Madagascar is so unique you might call it the eighth continent
Adrift in the Indian Ocean after separating from Asia and Africa in the time of the dinosaurs, Madagascar has evolved quite separately. Eighty percent of the nation’s flora and fauna are found nowhere else on Earth and the culture is equally inimitable. The Malagasy people began to arrive just 2000 years ago, and have developed their own language and fascinating spiritual traditions. Those who like to journey off the beaten track will delight in Madagascar’s authenticity. Tourism levels are low and the country is large. Explore golden beaches and rich forests with a glorious sense of the untouched.
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Top three things to do in Madagascar
There are many wonderful experiences to be had on this magical island. For further inspiration take a look at the trip ideas put together by our trusted local experts, but in the meantime here are our top three things to do in Madagascar.
Commune with the Baobab trees
One of the most awesome natural wonders of the island is its avenue of ancient Baobab trees, not far from coastal Morondava. A collection of trees over 100 feet tall and up to 1,000 years old reach skyward in splendid isolation. Like a relic from a past world inhabited by giants, these impressive specimens are known as the Roots of the Sky and are best viewed at sundown or sunrise.
Play amongst the waves
Madagascar’s Indian Ocean coastline is abundant in pristine beaches, azure waters and swaying palms. The waters are home to a myriad of fish and underwater life, so snorkelling or diving is a must. Just off the east coast the magical Ile Saint Marie offers glorious beaches and sheltered waters. Between June and September humpback whales are frequently spotted, take a whale-watching trip and get up close.
Meet the Malagasy
Madagascar has been populated by waves of new arrivals over the centuries, some from East Africa, but many hailing from Indonesia and other parts of South East Asia. This has resulted in a unique melting pot of cultures with 18 distinct tribal groups. A great way to visit some of the more isolated settlements is on a journey along the Canal des Pangalanes. Take to the waters in a pirogue (motorised canoe), observing wildlife and stopping at tribal villages along the way.
Lesser-known things to do in Madagascar
While there are many well-known things to do in Madagascar, what about the lesser-known highlights? Our local experts have shared some of their top tips for where to go and what to do if you fancy a bit of an alternative adventure.
Love the lemur
Madagascar is one of the world’s few ‘megadiverse’ countries. Due to its isolated island status, countless endemic species exist including half the world’s chameleons and over 100 species of lemur. These playful, dancing mammals are protected by national parks and cultural beliefs and can be spotted across the island. The capital’s Lemur Park offers guaranteed sightings if you’re short on time and varieties include sifaka, indri, ring-tailed or the tiny mouse lemur.
Trekking in the interior
Madagascar has an astonishing variety of landscape. There are lemur-packed rainforests, plunging waterfalls, impenetrable acres covered in sharp limestone formations, desert regions and mangrove swamps. With few tourists outside of key sites, trekking is an awe-inspiring activity that will deliver you into the remote wilds of this ‘Lost Continent’. Baobab and palm trees abound and wildlife from falcons to crocodiles and chameleons add colour.
Overnight on the river…
If fit, adventurous and seeking adrenaline, undertake a multi-day rafting descent of the Tsiribihina River. Bounce, glide and paddle through Madagascar’s interior on a river often lined with curious and colourfully dressed locals. The drive to Antsirabe (Water City) to begin the descent weaves up through rice paddies and the mountains of the island’s high plateau to provide an eye-popping insight into this curious land.
Stranger than fiction?
The Flashman series of novels immortalized the exploits of Madagascar’s Queen Ranavalona. Though she protected Madagascar from the Europeans, Ranavalona brutalized neighbouring kingdoms. She also abused her own subjects through slave labour to build public works and her grand palace to such an extent that the island’s population almost halved during her reign. Visit her imposing palace, the Rova, in the capital Antananarivo.
When is the best time to go to Madagascar?
Madagascar’s dry season lasts from May to October and offers stable, welcoming conditions. Beach weather prevails in October, the warmest month of the dry season. September and October are good months for wildlife viewing as a number of lizards wake from hibernation at this time of year. November and December are wet and warm, preceding Madagascar’s cyclone season which stretches from January to April. Although the wild weather brings with it some challenges, unique species of orchid come into bloom at this time.
Insider tips from our trusted local experts
Being local, our experts have an extensive knowledge of the secrets to experiencing the 'real' Madagascar. Here are a few of their top tips - ask them for other recommendations when you enquire to ensure you have the most in-depth experience whilst on holiday!
Explore Tsingy de Bemaraha
Stout footwear is required to enter this National Park whose name translates at ‘where one cannot walk barefoot’. Also a Nature Reserve, Tsingy overflows with weird and wonderful limestone rock formations and sharp karst columns. Here, the vertical and horizontal effects of erosion collide to produce a forest of needles and fissures in which endemic species hide and flourish. It’s claimed that visiting naturalists still find a new species of plant or wildlife with each trip.
The pirate cemetery
Madagascar was once a safe haven for pirates. The place to visit history’s notorious water-borne criminals now is at their resting place, in The Pirate Cemetery on Île Sainte-Marie. From the 17th Century, it’s estimated that over 1,000 pirates openly used Sainte-Marie as their base, living and lusting in small wooden huts and feasting on local exotic fruits. Take a boat trip to peruse the headstones of over 30 of them on this Island of Pirates, four miles out to sea.
It’s ‘Tana’ to those who know
Antananarivo is Madagascar’s capital. Thankfully, its name is normally shortened to Tana. French influences proliferate in name and architecture. Don’t miss the baroque Andafiavaratra Palace in the city’s Haute Ville neighbourhood, nor the authentic Malagasy products on sale at the colourful Marché Artisanal de La Digue. Raffia, vanilla, wood carvings and embroidery are signature crafts to haggle over.
Interesting facts about Madagascar
Madagascar is a fascinating country. But did you know any of our top three facts about it?
- Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world. Its landmass is over 226,900 square miles, compared to the UK’s approximately 93,400 square miles.
- The rectangular piece of cloth called a Lamba is a traditional garment worn by both men and women.
- There are several UNESCO sites on the island: the Royal Hill of Ambohimanga, the labyrinthine Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve and the rainforests of Atsinanana.
- One in ten Malagasies smoke marijuana according to the UN which is more than in the Netherlands (but not as much as in France, the USA or Iceland).
What to read before you go to Madagascar
If you're looking for something to get you in the mood before you set off on your travels to Madagascar, we've gathered a list of our favourite books to inspire you.
'Muddling Through in Madagascar' by Dervla Murphy
This classic Murphy travelogue opens with a comprehensive potted history of the island. Accompanied by her 14-year-old daughter (instead of the usual bicycle or a mule), this delightful adventure is packed with accidents, insights and contrasts which bring this ‘Great Red Island’ to life.
'The Aye-Aye and I' by Gerald Durrell
Durrell is on a somewhat madcap journey to find and rescue the elusive Aye-Aye, once thought extinct. He also succeeds in capturing the essence of a whole island, featuring enchanted forests, enchanting villagers, buzzing markets and upbeat dances, plus meeting other unusual beasts from the carnivorous, catlike fossa to the flat-tailed tortoise. Exuberant, eccentric, and amusing.
'The Eighth Continent' by Peter Tyson
Join Tyson and four other scientists on this diverting odyssey to the heart of an island so unique it’s called the ‘Eighth Continent’ or the ‘Lost World’. Monkeys scream, lemurs sing and species long-since extinct elsewhere still thrive. Plumb the cultural and natural depths of an extraordinary land on this animal lovers’ adventure and discover the ancient, ancestral ceremony of turning the bones…
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