I don’t usually write travel tips posts, but information about traveling in Madagascar is sadly lacking. The traditional guidebooks are out of date and limited. And there are few web-based resources. Here are my tips based on a trip taken in November 2018. There is a lot more I could cover, feel free to reach out to me if you are planning a trip and want more details about where I stayed and what I did.
Madagascar is the third poorest country in the world. It does not have a ton of tourist infrastructure, in part because it does not have a ton of infrastructure. Much of the country is without electricity or running water. But I found the people to be very nice, and in most areas not yet jaded or resentful of the tourists passing through their towns.
Money: Madagascar is a cash based society. Outside of Antananarivo you won’t find anyone accepting credit cards. ATMs can be found in the airport and in the cities/larger towns. Smaller towns (which are most of them) don’t have banks or ATMs. You can take out only about 300,000 Ariary at a time (which is just about $80) but you can hit multiple ATMs if you need more cash, or just do multiple withdrawals from the same ATM.
Food: meals in restaurants for tourists consist of mostly pizza, pasta and some meat and fish dishes. It’s fine, but not very interesting. And frankly after seeing the meat and fish in the markets with flies all over it, I mostly avoided those dishes. There aren’t a lot of food options in the remote parts of Madagascar, beyond roadside stands set up for locals that look a bit dicey for the tourist stomach (and I’m usually pretty adventurous with food!). It’s pretty easy to find omelettes, which are really just eggs served with the ubiquitous bread roll.
There aren’t many grocery stores in the country. You can consistently buy fresh white bread rolls, THB beer, fresh fruit (bananas, mangos, pineapples), crackers, tins of anchovies, happy cow cheese, and some sugar sodas. This stuff is sold in the tiny stores that exist in all the towns and/or the even tinier road side stands. I also managed to find tins of tuna in a few stores. My advice: assume you will eat whatever meals you can get at your hotels and try to stock up on non-perishables when/if you find a grocery store. Also be sure to bring whatever you might need for stomach issues. I didn’t get sick but I was pretty conservative about what I ate.
Language: The people speak Malagasy and French. Most tourists are French. The second largest group are Italian. English is not spoken by many people, nor are many tourists English-speaking. Download google translate for French offline. You will find people working in hotels and parks speak some English.
Flights: There is one airline that flies within the country. All flights currently connect through Antananarivo, in the center of the country. The prices on flights are the same regardless of when you book or what route you want (about 275 Euro). This means you pay twice if you want to fly from the north to the south, for instance, because you pay for each leg separately.
Cars: Most people opt to hire a driver who will take you wherever you want to go in the country. If you want to do a one-way trip you will have to pay for the driver’s time and gas to return back to Tana. There is one company that rents cars to tourists for self-drive trips. This is more expensive than hiring a driver. And there is an additional fee for one-way rentals there as well. My suggestion, having done a self-drive trip, is to get a driver. You have the same flexibility (they’ll go where you want to go), and they know the roads and towns so you’ll probably get some useful info and tips from your driver. I don’t have any information on where to find a car/driver since I didn’t take that route. If you want to do a self-drive, we used Roadtrip Africa, and they were overall quite good.
Tourist busses: There is a tourist class bus service that runs from Antananarivo to some of the parks and popular destinations. I didn’t get much info on it but met someone who said it is nicer than public busses and faster because it’s direct. You have to book in person in the city.
Public busses: Also known as Taxi Brugge, these run everywhere in the country. They’re cheap and generally packed with people. It’s not super comfy, and rather slow since they stop to pick up people as often as needed. But this is the only way to get everywhere in the country by public transit. There are some official stops, but you can also just stand on the road and wave them down.
Nosy Be is the most touristy part of the country. It’s an island in the far north. But still you will not see very many tourists except on the beaches. Go here for diving or for beach relaxing.
Taxis: There are private cars you can hire, tuk tuks, and shared taxis (which operate in cars, tuk tuks and larger vans). It’s hard for tourists to get in the shared taxis. Everyone will just want to sell you a private car. For shared taxis people pay 1000 – 2000 AR per person. For private taxis it’s best to just offer a price you think is fair. If more than two drivers reject you without negotiating, your price is probably too low. We found that getting from Hell-ville to Ambaro beach, a 30 min ride, cost us 20,000 AR for 2 people. I think you could get it for 10-15,000 if you negotiate harder. This is definitely a tourist price! For a tuk tuk from Hell-ville to Lokobe we paid 5000 (15 min drive) for 2 people.
Lokobe National Park: The entrance is at the far south of the park. There is a road that runs into the middle but that’s not open to the public. At this entrance (a short distance down an unpaved road after the paved road ends) there is a new building for park staff and also a decent bathroom. The park ranger speaks excellent English, but at this time there are no guides in the park. It costs 55,000 AR to enter, and you can do several well maintained trails on your own.
We showed up at 8am and the night guard was there. He told us the park ranger is usually there at 8am, but after a half hour he called the ranger who told us he would come in 30 minutes but we were free to go hike in the park and pay later. The park has three main trails with a nicely detailed map of the routes both inside the park office and at the trail head. Kamy trail goes out along the water and ends at a campground where you can rent the use of tents maintained by the park. Mitsinjo trail is an aggressive uphill hike to a beautiful lookout (and when conditions allow, a short distance further to a waterfall). Kindro trail is a loop that’s a bit easier. The hike time estimates shown on the sign are not far off. Although they are short, the hikes are difficult and you’ll want to stop to admire the inhabitants of the rainforest. Assuming you run into lemurs you’ll no doubt stop for a while to watch them.
We didn’t see lemurs on our hike up Mitsinjo, but upon returning the park ranger, who speaks excellent English, showed us a family hanging out in the trees near the park office and told us all about the park. We then did the Kindro loop and ran into two separate groups of lemurs on that hike. They’re not quiet when eating and jumping about so it wasn’t hard to spot the lemurs.
Diving: We used Sakalav diving, and if you’re English or French speaking their communication for planning the dives is excellent. Pro tip: stop your anti-malaria drugs a few days before diving if you are prone to sea sickness. Seriously, even after taking a Dramamine, I’ve never been so sick. Just beware that you are making a choice about priorities here since both mosquitoes and malaria abound in Madagascar.
Boat from Nosy Be to Ankify: This ferry is reasonably well organized. You show up at the ferry dock, show your passport, immediately get overrun by men who seem to be boat drivers (still not sure what they wanted to sell us), and then walk the short distance to a ticket window where the prices are posted for fast and slow boats. Buy the fast boat ticket and they will give you a paper ticket with your boat name on it. Go look around to see if your boat is boarding (probably not). If not, go sit with the mostly-Malagasy crowd waiting for boats. We met a French guy who said he’d been waiting two hours for the boat. Everyone was on the same boats, so it seems they just go whenever they have enough people to fill it up. Our boat left shortly after 8am, and we were advised this is a good time to show up. I think boats go more frequently in the morning. It’s a short but bumpy ride to the Ankify dock on the mainland.
The roads in the north are awful. Seriously. For a few days up there we were averaging 30km/hr. It would actually be faster if the roads were dirt, they’re destroyed, pothole ridden old paved roads, with bridges that are out and odd detours, and some scary parts like the bridges with big gaps in the middle between the paving for your tires.
The RN6 is pretty bad throughout, though it starts to get better south of Antsohihy. And the RN4 was a lot better. I’ve heard the RN7 to the south is also better. And all the other roads are much worse; many are not drivable. If you’re hiring a driver they will tell you if there’s a route they can’t drive based on current conditions.
There are only a few luxury lodging options in the country, mostly concentrated on the islands. Don’t go to Madagascar for the resorts! If you want to visit the parks, be prepared for bugs and nature. There are some decent options near or in the parks, and they all have mosquito netting over the beds. But expect bugs in your room, power that only runs for a few hours at night, and heat without AC (and often without a fan after the power stops running). There are also lower end lodging options in most towns, called “hotelys”. (Hence the phrase hotely belly, for when you get sick in Madagascar after eating meals at your place of lodging). We stayed in the mid-range hotels which were all comfortable enough.
It’s difficult to book lodging in advance. Outside of Tana (local name for Antananarivo) and the islands, most places are hard to contact. And if you can contact them, they want you to make a bank transfer to secure a booking. This is a big advantage to having someone local arrange you trip for you. We ended up booking about half of our lodging in advance (in some cases hotels allowed a reservation via email without payment, and one accepted paypal after I said the bank transfer fee was too high). We booked a few more in-country once our plans firmed up. And we just showed up to a few places.
Our biggest lodging challenge was in Ankarafantsika National Park. They have bungalows in the park for rent. But you can’t call or email to book. I tried a lot of different emails and phone numbers. They don’t respond. But there aren’t many bungalows so it’s possible they’ll be booked up. We got lucky and they had one left when we showed up. In town nearby there are a few other options but most are also not bookable in advance (i.e. it’s impossible to contact them), but staying in the park was magical. There are lemurs playing all around. And the restaurant there has pretty good food.
Research the parks before you go and decide which ones you want to see. Then consider the distances between your favorites and pair it down to a reasonable trip. You can only visit a few parks in a trip that lasts two weeks. Even with a month you won’t have time to see them all. Madagascar is big, and getting around is difficult. So it’s best to plan to visit a particular area of the country, possibly with a flight in the middle to see some other part. We drove around the north, ending up in Tana. So we visited five parks in the north: Ankaranana, Tsingy Rouge, Amber Mountain and Ankarafantsika and Lokobe.
Most people start in Tana and visit the parks around there as it’s easier and closer. That’s a particularly good option for a shorter trip. You can pay for private group tours that run for a week and include food, lodging, transportation (a shared van with other tourists), park fees and guide fees out of Tana. I met one woman who was doing a 7 day trip for 400 Euro. It sounded like a good trip, though the lodging was very basic, including 4 nights camping. She just showed up in Tana and booked it the day after she arrived (Madagascar Underground hostel connected her with the booker).
Within the parks you will pay an entrance fee, which averages 50,000 AR. And you will also have to pay for a guide. You pay for both at the park office. The guide will speak your language, and will take you on whichever route you select. Generally you have options that are short, medium or long and the pricing is slightly cheaper for the shorter routes. The guides not only keep you on the right path but also help spot wildlife and explain the park. We had some great conversations with guides about the history of and life in Madagascar. Tip your guide at the end, it’s the only tipping that seems to be standard. If you like your guide, feel free to ask them to take you on a night walk. Usually these can’t be done within the park itself, but they will have a good route outside the park for spotting night creatures.