I took a life-changing 2 month volunteer trip with IVHQ to Madagascar. Since then, I’ve gotten loads of questions about the people, getting around, and just generally: “What’s it like?!” Well first, yes there’s an abundance of lemurs and chameleons but no I did not see a fossa… you know, the mongoose-like predator to the lemurs from the movie Madagascar?
Anyways, it was one of the most challenging adventures I’ve ever had the privilege of being on and worth every sleepless bus ride. If you’re finding you’d like to make a getaway to this extremely lush, biodiverse island (90% of its wildlife is found nowhere else on Earth) off the Southeastern coast of Africa, read up friends because it’s going to be a bumpy, rewarding ride.
Here are my Essential Travel Tips for Madagascar
MOST KNOWN FOR: The Lemur (over 100 species and solely indigenous to Madagascar), the creepy Aye-aye, Baobab trees, smallest known chameleon species in the world, and the traveler’s palm tree.
LANGUAGES: French, Malagasy, & some English
CURRENCY: Ariary. Do NOT bring money to transfer. You will be able to take Ariary out of an ATM when you arrive and that is your BEST bet. Exchanging currency there will be rare/expensive and IF anyone accepts another countries currency, you will lose on the exchange.
DON’T FORGET TO PACK… : A LOT of hand/baby wipes, head/flash light, laundry soap, external battery/power source, bug net, pocket knife, sunscreen, first-aid kit, hot sauce, and plenty of patience!
TRANSPORTATION: International flights primarily go to the capital, Antananarivo [pronounced an-tuh-nan-uh-ree-voh], however you can catch one to the remote island of Nosy-Be. Flying directly to Nosy-Be can be a very expensive but by far more convenient option; however, if you’re up for a challenge try taking a taxi-brusse. WARNING: this may be overwhelming to say the least because the bus port is very chaotic and anything can happen on the drive, and I mean anything.
Most brusses… Let’s stop and define a brusse – imagine a large work van with 5-6 rows of seats, your knees touching the seat in front of you, your legs touching the stranger next to you, and occasionally an extra passenger sitting on your lap (for HOURS). Your luggage is strapped to the roof under a tarp next to the occasional Zebu flank and air conditioning is the window if you’re lucky enough to have that seat. Like I was saying, most brusses break down at least once or get a flat tire from enduring the massive potholes. Remember when I said Madagascar travel was going to be a bumpy ride? I meant it. The driver leaves when the brusse is full, takes his time, and occassionally runs errands along the way.
Drives can take anywhere from 16 to 36 hours depending on the weather and what happens along the way. You never really know where you are or how much longer the trip will be because every town begins with the letters “An” but you get to see the country and it makes for a hardcore adventure and story!
In the larger cities, taxis, tuk-tuks, and your feet are your modes of transport. In the north, catch a speed boat from the mainland to the larger islands (Nosy-Be) and slow taxi-boats or even a pirogue between smaller islands. Boats start around 6am and the last one sails at about 3pm, but won’t make trips after that due to rough waters. Pricing depends but bargaining is widely accepted if you speak some French.
Note: Boats and brusses usually depart when they’re full, so you’ll probably have to wait a while after your negotiations.
Highlights Not to Miss
NOSY-BE : Yes, the island of Nosy-Be is the most touristic, but that does NOT mean there is a shortage of a casual island vibe. This just means there’s electricity, some occasional wi-fi, cafes, and a few really chill bars. I resided on Nosy Komba, but when I spent a weekend on Nosy-Be, it was in Hellville at the moderate Belleview Hotel or homey Sakalava. Both are centrally located in the city, have wi-fi, a cafe inside or next door, and various room categories ranging from a basic one bed with no bathroom to a “suite” with a shower and toilet. Don’t expect air-conditioning unless you’re at a fancy 5 star joint – start getting used to floor-stand fans before you go.
See my Madagascar Photo Diary here
NOSY KOMBA : Ampangorina, the main town on Nosy Komba, is a great little day getaway from Nosy Be. Just a 45 minute taxi-boat ride from Hellville, you can spend the day picking out your favorite handmade table cloth, playing with the local children from the school our company taught at, letting the indigenous black lemur make you its jungle gym (only if you bring them a banana or two!… or ten), or sipping a Caipirinha at the picturesque Macky Lodge Restaurant.
TANIKELI : Snorkeling & diving & snorkeling & diving. Recently made a National Reserve, arriving by boat is the only means of access. Boats now have a “parking lot” instead of being able to anchor where they please in order to preserve the coral. Also, there is a 10,000ar fee for diving, snorkeling, or lounging on land; but let me tell you, it is worth it. The water is crystal clear and the abundance of marine life is unlike any I’ve seen elsewhere. Turtles, rays, barracuda, and almost a hundred species of fish make this an incredible diving or snorkeling destination.
ANKARANA NATIONAL PARK : Take a taxi-brusse to Ankarana National Park (roughly 3 hours north of the Nosy Be area). There are only a handful of lodgings to choose from but I suggest checking if they have electricity or a private bathroom before committing. You must have a guide to enter the actual park and you can find them hanging out across the street at one of the only restaurants in the area. Here, you will see about 5 different species of lemur, the Pigmy & giant chameleon, and towering Baobab trees. The Tsingy (limestone) rock forest, bat cave, and suspended bridge are the top stops along your hike, so make sure you have plenty of water in your pack and memory space on your camera!
Other Noteworthy Stops
AVENUE OF BOABABS : This iconic string of indigenous Boabab trees lines the road between Morondava and Belon’i Tsiribihina in the Menabe region in western Madagascar. This is one spot I didn’t manage to visit but still hold it high on my list of must-sees if you have the means.
RESERVE SPECIALE DE BEZA-MAHAFALY : A national park further south great for spotting the famous Ring-tailed Lemur!