Thanks to DreamWorks Animation, many more kids know about a place called Madagascar.  Based on the movies alone I’m not sure how many of them want to visit this wondrous island nation.  I can tell you that seeing the nocturnal mouse lemur – the world’s smallest primate – with your own two eyes walking through the jungle at night, is worth the trip.  This is, if you’re not lulled in by the prospects of allowing a wild boa constrictor to climb aboard your body or witnessing the round-the-clock funeral rituals in an Ankarana village or eating fresh lobster plucked from the Mozambique Channel.  Maine has nothing on this creature, by the way.

The fourth largest island in the world, the Republic of Madagascar, is a biodiversity hotspot; 90% of its wildlife is found nowhere else on Earth.  For that reason alone, consider popping in on your next trip over the Indian Ocean.  Lemurs are surely the best known endemic creatures in Madagascar and they’re easy enough to spot.  In addition, the cat-like fossa, two-thirds of the world’s chameleons, and a majority of its butterflies live only here.  The flora are no less impressive than the fauna.  Around 170 species of palms, over 1,000 known species of orchids, 8 species of baobab, only can be seen in Madagascar.  Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve stood in a field of wild ylang-ylang and inhaled.

I visited the island in 2001 on a “fam trip” as they say in the travel industry.  I was working for an ecotour company and part of my job was to “familiarize” myself with the country, take notes, and then create itineraries for travelers which respected the principles of ecotourism.  I still prefer to travel this way today, and encourage you to do the same.  Work with a local tour operator who promotes ecotourism.  My tour operator hired a guide to show me around, since as a solo female traveler who needed to see as much as possible in the span of about 10 days, I had no hope of going it alone.  Not to mention, I don’t speak a word of Malagasy and my French (widely spoken as a result of France’s colonization) is worse than poor.

One last word on ecotourism: travel that conserves the environment and promotes the well-being of the local people.  Ecotourism is in NO way synonymous with roughing it; many lodges define luxury.  It all depends upon how much you are willing to spend.

Based on my experience, these are things you won’t want to miss.

  • Antananarivo or “Tana” is the capital city.  It’s an interesting place.  Check out Analakely market.
  • If you are tiring of local fare, head to Le Chalet des Roses [13 Rue Rabary] for pizza in Tana.  It is awesome!
  • Nosy Be and its surrounding islands are Madagascar’s northern tropical getaway.  From here you can visit the Lokobe Nature Reserve, home of the black lemur.  Take a boat ride to the gorgeous Ankoay Lodge.  You might want to spend a few days to enjoy the surf and sand.
  • Although it was not easy (for me at least) to get the Tsingy rock formations in Ankarana western Madagascar, the topography fo the eroded limestone is incredible to see.  The Malagasy word tsingy translates into English as “where one cannot walk barefoot” also advice to be heeded!  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, nowhere are these jagged structures as slender and extensive as the spires here.  Erosion of the rock formations by the water below has made for a vast network of caves still used by local chiefs to honor ancestors.  According to local taboo lore or “fady” some tribes are still forbidden to enter the caves.  But you can check them out.
  • Baobab Alley – a prominent group of baobab trees lining the dirt road between Morondava and Belon’i Tsiribihina in the Menabe region in western Madagascar.  Despite its popularity as a tourist destination, the area has no visitor center or gate fees therefore local residents receive little income from tourism so please remember to be respectful and leave no trace!

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