Mini Guide to Madagascar
Located in the Indian Ocean, just east of Mozambique, Madagascar is an island country detached from the African continent. With a total area of nearly 600,000 square kilometers, it’s the fourth-largest island in the world.
The country split from the Indian Peninsula some 88 million years ago. The extended isolation created unique biodiversity, where nearly 80 percent of the wildlife is endemic. Also, Madagascar was a French colony until 1958.
The best way to travel around the country is via domestic flights with Air Madagascar. If you’d like to enjoy the great scenery, you can use the railway network dating back to colonial times. However, it isn’t the fastest.
While you can rent a car to explore the country, most roads are in a very bad state. Also, companies require that you use one of their drivers, which can double as a guide.
Locals tend to use the cheap minibusses called taxi-brousse and taxi-be, but they can be super crowded.
The official languages of Madagascar are French and Malagasy. French is predominantly spoken in international communications and also as a second language by educated citizens of the former French colony.
Malagasy is part of the Malayo-Polynesian branch and spoken throughout the country. Although locals will appreciate if you try to speak it, you’re better off using French or English when addressing those in the tourism industry.
Main Cities and Towns
Nosy Be is arguably the most famous beach destination in Madagascar. It’s an island located at the northern tip of the country, which attracts visitors looking for pristine clear waters, surrounding desert islands, and incredible fishing.
Another reason people come to Nosy Be is to enjoy the wildlife. The island is home to one of the smallest frogs in the world and the colorful panther chameleon. Diving is also popular in the area because visitors can see the Omura’s whale in its natural habitat.
Located in the western region of Madagascar, Morondava is a quiet coastal town and the ideal place to escape the busy capital of Antananarivo. It’s usually a base for those who want the visit a nearby fishing village, which is part of the Kirindy Mitea National Park.
The surrounding attractions include the majestic Avenue of Baobabs, the impressive Tsingy de Bemaraha Reserve, and the Kirindy Forest Reserve. In particular, the Kirindy Forest Reserve is home to the Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur, the smallest primate in the world.
Ile Sainte Marie
Also known as Nosy Boraha, Ile Sainte Marie is an island off Madagascar’s east coast. This sleepy tropical destination is the perfect spot to see humpback whales, which come from July to September to breed.
The island was a famous pirate haunt during the 17th and 18th centuries. So, travelers can visit a true pirate cemetery not far from Ambodifototra.
Meaning “where there is a lot of salt” in Malagasy, Antsirabe is the second-largest city in Madagascar. Since it’s located in the central and mountainous region of the country, it’s popular for its cool climate.
What sets Antsirabe apart is the colonial buildings dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. Particularly, the railway station. Another popular attraction is the volcanic Lake Tritriva, which fills an extinct natural crater.
Interesting Sites and Natural Wonders
Just 22 kilometers southwest of Antananarivo, Lemurs’ Park is a small haven for lemurs covering an area of 12 acres. It’s like a small botanical garden with nine different species of lemurs and around 70 endemic species of plants. It’s also possible to see iguanas, radiated tortoises, and chameleons at the reserve.
Masoala National Park
Covering 2400 square kilometers, Masoala National Park is the largest protected area in Madagascar. Located in the northeast of the country, the park is famous for its tropical forests, mangroves, and biodiversity.
Travelers can see the red-ruffed lemur, one of the largest of its kind, and the aye-aye, the largest nocturnal primate. Due to its coral-rich waters, the park is ideal for those who love diving.
Avenue of the Baobabs
Possibly one of the most visited attractions in Madagascar, the Avenue of Baobabs is a long stretch of dirt road dotted with ancient baobab trees. There are, in fact, between 20 and 25 of these ancient trees for visitors to see.
Baobabs are incredible. With a height of 82 feet and a diameter of 46 feet, these trees are huge. Even more impressive, they can live for more than 1,500 years.
Safety and Health
While Madagascar is considered a moderately safe country, it goes without saying that travelers should never let their guards down. Much like other developing countries, don’t flaunt your wealth unnecessarily to avoid unwanted attention.
When it comes to your health, make sure you stay away from stray dogs as there have been cases of rabies in the country. Malaria is also an issue. Therefore, it’s important to take prophylactics, use repellents, wear long-sleeved clothes, and use mosquito nets.
The climate in Madagascar is primarily tropical — especially along the coast. However, it’s slightly temperate in the mountains and arid in the south. The southeastern winds from the Indian Ocean heavily influence the country’s weather.
The cool and dry season happens from May to October, while the hot and rainy season takes place from November to April. The east coast receives most of the rainfall.
The country is also famous for the destructive cyclones that occur during the hot season.
Food and Drinks
Madagascan cuisine has influences from Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe, and India. However, most meals consist of rice and some sort of accompaniment (laoka), which can be vegetarian or include animal protein. Staples also include compose (potato salad with vegetables) bananas, and rice cakes.
The most common beverage is Ranon’ampango, which is water that has been used to cook rice. Three Horses Beer is a popular beer, but locals prefer rum as it’s cheaper. Coffee is usually very sweet as it tends to be served with condensed milk.
Taking place in late April or early May, Santabary Festival is an ancient celebration for the year’s first rice harvest. Due to the prevalence of rice in Madagascan cuisine, the entire country erupts with eating, drinking, and dancing.
Occurring at the beginning of June, Famadihana is one of the most peculiar festivals in Madagascar.
Commonly called “the turning of the ancestors’ bones”, locals take the body of their ancestors from the family crypts, re-dress them in silk shrouds, and dance with cadavers around the tombs. Locals believe that when the body is fully decomposed, the dead finally join their ancestors and deserve a celebration.
Donia Music Festival
Attracting around 50,000 people, the Donia Music Festival is Nosy Be’s biggest event. Taking place at the end of September, the festival celebrates the people of the western Indian Ocean. It combines sport, cultural events, and Malagasy music.
People and Culture
People from Madagascar tend to live by fady rules, which change widely depending on the region. Some forbid certain foods such as lemurs or turtles, while others won’t allow people to wear specific colors or bathe in a river.
While travelers are usually exempt from any obligations, it’s important to respect and try to not violate them. You should also respect the elders as they are considered important figures in the communities.