Madagascar… the mere thought of it makes me want to go back! It was my best travel experience ever sofar, ticking all the boxes:
- beautiful country with amazing parks so drastically different from each other
- Amazing views- Mesmerising Canyon, Rainforests,Traditional villages, Great beaches…
- Relatively safe to travel the Malagasy way in “Taxi brousse”(Bush taxis)- an adventure in itself!
- Friendly people & relative safe
- Sooooo budget-friendly!
Maybe not the flight, depending from where you fly from, but once in the country, you feel rich with the little you have. The biggest note is 10,000 Malagasy Ariary, equals to about 3 € … so you can end up with a huge amount of notes! Our 3 weeks backpacking holidays costed 4,029,550 Malagasy Ariary (1200 euros) for two people excluding flights, including everything else! We didn't restrain ourselves on food; paid parc visits including compulsory guide fees and tips and even rented a 4x4 for a couple of days.
Since it’s not far from Mauritius, it was a country I always wanted to discover, but talking to friends who visited Madagascar helped to accelerate the decision! None of us did exactly the same itinerary. They did South, South-West, East, North East, we did North-West & North… From each of these experiences, there was one thing in common: everyone fell in love with Madagascar!
Before our trip, we spent a lot of time reading about the different regions of Madagascar, being undecided about where to go to discover the most. It is a big country and doing a loop can prove to be a real mission if you “only” have 2 or 3 weeks and do not do domestic flights. We set our hearts for the North-western region as it seemed to have most of what we wanted to see of the country, for our first trip (not the last!), while only using public transport.
Antananarivo- Ankarafantsika park- Majunga- Nosy Be- Nosy Komba- Ankarana park- Mt d’Ambre Park - Ramen - Diego Suarez (Antsiranana)- Antananarivo. We were a couple, travelling from end July to August. This article is part 1 of 3 articles covering our 3 weeks backpacking trip: I find it difficult to write less!
Ok, let me tell you more about our adventure!
Which did not start very peacefully… A week before our flight, we received a cancellation email from Air Madagascar, but at the same time reassured that the flight was only moved for 2 hours earlier, with a South African airline. Little did we know about the strike throughout the company, which learned later on, during our trip. One of our friends had warned us about that possibility, so we did not plan any domestic flight.
Week 1 from Antananarivo to Nosy Be
Day 1: From Ivato Airport to Antananarivo (Tana)
At the airport, we were approached by local people proposing to exchange money, informally but we preferred the normal way. Well informed by our travel guide (book), we took the shuttle bus service, which was half of the price compared to the taxi. From there to the capital, there were rice fields along the road & people transforming clay into bricks and the houses made of these.
As we approached Tana, the roads got busier, there were Taxi Brousses everywhere, filled with way too many people. The conductors were holding the back doors, which were not closed as the taxi moved from one collection point to another! Hmmm… we planned for travelling 90 % of our holidays by taxi brousses… that was not reassuring!
The shuttle stopped in front of our hotel (Tana-Jacaranda), which was basic, but nice. We dropped our bags and went for a walk around Tana to book our Taxi brousse ticket to Majunga at the “Gare routiere” before sunset. We were warned, by the friendly receptionist to be careful with our purse and cameras and were advised to always take taxis, especially at night.
In the city, there were street hawkers selling all sorts of things, from vegetables (often pre-cut & mixed) and cakes to beauty products and car parts. Tana is filled with the oldest cars (incl all taxis), exhaust fumes made breathing uncomfortable. The city buzzes with people in commercial streets. We were a bit overwhelmed and, with the warnings, did not dare to take many pictures, although there would have been many interesting ones! No tourists in sight (at least not fair-skinned ones: Thibault was the only one!)… Unguided walks in Tana are probably not very famous!
We bought a ticket for the Majunga at the Taxi brousse station for the next day. From there we took a city taxi to La Varangue restaurant labelled “Top choice” in the guide. Although we were on a budget, we didn't want to restrain ourselves too much, especially in Madagascar, where quality food can be really cheap compared to Europe, Mauritius and even South Africa!
La Varangue is decorated with Antiques and the service and food are among the finest you can get in Madagascar. I was surprised to be given then menu without prices, while Thibault's included all the details! Are guys still the only ones who should pay for the restaurant!? It was also relatively expensive, compared to others in Mada, but still very cheap for a top choice & high end:. We had a delicious luxurious treat for only 55,000 Malagasy Ariary/ 16 € per person, including wine & a selection of all the mouth-watering desserts proposed!
Day 2: Tana to Ankarafantsika
Our Taxi brousse trip was scheduled for 7 a.m. We arrived ahead of time, as advised, but waited nearly 2 hours… We did not know about the most reliable Taxi brousse company “Cotisse” for this journey. The announced time was 8 hours for Ankarafantsika park. The first stop was in a small village where there were only hotelys (cheapest small local restaurants).
First immersion into Malagasy Hotely Food...
We followed our driver & the Malagasy people in our van/mini-bus in one of the Hotelys for lunch. Luckily for us, the owner spoke French, so we managed to order Chicken “en sauce” and rice, which we preferred to fish, considering that we were not close to the sea. I avoided the salad (even though I love salad) as I wanted to avoid the risk of getting sick. The food was not to our taste... to say the least! We each had a bowl of Ranovola or burnt rice tea, with our meal. It is a typical Malagasy drink. Water, whether from the tap or obtained from rivers, is not drinkable, unless thoroughly boiled. For this special tea, the burnt rice is used to flavour the water. We did not dare trying, though just the smell made me think it is an acquired taste.
While we were eating, the driver was fixing the van: the oil pipe was leaking. As time passed by, we were afraid we would not reach the village close to Ankarafantsika park, before it the night… nothing was booked, as we read and were told there was no need. We did several simultaneous WC (in the bushes) and mechanic pauses before arriving to destination.
Winding country road, uphill, downhill, through plains and villages with small huts made of mud/cow poo & straw. I loved the sight of these huts, which reminded me of grand-mother's stories about the construction of such houses, in Mauritius, back in the days... something I only used to imagined and never actually saw. It felt like going back in time.
For dinner, we stopped at another Hotely, in a very busy little village, where all the Taxis and lorries stop. Thinking about giving the food another go, we tried the Ravitoto, one of the local specialities made of pork and shredded cassava leaves. For future taxi brousse trips, we decided we would buy some French paté & Bread from the Supermarket... We both definitely failed the immersion in the popular local gastronomy!
Arriving near the park around 9 pm, with stopped at Ankarafantsika park entrance, which was 5km away from the village where we initially planned to find a room. Since it was night time, it was the best thing to do, according to us. Our journey from Tana to Ankarafantsika lasted 14 hours, instead of 8! It was pitch dark, but we found the gatekeeper who opened a room for us.
Day 3: Ankarafantsika Park - Mahajanga (Majunga)
After breakfast at the park’s restaurant, we went exploring, with our guide (compulsory in the park), Modeste.
We saw 4 of the 8 types of Lemurs present in the park, and also an owl which was well camouflaged. Can you easily see it in the photo? Modeste was an amazing spotter & knows a lot about them.
We continued to the breathtaking Canyon view. It was truly Magnificent... one of the highlights of our trip! Modeste proposed that we have a closer look at the Canyon. According to him a lot of guides discourage going down, as they do not want to take the risk of going down the path - which was not at its best. It was quite slippery, with some sand eroding, but definitely doable: it was easy for us who love hiking off the beaten track. The landscape is out of this world! It felt like we were in a dreamland and we did not want to leave!
We had a seafood lunch at the Park’s restaurant: good food, served in big portions. Then, we set off for the Baobab tour, which we did not find amazing except for the Cameleons. They were so good at camouflage that Modeste’s ability to spot them was impressive!
On the way back, Modeste reserved our seats in the Taxi Brousse heading to Majunga. At first, it seems like the Taxi Brousse is full, but there is always space in a Taxi Brousse in Madagascar! A little squeezed, and not very comfortable, but it was ok. For shorter journeys, that is up to 3 hours, one seat per person doesn’t apply!
People in the van start speaking to me in Malagasy, thinking I was from the country, and it was not the first time! On road to Majunga, the Taxi stopped at various villages where children ran near the van selling all sorts of packed snacks and ready-made finger food: Zebu Skewers, Samoussas etc, for the road.The Malagasy people in our van (we were the only foreigners) were fond of this. The food smelled quite good, but we did not feel tempted… not yet.
We arrived at the buzzing Majunga taxi station where there were lots of tuk tuks, and pulled rickshaws- common transport in the city. From there, we took a Tuk tuk to Mme Chabaud’s hotel, the most budget option in Majunga. Choosing the cheapest room at Ar 14,000 (4 €) with common showers and bathroom, we did not feel warmly welcome. The room was ok, but no lights in shared the showers & toilets, which did not seem very clean neither… As in all communal facilities, I kept my flip flops on at all times!
Day 4: Majunga
We spent the day walking around the city to the port, admiring the local life and the contrasts in the modes of transport: pulled rickshaws, Zebu carts, Tuk tuks and brand new cars... all on the same road.
The famous Baobab in Majunga (21 m circumference), was sadly in the middle of a round-about and painted in white. It is considered "fady" (taboo) to touch it.
At the end of the day, we bought some food in a supermarket, preparing for future Taxi Brousse journeys. Big surprise… the price of a packet of biscuits was nearly equal to a very good meal at a good restaurant! We realised even more how cheap local food is! It is less expensive to eat in a good restaurant than to buy provisions from the supermarket, as most are imported.
Up for a little "luxurious treat" now and then: we enjoyed a sundowner at Karibu Hotel, a small bar-restaurant with sea and sunset view, and infinity pool.
After diner in town, we opted for a pulled rickshaw for the first time. Quite a bizarre feeling to be pulled by a person… Not an experience I would like to renew.
Day 5: Majunga- Grotte d’Anjohibe (caves)
Departure set for 7:30: Rivo (Guide John) and his team were just on time. This was the only time during our trip where we had a private 4x4 trip over 2 days with driver and guide. There was no other way to do the Anjohibe Caves as the road is not practicable without 4x4. The driver very rarely exceeded 25km/h!
It took us about 4 hours to reach the “Hotely de La Grotte” (Riv’s hotel). It was a very bumpy but enjoyable ride. Rivo offered that we sleep in a bungalow instead of the budget tent option since there was no one else. It was very rustic, with Latanier palm leaves & rafia wood. To our surprise, we met Lemurs at Rivo's hotel, which we believe they domesticated.
A guide showed us the way to the Natural pool, surrounded by Traveller’s palms. We, then, visited the secret waterfall: amazing place, with turquoise water. We spent the afternoon there, enjoying the view, just the two of us… I guess thanks to Air Madagascar's staff strike!
Back from the waterfall, we went for a walk to a nearby village. My friend showed the children how to take photos of their friends with his camera. It was nice to be able to communicate and share something, while not understanding their language and vice versa.
At night, Rivo set up a small campfire. We enjoyed the local beer and music by a musician from a nearby village, who played guitar, energetically shaking a Maracas with his foot. We tipped him, unsure whether he was a surprise in Rivo’s package or just a freelance. For dinner we had grilled Zebu BBQ, chips and salads- simple but good. The sky was so clear, being far from light pollution. we could see the whole milky way with naked eyes.
Day 6: Hotely de la Grotte- Anjohibe Caves
For breakfast, we had fresh croissants, which we jokingly requested when Rivo asked about any special requests. I wondered where they came from, as there doesn’t seem to be any town nearby except small traditional village- surprising that there would be a bakery here… Maybe they just had a great trick to keep it Fresh! We also tried fried Sweet potato which were very tasty. Then, en route for the Anjohibe caves which were 4 km from the Hotely. On the way, we met a wild boar hunter, who put one under the straw, in his Zébu Cart to protect it from the heat.
The Caves were really impressive! We were in awe in front of the amazing formations of Stalagmites (upward growing) and Stalactites (growing downwards from the ceiling) mineral formations.
Back to the Hotely, we had the amazing surprise of having crabs for lunch! Not easy to find the flesh with only our teeth and fingers, but the effort was well worth it… we got a bit dirty eating them!
The trip with Rivo was definitely another highlight of our Malagasy holidays. He is a passionate about his country and loves his job. We also appreciated our driver, who was discreet, but extremely friendly and was always happy to answer our questions. The food Rivo proposed was nothing compared to the usual Hotelys.
After lunch, back on the road towards Majunga, with some interesting local encounters: Malagasy people in Zebu Cart, women washing by the river; a lorry filled with charcoal (Rivo also stocked up- it's the local gas); and children playing with a ball made with rolled pieces of fabric.
Rivo arranged for a Taxi Brousse to Ambanja for us. 12 hours overnight ride! Lucky that each person has his/her own seat for these long journeys! We enjoyed talking to the driver, who was very fluent in French and was also happy to talk… we probably helped to keep him awake!
Day 7- Ankify- Nosy Be
We arrived at Ambanja early morning. Overwhelmed by Taxi Brousses drivers trying to attract the most people possible in their cars, heading to Ankify- departure point for Hell-ville, Nosy Be.
From Ankify, we travelled via shuttle speed boat. The Skippers were very serious about Life Jackets. In Nosy Be, we ate breakfast at the Oasis: good Croissants and Pains au Chocolat. Up for another little “upmarket” treat, we had already booked a hotel in the North of the island. We took a Tuk Tuk for about 25km. Le Grand Bleu hotel, set on a hill, was managed by a French couple.
The bar-restaurant and infinity pool overlook the sea. In this “high end” hotel, we still opted for the budget traveller’s room, rustic, but comfortable. There is a small path leading down to a desert beach, from the hotel. Since it was not close to other restaurants, we had dinner there. Compared to what we had so far, the food was quite expensive and the quality not great at the time we were there. It's the first time during our trip that the price in Euros were shown before the local price- it makes you feel like it’s nothing! We decided to eat out the next night even if it meant taking a taxi. You may be up for a surprise when/if you go! (let me know if so!)
That's all for our first week!
If a budget backpacking, travelling with the locals, is not your thing, you can still discover this amazing country by renting a car (4x4), which most of the time comes with the driver!
I would love to hear your comments/questions. Feel free to let me know what you think.