Madagascar Travel Guide: Planning a Trip to Madagascar [EPIC Guide!]

I went to Madagascar in 2014 not really knowing what to expect except that I would find lemurs there. It’s a destination that’s not as widely covered on the Internet and I didn’t know anyone who’d actually visited the country. That made me even more excited to to visit somewhere off-the-beaten-path that hasn’t become overrun with tourists and jetsetting influencers.

One of the reasons Madagascar isn’t as visited by tourists is because it can be a fairly expensive place to get to and due to the infrastructure it’s not as easy to travel around. If you do go, the easiest way to get around is by booking a tour, which I’ll discuss in the guide. It’s the kind of destination that’s popular with middle aged travelers who have a bit more cash to spend and are happy staying in resorts and taking organized tours. The island is definitely not geared towards backpackers who stay in hostels.

I was fortunate enough to be invited there by Air France, who were looking to promote their flight routes to Madagascar from the UK via Paris. We flew into Antananarivo, took an internal flight to Morondava with Air Madagascar and then visited the Kirindy Reserve to spot dancing lemurs. We then flew back to Antananarivo to explore Andasibe National Park and the tropical rainforest Reserve of Analamazaotra. Aside from a terrible bout of food poisoning (which I actually got from the food at a high-end hotel and not from all the delicious street food I tried) I had a mostly wonderful time in Madagascar.

It was certainly not like the animated movie Madagascar, although I would advise you to watch it to get in the mood before your trip! However, we did see so many lemurs, including actual dancing ones! The beaches we saw were beautiful and the scenery at the Avenue of the Baobabs was like nothing I’d seen before. A lot of the trip centered around nature and wildlife, and of course, white sandy beaches.

What I wasn’t prepared for perhaps was the extent of poverty in Madagascar, particularly in Antananarivo. I’ll explain more as we get deeper into the guide but let’s just say, I wouldn’t advise walking around the city at night, even in a group.

Planning a trip to Madagascar takes a little more effort than most destinations but it’s still possible. Read on for more information about things to do in Madagascar, how to get there and how to get around.

What is Madagascar like?

Green landscape and rice fields in Madagascar

Located in the Indian Ocean around 400km off the coast of East Africa, the Republic of Madagascar is the world’s second largest island country. At 592,800 square kilometres the island is big and it’s difficult to get around, with very bumpy roads. Sadly, the country is ravaged by poverty and corruption.

It is, however, one of the most biodiverse places in the world due to the fact that the island split off from the Indian subcontinent around 88 million years ago. Most of the plants and animals evolved in isolation and today over 90% of Madagascar’s wildlife can be found nowhere else on Earth! Visiting Madagascar is like stepping into a David Attenborough documentary, with so many weird and wonderful creatures to meet.

Mini Frog on leaf in Madagascar

Although Madagascar is geographically close to Africa, its culture is quite unique. The country’s first settlers were Austronesian peoples, arriving from what is now Indonesia. They were later joined by Bantu migrants from East Africa who crossed the Mozambique Channel around the 9th century AD. Over the years other groups continued to migrate to Madagascar, each one contributing to the Malagasy culture that you see today.  

The island has a diverse and beautiful landscape; in the south you’ll find a dry desert landscape with baobab trees, while in the East you’ll find humid, tropical rainforests. The Central Highlands are characterized by terraced, rice-growing valleys lying between grassy hills and patches of subhumid forests.

Planning a trip to Madagascar: How to get there

Palm trees on beach in Betany, Morondava

In order to get to Madagascar you’ll need to fly there to either Antananarivo or Fascene. Antananarivo is the country’s capital and where you’ll most likely fly into. Most visitors are granted a 30-day visa on arrival when landing in the country.

I always check Kayak, Momondo and Google Flights when booking trips. Compare flight prices to see what works for you. 

Getting to Madagascar from the UK:

I flew to Madagascar with Air France from Manchester, via Paris. Air France flies to Antananarivo in Madagascar from 14 UK Airports, via Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport. Return fares start from £818, including taxes and fees.

Travel to Madagascar from the US:

Below you can see I did a random search on Google Flights for round-trip flights from New York to Antananarivo. In July the price would be $1,779 round trip with Delta/Air France (they are codeshare partners) and the journey takes around 20 hours. The flight has 1 stop at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. Cheapest fares I’ve seen from NYC to Antananarivo are about $1239 round-trip.

To travel from the US to Madagascar you’ll most likely fly Air France/Delta to get to Paris and then onwards to Antananarivo. If flights are too expensive, you could look at flying any budget airline to Paris and then booking a separate ticket on Air France from Paris to Antananarivo. French Bee for example offers very cheap flights from New York and San Francisco to Paris Orly, then you could spend a night in Paris and fly out of Charles de Gaulle.

You’ll also find a multitude of full-service airlines that fly direct from the U.S to Paris Charles de Gaulle, including United, American Airlines, British Airways, Iberia, Lufthansa and Finnair. If you’re flexible with dates and book in advance, you can snag a cheap flight to Paris for as low as $340 round-trip.

From Paris, round-trip fares to Antananarivo with Air France start at around $628 but can run much higher depending on the time of year.

If you’re a travel hacker like me, I’d recommend signing up for one of the the Delta Skymiles Credit Cards, which allows you to earn Delta miles every time you spend using the card at grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations and when you do your online shopping. If you use it for your everyday spending and use the Delta Skymiles shopping Chrome extension, you can earn even earn bonus points that can all be used to redeem for free flights (minus taxes). Since Delta partners with Air France, you could easily collect enough miles to fly to Madagascar from the U.S.

Getting around Madagascar

Street in Morondava - Madagascar

One of the most convenient ways to get around Madagascar is by taking a tour (I’ll discuss some options below), or alternatively, you could rent a car or hire a driver. Public transportation exists and is very cheap but it’s not very reliable so I wouldn’t really suggest that as an option. The public taxis called taxis brousse or taxi-be are small minivans that run a regular service but whether they stick to the timetable is another story. Often they only depart when they are completely crammed with people or sometimes they don’t even show up at all.

Driving in Madagascar

Madagascar is known for having a poor infrastructure with bumpy roads that have lots of potholes. It can take forever to get from A to B, even if the distance looks short on the map. However, things are improving and several of the major routes (RN2, RN7 for example) have a tarmac surface in reasonable shape. Once you get off the major routes, be prepared for narrow dirt roads that link the towns and villages together. Also keep in mind that roads can get flooded in rainy season due to the heavy rainfall. If you’re a fearless driver, you can rent a car to get you around the island – just remember if you’re from the UK, cars in Madagascar go on the right-hand side of the road. Carjacking though is an issue, so you’d need to be particularly careful, especially when driving at night.

Hiring a driver

If you don’t want to drive but you also don’t really enjoy the feeling of being herded around in a tour group, you can hire a driver. This is what most people do and often car rental companies will only give you a car that comes with a driver.

You’ll have the flexibility to stop where you want, when you want, but you won’t have to deal with the anxiety of driving in a foreign country. If you’re traveling in a group, hiring a driver can actually be a very cost effective way of doing things. You’d usually rent the car and the driver from a local tour operator and agree on a specific route.

Domestic flights

The other option for getting around is by flying. We flew Air Madagascar between Antananarivo and Morondava because the we only had a few days and the driving time is over 11 hours. Our outbound flight was on-time but the return flight was heavily delayed.

Be aware that domestic airlines often delay or cancel flights and flights are often around $250 one-way, so keep that in mind if you’re on a budget.

Best Madagascar Tours

Around 80% of tourists usually travel around Madagascar by organized tour. There are numerous companies you can book tours with but Intrepid Travel and G Adventures are probably the best known tour companies. Madagascar tour prices cost roughly between $2200 and $4950 depending on the length of your trip and include accommodation and meals, as well as activities and transportation.

Intrepid Travel

Intrepid Travel runs a variety of Madagascar tours including 11 day, 14 day and 24 day options.

As an example, their 14-day Madagascar Adventure Tour includes visits to:

  • Andasibe National Park
  • Antisrabe
  • Ambositra
  • Ranomafana
  • Fianarantsoa
  • Isalo National Park
  • Anakao

On the trip you’ll:

  • See how many species of lemur you can spot in Isalo, Anadsibe and Ranomafana national parks
  • Stay in a cottage deep within Ranomafana National Park, surrounded by lush flora and fauna
  • Learn about the important Malagasy process of silk production in Ambositra
  • Explore the sandstone formations, deep canyons, palm-lined oases and vast grasslands of Isalo National Park
  • Chill out at Anakao – an Indian Ocean beachside paradise surrounded by reefs
Sifaka Lemur in Kirindy Reserve

G Adventures

G Adventures runs two tours in Madagascar – “Highlights of Madagascar” and “Highlights of Madagascar – Plus”

Highlights of Madagascar is a 14 day trip starting and ending in Antananarivo. The tour includes visits to:

  • Antananarivo
  • Antsirabe
  • Ambatonikolahy
  • Ranomafana
  • Ambalavao
  • Isalo
  • Ifaty

Places to visit and things to do in Madagascar

Madagascar is a large island and therefore there are lots of different places to explore. It’s probably best to focus your itinerary on a couple of different regions as opposed to trying to do everything. Highlights include:

Avenue of the Baobabs

Avenue of the Baobabs is a famous spot where Baobabs are lined up along the roadside between Morondava and Belon’i Tsiribihina. This striking landscape makes for some incredible photos and looks particularly spectacular at sunset. It’s one of the most visited attractions in Madagascar and is a natural monument under conservation.. Baobab trees are endemic to Madagascar and have an unusual appearance, with wide trunks and compact broccoli-like crowns. The trees here date up to 2,800 years old.

Discover Morondava

Local market in Morondava Madagascar

Capital of the Menabe region of Madagascar, Morondava is visited by tourists as a base for exploring the Kirindy Reserve and Avenue of the Baobabs. While we were there we visited a local market where Malagasy people buy and sell vegetables, meat and other foods. We also visited a funerary art workshop, where craftsmen make figural sculptures that are placed with the deceased of the Sakalava people. Typically the figures are birds or representations of men and women who are often depicted undressed and erotically embracing.

Betany/Betania Fishing Village

Perhaps one of my favorite experiences of Madagascar was our visit to Betany fishing village, which is a short canoe ride across the water from Morondava. It was interesting to discover the way of life for Malagasy people living on the coast. People here were very friendly and we got to see their homes and the way they fish and live off the water.

Kirindy Reserve

Lemur in Kirindy Reserve Madagascar

The Kirindy Reserve is a dry, deciduous forest that shelters lemurs such as Brown lemurs and the Verreaux’s Sifaka. It’s also home to many species of reptiles and birds, as well as the fossa – Madagascar’s largest carnivore. Located on the west coast of Madagascar, this reserve is one of the best spots to see the Sifaka “dancing” lemur. The lemur jumps upright on two feet as it moves from tree to tree, making it look like it’s dancing.

Andasibe National Park

Most Madagascar tours include a visit to Andasibe National Park due to its close proximity to the capital of Antananarivo. This 55 square kilometre protected area features dense forest and lush vegetation such as moss and fern trees, as well as beautiful orchids that bloom between September and January. Tourists mainly come here to catch a glimpse of the Indri lemurs although the park is home to a diverse range of wildlife, including 15 species of mammals, over 100 species of birds and 50 species of reptiles, including chameleons and leaf-tailed geckos.

Meet Chameleons at the reserve of Peyreiras

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