Madagascar Travel Guide: The Island of a Thousand Facets
With its warm climate all year round, its almost endemic flora and fauna, its incredible landscapes and its adorable population, the island of Madagascar is what we call a paradise on earth. Lying in the Indian Ocean, this big island of Madagascar, also known as the red earth island, is a place of hundreds of discoveries, a location of relaxation and travel.
My name is Nicolas Raherinjatovo, and I am proud and happy to introduce you to Madagascar: the island of a thousand facets. I am passionate about travel and this passion drove me to study tourism. Let’s discover this beautiful island and all its incredible places.
During most of the 19th century, the island was administered by the Kingdom of Madagascar. In 1896 the island was colonized by the French, and they did not have their independence until 1960. Madagascar is an island that is in the Indian Ocean and geographically attached to the African continent from which it is separated by the Mozambique Channel. It is the fifth largest island in the world, with a length of 1,580 km and a width of 580 km, Madagascar covers an area of 587,000 square kilometres.
Want to know more about this big island? Here’s a comprehensive guide with detailed travel information to show you how to get there.
Madagascar Things To Do & See
Madagascar combines both natural beauty and the cultures of Africa and Asia. By travelling to this island you will be able to take advantage of its crystal clear waters to bask in a postcard setting, discover the endemic flora and fauna, and immerse yourself in Malagasy culture.
Antananarivo is the capital of Madagascar where all the ethnic groups of the island are concentrated. Antananarivo translates as the city of a thousand conceals historical remains to discover. You can visit the “Rova” the royal palace, take a tour of the upper town or stroll in the Tsimbazaza zoological park to discover the flora and fauna that can be seen all over the island. There are also 12 sacred hills which have enormous historical weight for Antananarivo and the kingdom of Madagascar. Apart from that, you can taste the local gastronomy in many restaurants in the capital. All the customs and gastronomy of the ethnic groups of the islands are found there.
2. Nosy Be Island
Nosy be is an island off the coast of Madagascar more exactly in the north-west. It is one of the most beautiful seaside resorts in the country and also one of the largest. This destination is made for beach lovers because you can find among of the most beautiful beaches in Madagascar. Whether alone, as a couple, with friends or with family, this is an ideal destination for a holiday. You can also make excursions in the neighbouring islands such as Nosy Iranja, Nosy Komba, Nosy Tanikely or Andilana which all have magnificent beaches at their disposal. By going there, you will have an unforgettable stay, relaxing and forgetting all the stresses of everyday life.
3. The Alley of the Baobabs
Considered the most beautiful alley in Madagascar, it is unmissable. Located west of Madagascar in the Menabe region, it is best to visit it at sunset or sunrise to totally appreciate the red lights from the trees. It’s a sight not to be missed. These gigantic trees, called “sky roots”, more than 900 years old and can reach 30 meters in height, and with a trunk circumference of more than 40 meters.
4. Isalo National Park
A place which shelters a wild nature of singular beauty, the national park of Isalo is a site which will undoubtedly seduce the amateurs of long escapades. This magnificent place is located between Ihosy and Sakaraha in the southwest of Madagascar. This massif has an exceptional variety of birds, two thirds of which are endemic species. The traveler will be able to realize it by traversing the various tourist circuits which he can practice on foot or in all-terrain vehicle. Another easy route very popular with travelers is the “natural swimming pool” circuit with which visitors can enjoy incomparable moments spent in the heart of a wooded savannah and a magnificent natural botanical garden.
5. Sainte Marie Island
At the heart of an environment worthy of the most beautiful postcards is the small Île Sainte-Marie. With its mangroves, its magnificent lagoon and its expanses of white sand, days of discovery or just lazing around await you in Sainte-Marie. Sainte-Marie is the 2nd island of Madagascar after the island of Nosy-Be by its area. It lies off the coast of Red Island, about 35 kilometers from Soanierana Ivongo.
One of the events that exposes this destination to the eyes of the whole world is the Whale Festival. This event celebrates these marine mammals who each year chooses the warm waters of the Indian Ocean to reproduce and raise their young. From July to September we can observe humpback whales dancing in the seas of Sainte Marie. It is a magnificent sight.
6. Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park
Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park is a unique park that can only be found in Madagascar. It is an area of 72 340 hectares and is known thanks to these Tsingy. It is a unique topographic form that can be seen in parts of Madagascar. They are in fact sharp limestone pinnacles. These limestones can reach a height of 45 meters. It is not only the Tsingy which are interesting in the park because we can find through these limestone stones plant and animal life. You can find the endemic fauna and flora of Madagascar there. We identify 11 different types of lemurs and the most incredible is that we can see the famous Ankoay which is the eagle of Madagascar, a rare species of raptor that we do not see anywhere. Going for a hike through the Tsingy is a real adventure to be lived.
7.Île aux Nattes
The island named Nosy Natto in Malagasy is an oasis of sand 2 km in diameter. Protected by a lagoon over a radius of 1,500 meters, Île aux Nattes is sheltered from predators and waves but very close to the Sainte-Marie Island, located 200 meters to the south. Its privileged location makes it an ideal place to practice traditional fishing and diving, but also to witness the reproduction of whales in the Saint-Marie canal or to explore the region.
8. Diego-Suarez bay
At the northern tip of Madagascar, we find the bay of Diego-Suarez. This bay was renamed by the name of two Portuguese sailors called Diego Diaz and Fernando Suarez. There are 4 bays that make up this bay, one of which is a sacred place for the local population. From there you can see the atmosphere of the port life of Antsiranana and also you can visit Amber Mountain which is a National Park teeming with unparalleled natural beauty with its endemic flora and fauna.
9. Ranomafana National Park
One of the most must-see places on the Big Island is Ranomafana National Park. This park was created in 1991 following the discovery of a species of lemur called the golden bamboo lemur. What differentiates the park from other national parks in Madagascar is the fact that endemic species can be found due to this also the majority of animal and plant species are endangered species. If you are a nature lover this is the perfect destination for you and you will not be disappointed with what you see.
10. Belo sur mer
Lovers of beautiful beaches will be served by going to Belo sur Mer because it is the ideal place to relax and meet up. You can relax there while admiring the pirogues of the fishermen who return or go fishing. You can also observe the salt marshes there, and it is also interesting to see the marine carpenters making sailboats. It’s a different universe from what we are used to seeing.
Madagascar Travel & Culture Guide
On the fourth largest island in the world, where wildlife is wonderful and beaches are blissfully beautiful, you may easily be forgiven for pointing at ….let’s say a lemur! But think again.
This section introduces you to various aspects of the Madagasy culture. Then it takes you to some of the island’s highlights.
If you’re planning to travel to Madagascar, you’ll certainly get far more out of your travel experience if you understand the island’s fadys, which are cultural taboos, especially as life in Madagascar is dominated by thousands of fadys.
Let’s take the example of pointing: the main issue here is that as you innocently point at an interesting example of wildlife, you could be pointing at the burial place of a local’s ancestor. Totally taboo also called “fady” in Malagasy. If you break a fady, you could reap scary results from the spirit of said ancestor or “Razana” , or if you manage to escape that, at the very least you will experience social shame.
Madagascar was featured in the New York Times & Irish Times as a top destination in 2017
Lying off the coast of East Africa, Madagascar has got its act together since stabilising after the 2013 elections and has been selected by the New York Times and Irish Times as a top destination in 2017. There are some beautiful eco-friendly lodgings available, which include rain forest camps and luxury island retreats. These are perfect bases from which to experience the amazing wildlife; 80% of the mammals found there, cannot be found elsewhere. The stars of the show on land in Madagascar are the chameleons, lemurs and dancing sifakas, while underwater, humpback and shark whales can be seen cruising around.
Download this free colouring page about Madagascar
Madagascar is still unspoilt
The landscape is incredibly diverse, and in some areas, you’ll find vast tracts of unoccupied land. Madagascar is still unspoilt, so let’s hope it stays that way. Although it has its own agricultural practices (slash-and-burn cultivation or “Tavy” in malagasy) that have affected the island, more about that a bit later.
Take a trip of around 200 miles and you can travel from rainforest to desert. The turquoise sea is never very far away, with the island’s 4000+ miles of coastline, and in between, you can discover rice paddies, limestone karsts, mountains and sandstone canyons. Impressive trees and fauna are to be found everywhere, with inspirationally shaped baobab trees being the order of the day.
Madagascar has a strange geological history
It is Madagascar’s strange geological history that is responsible for the fact that the island is home to wildlife, of which 80% can’t be found elsewhere. 160 million years ago, Madagascar lost contact with Africa. It was part of the Gondwana supercontinent but after losing contact with Africa, it subsequently also did the same with Antarctica, Australia and then India.
Amazingly much of the island’s endemic species went along for the ride, and stuck with it on the journey, like the elephant bird, for example. Additionally both animals and seeds were swept out to sea from rivers in Mozambique and Tanzania, which makes it possible that the ancestors of the lemurs that you can see in Madagascar today, arrived there this way.
Madagascar is a cultural melting pot. Waves of migrants have come to the island from various corners of the Indian Ocean, which has led to a distinctive, unique society being fashioned, with its own intricate, complex set of customs and beliefs. The Malagasy people, above all, revere the spirits of their ancestors or “Razana”.
“The smiles of the children, the hustle and bustle and the architecture of the city catch your attention. Houses in adobe, beige and yellow are jumbled onto the hills like a Cezanne painting.” Patricia C. Wright, Anthropology Professor
The humble people of Madagascar are truly welcoming and friendly, but even though visitors find their culture fascinating, they are not entirely comfortable about it. They don’t like confrontation, so even if something doesn’t go as expected, it will help you culturally if you don’t make a fuss. The reason for this is that underlying their social fabric is ‘fihavanana’, which means ‘conciliation’.
Photo: M M
Respecting this and the complex taboo (fady) system will go a long way to making your trip there more rewarding and enjoyable. The fadys vary from village to village and place to place, making the situation even more complicated. When visiting a village or a specific place, don’t be scared to ask firstly about the taboos there, so you don’t make an embarrassing mistake. In one of the villages a fady is wearing swimming goggles! The fady system is based on not wishing to disrespect or upset the spirits of their ancestors. Here are a few examples, but the Malagasy are creating new fadys all the time. People who, even unknowingly, break a fady, are considered unclean.
- Don’t point at a tomb at the risk of losing the guilty phalanx or making the guilty person leprous
- Never kick the wall at the risk of causing the death of the maternal or paternal grandmother
- If you’re pregnant, don’t put gingers in the pocket otherwise it will push baby’s sixth finger or toe.
- Never whistle after dark or the ghosts will come
- A new born baby should be called ugly and linked to a pig or a dog so that it is not hated by ghosts
Madagascar ethnic groups
The Merina people (the ethnic group of the central highland) of Madagascar look like Indonesians and there are other who look like Africans.. It is believed that the Indonesians arrived there when travelling around the Indian Ocean, and it is thought that they descend from seafarers who hailed from Indonesia and Malaya. These people brought their rice-based diet and belief system with them. Until today, the Malagasy food base is rice.The Merina account for around a quarter of the island’s population.
Some Swahili and Bantu words can be heard in the Malagasy language. These come from the African migrants who arrived there over the centuries. Arab merchants also made their way there, and they may have descended from the Arabic Antaimoro peoples.
In total, today, you can meet around eighteen different ethnic groups in Madagascar, who even though they have some racial differences they do feel that they share the same culture, even though there are variations from village to village, and the same language.
Communicating in Madagascar
Since Madagascar has eighteen different ethnicities that each have their own culture, it also has eighteen different dialects. The Malagasy people use the Merina dialect to communicate which is known as the official Malagasy language.
Madagascar was a French colony until 1960. Therefore their second language until today is French, so if you speak some French, it will help you get by. Many Malagasy also manage to speak English since English has become a compulsory subject to be learned at school.
That said, the ideal is to learn a few important phrases in Malagasy, such as saying hello (Manahoana), thank you (Misaotra), sorry (Azafady) or ordering a beer (Afaka mahazo labiera azafady)! Remember that if you do speak French, the Malagasies have a difficult ex-colonial relationship with their ex-colonisers.
The Malagasy language is rather similar to a dialect, which we can hear spoken in Borneo. It is rich in both metaphors and images, and rather poetical.
Death in Madagascar
In Madagascar, the most important part of life is death. Funerals are often joyful occasions, as the Malagasy people regard death as the moment when the soul transmutes into razana, which means an immortal spirit.
Speaking with the dead or Razana
Their culture revolves around Razana. These ancestors, that are now immortal spirits, are a kind of life force to the people. They call upon them to inform them. It is believed that the razana are actively looking after them in various ways. Their wishes are both obeyed and respected. This is the reason that the villages operate under the systems of fadys, in order to please these deceased ancestors.
As a traveller to Madagascar, an important highlight of your trip, could be attending a famadihana or exhumation. This is when the family dig up the bones of ancestors, to ceremoniously wrap them in fresh tissue (Lamba) and to walk them dancing around the tomb before burying them again. In Madagascar, however, this re-burial ends up becoming periodic, generally every seven years, in a great celebration bringing together all the members of the group. On this occasion, the silk shrouds covering the decomposed mortuary remains of several bodies are renewed. This is a special time for them to communicate with the razana, and celebrations can last for a week. This exhumation and reburial practice is carried out by the Merina and Betsileo peoples.
Around fifty per cent of the islanders believe that there is one God, that is neither female or male, according to traditional beliefs. Some of Malagasy worship nature spirits, whom they believe inhabit elements of nature, such as trees and rivers. Others have converted to Christianity, and a small amount of people have become Muslims. Even so, they still all respect the traditional rituals.
Food in Madagascar
Madagascar cuisine is influenced by the peoples who have settled there and also the French who colonised the country. So expect a blend of Indonesian, Arab and African, with a dash of French in the mix. Crops such as sugar cane, vanilla, cloves and coffee were brought by French colonisers.
Typically a traditional main meal includes rice which is the basis of their diet with the “Loka” which is mainly poultry, beef, pork or fish, as well as side vegetables, served with some “ro” which is a kind of broth so that the food does not dry out too much. The “Ro” is a bowl of broth mixed with leaves and herbs; simple presented but full of flavor.
Some popular Malagasy dishes:
Foza sy hena-kisoa: stir-fried, lobster and crab, seasoned with lime juice and ginger. It is mainly eaten with rice, just like other Malagasy dishes.
Ramazava: Pork and beef browned in oil, with herbs and leaves
Vary amin’anana: rice soup made with meat, sometimes shrimp and mainly herbs and leaves
Koba: very popular Malagasy dessert made from a mixture of rice flour and crushed peanuts, and wrapped in banana leaves
Try the local brew, ranonapango – a burned rice water
Local beers – Gold or Three Horses Beer
Tap water is unsafe, so you need to drink bottled water.
Tips in restaurants should be around 10%. Hotel staff don’t expect tips, but you can always break this custom and it is always appreciated.
Handwoven cloth in Madagascar is an integral part of life. Not only is it elegant for clothing, but lamba, as it is called, is a valuable symbol of the heritage. It is offered to the spirits in exchange for blessings. Lamba is used as a ceremonial gift. It is also offered to rulers.
At marriage, men offer lamba to their brides, which is a time-honoured tradition. When they are being wed, a single cloth encircles the couple as a symbol of their union. Historically lamba has been used in matters of diplomacy. It is given to create or renew alliances. Lamba has been used in international diplomatic relations. The cloth is also used in wraparounds, and can be worn draped around the shoulders or as a sarong. Mothers use lamba to carry their babies in a sling.
Hats are another important aspect of the Malagasy culture. These are made from a variety of plant fibres, using different colours and weaves.
Madagascar UNESCO wood working
The woodworking traditions and knowledge of the Zafimaniry tribe have been designated as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage since 2008. These people are located in Madagascar’s central highlands. However woodworking is to be found throughout the country. Probably the first place wood carving in Madagascar will catch your eye, is on one of the balcony railings, although it does also feature in other architectural elements. Wood sculptors create various household goods and furniture. Wood carving is also used to produce Aloalo funerary posts. Additionally many wooden sculptures are produced for the tourist market.
The Antaimoro people seem to have found a bit of a niche in crafts that appeal to the eco-tourist, such as paper which is embedded with decorative natural materials and/or flowers. This is a long-established tradition of theirs, but also their local artists are painters worth considering, and in fact, there is a continuing growth of fine arts in Madagascar. In Hosotra, there’s an annual open-air exhibition. In craft markets, visitors can also find home textiles and tablecloths, which have been fashioned using drawn thread work techniques and embroidery.
Photo: Alfred Payne
Madagascar performing arts
On the island, there’s a strong tradition of music, theatre and dance, that stems from the Merina race, and can be traced back to the 18th century. A Merina King, named Andrianampoinimerina, found that using musicians helped him to draw crowds, who were then more likely to stay and listen to his political speeches. These days visitors can enjoy a genre of hiragasy, which is a spectacle of song, dance and music, that lasts all day. It is performed by a troupe, who are typically related to each other, by marriage or blood. Hiragasy is a competition between different troupes, making it an interesting performance.
Photo by Flickr user Toky Rasolo
From sources of knowledge to performance, oral traditions in Madagascar were originally documented by French and British visitors. In the late 19th century, the Tantara ny Andriana eto Madagasikara, was published by a Catholic priest, who had been living in the highlands. He had collected knowledge about the society of highlands. Oral performance genres include public discourse (kabary), proverbs (ohabolana) and poetry (hainteny). The Ibonia, which has come down through the centuries, is an epic poem, offering insights into the beliefs and mythologies of the communities.
Photo: Frank Vassen
“In this unique environment, even time feels skewed, as if the twin processes of evolution and extinction are happening simultaneously….Madagascar leaves you with the sense there is something left to be found.” Sophy Roberts, Condé Nast Traveler
Madagascar capital city: Antananarivo
Madagascar’s colourful capital is Antananarivo. Granted that there you’ll encounter both pollution and heavy traffic, but avoiding the city would be like missing out on a vital part of the island’s character and history. Tana, as it is called locally, has been the seat of Malagasy power for over three centuries, and offers some fascinating cultural attractions, such as the Rova of Antananarivo palace, which from the 17th century, was the centre of the Merina kingdom. It is perched on high cliffs, which overlook the city centre. Just outside the palace complex, you’ll find Ambohimanga, which is the older sacred capital.
The city is 1400 metres above sea level; giving it a cooler climate, which makes it easier to wander around its steep streets. Discover the beautiful old colonial buildings of the Haute-Ville and treat yourself to a delicious meal, in a restaurant that could have a Michelin star, but doesn’t have the prices to match. Tana also has lots of great shops and excellent markets, full of crafts from around the country.
Andasibe-Mantadia National Park
Lying around 110 miles (150 km) east of Tana, is the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, which covers a protected area of just under 100 miles squared (155 km2). This park can be accessed in three to four hours from the capital, on a paved road.To the south of the Andasibe village, lies one area of the park, popularly known as Périnet, but it’s official name is Réserve Spéciale d’Analamazaotra. To the north, you’ll find the much larger park, Parc National de Mantadia. They have been divided into two parks, due to human activity, but they both belong to the same humid forest.
If you visit between September and January, you can see hundreds of different orchid species blooming, amongst the moss, lians, ferns, palm and bamboo trees. The park is home to many beautiful birds, fourteen lemur species, coloured chameleons, lizards and frogs. The highlight for visitors is the Indri, who is the largest lemur, with an interesting call that can be heard in the early morning. The local name for Indris is Babakotos, which translates into ‘man of the forest’ or ‘little father’.
Antsirabe thermal springs & rickshaws
Capital of the Vakinankaratra region, Antsirabe is situated in Madagascar’s central highlands. In the late 1800s, a health retreat was built here by Norwegian missionaries, making the city known for its thermal springs. Today the facade is still impressive, but inside has seen better days. French colonists also did their bit by making it a chic getaway from the country’s capital, Tana, which left it with large French-style tree-lined avenues and turn-of-the-century villas.
Photo: Rod Waddington
Although its colonial past and architecture is fading, Antsirabe is full of life, and colourful rickshaws. There are drink, food and textile factories, which inject an energy into the city. Antsirabe had good sightseeing options, food and the Sabotsy Market, which is an outdoor market where you can buy local produce and clothing.
Ranomafana National Park UNESCO
Ranomafana National Park is one of the six parks that make up the Rainforests of the Atsinanana, which are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located in the southeastern part of Madagascar, the park comprises of 161 square miles (41,600 hectares) of tropical rainforest. It’s name means hot water in Malagasy.
Photo: Frank Vassen
The park is one of the most visited places in Madagascar, due to good access and infrastructure. Amongst the many species to be seen there, are 12 types of lemurs, 130 frog species, 8 species of bats, sifakas, mongoose and much more. It is also home to several types of rare flora.
Isalo National Park
If you’re looking for Jurassic Park type scenery then visit Isalo National Park. A rugged massif which seems to rise majestically up from the surrounding grassy plains, dominates the landscape. Founded in 1962, the park is around 700 km southwest from Tana; Ranohira is the closest town. Its best known for its fascinating, diverse terrain, rather than for its wildlife. Deep canyons, sandstone formations, grasslands and bizarre ridges attract keen hikers from all over the world.
Photo: Rod Waddington
Along the streams, there are 14 different nocturnal lemur species, lurking in the dense vegetation. You can also spot sifakas, brown and ring-tailed lemurs, and around 80 different bird species.