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But if Madagascar is a nature lover’s dream, it can also be a traveler’s nightmare. It’s one of the poorest countries in the world—three-quarters of its 17 million people live on less than US$1 a day. Though warm, wet and fertile, the island produces barely enough to feed itself—one in 10 children there is chronically malnourished.
Politically, the situation in the country has improved since 2001, when a disputed election threw Madagascar into chaos. President Marc Ravalomanana is opening up the country to foreign investment and trying to stamp out corruption and bad governance after years of mismanagement. Plus, the 2005 animated film Madagascar generated a lot of worldwide interest in this country off Africa’s southeastern coast.
So there is hope for Madagascar, especially in the area of ecotourism. It has an exceptional variety of landscapes, from coral isles and virgin coastlines to baobab forests and craters. All of Africa has one variety of baobab tree, for example, and Madagascar has seven, as well as 19,000 species of plants—a world record.
However, Madagascar continues to face ongoing problems—flooding in early 2005, regular cyclones (in 2004, cyclones destroyed an estimated 120,000 structures, left 240,000 people homeless, and killed and injured scores more) and drought conditions in some areas.
The country is also constrained by lack of infrastructure (there are only about 3,700 mi/6,000 km of constructed roads in a country the size of France) and good hotels. So although tourists are heading there in ever-increasing numbers, Madagascar still has a long way to go before it ranks as a top tourist destination.
Outside the capital Antananarivo (almost always abbreviated as Tana) and the central plateau region, Madagascar is sparsely populated, with approximately 17 million people living in small, scattered villages. In general, clans descended from Indonesian and Malay settlers inhabit the highlands, and those of African stock live in the western coastal regions.
The island remained uninhabited by humans until around 2,000-2,500 years ago. It is not clear who first inhabited it, but oral tradition suggests that originally it was home to a group of pygmies known as the Vazimbas.
The island’s first settlers were Melanesians, who arrived in the sixth century. In succeeding centuries, Madagascar became an important link in the spice trade between Europe and Asia. African, Arab and European merchants visited the island, mixing with the descendants of Madagascar’s original Southeast Asian settlers.
In time, the island’s population split into more than a dozen tribes, the most powerful of which was the Merina,who ruled the central highlands. European and American pirates were a force in the early 17th century—they made the island a haven for those who plundered the merchant ships ferrying goods between Europe and Asia.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that Madagascar was united into one country by the king of the Merina. His administration ruled until 1883, when the French invaded the country and turned it into a protectorate. In the following decades, the French suppressed a number of uprisings by the Malagasy, and Madagascar did not gain independence until 1960. Following the departure of the French, the island was controlled by a series of autocratic rulers who plundered the country and ruined its economy. The first free elections were not held until the 1990s.
In 2002, self-made millionaire Marc Ravalomanana swept into office as president after a disputed election with former incumbent Didier Ratsiraka. Ratsiraka was eventually forced out after eight months of demonstrations by supporters of Ravalomanana, whose dairy and oil-products business is the largest non-foreign-owned company on the island.
Ravalomanana is trying to strengthen the economy, by introducing free-market reforms, as well as diversifying diplomatic ties away from former colonial master France.
Madagascar will appeal to adventurous travelers who are willing to put up with often basic conditions to experience rare native species, the unique Malagasy culture, a truly exotic landscape and uncrowded beaches. Don’t expect deluxe accommodations.
Hiragasy is a popular musical performance style in Madagascar, particularly in the highland areas. It mixes song, dance, speeches, theater and acrobatics.
The best-known Malagasy instrument is the valiha, a bamboo pole with up to 28 strings and frets around it. It resembles a bassoon but plays and sounds like a harp. The kabosy is a small four-stringed guitar that is similar to a ukelele, and the jejolava is a single-stringed instrument that is used together with a gourd.
In the province of Fianarantsoa, near Ambositra, the rural communities of Zafimaniry are real outdoor museums: You’ll see stacks of red-roofed houses, and doors and windows decorated with masterful interlaced engravings.
About half of the world’s species of chameleons can be found in Madagascar, and among them the world’s largest and smallest chameleons.
This country is home to about 85 species of snakes—none are poisonous, although a few can inflict painful bites.
The Malagasy word for the Indri lemur is babakoto, meaning “little grandfather.” Females are dominant in lemur society.
The colorful, all-purpose wraps worn by Malagasy women (and some men) are called lambas.
Endemic to Madagascar, Aepyornis maximus is possibly the largest bird that ever walked the earth, standing up to 10 ft/3 m tall, and about four times as heavy as an ostrich. It became extinct about 500 years ago, due to a combination of hunting and habitat destruction following human habitation of the island.
At least three other bird species endemic to Madagascar have become extinct since 1900, and 27 of the island’s lemur species or subspecies are International Union for Conservation of Nature red-listed as endangered or critically endangered.
Many of Madagascar’s rare plants and animals are threatened by the loss of habitat caused by slash-and-burn farming techniques (a practice the Malagasy calltavy). Some 85% of the country’s indigenous forests have already been wiped out by subsistence farmers clearing land for cattle or rice paddies. Without tree cover, annual rains leach out the minerals, rendering the land unusable. Madagascar’s red topsoil is being washed away at such a rate that the massive spillage into the Indian Ocean is visible from space.
The long-fingered aye-aye lemur appears to be made up from the spare parts of other animals: It has the ears of a bat, the face of a rodent and a skeletal third finger that it uses like a woodpecker to find grubs in the bark of trees.
More than 800 species of orchid have been recorded on Madagascar: Most are endemic, including the rubbery white-petaled comet orchid, a rare specimen whose flower grows up to 12 in/30 cm long. Charles Darwin once cited the comet orchid when he predicted the evolution of a moth with a tongue long enough to reach the nectar. His contemporaries ridiculed the idea, but in 1903 a moth with a proboscis of more than 12 in/30 cm was discovered on the island.
About 80% of the flowers, 40% of the birds, 95% of the reptiles and 90% of the trees found on Madagascar are unique to the island.
English is not widely spoken in Madagascar (outside of hotels), but a working knowledge of French goes a long way.
It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but you might want to see the famadihana, when the Merina and Betsileio people exhume their long-dead relatives, rewrap them in new, colorful, fine silk and carry the remains through the streets in a joyful reunion (before they’re reburied). These colorful celebrations take place in winter (July-September) and include partying, drinking and dancing. Famadihana literally means “the turning over” of the dead. The Malagasy believe that the body dies but not the soul, so the festival is an opportunity for the living to meet the dead. Some Merina and Betsileo families are now accepting tourists at their famadihanas, but be sure to arrange this in advance.
Some of the best artwork in Madagascar can be found at the resting places of the dead. The Mahafaly of southern Madagascar bury their relatives in wood or stone enclosures that are decorated with hand-carved wooden posts called aloalo and wooden boards with elaborate geometic designs.
Although endemic wildlife ranks as Madagascar’s most important attraction, it also has one of the longest Indian Ocean frontages of any country, and many excellent beaches—a particularly popular attraction with cruise ship passengers. The main beach destinations are the islands of Nosy Be and Nosy Boraha (also known as Ile Sainte Marie). There are also great beaches in the vicinity of ports such as Antsiranana, Toliara, Taolagnaro and Morondava.
Around half of Madagascar’s 210 breeding bird species are unique to the island, making it a great destination for inveterate “tickers.” Among the more quirky birds associated with the island are the jay-like couas, terrestrial ground-rollers and striking cuckoo-rollers. However, evolutionary pride of place goes to theVangidae, a family whose 22 species split across 16 genera and outdo Darwin’s finches in terms of divergent beak structures (not to mention size and color).
Bird-watching is excellent all around the island, and a good avian itinerary will embrace as many habitats as possible, ranging from the spiny desert of the south to the lush rain forest of the north.
HIKING & WALKING
Unlike mainland Africa, Madagascar is a country whose best wildlife watching opportunities are pedestrian. Guided hikes and walks are available in all the national parks, and there are also plenty of opportunities for unguided hiking outside the reserves, or along the main public roads through them.
SCUBA & SNORKELING
Madagascar offers comparable diving opportunities to the Indian Ocean coastline of the African mainland, though the industry is somewhat less well developed than in Kenya or Tanzania. Several local companies do offer diving excursions, most notably in the coral gardens around Nosy Be and Nosy Boraha, which support an incredible selection of colorful reef fish as well as whale sharks and giant marine turtles. Other areas with good diving include Antsiranana, Toliara, Nosy Faro and Nosy Barren.
Although Madagascar has not traditionally been considered a big surfing destination, more surfers are discovering its impressive waves and incredible scenery. The best part, for now, is that it’s largely undiscovered, and the waves aren’t crowded.
Look for good deals on semiprecious stones, if you know what you’re doing. Other items to consider include musical instruments, embroidered fabric, wood carvings, wooden inlay boxes and antaimoro paper, which incorporates flower petals into the paper itself. Local spices and fragrances—ylang-ylang, vanilla, sandalwood, cloves—make compact souvenirs.
Don’t buy orchids, items made from tortoise, lemur and crocodile, authentic antiques or rare cultural items—they won’t be allowed out of the country. Exportation of gems and quantities of certain other products, such as vanilla or coffee beans, may require special certificates. The Hilton and Colbert Hotels in Antananarivo have the latest information about exporting.
Shopping Hours: Monday-Saturday 8 am-noon and 2-6 pm.
Fresh baguettes and excellent coffee are available in most towns. Choose restaurants carefully, and stay out of those that appear less than sanitary. Antananarivo has a wide variety of international restaurants, among them several specializing in French, Indian or Chinese cuisines. The Hotel Colbert has an excellent French pastry shop. In season, November-February, fruit is abundant: Lychees are the specialty of the east and mangoes of the west.
The locally produced mango chutney and rum are quite good. Ranovola, a watery rice drink, is unique and worth a try. Red, white, rose and sparkling wines are produced in Fianarantsoa. In the north, trembo (fermented coconut juice) is popular.
Tourists are exempt from having to adhere to fady, although it is sensible and considerate to find out as much as possible about this in regions you are visiting so as to avoid offending people. Bear in mind, though, that there are so many fady that you’re going to make mistakes in spite of your good intentions.
For the latest information, contact your country’s travel-advisory agency.
Malaria, including chloroquine-resistant strains, is present in all parts of the country, especially near the coast. Consult your doctor about taking malaria suppressants and take along lots of insect repellent. Also consult your doctor about vaccinations for typhoid and hepatitis. Take along all prescription medicine needed for the trip.
Don’t go in lakes or rivers without checking to see if it’s safe first—bilharzia, a parasite that causes liver damage, may be present. The sun can be very strong, so use sunscreen liberally and wear a hat.
Sanitary conditions in most restaurants in Madagascar can pose problems for some travelers. Most hot, freshly cooked food should be safe (especially if it’s included on a package tour), but peel fresh fruit and raw vegetables, make sure meat is cooked thoroughly, avoid local dairy products and assume the water is unsafe (stick with prepackaged or boiled drinks).
For more information, contact your country’s health-advisory agency.
DOS & DON’TS
Don’t be surprised to see the Malagasy eating locusts—the insects are considered quite tasty.
Do be prepared to declare all currency and valuables upon arrival, although customs officials will rarely bother to check. Change money only with authorized cashiers and save receipts.
Don’t touch an aloalo (a wood carving representing ancestral acts), as they are considered sacred.
Do take batteries, toilet paper and envelopes along with you. Quality paper products are sometimes in short supply outside Antananarivo and other major cities in Madagascar.
Don’t expect anything to be open on Saturday or Sunday.
Don’t forget to tuck your trousers into your socks if you’re going into the forest to see lemurs. You may or may not come across a lemur, but you’ll definitely come across a leech or two.
Do be careful with your belongings in crowded areas of Antananarivo, especially around markets. Watch out for pickpockets.
Passport/Visa Requirements: Passports are needed by all visitors, and visas are needed by most, including citizens of Australia, Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. Visas for stays of 90 days or less are obtainable upon arrival in the country. Proof of onward passage is often required. Reconfirm travel document requirements with carrier before departure.
Languages: Malagasy, but also French and English.
Predominant Religions: Animist, Christian, Islamic.
Time Zone: 3 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (+3 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is not observed.
Voltage Requirements: 220 volts.
Telephone Codes: 26120, country code; 22 or 24, Antananarivo city code; 75, Fianarantsoa city code; 44, Antsirabe city code; 94, Toliara city code;
Take a sweater or light jacket—it gets cold in the mountains at night. The least favorable time to travel in Madagascar is late January-March, when the eastern edge of the country, particularly the northeast coast, is subjected to occasional cyclones and lots of rain.
What to Wear
Also, take a raincoat to protect you from leeches, especially if there’s a chance of rain and you’re traveling to Montagne d’Ambre National Park and other nature reserves. Wildlife viewing in national parks almost always entails longish walks on steep slopes, so those on nature-oriented itineraries should carry good walking shoes (check the ankle support and tread) and robust trousers that can be tucked into your socks to proect against mosquitoes and other insects.
As in most Francophone counties, keyboards usually confirm to the French AZERTY rather than English QUERTY configuration.
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Other internal transportation includes rail, bus, taxis (not metered, so be prepared to bargain), taxis-brousse (shared bush taxis), rickshaws (locally called pousse-pousse), rental cars (which usually come with a driver) and motorcycles (not recommended). Don’t be surprised if your bus or shared taxi leaves at a time different from the hour indicated on your ticket.
Most roads are in bad shape, and public transportation (taxis-brousse) is unreliable, uncomfortable and crowded. Transportation in general can be inconvenient, so allow extra time for getting around. Many areas now are only accessible by four-wheel-drive vehicles, which may be why mountain-bike tours are becoming a popular way of exploring the countryside. Places such as Nosy Be and Antsiranana are sometimes impossible to reach overland November-April (the rainy season).
For More Information
U.S.: Madagascar Tourist Office, 124 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Suite 208, Solana Beach, CA 92075. Phone 858-755-5136. Toll-free 800-854-1029. Fax 858-481-7474.
Madagascar does not have tourist offices in Australia, Canada or the U.K.
Australia: Consulate-General of Madagascar, 100 Clarence St., Level 3, Sydney, NSW 2000. Phone 2-9299-2290.
Canada: Embassy of Madagascar, 3 Raymond St., Ottawa, ON K1R 1A3. Phone 613-567-0505. Fax 613-567-2882. http://www.madagascar-embassy.ca.
U.K.: Consulate of Madagascar, 8-10 Hallam St., London W1W 6JE. Phone 20-3008-4550. Fax 20-3008-4551. http://embassy-madagascar-uk.com.
U.S.: Embassy of Madagascar, 2374 Massachusetts Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20008. Phone 202-265-5525. Fax 202-483-7603. There are also consulates in New York, Palo Alto and Philadelphia.
Foreign Embassies in Madagascar
Australia is represented by its high commission in Kenya, which is on Riverside Drive, 1,312 ft/400 m off Chiromo Road (mailing address: P.O. Box 39341, Nairobi, Kenya). Phone 254-2-445-034. Fax 254-2-444-718.
Canadian Consulate, c/o QIT-Madagascar Minerals SA, Villa 3H, Lot II-J-169, Ivandry, Antananarivo 101 (mailing address: B.P. 4003, Antananarivo 101, Madagascar). Phone 22-42559. Fax 22-42506.
British Honorary Consul, BP 12193, Zoom, Villa Ricana, Lot 187-A, Manjaka-Ilafy. Tel: 22-01485.
U.S. Embassy, 14 and 16 Rue Rainitovo, Antsahavola, Antananarivo (mailing address: B.P. 620, Antsahavola, Antananarivo, Madagascar). Phone 22-21257. Fax 22-34539.
Lemurs of the Lost World: Exploring the Forests and Crocodile Caves of Madagascar by Jane Wilson (Impact Books). This book is out of print, but worthwhile if you can find it.
The Natural History of Madagascar by Steven M. Goodman, Jonathan P. Benstead & Harald Schutz (University Of Chicago Press).
Lemurs of Madagascar by Russell Mittermeier, et al. (Conservation International). Madagascar Wildlife by Nick Garbutt, Hilary Bradt & Derek Schuurman (Bradt Guides).