10 essential things to know about Madagascar

I recently travelled to Madagascar on holiday, however, before I went, I knew very little about the country (other than I could see lemurs in the wild!). There’s not very much on the internet because tourism in Madagascar is in its infancy. My husband and I went on a 12 night safari visiting 4 national parks (in the East and South) with Jenman Safaris, so the following is based on this experience. I’ve put together a list of things I think it’s essential to know before you go:
1. There are many species of animals and plants unique to Madagascar, this is a big selling point for visiting the country. I was very excited to see lemurs in the wild! It’s also reassuring to know there are no deadly animals in Madagascar – our guide helpfully told us this one, although there are plenty of animals, mostly insects, that can sting or produce dangerous venom, these only cause pain or itch. Malaria tablets are advisable even though malaria carrying mosquitoes are only found in certain areas – it’s better to be safe than sorry.
2. The landscape and animals vary from region to region so it’s worth thinking about why you want to go to Madagascar and what you want to see. It varies from lush rainforest in the east to hot desert in the west. Vanilla plantations are found in the north. The wildlife in each area is related to the habitat provided. It’s not really possible to see all regions in one trip unless you stay for a month or more.
3. They speak Malagasy but you can get by in French – if you do not speak Malagasy or French it’s best to hire an English speaking guide who will stay with you. I’d also advise you to brush up on any French you know. The basics like “bonjour”, “merci”, “boisson” and a few foods are really helpful.
4. You can only buy a visa at the airport with cash Euros or Dollars, important to have enough cash, there’s no other option! Also, Malagasy Ariary (currency used in Madagascar) is not available outside Madagascar. You’ll need to change money at the airport or plan to use ATMs; you can change money in some hotels but we were advised against the unfavourable exchange rate.

5. Tourism is in its infancy so don’t expect everything to run smoothly or as you would expect in another country. They had 230,000 tourists last year (compared with 39.2 million to the UK (a country less than half the size). We’ve not had bad experiences but when comparing this holiday with one in Kenya, Madagascar has a way to go – for example their visa system consisted of a pile of pieces of paper, no computerisation!
6. It is the 4th poorest country in the world – this affects tourists in a couple of ways. We were told to be aware of pick pockets (we didn’t experience anything but we were careful with our belongings). We were told to be especially careful when leaving an ATM as you could be followed. There’s a small amount of begging that goes on so it’s best to know where you stand on this, some people give money or food, others choose not to. Everything is incredibly cheap, we haven’t spent anywhere near as much as we thought we would – for example, a beautiful hand carved nativity set was bartered down to <£15, similar in the UK I think would be £80+. Lunch of a main course and drink will be £2-£4/person.
7. Healthcare isn’t good – we learnt this as unfortunately we needed trip to hospital – we were very well treated but cleanliness wasn’t a priority! Life expectancy is 60-65 years for Malagasy people, this is because there is no help with healthcare, they can either afford it or they can’t. So make sure you bring first aid supplies and all medications you may need. If you need medical attention while out in Madagascar you’ll have the choice of a village/town ‘doctor’ (usually a nurse) that serves the local rural population or a city hospital, which may be further away (up to 3-4 hours by road) but you’ll be able to see a qualified doctor.

8. Phone signal and WiFi varies – most places we stayed had WiFi in reception and/or restaurant but it was very slow. There is phone signal in most places but some carriers don’t allow you to send or receive texts. If people back home usually like to hear updates from you, you’d better warn them to assume “no news is good news” as we did before mobile phones!
9. Most National Parks are explored on foot – your travel agents will ask about your capabilities but even though we said “we like walking but can’t do too much” (because I have arthritis and use a brace on 1 ankle) our itinerary contained a lot of walking! Even “easy” or “short” routes around the national parks are often 5km+ over moderate-difficult terrain. Although local people/guides are willing to help we saw people with mobility issues really struggling to get around the national parks. We loved it and didn’t find it too difficult but it’s good to know what to expect.
10. Essential packing list:

  • Be prepared for rain, requiring wet weather gear, a rain jacket at least (especially in the rainforests in the east but we had unexpected torrential rain in the south too)
  • Be prepared for sun, requiring sun cream, sunglasses and a hat (especially in the west/south) – the only weather they don’t get is snow.
  • A good set of walking boots is also recommended if you’re planning on going into any of the national parks – they’re varied, some require scrambling through rainforest undergrowth, others are rocky.
  • Mosquito repellent – they were not a big problem when we visited but it’s just sensible! All the hotels we stayed in had mosquito nets.
  • If you’re visiting national parks you’ll most likely be offered a night walk, for which a torch is essential. If you don’t have one you can sometimes borrow from your guide.
  • The sockets require a 2 pin plug adaptor. Be aware that some hotels have a imit on what their sockets can be used for and some have specific periods without power.
  • Whether you’re exploring national parks or not, a camera is a must – the culture and landscapes are incredibly photogenic!
  • As with any holiday, any regular medication for the full duration of the trip.

For more exciting information, please watch out for my next blog “Everything else you need to know about Madagascar”.

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