We travelled Madagascar for four weeks in November 2016. We found that the Lonely Planet 8th edition published that same year lacks a lot of essential information which is why I have collected some of our experience in this post. In order to be self-contained the post contains information that is found in the guide book, too.
Setting the Itinerary
Lonely Planet describes many of the beautiful places there are in Madagascar. What it does not make very clear is that in most of them there is exactly one thing to do. A good example are the Tsingy de Bemaraha. It takes a minimum of two days to get there from Tana, and it is a spectacular place indeed but the thing to do there is to see the Tsingy – and little more. The tour of the Grand Tsingy takes about 4 hours (and is not remotely as strenuous as described in LP). Visiting the Petite Tsingy is about 2 hours and that’s pretty much it. You can take a pirogue on the river for two hours to see some caves (though you’ll enter only about 30 m) but then there is no more to do or see. Don’t get me wrong, it is worth to go there, also it can be combined with the Allee des Baobab and the Special Reserve Kirindy, but we extended our itinerary as we went because we found ourselves with nothing more to see after a day or two. To give an idea, these are the places we visited In four weeks
- Tana (3 days with one day to see Ambohimanga (blue hill) and Ilafy + 1 extra day at the end as a safety margin)
- Tsingy de Bemaraha (2 days)
- Allee des Baobab (twice in passing to/from the Tsingy)
- Kirindy Forest Reserve (night and morning walk)
- Antsirabe (2 days) (*)
- Ranomafana National Park (3 days) (*)
- Fianarantsoa (1 day) (*)
- Nosy Mangabe and Masoala National Park (4 days)
- RN5: Maroantsetra – Tamatave (3 days)
- Association Mitsinjo and National Park Andasibe Mantadia (night and day walk) (*)
Marked with a star are those places we added during the trip.
Retrieving Money from ATMs
While you cannot retrieve more than 400,000 Ar (or 300,000 depending on the bank) in one transaction, it is possible to retrieve many times in a row. We found this to be a better deal than exchanging money at the bank as we got a significantly better rate. It is still advisable to carry cash for exchanging as ATMs might be out of order or simply none to be found.
Visiting National Parks and Private Associations
At the time of our visit, night walks were forbidden in all national parks. Private reserves and associations do offer night walks though, and it is a good addition to your programme (and more or less the only chance to see nocturnal wild life). From what a guide told us, night walks became forbidden after tourists tried to steal animals (leaf-tailed geckos). However, this might also be a myth.
Visiting associations is a good idea in any case, as they seem to fulfil an important task in educating local people on the importance of conservation (and how it is/can be to their benefit).
Travelling by Road
Transportation in Madagascar is a pain in the butt – quite literally. Also, it is painstakingly slow. Both are due to the very poor state of the roads so prepare for long hours of butt ache. Many roads are tarred but with time potholes appeared and those get washed out constantly becoming deeper and bigger all the time. As a rule of thumb travelling 100 km takes about 3-5 hours in our experience.
The most common way of transport are Taxi Brousse. These are mini vans which travel back and forth between cities/towns. The vans are old, very beaten up and have no working suspension to speak of. As a general rule, a Taxi Brousse is never full. One more person (and a few chicken or ducks) can always be squeezed in. Travelling by Taxi Brousse is the cheapest and THE authentic way of travelling in Madagascar.
Taxi Brousse seem to run on basically on every road there is. There are however differences which are not easy to make out. If you take a Taxi Brousse from a lost village you’re currently staying at, you don’t have another choice than waiting by the side of the road and take whatever car comes along. However, if you are in a city with a Gare Routier (Bus station) make sure to look/ask for a Sprinter (don’t take the name literally though). For sprinter vans reservations are made beforehand, and they stop less or not at all along the route. If you have the chance make sure to make your reservation the day before. Otherwise, be at the station very early (no later than 6 am, better before).
The most reliable, fastest and most comfortable public transport option is Cotisse. This is a rather new company that has terminals in the major cities. They operate new mini busses and do not stop along the route to pick up further passengers. There is one noteworthy exception to this. On our way back from Tamatave to Tana, we stopped at Andasibe to visit the national park there. Cotisse covers Tamatave — Tana. We bought a ticket in Tamatave and arranged that they would pick us up by the road next to Andasibe the day after. You need to pay the whole trip though. See below for more information on Andasibe. While travelling with Cotisse is comfy, it is also the least authentic option. Your fellow travellers are mostly tourists, wealthy Madagascans or foreign businessmen.
A last option to mention is a private car. Cars are typically offroad 4×4’s, and they are rented exclusively with a driver. This is not a bad practise given the state of the roads (and the probability that the car will need repair at some point). Private cars are expensive, the price varies with how difficult the road is. We rented a car in Morondava by the west coast to go north to the Tsingy de Bemaraha which costed us 210.000 Ar (~60 USD ATTOW) per day (everything included i.e. driver, gas, accommodation and food for the driver). However, the price per day to go southwards to Belo-sur-Mer would have been 300.000 Ar (~90 USD). Going down the RN5 from Maroantsetra to Soanierana-Ivongo was an incredible ~830.000 Ar per day (2.5 million Ar for the trip). Follow-up below regarding information on travelling the RN5.
From our experience as a traveller you have to make a choice between travelling cheap but (very) slow or fast(er) and pay (distinctively) more. Please leave a comment below if you found a fast and cheap option.
Travelling by Air – Air Madagascar
Air Madagascar offers a number of domestic connections. Be aware though that the airline is VERY unreliable. Flights are frequently cancelled, rerouted, delayed or (worse) moved to an earlier time. Make sure to enquire the day before whether the time of your flight has changed. Our flight from Tana to Maroantsetra was moved from 3 pm to 6 am in the late afternoon of the day before the flight (and then it got cancelled and rescheduled for the following day).
In particular, do not rely on Air Madagascar to catch your return flight. Even one week delay is not unusual, as many connections are served on a weekly schedule only.
Information on Places We Visited
Tsingy de Bemaraha
One of the many important pieces of information Lonely Planet fails to include is that the Tsingy cannot be visited all year. While you’ll find in the book that the best time is April to October, there is no mention that towards mid November all lodges (and along with these the office of the national park) shut down. This is reasonable as during the rainy season it will often not be possible to reach the Grande Tsingy (though visiting the Petite Tsingy would be possible). We had to change our itinerary to go to the west first, which came along with having to rebook a domestic flight because there was no mention of this in LP.
In Bekopaka, the base to visit the Tsingy, we stayed at the Tanankoay lodge, which I can recommend. (I cannot say anything about the other places there, they might be just fine as well.)
According to LP
Travellers will no doubt find the city’s energy infectious, and its wealth of sightseeing, activity and eating options appealing.
Personally, I wonder what the authors are talking about. While it is worth visiting Antsirabe for a day if you are travelling through anyways, I expected something very different from this description. There is in fact not much to see. Yes, there are quite some colonial style buildings but I personally did not find it that appealing. There are just a few places to eat and not much to do. Visiting a few artisan workshops is a good option. Don’t plan more than one day for a visit.
Ranomafana National Park
What we planned to do there was an overnight hike to spend a night in the forest. Unfortunately, this was not possible as our visit coincided with the national parks 25th anniversary going along with many visitors. All camping material was already rented. However, a prime reason for us to do an overnight hike was to see the primary forest. Other travellers had told us that this is not possible to reach that far in a single day. It turned out however, that it is indeed very well possible. Within two to three hours of swift walking you can reach the primary forest from the park entrance.
Generally, animals are much easier to spotted in the secondary forest. However, the primary forest is very worthwhile to see with all of its amazingly large trees and very dense vegetation. Take some extra precaution as there are many more leeches in there.
Our guide in the national park was called Adrien, and we can highly recommend him. He speaks very good english and french and is highly knowledgable in the fields of ornithology, primates, insects and flora. Also, he worked with a very good spotter, a second guy that literally runs ahead to try to find animals. Very importantly, Adrien is also very nice guy who enjoys his work. It is great to see your guide having fun observing jumping lemurs after many years of working as a guide. One day he found an injured chameleon on the path. He was very sorry for the little guy. He carefully picked it up, caressed it and placed it on a twig. It’s was great to see how much he is into the wildlife guiding role.
When we told him that we are not sure whether we will arrive on time to Fianarantsoa the day after in order to make a reservation for a sprinter to Tana, without further ado he made some phone calls and arranged it for us. If you want to arrange your visit to the park beforehand, I can recommend to contact Adrien by mail.
If you’re spending a day/night in Fianarantsoa make sure to stay in the Haute Ville (Upper Town). The restorations mentioned in LP appeared to be completed when we there (and I’m rather sure they were already finished by the time the book was published). It is really a charming place. You won’t need more than a day or an afternoon to see it though.
Masoala National Park
Masoala is a spectacular place. It is Madagascar’s largest remaining stretch of (primary) rain forest, and it reaches right down to the sea. It also worth visiting Nosy Mangabe for one day (and night).
You’ll reach it from Maroantsetra by means of a two hour boat ride. Masoala also used to be spectacularly expensive to visit as lodges charge about 500 USD per day and person. However, since about three years ago there is a fifth lodge in operation called the Hippocampe lodge (under the same ownership as Hippocampe Guesthouse in Maroantsetra). At this perfectly fine lodge we paid 50,000 Ar (~15 USD) per person per day. All meals were included and of outstanding quality.
In order continue with LP bashing, there is no mention of the Hippocampe lodge despite it being operational for about three years. Also, LP calls Masoala a hiker’s paradise. I don’t quite understand how they come to this conclusion. Walks to see wildlife are not different from other parks. You’ll follow trails through the park but guides will also take you a short distance of the trail if there is a good spotting opportunity. Masoala actually seemed to have fewer trails than other parks. These paths are perfectly fine for the purpose of doing wildlife walks but don’t expect great hiking. An exception could be a hike along the entire coastline of the Masoala peninsula which apparently takes about two weeks. From what we have seen, I’m critical though that it is good use of your time in Madagascar. You’ll walk by the coast or right on the beach and while it’s beautiful, it also won’t change much. Also, wildlife spotting chances by the coast are poor. You’ll have to enter the park (and walk away from the coast) to see animals.
We got to know about the Hippocampe lodge through Lauriot Andrianantenaina who works at the Masoala National Park office. We contacted him by mail and he was a huge help. He organized everything starting with the transport from the airport to Maroantsetra, the boat to get to Nosy Mangabe and Masoala, the lodge, the guide (who was called Claudio – another warm recommendation!) and even our return trip down the RN5 (see below). When Air Madagascar delayed our flight by a day, we wrote him a message and he took care of shifting everything by a day – at no extra cost. Another thing that I really liked is that he send a detailed list of prices for the boat, the lodge, and so on instead of just giving a total. Contact him by mail or phone (+261 32 801 8910) if you need help with the organization or simply have some questions. He speaks very good english.
Finally, if we had two weeks to spend in Masoala now, I’d probably visit Nosy Mangabe for a day with an overnight stay, then spend about three days in a lodge in the Tampolo area. After that I’d return to Maroantsetra and walk across the peninsula to Antalaha which takes about four days, from there travel northwards to Sambava to visit the Marojejy National Park and fly back from Sambava to Tana. Note that we have not done this, and I can’t tell for sure whether it’s viable within two weeks.
EDIT May 11st, 2017: Lauriot Andrianantenaina, the guide mentioned above, launched a webpage. Please find it here: VisitMasoala! (https://visitmasoalablog.wordpress.com)
Getting there and away
You can reach Maroantsetra by air, sea and land – and all of them have their difficulties.
Air Madagascar flies Tana – Maroantsetra. At least when we were there it was a weekly connection (Wednesdays). Scroll to the top to read more about Air Madagascar. Do not rely on them if you have time restriction, e.g., to catch your return flight home.
Boats go from Soanierana – Ivongo and Ile St.-Marie to Maroantsetra. We have not taken a boat. What we heard is that there is one boat a week and that also this option gets cancelled on a regular basis due to the weather conditions or because the boat needs repair. Again, do not rely on this for your return trip. Apparently, you can rent a speed boat from/to Maroantsetra but I assume that it is rather costly.
We opted for returning with a private 4WD down the RN5 as we considered this to be the most reliable option and also a great experience (after all it is #3 of LP’s Top 10). Be aware that cars are rented only with a driver (you’ll be very happy about this once you see the road). Concerning reliability, be aware that any significant rain will get you stranded. The road is really bad. It is not dangerous, it’s just a dirt road in extremely bad condition. In some places the track is washed out so deep that the car entirely ‘disappears’ in it. The first leg to Mananara (about 100 km) took 10 hours. On the second day, the first 25 km took five hours! We got off the car and walked large pieces to avoid the merciless shaking in the car – it was also faster. To reach Soanierana – Ivongo takes about 2,5 days.
Be aware that for the remaining part to Tamatave the road is good (for malagasy standards). Taxi Brousse go regularly. In fact it seems that private cars leave you in Soanierana – Ivongo and return. At least ours did so. In this regard, if you decide for this option arrange to go to Soanierana – Ivongo only.
Now, regarding travelling the RN5, while the landscape is beautiful, after a few hours it becomes very hard to enjoy since we spend most of time clinging on to the handles in order to avoid hitting our head against the roof or window (and that is no exaggeration). Crossing the numerous rivers is fun though (and not only because it gives you the chance to be outside the car). I won’t tell to much, but one ferry was a raft made of some tied up bamboo sticks which we pulled to the other side by a rope spanning the river.
If we’d go down the RN5 again, I think we would rent Taxi Motos. These are pretty decent motocross bikes. If you’re carrying a big backpack, you’ll probably need a second one to carry your backpack. Apparently, they do the whole trip in eight hours. Given the road condition it’s probably good to do it in two days though with a stop over at Mananara. This will also give you the opportunity to visit Aye-Aye Island (note that the excursions leave at 4.30 pm).
If you visit any of the parks around Andasibe, make sure to also visit the Parc Mitsinjo, a private reserve run by an association. The association engages in educating locals in conservation issues. The seem to do a good job in educating their guides, which then work, e.g. in schools on days with few tourists.
On a side note, we experienced the staff and particularly the owner of the Hotel Feon’ ny Ala to be very unfriendly. We decided to have lunch before leaving for Tana on the opposite side of the road at Marie Lodge. The food was much better and the staff very friendly (though I don’t want to generalise from the experience of a single visit).
Feel free to send me a message if you have questions, leave a comment if you want to add your own experience and consider donating by clicking the Flattr button below if you this information has helped you.
EDIT May 21st, 2017: After carrying a satellite phone on all our travels of the last years, I started a little business renting them out. Please find it at RentASatphone.ch.