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Travelling in Madagascar, a Practical Guide for Vazahas*

Madagascar, despite the myth, is not a world apart. If you have some experience travelling in developing countries, it should not deter you going there. Human societies, regardless of continents and countries, share many commonalities. On the other hand, each country certainly has its uniqueness which worth mentioning and noting. The following is a data sheet which aims to provide practical information for prospect travellers.

Getting there

Madagascar is at the edge of the world and you can only fly in from Europe or Asia non-daily with:
Air France from Paris Roissy
Air Madagascar from Paris Roissy, Marseille, Milan, Bangkok
Corsair from Paris Orly
Visa procedure is simple upon arrival. The fee is €13 or $18.

Money

click to enlarge
A 1,000 Ariary or 5,000 Malagasy Franc bank note, featuring Madagascar's endemic lamurs and tortoise.
Madagascar currency is officially Ariary (Ar). Before 2005, it was Malagasy Franc (Mgf). All new bank notes have both units, with 1Ar = 5Mgf. In practice the country is still maintaining a parallel system with Ariary (more common) and Franc. So don’t be surprised if you are slabbed with a bill which seems to be five times as expected. In this case they might be using Franc. As of late 2007, the exchange rate is 1$ ~ 1,680-1,730Ar, 1 ~ 2,470-2,540Ar.

Basic Cost

Madagascar is a country with one of the lowest incomes in the world. However, for foreigners, the travelling cost might be higher than many of its developing counterparts like those in Southeast Asia.

As foreigners often have no clue about the actual cost of an item or service, they could be asked to pay several times more than local people do. Although it’s always good to bargain, whether you feel you are paying a fair price depends on your personal perspective. You may consider the extra part as charity.

The followings are samples of local prices for reference:

Zebu, Malagasy symbol of wealth, is priced around 300,000 - 400,000Ar in the market.  In some local tradition, a young man is not qualified for marriage unless he has stolen a zebu (the girl's parent would ask.)
Zebu, Malagasy symbol of wealth, is priced around 300,000 - 400,000Ar in the market. In some local tradition, a young man is not qualified for marriage unless he has stolen a zebu (the girl's parent would ask.)
17°5'28.2"S, 49°48'51.1"E
1kg rice in the market ~ 1,740Ar
1.5 litre bottle water, street price = 1,200Ar
a short city bus ride ~ 200-300Ar
a national newspaper = 400Ar
a long-haul bus ride (400km, Antananarivo-Fianarantsoa) ~ 18,000Ar
a short-haul bus ride (Andasibe-Moramanga) ~ 2,000Ar
a small cup of yogurt ~ 400Ar
Malagasy mangoes, selling for 2,000Ar/kg on the streets.
Malagasy mangoes, selling for 2,000Ar/kg on the streets.
a long baguette ~ 200Ar
one cigarette ~ 70Ar
1kg of lychee ~ 600-1,000Ar
a stamp for postcard to Europe = 1,100Ar
one litre of gasoline ~ 2,400Ar (keep that in mind when hiring a car)
one zebu (Madagascar ox) ~ 300,000-400,000Ar

Accommodations

Tourist bungalow in one of the <em>vazaha</em> hotels.
Tourist bungalow in one of the vazaha hotels.
17°6'3.6"S, 49°48'33.9"E
As a vazaha, you would inevitably stay in one of the handful of vazaha hotels in town. Price and quality vary. In general, expect 30,000 - 60,000Ar ($18-36) for a regular, comfortable room, often in a form of a bungalow, with in-suite shower and toilet. Power outage is common. Prepare your own flashlight. Some upscale hotels in tourist hot spots or in big cities can go up to $60-$80. International hotel chains in big cites would be $100+. All hotels have restaurants.

Food

Ham dishes (<i>jambon cru</i>) for 7,000Ar in Le Boeuf Restaurant, Toliara (Tuléar).
Ham dishes (jambon cru) for 7,000Ar in Le Boeuf Restaurant, Toliara (Tuléar).
23°21'15.3"S, 43°39'52.5"E
The main staple in Madagascar is rice. Many tourist attractions are not located in cities or big towns. Often there is no local restaurant found except eating in vazaha hotels, where food is unexpectedly good. THB (Three Horse Beer) Madagascar's indigenous beer.
THB (Three Horse Beer) Madagascar's indigenous beer.
22°33'23.2"S, 45°24'50.2"E
Madagascar is not known for its cuisine, so food would either be in French or Chinese style (influenced by French colonists and Chinese immigrants). Menus are usually in French and sometimes also in English. A regular meal per person would range around 8,000 – 12,000 Ar including drink. The most common bottle water is Eau Vive, 2,400Ar for in hotels and 1,200Ar on the street, for 1.5 litres. Madagascar’s indigenous beer is THB, Three Horse Beer. You can not avoid seeing its omnipresent signs throughout the country. Coca Cola is widely available.

Transportations

Moving around in Madagascar is not easy. For ground transportations, allow one full day for any distance greater than 200km. For domestic flights, consider half of a day including accessing to the airports.

Madagascar only has several good paved roads, notably the RN2 (Route Nationale 2), RN7 and RN1 between Antananarivo and Toamasina, Toliara and Mahajanga respectively. Other roads range from bad, extremely bad and inaccessible in bad weather. For example, a couple hundred of kilometres from Morondava to Toliara could be longer than two full days.

Loading <em>taxi-brousse</em> with a chicken cage.
Loading taxi-brousse with a chicken cage.
Taxi-brousse (bush taxi) is the form of transportation between cities and town. Long-haul taxis-brousse are usually Toyota or Mazda minivans packed with 15 people: one passenger between the pilot and co-pilot in the front row, and three passengers in each of the four back rows, plus a heap of cargoes on top. One- or two-hour delay is common, as taxis would not depart until full. On the other hand, unlike many other developing countries, long-haul taxis-brousse would never exceed assigned seats, thanks to the numerous police who count the seats along the way. When calculating trip time, use 40km/h as an average speed. Short-haul (<25km) taxis-brousse can be overloaded without limit. They also stop frequently for passengers and cargoes. Expect 15km/h average speed.

Hustlers ready to prey at the taxi stand.
Hustlers ready to prey at the taxi stand.
Taxi stations are usually located at the outskirt of the towns, with 20 to 30 independently operating ‘companies’. Competition is fierce. All potential passengers, foreigners, locals, men or women, once they arrive in the taxis stations, would be literally hijacked by hustlers, who physically drag them to their own ticket offices. Their luggage would be forcefully loaded on the taxi’s rooftop. In the ticket office, watch out for the fare lists, as they could be temporarily removed when vazahas arrive.

Welcome on board Air Madagascar.
Welcome on board Air Madagascar.
18°47'58"S, 47°28'28.8"E
If you don’t want to put yourself into a tumbling dryer for 2 days, then consider flying. Air Madagascar domestic flights are catered for vazaha tourists, and cover most of the spots you want to go. Fares are usually 108 per leg regardless of distance. No X-ray or metal detector needed except in the capital airport.

Man-powered <em>pousse-pousse</em>.  How much you should pay depends on your heart.
Man-powered pousse-pousse. How much you should pay depends on your heart.
23°21'8.1"S, 43°40'5.7"E
Renault 4, one of the most common taxi types in Madagascar.
Renault 4, one of the most common taxi types in Madagascar.
17°4'4.3"S, 49°49'32.8"E
City buses may be a cheap and convenient option as long as you know where they are heading to.
City buses may be a cheap and convenient option as long as you know where they are heading to.
18°54'18.6"S, 47°31'20.4"E
From point A to point B inside a town, you may use taxis or man-powered pousse-pousse. Taxis are usually beaten-up Renault 4 or Citrëon Deux Chevaux, and pousse-pousse come with different wheel sizes and suspensions, In some situation. You may end up paying more for pousse-pousse than for taxi, not to mention some dishonest pousse-pousse pilots surprise you with another price at the destination. City buses may also be a cheap and convenient option for a short hop, as long as you know where they are heading to. Taxis fares from airports to towns are usually 5,000Ar (e.g. Toamasina) - 20,000Ar (e.g. Tana). At the airports, don't always expect people come up and offer service. In some cases you have to look for taxis by yourself.

Range Rover for hired, but transmission broken en route.
Range Rover for hired, but transmission broken en route.
20°4'2.1"S, 44°39'26.1"E
Many tourist spots are not accessible by public transportation. You need to hire a car, in many cases 4x4, along with a driver and English/French speaking guide. There is no fixed price. Your negotiating skill would greatly help. However, keep in mind that the cost of vehicles and gasoline is independent of a country’s economy. 2,400Ar per litre is actually more expensive than the gas price in the US. As a reference, a day trip from Morondava to Kirindy Reserve with a 4x4 would be around 140,000Ar (~ $85), and you would be asked for €700+ for a three-day trip from Morondava to Tsingy de Bemaraha.

National Parks and Private Reserves

Guiding fees posted at the office of <em>Parc Nationale d'Isalo.
Guiding fees posted at the office of Parc Nationale d'Isalo.

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All National Parks have a fixed entrance fee of 25,000Ar per day. A guide is mandatory and in fact is truly needed. Some National Parks such Isalo post guide’s names and fees at the office. Check the guide’s ID and make sure he is accredited. Fees are usually 30,000Ar for a hiking circuit. But sometimes you have to hire a vehicle just to get to the trail head. This incurs extra expense. Entrance fees for private reserve are in par with that for National Parks. Clarify guide fee and itinerary before purchasing tickets. A few thousand Ariary of pourboire (tips) would be appreciated after a good trip.

                      * Vazaha, pronounced vaza, is a Malagasy way of calling a foreigner.




Last Update: October 22 2009 23:19:03 -0500