Madagascar Travel: 25 Experiences to Get You Started

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Last Updated on February 7, 2021 by Audrey Scott

Madagascar travel. While lemurs and Madagascar's unique wildlife and nature are what usually draw people to visit the country, that's just the very beginning. Here are our top travel experiences and recommendations from traveling through Madagascar to go deeper into the country's unique nature, cultures, food, landscapes, and more.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of traveling to Madagascar? For most, lemurs and a verse (or two or three) of “I like to Move It, Move It!” from King Julien, the ring-tailed lemur star of Madagascar, the movie.

Madagascar Travel, Lemurs
How can you not love this face?

Me, too. The name Madagascar always held mystery, something of National Geographic documentaries. Exotic, remote. Travel to Madagascar and I figured I’d find strange animals and vanilla beans on a rugged island cut loose from the African continent millions of years ago. When our guide asked what we wished from our time in Madagascar, Dan joked: “To go a little deeper, to know Madagascar beyond “I like to move it, move it.”

So we did. We traveled two weeks in Madagascar with G Adventures. Wildlife, people, landscape, geology, spirituality, culture, and history – it all came together. Our journey mesmerized just as it demystified.

The following experiences are drawn from the Highlights of Madagascar tour (2 weeks) that took us around the eastern and southern parts of Madagascar, presented in chronological order. If you are considering booking a Madagascar tour with G Adventures and want to know what to expect, here’s an overview and review of the itinerary, activities and destinations you'll experience. This tour is part of the Jane Goodall Collection of travel experiences focused on wildlife and conservation. It is also now part of the new G Adventures Travel with Confidence Plus Collection that includes smaller groups, private transport and more personal accommodation space. If you choose to travel Madagascar independently, use this guide as inspiration to piece together experiences and destinations for your own itinerary of eastern and southern Madagascar. Disclosure: This trip was provided to us conjunction with our long-term partnership with G Adventures.

About Madagascar: Biodiversity, History, and Cultures

Madagascar, it turns out, is one of the 17 nations of the world considered “megadiverse” because of its biodiversity and concentration of endemic species. In layman terms, 80% of plants and animals in Madagascar cannot be found anywhere else in world. All of this snaps into place with the Gondwana supercontinent: Madagascar lost contact with Africa (160 million years ago), then with Antarctica, Australia and finally India (84-95 million years ago).

Madagascar Travel, Terraced Rice Fields in the Highlands
Terraced rice fields dot much of the highland landscape, eastern Madagascar.

Madagascar’s human population knows a similarly diverse history. Although Madagascar is physically closer to the African continent, its first permanent human settlers are said to have arrived nearly 2,000 years ago from Austronesia (near Malaysia-Indonesia). Layers of migration and cultural evolution followed: textures of Bantu tribal East Africa, signs of French colonialism, echoes of Middle Eastern trading, and Asian-style rice terraces. The national language – Malagasy – most resembles those of Malaysian Borneo. Fascinating and complex.

Madagascar People
Look at the faces. Madagascar’s ethnic diversity spans beyond Sub-Saharan Africa.

There’s something about taking it all in firsthand to assemble your own sense of the meaning of the Madagascar. And also understanding how tourism there can have a positive impact and support conservation and community development. With this experiential guide to traveling Madagascar, we aim to give you an idea of what you’ll see and what to seek out.

Madagascar Travel: A Two-Week Itinerary

For those of you who love maps — as we do — here is a visual of the two weeks of our route we took through eastern and southern Madagascar on our tour with G Adventures.

Map of our Madagascar Tour with G Adventures
Map of our travels through Madagascar in two weeks.

25 Things to Do, See and Experience in Madagascar

1. Come face to face with a brown lemur at V.O.I.M.M.A Community Park in Andasibe

You’ll never forget your first lemur encounter. I mean, just look at that face!

Madagascar Travel, Brown Lemur in Andasibe
Brown Lemur sighting at V.O.I.M.M.A. Community Park. Irresistible!

Within minutes of setting out on the rainforest trail with Leva, our local guide at V.O.I.M.M.A. Community Park, a family of brown lemurs appeared in the tree branches above us. As we quieted down, they approached us, almost to eye level. Then, they were up and off again, leaping amongst the high branches.

A note on V.O.I.M.M.A and Community Parks in Madagascar: The initials stand for “Vondron’olona Ifotony Mitia sy Miaro ny Ala”, meaning “Local people love the forest.” It’s a fitting name for the park, a community-driven conservation and sustainable tourism program launched in 2012 by 4,000 villagers living near the Andasibe-Perinet National Park area.

The goal of the local community: to work together to protect what rainforest remained, using proceeds from park fees and walks to fund guide training, continued reforestation, and efforts to provide more space and protection for lemurs and other endemic wildlife. About half the money generated through tourism activities goes to fund medical care, clean water and other life improvement initiatives for villagers in the area.

A network of community parks, operating outside the national park system, exists throughout Madagascar. These local parks serve as an excellent example of how community-based conservation and care can work when paired with the power of increased income generation and life improvement initiatives funded by tourism activities. This not only engages local people as part of the conservation process, but it also provides them with an income source alternative to hunting, poaching, and wood harvesting. Meanwhile, pressure on the environment and local wildlife is slowly reduced.

READ MORE: How Your Travels in Madagascar Can Support Conservation and Communities

2. Admire the largest and smallest chameleons in the world

It’s hard to have an encounter with a Parsons Chameleon — considered the largest chameleon species in the world by weight — and not emerge with a grin.

Madagascar Travel and Wildlife
The Parsons Chameleon, the world's largest.

Look at the nose, the tail, the eyes, the color. These and other endemic species unique to Madagascar will make you wonder, “Why?” “How?” “Here?” Mother Nature certainly had fun with this one.

Madagascar Travel, dwarf chameleon
Peek-a-boo! The Madagascar dwarf chameleon, so small it's easy to miss.

For some contrast, narrow your eyes and squint if you must, and take a look at the 3-4mm long Madagascar dwarf chameleon, Brookesia minima. Note that it was recently usurped by the slightly smaller Brookesia micra. How local guides are able to zero in on these tiny creatures in midst of the lush forest amazes.

3. Listen to the call of the indri at Andasibe-Mantadia National Park

The indri (also known locally as babakoto), found only in this region of Madagascar, are the largest of all lemurs, and are considered the freedom fighters of the species. When placed in captivity, the indri essentially go on a hunger strike, starving themselves until they are released back into the wild. While admirable, this indri behavior makes it difficult for scientists to conduct research and all but impossible to increase indri populations through captive breeding.

Madagascar Travel, Viewing Indri Lemurs
Indri sighting at Andasibe-Mantadia National Park.

The unique appearance of the indri is only outdone by their call. The rainforest canopy echoes with an eerie, dolphin-like sound the indri use to communicate with other members of their family (typically between 2 and 6 members) and with other families to mark territory and signal danger. As you walk Andasibe-Mantadia National Park with your guide, you’ll follow the call of the indri to find them.

When we eventually found “our” indris in the high trees, we were treated to an extended chorus between a male and female. Between the ambient sounds of the rainforest and the calls of the indri, we felt as though we were in our very own episode of Wild Kingdom. A beautiful, long moment to enjoy.

Numbering in the thousands, the indri are still considered a critically endangered species (sadly, as are most lemur species). However, our guide explained that indri populations have increased in recent years. Due to tourism, conservation and educational efforts, the local practice of hunting them for their meat has abated. The results of reforestation efforts also continue to provide them with additional range to expand their habitat. The challenge is ongoing.

4. Crash a party of Sifaka Lemurs

The sifaka, known as the dancing lemur, is another fun, social species of lemur that you’ll find in Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. Though we encountered multiple diademed sifaka families (usually 9-10 strong), one family in particular rewarded our group for being patient, silent and still.

Madagascar Travel, diademed sifaka lemurs
A diademed sifaka family entertained us with their morning grooming routine.

They entertained us high in the branches, putting on an elaborate grooming show, and paying a visit to us near ground level. When they’d had enough of the human encounter, they leapt back up into the rainforest canopy to continue their morning escapades of movement, tree-to-tree.

I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that it really wasn't a party, but rather a conspiracy, of lemurs. This is now one of my favorite collective nouns.

5. Tuck into zebu, ravitoto and traditional Malagasy Madagascar cuisine

When in Madagascar, eat as the Malagasy eat. If you eat meat, you’ll find yourself in good stead. Zebu, the meat of the local variety of cow is everywhere, and is generally quite good. If you find it, try zebu filet or steak served with mustard sauce or zebu au poivre (pepper sauce), both of which are quite tasty.

Madagascar Food
Typical Malagasy food plate with rice, stewed zebu, vegetables and hot sauce.

Or try romazava, the over-the-top national dish of varied meats turned in a sauce of tomato, garlic, ginger and stewed greens. Another local favorite is ravitoto, mashed cassava leaves. This is often turned with coconut and spices for vegetarians. Meat-eaters, try the ravitoto with pork, which offers a little bit of richness and balance.

READ MORE: Madagascar Food: A Culinary Travel Guide

6. Walk through Andasibe town for a glimpse of local life

The town of Andasibe, just outside the nearby national and community parks bearing its name, is a walk through everyday Madagascar. You'll find stalls selling a random assortment of vegetables and foodstuffs, mothers drawing water from the pump, two-story homes with colorful balconies, a football pitch filled with boys playing a game of pick-up soccer, rice and agricultural fields in all stages of cultivation, and non-proverbial chickens crossing the road.

Madagascar Travel, Walk Through Andasibe
Life returns to the streets of Andasibe after the rains.

Bonus: Find the young boy who fashioned a foosball table from scrap pieces of wood. So cool, and it actually works surprisingly well.

Madagascar Travel and People
Homemade foosball table. It works!

7. Visit the Anziru weekly market

Weekly markets are a main event, no exception in Madagascar. Many local schools even take that day off so children can join their parents on market day. The weekly market is not only about buying and selling food and goods. It performs an important social function, too.

Madagascar Travel, Weekly Markets
Piling up the bicycle with pineapples for market day.

Weekly markets are about catching up on local news and seeing friends and family from nearby villages. If you’re single, they offer the opportunity to check out who’s available and in search of a mate.

Finally, they’re also places where you can enjoy a shot of local home-brewed rum with a side of crayfish to chase it down. And if gambling is your vice, try your hand at cards or at the hand-carved roulette wheels.

8. Make a Circular Economy purchase at the artisan workshops in Antsirabe

When we consider recycling, our minds run to putting recyclable trash into a bin for someone to carry it away, for it never to be seen again. In Madagascar, recycling means taking the used, broken, and out-of-date and finding a way to make something new from it all.

Madagascar Travel, Artisans and Craftspeople
Recycling scrap metal into pots and kitchenware.

In the town of Antsirabe, a group of artisans and craftspeople collect metal from around the country, melt it down, and create the standard cooking pot that most in Madagascar seem to use. To be honest, the old-school technology doesn’t look particularly healthy for the those working. However, it’s remarkable how quickly this workshop can transform a pile of old metal junk into hot liquid and in seconds turn that liquid into a pot to cook that evening’s meal.

Madagascar Travel and Artisans
Model bicycles made from scraps of old brake lines and fishing gear.

Another of our favorite artisans in town is an engineer turned bicycle enthusiast who found ways to recycle old bits, including fashioning fishing wire from old nets and re-purposing the metal and plastic from expired medical supplies into very cool hand-crafted model bicycles.

9. Fix your broken heart with a visit to a local Shaman

Even if your heart is not broken, it’s still worth visiting the local shaman, or healer. We paid a visit to one on the morning of our village homestay experience.

After a climb up a wooden ladder staircase to the village consultation room, we learned about traditional and natural medicines and how they are used to treat different ailments, both physical and emotional. Services include mending a broken heart, whether it be from unrequited love or a relationship forced to split because of parents.

Madagascar Travel, Shaman Visit
Learning about traditional medicine and treatments from a local Shaman.

The forests of Madagascar are flush with endemic trees and plants used over the centuries for medicinal purposes. This knowledge has been passed on from one generation of shaman to the next, usually within the family. As it was explained to us: you don’t really choose to be a shaman; the vocation chooses you.

10. Walk the terraced rice fields en route to Fiadanana village and stay the night

One of the big surprises for us in Madagascar: artfully terraced rice fields in the country’s highlands. Everywhere you go in the hills, you’ll find the terraces and cascaded pools of highland rice cultivation similar to what you might see in Southeast Asia and China. Why? The technique and approach of rice cultivation arrived with the island’s first inhabitants from Austronesia (Malaysia and Indonesia) almost two thousand years ago. Terracing took hold in the 1600s, and it’s still in use today.

Madagascar Travel and Landscapes
Lush rice fields en route to our village homestay.

After seeing terraced rice fields along our ride across the highlands of eastern Madagascar, it was worthwhile to see them up close during our 1.5 hour walk to the village homestay where we’d spend the night.

11. Get a taste of village life at a community homestay in Fiadanana

After a home-cooked and delicious lunch (many considered it the best meal in the country), our local guide also took us on a walk to the village, through and along the edges of the fields. There, we witnessed daily life: farmers carefully planting new seeds, zebu-drawn plows turning over the soil for the next planting, and villagers stepping through the stillness of their everyday, yet beautiful, landscape.

Madagascar Travel and People
Enjoying a good laugh with some local women returning home from the fields outside the village.

After which, we returned for citronella tea and pumpkin beignets (fritters) with a beautiful view of the terraced fields below.

Madagascar Sustainable Tourism, Village Homestay
A peaceful and beautiful view to go along with our afternoon tea and snacks.

Our host, Arc-en-Ciel (Rainbow) Community Association uses the money earned from tour fees (for an overnight visit, including meals) to help provide job opportunities, sponsor school fees in primary and secondary schools, improve infrastructure, and fund environmental education and activities. The organization’s founder, Yavansu, grew up in the village and returned five years ago with the goal of using sustainable tourism to benefit his community.

As fun as it is to wander and say hello to people, it’s even better with a local host who shares stories and context. It also helps to feel some connection along with a welcome from local people who are involved in the project and know that the money from the experience is being used for the improvement of their community and education of their children.

READ MORE: How to Use Social Enterprises to Improve Your Travels…and Make a Difference

12. Join the community in a bonfire dance

We admit, we are skeptical of singing and dancing “shows,” especially when people get dressed up in traditional outfits and drag tourists into it all in a way that can feel a bit forced. That’s where the Arc-en-Ciel community homestay bonfire music jam broke the mold.

Madagascar Travel, Traditional Music and Dancing
A local music jam around the bonfire.

A few local musicians showed up, kids gathered and dance-jumped around, a bonfire burned brightly. Before long, more people from the village appeared to see what was going on. Staff from the homestay kitchen came out during their breaks, and the beats grew faster and louder. Yes, there was dancing, laughter and fun. None of it was forced, it all felt natural. Nobody put on a show, except maybe for themselves.

That is, everyone had fun. Locals, too.

Bonus: Watch a World Cup game on a generator-powered TV
If your visit happens to coincide with the World Cup or another football tournament, ask your host if anyone in the village is showing the game. Since the village has no electricity, televisions are powered by generators. For us, we climbed up through several terraced rice fields to watch the World Cup Semi-final game between England and Croatia in the back courtyard of a local home.

Madagascar Travel, Village Homestay
Watching the World Cup Semi-Final match on a generator-powered TV.

Sure, the generator ran out of diesel fuel before the end of the game. That just added to the experience and built suspense to know the result the following day.

13. Trek lush rainforest and find the elusive golden bamboo lemurs at Ranomafana National Park

When it comes to tracking lemurs and other wildlife in the rainforest, prepare to get dirty, particularly when the skies open up at Ranomafana National Park. Yes, you feel a bit like a crazed biologist pulling yourself up the hills through brush and vines, craning your head up to catch a glimpse of the golden bamboo lemurs above.

Madagascar Travel, Golden Bamboo Lemur
Spotting the elusive and rare golden bamboo lemur.

Then, after the frenzy of finding one comes the silence and stillness of observing and admiring these rare, tiny creatures above you. Less than 500 of them remain.

It’s worth the effort, the mud, and the sweat. In fact, that’s all part of the experience.

14. Surround yourself with playful ring-tail lemurs at Anja Community Park

It’s hard not to visit Madagascar without keeping fresh in mind an image of King Julien, the dancing ring-tail lemur from the movie Madagascar. Turns out ring-tail lemurs really are as playful and fun as the movie lets on. Especially so at Anja Community Park.

Madagascar Travel, Ring-Tail Lemurs
Looks a bit like one of my old college professors.

Within just ten or fifteen minutes of our group entering the forest area of the park, we were surrounded by a ring-tail lemur family. Just five minutes away, another. They jumped around on the ground, hung out on rocks, groomed themselves on branches, chased each other across the trees, and just seemed to enjoy themselves.

We all enjoyed them, too. If it were up to our group, we might have stayed there all day.

Madagascar Travel, Ring-Tail Lemur Viewings
A ring-tail lemur, well-named.

Turns out that when Anja Community Park began in 1999 there were only 20 lemurs living in this patch of small forest. In less than 20 years, the community-led conservation efforts have expanded the size of the forest through yearly tree-planting campaigns and continued education of local people in the benefits of conservation and the economic potential of sustainable tourism. Lemur hunting has been eliminated. Their population in the park has grown to over 400 as their habitat has grown and the imminent threat to their existence has abated.

Around 600 local people are involved in the community park and earn additional income from its various tourism activities. Profits from park tour fees are now being used to construct a secondary school and local hospital. As tourism grows, so too do the other ways the community can direct its own investment and improvement.

15. Take advantage of an impromptu roadside repair stop to stock up on sweet papayas

One never wishes to hear a strange noise coming from one’s transport. It does happen from time to time, though. It’s a pleasant surprise when the repair stop happens right next to a tiny village featuring a roadside papaya stand.

Madagascar Travel, Bus Stop
Which are the sweetest papayas?

As our group exited our van for a stretch, the local people sitting nearby wondered, not knowing what to make of all the foreigners descending on their little papaya stand. We began by buying one. Our guide and we sliced it and passed it around as an afternoon snack, including to one of our group who’d never before tasted a papaya! Then we bought another, passing around some more slices. Finally, we bought a couple more to take with us on the bus.

Not only were these the sweetest papayas of our trip, but everyone – travelers and locals alike — got a good laugh from the scene. Because of the setting and circumstances, and perhaps the turn of opportunity from temporary misfortune, everyone came away from our unplanned stop pleased with the unexpected yet authentic turn of events.

It was memorable for sure, and as real an experience as one might imagine on the roads of Madagascar.

16. Explore the canyons and sandstone cliffs of Isalo National Park

Madagascar’s environmental diversity shows itself across the country, but also in pockets, as it does at Isalo National Park where arid deserts yield to waterfall-draped oases via river-carved canyon paths. Our local guide, Hery, pointed out medicinal trees, elephant foot plants, wild silk worms, and fabulously camouflaged chameleons and stick bugs. He also shared stories about the local Bara tribe and their unique traditions which have been shaped by the area’s geology and landscape.

Madagascar Travel, Isalo National Park Day Hike
Our group hikes the sandstone canyons of Isalo National Park.

Unsurprisingly, our Isalo National Park day trek turned out to be one of our group’s favorites of the trip.

17. Take a dip in an oasis waterfall (or 2 or 3)

We admit to having a conflicted relationship with waterfalls, their often being oversold. However, the waterfalls you’ll encounter along the walk in Isalo National Park are well-placed, and worth a shot and a dip. The lush green surroundings also provide a nice break from the sun and heat.

Madagascar Travel, Isalo National Park Day Treks
A moment of waterfall serenity, Isalo National Park.

18. Enjoy a sundowner, Madagascar style. And plant a tree…or five

At the end of our day at Isalo National Park, our tour leader told us we were in for a surprise. We walked up onto a nearby hill where we met with Delana, cofounder of Soa Zara Association, a local NGO and Planterra Foundation partner working on environmental protection and reforestation in the area. Over the last year, each G Adventures group ends their day at Isalo by planting 150-200 trees on a plot of land with a sprawling view to a table plateau and the sunset west.

Madagascar Travel and Conservation
Dan and our G Adventures group planting a sapling with Soa Zara association.

Considering that a group visits each week between April and November, that’s a lot of trees in just one year. The goal: in 10 years, the once empty arid patch will become the makings of a forest once again, giving the nearby lemurs and wildlife more room to grow and expand their habitat.

Madagascar Travel, Isalo National Park Sunset
Enjoying a sundowner, Madagascar-style.

Then, we walked to an overlook and enjoyed a celebratory drink watching the sunset over the Isalo mountains. Now, that’s a proper sundowner.

READ MORE: 20 Sustainable Travel Tips: How to be a Good Global Traveler

19. Hug an ancient baobab tree at Reniala Spiny Forest Reserve

Although the baobab trees of Baobab Avenue in western Madagascar get the most attention, the south also features its fair share of baobab caches. The Reniala Spiny Forest Reserve is one such area featuring a cluster of baobabs of all sizes, shapes and ages. Our group’s favorite of the baobab bunch was this bulbous baobab, estimated at over 1,000 years old (baobabs only grow 12mm each year).

Madagascar Travel, Baobab Trees
Hug a baobab.

As is the case with other community parks, Reniala Spiny Forest Reserve operates with local people serving as guides and spotters. A portion of the tour fees is used to fund conservation projects in the community and to help protect these ancient trees and their habitat.

20. Take a ride in a Bollywood-style Zebu cart

Get to the baobab forest by local transport, a zebu-drawn cart. If you’re really lucky, your zebu cart may also be adorned with Bollywood-style art and imagery.

Madagascar Travel, Zebu Cart
Our driver and mighty zebu cart.

Admittedly, your bottom may suffer a bit for the bounce, but the experience is one you’ll likely never forget.

21. Kick back at Mangily Beach, Ifaty

After your head is full of all the interactions, imagery and impressions of a busy trip through eastern and southern Madagascar, a couple of days at the beach makes for an ideal way to relax and wind down. While snorkeling, surfing, scuba diving, whale watching (seasonal) and other activities are on offer, we took a more laid-back approach and simply chilled out.

Madagascar Beaches,
Relaxing at Mangily Beach.

Our ideal mix of relaxation included sleeping in, relaxing by the pool or on the beach, taking an occasional dip (the water is a little chilly in the Austral winter), reading a book or two, playing a round of boules/petanque, gazing out on the horizon at sunset, and feasting on seafood. It was hard to leave our beach-side Bamboo Club bungalow after only a couple of days.

22. Get your lobster and seafood fix

If anything like lobster, squid, octopus, prawns or fish is your taste, the restaurants along the beach in Ifaty will have you covered and well-fed. Nothing fresher than this. And it’s hard to beat a touch of the grill to draw out the flavor.

Madagascar Food, Seafood by the Beach
Now that's a mixed seafood plate!! Le Jardin de Giancarlo in Toliara.

There are a number of restaurants along the beach, as well as pop-up style lobster roasts run by locals. Among our favorites was Chez Cecile, for its copious breakfast, very good coffee and a long, drifting lunch of barbecued lobster served with a nicely chilled white wine.

Along your way to Ifaty and the southern beaches, you might travel through the bustling city of Toliara. If you do, be sure to drop in on Le Jardin de Giancarlo, a decades-old restaurant run by an Italian character who got lost in Madagascar decades ago. Mixed seafood plates (less than $10) are excellent and abundant enough for two to share. Vegetarians in Madagascar will also be delighted by the fresh vegetable-loaded pasta dishes and fresh ravioli.

23. Take in the diversity of Madagascar fruits, vegetables, and spices at Analakely Market in Antananarivo

Analakely Market in Madagascar’s capital city Antananarivo shows off the agricultural richness and diversity of the country. Tables are stacked high with vegetables and fruits, baskets overflow with beans and rice, and piles topple with black pepper, cloves, and chili peppers. Some of it you may recognize, much of it you may not. It’s a colorful island nation feast.

We can highly recommend picking up some Madagascar whole black pepper to use at home or to give as gifts. It has a sort of nutmeg flavoring to it that it rich and unique. Our foodie friends loved it as their Christmas gift.

Madagascar Travel, Analakely Market in Antananarivo
Piles of peppers, chilis and vegetables at the Analakely Market.

The streets around the market are busy and bustling, but don’t let that scare you away. The alleys and lanes of fruits and vegetables are out in the open and pleasantly calm in comparison. They are also pretty much hassle-free.

24. Treat yourself to Madagascar-French cuisine.

Fancy yourself some foie gras? Maybe some magret de canard? Duck confit? Don’t be surprised to find French restaurants, specialties of French cuisine and even French-inspired Madagascar fusion cuisine. Madagascar was a French colony until 1960, and the French clearly left their mark.

There are a number of restaurants in the capital city of Antananarivo focused on French cuisine. We dropped into Sakamanga, an upscale yet reasonably-priced restaurant serving Malagasy and French dishes. If you're winding up your time in Madagascar, are looking for a nice, relaxing bite to eat and to taste a dish you’d missed out on during your travels across Madagascar, give it a look.

25. Dance with the dead and other unique Malagasy cultural traditions

One of the more unique cultural facets that we've come across in our travels is that of exhumation ceremonies in Madagascar. Malagasy people have a strong connection to their ancestors, believing that they represent a spiritual middle ground between earth and God, very far above. Many of Madagascar's 18 ethnic groups practice some sort of exhumation ceremony to celebrate their ancestors and create a connection between the generations.

Usually practiced every three, five or seven years (it depends on how much money a family has) an exhumation ceremony will bring family members from throughout the country together to the family tomb. Tombs are sacred places as they hold the remains of several generations collectively in one location.

Madagascar Culture
Colorful family tombs, southern Madagascar.

During the exhumation ceremony, the stone tomb is opened and skeleton bodies are wrapped in new silk fabric and papyrus mats. A party ensues outside the tomb as everyone gathers together, eats a big feast, drinks rum, plays music and eventually dances with their ancestors by embracing the skeleton's silk wrap.

As our tour leader explained, being able to dance with a deceased great-grandparent is a way for families to keep alive the connection between generations. While dancing with dead relatives may sound strange to many of us, I understand it as a means to sustaining family identity and belonging, and cultivating a relationship with death.

A cultural tradition that I didn't quite connect with as much with was that of the male circumcision ceremony, conducted when a boy is 1-5 years old. The paternal grandfather spills some of the blood and foreskin from the circumcision atop a banana and consumes it to demonstrate his acceptance of his grandson.

For the Bara tribe near Isalo National Park, their tradition is to shoot the foreskin into the air…perhaps to set it free?

This is only the beginning of the fascinating traditions of the ethnic and cultural mixing bowl that is Madagascar. We were fortunate to have tour leader in Jose who was not only knowledgeable about all these ceremonies and traditions, but welcomed our curiosity and fielded our many questions.

Traveling Independently to Madagascar vs. Taking a Madagascar Tour

Of course, it's possible to travel Madagascar independently. However, it isn't always the easiest in terms of transportation, logistics and available information. We researched this in advance as we determined whether to travel independently in Madagascar or choose to take the Highlights of Madagascar tour with G Adventures.

After traveling through Madagascar and witnessing a variety of travel options and styles, we're happy with our decision to take the G Adventures tour. The reasons are many, but the main ones include the fact that the tour's itinerary included activities we would not have been able to arrange on our own, logistical support, and comfortable and reliable transportation (distances are vast in Madagascar). Most importantly, our high-quality local G Adventures CEO (guide), Jose, made all the difference in our understanding Madagascar in all of its complexity.

If you choose to travel independently, there is public transport around the country via minibuses. However, be prepared for these buses to be stuffed. The other option is to hire a private driver and car to take you around (going rate is €50-€100/day we hear). Obviously, if you can share the car with other travelers this will reduce your travel costs. Air Madagascar also flies domestic flights, which is a good option if you've got long distances to cover. Domestic flight tickets are not particularly cheap, however.

As you'll see below there's a range of accommodation around the country, so you'll likely always be able to find a place to spend the night. Here are more tips on traveling Madagascar independently.

When to Visit Madagascar

April to November is considered tourist season in Madagascar, with July to October as the high season. The rainy season is December to March. This time can be wet and also incredibly hot in some areas.

Our visit in July coincided with winter in Madagascar. It was surprisingly cold (e.g., down to 45 F at night in the eastern highlands). Be sure to pack several layers of shirts, fleece jackets, and rain gear if you visit during this time. That said, we enjoyed traveling at this time as the temperature was comfortable during the day and insects and mosquitos were much less than they'd otherwise be during hot season.

Madagascar Travel in Winter
Madagascar in winter. Long-sleeved tops and jackets.

If your focus is strictly lemur tracking, consider visiting Madagascar in October-November. During this time, many of the lemur species give birth to their babies. They also apparently spend more time lower to the ground, rather than tucked into the canopies. That said, our experiences and images show plenty of lemur encounters in winter.

Madagascar Visas

It's easy to purchase a 30-day tourist visa upon arrival at Antananarivo Airport. At the time of our visit in July 2018 the cost was $37 or €35. Although we were not asked for a copy of our return flight from Madagascar, it's good to have this on hand as we hear that sometimes immigration officials ask for it.

In addition to the visa and immigration form you'll need to fill out a health form. If you arrive from a country where yellow fever is prevalent, officials will check your Yellow Card to be sure you have a valid Yellow Fever vaccination.

Flights to Madagascar

Members of our group came from Europe, North America and Australia. Since we flew to Madagascar from Berlin, Germany the easiest (and cheapest) connection was on Turkish Airlines. We also heard good things about connections from Norway and other parts of Germany via Ethiopian Airlines. Americans and Canadians in the group flew Air France, since it seemed to offer the best connections.

If you're already traveling in Africa at the time, Kenyan Airlines, South African Airlines and Ethiopian Airlines seem to offer the best flights to Madagascar from the continent.

You can check the best flights to Madagascar (Antananarivo Airport – TNR) using Skyscanner (it also includes all low cost airlines) or Expedia (usually a 24-hour cancellation period).

Accommodation in Madagascar

Although our accommodation was included along the trip, we can recommend the following hotels and lodges throughout the country for accommodation that is clean, has hot water, and is mid-budget (e.g., $20-$50/night). These aren't the cheapest accommodations options (hostels or very basic guesthouses), nor are they the most expensive lodges and hotels.

Here's where we stayed in Madagascar:

  • Antanarivo: Chalet des Roses Hotel. Nice rooms and good location. Easy to walk down to the main square, old train station, and main market. In the other direction the hotel is close to Jardin Antaninarenina with a nice overlook over the city (especially nice at sunset) and good restaurants and cafes.
  • Andasibe: Feon'ny Ala Hotel. Sleep in your own little hut not far from Andasibe-Mantadia National Park and V.O.I.M.M.A. Community Park.
  • Antsirabe: Hotel Hasina. An OK hotel that serves as a quick overnight.
  • Ranomafana: Manja Hotel. Nice collection of bungalows close to Ranomafana National Park with a good view over the river.
  • Ambalavao: Aux Bougainvillees Hotel. A simple hotel that serves as a good overnight en route to Anja Community Park.
  • Ranohira: ITC Lodge. Nice, clean bungalows close to Isalo National Park. Good restaurant as well. The lodge owners started Soa Zara NGO that works on reforestation projects in the area and there is a tree nursery on the grounds.
  • Ifaty: Bamboo Club at Mangily Beach. Pleasant bungalows with a beachside pool and restaurants. A great place to relax and come down after a full tour around Madagascar.

All of these hotels and lodges also have restaurants. Be aware, it's customary for breakfast NOT to be included in the price of the room. So you'll need to budget for it and order it separately each morning for about $3-$5.

If you are extending your stay in Antananarivo after your tour and looking for a way to relax and wind down, perhaps with a massage or spa treatment before departing Madagascar, reliable sources recommend Le Relais des Plateaux close to the airport.

Safety in Madagascar

We felt very safe during our tour and we never had any safety issues. However, it's always best travel safety practice to stay aware of your surroundings, keep valuables locked away (e.g., like your passport), and be mindful of cameras, smartphones and other expensive gear when you're walking around. This is especially true in Antananarivo, the capital city, and particularly at night.

You may notice safety warnings for Madagascar from time to time, especially around elections and political events where there may be demonstrations or protests. These are usually held in the bigger cities are are not geared towards travelers. However, it's still wise to steer clear of them all the same.

Health Considerations for Madagascar

Before traveling to Madagascar consult a travel clinic and research recommended vaccinations and malaria medicines. Many of the standard vaccinations for tropical countries are recommended: hepatitis A and B, typhoid, tetanus, MMR. Although yellow fever is not present in Madagascar, you will be required to show proof of a yellow fever vaccination if you are traveling from another country that does have yellow fever.

Although we were traveling in the winter months when malaria is not as prevalent we still decided to take anti-malarial medicine to be on the safe side (mosquitos love Dan). We took Doxycycline (be extra careful with sun as your skin becomes more sensitive) while others in our group took Malarone. Consult your doctor as to what works best for you.

Money in Madagascar

Expect to pay for everything in local currency called the Malagasy Ariary (MGA). It's around 3,750 MGA/€1 or 3,300 MGA/$1. We used ATM machines at the Antananarivo airport and in the bigger cities and towns around the country to get local money and we never had a problem. Visa ATM cards seem to be more accepted than Mastercard. We also brought cash (Euros and USD) with us as an emergency in case the ATMs were broken and we had to exchange money.

We've been told that the best rates for exchanging cash are at the Antananarivo airport so if you do need to exchange your euros or dollars that's the best place to do that. Otherwise, banks around the country also offer currency exchange.

Disclosure: Our Highlights of Madagascar tour was provided to us by G Adventures as part of our partnership under the Wanderers program. Check out this article for all the different G Adventures tours we've taken and recommend. As always, the thoughts contained herein — the what, the why, and the how — are entirely our own.

About Audrey Scott
Audrey Scott is a writer, storyteller, speaker and tourism development consultant. She aims to help turn people's fears into curiosity and connection. She harbors an obsession for artichokes and can bake a devastating pan of brownies. You can keep up with her adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about her on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

6 thoughts on “Madagascar Travel: 25 Experiences to Get You Started”

  1. I always wanted to travel to Madagascar for its wildlife! There’s a lot of exotic animals and incredible landscape, and also pretty beaches to relax to… Unfortunately I’ve been quite warned by some people about safety issues for tourists in some parts of the island. But I’m glad to see everything went well during your trip!

    • Yes, Madagascar does have quite a mix of experiences and landscapes to enjoy. As for safety, we did not have any issues and we didn’t meet others who had safety problems. However, it is always important to stay aware of your surroundings, especially in cities. And, to be careful walking around Antananarivo, the capital city, at night. While it’s good to check government travel safety warnings, it’s also wise to do additional research with locals to find out a more accurate situation. More on how to do that here:

  2. Thank you so much for sharing very helpful information. Could you please provide some information on the fees for exchanging US dollars that the TNR airport? Also, any suggestion on tipping? My husband and I will be in Madagascar for 16 days in June. We wanted to go with organized group tours, but none of the dates work. We ended up booking our independent tour with a UK travel company. There will be a guide with us the whole time and different drivers depending on where we go. We did not realize that the UK travel company sub-contracts our tour to a South Africa company who makes the arrangement with the local guide/drivers in Madagascar. We have no idea how much our guide/drivers will be paid. We would like to tip our guide and drivers for their service at an appropriate level, but we also do not want to break our bank given how much we have to pay for the tour already. Would you give some advice on tipping? Many thanks!

    • Nicola, great to hear that you and your husband are headed soon to Madagascar! I’m sorry it didn’t work with your schedule to go with an organized group tour, but I’m sure you will still have a great experience.

      As for fees for exchanging US dollars at TNR airport, I’m afraid I don’t know this exactly as we chose to get local money out at the airport by ATM. We usually do this as this avoids exchange office fees and unfavorable exchange rates. We have heard, however, that the exchange rates at the airport are usually better than at banks so I imagine the fees will be low if you choose to do this.

      Regarding tipping, this is obviously a personal choice and is based on the quality of service you receive as well. The guidelines our group used was $2/day for drivers, $25/week for the guide, $1-3 for a local guide (e.g., national park ranger or community guide), and around 10% at restaurants. Hope this helps and fits with your experience and trip!

  3. Thank you so much for your helpful information, Audrey! We are looking forward to our trip to Madagascar. Greatly appreciate you and Daniel sharing super helpful info in this blog. Really enjoy it!


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