Influenced by its early Asian settlers and proximity to the African mainland, Madagascar has been ultimately – and uniquely – shaped by its geographical isolation. It’s the oldest and fourth largest island in the world, with the topographical and climatic diversity of a small continent.
It’s an irresistible location for lovers of the great outdoors, naturalists, photographers and travellers looking to immerse themselves in a unique and fascinating location.
But it also has its challenges: attractions are widespread and travel between them can be lengthy and uncomfortable, it has a cyclone season that restricts travel to specific months of the year and tourism infrastructure at times is less developed than some travellers are used to.
So to maximise your time in Madagascar, experience the best the island has to offer and set realistic expectations, it’s a destination that benefits from some planning and research before you go.
The best time of year to travel to Madagascar depends on your specific interests. The tourist season falls between April and December, with the rainy season claiming the other months with risks of cyclones and many roads becoming un-passable. The high season coincides with the European summer holidays and cooler temperatures in July and August. This is a great time for whale watching, but many reptiles are hibernating. Warmer weather in September to December attracts those preferring beach locations and activities, whilst birders and wildlife lovers will appreciate birds, reptiles and rodents becoming more active. Having said that, it’s worth keeping in mind that climate change is having an impact on traditional weather patterns.
Quality over quantity is the most rewarding approach to travelling in Madagascar. Its highlights are widespread throughout the country, but getting around requires patience and flexibility. To spend less time travelling and more time enjoying the unique attractions the country has to offer, focus on a specific region(s) instead of trying to see everything in one visit. For example, my month on the island focused on three regions, leaving many areas for a return visit :
Getting around Madagascar requires a great deal of patience and flexibility. A small percentage of roads are paved and most of these are poorly maintained, full of potholes and often damaged by the annual rains and cyclones. They also all lead through the country’s capital, meaning you often have to back track on the same road just to reach another location.
Most locals travel via taxi brousse and whilst this is a cheap option and great way to immerse yourself in local culture, set realistic expectations: are you someone who can tolerate being cramped in a small mini-van for long periods of time? A more expensive but comfortable option is to hire a local driver - which also gives you the flexibility of stopping as required along the way - or to cut travel time by flying with Air Madagascar. Self-driving is not recommended.
Air Madagascar is the country’s national airline and offers an alternative to long and uncomfortable drives with a number of different routes to and from the capital. It’s perfect for travellers short of time or those wanting to cover great distances. But be warned: it has a notorious reputation for strikes, scheduling changes and cancellations. Give yourself plenty of time between connecting flights and be prepared for disruptions.
Although ATM and credit card use is increasing in cities, towns and large hotels, cash remains the most useful form of currency to carry in Madagascar. The official currency is the Malagasy Ariary and the easiest currency to exchange is EURO and USD. The largest note of 10,000 MGA is worth around £2, so expect a large wad of cash when you first change money. It’s useful to carry smaller denominations in rural locations, as change for large notes is not always available.
With a history of political instability and the image of the country often portrayed by news and government websites, safety is often a worry of travellers planning a trip to Madagascar. I can honestly say I never felt unsafe during the month I spent there, but opportunistic crime is not unheard of and I did meet two travellers who were the unfortunate victims of having a camera and a mobile phone stolen, both whilst left unattended besides them. Use common sense, don’t leave personal items unattended, take extra care in Antananarivo (especially at night) and follow your gut instinct if a situation doesn’t feel safe. In other words, apply the same rules you would in any location, including your own home.
Malaria is a risk throughout the country so anti-malaria tablets are essential, as is being up to date with your travel vaccinations. Don’t drink the tap water – it isn’t safe – and make sure ice in drinks is made from filtered water. If you plan to spend time in rural areas, a basic first aid kit is useful – particularly for traveller’s diarrhoea, cuts and scratches from forest walks and antihistamines if you react from insect bites.
French is the second official language so French-speaking travellers have an advantage when it comes to communicating with the locals. English is now being taught in most schools and becoming more popular, especially amongst local guides and in hotels. But those who don’t speak French – like me – will need patience and charades in rural communities and with the older generation.
Madagascar has a diverse landscape with rainforests, dry forests, deserts, rivers, mountains and beaches. It has a varied climate to match and depending on the time of year and location on the island, you may encounter rain, stifling humidity, dry heat, pleasant days and cool nights. Light and comfortable layers are ideal for varied weather and you’ll also appreciate good walking shoes, a waterproof jacket, sunscreen and a hat.
Although geared and keen for tourists, Madagascar is still one of the poorest countries in the world. High-end resorts and hotels are continuing to appear in some locations, but arrive with realistic expectations to avoid disappointment. Many accommodation choices in rural areas only have electricity via a generator that is run during restricted hours, limited food options and no Wi-Fi. Having said that, they are also often located amongst spectacular scenery and surrounded by the songs of the great outdoors, so bring a good torch, slow down and soak it up.
Fady is a key feature of the Malagasy lifestyle, essentially meaning ‘taboo’ or ‘forbidden’. A fady is a belief passed down through generations that influences local behaviour in relation to food, people or places. It may be consistent across the country or vary from region to region. Although tourists are not expected to adhere to fady, it’s respectful to follow it when advised. For example, guides in the Tsingy of Bemaraha will tell you it is disrespectful to point at something with your forefinger, asking you instead to point with all five fingers, a gesture of respect that will be appreciated by the locals.
The sad reality is that despite being rich in natural resources, Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, with many people living on less than $2 a day. Travellers in Madagascar often find themselves in ethically uncomfortable dilemmas, with well-meaning actions contributing to a wider issue. The definition of “responsible travel” can feel blurry when children sit at a popular tourist stop, demanding money for photos or a hungry family beg for help. There are no rules and everyone has a different opinion – just think before you act and consider the wider implication of action and inaction.
In some places a local guide is mandatory, in others it’s a non-compulsory benefit and at times it’s not necessary. I used a combination of the three but really enjoyed my encounters with local guides. Most of them were exceptional: passionate about their country, knowledgeable about the wildlife, culture and landscape, with an appreciation for conservation and responsible travel. But there are always exceptions so do your research.
Even if you aren’t someone who uses guidebooks when travelling, the Bradt Guide is worth a look for this destination. It’s founder, Hilary Bradt, specialises in the region and has been returning on a regular basis for over 30 years. The Bradt Guide to Madagascar is comprehensive, full of great information and has lots of insider tips.
Above all, remember that sustainable tourism is essential to Madagascar for both local income and conservation awareness. But irresponsible tourism can be a threat to the environment and local communities. Be a responsible traveller, be patient and flexible and enjoy the privilege of visiting one of the most fascinating countries in the world.
(this blog post was originally shared on my travel blog Destination Unknown 14 May, 2016)