Getting there & away
Fianarantsoa is connected to Manakara on the eastern coast by Madagascar’s only functioning passenger train service, the FCE (Fianarantsoa–Côte Est). The train leaves Fianar early each morning and chugs on lines built in the 1930s through plantations and past hills and waterfalls, reaching Manakara around seven hours later. It takes about an hour longer in the other direction as the train has to go uphill. Despite its antiquity and unreliability, the train is still an economic lifeline for the people of the inland villages, who use it to transport their cargoes of bananas and coffee to be sold and exported.
Departures from Fianarantsoa are scheduled for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 7am, and from Manakara on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday at 7am, although there are frequent delays and cancellations. Tickets cost Ar25, 000/16, 000 in 1st/2nd class.
No advance reservations are taken – simply arrive at the station about an hour before departure. The only actual difference between 1st and 2nd class is that the seats and windows are bigger, and it’s less crowded. First class is generally only used by tourists, while 2nd class is packed with a noisy and friendly crowd of Malagasy, all leaning out of the windows at each tiny station to haggle with hordes of vendors balancing baskets of bananas, crayfish or fresh bread on their heads.
For the best views of the cliffs, misty valleys and waterfalls en route, sit on the north side of the train (ie the left side when going from Fianarantsoa to Manakara). However, the most impressive waterfall is on the right as you go towards Manakara, just after Madporano, about two hours from Fianarantsoa. Bring water, and, if you’re making the journey in winter, plenty of warm clothes – it’s often freezing early in the morning, when some of the best views can be hidden by fog.
For a more detailed history of the railway and the regions through which it passes, pick up a booklet called The FCE: A Traveler’s Guide by Karen Schoonmaker Freudenberger. It’s available in English and French for Ar7500 at the station or at the reception of the Zomatel hotel.
Air Madagascar (75 507 97; Araben’ny Fahaleovantena) flies once weekly between Fianarantsoa and Antananarivo; look for the booking agent in the complex behind the Zomatel. The Fianarantsoa airport is 3km northeast of the city.