Madagascar was on my adventure list for years, as I wanted to see the country’s iconic baobab trees, spot wild lemurs, and hike in the Great Tsingy. When I finally made the journey to Madagascar, it was, fortunately, an amazing adventure that exceeded my expectations. Most importantly, I learned there is so much more to Madagascar than trees, animals, and limestone canyons.
The Malagasy people of Madagascar are some of the warmest and kindest humans I have ever met in all my travels. Sadly, Madagascar is also one of the poorest countries I have ever visited due to government corruption. However, with its varied landscapes, off-the-beaten-path adventures, and friendly locals, I wholeheartedly recommend visiting Madagascar. Here’s a guide to everything you should know before you go, as well as the best places to visit in Madagascar.
The Best Time of Year to Visit Madagascar
The best time to visit Madagascar is during the dry season, from April to October. Minimal rainfall and comfortable temperatures (hovering around the mid-70s) equal optimal driving, hiking, and wildlife-viewing conditions. If you’re keen to surf, aim to visit in April or May. Alternatively, if you’d prefer to go diving or snorkeling, August to October offers the best conditions. Madagascar’s peak season is July and August – summer holidays in the Northern Hemisphere.
On the flip side, heavy rainfall in the wet season (November to March) leads to roads being inaccessible. The wet season also coincides with cyclone season and includes decreased daylight, increased temperatures, and high humidity. The only upside to visiting in the wet season is that accommodation and flights will inevitably be cheaper, compared to peak season travel.
Things to Pack For Your Trip to Madagascar
You will want to pack the usual suspects, including t-shirts and shorts, and long pants and long-sleeved tops for at night to protect you from mosquitoes. As Madagascar has a sub-tropical climate, clothing in breathable fabrics like cotton and linen are recommended. You also won’t want to leave behind your swimsuit, as Madagascar is home to several beautiful beaches.
As for footwear, I’d definitely pack some type of walking shoe or hiking boot. However, Madagascar is known for its rich red dirt, so it’s best to leave your expensive white sneakers at home! I also recommend packing insect repellent and checking with your doctor about taking malaria medication, as it’s still prevalent in African countries.
Unfortunately, pickpocketing is a popular activity in crowded areas like Antananarivo. So keep your wallet and phone zipped into your pockets, and you might also want to consider packing a money belt to hide your valuables under your shirt.
Traveling to and around Madagascar
For your initial arrival into Madagascar, be aware that flights don’t run on a regular schedule. Hence you should always check to ensure planes are flying into Madagascar during your proposed visit. One route I recommend is flying into Antananarivo, the capital city, and then driving from Antananarivo to Morondava (don’t forget snacks and water). Then you can fly back.
Speaking of driving in Madagascar… The main road that circles the island, Route Nationale 5, has been called the world’s most dangerous road once or twice. This is because a very significant part of the road is dirt – not gravel or partially paved, just dirt. When you combine this with multiple river crossings, a 4WD and an experienced driver are definitely required to navigate Route Nationale 5.
Now, I’m a seasoned traveler, but even I wouldn’t begin to consider driving around Madagascar without a driver. Local drivers know every rock and surface along Route Nationale 5. Don’t let this scare you off from this particular experience, as I always felt safe and the views were wild-looking and different (in a good way).
The 6 Best Places to Visit in Madagascar
Morondava is a sleepy seaside town on Madagascar’s west coast. It’s the gateway destination to popular attractions like Kirindy Forest, the Avenue of the Baobabs, and Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park. In my opinion, Morondava is one of the best places to visit in Madagascar to get to know the friendly locals. Spend your time walking along the sandy shores of Morondava Beach, watching the sunset alongside local families, and exploring the nearby fishing villages.
Frequently called the Avenue of the Baobabs, Baobab Alley is a prominent group of giant baobab trees lining a dirt road near Morondava. This collection of rare and ancient trees is estimated to be more than 800 years old, and there are six different species native to Madagascar along the Avenue of the Baobabs (try and spot them all). With your camera in hand, I highly recommend visiting Baobab Alley at both sunrise and sunset. You can capture the trees glowing in the rising and falling sun, and see them silhouetted against the orange and pink hues of a classic Madagascan sunset too. The Baobab trees are reason enough to head to Madagascar. Make sure that your batteries are fully charged for taking photographs.
A dry deciduous forest, Kirindy Forest is a private and protected reserve near Morondava. It’s home to a plethora of native wildlife, including fossas – a cat-like mammal and Madagascar’s largest predator. Within Kirindy Forest, you can also spot eight species of lemur, 50 different types of reptiles, and an array of colorful bird species. There’s a network of paths through the reserve that allows you to easily and considerately observe Kirindy Forest’s flora and fauna. Don’t miss the organized night walk at Kirindy Forest either.
Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park is defined by its two remarkable karst plateaus formed some 200 million years ago, which are known as Great and Little Tsingy. The national park’s diverse landscape includes a labyrinth of jagged limestone pinnacles, as well as dry deciduous and undisturbed forest, lakes, mangrove swamps, canyons, and gorges. Consequently, the park is home to a rich array of flora and fauna, which thrive in the varying landscapes and habitats. A birding hotspot, you will also be able to spot lemurs, fossas, and mongoose in Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park.
The best way to explore the national park is by hiking across its rugged environment. Crossing the limestone landscape looks scarier than it is, as the national park’s network of trails includes aerial suspension bridges, ropes, stairs, and hand grips to pull yourself up. Nonetheless, some level of fitness would be beneficial.
Running through Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, Manambolo River is another one of the best places to visit in Madagascar. On an organized river tour, you can explore nearby caves filled with stalactites; see natural swimming pools, local riverfront villages, and native bird and wildlife; and spot beautiful scenery like gushing waterfalls and dense forest – all from the comfort of a traditional dugout canoe. The walls of the national park running along the river in some areas are just beautiful. Another great place for photographs.
The Antananarivo Markets
Madagascar’s capital city, there are several different marketplaces to check out in Antananarivo. Firstly, Pavillon Analakely has stalls selling everything from clothing and accessories to fresh meat and produce. There’s a food court at the center of this market called Izay Maika, where locals eat daily. Try a local specialty for lunch, or treat yourself to a traditional drink and dessert.
Meanwhile, Pochard is the Malagasy souk, so you can find a variety of handmade products here. This includes locally-made clothing and accessories, handmade crafts, and semi-precious gems. Another place to visit to purchase these sorts of handmade gifts is the aptly-named Craft Market of the Route Digue. Fun fact: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited this marketplace back in 2016. Finally, Tsenan’Alakamisy is the city’s largest and most colorful market, but it’s only open on Thursdays. You will find both fresh food and secondhand goods at this market.
I also just wanted to reiterate what I mentioned earlier about pickpockets. As a visitor to Madagascar, you have to understand it’s a very poor country and pockets are easy pickings for locals, as the markets are always crowded. Don’t let this deter you from visiting the markets, but be smart about blending in. I personally never felt unsafe visiting the markets in Antananarivo.
From colorful marketplaces to limestone landscapes and sandy beaches, there’s an adventure waiting for you in Madagascar.