ladders and fixed cables. The area also has a lot of caving, and people often couple a trip here with a slow boat along the Tsiribihina river (send photos of this if you go, because unfortunately, due to the weather, I missed visiting the river!).
Isalo National Park
Located in the central-southern part of the country and equipped with multiple uneven paths (it carries water and a hat, since you are exposed most of the time); cliffs, ravines, gorges and canyons; and abundant wildlife, this Westworld-like park leaves her visitors breathless. There are three waterfalls where you can refresh yourself after your walks and a variety of species of lemurs (they come very close because they are desensitized to humans, so watch your food!). You are required to hire a guide (they are at the entrance), but they have been great exponents of the land and local culture.
Added bonus: the clear sky and the lack of light pollution make some incredible sunsets and nights full of stars. You have never seen the Milky Way so clearly.
Île Sainte Marie
While everyone goes to Nosy Be for the best beaches and the most elaborate resorts, if you want something a little more local, cheaper and relaxed, take a look at Île Sainte Marie off the east coast. This former pirate capital (Captain Kidd’s ship sank nearby) is a fresh island full of small coves, a pirate cemetery, delicious seafood and a relaxed Caribbean-like atmosphere. The beaches are not as beautiful as Nosy Be, but there is a beautiful and unspoiled white sand beach south of the island near the airport that few people visit. This is also the best part of the country for whale watching. When you come here, fly. The slow boat is almost always late and doesn’t get anywhere near a big city on the mainland. Taking the boat wastes a whole day.
Over 7000 humpback whales migrate from the Antarctic to Madagascar to breed between June and November.
Visit the crocodile farm in Antananarivo, Madagascar
This is one of the most amazing things to do in Madagascar. A surprising little gem in Antananarivo, Croc Farm is one of the most visited parks in Madagascar. In addition to amphibian giants, you can also spot lemurs, chameleons and toucans. The private park breeds crocodiles and sells products made with crocodile skin. If you think you can eat bizarre foods, trying the crocodile meat burger could be one of the craziest things to do in Madagascar.
Tzimbazaza botanical and zoological gardens
If you’re visiting fleetingly in Madagascar and don’t have the time to travel deep into the forests to see the country’s many national parks and reserves, you can still get a taste of the island’s magnificent flora and fauna by visiting Tzimbazaza Botanical and Zoological Gardens in capital, Antananarivo. The path through the gardens includes examples of the different types of traditional housing used by the various ethnic groups residing on the island and you can see caged and free lemurs along the way, as well as various finds of other animals and indigenous plants of the island.
The “crazy zebu” is the most incongruous discovery in the dusty Belo, probably throughout Madagascar. The dishes seem to come from a Michelin-starred restaurant (the chef has trained in prestigious cuisines in Madagascar and Europe), with exquisite creations such as fried zebu shank, prawn medallions or snapper filet with peanuts, risotto and coconut sauce, all elaborately presented.
Vegetarian options are also available. Save space for dessert. Anyone who travels between Morondava and Parc National Bemaraha stops here and many companies book the tables in advance – we suggest you do the same or be ready to wait. Around 11.30 is the peak of lunch time.
Cap Mine Lighthouse
Lighthouse lovers will find the lighthouse of Cap Miné (also known as Cap Andranomody lighthouse) located about 10 miles north of the city of Diego Suarez, in northern Madagascar. The lighthouse dates back to 1895, when a simple metal tower was built on a stone base to warn sailors of the dangerous coast. Over time, the original tower was replaced by a 45-foot hexagonal brick tower, which you can visit today. The lighthouse keeper lives on site and enjoys bringing visitors to the viewing platform at the top of the lighthouse and explaining all the technical details. While you are there you can also see some old cannons and the remains of an abandoned defensive fort.
Located in western Madagascar about 30 miles north-east of Morondava, Kirindi forest (aka Kirindi Private Reserve) is a private park that occupies what was once a sustainable site for timber harvesting. You can explore the park by following two circuits, which will give you the chance to spot different species of lemurs and the amazing giant jumping rat (which jumps on two feet like a kangaroo), found only in the Kirindi forest. In addition to admiring the unique wildlife, you can also try to identify three species of baobabs and many other examples of indigenous Malagasy flora. You can spend a night or two in the rustic Ecolodge or pitch a tent under the forest canopy.
Les Trois Baies (The three bays)
Although Madagascar is blessed with dozens of bays and inlets, Three Bays refers to the Dune Bay, Pigeon’s Bay and Sakalava Bay, all of which are located at the northernmost tip of the island near Diego Suarez’s city. Each of the blue bays is home to a beautiful stretch of beach and the Three Bays are a popular tourist destination. There are several tours that will take you to the Three Bays in 4×4 and it is easy to explore all three on foot along a coastal path that runs close to the shore. You can expect great views, many bird sightings and excellent conditions for wind surfing and kite surfing in Sakalava Bay.
The pirate cemetery
The Pirate Cemetery is the final resting place of some notorious 17th century pirates who terrorized the busy East India trade route for about 100 years. The cemetery is located on the small island of Ile-Sainte Marie, located off the east coast of Madagascar, attracting many visitors who come and enjoy beautiful beaches and excellent diving opportunities. I thought that during the XVII and XVIII centuries more than a thousand pirates lived on the island and that there are numerous legends of buried treasures and sunken galleons. The best way to explore the narrow and long island is to start on foot, by bicycle or by scooter; after visiting the Pirate Cemetery, you can rent a pirogue to explore the beautiful coast and see some of the pirate’s notorious landing bays.
Marche Artisanale de La Digue (handicraft market)
Located a short distance from the city center of Antananarivo (on the road to the airport), the La Digue craft market is the ideal place to pick up some authentic Malagasy souvenirs to take home. You can browse hundreds of stalls at your leisure to find local craft baskets, leather goods, embroidery and fabrics. Highlights of the large outdoor market include beautifully sculpted masks and wooden sculptures.
Where stay at Madagascar
Princesse Bora, Nosy Boraha is the best hotel in Nosy Boraha (Ile Sainte Marie) and an ideal honeymoon destination; chock-full of beach romance, with fantastic facilities and large luxury villas, it’s a fantastic choice for a Madagascar holiday.
Camping Lemur Black
Located in the protected area of Andrafiamena, the Black Lemur Camp is ideal for nature lovers looking for an experience off the beaten track. 10 beautiful wooden bungalows with a thatched roof offer a wonderful view of the forest, while allowing you to relax and enjoy the surroundings.
Ideal for those who want to be right in the middle of all the wonderful wildlife.
The camp is located near the village of Anjahakely in the Diana region about three and a half hours four hours south of Diego Suarez airport with a 4-wheel drive vehicle.
Iharana Bush Camp Perhaps the most scenic place from which to admire the Hararana Tsingy. accompanied with champagne.
Anjajavy A luxury fly-in resort on a private protected reserve off the west coast; should we add anything else?
Masoala Forest Lodge Boutique enjoy authentic rainforest experience on the Masoala peninsula.
Eden Lodge A phenomenal lodge, in an idyllic location, which works hard to reduce its footprint and maximize its socio-economic impact.
Isalo Rock Lodge. An unlikely combination of modern design, fine cuisine and lunar landscapes turns out to be a stroke of genius.
Budget friendly Madagascar hotels
Chez Billy A longtime favorite in Antsirabe and a great place to plan your travels.
Le Bon Endroit A simple but beautiful place in Îe Sainte Marie, and one of the most welcoming on the island
Chez Sica Simple but tidy bungalows with access to a common kitchen; on the most glorious beach.
Tamana Hostel Finally a hostel that is elegant, that caters to budget-conscious travelers of Nosy Be.
Madagascar Underground A mix of dorms and private rooms, a fantastic atmosphere and a fabulous restaurant. Pitch-perfect for the capital.
Chosen countries for holidays in Africa:
- African safari in all major countries, the authoritative intro
- Cap Verde
- South Africa
And the list will grow, and so will our tales from the African continent.