MADAGASCAR: north-east itinerary – independent travel

Our recent trip to Madagascar was one of the trickiest adventures we’ve ever had to plan. So for any independent travellers who stumble across this post whilst trying to plan a trip to the north-east of the island, I really hope it’s useful to you. I expect that, like us, you’ve read the guide books and browsed the internet. Perhaps you’ve even constructed a tentative itinerary. But, for us, the hard bit was finding detailed information that turned our well-researched but idealistic plan into one we could have confidence in with regard to feasibility of timings and quality of experiences and accommodation. In short, we never did! So here’s a summary of what we learnt on the road – which actually did work out fine for the most part – in the hope that it might take the guesswork out for others.

For context, we (two of us) visited in August (winter) for just under three weeks and tried to keep our budget low without scrimping on the experiences we wanted to gain. Although not a cheap trip, we saved many thousands of pounds by organising everything ourselves. Once there, we realised independent travellers not using a 4×4 were in the minority: in fact, we probably meet less than ten!

ITINERARY: a heavy focus on wildlife. We had a high number of destinations which meant a lot of travel days and not much downtime.
Masoala – remote wildlife
Nosy Mangabe – remote wildlife
Marojejy – remote wildlife
Ankarana – tsingy and wildlife
Nosy Be – diving and beach
Ankarafantsika – wildlife but especially birds and sifakas
Andasibe-Mantadia – wildlife but especially indri and sifakas

ACCOMMODATION: mid-range generally although value-for-money varied from place to place and in some locations there was little or no choice. Mainly doubles, all with mosquito nets, western toilets and en suites and all riskily booked in advance via booking.com or email (using Google translate as our French is poor!).

TRANSPORT: a balance between price and speed, so mainly taxi-brousses (hot, cramped, rickety mini-buses although they did vary which I’ve tried to explain later) for shorter journeys, and flights or VIP buses – when possible – for journeys that would take more than eight hours by road. Tuktuks and taxis were useful and a few boat trips were necessary. The only people who didn’t offer fair prices were taxi/boat touts at airports and ports. They could be very intense and, particularly at Ankify port for Nosy Be, sometimes men boarded your transport or opened your door before you’d come to a halt! Download the area for offline use from Google maps so that you can work out where to get off taxi-brousses.

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GUIDES: it seemed guides were well-regulated by their guiding association. Everyone we used was friendly, honest, knowledgeable and usually spoke English well. They take pride in their roles and respect the environment. Almost all were engaged at park entrances. Fees are high but set by the government, not by the guide, and are listed clearly at park offices.

MONEY: I’ve converted many prices so you have it in Ariary/Sterling/Euros for ease of comparison but I’m rounding so it may not be exactly correct. Once you’re there, you can often pay in Euros but we generally used Ariary.

DAY 1: FLIGHT FROM HEATHROW TO ADDIS ABABA

○Night time with Ethiopian Airlines.
○Airline was adequate: good entertainment system, acceptable food and drinks, poor cleanliness and good legroom. Staff ranged from just-about-pleasant to downright rude!
○Delayed flight due to weather was quickly and efficiently rerouted via Kenya (with Kenya Airways).

DAY 2: FLIGHT TO ANTANANARIVO

○Visa on arrival – less than 30 days is Ar60,000/£13/€15 each.
○Small airport with one baggage carousel. A couple of options for buying a local SIM (recommended although coverage is still poor in many places on this itinerary). Two ATMs – both take VISA but only one takes Mastercard (typical of the rest of the country – VISA is more prevalent).
○Airbnb booking at Auberge Chez Jeanne (£24/€28, airport pick up €5) near the airport. We didn’t end up staying due to our flight delay but communication was really easy and in English.

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DAY 3: FLIGHT TO MAROANTSETRA; TRAVEL TO MASOALA NATIONAL PARK; SHORT TREK

○Scheduled flights are available but weren’t on the day we needed so we joined a pricey chartered flight with Sky Services in conjunction with a luxury accommodation called Masoala Forest Lodge. Organising this (with the hotel voicemail) was challenging and funds had to be transferred to secure the booking.
○Three-minute taxi ride to Sky Services office cost us Ar20,000/£4/€5 not a good price but we’ve generally found taxis to be expensive, even when we’ve checked a price with an unbiased person before getting one). With hindsight we might have walked had it not been 5:30am after 12 hours of delays and all our luggage being lost!
○Amazing flight experience like VIPs in a 12-seater propeller plane (1hr 45). Very strict baggage size and weight limits (total of all bags 20kg) and passengers must be under 85kg!
○Meet Visit Masoala at the (tiny!) airport. Book through Lauriot (visit.masoala@gmail.com+261 328 018 910). The following tour cost £500/€570 (mostly paid in advance) for two people for three nights including everything but drinks). It’s important to arrange a time and the name of the person meeting you as there is no phone network and no one speaks English at the airport.
○Meet guide (ours was Augustin razafiaug58@gmail.comwho we highly recommend) and take speed boat to Tampolo village (2hrs).
○Lunch then short trek in Masoala NP (2.5 hrs).

L’Hippocampe
Room type: private en suite bungalow, not animal-proof
Cleanliness: poor, even allowing for it being in a forest, but clean linen and towels
Temperature: cold at night but warm blanket provided
Bathroom: western toilet; cold rain water squirty hose and bucket; bowl but no taps
Electricity: 6pm -10pm
Mosquito net: yes
Wifi: no
Staff: lovely, no English
Common areas: sitting area looking out to sea
Food: all included, 3 courses, simple but tasty; caters for vegetarians
Other: need torch, wet weather clothing, warm layers for evening, mosquito protection and possibly leech socks in wet weather. Everything is damp all the time!

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DAY 4: MASOALA NATIONAL PARK TREKKING (exact itinerary is flexible)

○Breakfast
○Hike – 4.5 hours
○Lunch
○Walk around village to see houses and plants – 2 hours
○Night hike – not permitted inside NP so took place around village
○Dinner
○Masoala NP – what we saw: red-ruffed lemur, various birds, giant millipedes, various frogs, chameleon, juvenile tree boa (night). See photos here.

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DAY 5: NOSY MANGABE NATIONAL PARK TREKKING

○Amazing experience – we had the island to ourselves bar a couple of fishermen smoking their catch
○Speed boat – 1.5 hours and dropped bags off at a camp
○Hike – 3 hours
○Lunch (white-fronted brown lemurs around camp in the hope of food!)
○Hike – 2 hours
○Swim in the sea instead of using the (very basic and unappealing) shower block
○Nosy Mangabe NP – what we saw: black and white ruffed lemurs, various birds, colourful frogs, tiny chameleons, various interesting insects, crabs, leaf-tailed geckos. See photos here.

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DAY 6: BOAT TO MAROANTSETRA; FLIGHT TO SAMBAVA

○Speed boat to mainland (30 mins)
○Taxi to airport (30 mins). Advisable to get to the airport early as the planes sometimes depart early. Bags and passengers weighed. Hand-written boarding passes! Small cafe – samosas are the favourite snack it seems.
○Flight to Sambava – 21-seater plane, 40 minutes
○Imposing taxi drivers. We paid Ar20,000/£4/€5 for a taxi to the hotel. However, this was likely to be too much. All tuktuk journeys around town (possibly excluding to/from the airport) are Ar1,000/£0.20/€0.25 per person.
○We didn’t do the next stage of the itinerary due to the airline still not having forwarded our bags but this was our plan,which I’m sure would have worked out fine, arranged through Éric Mathieu(info@marojejy.com): shop for food in Sambava (supermarket called Maison Ravelo or plenty of market stalls) then take a taxi (€30-40) to Ambohimanarina the get to Flavien’s Farm in Mandena village.

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DAY 7: MAROJEJY NATIONAL PARK TREKKING

○Walk 1.5km to Marojejy visitor’s centre in Manantenina. Meet hired team of porters, guides and cook.
○Hike to Camp Mantella (8km – 4 hours)
○Lunch
○Hike to Camp Marojejia (2km – 2 hours)
○Camp overnight (take a sleeping bag)

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DAY 8: RETURN TO SAMBAVA

○Since we had to miss out Marojejy, we spent the days in Sambava. There’s not much to do but a coconut plantation tour was reasonably interesting – arranged through the tourist office (ORT Sava – Bruno) based at Mimi’s Resto, rather than at the opposite end of town where the Bradt guide lists it.
○Mimi’s Resto (and next-door Patisserie) was good for Malagasy and Chinese food – we had 6 meals there! Good Wifi too.
○About 4 VISA ATMs around town but only one Mastercard.

Mimi’s Hotel
Price: twin Ar70,000/£15/€17, family Ar90,000/£19/€22
Room type: private en suite rooms
Cleanliness: good except floors
Temperature: fine, blanket provided but not needed
Bathroom: western toilet; patchy hot water
Electricity: yes
Wifi: very good
Staff: helpful, little English
Common areas: sitting area near reception
Food: nothing included, just eat at the resto
Other: high up windows in each room broken allowing mosquitos in; laundry available but takes a while to dry

Hotel Carrefour
Price: booking.com charged Ar72,000/£16/€20 but the hotel attempted to charge us Ar120,000/£26/€30 which is probably the walk-in price
Room type: private en suite rooms, nicely decorated
Cleanliness: good
Temperature: fine, aircon provided
Bathroom: western toilet; great shower
Electricity: yes
Wifi: says yes but didn’t seem to work on any device we owned
Staff: not particularly helpful or friendly, little English
Common areas: sitting area near reception
Food: nothing included, fixed price evening meals available
Other: near the beach

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DAY 9: FLIGHT TO DIEGO SUAREZ; TRAVEL TO ANKARANA

○Sambava airport is very small but has a little cafe for samosas, pastries and coffees.
○Short (40 mins) Madagasikara Airways flight which went very smoothly and involved a plate of miniature sandwiches and cakes!
○Intense taxi driver touts on arrival – Ar20,000/£4/€5 to get to the taxi-brousse station.
○Station had various desks but everyone is keen to recruit you to fill their minibus. We suggest you insist on keeping hold of your luggage so it can’t be taken hostage! Tickets for vehicles to Ambilobe purchased from one of the kiosks – Ar15,000/£3/€4 for 5 hours.
○In this area, the taxi-brousses are generally aging and uncomfortable. Journeys are very cramped, hot and may involve loud music – our 12-seater had up to 26 people in it at its most. Bags go on the roof. It’s hard to sit up front as the driver often seems to reserve this for his friends (or date!) or it may cost more and need booking in advance. There’s a gap between the double seat and the single seat on each row, often notionally filled with a cushion – there are no good seats but these are the worst. The driver on this journey probably stopped 20 times but very briefly – usually at his whim. Sitting near the door means you may be able to stretch your legs but otherwise you have to stay put. At small villages, sellers come to the window selling various items such as peanut brittle, meat, re-bottled toxic-coloured drinks.
○Keep an eye on Googlemaps to work out where to disembark as there are no major landmarks. If you reach the National Park, you’ve gone too far but it’s only a 10-minute walk back.

Le Relais D’Ankarana
Price: Ar145,000/£30/€35 via email
Room type: private en suite rooms, nicely decorated
Cleanliness: good
Temperature: fine, fan provided
Bathroom: western toilet; warm shower
Electricity: 6pm-10pm
Wifi: no
Staff: lovely, a little English
Common areas: restaurant area
Food: good breakfast included; great fixed price 3 course evening meal (Ar40,800/£9/€10) – caters for vegetarians (Ar34,000/£7/€8)
Other: 10 mins walk to park entrance – useful to arrange a guide the night before.

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DAY 10: ANKARANA NATIONAL PARK TREKKING

○Guide – Jaifar (ji.afar@yahoo.com)
○Opens 7:30. Entrance: Ar65,000/£14/€16 per person. Guide: Ar90,000/£19/€22 for the large circuit – 15km – (there are shorter, cheaper options) which took us 7 hours with very little rest but quite a lot of photographs. Take at least 4.5 litres of water for 2 people, even in winter.
○Saw the tsingy, cave and forest. Pictures to follow. Far more wildlife than we anticipated. See photos here.
○We travelled to Ambilobe this afternoon but both the accommodation (Floridas Eden (disembark taxi-brousse at Amical nightclub then get a tuktuk) Ar35-100,000/£8-22/€9-25 arranged by email but they didn’t know we were coming) and food were poor so I’d advise staying another night at Le Relais.

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DAY 11: TRAVEL TO NOSY BE

○Flag down a taxi-brousse on the road outside the hotel. They’re fairly frequent butstart out early. 1-hour journey to Ambilobe.
○Find another taxi-brousse headed for Ambanja. We were accosted whilst in a tuktuk and told to wait outside a shop so I’m not sure if there was an official taxi-brousse station. 3 hours, Ar15,000/£3€4 (I think we were overcharged compared to what locals were paying though it’s still very reasonable!) – similar experience to last time. Disembark at a junction with a large signpost to Ankify.
○Again we were man-handled to our next vehicle – a 7-seater people carrier for about 45 minutes – Ar4,000/£0.90/€1 each.
○Arrived at Ankify Port. Aggressive boat touts took our bags off the taxi-brousse before we could get them and put them on an empty speed boat which we had to wait to fill up. Ar15,000/£3/€4 per person, 1-hour journey. You do not have to pay extra for your bags, despite what you will be told.
○Again, taxi and tuktuk touts are everywhere. Our hotel had sent a transfer but the taxi driver had given the paper with our name on to some random men who we consequently allowed to take our bags. They then asked for Ar20,000/£4/€5 per bag to carry it 30m! We didn’t pay!
○As the guide books day, there’s plenty of accommodation in Hell Ville but ours was approximately 30 minutes taxi ride away to a quiet hotel near a peaceful beach.

Madagascar Resort Nosy Be
Price: Ar290,000/£62/€71 per night via booking.com
Room type: nicely decorated, some rooms have a balcony
Cleanliness: very good, room made up each day
Temperature: hot at night, fan provided
Bathroom: western toilet; great hot shower
Electricity: yes
Wifi: yes
Staff: lovely, a little English but the French host – Jean-Marc – speaks a bit more
Common areas: restaurant area, pool with loungers
Food: good breakfast included; great fixed price 3 course evening meal (Ar82,000/£18/€20) but didn’t cater well for vegetarians
Other: ‘Resort’ gives the wrong impression – it’s just a small guesthouse); excursions, onward travel and massages can be arranged; 10 minute walk to beach, dive shops and a couple of food options; 45 mins walk (downhill) or 10 mins tuktuk (Ar10,000/£2/€2.50) to Ambataloaka town with a busier beach, more restaurants, shops, banks and a (fairly seedy) ‘strip’.

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DAYS 12 – 14: NOSY BE

○Various excursions available – snorkeling, diving, lemur experiences, Lokobe National Park but prices are high and it’s busy – not really necessary to visit if you’re doing a similar itinerary to ours.
○We recommend Manta Dive – an Italian-run place with two dives between Ar285,000/£61/€70 and Ar450,000/£96/€110 (we didn’t understand the discrepancy but it’s definitely cheaper to organise in person). Good equipment and divemasters.
○A few metres away from Manta Dive is Chez Nous – a pizzeria run by a friendly French man (12:00-14:30 and 19:30-close).
At the big beach on the other side of the headland, we recommend Batumoch for food. It’s walkable through villages – we felt very safe but you’ll need a torch if you go in the evening.

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DAY 15: TRAVEL TO ANKARAFANTSIKA NATIONAL PARK

○This was a fairly hideous trip of 18 hours but we were pleased to stop here instead of going directly to Tana in one go (though you can fly from Nosy Be to Tana, omitting Ankarafantsika). We were quoted €800 then €400 for a private car so instead opted for a sort of ‘guide’ (organised through Jean-Marc at the hotel for Ar350,000/£76/€87 for his help and all the transport hence specific prices not being listed below) to help us navigate all the various parts of the journey and to help us (because our French was insufficient) to pay for a full row of seats to ourselves on a taxi-brousse to make the journey bearable.
○Taxi to Hell Ville (30 mins)
○Speed boat to Ankify (1 hour)
○Taxi-brousse estate car (12 people!) to Ambanja (45 mins)
○Cycle rickshaws to the taxi-brousse station (10 mins)
○Four seats (Ar35,000/£7.50/€9 each we worked out but they were included in our cover-all fee) on the taxi-brousse to Ampijoroa. We had to wait about 2 hours here before departing. Thriving town so plenty of food options. We thought the taxi-brousse segment would be 10 hours but it was 13, much of it at night. This taxi-brousse was very different to previous ones with individual seats and more room. It was newer, more comfortable and had fewer stops. With hindsight, we didn’t need all 4 seats and did feel a bit guilty whilst other passengers were more squashed. It was long, frustratingly slow and a little bit scary at times but we survived!
○Arrive at 02:30 – look out for a white sign saying BVL in large blue capital letters on the right-hand side of the road. Then walk – following other signs (you’ll need a torch!) – 400m to the hotel. We had emailed our eta once we knew it.

Blue Vanga Lodge
Price: Ar125,000/£27/€31 via email bluevangalodge@gmail.com
Cleanliness: OK – quite a lot of wildlife can enter the room so, even if they clean it, it gets messy again quickly!
Temperature: cold at night, blanket provided
Bathroom: western toilet; no hot water
Electricity: told it was only evenings but seemed to be more than that
Wifi: no
Staff: lovely, some speak good English
Common areas: restaurant area
Food: basic breakfast included; simple evening meal (Ar20,000/£4/€5 or Ar15,000/£3/€4 for vegetarian)
Other: 5km to NP – Ar1,000/£0.20/€0.25 in taxi-brousse from main road

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DAY 16: ANKARAFANTSIKA NATIONAL PARK TREKKING

○Guide – Gabriel (ragabriel.ramandroso156@gmail.com+261 326 178 126)
○Opens 7:00. Entrance: Ar55,000/£12/€14 each. Guide: Ar65,000/£14/€16 for 3.5-hour circuit; Ar50,000/£11/£12 for 2-hour Source de Vie (lake) circuit with crocodiles.
○Good amount of wildlife (particularly birds) and a canyon. See photos here. 
○Gabriel offered us a night walk in a nearby local area for Ar20,000/£4/€5 each where we saw snakes, a mouse lemur and chameleons.

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DAY 17: TRAVEL TO ANTANANARIVO

○Because of all the travel in this section of the itinerary, if you have another day, I’d strongly recommend an extra night and day in Ankarafantsika
○For comfort, we booked a Cotisse VIP bus for this 9-hour journey. For Ar92,000/£20/€23 each, it was clean, comfortable, air-conditioned and had wifi and a half-hour lunch stop (pay for your own food – it’s quick service). Eric at Blue Vanga Lodge can book this for you.
○Taxi to hotel Ar15,000/£3/€4.

Maison d’Hôtes Mandarosoa
Price: Ar135,000/£29/€33 via booking.com
Room type: nicely decorated; first decent pillows of the trip!
Cleanliness: very good
Temperature: OK with a duvet
Bathroom: western toilet; great hot shower
Electricity: yes
Wifi: yes
Staff: lovely and some speak English
Common areas: lovely sitting room, pool
Food: great breakfast included; can provide dinner with notice but we didn’t try it
Other: very happy to help with arranging onward travel; nearby Italian restaurant Nerone is OK and Buffet du Jardin was cheaper and had tasty food.

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DAY 18: TRAVEL TO ANDASIBE-MANTADIA NATIONAL PARK

○The guide books don’t seem to mention that you can travel directly to Andasibe on a normal taxi-brousse (they say you must change in Moramanga or get a Cotisse) but it is perfectly possible. Pick a bus heading to Tamatave – 3.5 hours with a short lunch stop, Ar20,000/£4/€5 each. Good roads and the drivers don’t stop unless it’s necessary. Taxi-brousses in this area were newer and not over-loaded – one person to one seat. Disembark at a junction with lots of hotel signs.
○20-30 minute walk to Ricolodge (you’d need to carry your luggage; not sure how wheeled cases would fare).

Ricolodge
Price: Ar105,000/£23/€26 via email (ricolodge.andasibe@gmail.com)
Room type: forest bungalows with porches
Cleanliness: good
Temperature: very cold from sundown until morning but several blankets are provided
Bathroom: western toilet; gas-heated shower
Electricity: solar-powered lights for evenings; staff will charge devices for you at their accommodation
Wifi: no, despite the website’s claims
Staff: lovely but very little English; Rico speaks good English but we only communicated via phone as he wasn’t there
Common areas: no
Food: basic breakfast and three-course evening meal obligatory. Vegetarians catered for but not varied.
Other: 2km (20-30 mins walk) from the Reserve Speciale d’Analamazaotra side of the National Park and Mitsinjo private reserve – Rico arranged a park guide to meet us in the morning. 17km from Parc National de Mantadia.

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DAY 19: RESERVE SPECIALE D’ANALAMAZAOTRA TREKKING (in Andasibe-Mantadia National Park)

○Guide – Estide (+261 345 171 911)
○Entrance – Ar45,000/£10/€11 each. Guide – three circuits available for Ar40-60,000/£8-13/€10-15. Four-hour Aventure circuit incorporates the shorter Indri circuits but has a tough uphill stretch.
○Good wildlife with indri and diademed sifakas being the highlights. See photos here.

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DAY 20: TRAVEL TO ANTANANARIVO

○Walk out to the main road and wait for a taxi-brousse. It’ll either go straight through to Tana or you’ll have to change in Moramanga.
○Taxi to The Citizen – Ar20,000/£4/€5. We picked this for a little luxury for our last night.

The Citizen
Price: Ar265,000/£57/€65 via booking.com
Room type: lovely room with a balcony
Cleanliness: excellent
Temperature: cool in the evening, air con provided
Bathroom: western toilet; hot shower
Electricity: yes
Wifi: yes
Staff: some more friendly than others, some speak a little English
Common areas: restaurant but it’s usually full of paying guests so unsure whether you could sit there and not eat
Food: excellent breakfast included; high-end restaurant
Other: use taxis at night

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DAY 21-22: FLIGHT TO ADDIS ABABA; FLIGHT TO LONDON

○Ar50,000/£10/€12 to the airport and it will take at least an hour due to traffic.
○Be aware that you cannot spend Ariary in the airport!
○Afternoon flight
○Six-hour layover in Addis Ababa – there isn’t much to do and, when it gets busy, it can be hard to find anywhere to sit.
○Early hours of the morning flight.

And that’s it! If you have any questions, please get in touch! I could say it was an easy or relaxing three weeks but it was totally worth it!

 

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