Planning / Madagascar

As we were warned, Madagascar is a big country with few paved roads and very little tourist infrastructure. And that it’s also incredibly beautiful and worth the effort. We heard it, but we didn’t fully grasp it until we got there and saw how far apart everything is, saw how impoverished people are, and how jumbled and chaotic even the main city Antananarivo (called Tana) is. So our plan of hitting the Allee de Baobabs on the west coast, then back inland to Parque d’Angringitra then down to Toliara for surfing then up to Andavadoaka for scuba was swiftly knocked off the table and we had to rebuild. Because transportation is so unpredictable it’s nearly impossible to make a solid plan. Give yourself plenty of leeway with getting around, even flights can be cancelled or delayed.

Transport
There are a few options for getting around, which will depend on your threshold for discomfort, budget and timing. The most cost effective and efficient is by taxi-brousse, shared vans with 20 people packed in and luggage tied to the top. They leave from major towns on a schedule (that only locals know), but often won’t leave until full. So basically, get ready to wait and you will be pleasantly surprised if something arrives or leaves on time. Drivers go fast and stop every few hours for a pee break or to buy a snack. Usually this means peeing on the side of the road and we did not see any traveler friendly snacks along the way, so bring your own. We were suggested to go to the station and book a day ahead, so that you can request a window seat in the back or front rows. The front row seems to have the most leg room. The station in Tana is wild and you will be swarmed by people offering you a ride. When you decide on one (get a suggestion from your hotel or driver, otherwise all the stands look the same), they will likely jack up the price. We paid 40,000 A to Morondava which was fair, but required a lot of talking down the price initally offered.

Everybody’s hustling and tourists are easy targets. It’s part of the culture to negotiate, everything. Some smaller towns will only have a camion-brousse, which is essentially an army truck packed to the brim with people in the back. It’s cheaper, but LonelyPlanet suggests it’s the most uncomfortable mode of transport ever. I partially wanted to ride in one just for the experience, but probably best that we didn’t.

There are a handful of small Air Madagascar airports, like one in Morondava, Toliara, and Nosy Be, and I’m sure some others. It’s super expensive, but worth it if your time is limited in Madagascar. You can also hire a local driver for a day trip or your entire trip. If you do this apparently you pay the car rental fee, a fee for the guide, and then food and hotel for the guide each day too.

Then there is the pirogue, the simple wooden water craft with patchwork sails. You can take these for a one day trip or multi day trip, stopping in small coastal villages to sleep. Avoiding a long drive, we opted for taking a pirogue from Morondava to Toliara, thinking it’d be nicer on the water. A three day trip turned into a weeklong wild and memorable adventure (full story here). Now we know that most boats are not in prime condition, few towns have boats with motors, few captains speak English, and very rarely will someone know the wind or weather in advance. So if you’re fit and able to paddle, push a boat or swim if necessary, and get a thrill from risky situations, then this is a good option. Just check the winds beforehand and try to find a boat with a motor.

If you’re making a agreement for a multi day trip make sure you write up a contract. Also make sure to only pay half at the start (so they can buy gas) and pay the rest upon arrival, this is normal. We hand wrote a contract that said “750,000 A for getting from Morondava to Morombe. If wind is not good, we will sail. Price includes water bottles.” And we all signed it.

Travel Costs
Here are some legs we took to give you a range of prices (in Ariary) to keep in mind.

  • 14 hour taxi-brouss drive – 35-40,000
  • 1 day sailing pirogue – 80-100,000
  • 1 day sailing/motor pirogue – 100-150,000
  • 4 day sailing/motor pirogue – 750,000
  • 10 minute taxi ride in Tana – 5-10,000
  • Full day guide with car – 50-75,000 per person
  • Private 4×4 taxi for 8 hours  – 750,000

Other (budget) costs

  • Shack in a small village – 15-20,000
  • Hostel in Tana or bigger town – 20-50,000
  • I liter water bottle – 1,500-3,000
  • Dinner/lunch plate – 10-18,000
  • Breakfast – 5-10,000

People
Of the blogs we read quickly before getting to Madagascar, most mentioned how friendly people are here. We have very mixed feelings and have had a lot of strange experiences that we try to brush off as cultural and language differences. But, the reality is that we are white American travelers here during the low season, so the focus is on us everywhere we go, in a very impoverished country. A huge portion of people here make less than $2 a day and it’s very clear to see how little people live with, whether you’re in Tana or in the smaller villages. Even in our dumpy tees and shorts and dirty backpack we stand out. In the tourist hot spots like the Allee de Baobabs parents send their kids out to ask for money – hearing “money Madame” from a dirty faced, glassy eyed little girl at your waist is heartbreaking. The villages feel more relaxed and people were often just friendly. You’ll still be charged more for the crackers and water at the store, but they’re still so cheap it’s passable.

One good thing about being a tourist is that opportunities come to you. Wherever you go people will offer you a ride here or there and you can wait and see who gives you the best offer before committing. But, best to get suggestions from other travelers or your hostel and then go from there. Just know that anyone arranging anything for you or calling their friend for you or showing you on foot how to get somewhere will expect a tip.

We also learned that sex tourism is a common thing, especially in Nosy Be up north. European older men will enjoy a local woman and draw her to Europe with the promise of a luscious life. We saw a bunch of this in Tana and even along the west coast.

Money
Madagascar is in a long process of changing over from the Franc to the Ariary (5 F = 1 A). The main towns use A, but all the small villages we were in still quote prices in F, so make sure to clarify – they should accept both. ATMs are in major towns, but definitely not in the remote villages, so make sure to bring enough cash and more, since you will likely get caught in an unexpected situation. Big grocery stores in Tana were the only places we found that accepted credit card.

Internet/Electricity
We found Internet at hostels in Tana, Morondava and Toliara, but not in the villages in between. It would be smart to have a local SIM card with data just in case. Electricity was 24/7 in Tana, but anywhere else we went it was on for three hours in the morning and three hours at night, when you could use lights and charge things. Some places also didn’t have any.

Travel Route
We had a hard time deciding where to head in Madagascar, as it’s big and there’s a ton of nature to explore in every region. We decided that scuba and surfing were our focus and some hiking would be cool too. And Baobabs were a must.

This was our initial plan for 2 weeks:

  • Tana
  • Taxi to Morondava to see the baobabs
  • Taxi to Antisrabe to transfer to another taxi-brousse
  • Taxi to Parque d’angringitra or hiking
  • Taxi to Andavadoaka for scuba
  • Taxi to Toliara for surfing
  • Taxi to Tana

Which turned into:

  • Tana
  • Taxi to Morondava to see baobabs
  • Pirogue over 4 days to Andavadoaka
  • Private driver to Toliara
  • Fly to Tana

With a just two weeks, our initial plan was a little overzealous and we didn’t take into account the real time it takes to get around, which meant we had to splurge for a private car and flight toward the end. We had an adventure for sure, just very different than the initial plan. We’d suggest choosing one or two areas if you have limited time and planning day trips once you get there. Wouldn’t suggest going to Madagascar until you have 3 weeks or more available.

Food
On the west coast we had fish and rice for most meals. While we skipped a meal probably every day and snacked instead, food is so cheap that eating out won’t set you back. The offering was always fish grilled or sauced with rice, sometimes chicken or zebu.

Packing
Keep your stuff as minimal as possible. We were in the midst of 8 months of travel, so our 65oz bags were bigger than necessary and we felt our things made us stand out more. In April, the end of the dry season, here is what we would’ve packed for a mostly beachy experience with some hiking…

  • Two or three simple outfits – would be great to bring clothes you can give away
  • Shorts for the day with zip pockets
  • Pants for bugs at night or on hikes
  • One lightweight sweatshirt (though some hiking can get chilly)
  • Sneakers and flip flops (more serious hiking might require boots)
  • Swim suit
  • Rashguard
  • Sun lotion
  • Bug spray
  • Hat and sunglasses
  • Binoculars
  • Body wipes and toilet paper
  • Toiletries
  • Rain poncho and backpack cover (durable garbage bag for pack pack if taking pirogue)
  • Book
  • Minimal electronics (we felt inappropriate using nice cameras)
  • GoPro or waterproof phone
  • Waterproof cover for important documents and Sea to Summit dry bag for electronics
  • DL an offline map (maps.me) and currency converter
  • Pens to give to kids that ask for money
  • Blowup neck pillow for overnight taxis
  • Small wallet for pocket change
  • Small bills are best if you’re buying food in villages
  • Nalgene
  • Snacks – in Tana you can find bigger markets, but in the smaller villages it’s mostly crackers, cookies and minimal fruit.
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