So, have our Madagascar articles given you wanderlust? Are you planning a trip to the Grande Ile? If that’s the case, here are our top 10 tips for Madagascar independent travel, to help you plan your own adventure!
1) At the Airport – $$$, visa and transfer
So, you’ve landed at Ivato Airport! Woohoo! Welcome to Madagascar!
There are a few things you need to know before going through immigration. As of August 2014, 30 day visas to Madagascar are free. If you’re staying over a month, you’ll need to pay a visa fee (45€ for two months) at the desk on the right-hand side as you come in.
After you’ve cleared customs, we highly recommend exchanging some cash into Ariary, Madagascar’s currency. Unlike most places where airport exchange bureaus charge exorbitant rates, Ivato Airport offers the most convenient rates in the country. So, stock up – but be aware, you’ll be left with a gangster style pile of cash, as the highest Ariary denomination is 10,000, less than 3€.
To get into town, check if the Adema shuttle bus is running. This bus stops at various hotels around town and leaves whenever there’s an international plane landing, although service at night is irregular. In any case, transfer for one person costs 10,000 Ariary. Taxis charge 30,000-50,000 Ariary.
2) Getting Around – Meet the Taxi-Brousse
If you want to travel around the country independently, taxi-brousses are your best bet. These shared minibuses, packed in a way that you didn’t believe was possible, run pretty much everywhere in the country. On one hand, they cost peanuts, but on the other, rides can be long, uncomfortable and possibly dangerous.
We always used taxi-brousses to travel around Madagascar and lived to tell the tale (just!). For a complete guide to taxi brousses, we’ve written this article for you.
3) Going Retro on a Renault 4
Are you a fan of road trips? Are you not brave enough for taxi brousses, or do you want to experience some of Madagascar’s retro mood with your very own Renault 4? Despite most guidebooks telling you it’s impossible, you can actually rent a car without a driver. Although we didn’t try that for ourselves, we heard that he most reliable person to go to is Coen Oldenhof, a Dutchman living in Tana. Here are his email contacts firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
4) Hitching a lift on a 4×4
A 4×4 with driver is by far the best transport option on Madagascar’s unreliable roads. Trouble is, it doesn’t come cheap – prices start from 50€ per day for the vehicle, up to 150€ on notoriously bad roads.
But there are ways to travel by 4×4, at a fraction of the price. Ask around at hotels, guesthouses and traveller hangouts for any 4×4 travelling to your destination with spare seats. You may be lucky to find some drivers who will let you share the ride for a little more than the taxi-brousse fare.
It’s very easy to hitch a ride from Tulear to Tana, as most tourists travel south by 4×4 and fly back. Drivers relocating the vehicle to Tana may be happy to let you share the ride for as little as 100,000 Ariary per person – the gruelling 30 hour taxi-brousse ride costs about 60,000.
5) Use local travel agencies
Now, in Madagascar independent travel is the way to go in my opinion, but even I can’t deny that some destination require extra planning. Experiences like climbing Pic Boby and the Tsiribihina River descent can’t be organised independently. Western-owned agencies (whether or not they are Madagascar-owned) tend to charge a premium simply because they’re Western-owned.
Locally-owned agencies like Antsirabe-based Madagascar Tropic Voyage are not only considerably cheaper, they also offer consistently reliable service and – better still – they offer locals a chance of employment. Our guide Jimmy was fluent in both English and French and a mine of information in terms of Madagascar nature, wildlife and folklore.
6) The ins and outs of National Parks
National Parks are the reason why you’re coming to Madagascar, pure and simple. But they don’t come cheap. The reason is that it’s compulsory to visit Malagasy parks with a guide, whose fare isn’t included in the park entrance fee. To give you an idea of costs, for a day-long (8 hour) tour of Ranomafana National Park, the guide fee is 90,000 Ariary, plus 25,000 each for entrance – 140,000 Ariary, about 40€.
There are two ways to get the most bang from your buck. First, don’t book a guide through your hotel (who might charge a commission) but hire one at park headquarters on the day. If you’ve got your heart set on a specific guide, by all means contact him/her in advance, but pay them at park headquarters.
In most parks, guides accept groups of up to 4 people so it’s a good idea to team up with other travellers to split the guide fee. As always, ask around, or hang around park headquarters asking others if they want to share the tour. We did that twice, at Anja Reserve and Isalo National Park, and never had to wait more than fifteen minutes.
Visiting a national park in Madagascar can be pricey, but it’s totally worth it. Madagascar wildlife is unique and totally weird – just have a look at the aye aye, one of the world’s weirdest animals!
7) Hotels and Guesthouses
In Madagascar, hotels can be divided in two groups; those quoting prices in Euro, and the ones quoting in Ariary. Euro hotels are usually midrange to top end, often Western-owned or part of large hotel chains, and can be an amazing deal if you’re prepared to pay a little more. To give you an example, beautiful Grand Hotel des Tsingy de Bemaraha cost only 30€ per night, and in Anakao, on the southern coast, we’ve seen top-end beach bungalows for 60-70€.
If you’re a budget type, opt for hotels and guesthouses quoting prices in Ariary. Generally locally-owned, these hotels range from dingy dives to beautiful colonial mansions, with an air of faded grandeur. More often than not there will be nothing to write home about; a bed, a bathroom with hot water (if you’re lucky) and that’s about it. Average prices are 30,000-50,000 Ariary (10-15€).
8) Food in Madagascar
Madagascar food can be divided in two groups; utterly disgusting and mouthwateringly delicious. Budget eateries are called hotely, and if you’re travelling by taxi-brousse, rest assured you’ll stop at one. 3,000 Ariary (less than 1€) will get you a mound of rice with a couple of bony bits of meat. It’s usually kind of gross.
Most restaurants in cities will offer French dishes alongside tasty Malagasy fare, a step above hotely slop. Think green peppercorn zebu steak, fish with meuniere sauce and garlic prawns, usually costing about 4€ per dish. Malagasy favourites include romazava, made with meat and a spinach-like veg, and ravitoto, a sort of ginger stew. They’re usually a bit cheaper than French offers.
You can even get real haute cuisine for a steal in Madagascar; for example, excellent Mad Zebu (run by a Parisian-trained chef) in the dusty town of Belo-sur-Tsiribihina, offers a three course meal for 45,000 Ariary (about 12€).
Street food can be alright, but it’s usually snacky stuff like sambo (samosa), nem (spring rolls) and my fave, bonbon de pistache (peanut brittle).
9) Get a Visa Card
Pretty much all towns in Madagascar have a Bank of Africa branch, but the ATM only accepts Visa. In larger towns such as Tana, Antsirabe, Fianarantsoa and Tulear you can also find other banks, accepting Mastercard. Maestro is only accepted at Société Générale which is even rarer.
So, save yourself a hassle and get a Visa card if you haven’t got one yet!
10) What’s the deal with Malaria?
Malaria tablets yes, malaria tablets no? Better to be safe than sorry, in my opinion. Malaria is not only present in Madagascar, it is a high risk throughout the country all year. Dengue fever is also present, so don’t take this lightly.
And what about wifi?
Wifi can be found in nicer hotels and some cafés/restaurants here and there, but it is usually slow and unreliable.