A Backpackers Guide to traveling Madagascar on a Budget
Madagascar Travel Guide
"The Lost Continent" is famous for its diverse flora and fauna, but surprisingly few people venture to the island each year. Even with a movie franchise based on the islands furry inhabitants, the number of tourists visiting the island is only around 300k in a year. With a large percentage of these people taking organized tours or staying in all inclusive beach resorts. With such a small backpacking scene in the country, it left me asking a few questions before I arrived like; Can you backpack in Madagascar? How difficult is it too backpack Madagascar? and is it safe in Madagascar? Well the answer is yes, yes (though reading this is going to make your life much easier), and for the most part, but I urge you to be a wary traveler.
How to Get to Madagascar
The only way to get to the island is by flying. There are direct flights from Paris, other European cities all seem to route through there or Ethiopia. Otherwise you can fly to Mauritius and then take a short flight from there to Tana. Direct flights also exist from South Africa.
How to Get around Madagascar
The island is huge and travel almost painfully slow at times. This leads me to one of the golden rules of traveling around Madagascar, anytime you want to go somewhere new it takes one whole day, sometimes two, up to three days. You need to build these days of lost time for travel into any Madagascar itinerary.
For the most affordable and local travel experience, ask for a taxi-brousse. These are small and cramped old vans/buses which are packed full of people and goods traveling between small villages. There is no set schedule for departure and drivers will only take off when the bus is full.
There is a premium bus service on the island with Air Conditioned buses, assigned seats, Wifi (sometimes) and a set departure date called Cotisse Transport. Of course, anything that sounds too good sometimes is. The buses are truly worth a huge improvement, but are more expensive (as expected) and can fill up if not booked out in advance. Also, Cotisse requires you to be at their station 24 hours in advance to pick up your ticket and pay them, creating issues if you are on a tour that will arrive in less then 24 hours from your departure time.
The most expensive option is to hire a personal driver. You are not allowed to drive your own rental car in Madagascar, so you must hire a car and driver. Often this requires you to pay for the drivers meals and accommodation the length of the journey as well.
Pro Tip: The best and cheapest personal car hire I saw was through Ray at Underground Hostel. You can reach him at +261343367846.
Its a tough one to say right, so just call it "Tana". As the capital city, and home to the largest airport on the island, Tana is an unavoidable location for most travelers. The capital is a hectic busy city, packed with cars and people and without a single traffic signal in sight. Thankfully for backpackers, Tana is also home to the only hostel on the island. I cannot stress enough that every backpacking trip to Madagascar should start at Madagascar Underground Hostel. The staff is awesome and super friendly (and speak english), they have a bar, restaurant, hot showers and wifi. Also, its a meeting ground for you to group up with other travelers to arrange trips. I recommend starting your trip with one to two nights booked at the hostel while you try arranging a group or tour. It took me three days to arrange my first group of people but after that, everything was smooth sailing.
The West: Morondava, Avenue of the Baobabs & Tsingy
From the giant trees of the Baobabs to the towering rock formations of Tsingy National Park, the West Route is full of surprises and sights much wilder than I expected to find in Mada.
There are plenty of tour packages and private drivers willing to arrange a trip on the western route for tourist including Avenue of the Baobabs, Tsingy and a canoe trip. Most of these tours are 6-7 days in length and run a cost of around 400+ euros and up depending on the accommodation. I didn't want to do a pre-packaged tour because I figured I could do it cheaper (and I didn't want to do the canoe part, cause I've heard its a long boring two days on the water), so I waited until I had enough people to hire a car.
A group of 3 other travelers and myself set off from Tana in a hired car headed for Morondava. The total drive time is 14-16 hours so we decided to take a break and rest in Antsirabe. The following morning we hiked to Lake Tritriva (Volcanic Lake outside Antsirabe) for a beautiful morning swim before continuing the rest of the way.
Once in Morondava, I arranged a Tsingy National Park trip through Madagascar Touring which included the three days of transportation, guides and entrances into the park. They also partner with a great budget accommodation in Bekopaka called Tanankoay Bungalows. Make sure you get the lunch package for the Tsingy Trip through the hotel, its a large meal and well worth it. Also, bring sturdy shoes for Tsingy!! Can't stress that enough. No sandals.
Budget for the West:
Cotisse Bus to Morondava - 45,000 Ariary
Typical Accomidation - 30,000 Ariary (Morondava)
Tsingy Tour through Madagascar Touring - 350,000 Ariary
Best Budget Accommodation in The West:
Antsirabe: Eco Lodge
Las Bougainvilliers (wont show up on any search engine but i promise its real and my favorite option)
Recommended Length of Stay: 7-8 nights
Can't Miss Things to do in The West:
Crossing the suspension bridge in Tsingy National Park
Kirindy National Park for Brown and Sifika Lemurs
Scrambling up the rocks and through the tunnels in Tsingy
Around Tana: Andasibe-Mantadia national Park
The closest and easiest National Park to access from Tana is also home to the largest lemur species, chameleons and and leaf-tailed geckos. You can camp at the park for cheap or book a nearby hotel or bungalow for added comfort.
Budget for Andasibe:
Shared-Bus to Moramanga - 7,000 Ariary
Shared-Bus to Andasibe - 2,500 Ariary
Entrance to Nature Reserve: 35-45,000 Ariary
Best Budget Accommodation in Andasibe: Hotel Feon'ny Ala
Recommended Length of Stay: 1-2 nights
Can't Miss Things to do in Andasibe:
Night Walks to see Mouse Lemurs and Chameleons
Hearing the song from the Indri Lemurs.
Visting Voi'Mma Community Reserve
The East: Fianarantsoa, Ranomafana National Park and the Train to Manakara
The East is home to the lush green forests I had pictured when I first thought of Madagascar, and what better way to explore these dense jungles then on a train built and last updated nearly a century ago? The FCE Train from Fianarantsoa to Manakara was originally built by the french in the 1920s. Down to the trains last working engine, the trips have been cut down to twice a week in each direction on alternating days (T,W.F,Sat). Be prepared for a long journey since the trip can take up to 36 hours if the train breaks down.
Budget for the East:
Cotisse Bus to/from Tana: 25,000 Ariary
FCE First Class Train Ticket: 70,000 Ariary
Beer for the Journey: 4,000 x ?? (Depends on how long the train takes!)
Recommended Length of Stay: 1-3 nights (depends on how you get back)
Best Budget Accommodation in the East:
Zomatel - (Great wifi and hot showers)
Hotel Resto Delices
Hotel H1 ($$$ but closer to train station)
Can't Miss Things to do in the East:
Meeting the locals at each train stop
Eating the local foods in each village
Bribing the conductor to let you ride up front!
The photos along the journey
Like I mentioned above, the island is huge and would take multiple months to fully cover north to south. Travel can be difficult but I promise with perseverance it can be done. That said, here are a few more things I can pass along as you plan your trip.
Circular routes don't really exist, you will often have to go back to Tana to change directions.
Cash is the only option here. I never saw a credit card machine.
Always take a taxi after dark.
As always, let me know if you have any questions about planning a trip to Madagascar! I am always happy to help