What's the best way to travel in Madagascar. What language do the Malagasy speak? Do you need a visa for Madagascar? What about tipping? Answers to key questions about visiting Madagascar in this definitive travel guide...
HOW TO TRAVEL AROUND MADAGASCAR
AIR: The sheer size of Madagascar extending 1601 km by 579 km with its complex landscapes of rain forest, massifs, highlands and mangroves means that the easiest way to get from a to b from one region to another is by air.
Internal flights are available on Air Madagascar to and from the main cities. Always check the status of your flight as the timetables can change at the last minute.
CAR: Going by road is an option but be prepared to add extra time to your journey because of deteoration of the road surfaces through wear and tear plus storm flooding and no regular maintenance. As well as pot hole dodging, you need to avoid the four 'c's as in children, chicken, cows and chameleons all randomly walking along the roads.
There are three major modern roads: RN7 from Tana to Toliara, RN2 from Tana to Tomasina (via Brickaville) and RN4 from Tana to Mahajanga. Trips between those towns take about a day
It's advisable to take a 4x4 vehicle to negotiate the bumps. Or a quad bike for shorter and inland trips.
And always have your passport with you as the police can stop you and ask to see your visa. Not having a passport with a valid visa can result in a fine or arrest.
TAXIS: From the classic Citreon 2CV 'Deux Chevaux' to tuk tuks to air-con mini-buses, there's a range of cabs on offer. Negotiate the fee for where you want to go before your journey. And, in Antananarivo, be warned that they may have to fill up with petrol if it's a longer journey as taxi drivers do not always own their cabs and only have enough in their tank for the shorter trips they've estimated for their shift.
TAXI BROUSSE: If you're not in a hurry, want to appreciate the scenery AND interact with locals then take a Taxi Brousse. But don't expect luxury. Or scheduled departure and arrival. Drivers wait for their 15 seater buses to fill before leaving. Then it's windows open for natural air conditioning. It is, though, one of the cheapest ways to travel in Madagascar.
BOAT: Journey to other islands or along the coast by pirogue (local kayak), speedboat, ferry or chartered catamaran. Ask at your hotel or a travel agent to arrange whatever suits your budget.
RAIL: There are four rail lines in Madagascar but the network dates back to colonial times with poor maintenance, breakdowns and regular track failures so no lines are reliable. These are the four services:
Antananarivo-Ambatondrazaka via Moramanga; Antananarivo-Antsirabe; Fianarantsoa-Manakara; Antananarivo-Toamasina.
BIKE: Going by bike is for the truly intrepid traveller. With the distances and the road conditions, use a mountain bike and be prepared for a bumpy ride. If possible take a spare tire, puncture kit and tools. And a back-up 4x4 car!
SCOOTER: Don't even think about it.
WHAT LANGUAGE DO THEY SPEAK IN MADAGASCAR
The official languages are Malagasy and French. French is taught in most schools and used for everyday business and, also, in tourist locations along with a small amount of English and Italian.
WHAT IS THE CURRENCY? ARE CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED?
The Malagasy currency is the ariary (Ar) only available for exchange when you are in Madagascar. Euros are accepted for most high-end transactions. Check whether credit cards are used, though, before booking hotels, restaurants or trips.
There are ATMs in most cities and towns. Visa and Master cards are accepted.
WHAT'S SAFE TO EAT AND IS THE WATER DRINKABLE?
Fresh food is plentiful in Madagascar with fish caught daily, fruit ripe off the trees and coconut water straight out of the shell. Eating establishments vary from simple beach BBQs to five star restaurants and hotels. If in doubt about hygiene in the kitchen only eat food that is piping hot and do avoid salads that may have been washed with tap water and cold meat, cheese or unpeeled fruit possibly contaminated by flies. If in doubt and in need of a snack you can't go wrong with naturally hygienically-sealed foods as in bananas and coconuts.
In contrast, fresh water is not readily available in Madagascar so it's never safe to drink from a tap - and this includes cleaning your teeth. Most top hotels and restaurants will use bottle water for cooking, washing salads, freezing ice and for making tea or coffee, but check if you are unsure. Avoid ice cream or sorbets from street sellers.
HOW SAFE IS IT IN MADAGASCAR?
The Malagasy are gentle, happy people. You rarely see any aggression. But as a general safety rule take a taxi at night if going any distance from your hotel to a restaurant especially in main cities or towns.
WHAT CLOTHING TO TAKE
Holiday wear is very European, Although Muslims are part of the Malagasy community, covering up for women is not necessary according to Malagasy culture and the girls, especially in main towns, are often in shorter skirts and skimpier tops than the tourists. Cover up when visiting churches or at a sacred site (which you'll spot by the presence of symbolic red and white cloths hanging up).
Take a hat for the sun (the traditional Malagasy straw trilby is ideal) and because of mosquitos, it's always wise to cover up more in the evenings.
It can be quite chilly higher up and in winter months such as June in Antananarivo so a jacket or sweatshirt is worth packing. Also take a hooded waterproof jacket if you're travelling during the rainy season.
For trekking in the national parks or rain forests take trainers or walking shoes. Flipflops are not only less robust for walking but they also leave your feet exposed to small biting insects such as ants.
HOW ABOUT ELECTRICS AND INTERNET?
Electrical sockets take European plugs (not UK).
Many hotels will say that they have WiFi and, on the whole, you'll be able to access your email, but that's about it. You'll be lucky if you achieve more than a couple of MBPS, so you'll not be able to stream.
If you need a good solid connection and are there for a longer duration then it might well be worth considering the likes of an Orange 4G mobile router such as the Orange Box Huawei B310S.
Click here for more detail.
SHOULD YOU TIP?
From the moment your baggage comes off the carousel at the airport, you'll have Malagasy locals vying to help you. They'll swarm the port to take your bags and help you off the boat. Cheeky smiling kids will offer you flowers and to take your hand for trips down slippery rocks to waterfalls. Anything to help and, hopefully, earn your gratitude and a tip.
Just 2000 Ar (about €0.50) wll make them happy if they've carried your 30kg bag on their shoulders. If you don't have local currency then a euro coin is better than no tip at all.
WHAT ABOUT HEALTH AND VACCINATIONS?
A lesser known but comforting fact about Madagascar wildlife is that there are NO poisonous spiders or snakes on the island. However there are mosquitos. So take your health clinic's advice about malaria tablets and, also, use repellents and mosquito nets (available at most hotels).
Other vaccinations usually advised are: Diptheria, Hepatitis A, Tetanus, Typhoid and Rabies.
Take a small medical kit if you're on one the more remote tours, rain forest treks or island visits. We recommend Imodium, Ibuprofen, steri strips, antiseptic spray and antihistamine tablets
IS A VISA NECESSARY FOR MADAGASCAR?
You can obtain a visa on arrival in Madagascar valid for up to 90 days, with cost from around €20 (in 2018). All visitors must hold a passport valid for six months and a return ticket.