Although Madagascar has over 1,800 miles of beautiful beaches, exceptionally good food, and offers great value for the tourist dollar, its greatest attractions are its unique flora and fauna. Here are some of the discoveries that await the adventurous visitor:The Lemurs: These endangered primates are found wild only in Madagascar. Some of the best known are:
Where can one see this bounty? The best places are the National Parks, Special Reserves and other protected areas, where local guides diligently keep track of the different creatures' whereabouts. The following is a listing of the major protected areas:
Main Parks and Reserves in the East: Analamazaotra, Mantadia, Masoala, Nosy Mangabe
Andasibe's Analamazaotra Special Reserve is famous as the home of the babakoto "indri" lemur ("indr(o)" means roughly "there it is" in Malagasy - a well-meaning guide for some early explorer must have spotted a babakoto, pointed and shouted ... and the rest is history). These largest of all living lemurs are monogamous, and do not live in captivity anywhere in the world. They greet the morning with a unique display of elaborate calls that echo throughout the forest. Several groups in the reserve have become highly habituated and are therefore relatively easy to see. The area also shelters gray bamboo lemurs and brown lemurs, as well as Parson's chameleons which can exceed half a meter in length, the Madagascar tree boa, and numerous birds including the Madagascar blue pigeon, the blue coua, the Nelicourvi weaver, The Madagascar paradise flycatcher, the blue vanga and the Madagascar buzzard. Nearby Mantadia National Park is quite similar if somewhat more forbidding.
Located in Madagascar's most biodiverse region, Masoala is the largest National Park of the island. Mammal species encountered include the red-ruffed lemur, the red-fronted brown lemur, the aye-aye, the greater hedgehog tenrec, the fossa, the fanaloka, the falanouc, and whales which visit Antongil Bay around the breeding season in the austral winter and spring. The park is also home to various species of brightly colored Mantella frogs, and all manner of extraordinary chameleons of all sizes. Masoala is also the refuge of the endangered Madagascar red owl and Madagascar serpent eagle, along with many, many endemic bird species. The flora includes the Masoala pitcher plant and the very rare ravimbe palm (Marojejya darianii, listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as one of the 12 most endangered living organisms in the world). Coral reefs teeming with life are protected in three adjacent marine parks. The peninsula also features many beautiful deserted sandy beaches. The name of the park derives from Masoala Cape at the tip of the peninsula, where navigating the treacherous straits requires good visibility ("maso" means eye and "oala" means haven or safe passage in the local Betsimisaraka vernacular).
Mangabe island was set aside as a Special Reserve in the early 60's, in part to protect the fascinating nocturnal aye-aye which had been introduced there. This is the best place in which to see the black and white ruffed lemur, as well as the white-fronted brown lemur. The rainforest which covers Nosy Mangabe also shelters, among others, the cryptic fringed Uroplatus gecko, the largest of the 10 species in this endemic genus. Some look like dead leaves, some mimic bark, and this remarkable ability to literally fade into the woodwork makes them a particular delight to spot.
Main Parks and Reserves in the Central Highlands: Ranomafana, Andringitra, Anja
The rugged topography of Ranomafana National Park owes much to the mighty Namorona river which bisects it. Habitats include lowland rainforest, marshes, and high-plateau and cloud forests. Ranomafana is home to the golden bamboo lemur (Hapalemur aureus) as well as the greater bamboo lemur and the grey bamboo lemur, the diademed sifaka, the red-fronted brown lemur, the red-bellied lemur, and the black and white ruffed lemur. Ranomafana's birds include the pitta-like ground roller, the rufous-headed ground roller, Pollen's vanga and the velvet asity. Reptiles include several leaf-tailed gecko species and some brightly colored Mantella frogs. The park is also home to the Helicophanta farafangana which, with a shell length of up to 4", is Madagascar's largest native land snail. In Malagasy "rano" means water and "mafana" means hot, and the park does feature hot mineral springs with possibly therapeutic thermal baths.
At the foot of Iandrambaky mountain range, Anja Communal Forest is a gallery forest sheltering numerous species of orchids, ficus, lianas, kalanchoe and pachypodia. It is also home to several species of chameleons and assorted reptiles, along with about 80 ring-tailed lemurs split among several clans.
Characterized by many remarkable granitic inselberg-like domes reminiscent of the famous outcroppings of California's Yosemite, Andringitra National Park is home to mount Imarivolanitra (a.k.a. "Pic Boby"), at 2658m the highest accessible mountain in Madagascar. The vegetation differs markedly between the eastern and western portions of the park, and is so varied that it contains a profusion of habitats and microhabitats hosting over 100 bird species, 57 amphibian species, 35 reptile species and 15 lemur species. Most significant of these is the ring-tailed lemur, which has adapted from its typical habitat in the lowland forests of southern Madagascar to a high mountain environment with abrupt climate changes and dominant succulent rock vegetation. Another remarkable feature are the altimontane prairies of the Andohariana plateau which, at 2000 m above sea level, are the only such prairies on the African continent and can be compared with the paramos and puna of the Andes in South America.
Main Parks and Reserves in the South: Isalo, Beza Mahafaly, Andohahela, Tsimanampetsotsa
Isalo National Park's eroded sandstone encompasses deep gorges with riparian palm-lined oases, fire-resistant tapia forests, abundant rupestral vegetation including aloes, pachypodia and euphorbia, and a rich fauna comprising maki (ring-tailed lemurs) and Verreaux's sifaka among the ten species of mammals, many species of chameleons, and a myriad of birds including Benson's rock-thrush.
Bezaha Mahafaly Special Reserve is located 35 km Northeast of Betioky. It includes a 100ha gallery forest just west of the Sakamena river, which is completely dry during the dry season. With the heavy January-to-March rains, the river often floods the surrounding plain. The forest is dominated by large tamarind trees and other endemic leguminous species. A larger area is colonized by species characteristic of the spiny forest, including Alluaudia procera (Didiereaceae) along with several members of the Euphorbiaceae and large specimens of Pachypodium geayi and P. rutenbergianum. The fauna includes four species of lemur, two diurnal (sifaka and ringtail) and two nocturnal (Lepilemur leucopus and Microcebus murinus). In addition, the forest hosts four species of tenrecs, including the rare large-eared Echinops telfairi, three species of carnivores (including the fossa), the radiated tortoise, chameleons, geckos, iguanid lizards, snakes and, seasonally, the crocodile. Noteworthy among the birds are the sickle billed vanga and the hoopoe.
The spiny thicket around Toliara is dominated by didieraceae species as well as the Adansonia rubrostipa baobab. Euphorbias also feature prominently in the spiny thicket. Waders and other aquatic birds are attracted to the beaches and mud flats, and include Archbold's newtonia, the long-tailed ground roller, Lafresnaye's vanga, the running coua, the banded kestrel and the Madagascar plover.
Located in the driest part of the island (receiving between 350 and 500 mm of rainfall annually), the lake at Tsimanampetsotsa National Park was classified as an exceptional habitat for aquatic fowl by the "RAMSAR" convention on wetlands of international significance. The dry season produces a unique grouping of grebes and pink flamingos. Water in the form of dew adds crucially to the local hydrological budget, limiting evapotranspiration. The lake is unique in that it is almost saturated with calcium sulfate, and therefore does not contain any fish. However, several caves in the park host the blind endemic Typhleotris madagascarensis. Birds include many unique species of couas and vangas. Among the mammals, aside from the ringtailed lemurs, most noteworthy is Grandidier's Mongoose, Galidictis grandidieri, described in 1986 and known only from Tsimanampetsotsa.
Andohahela National Park and the region around Tolagnaro (a.k.a. Ft Dauphin) are home to three different ecosystems: the southern spiny forest, the wet rainforest, and between them a transitional forest, each harboring different populations of lemurs (maki, sifaka, Microcebus and even aye-aye). Most notable among the flora is the endemic trihedral palm (Neodypsis decarii). Birds include the Madagascar hoopoe, the crested drongo, the crested coua, Verreaux's coua, the Madagascar coucal, and the white-faced whistling duck.
Main Parks and Reserves in the West: Bemaraha, Kirindy and Baobab Alley
The UNESCO World Heritage site of Bemaraha National Park is home to a vast field of fantastic tsingy ("mitsingy" literally means "to tiptoe") limestone formations of marine origin that date back to the mid-Jurassic (200 million years ago). The park also boasts eleven species of lemur including sifakas and red-fronted brown lemurs, more than ninety species of birds including the elusive fish eagle, chameleons, and over 350 plant species including baobabs, the showy Malagasy flamboyant (Delonix regia), and the only wild banana native to Madagascar, Musa perrieri.
The area of Kirindy and Andranomena (the newly merged and renamed "central Menabe" protected area) is characterized by numerous habitats and species of the West and Southwest of the island. In addition to the dry primary forest, the central Menabe also shelters a transition zone between the dense deciduous dry forest of the West and the arid spiny forest of the South. At least four diurnal species of lemurs are found there: the sifaka, the brown lemur, the red-fronted lemur and the ringtailed lemur. Notable among the rodents is the giant jumping rat. Other mammals include the elusive fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox) and the striped civet (Fossa fossana). Many birds and water fowl can be seen: Madagascar crested ibis, Madagascar sparrowhawk, Henst's goshawk, Sakalava weaver, Archbold's newtonia, Thamnornis warbler, Lantz's brush-warbler, Sickle-billed vanga, Giant coua, and egrets around the mangroves. The most remarkable trees are the three species of baobab: Adansonia grandidieri, A. za and A. rubrostipa. Note that during the dry season, a significant part of the local wildlife, especially reptiles and amphibians, are hibernating.
To the North and Northwest: Marojejy, Amber Mountain, Ankarana, Ampijoroa and the islands
Marojejy National Park protects the entire Marojejy massif. The forests, ranging from low-altitude rainforest to high-altitude montane scrub, harbor an impressive collection of plants and animals, including dozens of species of palms, ferns and epiphytes (as well as terrestrial orchids), reptiles, amphibians and lemurs, most notably the critically endangered "simpona" silky sifaka (and nearby Anjanaharibe-Atsimo Special Reserve is known for its "babakoto" indris). Marojejy also hosts an unquestionably rich avifauna, indeed more species of forest-dwelling birds are found there than in any other single mountain site in Madagascar. Most notable are the greater and lesser Vasa parrot, the gray-headed lovebird, the red-breasted coua, the brown emutail, the red-tailed newtonia, the Madagascar nightjar, Chabert's vanga, and the white-browed owl.
Montagne d'Ambre National Park comprises an extinct volcano and associated crater lakes. Rising to 1475 m above the surrounding dry savanna, this is one of the rainiest parts of Madagascar, receiving over 3500mm of precipitation annually, witness the picturesque waterfalls, and varied flora and fauna in the park. The upland rainforest on Montagne d'Ambre hosts Sanford's Brown lemur, the northern sportive lemur, the fork-marked sportive lemur, the northern ring-tailed mongoose, the Madagascar crested ibis, the pitta-like ground roller, the Madagascar magpie robin, the white-throated rail, the Montagne-d'Ambre rockthrush and the white-throated oxylabe. The gateway to Montagne d'Ambre, Joffreville (a.k.a. Ambohitra), was a hill station at the time of the colony, and affords lovely views of the coast below: on a clear day, one can see the Mozambique Channel to the West, Antsiranana/Diego-Suarez and the Emerald Sea to the North, and the Indian Ocean to the East.
Ankarana Special Reserve is home to another of Madagascar's extraordinary "tsingy" eroded limestone formations. It is also a sacred site for the Antankarana ancestors, and hosts the royal mast coronation ceremony of the quinquennial "Tsanga-tsaina" relic-washing festival. The reserve also boasts ten species of lemurs including Eulemur coronatus, as well as the aptly named Galidia elegans mongoose, and over ninety species of birds including the Vasa parrots.
Besides its splendid beaches, Nosy Be hosts a bona fide low-altitude rainforest sheltering two kinds of lemurs, the mongoose lemur and the dimorphic black lemur (the male is black) - though the latter is much more easily seen on the nearby idyllic island of Nosy Komba. The forest also contains many reptiles and amphibians including the panther chameleon and the tiny Brookesia minima, the Madagascar ground boa, and the orange-backed Mantella betsileo frog. Birds include the hook-billed vanga, the cuckoo roller, the Madagascar blue pigeon, the malachite kingfisher, the Malagasy kingfisher, and the Madagascar paradise flycatcher. The underwater sanctuary of tiny Nosy Tanikely nearby is a natural aquarium where colorful fish and turtles are protected by a coral reef featuring the black coral Antipathes dichotoma.
Water-logged Ankarafantsika National Park acts as the main reservoir for Madagascar's premier "rice bowl", the plain of Marovoay (literally "many crocodiles"). Ankarafantsika's plateaux are covered by dense deciduous dry forests and savannas. The plateaux are criss-crossed by swampy zones in shallow valleys. Several rivers have their springs in the park, and meander around small "islands" covered by raffia and pandanus. The lakes in Ankarafantsika are the last refuge of several endemic species of fish. The area, and particularly Ampijoroa Forest Station (the only part of Ankarafantsika that is open to human visitors), is also famous for its Coquerel's sifakas, birds and geckos, as well as the captive breeding programs for several endangered tortoise species: the Rere (Erymnochelys madagascariensis), the Angonoka (Geochelone yniphora) and the Kapidolo (Pyxis planicauda). The crocodiles of Ravelobe lake, which are best seen from July to December, are considered "ancestors" and venerated accordingly.
Madagascar's riches extend well beyond its nature and wildlife. Indeed, Malagasy culture is quite unique and reflects the dynamism and creativity of Malagasy people from all walks of life. The following is only a sample of the cultural diversity that awaits the interested visitor:
Antananarivo is one of the most picturesque capitals in the world, thanks to its relief and its history. Built like all fortresses on a hilltop, it spread to the neighboring knolls, invested the slopes and transformed the marshes below.
Passing in less than a century from the middle ages to modern times -- and from 50,000 inhabitants to nearly 2 million, it gives a disconcerting image of itself along the steep-sloped streets, endless straiways, traditional houses nestling one against another and offering their verandas to the setting sun.
For more information on Antananarivo, please click here.
Antsirabe and the Vakinankaratra
170 km from Antananarivo alopng the RN7, Antsirabe, the caital of Vakinankaratra, is a spa town surrounded by voclanic mountains which benefits from a particualrly vivifying climate.
The first spa estblishment was built in 1917 and it soon became the venue for people who wanted to take waters and who came from all over the country and even from neighboring islands. Antsirabe, which can be visited by rickshaw, offers the tranquility of a small European provincial town while maintaining its typically Malagasy touch which it unveils in markets and traditional quarters.
For more information on Antsirabe and the Vakinankaratra, please click here.
Antsiranana or Diego-Suarez
At the extreme North of the Great Island, Diego-Suarez is situated in an exceptional site, at the bottom of a real internal sea formed by the Bays of the French, of Thunder, of White Stones and by the Gallois cul-de-sac.
At either side of this "sea" and its Sugar Loaf, the two other seas, namely the Indian Ocean and the Mozambique Channel, meet. A cosmopolitan town, Diego-Suarez lives with the rythm of its shipyards, and along its straight streets lined with buildings sometimes with colonnades reigns a particular atmosphere which is not felt in any other town of Madagascar.
For more information on Antsiranana a.k.a. Diego-Suarez, please click here.
Fianarantsoa is often referred to as the twin sister of Antananarivo. Like the capital, it has its Lake Anosy, a railway line going to the east coast, hills and an Old City, the Tanana Ambony whose construction started in 1830.
This heritage is kept jealously undisturbed, inaccessible to cars, visiting it is a must with its long paved road, its stairways and labyrinth of small paths, its old houses with flowers at their balconies and sheen on their tiled roofs.
For more information on Fianarantsoa, please click here.
Mahajanga or "Majunga"
Mahajanga, the second port of Madagascar, settled at the mouth of the Betsiboka reddened by alluvial deposits. In this "City of Flowers" whose origin is lost in innumerable legends, indo-arabic influence left its imprints such as houses built in cube or finely carved doors.
The town adopted the lonely baobab standing out imposingly at a crossroads as its emblem, and lingering at the sea front long after the sun set on the Bay of Bombetoka has become a ritual. Mahajanga is also the route of dhows and their small port is feverishly busy at each arrival.
For more information on Mahajanga, please click here.
Morondava and the Menabe
The region of Morondava is referred to as Menabe ( very red) because of the lateritic sediments carried along by the rivers Mangoky and Manambolo.
It is here that settled in the 16th century one of the two most important Sakalava kingdoms and which was at its apogee a century later. The ancient sovereigns continue to be honoured during the Fitampoha or the ceremony of Bathing the Relics. The image of Morondava is linked with that of beam and square sail pirogues, as this part of the coastline is studded with Vezo villages who are also reputed for their hospitality.
For more information on Morondava and the Menabe, please click here.
Nosy Be owes its nickname of Island of Perfumes to the plantations of Ylang-Ylang and spices whose fragrance is permanently in the air, captivating tourists as soon as they set foot on the airport of Fascène.
Well serviced through its 200 km coastline, it boasts some of the most beautiful beaches of Madagascar, caressed by turquoise blue waters protected from heavy swell by the Mainland. Emerald green lakes occupy its craters whereas a myriad of heavenly islets ensure it an exceptional sea environment. And furthermore, Nosy Be is also a welcoming population and an hinterland to discover.
For more information on Nosy Be, please click here.
Stretching in length off Soanierana Ivongo, Sainte Marie benefits from a less rainy and a milder climate than what is prevailing along the east coast.
7 other islets with names evocative of far away seas are gathered in majority in the southern part of the main island. Yesterday the island of cloves, Sainte Marie is today the island of humpback whales. The latter do not hesitate to cover 5 000 km from Antarctica to gather in its waters from July to September. The Garden–island is also a sanctuary of nature with its primary forests and its riches in flowers, among which extremely rare orchid species.
For more information on Sainte Marie, please click here.
SAVA (Sambava - Antalaha - Vohemar - Andapa)
The vanilla "fragrants" which gave birth to the vanilla Bourbon was already cultivated in other countries before being introduced to Madagascar in 1870. The Great Island was already the first world producer in 1924 and it has remained so thanks to the region of SAVA in the north-east, which alone produces 1,000 tons of processed vanilla every year.
Photographers have got familiar with vanilla beans resting lazily on racks in the sun before further process. As for tourists, they are free to take 2 kg of vanilla in their luggage, taking with them a "more-than-fragrance" from SAVA, the greenest region of Madagascar.
For more information on the SAVA region, please click here.
Toamasina or Tamatave
Toamasina, first port of Madagascar, evokes many images to visitors, especially with its sudden downpours which can stop as quickly as they start. Because it continues to be one of the major ports of the country, the cosmopolitan city is also known for its colorful markets, inlcuding the Bazar-be and the Bazar-kely. The local cuisine incorporates a notable variety of seafood, fresh produce, and definite Chinese influences.
The exotic atmosphere of its Bazars, the "small" and above all the "big" market where it is good form for the visitor to arrive by rickshaw. The evening breeze at the seaside is best appreciated when the port lights start to flicker on. This is where the best Chinese soups of the island are served, and where the best coconut candy can be enjoyed. And the scents of spices wafting from the warehouses remind the visitor that Toamasina is for the country an essential trading post.
For more information on the Toamasina region, please click here.
Toliara or Tulear
At the terminus of RN7 between the rivers Onilahy and Fiherenana, Toliara is nearly mid-way between the villages of Andavadoaka to the north and Itampolo to the south.
Vezo beam pirogues, dhows and schooners, here is the land of a people living in absolute symbiosis with the sea. Here, one of the largest coral barriers in the world stretches on hundreds of kilometres, crossing the Tropique of Capricorne. But once you go inland, you will penetrate into another world, the Spiny Thicket. On the Mahafaly plateau, the "fantiholotse" reigns and prevails. Mystery of nature or adjustment to environment, all its branches are turned to the south ...
For more information on Toliara, please click here.
Taolagnaro or Fort Dauphin
The duality "resort-based and discovery tourism" which is the best asset of the Destination Madagascar is particularly obvious in Taolagnaro.
To an exceptional coastal indentation displaying strips of fine sand beaches, creeks plenty of fish and atmospheric conditions favourable to gliding sports is added a hinterland offering diversity with a luxuriant vegetation typical of the East of Madagascar and the semi-aridity and the Bush of its continental part. The town proper is buitl on a promontory, between two large and deep bays at the foot of Peak Saint Louis which overlooks a grandiose panorama.
For more information on Taolagnaro or Ft Dauphin, please click here.
Know Before You Go ...
Madagascar is primarily a cash-driven economy. Some high-end establishments catering to tourists accept credit cards, but most shops and restaurants are cash only. Although the government changed the currency from the Malagasy Franc (FMG) to the Ariary several years ago, many Malagasy still think in terms of FMG. When talking about prices, it is important to clarify whether the amounts specified are in Ariary or FMG (1 Ariary = 5 FMG). ATMs are available in large cities, including inside the international terminal at Antananarivo airport, to your left as you exit customs. Dollars are not widely accepted.
Health Information and Medical Facilities
Malaria is prevalent in Madagascar, particularly in the coastal regions. Using preventive measures and malaria prophylaxis is strongly recommended. There has been a rise in cases of Chikungunya and Dengue fever, both transmitted by mosquitoes. Visitors should try to avoid mosquito bites by covering up with clothing such as long sleeves and long pants, diligently using insect repellents on exposed skin during the day and in the evening, and, when necessary, sleeping under a mosquito net (typically already installed in the rooms in all high-end hotels in areas where it is recommended). Also note that all visitors whose passport indicates that they have been in a yellow-fever-infected zone within 6 months of their arrival in Madagascar, will need to show evidence of yellow fever immunization when entering the country.
In Antananarivo, one can find physicians representing a broad range of specialties, and there are several hospitals and clinics, though the standards of care vary greatly. Medical care outside of Antananarivo is difficult to come by, and generally well below international standards. Pharmacies mostly have medications of French origin -- if you need to refill a prescription from a US physician, it is therefore important to have it list the generic name of the medicine. Because of the limits on the availability of prescription and over-the-counter medications in Madagascar, travelers should carry a supply of any needed medication that is sufficient for the entire length of the visit before arriving in the country.
Tap water in Madagascar is not potable. Bottled water is readily available in Antananarivo and in most large towns, but it is generally not easy to find away from urban areas.
Customs authorities enforce strict requirements concerning the temporary importation of several items, including the following:
All foreign visitors to the Republic of Madagascar require an entry visa. The consular service at the Embassy,
There are two sheets to the visa application form.
Additional Requirements for Film, Private Aircraft, Cruise Ships, and Research