Madagascar is a country and an island, the fourth largest island in the world, located 250 miles off the east coast of Africa. It was actually once part of the continent, but broke off millions of years ago, evolving in isolation. The result is a country full of weird and wonderful plants and animals found nowhere else on earth, in fact about 90% of all species in the country are endemic.
Many visitors come to Madagascar to see these unusual creatures. The main attraction is often the unique and beautiful lemurs – the smallest of all primates. There are over 100 species, with an incredible array of colors, shapes, and sizes, from the tiny 1oz. Aye-Aye to the 20 lb. Indri, some living solitary lives in the trees their entire lives, others seen “dancing” across the forest floor in large troops. They are well known for their unusual appearances and sounds, with very vocal social lives that allow them to communicate long distances – with screams, chirps, grunts and eerie songs that sound like whales in the forest.
The country also has stunning and diverse landscapes and scenery- lush rainforests, spiny forests, picture-perfect towering “upside-down” baobab trees, mountains, deserts, and more than 3,000 miles of coastline with pristine beaches surrounded by some of the world’s largest coral reef systems. Still off-the-beaten-path as a tourism destination, if you wander just a little, you will likely have this paradise all to yourself.
Another fascinating part of the country is the Malagasy people, a unique blend of South East Asian and African cultures. The traditions and rituals of the many ethnic groups are focused on their ancestors, and relationships with the dead are an essential part of life, with extraordinary ceremonies like the “turning of the bones”.
Madagascar is magical and mysterious, its isolation adrift in the Indian Ocean creating a “Lost World” that anyone who visits soon realizes is like nowhere else on earth. Because of the revenue and attention it brings to the country and conservation needs, it has been said that “tourism can save Madagascar” – its wildlife as well as human life, adding another reason to lure the adventurous traveller looking for something completely different.
Regions of Madagascar
Andasibe-Mantadia National Park
Andasibe-Mantadia National Park is Madagascar’s most popular reserve, and its most accessible, only a few hours drive from the capital of Antananarivo. There are two distinct sections – the smaller Perinet Special Reserve, and the larger Mantadia National Park. They are home to untouched, lush rainforests and a great diversity of wildlife, but are most well-known for the lemurs, especially the Indri, the largest of all the species, standing over 3 feet tall. There are also more than 100 species of birds, 80 reptiles, and an amazing 1000 orchid species.
But most people come for the lemurs. Perinet is one of the best places in the country to see the Indri because there are a couple of habituated groups here. Finding this very rare primate, with its adorable teddy-bear face, is almost a sure thing for visitors willing to walk a couple of miles on the park’s maintained trails.
In Mantadia the trails are slightly more difficult, but the reward is a wilder, more varied and less crowded forest than Perinet, and there is the additional benefit of a sacred waterfall and a natural pool where you can take a cool dip.
The journey to this region also offers visitors a glimpse of rural life, with rice fields, small houses and roadside stalls selling seasonal fruits and vegetables along the route. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you hear something “howling” in the distance – it’s the peculiar call of the Indri, an eerie sound that echoes from forest as far as 2 miles away.
Anjajavy is a private nature reserve set in a spectacular location on the northwest coast of Madagascar with pristine beaches, secluded bays and coves, mangrove and dry forests, and magnificent baobab trees.The reserve is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including lemurs, geckos, butterflies, chameleons, lizards, frogs, tortoises, many colorful bird species and nearly 2000 species of plants – for those interested in flora!
The uniqueness and beauty of the area can be seen as soon as you start your journey, soaring over the labyrinth of the mangrove swamps, red mountains, open plains fringed with forests, the soft white sands and warm, turquoise sea. The remoteness and spectacular scenery make traveling here well worth the effort.
Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital, is for most travelers, just a city with the international airport, to arrive in and leave from. With no wild lemurs, people are eager to head out as soon as they arrive, to see their first one. For those visitors do give it a chance, there are some nice places to explore, with beautiful colonial buildings, cathedrals, markets, craft shops, forts, and the remants of royal palaces, as well as a cool climate, unlike much of the country. It is also near several nature reserves, including Tsingy de Bemaraha, with its dramatic limestone spikes. The city also has a lively nightlife and some excellent restaurants.
Berenty Reserve, Fort Dauphin
Berenty, a private wildlife reserve located in southern Madagascar, is one of the most popular destinations in the country due to all the lemurs that can be found here, and how easy it is to find them. The reserve has a variety of habitats, including a forest of ancient tamarind trees, dry open scrub, and the surreal “spiny forest”, as well as other animal residents- a large colony of fruit bats, 103 bird species, as well as a variety of reptiles. But its main attraction is the ease of finding lemurs without having to walk very far, wait too long or work too hard. Unfortunately, because of all the visitors, the lemurs have become habituated to people, so it can feel more like a zoo than the wilderness.
Fort Dauphin is mainly a base for tourists visiting Berenty, or connecting with a flight as they head to other destinations, but it is charming, and in lovely setting among high mountains. The town is worth exploring, and has some interesting architecture, forts, and museums. There are also some nice excursions, to fishing villages, other nearby reserves and the beautiful Lokaro Bay with its stunning beaches, incredible scenery and great snorkeling.
Ifotaka Community Forest
Located in a remote area of southern Madagascar, the Ifotaka Community Forest is a very unusual park, not only for its very striking landscape and diverse wildlife, but it is also a sacred place protected and managed by the Antandroy Tribe. This is where they bury their dead, and it is believed the spirits of their ancestors remain peacefully among the trees.
There are 4 species of lemurs, a variety of birds, and many other creatures here, but what makes this this place so special is being able to meet and interact with the Antandroy, and learn about their spiritual relationship with nature.
Searching for wildlife in the otherworldly landscape of the prehistoric Spiny Forest, is a bit eerie…the landscape is strange, like another planet, and there are tombs everywhere. There are very few tourists, allowing those who enter this strange forest to have a very unusual and authentic experience off-the beaten path – a fascinating combination of amazing and memorable landscapes, wildlife, and culture.
Isalo National Park
Isalo National Park, one of the most popular on the island, is the creation of centuries of wind and rain, which have sculpted a dramatic landscape of deep gorges with tumbling waterfalls, wide canyons and giant sandstone twisted rock formations. At first, the scene looks more like the Wild West than Africa, until of course, you spot your first lemur , and then you know you can be nowhere else but Madagascar.
The park has some of the country’s most spectacular scenery, and, in a country with such unusual and incredible landscapes, that is saying a lot, and makes it well worth a visit. It is perfect for hiking, for a few hours, or a few days, followed by a cool dip in one of the many natural swimming holes. There are also caves and burial sites to explore. Although this is not a park for wildlife viewing, there are actually many animals here, but if you didn’t see a single animal during your entire visit, you would not be disappointed.
Situated in northeast Madagascar, the Masoala Peninsula contains the country’s largest (and wildest) rainforest, the largest number of species, and is the country’s largest protected area, (about 900 sq. miles). But there is much more to Masoala than its size. It has a spectacularly beautiful mixture of habitats, with lush green forests meeting the crystal-clear, azure sea, with pristine, unspoiled beaches and three marine parks with coral reefs.
The Peninsula is one of the most biodiverse places on earth, filled with a staggering variety of rare, endemic species- many of them more easily spotted here than in other parts of the country. There are 10 species of lemur, including the Red Ruffed Lemur, considered by many to be the most beautiful, the extremely rare Serpent Eagle and the nocturnal Aye-Aye, one of Madagascar’s most bizarre creatures, with its tiny body and giant eyes, a fascinating and unique primate for which the park was named (Masoala means “eyes of the forest”). There are also a many species of chameleons, geckos, frogs, 90 bird species, 130 butterfly species and 500 insect species.
In addition to wildlife viewing, Masoala offers great hiking and trekking opportunities, and its spectacular beaches are perfect for swimming and sunbathing. For the marine lovers, the reefs provide incredible snorkeling and scuba diving, with bountiful fish in a myriad of colors. There are also dolphins, turtles and even sea cows (dugongs), and, seasonally, humpback whales.
If the sea is too rough, head to the nearby island of Nosy Mangabe, part of the national park, a wonderful and more accessible alternative, with its own animals, waterfalls, beaches, hikes, and cultural sites, such as the ancient graves of the first inhabitants of the island.
Although Masaola is spectacular and unique, it is only accessible by boat, and is one of the must humid areas of Madagascar, with over 275 inches average rainfall per month. In fact it can rain every day of the year! But it is exactly these natural, extreme conditions which created the peninsula’s extremely high biodiversity and abundant fauna and flora, which it makes this park so attractive to visitors.
Located off Madagascar’s northwestern coast, the small island of Nosy Be is, first and foremost, a beach resort, one of the most popular destinations in the country. Opportunities do exist for viewing wildlife in lush rainforests, but most visitors come here for fun in the sun, content to do very little except relax on the idyllic beaches, go swimming or snorkeling in the calm, azure waters, and enjoy seafood feasts at oceanfront restaurants. For those looking for a little sightseeing, Hell-Ville is interesting to explore, a decaying colonial town and main port with beautiful restored colonial buildings and old cannons watching over the harbor, a promenade along the sea, and colorful markets. Sports and activities include phenomenal scuba diving on coral reefs, deep sea-fishing, jet-skiing, windsurfing, water-skiing, kayaking, horseback riding and golfing.
Despite its popularity, Nosy Be has remained refreshingly unspoiled and free of development, with many low-key beach bungalows rather than glitzy resorts. There are also many exquisite deserted beaches for those seeking to get away from it all in secluded sandy escapes lined by palm trees, as well as small islets to explore on day trips.
Come to Nosy Be and do nothing, everything or something in between, in perfect weather nearly all year long.