We are planning to go to Madagascar for 30 days at the end of May and I made a list of the places I would like to see. Once I looked at the map it appears that we would need 4 internal flights (for 2 people) which begins to stretch our budge as it will cost about EUR 2000
Can you please tell me what do you think of these locations and give me any ideas how to combine in order to avoid long car rides or skip some that are not that worth/are duplicated or how to manage to keep the cost lower. The locations are (grouped as much as possible)
Atsinanana park rainforest
andasibe-mantadia national park
Isalo National Park
park national des tsingy de Bemaraha
Ankarafantsika National Park
mahavavy-kinkony wetland complex
baie de baly national park
alee des boababs
les trois baies
Amber Mountain National Park
Also if you can recommend an English speaking driver and a car would be of great help.
Any feedback would be appreciated
Lastly, I suggested earlier on that you might consider trimming your itinerary.
Now I am going to contradict myself by suggesting that you add a destination.
I see no beach time in your proposed itinerary, and to overlook Madagascar's spectacular coastline and marine life would be such a shame.
The first is Nosy Be, which I've already mentioned in the context of the 'northern' route. However, this is admittedly the most touristy part of Madagascar, which might be why you have avoided it. Personally I like it, but then we decided to splurge and hired a crewed catamaran to cruise the islands, which was indescribably wonderful (and worth the hefty expense)
By far the more attractive option is to go to Ile Sainte-Marie, off the east coast. It's a short flight from Tana, and an idyllic place to spend a few days. The marine life - particularly off Île aux Nattes (a small island to the south of Ile Sainte-Marie, and directly across the channel from the airport) is extraordinary, and it's a place where you can kick back and enjoy the exquisite surroundings.
Ile St-Marie has a fascinating history, as the pirates that were kicked out of the Caribbean relocated here to predate on the Batavian fleet travelling between modern day Indonesia and Holland. As testament to this colourful history, it has an atmospheric pirate graveyard which includes the grave of a rare female pirate (as an extra frisson of excitement, to get to the graveyard, you have to walk along planks through the fringing mangroves). In season, the humpback whales migrate past the island, and we had some hair raisingly close encounters of the best kind (as well as fabulous whale spotting of mothers and calves from the beach).
I would highly recommend
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The next issue is your 'wish list' of places to visit.
Clearly you've done your research and have identified a great selection of places that you'd like to see. However, like most of us, you've probably been a little too ambitious in your planning, and I think that you will struggle to fit all of this into 30 days, even if you take internal flights.
We have yet to visit the west of the island, so I can't provide any guidance on destinations such as Allée des baobabs, Kirindy Village, Ankarafantsika Nature Reserve and Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park. Hopefully others will be able to share their knowledge on these, but the one comment I would offer is that when we've researched these to try and incorporate them into our itineraries, we have been told that travelling in the west of the country can be EVEN slower than elsewhere in Mad.
Perhaps another option you might bear in mind is that if you visit the north, then you can see both white and red tsingy. I have never been to Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, but we did see very impressive white tsingy in Ankarana Reserve. How the two compare, I don't know, but it looked pretty impressive to me
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The next obvious grouping on your 'wish list' is the cluster on the northern tip of the island.
The obvious point of entry is to fly into Antsiranana (almost universally known by the old colonial name of Diego Suarez). It's an interesting town with enough attractions to keep you occupied for a day or so, and is also a good place to reprovision. Its major attraction is its location on a stupendous bay whose deep water access has given it immense strategic importance from early colonial times until the present. In fact, it's so big that you don't really realise that it's a bay at all, and the fact that such an immense area of water is connected to the Indian Ocean by an opening only a few hundred metres across is mindblowing.
From Diego Suarez, Amber Mountain National Park is an easy drive of an hour or so on a good tar road. It is a lovely, accessible park, and its higher altitude is a welcome relief from Diego, which can get oppressively hot and humid. The rainforest habitat is home to a terrific range of wildlife, and again, the guides are pretty good. The highlight here for us were the miniscule brookesia chameleons, which we found by digging gently in the fallen needles at the base of some pine trees. To give you an idea of scale, the photo is of my 9 year old son's hand.
I am a bit ambivalent about
Oh yes, there's also a fairly homespun bust of Pope John Paul II in the airport car park, commemorating his visit, should you be interested. Personally, I would be more interested in the Allied war graves from World War II in the nearby cemetery.
One word of warning with Amber Mountain - it is well and truly (and quite justifiably) on the cruise ship itinerary for land excursions. This is not just because it's near Diego - which has become a staple on the Indian Ocean cruise circuit - but also because the topography is fairly subdued, so the paths are accessible to most with reasonable mobility. So try and time your visit so that you don't coincide with a boatload of cruise passengers.
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Keeping up??? :)
Travelling westwards along the north coast from Antsiranana, you'll head towards the stark, needle-sharp tsingy of Ankarana Reserve, which I'd highly recommend. The other attraction is that you can also visit some red tsingy en route, which is located about 45 minutes off the main road between Amber Mountain and Ankarana. I am a geologist by background, so I will try to refrain from enthusiastic technical discussions of the difference between white and red tsingy. Suffice to say that they are both tropical forms of rock weathering, but the white tsingy forms in a limestone environment, whereas red tsingy forms due to weathering of laterite (an iron oxide). But I digress ...
The red tsingy is very impressive (as I hope the photo shows), but fairly limited in extent. It also does not support the same range of wildlife as the white tsingy, but is still well worth the detour.
One of the drawbacks once you've got this far is that there is no real land-based alternative but to drive back the same way to Diego. To address this challenge, we drove further west and caught a ferry to Nosy-Be, from where we then flew back to Tana. This would allow you some beach time and the opportunity to explore the archipelago, but as you are probably aware, this is by far the most touristy part of Madagascar (albeit beautiful). .
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The last section of your 'wish list' deals with the south west of the island.
This region is very much a mixed bag. On one hand, the Isalo National Park is spectacular, and I so wish that we'd been able to spent more days there hiking through the spellbinding landscape. The massif rears up unexpectedly from the flat tedium of the surrounding plain, and is crosscut by streams and waterfall plunge pools in which you can swim as a relief from the heat - we were there in December, and as I recall, I had five swims in a single day!
The wildlife is amazing and very varied, between the dry, exposed flat plateau sections and the lush forest of the deep, incised gullies (which is where the lemurs hang out). Culturally it is also significant, as the cliffs host burial sites where the coffins are simply lodged on a ledge (and sometimes later removed and reused). I really cannot recommend it highly enough as one of those places that is so utterly unique that it is truly incomparable
The best choice of accommodation is in nearby Ranohira, which is where you'll also pick up a guide - we had a particularly good one, who even came equipped with surgical gloves so that he could gently catch and handle and release the poisonous 'blue jeans' frog. However, if you want to splurge, there is no better place to do it than at the Relais de la Reine, which is a veritable oasis in the midst of the dryness, and the last word in luxury.
By contrast, Ilakaka is - to be blunt - a foetid hole, and somewhere that I would actively avoid (or at least accelerate through). It's a boom town that has established due to a sapphire discovery, and the area around the town has been decimated by artisanal miners, reducing it to a wasteland. As is the case with this sort of town, it's also not particularly safe, and the place where I've felt least safe in Madagascar (which is usually a fairly peaceable place). Just in case you're tempted to visit in search of a 'bargain' sapphire, it is virtually impossible for anyone other than a trained gemologist to tell the difference between a sapphire and blue glass (of which there is a good deal in circulation).
The problem with Isalo is that it's a very long way from anywhere. You can either do as we did, and drive down from Tana (which allows you to take in lovely Ranomafana, and is both a pretty and interesting drive until you drop down onto the flat plain after Ambalavao), or you can fly into Toliara and drive inland.
I didn't much like Toliara or the surrounding area (including Anakao, which, despite the publicity about a beach paradise, was the most disappointing place we've visited in Madagascar) and we boycotted the shell market because we have an ethical problem with collecting rare and endangered species. However, the notable exception is the Arboretum d'Antsokay, which is absolutely spectacular, and worth a visit to Toliara just by itself - give yourself at least half a day, and ideally stay at the on site accommodation (we didn't get to do this, but really wished we had - the goat's cheese salad and baobab juice lunch was the best meal we had in Madagascar). If you are interested in natural history, I would also strongly recommend seeking out the tiny and chronically underfunded museum of ichthyology, which has a specimen of a coelacanth ... but not just a common or garden coelacanth (rare enough in itself) ... but a pregnant coelacanth! OK, so we're nerds ...
(Sorry, no photos for this section for the moment, but they are on a separate external drive)
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Don't underestimate what an interesting place Antananarivo is - too many people just use it as a point of entry/exit and never properly explore the fascinating sights and experiences it has to offer. In fact, it's one of my favourite cities simply because it is so unique that I have never been able to find somewhere similar to compare it to.
Tana is crowded with horrific traffic - and I mean horrendously horrific. The topographical constraints of the town's geography make upgrading the road system very difficult and - up to the time we last visited in 2015 - there was no ring road, so the centre of the city is permanently in gridlock. This is really important to take into consideration when you are planning a transit trip through Tana, as it is suicidal to arrange accommodation in the centre of town. Rather stay in one of the hotels close to the airport - we really like La Maison Verte, which is both fairly affordable and very comfortable.
I am a self-confessed Tana junkie and love pretty well everything about the city. I love just wandering through the streets with their unique architecture and perusing the markets, which are curiously quiet - I'm not sure whether this has to do with the Malagasy's Polynesian heritage, but being used to the deafening clamour of African markets, it always strikes me as particularly alien. I relish the fact that the climate is unexpectedly cool due to Tana's high elevation on the Haute Plateau. I love the fact that there are rice paddies in the most unexpected of places - most of which have been established in the voids created by clay excavation for brick manufacture. And they need them, because, oh boy, do the Malagasy love their rice!
There are a couple of marvellous things to do in Tana. Firstly, the exquisite old railway station has been converted into an up market shopping mall, whose architecture is just gorgeous. The Queen's Palace on top of the ridge is a burnt out shell, but is an immediately identifiable landmark that dominates the landscape. In terms of the Tsimbazaza Zoo, you will have to decide for yourself whether you approve of zoos - but if you are willing to overlook the rundown facilities, you will find that the zoo staff are doing their very best to keep the place going on a minimal budget, and this may be the only place you see the rarer iconic Malagasy species, such as the fossa and the aye-aye. On our first visit, the aye-aye house was still functioning, and we had an awe inspiring encounter with this most bizarre of lemurs, and on our second visit, it had been moved to an ordinary enclosure (in which we saw fresh poo, which - on balance - probably means that it's still alive). When we first visited with our children, the keeper allowed us to feed the lemurs honey from our fingers (expecting a tip): yes, I know it's canned wildlife, but the kids were beyond delighted, and - I confess - having lemurs climbing over me and licking my fingers was a thing of dreams.
If you're really lucky, you may even find that the adjacent Museum of Ethnology and Paleontology (complete with skeleton of a prehistoric elephant bird) is open ... but don't hold your breath, as it has been, 'closed for renovation' (a phrase we strongly suspect translates as, 'closed indefinitely') on all of our visits.
The Royal Palace at Ambohimanga is a little out of town, but well worth the effort. It's small, but steeped in history, and has some bizarre artifacts which juxtapose awkwardly with the intensely traditional nature of the palace, including a mirror which was a gift from Queen Victoria.
The craft market (Marche Artisanal) or Rte Digue near the airport is absolutely extraordinary, and offers an enormous selection of handicrafts, but just try to be ethical in your choices, and avoid stuff that exploits vulnerable or endangered species, such as coral and tortoise shell.
Oh, and look for the Hollywood inspired 'Antananararivo" sign (see photo, with the Queen's Palace on top of the ridge) ... it's a good thing it's a long ridge!
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30 days in Madagascar - you are so lucky! We've been there three times, and still feel as though there is so much to do ...
Your question is complex, so perhaps let's split it into bite sized chunks.
To begin with, who are you flying with on the international leg? The reason I ask is that if it is Air Madagascar (appropriately and unaffectionately known as AirMad), then you will automatically qualify for a discount on internal flights, which may ease a little of the pressure on your budget.
Flights are expensive, but you cannot underestimate how slow the going can be in Madagascar, even when the weather is good. For example, a 20km section between Ankarana National Park and Amber Mountain took us 90 minutes when we were last there 18 months ago, and we have encountered similarly bad roads elsewhere on previous trips. That being said, AirMad is not the most reliable of airlines, and flights frequently run late and/or are rescheduled/cancelled at little or no notice. So you need to build flexibility into your schedule to allow for this. Also bear in mind that Antananarivo (Tana) is the hub of the AirMad network, so more often than not, you will need to transit back via Tana - thereby building more variables and greater uncertainty into your schedule. That's all part of the Mad experience, and even I - the least patient of people - have learned to adopt customary Malagasy fatalism when it comes to delays.
The most obvious destinations are Andasibe station and Mantadia National Park. They are right next door to each other, and are a 'must see' for all sorts of reasons. Firstly, they are pretty well the last stronghold of the indri - the largest of the lemurs, which is tailless and looks a bit like a deranged panda - and you would be very unlucky not to see them. You will certainly hear their doleful crying (much like humpback whale song) which is enough to sear the soul when you think about how precariously they teeter on the brink of extinction.
Andasibe has a wonderful selection of wildlife and - more importantly for the tourist - by far the best trained guides we've encountered in Madagascar. After all, the competence of the guide determines what you experience, and remember that you are not allowed into any of the reserves without a local guide (even if you are travelling with a guide, you will be obliged to hire someone local as well). The wonderful lemurs may seem to be the main attraction, but for us, the chameleons and the geckoes steal the show!
These parks are also very accessible by Malagasy standards, being only 3-4 hours drive east on Antananarivo on a good tar road. For this reason, this might be a good place to start your tour, which will ease you into the Malagasy experience and help you get your eye in for animal spotting. You might also take the opportunity to visit the often overlooked necropolis at Ambohimalaza close to Tana, which is an eerie and haunting place. We have heard from others that some guides don't like taking people here because of fady (the highly complex and fatalistic belief system that guides every aspect of Malagasy life), but it's well worth persisting gently as it is one of the most atmospheric places we've visited.
In terms of accommodation, I would highly recommend the Vakona Forest Lodge, which is pricey, but worth every penny. We also stayed at Hotel Feon' ny Ala on a previous trip, which is cheaper, but was rundown and somewhat inhospitable (for example, despite night walks being understandably popular with visitors, the kitchen didn't open before we left and the restaurant was closed by the time we got back).
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