Before embarking on our absolutely epic 2-week adventure by car across Madagascar, we had a lot of questions. Most of the information we could find online was quite outdated or missing crucial details.
But we ended up learning so much in just two weeks, things we wish we had known before going. Many aspects of traveling across Madagascar – notably the safety and road conditions – were either better or significantly worse than we expected. Here’s what we learned:
14 Things You Should Know Before Going to Madagascar
- The locals are extremely friendly, but uphold totally unique traditions and cultural norms you should be aware of
- You need to be careful of what you touch in nature
- Only 25% of locals speak other languages than “Malagasy”. You should learn these phrases before going
- Roads in Madagascar are probably even worse than you expect
- You pretty much have to rent a 4×4 and hire a driver to fully explore the country
- Finding accommodation in Madagascar is easier done by calling than on the internet
- Food in Madagascar really isn’t that great
- The safety in Madagascar is far worse than you would expect
- Cell coverage in Madagascar is overall terrible, but one carrier is better than the rest (Orange)
- Flights to Madagascar are cheaper if you search directly on the airline’s website
- The local airline (Tsaradia) is known to change flight times and even dates without any notice
- Though Madagascar is probably cheaper than you’d expect, there are still many costs you need to factor in
- Finding the best driver, car rental, and guide isn’t as easy as you’d expect.
1. The locals of Madagascar are fiercely friendly, but have a very unique way of life
Locals in Madagascar as known as the “Malagasy“. They are extremely friendly and charismatic, strikingly different from mainland Africa (especially our experience in Guinea Bissau).
There’s an abundance of local tribes, most of whom have completely meshed with modern civilization, capitalism, technology, and the rest of Madagascar. You’re unlikely to know that they are in a tribe.
What sets them apart are their local traditions – traditions like redressing of the dead in the “Haut-Plateau” (high plateau), stealing of the dowry in the south/central, or specialized dancing/twerking on the Southwest coast (Tulear).
You’ll also find the most interesting genetic features in the world here, with plenty of Indonesian/Malaysian phenotypes – especially in the Haut Plateau regions, increasingly mixed with more Bantu (African) phenotypes as you move North or towards the West Coast. Fascinating!!
2. The fauna and flora is like you’ve never seen – but be careful what you touch
To be honest, the fauna and flora of Madagascar is what drew us in the most. Sure, the movie Madagascar may have played into that… maybe….
Boots on the ground, the story is just as real – perhaps with one or two disconnects;
- There are rice fields everywhere. In fact, it’s one of Madagascar’s primary exports and food. These give off an exotic mixture of Southeast Asia & highlands Africa over much of the country.
- Unfortunately, Madagascar has experienced devastating deforestation over much of the country, leaving so much open, empty land.
One major (pleasant) surprise we had were the land formations. You’ll see the most incredible land formations dating from even the early Pliocene ages (Isalo), Jurassic ages (Tsingy) and more. Places that resemble everything from The Grand Canyon to Costa Rica to Western Europe to beaches like the Seychelles. There are even whales. It’s truly insane!
Because of this insane variety and uniqueness, most of the nature here is protected. This means in national parks, you can’t touch anything. Not even taking a tiny flower or leaf home. Nada.
Plus, you never know what’s poisonous.
3. Most locals in Madagascar don’t speak English. Here are the common phrases you should know in Madagascar’s native language, Malagasy
As only 25% of the Malagasy population speak French, and even less speak English, knowing a few common phrases goes a long way. Some of these include:
- Salama: Hello, or Greetings. Some regions prefer “Akory” or “Salama Akory”
- Veloma: Bye
- Welcome: Tonga soa! (You will see this on a lot of road signs)
- Misaotra: Thanks!
- Tsia: No
- Ochino: How much?
Most o’s are pronounced like oo/ou and r’s have a bit of an ‘l’ sound, so “Akory” sounds like “akoolli”. Veloma sounds like velooma. Misaotra sounds like me’saoootra’. Etc etc.
But the most important word? Vazaha. This means “foreigner”/stranger/white person. Everyone calls you this.
4. Roads, driving, and trip planning in Madagascar: why a road trip here can be so tough
When we were planning our trip (maybe the most exhausting part!), we were constantly told that Google Maps is not a good source. Well, turns it, that was both true and false.
First off, Google Maps is great to get a general sense of distances, places, and overall planning. Here’s where it wasn’t great for Madagascar:
- Some roads absolutely missing – such as private roads, one of which is included in this itinerary.
- The type of road, quality of road, and traffic information is very limited or non-existent.
- Quoted times, though not as bad as other places we’ve driven (such as our 2-month Central America trip), are 10-30% less than what we experienced – with a very fast driver
The road quality varies from the smoothest highway you’ve ever seen (freshly built by the Chinese) or “my tooth fillings are coming out” kind of bad. And everything else in-between.
5. Do you need a 4×4 to drive around Madagascar? Here’s why you do.
To visit the most epic and worth-it places in Madagascar, you will need a 4×4 – and you will also need a driver. Some of the places are like a maze, with each road branching off to 3-4 others every 5 minutes.
We 100% recommend finding English speaker or asking English speaking guide to accompany. Make sure to speak by phone to make sure they actually speak understandable English. We’re telling you this out of experience….
Lots of local workmanship makes getting around the country possible. You’ll experience private roads (and having to negotiate tolls), private BAC ferries, and lots broken down cars (hopefully not yours).
6. The accommodation in Madagascar is mostly budget friendly and comfortable, but is hard to reserve
On this trip, we mostly stayed in B&B’s, lots of bungalows, and one or two ecolodges. Overall, accommodation in Madagascar is far better and cheaper than what we experienced in West Africa, for example.
We stayed in charming, clean bungalows for as cheap as $17 a night. The most expensive place we stayed at was an Ecolodge for $55 with breakfast for two. Note that many accommodations have slow/no internet in the rooms, no hot water, and sometimes no electricity at night.
For almost each accommodation, we had to ask our guide to call ahead and book them. Online presence is not yet widespread in Madagascar.
Most places have a restaurant so you won’t have to go out seeking food, but they mostly serve quite bland tourist food – i.e. what they think Europeans like to eat, just not as good (for the most part). That brings me to the food part of this journey (very important!)
7. Food in Madagascar isn’t that great – but there are some gems
The Malagasy are known for many things, but unfortunately food is not really one of them.
That’s not to say that the food is bad. It’s just not great, overall (except for some places in Antananarivo [‘Tana’] and upscale hotels).
Street food is readily available – in fact, locals are more than happy to sell you some. They’ll readily come up to you offering the speciality of the locality. These come in handy on long road trips where you just don’t have the time to stop at eat.
We ate/drank plenty of fried potatoes, rice, fresh juices, little fried rice cakes, some fried chicken, and more off the street.
To get the real (and cheap) local restaurant food, you’ll have to go to what’s known as a “Hotely“, sometimes just called “Hotel”. Not to be confused with what we think of as a hotel!
Some of the local Malagasy dishes include:
- All sorts of ‘manioc’ – cassava leave dishes
- Grilled zebu, a kind of cattle/ox
- Delicious rice cake
- ‘Golden’ water – leftover water that was used to boil rice
- A tomato salad called Lasary Voatabia
- All sorts of soups called “potage”, many with rice
- Braised meat
- Fried tiny fish (perhaps sardines), mostly river fish
Some of our favorite places to eat in Madagascar include the Mad Zebu, Coin du Foie Gras, Citizen, Hotel Thermal, and Le Corail.
8. The safety in Madagascar is shockingly worse than expected
Honestly, this one shocked us – even after going to places as “unsafe” as South Sudan or Somaliland.
We were told by our driver that driving at night wasn’t an option in almost all corners of the country. At first, we thought this was an exaggeration, so we decided to fact check it for ourselves.
But no matter who we asked, tourist-y or not, the warnings were the same. It’s simply not safe at night in most places.
Our scary experience in Madagascar
One night in Antsirabe, the third most populous city in Madagascar, we decided to walk the 10 minutes from our restaurant of choice to the hotel. Well, attempted to walk I should say.
After getting wayyyy too much unwanted attention from locals (without any jewelry or fancy clothing, at night) and unsolicited hollering, we called our driver to come pick us up. This was the most uncomfortable we felt, even worse than our experience in Guinea-Bissau getting followed by rough-looking locals on a remote island.
Luckily in the end we did not have any other bad experiences with safety, and never felt in real danger – even during the day.
Some areas are worse than others – and that local knowledge is the exact reason you need a driver and/or guide.
9. Poor cell phone coverage / data plans in Madagascar means it’s not the digital nomad’s dream
If you’re looking to do online work in Madagascar, contrary to what’s written in other blogs, don’t. Just don’t.
It’s very frustrating to work online on the road in Madagascar. The connection is very brittle, breaking around each bend as you go around/near hills, working only in select villages. LTE here is a tease – sometimes it’s slower than 3G.
Cell tower reception is based on line of sight, so going around a hill means no service. Upscale hotels and many cafes do have wifi, but speed varies insanely. Some places have Fiber-Optic (100+ mbps), especially around Tana and Antsirabe. But others barely have Edge (E), and you’re lucky to see kbps.
In our Madagascar cellular experience, we found that Orange was overall the best cell phone network, with AirTel in second, and Telma being the worst – in spite of the ads you see at the airport. However, it truly varies per locale. Having a carrier like T-Mobile that can lock onto different networks is optimal.
10. You should book direct on the airline’s website for great deals on flights into Madagascar
It’s a bit hard to get to Madagascar, and it may require some work on your end.
First off, there are daily options here, but they vary. For example:
- Air France flies here 5x a week from Paris-CDG
- Air Madagascar seems to have 2x flights a week to Paris-CDG, but they are very unreliable
- Kenya Airways flies here several times a week with connections to Europe and the USA via Nairobi
- Ethiopian also flies here 4 times a week from Addis Ababa, with connections onwards all over the world
Google flights is pretty good, but we found better and more options by searching directly on the airlines’ websites – especially Kenya Airways and Ethiopian.
11. Taking a flight inside Madagascar saves a lot of time – but there are some issues with the local airline
There is a local airline in Madagascar, and flying can save you a ton of unwanted road time. The airline is called Tsaradia.
However, there are some caveats:
- Tsaradia is known to cancel, delay, or move flights ahead randomly without notice
- It’s terribly hard to get a refund from Tsaradia
- Flights can be expensive – sometimes upwards of $250 one-way
- You’ll need to arrange for your driver to pick you up at that city. In this itinerary, flying from Tana to Morondava can save a day and a half of road travel – if the local flight lines up with you international flight.
- Many payment methods aren’t accepted. Sometimes only debit cards, sometimes only European cards, I’m not sure what the secret method is.
It’s a pretty cool experience flying with the local airline over these majestic landscapes. I’m honestly quite bummed it didn’t line up for me – check ahead on the Tsaradia website to see if flights line up with your dates.
12. Visiting Madagascar is probably cheaper than you expected
Madagascar offers many things for very cheap:
- Accommodations typically in the $30-50 for two people per night range
- Local food is usually less than $3-5 per person per meal, tourist food is maybe $10 at a hotel. Street food is often $1 or less!
- Gas and diesel are actually quite cheap, around $1/L ($4ish per gallon), but you’ll do a lot of driving
- Parks are quite expensive, always requiring a guide. These can easily exceed $125-150 for two people on one visit!
- Tips are expected, but not at the amounts Americans are used to (10% is a good amount, more like in Europe)
- A driver, car, and even guide can be hired for about $45-75/day. This can be split between a group for savings. It does not include fuel.
The local currency is Malagasy Ariary. As of late 2022, 100000=$23.51.
The most expensive part of your trip will likely be the airfare, which can easily exceed $2000 per person roundtrip. However, deals can be had – especially on Ethiopian. I’ve seen roundtrip flights for as low as $651!
13. Make sure to find the best car rental, drive, and guide before heading to Madagascar – and make sure they speak English!
As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. We opted to go by word-of-mouth with our driver/guide/car, and ended up with a very robust 4×4, an overall friendly and welcoming driver, but a guide that seemed to be a bit dishonest. Our relationship was definitely contemptuous at times.
Your driver/guide may initially have reservations about this itinerary; most are unaware of the newly built (as in this last month) roads that allow this 2-week trip to work seamlessly. I assure you: we did it, and there is plenty of slack/leeway built into it. If you want to see and do the most, this guide is for you. That being said, here are some tips for choosing a guide in Madagascar:
- Car hire/rentals and drivers/guides usually cost $50-85 USD per day, and haggling is sometimes possible
- You may get a better price in Malagasy Ariary (MGA)
- Ensure that you have a robust 4×4 that can survive the road to Tsingy de Bemaraha
- Call your guide: make sure he/she speaks English (or whatever language you speak ) fully fluently before committing
Some of the bigger tour agencies offering both self-drive and driver-guide car rentals in Madagascar include:
We have no experience with these companies, but by first look Lonely Dream seems to have the best flexibility to accommodate this itinerary.
In any case, you will absolutely love this incredible and unique country. Make sure to read about our epic 2-week ultimate road trip across Madagascar!