Top Things to do in Madagascar
From dreamy soft-sand beaches to intriguing wildlife, twisty-branched baobab and flickering palms, nature tops the list of things to do in Madagascar.
But there's more. So much more.
Let me show you a look at the best things to do in Madagascar, with links to in-depth articles andplenty of resources to help you plan your trip.
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Walk in the shadow of the baobab tree
With sturdy trunks and stumpy branches that twist, childlike into the air, the silhouette of a baobab has almost become the symbol of Madagascar.
The most famous line-up, the Grand Avenue of the Baobabs steals all the headlines. But the truth is, you can find baobabs almost anywhere, not just in Morondava and Belon’i Tsiribihina in the Menabe region of western Madagascar..
These magnificent works of natural art can grow up to 30 metres tall and11 metres wide. They store thousands of gallons of water within their trunks to allow them to survive through the dry periods.
And although six species hail from Madagascar, not all of them do. There are three more: found in Africa, Arabia and Australia.
Did You Know?
Madagascar is the 4th largest island in the world. The hot rainy system runs from November to April before the slightly cooler, drier weather sets in. Travel distances are large and travel times are long due to the amount of wild and natural areas on the island.
But these absolute beauties, scratching ink in the skylit sun, do come from Madagascar.
They stand tall, they stand proud and they can survive for over one thousand years.
That’s pretty impressive enough to be getting on with.
Getting There: Finding Flights
Many travellers fly to Ivato International Airport in the capital, Antananarivo. That also works well if you want to see UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Royal Hill of Ambohimanga.
But if you're short on time, there are many international flights that land straight in the north.
It's a good idea to use an online flight comparison tool to help you find the right flight to Madagascar, such as Kayak.
Tsingy Bemahara National Park
Sharp and spiky rock formations build up to form peaks in Madagascar. Painful to walk on (that's the literal translation of the word Tsingy,) a decent pair of hiking boots or a swinging roped bridge can help you across.
Together with the nearby Tsingy Bemahara Nature Reserve, the Tsingy Bemahara National Park forms a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Top tip: pack decent walking boots with ankle support for hiking on the tsingy
Tsingy Rouge Park
One step grander than the standard tsingy are the tsingy rouge, or red rocks. Found strikingly in the Tsingy Rouge Park, two hours from Antsiranana (Diego Suarez,) it's a rough and bumpy drive but one that rewards with a majestic, silk and silt view.
Top travel tip: take plenty of sunscreen and a hat if you travel here in the middle of the day. It's a pretty exposed place.
Whale Watching in Madagascar
Making their way up from the South Pole in June, humpback whales travel through the St Marie channel near Madagascar.
We spotted this beauty on an impromptu trip from Tsarabanjina Island near Nosy Be in the north. Two whales swam together. This photo catches the moment just after one returned to the deep...
Top tip: check the whale migration patterns before setting your heart on this activity. If it's crucial to you, plan your holiday around this first.
Look for Lemurs
Bright eyed and bushy tailed, leaping and lolloping, once you've seen lemurs it's easy to understand why people fall in love with them.
Something of a cross between a cat, a squirrel and a monkey, they're one of the best reasons to visit Madagascar: it's the only country in the world that has them as native creatures.
A great spot involves climbing the tsingy in the Ankarana Reserve just before sunset. Lemurs are typically nocturnal and aroboreal (live in trees) but they do love to leap. And there's no better place to see them than here.
Top tip: be ready to move fast! Lemurs do. So have your camera at the ready and the shutter speed raring to go.
Getting Around: By Air and Road
Madagascar is a big place and infrastructure often needs some work. To get from Tana to Nosy Be in the north will likely require an internal flight. Bear in mind that internal flights frequently change at very short notice. This is definitely a situation where having a travel agent on the ground back home can work wonders. We travelled to Madagascar with Audley, who were fantastic at rearranging accommodation details, airline tickets and airport transfers on our behalf. While we slept...
Beautiful Sandy Beaches
Powder-sugar soft white sand. Coral. Turquoise sea. Luxury cabins decked out in natural timber and stone with uninterrupted views of the ocean.
Madagascar's beaches are so beautiful that some people visit them and leave it at that.
Nosy Be (pronounced nosy BAY) is one of the most popular spots, with boat rides taking travellers out to visit smaller islands.
We stayed at Tsarabanjina in the Mitsio archipelago and it remains in my heart one of the best places I have ever stayed in my life.
Top tip: leave enough time to do absolutely nothing. It's good for the soul. Science says so (well, the mind and body at least.)
Ankarana Natural Reserve
Towering limestone rises out of the water at sunrise and sunset like a theatre curtain, emerging and then sinking back into the shadows as the night falls.
Founded in 1956, Ankarana hosts lemurs and ring-tailed mongoose but amid the excitement about the primates, the brilliance of the birds is often overlooked. Almost 100 species live here and if you sleep at the neighbouring Iharana Bush Camp, you can watch many of them from your cabin overlooking the water - and feel a sense of peace.
Ankarana also attracts hikers and botanists, with many paths ready for laced boots (although it's a good idea to travel with a guide.)
Top tip: spend dusk and dawn still and looking across the water to see as many wild birds as you can.
The Royal Hill of Ambohimanga
Within a day trip of capital 'Tana, the Royal Hill of Ambohimanga is just one of Madagascar's UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Madagascar's population, of around 25 million, includes around 20 different ethnic groups and results from a blending of peoples and cultures that makes geographical sense.
Influences from mainland Africa, influences from Borneo and Indonesia.
The Royal Hill of Ambohimanga represents a combination of a sacred site and royal palace. In a relatively small space, amid the sticky heat, you can learn about ancestor worship, terraced irrigation and the various interactions with various European powers that took place here over the centuries.
Top tip: it can be difficult to understand the significance of many of the parts of the complex without a guide. So it's a place I'd highly recommend you see as part of a tour.
The Capital: Antananarivo or "Tana
OK. Personally, just personally, I didn't love my time in Tana. There were a number of reasons. Not all of them likely to happen to anyone else again.
Antananarivo is a vast, crowded city with a capital's take to international relations. I spent most of my time in the north, a slower, more laid back place and perhaps that's why Tana jarred so much.
But how can you appreciate a country without knowing her capital?
Antananarivo mixes cathedrals with palaces, cobbled streets with colourful street food but it's here that Madagascar's extreme poverty becomes clear (expect to see children queueing by crowded water pumps, for example.)
Top tip: as with any major city, allow plenty of time for sitting in traffic jams.
Antsiranana (Diego Suarez)
Coastal and cool, Antsiranana is, to my mind, the antithesis of Antananarivo.
Broad, wide avenues of low slung buildings and stately ones too, vacant with faded grandeur and tropical decline, and a sense that reminded me of Cartagena in Colombia or Havana, Cuba.
Antsiranana also has manicured graveyards, a curious stop but one that illustrates a deeply disturbing part of human history. The role of Madagascar in World War Two and Hitler's initial plan not to exterminate Jews but to send them to Madagascar instead.
But despite its historic role, the ambiance is easy-going, the weather sublime.
Top tip: hire a private boat to explore the secluded islands and coastline around Antsiranana.
Chameleons. Can I make it to the end of this paragraph without singing the song? I think I can. I think...
However catchy the song is, searching for chameleons is even more addictive. They so beautifully match their surroundings. Plus, they're slow moving when you find them, allowing you to appreciate the fruits of your wildlife-spotting labours all the more.
And they move their feet in a rhythmic, hypnotising clip-clop, clip-clop. Big chameleons, leaf-size chameleons, muddy-tree-bark chameleons and beautiful, shimmering rainbow chameleons...
Madagascar has them all and more. They come and go. They come and go...Sorry. Nearly pulled it off.
Top tip: keep your eyes peeled. Chameleons are (no joke!) hard to spot but beautiful to look at.
Top Things to do in Madagascar: In Summary
Lemurs. Chameleons. UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Humpback whales and white-sand beaches.
Any one would be reason enough to go.
Put them together, and throw in another few centuries of culture, and you're just getting started with exploring the best things to do in Madagascar.
Madagascar is a country with so much to offer yet so much to contend with. I hope to go back. And to write more and cover more. And I hope you get to travel there as well.