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Introduction to Madagascar

Madagascar's forests are a shimmering, seething mass of a trillion stems and dripping leaves and slithering, jumping, quirky creatures out of nature's bag of tricks: lemurs, periwinkles and baobabs, aloes, geckoes, sifakas and octopus trees. Sadly, they are threatened by aggressive deforestation.

Madagascar's teeming fertile forests and geographical isolation have served to preserve and propagate 'nature's design laboratory' in a mix found nowhere else on earth.

The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 hit Madagascar's east coast near the towns of Manakara, Sambava and Vohemar, destroying infrastructure and leaving close to 1000 people homeless. No deaths were recorded.

You needn't totally forget about notions of idyllic tropical islands, but there's more to do here than lazing on a sandy beach and dipping into crystalline waters to peek at coral reefs now and again. Cut off from the African mainland for millions of years, Madagascar's forests are a naturalist's damp dream; they've preserved oddities and developed specialisations found nowhere else on earth, and you can get among them in a spectacular collection of accessible national parks.

With fascinating tribal cultures and ceremonies and an intriguing assortment of fady (local taboos) thrown in to perplex visitors, Madagascar makes for a truly rewarding experience.

Full country name: Republic of Madagascar (Repoblikan'i Madagasiraka)

Area: 594,180 sq km

Population: 16.97 million

Capital City: Antananarivo (Tana) (pop 4,000,000)

People: Eighteen major ethnic groups, including Merina (27%), Betsimisaraka (15%), Betsileo (12%), Tsimihety (7%), Sakalava (6%), Antaisaka (5%) and Antandroy (5%)

Language: Malagasy, French

Religion: Christianity and Islam

Government: republic

GDP: US$12.3 billion

GDP per capita: US$800

Annual Growth: 4.8%

Inflation: 10%

Major Industries: Agriculture, meat processing, soap, textiles, cement, automotive assembly, petroleum products

Major Trading Partners: France, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Singapore

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Traveler Facts

Visas: All visitors require a visa. Visas are valid for up to three months from the date of entry.

Health risks: malaria, schistosomiasis (bilharzia), hepatitis, diarrhoea

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +3

Dialling Code: 261

Electricity: 127/220V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric

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Madagascar has a host of holidays and festivals to cover most tastes and agendas. The usual Christian holidays like Easter and Christmas are celebrated, as well as Insurrection Day (29 March, to celebrate the rebellion against the French in 1947); Organisation of African Unity Day (25 May); Anniversary Day (8 May) and Republic Day (30 December).

In March, Alahamady Be is the low key Malagasy New Year. The Donia, a traditional music festival, is held on Nosy Be in May-June (the date varies); Fisemana is a ritual purification ceremony that the Antakàrana people undertaken in June; and Famadihana (the 'turning of the bones' burial ceremony) takes place from June to September.

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Best time to Visit

April to October (the southern winter) is the best time to go; you will miss the sticky southern summer (November to March), also known as hurricane season. But because Madagascar experiences wide climatic variation, the central highlands can still be pleasant during summer while the east coast gets most of its rain between June and September.

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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Malagasy Franc


Budget: US$1-3

Mid-range: US$3-5

High: US$5-10

Deluxe: US$10+


Budget: US$4-10

Mid-range: US$10-20

High: US$20-60

Deluxe: US$60+

Madagascar is about as cheap as it gets when it comes to travel. You'd be hard pressed to spend more than US$10 on a meal in most places, and you can get a room for the night for as little as US$2.50. Admittedly, it will be a dive, you may be sharing it with bedbugs and lice, and the hotel may also double as a brothel. So you may want to spend around US$5 for a basic bottom-end room with at least the rudiments of cleanliness and security. In a nutshell, you could get by in the countryside for as little as US$10-15 a day for food and lodging, but your costs will increase considerably in Tana or particularly on the resort island of Nosy Be. Budget on spending US$30-50 to have a very comfortable time accommodation-wise with the best food the island has to offer, and US$150 and upwards if you want to stay and eat in the big hotels on Nosy Be and Tana.

The best currency to take is euros, followed closely by US dollars and pounds sterling. The Malagasy franc is worth 100 centimes, but you probably won't see any of the practically worthless coins. Four main banks have branches throughout the country and you can change money there, and there will be at least one in every major town. They change recognised brands of travellers cheques and cash in major currencies. The upmarket hotels in Tana and some of the larger towns will also exchange cash and cheques for guests, but they normally charge a 10% commission. You can use credit cards in major hotels in large cities and resorts, airline offices and offices of the larger travel companies, but that's about it.

Tipping is not the norm except in expensive hotels in Tana and Nosy Be. It is generally discouraged by local tourist authorities, but rounding up a restaurant bill to avoid carrying worthless change around, or tipping for exceptionally good service is not a bad idea. Bargaining, on the other hand, is a way of life, except in the places where it is normal to tip. The concept of a fixed price is virtually unknown, except in mid to top-range hotels, and in smaller shops and markets you should never pay the first price asked. You won't be able to get things as cheaply as the locals can, but if you don't bargain you'll be helping to put the price of goods out of the reach of locals, and they will probably see you as an idiot to boot.

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'Tana' is like many other African capitals: crowded, polluted and noisy, but it does have some parts worth exploring. Southwest of Analakely is where the post office, banks, restaurants and nightclubs are. Uphill from there you can find the ruins of Rova, the former Queen's palace.

The hub of the lower town is Araben ny Fahaleovantena, bookended by the railway station and the Hôtel Le Glacier. This district is known as Analakely and is packed with permanent street markets, as swarms of off-white umbrellas, perched precariously on old tyre rims shade the vendors.

Nosy Be

Nosy Be is Madagascar's premier resort island, with several smaller islands including Nosy Komba, Nosy Tanikely, Nosy Sakatia and Nosy Mitsio nearby. Nosy Be is popular with people looking for a resort-style holiday, as it has plenty of restaurants and nightlife and some excellent dive spots.

A little known highlight of Nosy Be is Marodoka, a coastal ruin gradually being reclaimed by the bush. Local legend attributes its construction to a boatload of Indian sailors shipwrecked during the 17th or 18th century. The Réserve Naturelle Intégrale de Lokobe contains the last 740ha (1829ac) of Nosy Be's original vegetation, and is home to boa constrictors, black lemurs, chameleons and the Madagascar hog-nosed snake. Mont Passot is Nosy Be's highest peak at 329m (1079ft) and is a great place to watch the sun set or just take in the view. It is surrounded by the beautiful blue sacred Crater Lakes of Anjavibe, Amparihimirahavavy, Bemapaza, Antsidihy, Amparihibe and Maintimaso.

Parc National de Montagne d'Ambre

Madagascar's most visited attraction covers 18,200ha (44,954ac) of a prominent volcanic massif. Created to preserve the area's biological treasures, Montagne d'Ambre's flora and fauna are virtually the same as in the eastern rainforests, but with a few endemic species not found farther south.

The lush forest gets over 3.5m (11.5ft) of rain a year. The reptile and amphibian life includes frogs, geckoes, chameleons and snakes. Look for the bizarre blue-nosed chameleon and the stump-tailed chameleon. Birdwatchers won't be disappointed as 73 species of birds have been recorded in the park.

Parc National des Tsingy de Bemaraha

This area was once practically inaccessible, but since it became a UNESCO World Heritage site it has begun featuring on more and more tour itineraries. The reserve is actually two parks, the Petit Tsingy and the Grand Tsingy. So far recorded are 53 species of bird, eight of reptile and six of lemur.

The largest protected area in Madagascar, Tsingy de Bemaraha includes a huge forest of eroded limestone pinnacles that harbours a stunning display of wildlife. Organised trips may include a spectacular canoe trip down the Manambolo River. Manambolo Gorge is in the south of the park.

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Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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