Madagascar, a country famed for lemurs, baobab trees, birding, and jungles, offers visitors a rich playground to explore. I was enthralled by its beauty: the sweeping canyons and gorges, the grand waterfalls, and the sheer diversity of the landscape.
One day, you’re in a tropical jungle, the next you’re in an arid plain, and a few hours later you’re on a pristine beach. Plus, there are seemingly endless varieties of lemurs.
Located off the eastern coast of Africa, this island, nearly the size of France and the fourth-largest in the world, has a population of over 20 million but sees only about 300,000 tourists a year. While traveling Madagascar is challenging, it’s also incredibly rewarding and it is one my all time favorite places in the world!
This travel guide to Madagascar will help you plan the trip of a lifetime and save money in the process!
Table of Contents
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Top 5 Things to See and Do in Madagascar
1. See the Avenue of the Baobab
2. Visit Tsingy
3. Explore Isalo National Park
4. Relax at Nosy Be
5. Explore Lemur Island
Other Things to See and Do in Madagascar
1. Relax at Île Sainte Marie
While everyone goes to Nosy Be for the fancier resorts, if you want something a little more local, cheaper, and more relaxed, check out Île Sainte Marie. Located off the eastern coast, this former pirate capital (the 17th-century pirate Captain Kidd’s ship sank nearby) is a funky, relaxed island full of little coves, a pirate graveyard, and delicious seafood. The beaches aren’t as good as Nosy Be but there’s a beautiful white-sand beach in the south of the island that few people visit. This is also the best part of the country for whale watching too. Flights here cost around 387,000 MGA ($100 USD). (Don’t take the boat, it’s slow and terribly inconvenient).
2. See Ranomafana National Park
This is one of the best spots in the country to see lemurs as it’s home twelve different species of them. Besides lemurs, there are the famous giraffe beetles as well as lots of birds, chameleons, and other wildlife to see. Of the multiple trails available (you are also required to get a guide here), I would do the morning hike, then the afternoon and night hikes at the secondary entrance. The majority of tours skip the latter hikes so you get more of the park to yourself. Due to the park’s popularity, there’s a daily limit on the number of people who can visit so it’s best to go in the low season. Admission is 2,000 MGA ($0.50 USD) and guides cost between 80,000-120,000 MGA ($21-31 USD).
3. Visit Toliara
This small west coast town is famous for its expats, pizza (it’s a seriously popular dish in the country), and for being a launching pad for diving excursions to the Great Reef offshore. There’s not much else to do except sit by the beach. The drive getting here on the N7 (the only north-south highway) is also pretty amazing as you can take in Ranomafana, Isalo, and other stunning vistas along the way! A single dive costs 180,000 MGA ($47 USD).
4. Explore Antananarivo
The capital of Madagascar. Known as Tana for short, it’s a gritty city with terrible traffic but there’s a lot of history and culture here that makes a visit worthwhile. See the lemur park and the Rova (the old palace), get a sense of the international scene in the city, and use it as your launching pad for stops further afield.
5. Overload on zebu
Zebu is a type of cow with a large hump on its back. It’s more of a work animal, like an ox, and you’ll see them all over the country (they are even used as dowries in weddings). It’s the only kind of beef in here and it is always on the menu (along with healthy portions of rice). The meat is really tough (thanks to all the work the animals do in the fields) and so it’s best in a stew. Be sure to try it while you’re here!
6. Drive the N5
Heading north along the east coast from Toamasina to Maroantsetra, this road — and I use the word “road” loosely — is a potholed-filled expedition through some of the rawest and pristine areas of Madagascar. It’s also your best chance to see the famous aye-aye lemur. The road weaves through dense jungle, across rivers, and through tiny towns in one of the most undeveloped parts of the country. Stretching 400km (250 miles), Route Nationale 5 (N5) is arguably the worst road (in terms of its condition) in the country. Many sections are often impassable so budget lots of time to drive it (they say it takes over 24 hours to drive the entire “road”).
7. Go whale watching
Between June and November more than 7,000 humpback whales migrate from Antarctica to Madagascar to breed. The whale watching is some of the best in the world. While we were taking the boat to Île Sainte Marie, we saw a couple breach the water and it was absolutely stunning to see. Plus, with so few tourists here, you aren’t one of 9,384,732 boats vying for a photo. Adult humpback whales grow up to 16m (52 feet) and weigh over 30 metric tons (6,00lbs). You can also see the less-common Omura whale (dwarf fin whale) around Madagascar as well. Tours cost 115,000 MGA ($30 USD).
8. See Mantadia National Park
Located 160km (100 miles) east of the capital, Mantadia National Park is a 155sq km protected area home to 14 species of lemurs as well as over 115 types of birds and 84 kinds of amphibians — many of which are endangered. The landscape is a stunning mix of old-growth forest and rainforest and you’ll lemurs almost everywhere you go! Admission is 45,000 MGA ($12). There are also lodges in the park where you can stay overnight for 57,000 MGA ($55 USD) per night.
9. Visit Lokobe National Park
Situated on the southeastern tip of Nosy Be, Lokobe National Park is one of the Sambirano region’s only remaining forests. here you can see black lemurs as well as panther chameleons. There are also several endemic species of birds here too. To get to Lokobe National Park, you’ll need to take one of the park’s pirogues (rowboat) from Nosy Be, which takes roughly 20-40 minutes. Admission is 55,000 MGA ($14 USD).
10. Relax on Nosy Mangabe
Nestled deep between the coastal hills of Helodrano Antongila Bay, which carves its way inland on the north-eastern edge of Madagascar, the small island is famed for its booming populations of bug-eyed aye-aye lemurs. Huge fig trees wrangle around groves of palms, ruffed lemurs meet mantella frogs in the undergrowth, and the green hills crash down into secluded bays of bright yellow sand. Boats to the island and all the necessary permits are available in Maroantsetra. ADmission is 45,000 MGA ($12 USD).
11. Visit Ambohimanga
Ambohimanga, located 24km from the capital, was the one-time home of the country’s kings. Expanded throughout the 1800s, the mound of palaces and burial grounds, crumbling fortifications, and regal tombs was the place from which King Andrianampoinimerina launched his now-famed campaigns to reunify the country following more than seven decades of civil war in the 18th century.
12. Go to Antsirabe
Perched high up in the Central Highlands, Antsirabe was the choice for the French colonials who came here during the heyday of colonialism. They built elegant Parisian-style mansions, raised Gothic cathedrals, and laid wide boulevards with plane trees casting shade. The dusty city retains some of that charm and is one of the most aesthetically pretty cities in the country. It’s also one of the best food spots.
Madagascar Travel Costs
Accommodation – There are only a few hostels in the entire country. A bed in a dorm with 8-10 beds costs around 39,000 ($10 USD). Free Wi-Fi and self-catering facilities are standard. For a private room, expect to pay at least 77,000 MGA ($20 USD).
Budget hotels start at 66,000 MGA ($17 USD) per night for a twin or double bed. Free Wi-Fi is common but not included everywhere. A few hotels also offer free breakfast.
Airbnb is available around the country in the larger towns and cities. You can find private rooms for 61,000 ARY ($16 USD) per night and entire homes/apartments for as little as 96,000 ARY ($25 USD) per night.
Wild camping is not prohibited but I wouldn’t recommend it.
Food – Food in Madagascar is based around the country’s main staple: rice. You’ll find it on every menu and, at most meals, usually accompanied by seafood or zebu. Since zebu is quite tough, it’s often stewed (which is the best way to have it in my opinion). Beef or prawn skewers are another common offering. For food on the go, be sure to try the nem (spring rolls). They cost just a few cents and are delicious!
For a meal of traditional cuisine, expect to pay around 7,700 MGA ($2 USD). Meals that restaurants that cater to tourists and offer things like Italian food or crepes cost between 10,000-25,000 ARY ($3-8 USD) for a meal with a drink. For a pizza (which you can find almost everywhere), prices start at 7,000 MGA ($2 USD).
A beer costs 3,000 MGA ($0.80 USD) while a latte or cappuccino costs 4,500 MGA ($1.15 USD). Bottled water is 1,500 MGA ($0.50 USD).
Cooking your own food won’t really save you any money since restaurants here are so cheap. You also won’t find a lot of places with kitchen facilities either. However, if you do want to buy your own food, expect to pay around 77,000 ($20 USD) for a week’s worth of groceries including staples like rice, pasta, seasonal produce, and some meat.
Backpacking Madagascar Suggested Budgets
Independent budget travelers who stick to hostels, take shared or self-guided excursions, take buses everywhere, limit their drinking, and stick to eating street food and traditional cuisine can get buy on a budget of 115,000-135,000 MGA ($30-35 USD) per day.
On a mid-range budget of 289,000-327,000 MGA ($75-85 USD) per day, you can stay in budget hotels or Airbnb’s, take some guided tours, visit some islands, eat out for all your meals, drink as much as you want, and take mini-buses between cities.
On a luxury budget of 1,200,000 MGA ($310 USD)per day, you can stay in a four-star hotel, take domestic flights, eat out any restaurant, hire private drivers, do as many excursions as you want, and take taxis everywhere. At this budget, the sky is the limit!
You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. All prices are in USD.
Madagascar Travel Guide: Money-Saving Tips
Looking to save money while you’re traveling Madagascar? Here are some of the best ways to save money during your trip:
- Travel during the off-season – Flights to Madagascar are cheapest during the low season (October-April). While it’s not the most ideal time to visit, your flight is your biggest expense. Visiting during the shoulder season can go a long way to saving you money.
- Take local mini buses – When traveling between towns, take public mini-busses. Fares are 10,000–20,000 MGA ($3-6 USD). Exercise patience, as you’ll rarely show up to your destination on time — but you’ll save money over hiring a driver.
- Skip the car rental – Car rentals cost the same as renting a car and driver. Skip going solo and hire a driver — they’ll not only be more familiar with the driving conditions but most drivers know a lot about the country and landscape too.
- Avoid the hotel restaurants – Food at hotels is cheap, however, it’s usually double the price of what you’ll find if you go to a restaurant elsewhere in the city.
- Get a local SIM card – Local SIM cards cost 4,000 ARY ($1 USD), and around 30,000 ARY ($8 USD) per gig of data. A local SIM will be much cheaper thn your data plan from home.
- Bring a reusable water bottle – The tap water in Madagascar is not potable. Avoid single-use plastic by bringing a bottle and filter like LifeStraw. You’ll save money, stay safe, and help the environment!
Where to Stay in Madagascar
Hostels are few and far between in Madagascar. Here are your main budget options in the country:
How to Get Around Madagascar
Tours – Multiday tours are the most common way to get around Madagascar. It’s a hard destination to navigate on your own, especially if you don’t want to hire a driver or speak a lot of French. Tours are the most popular choice for anyone looking to experience and I met travelers of all ages on my tours.
Tours usually range from 7-24 days and cost anywhere from $1,200 USD to $4,800 USD.
Bus – Buses here are slow, crowded, and unreliable. They don’t leave on a set schedule and often break down due to the terrible road conditions. However, they are the most affordable and best option to get around.
The 350km journey from Antananarivo to Toamasina takes around 7 hours and costs 20,000 MGA ($5 USD) while the 570km trip from Antananarivo to Mahajanga takes 12 hours and costs 33,000 MGA ($9 USD).
For shorter distances, most mini-buses cost between 10,000-20,000 MGA $2.50-5 USD.
Air – There’s only one domestic airline here (Air Madagascar) and tickets cost $250-300 USD. If you’re on a budget, flying isn’t feasible. Additionally, be aware that they often cancel flights without notice so make sure your plans are flexible if you’re flying.
Train – The train is only available between Fianarantsoa and Manakara. It’s a 300km trip and it usually takes around 10 hours (often much longer). Tickets are 70,000 MGA ($18 USD).
Car Rental – Car rentals can be found for around 280,000 MGA ($75 USD) per day. However, it’s uncommon that rental agencies rent you a car without a driver and having a driver is recommended since the roads here are quite challenging and you’ll need a local to help in case anything goes wrong.
Hitchhiking – Hitchhiking is not a good idea in Madagascar. Driving here is tedious and rides are rare.
When to Go to Madagascar
April-December is the best time to visit Madagascar. You’ll avoid the rainy season as well as the cyclones that often occur.
July-September is when you’ll be able to see the migrating humpback whales while October and November are best for seeing baby lemurs. If you want to beat the “crowds” then visit in April, right at the end of the rainy season. It won’t be as hot but the jungles will be lush and the beaches quiet.
Expect temperatures around 21-24°C (70-75°F) during the peak months of June-August.
How to Stay Safe in Madagascar
Madagascar is a relatively safe country, however, due to the extreme poverty here theft can occur. Don’t flash money or valuables and keep an eye on your belongings if taking a bus or if in large crowds.
While most cities and towns are safe, avoid walking around at night in Antananarivo.
The roads here are terrible and accidents are common. Always wear your seatbelt (if you have one). If exploring a city or rural area and you come across wild dogs, act with caution and don’t provoke them.
There are a lot of beggars here, especially kids, and you have to just keep saying no and walking away. The taxi drivers here take no for an answer and no one really bugs you.
As always, keep your wits about you at night time, particularly in the capital. Ask your hotel to call you a taxi (always negotiate the price before getting in the car), which can be an intimidating spot for travelers due to lack of road names, tourists, and landmarks.
Always trust your gut instinct. Avoid isolated areas at night, and be aware of your surroundings at all times. Make copies of your personal documents, including your passport and ID, before you leave on your trip.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past.
Madagascar Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel to Madagascar. They are included here because they consistently find deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are the ones I use the most and are always the starting points in my search for travel deals.
- Momondo – This is my favorite booking site. I never book a flight without checking here first.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is another great flight search engine which searches a lot of different airlines, including many of the budget carriers that larger sites miss. While I always start with Momondo, I use this site too as a way to compare prices.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can tell you the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have a no money down policy, great interface, and the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around Madagascar, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get a discount when you click the link!
- Rome 2 Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B the best and cheapest way possible. It will give you all the bus, train, plane, or boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost.
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
Madagascar Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Madagascar Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
A History of Madagascar, by Mervyn Brown
Madagascar was uninhabited up until two-thousand years ago. It was then settled not by Africans, but by seafaring indigenous peoples from present-day Indonesia. The fourth-largest island in the world, Madagascar not only boasts a unique history but also some of the most unusual and endangered flora and fauna. This book does an excellent job of compacting Madagascar’s history into a single, comprehensive narrative. If you read just one book about the country, this should be it.
Beyond the Rice Fields, by Naivo
Published in 2012, this was the first novel by a native Madagascan ever translated into English. The novel explores the friendship between a slave and her master’s daughter, delving into the country’s past and the social upheavals presented by both Christianity and modernity. It’s a sweeping, tragic love story.
The Eighth Continent: Life, Death and Discovery in the Lost World of Madagascar, by Peter Tyson
The Eighth Continent is a powerful, insightful introduction to Madagascar, its landscape, and the country’s ongoing challenges. The book does a great job of highlight just how unique the environment is here — and how it came to be that way. Just as importantly, Tyson also ulluminates the various struggles Madagascar is facing and what changes need to be made to avert disaster. The book has a heavy science focus but is still accessible and will give you a solid scientific base from which to appreciate the people, culture, and history of this unique country.
Muddling Through in Madagascar, by Dervla Murphy
In the 1980s, intrepid traveler Dervla Murphy headed out to explore remote Madagascar — with her 14-year-old daughter in tow. This book is an inspirational travelogue that still rings true today, capturing the essence of the people and the spirit of the country. Murphy’s kind, stubborn approach to exploration will leave you longing to visit the Big Red Island yourself.
Madagascar Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on backpacking/traveling Africa and continue planning your trip: