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A land unlike any other, Madagascar is an enticing destination for those who find its lack of modern conveniences, tourist infrastructure and efficient transport system an interesting proposition rather than a problem. Despite its volatile political situation, Madagascar continues to draw adventurers from all over the globe.
The fourth largest island in the world, Madagascar is one of the most bio-diverse countries on earth, home to thousands of species of plant and animal life of which about 80 percent cannot be found anywhere else on the planet. Situated off the east coast of Africa, Madagascar is very different from its African neighbour, and its uniqueness in the world has led some to class it as the Eighth Continent.
Madagascar is world famous for its lemurs, of which there are about 50 different types, ranging from the unusual to the utterly bizarre. Lemurs are endemic to the island and generally resemble a cross between a monkey and a squirrel; but lemurs are not the only curious creatures inhabiting this exotic realm. Dwarf chameleons, tomato frogs, giant jumping rats and hedgehog-like tenrecs are among the host of peculiar indigenous fauna; while the country's isolation has developed plants with remarkable shapes such as the swollen Baobab, Madagascar's national tree, and the spiny forest that exhibits an incomparable ecosystem. Wilderness areas such as Isalo National Park and Tsingy Nature Reserve are wonderful places to discover Madagascar's exotic fauna, flora and striking geological features.
Besides this natural wonderland, Madagascar also has its share of beautiful beaches and wonderful coral reefs, such as those found on the cluster of islands off the north east coast. Best known is Nossi Bé; while Ile Ste-Marie off the east coast, and Toliara in the south, are also major attractions for divers, snorkellers and sunbathers. The bustling capital, and first and last stop for visitors arriving by air, is Antananarivo, or 'Tana', which has a distinctly French flavour and is an excellent place to shop for Malagasy arts and crafts. Go looking for the unexpected and be ready to mingle with a warm-hearted nation, and you will find an undeniably fascinating destination that makes for a refreshingly different sort of holiday under the tropical sunshine.
Boasting miles of verdant landscape with pretty beaches, scenic rainforests and characteristic towns and ports, Madagascar offers some lovely attractions for visitors who choose to visit this inspiring and unique land. With a number of reserves and national parks boasting a variety of magical wildlife, including the famous lemurs, Madagascar's unique creatures and botanicals have dubbed it 'the eighth continent' and visitors will be enchanted by the beauty of this mysterious land. Head to the town on Antsirabe to view the volcanic lakes of Andraikiba and Tritriva, or relax in the therapeutic thermal baths. Visit Ile Sante Marie for some of the best whale watching opportunities, wander through herb gardens and enjoy the scents of vanilla and lemongrass, or for a chilling good time, take a spooky tour of the pirate cemetery. Toamasina offers some fantastic architectural wonders as well as the popular Jardin D'Essel and the Parc Ivoloina. For active travellers, water sports abound here, such as diving, swimming, snorkeling and canoeing, to name a few, while landlubbers can enjoy the plentiful walks and hikes through the many reserves Madagascar offers, while viewing some of the most fascinating birds and animals on the planet.
The Malagasy people are friendly and approachable. Business is somewhat formal, but lightweight suits are appropriate due to the subtropical climate. Although Malagasy is the official language of Madagascar, French is the language of business and the government. English is only more common in the tourism sector. Translators can be arranged. Business hours are usually Monday to Saturday.
Generally the climate of Madagascar is subtropical, with a hot and rainy season between November and April, and a cooler dry season from May to October. However there is a big variation in climate depending on altitude and geographical position. The west coast is drier than the east coast and the central highlands, while the far south and south west is a semi-desert region that experiences very little rainfall. The east coast receives the most rain and is hot and humid during the wet season, and also prone to cyclones between February and March. Temperatures are much cooler in the highlands. Antananarivo has a pleasant, temperate climate. Along the coast temperatures range from 81°F to 90°F (27°C to 32°C) in the wet season and 64°F to 72°F (18°C to 22°C) in the dry season. May to October is the most pleasant time to travel to Madagascar, with cooler temperatures and little rain.
The international dialling code for Madagascar is +261. The outgoing code is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0027 for South Africa). To make an international call to Madagascar, the dialling code of 261 must be followed by a two-digit operator code (e.g. 20 for TELMA, the most reliable), then the regional code (e.g. 22 for Antananarivo) and then the five-digit number. A GSM 900 network is in use, covering major cities and main roads. Public Internet access exists in large cities; there are a few Internet cafes in Antananarivo.
Do not photograph military or police establishments while in Madagascar. Identification should be carried at all times by visitors. In rural areas, locals may abide my a number of taboos called fady, which should be respected by visitors at all times.
Visitors older than 21 years may bring 500 cigarettes or 25 cigars or 500g tobacco, as well as one bottle of alcohol into the country without incurring import duty. Visitors are allowed to export a maximum of 100g vanilla without cost.
Electrical current is 220 volts AC, 50Hz. Plugs are generally two-pin.
Air Madagascar connects Antananarivo to 51 towns on the island, although flights do not depart daily for most locations and air travel can be much more expensive than going by train or bus. The train journey between the capital and Toamasina, and between Fianarantsoa and Manakara is recommended for its scenery. Buses and taxi-brousseare the most commonly used form of transport for the local population and are generally overcrowded, leave at irregular times and are slow. The island has just three main roads (from Tana to Mahajanga, to Toamasina and to Tuléar), with dirt tracks covering the rest of the country, and many roads are impassable during the rainy season. Car hire is not common and not generally recommended, but agencies can be found in the main tourist towns.
Malaria is a risk throughout the year and is highest on the coast of Madagascar. Cases of chikungunya fever were reported in February 2010 and are transmitted by mosquitoes; precautionary measures against being bitten should be taken at all times. In April 2008, an outbreak of Rift Valley fever was reported in five regions; contact with domestic animals and mosquitoes should be avoided. While AIDS has not reached the levels of other sub-saharan countries, protection should be used at all times. All travellers coming from a country with yellow fever require inoculation against the disease. Other risks include bilharzia, tuberculosis and rabies. Tap water should not be drunk unless it has been boiled or chemically treated. Medical facilities are limited, and outside of the capital medical care may be difficult to find. Limited French medications are available in Tana and it is advisable to bring along a medical kit for private use. Comprehensive medical insurance is advised.
Malagasy is the official language, but French is used in business and government and is widely spoken in the main cities in Madagascar. A few people involved in the tourism industry might be able to speak some English, but it is not widely spoken.
The official currency is the Malagasy ariary (MGA), which has been reintroduced to replace the Malagasy franc. Coins and notes display both currencies, but newer notes display the ariary more prominently than the franc. One ariary is equal to five francs. Foreign currencies can be exchanged at banks and official bureaux de change, but the ariary cannot be changed back into hard currency. Some banks will only accept US dollars or Euro. Travellers cheques can be exchanged at most banks and in major hotels, but some banks refuse to accept them. ATMs are available in Antananarivo. Most major credit cards are starting to be accepted in top hotels and major travel agencies in the capital and other major towns, but have limited usage elsewhere.
Foreign visitors to Madagascar of most nationalities can obtain a tourist visa on arrival, provided they have at least one blank page in their passport reserved for the Immigration Authorities of Madagascar. Tourist visas are valid for 90 days, and cost MGA 140,000 (or equivalent in USD or EUR). A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required to enter Madagascar, if arriving within six days of leaving or transiting through an infected area. NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
The political situation in Madagascar is unstable, especially in the Ambohijatovo, Lac Anosy, Antaninarenina and Analakely areas. Violence is possible at any large gatherings and political or military installations. It is advised to travel with an established agency, and solo travellers should continually monitor the local media. Precautions against opportunistic crime, especially in the urban areas, should be taken. Pickpockets operate at the airport and in crowded areas such as markets. Travellers should carry ID at all times. At night, avoid walking around city centres and road travel outside urban areas as there have been occasional hold-ups on the main routes. The height of the cyclone season is from January to March and affects the coastal regions. Piracy is a concern in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean.
Tipping in Madagascar is not usual, although in European-style restaurants and hotels tips of 10-15% are expected.