Madagascar is an island country in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Southeast Africa. It is officially known as The Republic of Madagascar and is comprised of the main island and several other peripheral islands. It is the fourth largest island in the world and has many nicknames such as The Red Island, The Nature Sanctuary and The Continental Island, all names giving the idea of a unique natural paradise.
It is believed that the first people arriving in Madagascar came from Borneo and were later joined by Bantu migrants, Arabs, Indians and Chinese, each one making lasting contributions to Malagasy cultural life. In fact, the Malagasy way of thinking includes a mixture of cultures, not to mention appearances, styles, beliefs, dances and music. Madagascar is a true melting pot to discover slowly. It is a unique and distinctive society, with a complex set of beliefs and customs. One of the central beliefs is in the power of dead ancestors (razana). Malagasy people give a lot of attention to their dead and put much effort into maintaining ancestral graves and tombs.
The aerial view of this country looks like a colourful painting: rivers, hills and bricks houses on the central plateau, the red soil extending for kilometres, the green east coast, the blue ocean and the dry savanna down south all come together in a simply incredible manner, and this is only the impression from a distance! The island of Madagascar split from the Indian peninsula around 88 million years ago, allowing native plants and animals to evolve in relative isolation. Consequently, this country is a biodiversity hotspot, where over 90% of its wildlife is found nowhere else on Earth attracting many tourists and researchers. The traveller should be warned, however, that the country is not well organised for tourism, so if you decide to come visit the island, you will have to get used to the way people work and live and to hearing the motto “mora mora” (slowly slowly), which you will hear a lot.
The central highlands
The central highlands cover almost 3/4 of the country and are the historical, cultural and political centre of Madagascar. Within the central highlands there are three main mountainous mattifs: the Maromokotro, the Ankaratra and the Andringitra. Antananarivo, the national capital, is located in the northern part of the central highlands at 1.468m above sea level. Before the mid-19 century, all houses in Antananarivo were constructed of either grass, reeds and other plant based materials or clay; only family tombs were built from stone. A bit later, the British introduced brick making to the island, and the French used stone and brick to build their factories. Later, when the British used stone to encase the royal palace, many aristocrats became inspired and used the same model for their own large homes. The model rapidly spread and is now the predominant construction style, but many other grass, reed and clay houses remain. Betsileo is the meeting point between the central region and the southern coast.
The Betsileo population are extremely efficient traditional rice farmers and are well known for their intensive form of cultivation. They construct narrow rice paddies on terraces along the steep valleys creating a landscape that reminds the visitor of Indonesia or the Philippines.
The West Coast
The west coast of Madagascar is sublime, featuring plains that slowly descend the highlands. From the most northern point where you find Diego Suarez to the arid region of Mahajunga and then to that of Morondava where the baobab trees grow, the territory belongs to the Sakalava, an ethnic group of Madagascar. The land here is wild and dominated by beautiful rivers such as the Tsiribihina and the famous Tsingy, a karst limestone formation listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Heading south along the coast, we come across the Vezo tribe and their fishing villages.
The East Coast
The east coast is a whole other world compared to the scorching and semi-desert lands of the west and the south or to the cooler lands of the highlands. From Fort Dauphin to the Vanilla Coast, which overlook Sambava, the district capital, rain falls most of the year round. The leading producer of vanilla in the world, the region offers some beautiful walks through the forests filled with leaping lemurs and chirping birds. Sainte Marie is an island in the area, which is famous for legends about pirates and the treasures that they left behind.
The big south
There is a variety of landscapes along the tour to the south: the progressive end of the rice fields and the rainforests that give way to the dry savanna plateaus and the dramatic sandstone canyons and their granite formations. Here we find Isalo Park where zebu herds occupy the roads. The climate is very dry as it rains very little (less than 500mm of rainfall per year).
Parks and reserves
Madagascar is the perfect place for nature lovers: the parks and natural reserves are rich in flora and fauna, changing with region, landscape and climate. There are three main habitats in Madagascar, each one boasting its own distinctive beauty. There are the rain forests along the east coast, the green valleys of the central highlands and the savanna on the western side. In each of these ecosystems, there are numerous species unique to only that habitat and found nowhere else on the planet. Researchers believe that approximately 85% of the forests of this country have been ruined by humans. The destruction was brought about by deforestation, agriculture and the use of these forests for commercial purposes. Luckily, nowadays there are national laws that guarantee protection and conservation for the local flora and fauna. WWF is working on protecting and maintaining Madagascar’s unique biodiversity in harmony with the culture and livelihoods of the local people. ANGAP (the National Association for the Management of Protected Areas) is the organisation that manages Madagascar’s protected area system. There are three different area types: National Parks, special reserves and natural reserves. The most important and worth visiting are:
Andasibe Mantadia National Park
This park is nicknamed “Perinet” and is the best park for seeing indri, the largest lemur. Not far from Antananarivo in the direction of Tamatave, the park is known for its rich flora and numerous lemurs, especially the nocturnal ones. The reserve is a 155 square kilometres protected area populated by Grey Bamboo Lemurs, the Indri Indri, the Fulvus Lemur and the Rubriventer Lemurs. Here you can also see many orchid species such as Eulophella, Roempleriana, Grammangi and Ellisi.
Ranomafana National Park
With more than 40.000 hectares of tropical rainforest, the park is home to countless species of flora and fauna. The park is no doubt one of the most spectacular natural parks on the Island and it has become one of the most visited. The altitude of the area is between 800 m and 1.200m and in addition to its densely forested hills, the protected area is characterised by numerous small streams, which plummet down to the beautiful Namorona River. The immense wildlife includes 43 mammal, 115 bird, 62 odd reptile, 98 frog, 90 butterfly and 350 spiders species as well as and several fish and crayfish. There are 12 lemur species, including the very rare aye-aye.
The most visited side of the park is the Talatakely, which is crossed by two main trails: a short one of 2 hours (1 hour going and 1 hour coming back) where you can spot lemurs and a three hour one where you can spot different lemur species, birds and plants.
Isalo National Park
The Isalo National Park protects 82.000 hectares of sandstone massif that has been wildly eroded by wind and rain into ridges of wild forms, impressive gorges, canyons and tiny pinnacles. There are different walking trails for visitors and it’s worth taking the time and a few days to discover this magic place. One walk to not miss is to the Sakalava graves, a very interesting site offering the visitor the opportunity to understand the culture of this country.
Some of the most visited sites in the park are the “Canyon des Singes” (“Canyon of Monkeys”) and the “Piscine Naturelle” (“Natural Pool”), and these are often visited together along a long walking tour that is somewhat tiring but well worth the effort! Another attraction of the park is the “Finetre de l’Isalo” (“Window of Isalo”), which is a triangular hole in a high massif. The best time of the day to visit is at sunset, when the sun aligns right up with the window, colouring the surrounding rocks many different shades of red. There are 14 lemurs and 77 bird species, and the flora is even more various, boasting over 400 plant species, including the Bismarck palm, Elephant’s foot plant and Aloe isaloensis. The Elephant’s foot plant is a very strange plant with a noticeable expanded caudex, which stores water inside for the long dry season. There are many walking trails inside the park that you can choose depending on the time you have or the level of difficulty you wish to take on. While the trails are generally easy for most people, some of them can take a couple of hours and others even the whole day.
The most visited trail is the Natural Pool Trail which leads visitors to a natural stone cave overlooking a crystal-clear waterfall that tumbles into a deep green pool surrounded by overhanging pandanus trees. The pool is a welcoming refreshment after a exhausting hike. There’s also a 42km panoramic road that goes around the park for 4×4s.
Andringitra National Park
The park was established in 1999 and became a World Heritage Site in 2007. It is one of the most biologically diverse and endemic places in Madagascar with its dramatic peaks, waterfalls and unusual landscapes. Andrigitra is characterized by high mountains (peak 2658m), deep valleys and ridges, and has got three eco-zones: a low altitude rainforest, montane humid forests and highland vegetation/forest. The differences in the landscape are reflected in the cultural and socio-economic diversities of the local populations. Each of the three main cultural groups has its own unique identity, value system, beliefs and distinctive survival strategy, and each one is adapted to its unique habitat. Pic Boby, also known as Pic Imarivolanitra, is the star attraction of Andringitra National Park. It’iss Madagascar second highest mountain, and the highest climbable one. The mountain was named by the French after a dog, who supposedly was the first one to summit during the first expedition. The Malagasy found the name offensive, as they believe the mountain to be sacred, and decided to change the name to Imarivolanitra, meaning ‘close to the sky’. However, as it often happens, the mountain is still known by its former name. There are many ways of reaching the top and once you do, if you are lucky enough to arrive with no or few clouds you are gifted with a view the neighbouring Tsaranoro Massif, the mountain range stretching north and south and if luckier still, the hills and lowlands east that stretch all the way to the Indian Ocean. The park is home to 54 species of mammal, 108 species of bird, including the Blue Pigeon of Madagascar and the Long-tailed Ground Roller, 50 reptiles and 70 frogs. There are over 100 species of plants including the ficus rub, Aloe andringitriensis and Rhipsalis baccifera, a type of cactus.
Berenty reserve lies 10 km west of Fort Dauphin and is a small private reserve that is accessible by car via a scenic route passing through a sea of sisal fields. The reserve was created 70 years ago by the de Heaulme family as a private park dedicated to the protection of over 250 hectares of closed canopy gallery forest of ancient tamarind trees, open scrub and a surreal “spiny forest” of southern Madagascar. The reserve is world famous for its tame lemurs, specifically the ring-tailed lemur and Verreaux’s sifaka. On night hikes in the spiny forest visitors can hear and likely see grey mouse lemurs and white-footed sportive lemurs along with assorted insects and sleeping birds and reptiles.
Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park
The spectacular mineral forest of Tsingy de Bemaraha stands on the western coast of Madagascar. Tsingy is the Malagasy word for “walking on tiptoes” and the nearly impenetrable labyrinth of limestone needles justifies this name. The whole protected area, designated a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 1990, comprises a surface of 1.575 km². This remote area was not a tourist trek until 1998, when the southern part was declared a National Park. The northern section is an Integral Reserve so tourists are not allowed to enter the zone.
Around 200 million years ago the limestone seabed rose to create a plateau which was slowly eroded by heavy rainfalls until it reached its actual shape. This massif is delimited to the east by the abrupt Bemaraha Cliffs, which rise some 300 to 400m above the Manambolo River valley. The western slopes of the massif rise more gently. A high percentage of the flora is locally endemic. The western part is mainly deciduous dry forest, particularly well adapted to the extreme changing climatic conditions of the area. The eastern section is savannah and lowland bushes. Inside the canyons there are small tropical forests and lianas, given that it is very humid among the tall tsingy formations. Visitors may spot up to 11 lemur species, including Decken’s Sifaka, Sambirano Lesser Bamboo Lemur, which is found only in the park. Other mammals include the Small Carnivorous Falanouc and Ring-tailed Mongoose and several bats. More than 100 bird species have been catalogued at present inside the national park, including the critically endangered Madagascar fish eagle and Crested Ibis, the Madagascar Wood-rail and the Giant Coua or Coquerel´s Coua. The 45 reptiles and amphibians which are found here are all endemic. Some significant species which only occur in Bemaraha are the Madagascar Iguana, a local endemic Long-tailed Skink and the Antsingy Leaf Chameleon.
Ankarana Special Reserve
Ankarana Special Reserve in northern Madagascar was created in 1956. It is a small, partially vegetated plateau composed of 150-million-year-old middle Jurassic limestone. The underlying rocks of the plateau are susceptible to erosion, thereby producing caves and underground rivers. The topography of the park is quite varied. In addition to the limestone Tsingies there are tropical jungles, rivers, lakes, green forests, canyons and caves, making the reserve a paradise for hikers. The fauna and flora are also very rich, with baobabs, fig trees, cassia trees, 11 species of lemur, 14 types of bat, 96 bird species and 60 reptile species. Some of the more interesting caves to visit include la Grotte des Chauves-Souris, la Grotte d’Andrafiabe e la Grotte des Crocodiles.
Montagne d’Ambre National Park
Montagne d’Ambre is located near Joffreville (Ambohitra), about 27 km southwest of Diego Suarez (Antsiranana) and is a picture perfect example of a montane forest with its waterfalls, crater lakes and wildlife. Covering an area of 18.200 hectares and lying at altitudes between 800 and 1.470 metres, it is host to a magnificent botanical garden with more than 1000 species of plants including ferns, orchids, very antique trees and many mammals including seven types of lemurs and the Madagascar Crested Ibis.
Nosy Be Archipelago
Situated off the north-west coast of Madagascar, the Nosy Be Archipelago with its tropical climate is the perfect destination for divers and snorkelers. Nosy Be is a tropical savannah with two distinct seasons, a dry season and a wet season. Most rain falls during the summer (from November until March), and in the dry season (between May and October) temperatures are around 27/28 °C.
Arriving on the island, you are welcomed not only by silky white sands and clear blue waters filled with coral reefs, but also by the smell of nearby plantations of Ylang-Ylang and spices whose fragrances are permanently in the air, thus the name Nosy Be which means “the Perfume Island”. Going from the airport to the main city of Hell Ville, driving through the beautiful coffee, cocoa and sugar cane plantations spread all over the island, you will soon realise this is a place of pure magic and wonder. At Hell Ville there’s a beautiful market where the islanders arrive with vegetables and beans and fishermen arrive with their small boats full of fresh fish. Another interesting attraction is the Lokobe Reserve, situated on the southeastern side of the island. It is known for its black lemurs and the beautiful Nose Be Panther Chameleon. The reserve can be accessed by rowing along the bay.
The most beautiful beaches are those of Ambatoloaka, Madirokely, Dzamandzary and Andilana. And if you are up for some action, the quad excursions through the sacred lakes and the small villages are a fun attraction. Nosy Be is fascinating for its natural beauty and its friendly people, and while it may not be your final destination, it may be the starting point for an infinite number of excursions and places to visit.
Nosy Tanikely is the closest island and is only half an hour from the main island. It is a marine sanctuary and a paradise for snorkelers with beautiful corals and a vast number of reef fish.
There is also Nosy Komba, a volcanic island whose hills fold dramatically into the water, creating sandy coves and sheltered harbours for fishing villages. In the villages, the dusty lanes are lined with embroidered tablecloths, woven baskets and woodcarvings.
Nosy Sakatia (Orchid Island) is a small lush island just short a boat trip from the main island. It is only 6.5 km long and 2 km wide at its widest point. It offers typical unspoilt tropical flora and fauna. It has a population of 305 inhabitants, and has no roads – only footpaths. It is the perfect place for one to wonder at leisure and explore the beauty of its deserted beaches. The island is fringed by a spectacular coral reef that can be enjoyed by snorkelers and scuba divers alike. An absolute must on this island is a visit to the Sacred Forest.
Ankazoberavina is an island in the northwestern part of Madagascar, 18 miles away (1 hour by boat) from Nosy Be Island. The uncontaminated beauty of the island is protected and preserved by the Nature Sauvage Society. The island juts out of the crystal-clear sea with its hilly landscape, offering visitors a series of gentle rising hills covered with lush vegetation. In fact, the entire island is completely covered in a dense tropical forest.
Many marine animal species have chosen the waters of Ankazoberavina to rest during great migrations, such as the humpback whale, and others, such as turtles, visit the island to lay their eggs on the beach without being disturbed leaving visitors to enjoy the hatching of them later. Many rare animal species live on the island, including fish eagles (a species considered confined to Madagascar), of which only 200 examples are left, and 3 of which live on the island.
Finally, there is the beautiful island of Nosy Iranja. It is a one hour by boat ride to the southwest of Nosy Be. At low tide, Nosy Iranja is a single island but splits into two as rising waters cover the connecting white sandbank. The island is an important breeding site for hawksbill turtles and scientists are currently working on a turtle monitoring project on the island.
Nosy Mitsio Archipelago
The Nosy Mitsio Archipelago lies 70 kilometres north of Nosy Be and is only accessible by boat. The archipelago is made up of about a dozen islands. La Grande Mitsio is the largest island with the small farming villages of Antakarana and Akalava. Heading north there is the island of Nosy Ankarea, which is surrounded by incredible coral reefs. The best way to visit the archipelago is by catamaran or sailboat.
Isle of Sainte Marie
Saint Marie, officially as Nosy Boraha, is a sleepy little island just 8 km off the coast of Madagascar. It is 60 kilometres long and a mere 5 kilometres wide, but its natural beauty is never ending, offering the visitor a true sense of peace and tranquillity. The island is quite easy to visit by bike and boasts one stunning beach after another where one can relax in the sun or enjoy some snorkelling in the waters. Many legendary pirates such as William Kidd, John Avery, Captain Misson, Nathaniel North and Olivier Levasseur once visited these beaches. Today all that is left of the once thriving pirate population are a number of historical buildings, a few shipwrecks along the shore, the pirate cemetery and some descendants among the local population. The northern part of the island is quite wild, and its great length means that there is plenty of room for exploration. The channel between Nosy Boraha and Madagascar is a hot spot for whale watching. In fact, it is an idyllic breeding spot for humpback whales, which migrate from the Antarctic. The period from September to October is the best period to plan to do some whale watching.
Finally, don’t forget to a day trip to the tiny Ile aux Nattes where you will find unspoiled tropical beaches with fine white sand, coconut and other palm trees scattered along the shore, and a turquoise lagoon protected by coral reefs and inhabited by a variety of exotic marine life. There are no motor vehicles on the small island; in fact, it is accessible only by lakana (traditional wooden canoes also known as pirogue) from Sainte Marie. The biodiversity of the island is fascinating and includes trees such as breadfruit, the hard-wooded Nanto (for which the island is named according to one legend), rare orchids and spice such as vanilla, cinnamon, clove and lemon. A small community of ruffed lemurs (Sifaka) has recently been re-introduced to the island and seems to be thriving.
When is the best time to go?
UTC +3 hours
There is no risk of yellow fever in Madagascar. The government of Madagascar requires proof of yellow fever vaccination only if you are arriving from a country with risk of yellow fever.
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