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What You Need to Know About Traveling in Madagascar

In September 2014, I traveled with a few other people to Madagascar. The group I was with wants to do some relief and development work there. My main job was to do photography and video to document what we learned. But they were having a difficult time finding solid information about the basic information travelers would require. This first trip was intended to serve as an exploratory and information gathering trip. I wanted to document some of my own observations in the hopes that it will make traveling in Madagascar a little simpler for someone else.

The main languages of Madagascar are Malagasy and French. Most vendors seem to know a little English. Having a French phrasebook or dictionary will help if you don’t know either of the main languages.

VISA Requirements
For tourists, there are no requirements to pre-purchase a VISA before entering the country. You can buy a ticket, land and then get a free tourist VISA. It was a bit confusing at first because of the language, but the line in Antananarivo going to the VISA booth/counter is only for people who are visiting on business and need to pay for one. For tourists, after stopping at the first counter to show your passport, you simply stand in line behind “the big yellow line” and wait for the airport officers to take your passport and stamp it as a tourist.

Once you clear past the immigration and are awaiting your luggage, you need to decide whether you are going to carry it yourself or pay someone to do it. There are plenty of people standing around waiting to offer you a cart. They’re free, btw, but if you accept a cart from one of these folk, you’ll end up getting the “driver” with it who will want to pick up your luggage, push it to wherever you are going (taxi, private transport, whatever) and then expect some type of payment for it.

Airport Internet Access
Forget it. Yes, there are Hotspots. Yes, they work on some people’s phones who LIVE in Madagascar. They will not work on your computer, phone, iPad or whatever you happen to be carrying. The wireless networks are all locked, and either no one knows the key, or they just simply aren’t going to share it with you.

Internet Access and VPN Usage
All of the hotels (three) I stayed at had free wifi. The Internet access was faster on Nosy Be than in the capital city, leading me to wonder which route the undersea cables take in and out of the country. If you expect to have access to your normal Internet functions and features, you should STRONGLY consider using a VPN from a provider such as The VPN service allowed me to securely connect to any of several nodes around the world. When connected to the US, I could use my VOIP client (for calls to landline/cell) as well as my Skype client (for video and voice). One of the team members who did NOT use a VPN was unable to use his Skype service for making calls to landlines/cells via Skype. Get a DarkWireVPN account before you go just to be on the safe side. You get the added benefit of military grade encryption for all your traffic to/from your device to the node you connect to.

Flights arrive at odd hours. My flight arrived at 11 pm at night. Your best bet after clearing immigration and retrieving your luggage is to visit the ATM machine IN THE AIRPORT and withdraw Ariary (Malagasay currency) before stepping foot out. When we visited, the rate was about 1 Euro = 3,000 ariary or 1 USD = 2,500 ariary. If you do not get money out of an ATM in a major city, you stand a chance of getting “stuck.” Don’t expect money changers in every town or on every corner. Also, even at the airport, I wanted to pay for a ticket from Antananarivo to Nosy Be with a credit card, but the machine wasn’t working. That put a dent in my cash reserves. Also, if locals have a choice, they’ll pick euros over dollars every time. It’s easier for them to cash out into ariary from what we were told.

I stayed in a couple of different hotels in Antananarivo (entering/departing). Both were within walking distance of the airport if you don’t have luggage. They’re about 2-3 minutes driving distance. One was Hotel du Cheval Blanc. They were around 45,000 ariary per night for one room, one bed. We stayed together on the way out for 100,000 ariary per night for one room, three beds. On Nosy Be, we stayed at Le Grand Bleu on the West side of the island in the Andilana area. Jacques and Celine run a great hotel with numerous bungalows of different sizes. You can view one of the larger family-sized bungalows in the video below.

At Le Grand Bleu as with hotels in most parts of the world, if you buy food at the restaurant, you’ll spend a good bit more than at a local restaurant. One good example is that a 1.5 liter water bottle cost (I think) around 5,000 ariary. But at a grocery store on the way to/from Hell-Ville, we could purchase 6 of the 1.5 liter bottles for around 10,000 ariary. Breakfast meals were relatively inexpensive, especially for the amount of food served. But if you have the money to spend on the meals, the food is good, multi-course and quite enjoyable to eat while sitting with a view of the Indian Ocean.

The roads on Nosy Be ranged from good to passable to bad. To me, a bad road is one which you have to slow down to a near crawl in order to bypass huge breaks, potholes or similar obstacles. Passable is a road with a decent coating of blacktop that you can generally make at least 20-30 mph. Good is anything above that.

One of our goals was to find out the truth about road travel on “Big Madagascar” (as the main island is called by locals). We had been told that roads were great. We had been told to expect rivers, washouts and ferries in order to get anywhere. We had been told that the roads were terrible. What is the truth? In order to find out, we took a road trip from the top of Madagascar (we came from Nosy Be by boat) all the way down to Antananarivo. For this, we hired a SUV and two drivers. In doing so, we planned to drive straight through without stopping and having to locate lodging (so don’t ask about lodging in between the two points).

I marked numerous waypoints on my GPS and then created a Google map which you can access below. You can also watch the video below in order to see what the actual road and countryside look like at various waypoints up to about halfway of the distance. Once it got dark, I quit filming video.

Link to Google Map with Waypoints of the Road Trip.

What I would do differently about this trip is that I would try to arrange for a luggage rack. As it was, the two drivers were in the front. The three passengers were in the middle seat — which was only built for two. The middle hump was pretty impossible to sit on without pain or discomfort on bumpy roads. The rear seat was taken up by luggage. Since one of our party had the Madagascar Trots, this arrangement was unfortunate all the way around. Having a luggage rack would have allowed for a degree of comfort for the suffering party.

As we got closer to Antananarivo, late at night, the roads were on mountain ridges, they were winding, and occasionally there would be small boulders randomly in the middle of the road. I have no idea where they came from, because they sure didn’t FALL there. It made for some interesting times as we had to clinch and guess whether or not the driver’s reaction to the rocks while traveling at 50 mph with only the headlamps of the SUV would be quick enough to (a) avoid the rock and (b) keep us on top of the mountain. We all lived.

Electrical Current & Outlets
The plugs on Nosy Be and in the hotels at Antananarivo were French/European two-prong style. Look up “Type C electrical outlet” if you aren’t familiar with it. The current is 220-240v. The power was stable on Nosy Be while we were there.

Toilets in the hotels are typically European style. Public toilets on our road trip were more Asian/eastern. I found the image below at this link. Click on the thumbnail to see the larger image.


The downside to staying at Le Grand Bleu in Nosy Be is that it’s on the West side of the island. Unless you want to only visit beaches or do activities on the West side, you’ll end up needing to get some type of transportation everywhere you go. Typically, a taxi with driver would cost around 40,000 – 50,000 ariary per day. That included pickup in Andilana, driving to Hell-Ville with whatever stops were needed in or around there, and then the return trip back to Andilana. This was a big unknown which ate up cash pretty quickly over the course of a few days.

Water taxis (read “speed boats”) are available mainly from Hell-Ville to take you to other islands for day adventures. The price varies with destination and the number of people per taxi. For instance, when we left Hell-Ville to start our road trip, we paid 10,000 or 12,000 ariary for the one way trip. We waited until enough people showed up to PACK the boat pretty fully (see the beginning of the road trip video). The taxi driver wanted to charge more for our luggage, but other people had luggage, too. We balked and didn’t pay extra.

I may add additional items to this article as the feeling strikes me. I hope it proves helpful to someone else. Please leave a comment if it is useful to you or contact me if you have a question.

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