A remnant of ancient Gondwana gone astray and left in isolation for 88 million years, the island republic of Madagascar is home to an astonishing array of wildlife, including over 100 species of lemur. Add to this almost 15,000 plant species, another 100 mammal species and birds, reptiles and amphibians too numerous to count and you start to realize the natural bounty this island harbours.
But there is more to the country than flora and fauna. Incredible beaches, wild limestone pinnacles known as tsingy, beautiful waterfalls and rock pools, thriving markets, traditional villages, gorgeous sunsets, a fascinating history, some of the best hiking on the continent and the most incredible vistas and landscapes all conspire to make Madagascar one destination you will not soon forget.
best time to travel
The best time to travel to Madagascar is the dry season from April to October. Whales can be spotted from July through September. Jacarandas flower between September and November, which gives an added pretty touch to the late dry season. Many lemurs have their young at this time.
November, at the start of the summer wet season, is often regarded as the best month to visit Madagascar for wildlife-watching.
During the wet season proper (December through March) lemurs and other wildlife are active and easy to spot but rainfall and cyclones make travel virtually impossible.
places to go
Also known as "Tana", Antananarivo is Madagascar's capital and the place where you will first land. The city has a lot of history, most importantly the Royal Rova on Ambohimanga, a forested hill, north of Antananarivo. It was from this fortress that Madagascar was united into one country and Ambohimanga remains spiritually significant for the Malagasy people. There are spectacular views to be had from the hilltop. As for markets, Zoma Market is enormous and well worth a visit.
Andasibe-Mantadia National Park & Analamazoatra (Perinet)
One of my most endearing travel memories is waking up to the sound of indris heralding the break of day at Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. The largest lemur in Madagascar, the trumpeting of the animals as they mark their territory is a sound you will not easily forget. The reserve also offers the opportunity for night walks during which you may spot nocturnal lemurs, chameleons and some of the colourful tree frogs.
Fading, ornate colonial architecture and colourful rickshaws (known as 'pousse-pousse') mark the town of Antsirabe, long a favourite with missionaries and colonialists for it's cool climate. Founded by Norwegians the town offers bustling street markets and is a popular spa town thanks to the hot springs and thermal baths.
Ranomafana National Park
Numerous small streams cascade down to the beautiful Namorona River in Ranomafana Locally the name means 'hot water', thanks to the thermal baths and swimming pool you will find here. The main reasons to visit the park are hiking and spotting some of its small mammals, birds, reptiles and insects, as well as plants, including orchids and carnivorous plants. There are three species of Bamboo lemur in the park, including the golden bamboo lemur, first reported in 1985 and the raison d'etre of the park. Malagasy boa constrictor, chameleons, the black parrot, cuckoo roller and many other birds also live in the park.
Anja Community Reserve
Protected since 1999, Anja is a great place to observe ring-tailed lemurs. It is a vital example of how community management can effectively protect an area and benefit a community.
Andringitra National Park
High mountains, granite outcrops and deep valleys covered in rainforest, mountain forest and high altitude meadows are hallmarks of Andringitra. It is one of the most biodiverse areas of Madagascar with over 1000 species of plants and numerous species of bird, mammal and frog. As the wildlife is harder to spot here, the main reasons to visit are the stunning landscapes and wonderful trekking opportunities.
Isalo National Park
Erosion by wind and water has produced some of the most fantastical landscapes at Isalo. Discover incredible canyons and strange geological formations on walks through the park. Don't forget to take a dip in one of the natural pools and watch the sunset at La Fenetre, a natural rock window framing the setting sun.
Snorkelling and beach time are the order of the day at Ifaty Beach, a large sandy bay protected by a barrier reef. Traditional fishing villages are scattered along the bay and there are options for several day trips in the area. During July and August, you can join a humpback whale-watching trip on the lagoon.
Kirindy is home to the giant jumping rat and a good place to spot fossa, the country’s largest predator. Endemic to Madagascar, the latter looks like a cross between a cat and a weasel.
Avenue of the Baobabs
Famous as one of the most scenic roads in the country, the Avenue of the Baobabs is a sandy road lined with these giant trees. Sunset is a magical time to visit, when the colours of the setting sun create the perfect photo opportunity.
Tsingy de Bemaraha
Designated a Unesco World Heritage site since 1990, the Tsingy de Bemaraha is a karst landscape dominated by limestone pinnacles, some of which are several hundred metres high. A hike through this amazing landscape will take you through caves and narrow chasms and offer incredible views. It is a highlight for many but definitely not for the faint of heart!
Leaping and dancing lemurs
Madagascar is best known for its lemurs, a group of animals that only live here. From the largest (the indri) to the rarest (golden bamboo) and from the dancing sifaka to perhaps the cutest and most famous (the ring-tailed lemur), 103 species are endemic to Madagascar.
And other wildlife
Isolated for about 88 million years, plants and animals on the island have evolved in relative isolation. As a result, approximately 90 percent of all plant and animal species found in Madagascar are endemic. 200 Mammal species (including the 103 species of lemurs), about 300 species of birds, more than 260 species of reptiles, and at least as many species of amphibians call Madagascar their home. The island is also famous for its many chameleon species, a full two-thirds of the world's assortment of species.
Almost 15,000 plant species occur in Madagascar, over 80% of which are unique to the island. Rainforest (much reduced in size due to overexploitation), dry deciduous forest and sub-humid forest are the main types of habitat, sheltering numerous orchid species (75% of which are found here alone) and eight types of baobab (six of which are endemic).
Drives and vistas
As you travel around Madagascar there are some long drives to be had. But with many incredible vista and amazing landscapes of forest-cad mountains and rice paddies, the drives are well worth the effort.
Zebus, large humped cattle, are everywhere in Madagascar. Pulling carts they are used as work animals but are also an important food source. If you spot a herd along the road be sure to grab your camera!
Between June and November thousands of humpback whales migrate from the icy waters around Antarctica to the tropical seas surrounding Madagascar to breed. Ifaty Beach is a good place to see them in July and August while at Ile Sainte Marie they hang around into September.
Hiking and trekking
Madagascar offers some amazing hiking and trekking opportunities, rivalling anywhere on the planet. Biodiverse Andringitra, Isalo with its rock formations and natural swimming pools, the limestone tsingy of Bemaraha and Ranomafana with its spectacular scenery and wildlife are just some of the spots you will love to hike through.
Sampling local cuisine, seeing how most of the Malagassy people live, experiencing local culture or supporting a community project - all great reasons to visit a village or two!
Watch the sunset
Sunset is a magical time to visit the Avenue of the Baobabs, when the colours of the setting sun create the perfect photo opportunity. Ifaty beach also offers some amazing sunsets.
Delve into history
The Royal Rova on Ambohimanga, a forested hill, north of Antananarivo was the seat of royal power and remains spiritually significant for the Malagasy people. In Isalo meanwhile there are burial sites of the Bara people, a nomadic people subsisting on cattle.
Waking up to indris
One of my most endearing travel memories is waking up to the sound of indris heralding the break of day at Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. The largest lemur in Madagascar, the trumpeting of the animals as they mark their territory is a sound you will not easily forget.
After discovering wildlife and flora on land, it's time to take to the water and find out what there is to see. Ifaty Beach is a popular stop and a good place to organize a snorkelling trip.