3 Weeks In Madagascar on a Budget

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the spiny forest of Ifaty

Visiting Madagascar was a dream come true! Literally… I have been dreaming of it since childhood! I spent my childhood pouring over a big binder of pictures and information pages about all different endangered animals from the World Wildlife Foundation – including a large section on lemurs. I was most interested in the rainforest and worried so much that by the time I was old enough to visit a rainforest all the animals I loved would be gone! If I had waited until I was retired to start traveling, this indeed might have been true! Lemurs had always been a particular favorite but I really fell in love with them on a trip to Sweden about 12 years ago. I happened to stumble into a place called the Lemur House in the Skansen which housed a troupe of ring-tailed lemurs that would jump on you and eat out of your hand. From that point, I was fully obsessed and made it a top bucket list item to visit their homeland of Madagascar.

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Madagascar is not a particularly easy place to travel. First off it is HUGE. There is only a modest tourist infrastructure in some areas, few people speak english, roads are terrible and weather is highly variable in different parts of the country – meaning that it could be ideal in one area but so rainy in another that all the roads are washed out. Air Madagascar is known to be one of the most unreliable (and expensive!) airlines in the world but the only way to get to certain areas of the country. We did quite a bit of research to figure out how to best use our time. With 3 weeks, I assumed we could see everything! But not the case – we could really only pick 2 areas to focus on. So we picked the Masoala and the south.

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our trip map!

We arranged our trip through two local guides. There are lots of big tour companies in Madagascar which offer a few basic set itineraries that pretty much everyone does. I really dislike tour companies, set tours and the ridiculous amount these companies charge for their services! Also, I have found that most of the money you pay goes to someone sitting in an office in the US or UK – not to the local people on the ground doing all the hard work! Thus, we try our best to find the most direct source for a local guide to help us with our travels. You know you are getting an authentic experience from the most knowledgeable source and all your money goes where it should! Also you can build your tour exactly how you want it!We wanted to get out to the most remote and untouched primary forest possible, but didn’t want to have to spend 3-5 days hiking in. This made Masoala the best choice – it is a peninsula on the northeast coast of Madagascar with one of the largest areas of primary rainforest that goes right up to the beach.

It also has endemic species found nowhere else in Madagacar. Perfect! Except that it is one of the most expensive destinations to get to – owing to the flight plus chartered boat ride required to reach it. But I knew it would be worth it. We arranged our trip through a veteran local guide – Velomay Fields Elyeese. He was excellent and by far our best guide of the trip. We spent our first night camping on a small island called Nosy Mangabe then he arranged for us to stay with a local family in Masoala who had recently build 2 extra rooms for guests.

We had a cute little bungalow built in the traditional local manner – with a roof made of traveller palm leaves. We were right on the beach with the rainforest behind us and the local village as our neighbors. It was in no way glamorous but gave us the truly unique Malagasy experience we had hoped for. For a week we lived like locals – no electricity, no running water, eating meals off a small portable charcoal oven and using an out-house toilet. Our only option for a shower was a bucket of cold water over the head or a rinse in the ocean! We spent our days doing long treks through the rainforest. Often making our own path through the thick brush then up and down steep hillsides. Although there were many rare species of birds, reptiles, plants and lemurs – we were mainly hunting for the red ruffed lemur which is endemic to Masoala.

Red ruffed lemurs have had little exposure to humans so are very wild and difficult to see. They move quickly high up through the canopy and disappear with the smallest of noises. Finding and seeing them up close was amazing! We spent our nights searching for nocturnal lemurs in the trees and for tenrecs on the ground (a miniature hedgehog-like creature!).

When we needed a break from the oppressive heat of the rainforest, we could just take a few steps and be on the pristine picture perfect coast. You could literally walk for hours alone on the beach and find hardly another soul in site. The coastline is studded with large basalt and granite rock formations – which make it similar in appearance to the famous La Digue Beach in the Seychelles. We did some great snorkeling in different areas along the coast. We also canoed up a river to find a waterfall with natural pools for swimming.

One of our more special experiences was spending Christmas eve with the local villagers. They had only a small shell of a building for a church and to celebrate christmas, the village children gathered leaves, flowers and fruits from the forest to adorn their place of worship. I have never seen anything like it – such a heartwarming and beautiful sight.

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Christmas Eve in a Malagasy Village

The kids had been practicing for months to prepare a medley of dances to their favorite christmas songs. They even rigged up a curtain to allow costume changes. All the villagers crowded into the small space to watch. You could tell it was a big event and we felt very lucky to be able to attend. Madagascar is an incredibly poor country so Christmas has a much different meaning than it does in the US. There are no presents given and even having a single big family meal is too much for most to afford. But this didn’t change the joy in the children’s eyes just to be celebrating the holiday with all of their friends and family. We wished so much that we would have brought a bunch of toys for them. We did bring two kites for the kids and spent an afternoon teaching them how to use the toys. At first they were so confused but luckily there was just enough wind to show them how to get the kites going. They cheered with glee when the kites finally made it up in the air. Two little girls held up the kites while the rest of the group chased them around – we were amazed how much entertainment this provided them. They were running around for hours!

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first time flying kites!

After Masoala we flew back to Tana to start the road trip portion of our trip. We hired a local driver who would take us to each destination until we reached the southwest coast. Madagascar is not a drive yourself type of country. The roads are rough, windy and narrow. There is a cheaper option for public transportation via a taxi brousse which is the Mada equivalent of the combi or chickenbus. These small vans get filled to the brim with passengers then barrel down along the tenuous roads at high speeds. They are incredibly cheap but if you are going to go this route you need to have a lot of extra time – they have unreliable departure times and destination routes, often break down, make frequent stops and have a high risk of being highjacked. I’ve done enough of this type of traveling in my life – so I am now happy to pay for a local driver! It is also a nice way to offer reasonable employment to locals.

The capital city of Tana was interesting but we were happy to leave such a congested area. Tana is a HUGE city, densely populated with people, zebu (cattle), cars and houses perched at different heights along the surrounding hills. Every square inch of land was either covered in buildings or filled with rice paddies interspersed in the lowland areas – right in the center of town! Our first major stop after an overnight in Ansaribe was Ranomafana.

Once you get outside of Tana you mainly see rice fields or barren hills covering the land. It takes about 7 hours outside of Tana to start seeing forests again, but thankfully once we got into the Ranomafana area, lush forests began to reappear.

The town of Ranomafana is situated in a beautiful valley with a river running down the center – it reminded me of Fern Gulley! Ranomafana National Park is a 161 square mile area of protected forest that houses a huge number of endemic species. Unfortunately a large section of it was logged and has grown back as secondary forest. The problem with secondary forest is that you lose a lot of the original endemic species of trees and animals. The slow growing rainforest trees (ebony, rosewood) get chocked out by fast growing species – especially bamboo or non-native guava and pine trees. Many of the original endemic inhabitants of the forest cannot live in the secondary forest because the new trees don’t create the right kind of habitat. To see the most unique endemic animals you have to hike out to the primary forest – ideally for a few days to get really deep! We did a 6 hour hike to get into the primary and were lucky to find many species of lemur including sifakas, red fronted browns, greater gentle bamboo lemurs, golden bamboo lemurs, and red bellied lemurs. We missed the greater bamboo lemur because there are only 2 left in the area!

This was the first area where we encountered other tourists. There were only maybe 10 in the whole park – but it was kind of shocking to share our lemur viewing since we had the whole forest to ourselves in Masoala! Our guide told us that in the high season the trails are so clogged with loud italian and spanish tourist that all you hear is their voices all across the forest. Soo lucky we chose the right time of year to visit!

At each park you are assigned a local tour guide who is familiar with the unique flora and fauna of the area. They also commonly work with lemur spotters that are basically “guides in training.” Our spotter was excellent! He ran ahead to find the animals then directed us where to go. He would always help me get to the exact right spot that would offer the best view – which was not always easy. We often had to make our own trail through the forest, climbing up and down steep hillsides or standing in the middle of muddy streams. Our favorite experience was seeing sifakas for the first time! At one point I was within 3 feet from one and got so excited I fell flat on my butt and slid down the hill!

Our next stop was Anja Park which is a community reserve – started by locals to save the indigenous forest and the ringtail lemur population which was being heavily threatened by the surrounding villages. The lemurs were being killed both for a source of food and because they stole crops from the local farmers. Before the park was created there were less than 150 ringtail lemurs in the area – after 15 years there are now over 800. Money from the park goes directly to the community and is used to fund initiatives to improve food security for villagers.

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a baby ringtail lemur

A fish farm was built and our guide told us about how he introduced a new method of rice cultivation which uses less land and produces higher crop yields for the villages. This park was surprisingly one of our favorites! We loved the ringtails – one of the more friendly and comical of all the lemur species. They are very curious and although not tame – they do like to come close to analyze you. Then they dance around across the limbs above your head. The location is also incredible. Anja is in the central highlands where the landscape switches from dry plains to large granite cliffs and mountains. The “3 sisters mountains” jut out above the trees and you can hike up to a rocky outcropping to get an incredible view of the mountains and the valley below. A much easier way to spend the day than the tough rainforest hikes we had been doing. We also enjoyed the switch from the oppressive humidity of the tropical forests to the dry forest areas of Mada!

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View from the cliffs above Anja Park

We spent New Years in a not so ideal location – really in the middle of no where – Ambalavao. We had hopes of hanging out in a local bar to celebrate but a huge rainstorm kept us cooped up at our hotel. We hung out with our guides and some locals in the patio. After two drinks our guides pretty much fell asleep at the table! Lightweights! We, of course, stayed up to ring in 2017 with some party horns and champagne we had bought in Tana!

The next day the landscape got really interesting – the green valleys and stark granite cliffs switched into what looked like the southwestern US.

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Isalo National Park

Dry and desert-like red/brown layered rocky plateaus, buttes and other cool rock formations filled the countryside. The highest concentration of these rock formations are located in Isalo National Park. We chose to skip a visit there – due to the fact that is has a low density of endemic species and looks so much like our home in Colorado. We were happy just to see the landscape as we drove through it!

Our next stop was Zombitse National Park – another large conserved area of dry deciduous forest. Our special sighting here was the Verreaux Sifaka. These are known for being very social. They also often move along the ground in a sideways motion that looks like dancing! img_0952-copyWe got up close with a group and one of the lemurs took a particular liking to us. He followed me whenever I would move to a different tree. He came up so close and looked at me so longingly that I decided to hold out my hand to see what he would do. Amazingly, he gingerly embraced it then pulled it toward his face to sniff it! Then held it to his mouth as if he was kissing it. Pretty much the most amazing thing that has ever happened! His hands were soo soft and gentle! My heart exploded with joy!

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At this point we were almost to the southwest coast of Madagascar. We drove through Tulear – stopping at a Botanical Garden which displayed examples of all of the unique plants in the area. Then we pushed onward to our hotel in Ifaty – Hotel Belle View. This was our favorite of all the hotels we stayed in (which had been very very basic thus far). We had our own thatch roofed bungalow right on the beach.

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The hotel’s restaurant was located on a hill with a beautiful overlook to the ocean and the neighboring village  – allowing us to watch all the fishermen launching out and bringing in their catches. The manager was so sweet and attentive. We spent 3 nights here. One day we visited the Reinala Nature Reserve to experience the “spiny forest”. It houses an incredible array of fantastical looking trees and plants that look like they belong in a Dr Seuss book! You get to visit a collection of baobab trees which are each uniquely shaped giving them each a special name – like the “rhinoceros baobab” which has a branch that looks like a rhino head. There is a “love baobab” in which two baobabs are twisted together like the embrace of two lovers. The “giant baobab” is 12 ft across! There are also octopus trees which have long spiny branches with innumerable green tentacle-like leaves.

We did a night walk in the spiny forest to see some nocturnal lemurs and birds. As a last minute decision we decide to go diving. We used the dive center through Hotel Du La Plage right down the beach from our hotel. We had our own dive guide for two morning dives. We enjoyed it so much we decided to hop on an afternoon group trip for two more dives! The best dive sites were in the outer lagoon which had a steep wall with abundant hard and soft coral. Highlights were the nudibranchs, scorpion fish, vertical file fish, jelly bean anemones and seeing a mantis shrimp for the first time!

The last bit of our journey brought us back full circle to Tana so we could visit Mada’s most famous nature reserve. Andisabe is the most popularly visited park in Madagascar because of its easy accessibility from the capital as a day trip. However, we found the park itself to be our least favorite of the trip. The park is composed of only secondary forest and large paved trails. Compared to the primary forests and unique vegetation we had experiences in other areas – it felt like a forest you could visit anywhere in the world. The reason why you have to visit Andisabe is for a chance to see the Indiri indiri lemur which is the largest living lemur species. They are huge silly looking creatures with fluffy koala like ears. Indiri are even more special because they call to each other by singing. They sing across the forest in the morning hours with what sounds like a mournful love song. We also found diadamed sifakas – which are probably the most beautiful of all the species we encountered in Madagascar.

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the Indiri Indiri lemur

The other reason to visit the Andisabe area is to see Lemur Island which is a lemur sanctuary built by Vakona Forest Lodge. It is a haven for lemurs rescued from captivity as pets. The hotel created a series of island surrounded by a lagoon to keep the lemurs safe. You board a canoe to get across the lagoon and immediately upon landing are greeted by troupes of lemurs bounding into the boat and onto your shoulders. This was the closest reality has ever come to imitating my dreams! We visited twice and spent hours here playing with the various domesticated lemurs – brown lemurs, black and white ruffed lemurs, bamboo lemurs, and diadamed sifakas.

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full on lemur invasion!

After expending so much energy hiking and searching for lemurs high up in the trees – it was incredible to see them up close and personal. It gave us a chance to experience their full personalities – they are very cheeky! These guys searched our pockets for food, tried to grab our cell phones, tousled my hair and loved to stage surprise jumping attacks onto our heads! I even got bit a few times! There were two ornery black and white ruffed lemurs which were basically like large moody house cats.

My absolute favorite was the diademed sifaka also known as the golden crowned sifaka who’s personality was so different from the rest of the pushy, gregarious and sneaky lemurs. He was quiet, slow and quite polite. When you offered food he looked so grateful and would slowly and gently extend his hand to daintily accept the offering.

Some people look to Lemur Island with disdain as a tourist trap or an inhumane zoo. But honestly it is doing a great service to rescue and protect lemurs who were being abused in captivity or abandoned to die. They nurse rescued lemurs back to health and offer them a safe and open habitat. Otherwise most of these lemurs would have continued to suffer in captivity or likely die since they are unable to return to the wild. The money from visitors helps to fund lemur rescue programs and to support their program of reintroduction of the babies born on lemur island back into the wild. You really have to think before you judge programs like this!

Our 3 weeks in Madagascar was incredible. Not the easiest trip by any means – it put us in uncomfortable positions, tested our physical endurance, and certainly didn’t offer any culinary delights or modern comforts. However, it was well worth it! The amount of wildlife we encountered was more than I could have ever imagined. In total we saw 25 different species of lemurs, over 10 species of chameleons, as well as countless other wondrous reptiles and birds. The landscapes were diverse and surprising. The people were incredibly kind and hard working. It is not a destination for the novice traveller, the budget traveller or someone looking for a relaxing getaway – but for animal and nature lovers it is a paradise unmatched!

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I have included our detailed itinerary by day below. We did a lot of research to design this trip so we would like to share our experience with others who might be interested in doing something similar in the future!

Day 1: Arrive in Tana. Stay at Green Palace by airport.
Day 2: Fly to Maronsetra. Transfer to Nosy Mangabe by boat. Overnight camping. Hiking in NP to see black and white ruffed lemurs.
Day 3: Transfer by boat to Masoala. Stay at local homestay “Mama and Mila”
Day 4: Masoala: hiking in NP to see red ruffed lemurs.
Day 5: Masoala: hiking in NP to see red ruffed lemurs. Snorkeling. Canoe trip down Tampolo River.
Day 6: Masoala: boat trip to northern tip of peninsula for snorkeling. 3 hour trek along coast back to our village.
Day 7: Masoala: hiking in NP to see red ruffed lemurs. Village visit.
Day 8: Transfer to Maronsetra. Visit to local market. Find the endemic tomato frog. Overnight in Masoala Resort.
Day 9: Fly to Tana and transfer to our car with a local driver/guide. Drive to Ansirabe. Stay at Ansirabe Hotel.
Day 10: Drive to Ranomafana NP. Overnight at Manja Garden View. Night walk.
Day 11: Ranomafana: hiking in NP
Day 12: Morning hike in Ranomafana NP and then drive to Ambalavao. Overnight in Les Bounganvilles Hotel.
Day 13: Drive to Ranohira. Stop in Anja Park to visit ringtail lemurs. Overnight in Orchidee Hotel
Day 14: Drive to Ifaty. Drive through Isalo NP. Stop in Zombies NP for hiking to see Verreux Sifakas. Stop in Tulear at Antosaky Botanical Gardens. Overnight at Hotel Belle Vue. Night walk in Spiny Forest.
Day 15: Ifaty: hiking in Reinala Nature Reserve to see spiny forest.
Day 16: Ifaty: Diving with Hotel Du La Plage x 4 dives
Day 17: Fly from Tulear to Tana. Overnight in Hotel St. Antione (do not recommend!)
Day 18: Drive from Tana to Andisabe. Visit Reptile Park and Lemur Island. Overnight at Grace Lodge. Night walk.
Day 19: Andisabe: hiking in NP to see Indiri Indira and Diademed Sifaka. Visit Lemur Island
Day 20: Drive from Andisabe to Tana. visit Craft market. Fly back to Joburg

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