Lemurs, baobabs, rainforest, desert, hiking and diving: Madagascar is a dream destination for outdoors enthusiasts – half the fun is getting to all these incredible attractions.
Madagascar is unique: 5% of all known animal and plant species can be found here, and here alone. The island's signature animal is the lemur of course, but there are many more weird and wonderful creatures and plants: baobabs, insects, sharks, frogs, orchids, palms, birds, turtles, mongoose. The list goes on. Much of this biodiversity is under threat, from climate change and population pressure, giving each trip a sense of urgency but also purpose: tourism can truly be a force for good.
The remarkable fauna and flora is matched by epic landscapes of an incredible diversity: you can go from rainforest to desert in just 300km. Few places on Earth offer such an intense kaleidoscope of nature. There are sandstone canyons, limestone karsts, mountains, fertile hills cascading with terraced rice paddies, forests of every kind – rain, dry, spiny – and a laterite-rich soil that gave the country its nickname of 'Red Island'. With 5000km of coastline, the sea is never very far, turquoise and idyllic in places, dangerous in others.
For those who relish an adventure, Madagascar is a one-of-a-kind destination: the off-road driving is phenomenal, there are national parks that only see a few hundred visitors a year, regions that live in autarky during the rainy season and resorts so remote you’ll need a private plane or boat to get there. There are also more activities than you'll have time for: hiking, diving, mountain biking, kitesurfing, rock-climbing, you name it. Oh, and there are plenty of natural pools, beaches and hammocks on which to recover, too.
Madagascar has been populated by successive waves of migrants from various corners of the Indian Ocean. It is unlike anywhere else in Africa or Asia. There are fantastic sights to discover this unique history, but also numerous opportunities to meet local people via village stays, long-distance trails, festivals, taxi-brousse (bush taxis) and Friday night discos.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Madagascar.
One of Madagascar's most recognisable images, this small stretch of the RN8 between Morondava and Belo-sur-Tsiribihina is flanked on both sides by majestic Adansonia grandidieri baobabs. Some of the trees here may be 1000 years old, with huge, gnarled branches fanning out at the top of their trunks – it’s easy to see why they’ve been nicknamed ‘roots of the sky’. The actual stretch of road is shorter than many visitors expect, but even this brief concentration in honour-guard formation is without parallel anywhere else in the country. The best times to visit Allée des Baobabs are at sunset and sunrise, when the colours of the trees and surrounding earth deepen and the long shadows are most pronounced. That said, every vehicle driving down from Parc National Bemaraha aims to get here around sunset and it can therefore be very busy, particularly during the park’s high season (July to September). With popularity has arisen a small-scale local industry, with an excellent facility set up by the local community at the southern entrance to the Allée. It includes a gorgeous gift shop selling local handicrafts, lemur field guides and baobab jam or oils, as well as a coffee shop/bar, superclean toilets and a small breakfast restaurant. The whole complex opens at 5am and closes after the last sunset visitors leave. The handicraft shops across the road are part of the same setup. It's a worthy project that deserves your support. Parking costs Ar2000 per vehicle. If you don’t plan to see the Allée on your way to/from attractions north of Morondava ( Parc National Bemaraha, Tsiribihina or Réserve Forestière de Kirindy), a taxi from Morondava town costs at least Ar60,000 return. All tour operators in Morondava can also help you out.
Opened in early 2018, this fabulous photography museum is Antananarivo's best museum. There are four small rooms showing films (in French, English or Malagasy) that offer a fascinating window on Madagascar's past using archival photos – subject matter includes the history of Madasgacar's seven largest cities, important Malagasy identities from the 19th and 20th centuries, a look at the work of an early Malagasy photo studio, Saklava burial traditions, child rituals and other themes. Upstairs are exhibits on the role of the zebu in Malagasy life and walls filled with Polaroids covering modern life in the capital. There are good views from the pretty garden, a small but good shop at the entrance and an excellent cafe.
Isalo is one of Madagascar's most beautiful parks. It contains sculpted buttes, vertical rock walls and, best of all, deep canyon floors shot through with streams, lush vegetation and pools for swimming. All of this changes with the light, culminating in extraordinary sunsets beneath a big sky. Add all this to easy access off the RN7 and you understand why this is Madagascar’s most visited park. At more than 800 sq km, it’s also a large park, so if you want to go off on your own there is plenty of room for exploration, with everything from two-hour to week-long hikes. There's also an excellent chance of spotting ring-tailed lemurs and Verreaux's sifaka around the Nemaza campsite.
If you visit one place in western Madagascar, make it Parc National Bemaraha. A Unesco World Heritage Site, its highlights are the jagged, limestone pinnacles known as tsingy and the impressive infrastructure – via ferrata (mountain route equipped with fixed cables, stemples, ladders and bridges), rope bridges and walkways. Guides are compulsory and cost Ar75,000/135,000 per half/full day for up to four people. Formed over centuries by the movement of wind and water, and often towering several hundred metres into the air, the serrated peaks would definitely look at home in a Dalí painting.
Tana’s rova (fortified palace), known as Manjakamiadana (A Fine Place to Rule), is the imposing structure that crowns the city's highest hill. Gutted in a fire in 1995, it remains under endless restoration but the compound can be visited. The palace was designed for Queen Ranavalona I by Scottish missionary James Cameron. The outer stone structure was added in 1867 for Queen Ranavalona II, although the roof and interior remained wooden, much to everyone's regret in 1995… The palace gate is protected by a carved eagle, the symbol of military force, and a phallus, the symbol of circumcision and thus nobility. Succeeding rulers built (and destroyed) a number of other palaces on the premises; there are ruins scattered about. There is also a replica of King Andrianampoinimerina’s palace at Ambohimanga. The Rova is the resting place of the country’s greatest monarchs: the most imposing stone tombs are located left of the main gate. The plain grey ones are those of kings, while the queens’ are painted red (red was the colour of nobility). Remember that it is fady (taboo) to point your finger directly at the royal tombs or the palace itself. The Rova, which can be seen from almost anywhere in Tana, is at the very top of Haute-Ville, with wonderful views from the grounds. Despite what they tell you at the gate, a guide is not compulsory.
This 2100-sq-km national park contains one of the best primary rainforests in the country. It is famous for its vegetation, which includes rare hardwoods, bamboos, and dozens of species of fern, palm and orchid. Ten lemur species are found here, along with several tenrec and mongoose species, 14 bat species, 60 reptile species and about 85 bird species. It also encompasses three protected marine areas. The reserve is only accessible by boat, or on foot if you are hiking. The park's headquarters are in Maroantsetra, where you can get permits and guides. There is also a park office in Antalaha on the east coast. There are excellent opportunities here for hiking, sea kayaking, snorkelling and swimming. The entire peninsula is exceptionally wet, however, particularly during June and July, when river levels are highest. October to December is somewhat drier and best for hiking. July to September is whale season, when humpback whales come to the bay to give birth and mate: they can be seen right from the coast and on boat transfers from Maroantsetra. This is a hiker’s paradise. If you are staying in the lodges around Ambodifohara, there are many short trails that you can take. There are also three main long-distance trails for serious hikers: guiding fees for these routes are set, even if you decide to do it in fewer days. Park permits are not included; note that some stretches of the routes are not actually in the park itself so you won't need a permit for every day. The MNP office will advise you. Maroantsetra to Antalaha passes through rice paddies and gentler terrain. It is the easiest but also the least interesting. A guide for five days is Ar800,000. For forest lovers, the Maroantsetra to Cap Est route (up to eight days) is more interesting, particularly the spectacular Cascade (waterfall) Bevontsira, but also more challenging, with tough terrain, river crossings, mountains and (shudder) leeches. A guide is Ar1.2 million. Finally, you can walk the entire rim of the peninsula, from Maroantsetra to Antalaha via Cap Masoala and Cap Est. This journey takes up to 15 days. A guide is just over Ar2 million.You'll need to bring all your food and camping equipment with you. Contact local operators to organise a package including cook, porters and camping equipment.
This is the most popular park within Parc National Andasibe Mantadia. The real draw of this reserve is the rare indri, Madagascar’s largest lemur, whose unforgettable wail can be heard emanating from the misty forest throughout the day, most commonly in the early morning. There are about 60 resident family groups of two to five indris each. In addition to the indris, you may also see woolly lemurs, grey bamboo lemurs, red-fronted lemurs, black-and-white ruffed lemurs and diademed sifakas (one of the largest lemur species). In 2005 the Goodman’s mouse lemur was discovered here and identified as a distinct species. Eleven species of tenrec, the immense and colourful Parson’s chameleon and seven other chameleon species are also found here. Over 100 bird species have been identified in the park, together with 20 species of amphibian. The park is also home to the endemic palm tree Ravenea louvelii, found nowhere else on the island. Because the reserve is small, most of it can be covered in short walks, including two small lakes, Lac Vert (Green Lake) and Lac Rouge (Red Lake). There are four organised walking trails, all of which are generally easy going. The easiest, most popular trail is the Circuit Indri 1 (for four Ar40,000, about two hours), which includes the main lakes and the territory of a single family of indris. The moderate Circuit Indri 2 (Ar50,000, three hours) visits the lakes and encompasses the patches of two separate families. The Circuit Aventure (for four Ar60,000, four to six hours) does all of the above, plus some more strenuous walking. Join these circuits together for an 8km trail of about six hours. The Palmier Circuit (2km, one to two hours) is specially designed for children and takes in palms, orchids and two indri families. The best time for seeing (and hearing) indris is early in the morning, from 7am to 11am. The park tends to fill up from July to October, Madagascar’s tourist high season.
Part of Parc National Masoala-Nosy Mangabe, this thickly forested and mountainous tropical island is one of the crown jewels of the Antongil Bay. With huge soaring canarium trees arising from flying buttress roots, a rusty shipwreck piercing one side, waterfalls, a yellow sickle-shaped beach, foreign inscriptions and the omnipresent sound of the jungle, it is quite possibly the closest thing to a Robinson Crusoe experience you'll get. It rains a lot, though, so be prepared. Reptiles and amphibians thrive thanks to the lack of predators, including the leaf-tailed gecko, one of nature’s most accomplished camouflage artists. You'll also find several species of chameleon, many frogs and several harmless species of snake, including the Madagascar tree boa. It is also home to various lemurs, including the elusive aye-aye, which was introduced here in 1967 to protect the species from extinction. It is highly unlikely you'll see one, but you'll no doubt see the white-fronted brown lemur, who like hanging out by the camp, and with a bit of luck, the black and white ruffed lemur too. There are a handful of well-maintained trails: a popular option takes you to the summit of the island. Another leads to Plage des Hollandais, a beach with rocks bearing the scratched names of some 17th-century Dutch sailors. From July to September, you can see whales offshore. The island is usually included in itineraries combining Masoala (either as a picnic stopover or an overnight stay) but you could also visit as a day trip from Maroantsetra. MNP runs a very well-equipped beachside campground (camping per tent Ar5000) with shelters, picnic tables, a kitchen, showers and flush toilets. It’s an idyllic spot. Entry permits can be obtained at the MNP office in Maroantsetra. Boat transfers can be arranged through your guide; the trip takes 30 to 45 minutes.
Part of the Parc National Andasibe Mantadia, this park is about 17km north of Andasibe. Created primarily to protect the indri, Mantadia also hosts the black-and-white ruffed lemur. A quiet, beautiful area with numerous waterfalls and wonderful landscapes, it is undeveloped and seldom visited compared to its popular neighbour to the south, so if you’re here in high season it’s well worth the detour to escape the crowds. Established circuits include the easy 1km Circuit Rianasoa to see indris, orchids and a natural pool where you can swim (Ar40,000, one hour). This can be combined with the Sacred Waterfall for a 2km, two-hour moderate walk with some steep slopes (Ar80,000). There's also the moderately hard Circuit Tsakoka (Ar70,000, three hours), which is especially good for seeing frogs, birds and plants, and the Trekking Circuit (Ar100,000, 10 hours), a difficult trail of 15km, offering diverse altitudes and superb landscapes. If the weather has been wet (which it often is), watch out for leeches on the trails. Permits and guides can be obtained at the MNP office in Parc National Analamazaotra. You’ll need all your own camping equipment if you’re planning to stay the night; the MNP campsite (tent sites free), just outside the park, has no facilities. To get to Mantadia from the MNP office, you will most likely need your own vehicle (Ar150,000 from Andasibe) or bicycle.