Madagascar is located in the Southern hemisphere, separated from Continental Africa by the Canal of Mozambique to the West and bordered by the Indian Ocean to the East. At 587,040 km², Madagascar is larger than France.
It is the fourth largest island in the world. Other islands in the vicinity include La Réunion, Mauritius, the Maldives and Comoros.
Madagascar is divided into six provinces, namely: Antananarivo (the capital), Fianarantsoa, Tulear, Majunga, Tamatave and Diego. Major places of interest include the economic and business hub of Antananarivo, the beaches and National Parks of the South, the mountains of the North and the coastal boat trips of the East.
Only Malagasy citizens can travel to Madagascar without a visa. All other nationalities are required to have a visa upon entering Madagascar. You will need a passport that is valid for at least the next 6 months. It is about EUR 40 for a one month tourist visa.
To view a list of Malagasy embassies around the world, as well as foreign embassies within Madagascar, visit madagascar-consulate.org.
July to September is the hot/dry season, and is the ideal time to travel to Madagascar. October to April is the rainy season, Madagascar's cool/wet season. The highest levels of rainfall occur from November to January. Temperatures in Madagascar remain relatively constant throughout the year, ranging from 18 to 27 degrees Celsius. The rainy season can make travelling on less than perfect roads even more difficult.
The currency unit is Ariary, denoted by the symbol Ar. Foreign currency can be exchanged at local banks and Bureaux de changes. Most major international credit cards such as Visa card, American Express, Mastercard, and Diners Club are accepted for most purchases. Current exchange rates can be found by visiting OANDA.com, The Currency Site.
There is a wide range of accommodation to choose from in Madagascar, from hotels and luxury lodges, to bed and breakfasts and camping sites. The accommodation standards may be lower overall than mainland Africa but they do not compromise on character, charm and atmosphere. Hotels are classified from 1-5 stars, with 5 stars being roughly equivalent to an international standard 3 star establishment with a few exceptions.
Most hotels would be concentrated around the capital and other major cities and towns. Outside of larger towns, the hotels are likely to be more rustic. As an alternative to a hotel, try a luxury lodge based near a game reserve to combine adventure with relaxation. For those on a budget, there are guest houses and bed and breakfasts or even camping grounds in National Parks, but make sure you are prepared as the equipment available may not be so sophisticated.
The official language of Antananarivo is Malagasy, which is spoken by 90 percent of the population. French and English are also spoken, mostly in larger cities and towns and popular tourist destinations.
Some handy Malagasy phrases for travellers to know include:
Hello: pronounced “Manao ahoana”
Good Bye: pronounced “Veloma”
Where: pronounced “Aiza”
Thank you: pronounced “Misaotra”
How much: pronounced “Ohatrinona”
Yes: pronounced “Eny”
No: pronounced “Tsia”
One: pronounced “Iray”
Two: pronounced “Roa”
Three: pronounced “Telo”
Madagascar is home to 18 million people. Almost 80% is Malagasy and 15% white. Just 20% of the population live in the cities, with 80% living a rural lifestyle. Madagascar has 18 ethnic groups, spread throughout the country.
Visitors should be careful to avoid cultural misunderstandings.
You should get permission before taking someone’s photo.
Do not speak too loudly or demonstrate irritation.
While enjoying local hospitality, try to ensure you retain a “foreigner distance”.
Many Malagasy people practice traditional religions, based on the ancestral cult. However, there are large Catholic and Protestant representations, with almost half of the people in Madagascar ascribing to one of these Christian denominations. Muslims represent 7% of the population and there are smaller groups of Buddhists and Taoists.
Madagascar's diversity is reflected in its plentiful colourful festivals. Alahmady Be opens the traditional Malagasy year, followed by the rice harvest (May) and Donia, a celebration of traditional music on Nosy Be resort island (May/June). The 'turning of the bones' (July-September) and 'cleansing of the relics' (September-November) ceremonies fill out the calendar.
Alongside the old traditions are the Catholic spiritual calendar - Easter, Assumption (August 15th), All Saints Day (November 1st) and of course, Christmas - and the calendar of political milestones: the 1947 uprising against French rule (March 27th), Independence Day (June 26th), with the Republic's Anniversary on New Year's Eve bringing in the New Year.
There are a range of activities to enjoy in Madagascar, from exploring the history of the cities to marvelling at the National Parks and forests to relaxing or engaging in some water sports at the coast.
You will not want to miss the chance to learn about Madagascar’s dramatic royal history and admire the majestic architecture at the Queen's Palace in Antananarivo, as it surveys the capital from its highest point. For more historical attractions, explore the palaces of former capital, Ambohimanga, which is perhaps the most sacred site in all Madagascar. This UNESCO World Heritage Site comprises more than a dozen impressive stone gates, the king’s house and various elegant royal summerhouses.
Wildlife Tours through National Parks are essential to observe the extraordinary endemic plant and animal species of Madagascar. The most accessible is the rainforest reserve of Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, close to the capital and a rewarding experience, as the host of the indri, the largest of all living lemurs. Their haunting song, similar to whale song, carries for miles across the forest.
The Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve is one of the largest at 152,000 hectares, and is located in the northern sector of the Anstingy region. The reserve is home to rare birds and the infamous lemur, and features tranquil lakes, mangrove swamps and untouched forests.
One of Madagascar’s must-see sights is the natural avenue of imposing Grandidier’s baobabs which is located around 45 minutes from Morondava, on the dusty track to the Kirindy Reserve. Baobab Alley is best visited around sunrise or sunset when the softer lighting brings out the red tones of the tree trunks and provides a splendid photo opportunity.
Water sports enthusiasts will want to try diving or snorkelling in the major centres like Nosy Bé. Nosy Tanikely, a small island close by, is a marine reserve with exceptional snorkelling. Nosy Boraha on the East Coast offers visitors the not-to-be-missed opportunity for whale watching from June to the end of September. Humpback whales migrate in large groups annually from the Antarctic to the sheltered waters where they calve, nurse their young and engage in their amazing courtship rituals.
There are various entertainment options in the capital and other cities. In Antananarivo you can enjoy live music at the Hôtel Le Glacier, which is a slightly disreputable bar that features cabaret, bands and traditional music performances every night of the week. The bar is always full and the atmosphere is lively. The Café de la Gare is a stylish venue in the capital that holds regular live music sessions and themed nights, and events are free.
The Centre Culturel Albert Camus is Antananarivo’s leading cultural venue that hosts superb concerts, theatre events, dance performances, art exhibitions and film screenings almost daily. In Antsiranana you will find the Alliance Française, a magnificently restored art deco–style building, which was formerly the Grande Bazaar, and hosts regular art exhibitions as well as film screenings, concerts and shows.
Health and Safety
You should always seek medical advice before travelling and ensure you have the appropriate vaccinations. Malaria is a risk, therefore, taking a course of anti-malarial tablets is advised as well as using repellent. Vaccines against tuberculosis and hepatitis B are sometimes recommended and a yellow fever vaccination certificate is required if you are travelling from an affected area. Bilharzia is common but it can be avoided by not swimming and paddling in fresh water and only in clean, well-chlorinated swimming pools.
There are several hospitals and healthcare centres throughout the island, and basic healthcare is free, however services can sometimes be lacking, certainly in rural areas. There is private healthcare available, but there is no emergency ambulance service by road, although there is a private air ambulance available. You should ensure you have adequate medical insurance before you travel.
Visitors should avoid drinking tap water and sterilise or boil water used for brushing teeth or making ice. Dairy products are best avoided as milk is unpasteurised, but powdered or tinned milk is available. Always check food is well cooked, especially meat and fish.
Travellers should take the usual precautions when abroad in an unfamiliar environment and should take taxis rather than walking at night. Use your common sense and do not draw attention to cameras, video equipment, jewellery or money, and keep valuables in hotel/lodge safes when possible.
Services and Utilities
The country code to dial into Antananarivo from overseas is 261, followed by the area code (Antananarivo is 20 22 and Antsirabe 20 44). Cellular phone codes begin with either 33 or 32.
Phone calls can be made at the telecom offices. Phone cards are sold in different denominations, and range from EUR 1.50 TO EUR 30.
Internet cafes are readily available in the major centres, and they offer quite reasonable rates.
Madagascar runs off a 127/220 Volt, 50 Hz system. Two types of sockets are used, with both the two round pin European style and South African/Indian two round pins above a larger circular grounding pin in usage.
The markets known as Zomas are the best places to go shopping and seek out souvenirs or gifts. The largest and most well-known are found in the capital, Antananarivo, but most towns and cities throughout the island will have its own zoma.
Fianarantsoa and Antsirabe offer some of the best arts and crafts, and you can find a range of items from embroidered tablecloths, silk scarves, raffia handicrafts and wooden sculptures to toys created from recycled tin cans, zebu-horn jewellery, and polished gems and minerals and more. Bargaining in the markets can be fun and you can visit government stores to get an idea of prices beforehand.