When I was young, I used to play the board game Risk and was always fascinated by islands like Madagascar that sat by themselves. Once, years ago in Florida, I was mesmerized by a baobab tree in a botanical garden, and that same day I saw a lemur in the zoo. At this moment, I felt like the universe was trying to tell me something.
I dug deeper, learned about the French colonial history, and that 95 percent of all trees and animals on the island are endemic. I also found it amazing that 50 percent of people on Madagascar followed animist belief systems. It looked topographically interesting. The people were said to be delightful and welcoming.
I dusted off my rudimentary French language abilities and made a plan.
The best way to travel from Seattle is Air France — connecting in Paris, and then straight into Madagascar’s capitol of Antananarivo. The direct flight to Paris is roughly 9 1/2 hours, and then another eight hours to Madagascar. Arriving at the Antananarivo airport is fairly straightforward. If you are using a tour-guide service (and there are plenty of options) that you have arranged in advance, they will meet you in the main terminal holding a sign with your name. I chose to take care of myself, which is quite doable.
Thirty-day tourist visas are available upon arrival and easy to obtain — make sure to have two passport-sized photos with you. It isn’t a bad idea to have a couple extras for tours you might take during your trip.
Money is simple to change in the airport terminal; I’m always a fan of only changing what you need at the airport as rates can be more favorable in hotels or on the street. The exchange rate at the time of this article is 3,520 Malagasy Ariary to 1 USD. Although I traveled independently, an amazing deal is to hire a driver and car, which is only about $60 per day, including petrol. If your French is decent, the driver can also function as a tour guide. There are English speakers along the way, but not as many when you leave the capitol.
In general, I found the country to be quite safe; just use common sense in crowded places or at night.
Air Madagascar has a good domestic flight network. It’s a surprisingly large country, so chances are you’ll be using a flight or two along with your driver. “Mora Mora” they say in the country, or “take it easy,” give it a chance and it will all work out. You’ll meet a wonderful assortment of people; it is theorized that a flotilla of boats came from Indonesia many years ago. You’ll meet lighter-skinned people in the highlands, experts in cultivating rice, and people of African descent all over the country, especially on the western coast facing Mozambique. There is a peaceful and welcoming Muslim minority, primarily in the north coastal region.
Whether you travel independently or on a package, lodging options are many. I encountered truly beautiful boutique hotels in the $100-$150 range, and simple, clean rooms for under $10 a night. There are many options in between and around $50 a night will often get you a very nice room. Food can be found in hotels, on the street and everywhere — delicious and affordable. Rice is a staple that can be found at most meals. Veggies and fruits are common and delicious; mangos and lychees are everywhere. Malagasy people love soups, especially in the often-cool highlands. “Zebu” is the cow in Madagascar, the beast of burden and meat common on the island. Chicken, seafood and pork are also very common. 50% of the world’s vanilla comes from Madagascar. Delicious fruit juices, good beer and locally produced rum are everywhere. Because of the lengthy French presence, tasty baguettes, cheese, espresso and even fine French food are available in many places in the country. You’ll find the cuisine a delight.
As far as health preparation, visit your local travel medicine clinic well before you travel; malaria medicine and proper coverage at dusk and dawn can help a lot. There are a number of shots like yellow fever that are important to have; a rabies vaccine probably isn’t a bad idea as well. Besides a little bit of indigestion one or two days on my trip, my health was pretty good my two trips there. It is important to filter your drinking water or drink bottled water. I’m a fan of filtering, so I don’t add more plastic to the world.
Be aware of temperature extremes when you pack; it can be quite hot in coastal regions, and surprisingly cold at high altitudes. Pack appropriately and protect yourself from the sun. The possibilities for travel in Madagascar are many; guides and private-car hires are available to stay with you for the whole trip or just portions of it. Many travelers I encountered were doing a combination of self and guided travel.
Enticing possibilities include: trekking in the amazing Marojejy National Park and vanilla producing region near Antalaha in the northeast of the country; visiting the majestic baobab trees on the west coast near Morondava; stunning beaches, islands, ylang ylang plantations and refined culture of Nosy Be in the north; the colorful rice-producing highlands; arts and crafts producing towns of Central Madagascar; the vibrant city of Tomasina; pirate history and great beaches of Ile Ste Marie Island in the east; the otherworldly geologic formations of Tsingy Rouge and Ankarana Park. Scientists believe that Madagascar separated from the African continent millions of years before animal life evolved, therefore the only animals floated or flew there. Interestingly, there are no large animals and no poisonous snakes on the island, which is great knowledge to have when trekking. I did experience leeches; tiger balm works great.
You’ll see lemurs and chameleons everywhere.
Ranomafana and Isalo National Parks are true standouts. Other great ideas include: floating the rivers in western Madagascar with a guide; visiting the friendly city of Antsiranana and French colonial ghost town — which is being revitalized — of Joffreville and excellent Montagne d’Ambre park nearby; having luxury at an ecolodge in Maroantsetra; and maybe even seeing the elusive and truly bizarre aye-aye lemur on nearby Nosy Mangabe. Visit a “turning of the bones” ceremony near Antsirabe, and visit and climb the striking rock formations of Andringitra National Park.
Lastly, do not miss the capitol city of Antananarivo for a few days before you leave the country. The markets are vibrant, the festivals fantastic, loads of haute French cuisine and great cappuccino are available in cafes, and do not miss the excellent music culture in the “cabarets” (bar/nightclubs with live music, fun dancing and friendly people). Whatever you decide to do, you will encounter unique customs and warm people.
Vince Decker is a Madison Park resident, husband, local realtor and addicted traveler. Follow his travels at travelblog.org/Bloggers/vinceinseattle.