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Madagascar - When and where to visit
Nosy Tsarabanjina, a small island off the coast of Madagascar © Pierre-yves Babelon, Dreamstime
Madagascar has a tropical climate: November to March (summer/wet season) is hot with variable rainfall; April to October (winter/dry season) is mainly dry and mild. That said, global climate change is making Madagascar’s weather patterns less predictable.
Typically, southwest trade winds drop their moisture on the eastern mountain slopes and blow hot and dry in the west. North and northwest ‘monsoon’ air currents bring heavy rain in summer, decreasing southward so that the rainfall in Taolagnaro is half that of Toamasina. There are also considerable variations of temperature dictated by altitude and latitude. On the summer solstice of 22 December the sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn, and the weather is very warm. June is the coolest month.
Average midday temperatures in the dry season are 25ºC (77°F) in the highlands and 30ºC (86°F) on the coast. These statistics are misleading, however, since in June the night-time temperature can drop to near freezing in the highlands and it is cool in the south. The winter daytime temperatures are very pleasant, and the hot summer season is usually tempered by cool breezes on the coast.
Madagascar frequently suffers from cyclones, especially during February and March, and primarily down the east coast.
Broadly speaking, the dry months are in the winter between April and September, but rainfall varies enormously in different areas. Try to avoid July/August and the Christmas/New Year period when popular places are crowded. January to March is the rainy season when some more remote places get cut off by the swollen rivers,
particularly in the north and west. However, the off-peak season can be rewarding, with cheaper international airfares and accommodation and fewer other tourists.
September is nice, but frequently windy in the south. April and May often have lovely weather, and the countryside is green after the rainy season. Keen naturalists have their own requirements: botanists may want to go in February when many of the orchids are in flower, and herpetologists will prefer the spring/summer because reptiles are more active – and brightly coloured – during those months. Bear in mind that giant jumping rats, dwarf lemurs, tenrecs and some reptiles are less active and so harder to see during the cool dry months of June to September. Our favourite months to visit Madagascar are October and November, when the weather is usually fine but not too hot, the jacarandas are in flower, the lemurs have babies, and lychees are sold from roadside stalls in the east.
Some of Madagascar's best beaches are found on the west coast © Office Tourism National de Madagascar
The flora and fauna is undoubtedly the island’s number one selling point for tourism. There are now several dozen national parks, special reserves and private or community-administered protected areas that have nearby tourist accommodation, maintained trails and trained guides.
Most recommended for views are the central highlands between Fianarantsoa and Ambalavao, Andringitra, Isalo and Andohahela national parks, Avenue of the Baobabs (near Morondava), Tsingy de Bemaraha, Ankarana, Montagne d’Ambre and the Andapa region.
Madagascar’s best beaches are the blue lagoons along the west coast, but some people are disappointed because of the shallow water (it is often impossible to swim at low tide). There are beautiful beaches on the east coast but strong currents and sharks are a risk in many parts. The very best beaches are in remote areas such as Anjajavy, the islands around Nosy Be, Ile Sainte Marie and south of Toliara.
Nowadays there are many modern clubs and bars in Tana and other cities. The people of southern Madagascar are the most outgoing on the island, with good discos in Taolagnaro, Toliara and almost every village in-between. Nosy Be – and specifically Ambatoloaka – has the most famous nightlife among tourists.
If you know where to look there’s a handful of fascinating little museums dotted around, often in quaint dusty backrooms. In and around the capital, there is a city museum called Tana of Yesteryear, a pirate museum, a gemstone and mineral museum, an art and archaeology museum and the royal museum of Andafiavaratra Palace (closed at the time of writing). The historic site of Ambohimanga is a museum in itself, and there are small ethnographic exhibitions at the other royal hills of Ilafy, Ambohidrabiby and Antsahadinta.
People and tombs
Your tour operator may be able to organise a visit to a famadihana (only in the highlands and only between June and September) – an unforgettable experience. Merina tombs can be seen easily between Antananarivo and Antsirabe, but the most intriguing and interesting tombs are those of the Mahafaly in the Toliara region . Many are well off the beaten track and make this a particularly interesting area to explore by mountain bike.
The mistake everyone makes initially when planning a trip to Madagascar is trying to cram too much into their itinerary. There is so much to see and do, but this is a vast island with poor transport infrastructure. Bear in mind also that tour operators usually divide the country into north and south (with Tana at the centre) because there are no connecting domestic flights linking the two halves. You often have to spend a night in Tana. If your time is limited you should choose either the north or the south.
Southern route (RN7)
This route follows the 925km Route National 7 for its full length from Tana to Toliara, passing through the domains of the Merina, Betsileo, Zafimaniry and Bara ethnic groups, ending up among the Vezo, Mahafaly and/or Mikea. You will see an excellent range of habitats and landscapes, from rice paddies and rainforests to savannah and spiny bush, which is why this is the most popular tourist route. It is best done with a 4x4 and driver. You can incorporate as a side trip the day-long train journey from Fianarantsoa to Manakara (but cancellations and major delays are very common so don’t try to include this in a tight itinerary).
Doing the RN7 in this direction means you can finish with some rest and relaxation on the beaches of Anakao or Ifaty before flying back to Tana. The advantages of
going in the reverse direction are that you could get a good deal on a vehicle (lots of them drive back to Tana empty because most tourists travel the RN7 southward) and, having got the flight out of the way at the start, you won’t risk missing your onward flights from Tana due to an unexpected schedule change. Allow 7–14 days for this route.
The north (Diana region)
The far north boasts some incredible parks and reserves, paradise islands, and exceptional diving. But Antsiranana is about 1,200km from Tana by road (with relatively little to do en route) so people generally fly. The suggested route is to visit Montagne d’Ambre and Ankarana national parks then head southeast to Ankify, the crossing point to Nosy Be. On and around this island there are some top hotels; activities include diving, snorkelling, fishing, sunbathing and even catamaran charters. There is an airport on Nosy Be with regular connections back to Tana. Allow 6–12 days for the north.