Top 10 Places to Visit in Madagascar
By Philip Briggs | Updated August 27, 2021
Madagascar is unique. You might not realize it if you book a seaside holiday to one of the postcard-perfect beaches that adorn its 6,000-mile coastline. But venture inland to any of the country’s 50-odd national parks, and you’ll quickly realise that this vastest of Indian Ocean islands – almost 10 times larger than its nearest rival Sri Lanka – is truly a land apart.
Madagascar’s biodiversity has been shaped by its isolation from other landmasses. Situated 250 miles east of Africa, from which it was set adrift by tectonic activity 160 million years ago, the island comes across as a natural evolutionary lab whose ancient genetic stock has been supplemented only by the occasional vagrant which flapped, blew or sailed across from afar.
An astonishing 800 vertebrate species are unique to Madagascar. This includes 100 species of lemur, all thought to descend from a stowaway pair of primates that crossed from Africa on floating vegetation 30 million years ago. A checklist of 290 bird species includes 105 endemics, and the island is home to more than half the world’s chameleon species.
Madagascar isn’t the smoothest of travel destinations. Distances are great, roads are poor, domestic flights tend to be unreliable, English is less widely spoken than French, and accommodation can be erratic. That said, if you’re an active wildlife enthusiast who places experiential travel above creature comforts, then the world’s strangest island is a true bucket-list destination. Here are a few hotspots that warrant inclusion on your itinerary.
Most international flights land at Ivato International Airport, a short drive north of the tongue-twisting capital Antananarivo. This highland city has been the political hub of the Imerina Kingdom since the early 17th century, and it is dotted with precolonial edifices such as Queen Ranavalona I’s palace, which dates to the 1830s. More intriguing still is the Rova Ambohimanga, an out-of-town UNESCO World Heritage Site graced by several royal residences and tombs, notably King Andrianampoinimerina’s Palace, built in the traditional wooden style in 1788.
Andasibe-Mantadia National Park
If you visit only one national park in Madagascar, Andasibe-Mantadia should probably be it. In addition to being relatively accessible (it’s less than half a day’s drive east of Antananarivo), this is the best place to see the world’s largest and most charismatic lemur, the Critically Endangered indri. This adorable stump-tailed panda lookalike most often reveals its presence by emitting an eerie far-carrying call that conjures up images of a whale trying to impersonate a rusty hinge. Night walks on the main road through the park offer an opportunity to see several types of chameleon and some of the 100+ endemic frog species recorded in the vicinity.
Ranamofana National Park
One of Madagascar’s most accessible and well-equipped national parks, Ranamofana forms a good alternative to Andasibe-Mantadia for those driving south from Antananarivo. Its rainforest-swathed hills are home to 12 lemur and 115 bird species, and guided forest hikes can be supplemented by kayak excursions on the Ranamofana River.
Mandrare River Valley
The otherworldly spiny forest (or, if you prefer, spiny desert) of the Mandrare River Valley is dominated by succulents adapted to the arid climate. This includes the mighty octopus trees of the genus Alluaudia, which grow up to 20m high and totter haphazardly above the canopy like a forest of misshapen rugby posts. Serviced by a pair of upmarket lodges, Mandrare offers fabulous dry-country birdwatching, and Verreaux’s sifaka and ring-tailed lemur are both common.
The chilly highlands of the southeast escarpment are home to the Zafimaniry people, whose traditional carpentry is the only Malagasy inclusion on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. The Zafimaniry build their houses entirely from timber, and decorate them with geometric patterns that reflect an ancient Indonesian heritage as well as more recent Arab influences. The ideal way to explore the mist-swept Pays Zafimaniry is on foot, spending up to five days hiking between villages and sleeping in traditional homesteads.
Rising from the shallow waters off northwest Madagascar, this lovely tropical islet functions as a self-standing tourist destination complete with its own international airport. The main attraction of Nosy Be is its gorgeous beaches, and the characterful old town of Hell-Ville (named, rather deflatingly, after Admiral de Hell, a former French Governor of Réunion). There’s plenty here to amuse active travellers: explore the crater lakes on volcanic Mont Passot, hike into the forests of Lokobe Nature Reserve, play with habituated black lemurs on the islet of Nosy Komba, or snorkel and dive on the fringing coral reefs.
Amber Mountain National Park
Madagascar’s oldest national park protects a 4,845ft volcano whose forested slopes are scattered with crater lakes and traversed by several day trails. A lizard-lovers paradise, the slopes supports nine unique chameleon species (among them an inch-long leaf-litter dweller listed as the world’s smallest reptile prior to 2005, when a tinier species was discovered on a nearby offshore island). This is a good place to see leaf-tailed geckos, masters of disguise whose elaborately mottled scaling, enhanced by subtle colour changes, provides an almost perfect camouflage against mossy tree bark. Lemurs and birds are plentiful, and the fossa, the island’s largest carnivore, is sometimes encountered.
Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the surreal tsingy ‘stone forest’ of Bemaraha is a black karstic formation of limestone pinnacles and labyrinthine valleys that stretches almost 100 kilometres from north to south. It supports a diverse succulent flora, lemurs such as the handsome Von der Decken’s sifaka, and a bird checklist that includes 72 national endemics. Although Bemaraha is the most impressive of Madagascar’s tsingy formations, it is very remote, so those with time restraints might prefer to aim for Ankarana Special Reserve, which supports several smaller tsingy outcrops only a day’s drive from Nosy Be.
Allée des Baobabs
This much-photographed natural landmark consists of some two dozen Grandidier’s baobabs, some of which stand 30m tall and are thought to be 800 years old. Aim to be here at dusk, when the bulbous trunks glow orange-brown in the golden light, before making a striking silhouette against the setting sun.