Madagascar may be the definition of exotic destinations. Located in the south Indian Ocean, this island is home to thousands of endemic animal and plant species found no where else in the world. (FYI: 90% to be exact and little known fact, not even the Amazon in South America can compare with the diversity of life found in Madagascar.) This is truly a place unlike anything else. Naturally, this became a dream destination for me to visit next to Easter Island which I managed to check off my travel list back in October of 2017. (Read that post here.) It is also why I chose to visit Africa all together.
As one can imagine It’s not an easy place to visit and not a cheap place to get to with a one way ticket from South Africa at around $600 USD. It’s perhaps one of the reasons there is such little tourism here. (Tip: If flying from the United States, apparently flights from D.C round trip can be found for around $900 USD and flights from France, Italy and Germany can cost about the same price as a flight from Africa.) The peak travel season runs from May through October with May and June being the months that my driver would call the sweet spot for traveling here. About 300,000 – 400,000 people visit a year with most of this number coming from France and now more Americans making their way to the island. Roads and general infrastructure here is some of the worst in the world. The main highways are equivalent to side streets in most other countries, filled with potholes and people walking their zebu-carts (hump back cows). Sounds a lot like the roads during my road trip in Guatemala but to my relief not nearly as bad. Read here for background on those treacherous Guatemalan roads.
Given the shortage of tourists you can go a whole day without seeing a single foreigner. (FYI: I saw a total of 127 foreigners during my whole 10 day trip. And yes, I decided to make a game of this and count them.) Beaches are isolated, restaurants are empty, and national parks are spacious. So for a traveler like myself who has been in an array of places, this sounds like the ultimate visit making the price of the ticket only a small price to pay for a one of a kind experience. A big plus is that once you are here food is cheap, drinks are cheap and accommodations can be as well.
After saying all this, one would be shocked to discover that in Namibia I sent these messages which followed with a very mental and emotional breakdown for me.
The first in my Girl Takes Mundo trip or ever in terms of traveling. I’m talking balling on a FaceTime video chat & hanging up on a WhatsApp call because I was breaking down in tears. (FYI: I don’t typically like to cry so for tears to happen to little ole me, well you know it’s serious.) I felt defeated that I was talking about canceling my Madagascar trip as this was not only my dream destination but the only reason I had decided to include the southern part of Africa in my trip at all. I knew Madagascar would be a different beast in terms of traveling and given how Cape Town had tested my solo female traveler skills I felt figuratively weak and more vulnerable. I seemed to have every excuse in the book during my calls which included the excuses below (all verbatim to what I said that day.)
- “I don’t feel right, I’ve never had fears of traveling by myself.”
- “I will be more alone since tourist are less.”
- “I don’t want to go to Madagascar, feel like I had an awful time, it’s supposed to be this dream destination for me.”
- “Am I forcing my dream destination because I’m here, because it’s what I told myself I have to do, am I forcing this to happen because I want it off my list.”
- “I already know my malaria medicine gets me sick, do I really want to be sick in a third world country where I would have to be flown out of the country for treatment?”
- “I speak rubbish French and English isn’t common in Madagascar.”
- “I struggled in Cape Town feeling safe, I’ve heard it can be unsafe in Madagascar too.”
- “I researched tours and they are way out of my budget.”
- “I want to do my dream destination right. I don’t think I’m presently in the right state of mind to do it.”
All to say that this post almost never happened. I ended the calls making the difficult decision that my dream destination would have to wait and that sadly I would be skipping Madagascar during my Girl Takes Mundo Trip. Truthfully, while I was sad, it was the first time that day that I finally felt like a weight was lifted off me and I could breath.
Fast forward 2 days later and I’m not sure what it was but I woke up with a different state of mind. I was thinking more clear headed and decided that I could make my dream destination happen and cut some of my concerns by just sucking it up and adjusting my Girl Takes Mundo budget. I would hire a driver for my 10 day trip who would act as a travel companion, security and country navigator. Aka, the biggest concerns I had.
I publicly want to thank my 2 superheroes whose identities I’ve decided will not be revealed because that’s rule number 1 for a proper superhero. They came to the rescue the moment I sent those messages and one even brought in back up support from their own A-team. They listened, they advised, they never judged, and most importantly they reminded me that while I’m traveling solo in this amazing world, I am not doing this alone. (Disclaimer: I opted not to go to my family as I knew this would worry them even more about me traveling and could possibly affect how they would be able to support me in my state. Instead I went to the second closest thing to family, my second family.)
And so on the morning of Friday, March 9th, I embarked on my dream destination, Madagascar. I can now ecstatically say, “I did it, I did it.”
You can do it too! See all you need to know about making this destination a reality for you too. Have any other questions about Madagascar? Contact me here and I’ll be more than happy to help. (It’s our duty as travelers after all.)
- Proof of having had the yellow fever vaccine will be required if you have been to a country with yellow fever within 6 months or traveling from a country with yellow fever. Check here to make sure.
- Taking Malaria medicine is a MUST in Madagascar. (Consult with your doctor which one is the right for you.) To reduce the side effects of the pills ensure you take with food, drink plenty of water while on the medicine and put on a lot of sunscreen. Learn more about malaria medicine options here.
Keep in mind that the official languages spoken here is French and Malagasy with English rarely being an option outside of the touristy spots where you will find 1 – 2 people who may speak English such as hotels, national parks and more “high end” restaurants. With that said, ensure you download the offline French language pack from the Google Translate app before coming to Madagascar to ensure you can communicate with people here. It will make your trip less stressful even for me who has 4 years of French language education.
Mora mora life = Slow slow life (moto for how Malagasy people live their lives)
Salama, Salam or Salamo = Way to say hello, good morning or good afternoon
Matsiro – Delicious
Misaotra – Thank you
Sipa – Boyfriend/girlfriend
Joba – Girlfriend
Veloma – Bye bye
Tonga soa eto – Welcome to
Koba – Rice banana mixture wrapped in plantain leaves
Ombo – Zebu (hump back cow)
Vaza- Caucasian tourist (apparently I fall under this name as everyone outside of Asian and black get coined like this.)
I’m fascinated by the Malagasy people; their lives, stories and day to day. You see them in their villages, on the side of the roads and in the markets. How they live off the land and resources around them. You can’t help but want to know them better and they want to know you too. Tourist after all don’t come by often.
During my time in Madagascar, my tour guide’s family welcomed me to their home for Sunday lunch in Morondava and in Ranomafana where my driver is from he invited me to have a traditional Malagasy breakfast in his home with his adorable daughter as beautiful wife. It was an amazing experience for me to spend time with locals and eat like a local. Both times his family was very thoughtful to consider my dietary restrictions and adjusted in order to accommodate to me which I thought was very sweet.
Additionally, many of the Malagasy people I encountered thought I was Malagasy due to my features and apparently my similarities to the Malagasy people of some parts of Madagascar (FYI: Malagasy people are a mixture of African and Asian due to their geographical location.) My driver would comically see as they would begin speaking to me in Malagasy and I would begin to look like a deer in headlights hoping he would save me as I spoke my rubbish French saying I didn’t speak Malagasy and that I was Guatemalan.
- Beginning in 2018 you do need a visa to enter Madagascar but DO NOT need to get a visa before arrival as you can buy a visa upon arrival. See image below for costs based on length of stay.
- Entrances to national parks cost around $68,336 Ariary ($22.15 USD).
- You are required to have a guide with you to visit the national parks and can be hired for the day outside of the parks at about $38,000 – $68,336 Ariary ($12.30 – $22.15 USD). When my driver, Mamifeno isn’t doing driving tours he is a certified guide in Ranomafana. A big plus for me as this park was on the top of my list of places to visit. Additionally the guide will bring a “spotter” who is someone who goes ahead of the guide and yourself to find lemurs in order to save time on the tour. They will call the guide once they spot them and tell them their location. It’s a brilliant idea if you tell me.
- In a local hotel/restaurant, you can ask them to write down the price if you don’t get it. Make sure that they write the Malagasy Ariary price and not the Malagasy Franc price. For information, the Malagasy Franc is five time more expensive than the Ariary but you pay with the same banknote. So ensure you ask if the price they gave you is in FMG or Ariary. If it is given in FMG divide by 5 to get the Ariary price.
- $400,000 Ariary ($131.00 USD) is the max you can take out of ATM’s but you can do it multiple times based off your banks daily limits. Additionally the max note dispensed is $10,000 Ariary ($3.28 USD) which means you will have a lot of bank notes when you pull cash from an ATM.
- Major cities will all have ATM’s so need not worry about not finding a machine while you travel.
Mamy Tours – In order to feel secure while traveling through Madagascar as a solo female and making the most of my dream destination, I hired Mamifeno as my Madagascar guide/driver. My
10 day tour included the car, gas, $38,000 Ariary ($12.30 USD) simple and clean accommodations, entrances to national parks, guides in national parks, English speaking guide aka Mamifeno and transfers to and from the airport. Big plus, his tours are customizable based on your needs and he truly does go the extra mile for you. See and request your quote here. (Tip: Come to Madagascar with Euros to pay for your tour as this is easier for Mamy and ultimately easier and safer for yourself as well since you won’t have to be seen taking out so much cash from the ATM.)
Taxi brousse – If hiring a driver is really out of your budget, locals travel in Madagascar via mini-vans. These mini-vans don’t look comfortable at all as they cram around 15 people inside, lug your things on top of the roof of the van and have no A/C. When you consider that trips from one location to the other with a car in Madagascar is a minimum of 3 hours, 12 hours on the high end and most average around 6-7 hours, a taxi brousse seems like death but a budget is a budget and I understand that far too well. Rides will cost around $30,000 to 40,000 Ariary ($9.63 – $12.84 USD) depending on the company. Word in these Madagascar streets is that companies like VATSI, Kofi Manga, Transport Co. or Kofifi are more formal taxi brousse companies which are now beginning to cater toward the tourist rider offering options like premium vans and confirmed seats to some of the bigger destinations in Madagascar. Only catch, you have to call them to book your travel but thankfully I hear they do have English operators.
Traveling alone on taxi-brousse? “Try to sit in the cab, but not next to the driver; if possible sit with another woman; if in the main body of the vehicle, establish contact with an older person, man or woman, who will then tend to look after you.” – A peace corps female member.
Taxi – For traveling within “Tana”, the capital, there will be many taxis. They’re beige with a TAXI sign on the roof.
Renting A Car – Renting a vehicle for your trip could be an option but personally I feel this should be considered if you are an experienced 4×4 wheel driver and know French should anything happen on the road. Rental companies like Hertz and Avis do operate in Madagascar.
Places I Stayed
Accommodations can range from camping to hotels and cost between $0 to $6.15 USD for camping, $12.30 USD for a simple and clean double occupancy room and $31 USD for higher star hotels*. (*Keep in mind that “hotels” here are NOT to be compared to hotels in more tourist cities and countries. Need not forget we are still in non tourist Madagascar after all.)
See the following pictures and the list of accommodations I stayed at during my trip. These all fell at $38,000 Ariary ($12.30 USD) a night and were included in my tour.
- Antsirabe Hotel, my favorite hotel during all my stay in Madagascar.
- Hotel Menabe, spacious room with a large balcony and tub to match.
- Ihary Hotel, cute cabins with a great view but rubbish WiFi if you want to stay connected with the outside world. It is only available in their restaurant and “conveniently” only available when meals are to be had. They will drop a menu at the table you are sitting at while you are using the WiFi and moments later come and ask what you would like to order. Additionally, without a courtesy warning they will cut off the WiFi when they decide its time to close the restaurant. (While the cabins were great, their WiFi tactics definitely didn’t leave me with a good impression of this place.)
- Marie Guesthouse, certainly fell way under the $12.30 accommodation I was promised. The staff is nice and maybe I was too nice so I agreed to stay here as this was only for one night after all but their towels were dirty, water in the sink came out light yellow and hardly any water came out of the shower which resulted in a cat-style shower for me. All to say, DON’T stay here even though the staff is seriously the sweetest.
- Hotel Restaurant Les Cygnes, definitely an improvement from my last accommodation and a perfect place to stay before your flight as depending on traffic only a 10 minute drive to the airport. (A cab which can be ordered by the hotel will cost you $15,000 Ariary or $4.81 USD.)
Where & What To Eat
If you want to taste local Malagasy cuisine a dish will cost around $1.23 to $3.70 USD consisting of a protein, rice, soup and drink. (I admittedly never tried the drink.) For a meal at a restaurant with options like Italian, European and French expect to pay $6.15 – $12.30 USD. And if you’re vegetarian need not worry as there will be something for you.
See what local food means in the pictures below.
Tip: Try their pineapple if you like pineapple. I can’t rave enough about how sweet and juicy it was here. Hands down, the best I’ve ever had. Also, the fruit called, “Pok Pok” is good too. It’s like an orange sour grape which is supposed to help against cancer. I picked some of it up along the road and had it turned into a juice in one of the hotels I stayed while I was in Madagascar. Delicious!
Where I Went
My trip was a total of 10 days and my itinerary included the following cities. Keep in mind that driving for long hours in Madagascar is inevitable and some days of your trip will consist of just driving but seeing the various scenery, passing through the villages and seeing the locals was a big highlight for me and what made my driving days extra special. (You could opt for flying everywhere but this comes at a very hefty price tag.)
- Antannarivo – Commonly referred to as “Tana” is the capital city of Madagascar and where all international flights fly through. It’s top highlights include the Antananarivo palace, it’s wooden houses, royal tombs and the heart-shaped Lake Anosy.
- Andasibe National Park – 3 hours away from “Tana”. Lodging can be found right outside the park which is home to the large indri lemur. The park’s rich biodiversity includes native species like the big Parson’s chameleon, rare orchids and ferns. Trails go through forests, lakes and the Sacred Waterfall. (FYI: While I stayed in Andasibe I had to cancel my trail hike since the effects of Cyclone Eliakim were really felt here with multiple power outages and heavy rain the night I was there which didn’t make it safe to venture into the forest.)
- Antsirabe – Central highlands of Madagascar. It’s a popular spa town known for its thermal springs and a central base for cutting long driving journeys.
- Ranomafana National Park – Expect the trip here to take about 7 hours from Antsirabe. It’s part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Rainforests of the Atsinanana.
- Morondava – Is about an 8 to 12 hour drive, depending on if you are taking a car, taxi or bus from Antsirabe. It is a long drive through the dry lands of Madagascar but no trip is complete without seeing Madagascar’s west coast and relaxing on the beach. Head to Kimmony Beach outside of the city for a truly untouched drive to the beach and a beach to match.
- Avenue of the Baobabs – 15 min drive from Morondava and the place to go for the perfect Madagascar sunset.
So to the 127 tourist I crossed paths with…I’m glad you did it too. And to all my fellow travelers, I need to see more of you here. I did it & you can do it too!