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.
When to visit
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.
The rains bring out the wildlife
Tourists tend to avoid Madagascar from January to March when they hear that it is the ‘rainy season’. But, whilst it can be a challenging time for travel (several roads get cut off due to swollen rivers), the wildlife rewards are great, especially if you are into reptiles and amphibians. Despite the term ‘rainy season’, there are plenty of dry periods (in parts of the south it hardly rains at all) and the chances of a cyclone disrupting your itinerary are really quite slim.
Orchids in flower
Madagascar is home to a staggering array of orchids: around 1,000 species of which most are endemic. In any month of the year, one species or another can be found in flower, but by far the majority of these floral delights strut their stuff from December to March.
Nosy Be Trail
For serious runners, March is the time to visit Madagascar. Starting from 2014, the island of Nosy Be hosts a 65km ultramarathon (with a 35km option for the mere mortals among us) organised by RandoRun Océan Indien.
Mating season for ring-tailed lemurs begins in mid-April, when males can be seen engaging in ritual ‘stink fights’ throughout their territory in southern Madagascar. These impressive displays involve them impregnating their tail with odour from their scent glands and then wafting it dramatically at their rivals.
There are some truly excellent surfing locations in southern Madagascar. The best surf season runs from April to August with regular swells of one to four metres. Typical water temperatures are 25ºC in April, falling to 21ºC by August. Kite-surfing spots have also been popping up in Madagascar in recent years, especially the far north. There is fantastic wind for this sport for much of the time from May to October.
Baby lemurs galore
June and July are good months for seeing cute baby lemurs. Indri give birth to their young in May or June, and sifakas generally in late June or July. The infants ride on their mothers for six months or so after birth, first hanging below her belly then on her back.
Turning of the bones
Exhumation ceremonies called famadihana or the ‘Turning of the Bones’ are carried out between July and September. These traditional rites are practiced by highland tribes and involve great ceremonies in which families gather to remove the body of a loved one from the family tomb, rewrap them in fresh cloth, then dance and parade around carrying the corpse aloft while live music is played.
Humpback whales migrate from Antarctica to give birth and raise their calves in warmer waters. From July to September, you have a good chance of seeing their exuberant displays, especially around Ile Sainte Marie.
Birdwatching is a year-round activity in Madagascar, but to maximise the number of species you could see, visit in September or October. It is an added advantage that deciduous forests have not yet burst into leaf, so there is good visibility through the branches.
Newborn ring-tailed lemurs
What could be cuter than babies of Madagascar’s most iconic lemur species, the ringtail? Young ring-tailed lemurs are born in September. You can see them at parks including Berenty, Isalo, Andringitra, Anja and Beza-Mahafaly.
The spectacle of the mating fossa, Madagascar’s largest predator, occurs in late October or November. The easiest place to see it is Kirindy but you need a certain amount of luck on your side as the exact timing is unpredictable and the event only lasts a few days.
The ‘explosive breeding’ frog species emerge after the first rains to mate en masse, often with hundreds or thousands of brightly coloured individuals in a small pool.