For many, Madagascar is a bucket-list destination. An island isolated off the east coast of Africa, 90 percent of its wildlife is found nowhere else on earth. But it’s the cherub-faced lemurs that beckon most tourists to this far-flung destination.
With tourism up 19 percent in the first half of 2019 over the previous year, I thought planning my recent trip would be relatively easy.
However, I was overwhelmed by the many options. Initially, I went through a few of the international tour companies, but I found their non-transparent pricing and communication delays quite frustrating.
Next, I went straight to the on-the-ground guides to avoid the middle-man costs. I scoured Trip Advisor for recommendations and found four guides, all of whom responded to my emails within 24 hours. I chose Arsene from Tour Guide Lovemada, as he responded the fastest and adjusted his proposed itinerary to my interests.
Here’s what I learned are important considerations.
1. Choose Your Guide Wisely
You will need a driver, even if you rent a car. (Car rental companies require you to hire a driver — and you will be glad you did once you see the roads!) Choose a guide who speaks your native language well, is comfortable with translating, is certified as a guide by the Malagasy government, has first aid training, reflects your stated limitations and interests in his recommendations, responds quickly and thoroughly to your emails, has transparent pricing, and drives well!
2. Realize Madagascar Is A Huge Country
It looks tiny perched there in the Indian Ocean next to Africa, but Madagascar is as big as Texas, and much longer from north to south. Compounding that, it’s a volcanic island with dramatic peaks and very winding roads, so getting from destination to destination involves long, arduous drives. And the roads aren’t great: Less than 20 percent of the country’s roads are paved. Let your tour operator know ahead of time if you are prone to car sickness. You might want to confine your trip to one region. Madagascar has much to offer in every part!
3. Communicate Your Interests To Your Tour Operator
Many tours involve moving tourists from national park to national park to hike and spot lemurs. This type of itinerary may involve 6- or 7-hour car rides. I wanted to avoid that — and I also wanted to spend more time in villages meeting people than in forests hiking and lemur-searching. I was rewarded: My guide arranged two overnights in small villages, which were definite highlights!
4. Recognize Your Limits
Madagascar is a challenging country and can offer a variety of boundary-pushing experiences, both physical and cultural. For example, I was scheduled to hike down a high volcanic mountain to a remote village and spend the night. While I was excited about the cultural opportunity, I couldn’t handle the physical climbing and had to beg off. (I was a bit embarrassed, as a 68-year-old village woman followed me, wearing only flip-flops, and scampered over the rocky path like a mountain goat! I was practically on my hands and knees.)
On the other hand, spending the night in a village with no running water or electricity and communicating with the local women provided a welcome challenge: What common references could I find with women who had never seen a movie or read a book and knew almost nothing about the United States? With my guide translating, I asked about their children and their dreams for their daughters. I asked about their impressions of America and what questions they had for me. They wanted to know how I intend to care for myself as I age, since I have no husband or children. They sincerely invited me to live with them in their village, where I’d be cared for in my senior years.
5. Schedule A Trip To A Major Grocery Store Your First Morning
Big grocery stores are found only in Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital. Stock up on bottled water from a major company (not the national water company, Jirama, which bottles water that is unsafe for foreigners). Pick up wine, if that’s what you drink. (Beer, rum, and vodka are available throughout the countryside.) You might also stock up on shampoo and conditioner, as many of the hotels don’t offer these amenities, munchies for the car rides, and toilet paper for pit stops.
6. Don’t Schedule Your Departing International Flight On The Heels Of A Local Flight
The domestic airlines, Air Madagascar, known as “Air Maybe” by the locals, and Tsradia, its new spin-off, have notorious reputations. My Tsaradia flight time was changed to depart two hours later than scheduled, then took off two hours later than that! Avoid a lot of internal flying if you want to avoid losing travel days to flight delays.
7. Carry A Lot Of Small Bills
Nearly every place you visit will require you to hire a local guide in addition to paying the entrance fee for the park or attraction. The local guides cost 20,000 to 80,000 Ariary. (20,000 Ariary is about $5 or €5). They don’t give change. You can break larger bills in restaurants or at the hotels.
8. Calculate The ATM Limitations
I used my ATM card in the larger cities to get local currency. But be careful! Banks charge a fee for every transaction, regardless of amount withdrawn. BNI Bank limits withdrawals to 400,000 Ariary, whereas BFV Bank’s limit is twice that for roughly the same fee. Credit cards are not widely accepted. Euros are accepted for payments at many hotels.
9. Bring Anti-Diarrheal Medications
Although you can get Flagyl and a few other antibiotics in pharmacies in larger cities, the rural areas have few clinics and pharmacies. Also bring a laxative! Every meal is served with rice and that can wreak havoc on intestines used to a more Western diet.
10. Prepare To Pick Up After Yourself
Note that hotel rooms are not necessarily cleaned daily (unless you specifically request it) when you stay multiple nights.
11. Check Temperatures Of Your Specific Destinations
During my 10-day guided trip, I went from hot-hot to sleeping in my sweats under two heavy quilts. Madagascar’s coasts have a tropical climate, its mountains and high plateaus are chillier and more temperate, and its south has an arid climate.
12. Check Altitudes If You Are Prone To Altitude Sickness
The average elevation is higher than 2,000 feet above sea level, with its highest point ascending to 9,500 feet at Maromokotro in the northern part of the country. Prepare for altitude sickness by packing appropriate medication.
13. Ask Your Tour Guide For Hotel Recommendations
I wanted to book my own hotels through Booking.com, and I’m glad I read the reviews and consulted my guide before booking. The hotels the guides recommend are safe and up to Western-style standards. They also offer free rooms and meals for the guides, which keeps your costs down. I was quite comfortable in hotels in the $20 to $30 USD a night range. They were clean and had strong, plentiful hot water, Western-style toilets, Wi-Fi and good, on-site restaurants. I thought I was saving money booking my own hotels. But had I asked, my guide would have booked all my rooms at no extra charge.
14. Stay Connected!
Check your data plan before you leave and increase it if necessary. I had telephone connection throughout my trip, so I was able to use my data allowance to post on Facebook during the long car rides. Every hotel I stayed in had decent Wi-Fi. Everyone uses WhatsApp. Be sure to bring all the types of phone chargers you have so you can recharge in the car, as well as at the hotel. You’ll need your phone as a flashlight, too, in some of the villages where there is no electricity.
15. Research Your Anti-Malaria Medication Carefully…
And don’t wait until the last minute! Some areas of Africa, including Madagascar, have mosquitoes that are resistant to chloroquine, one of the more common antimalarial medications. Mefloquine, a formerly common antimalarial, has been linked to hallucinations and is difficult to find. Additionally, not all antimalarials are available everywhere. Your pharmacy might need a few weeks to order your desired medication, and you may have to start taking the medication a week or two before you arrive in Madagascar.
16. Budget For Gifts
Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest countries, with 75 percent of its people living on less than $2 per day according to the World Bank. My tour guide recommended that I bring small gifts, such as volleyballs, to the villages where I stayed. These gifts were inexpensive and available, but I was glad I had extra cash, too. And the smiles on the children’s faces were priceless!
17. Consider Volunteering
There are many inspiring opportunities to volunteer in Madagascar. I spent my first week helping Nosy Be Conservation regenerate corals on an island in the northwest corner of Madagascar. My volunteer assignment took me into the water nearly every day to clean the artificial reefs or to gather broken coral that could be transplanted onto existing coral. It was a challenging and soul-satisfying way to give back to this amazing country!
18. Most Importantly, Pack Your Sense Of Humor And Flexibility
Part of the excitement of traveling in Madagascar is the last-minute opportunity to experience the rare and unexpected. My guide, knowing of my interest in seeing an exhumation celebration, scrapped our scheduled itinerary one afternoon so we could join a local community’s exhumation ceremony. What we didn’t realize is that it would take us over an hour of driving over some very rutted and dusty roads to reach the celebration. It took a lot of patience and perseverance to get there, but it was worth it!
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