Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world and as such has a vast variety of landscapes. If you are looking for adventure, movement on sandy and dirt tracks, beautiful vegetation and amazing sunsets, the west of the island is what you are looking for. Discover the beauty of the wild west of Madagascar!
The itinerary goes from Anakao up north to Morondava, with a three-days excursion to the Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park. You need to hire a vehicle to do it and you better be sure that it comes with an experienced driver, as you will encounter many kinds of roads, including sandy tracks where getting stuck is very easy. In many places the average speed is around 10-20 km/h, so do not think that if on google maps the different stops are close you can reach the next destination quick. Also be sure that you hire a good 4wd, or you will be stuck somewhere in the middle of nowhere quite often. I can recommend Stephen (email@example.com, in French) as he has good vehicles and nice drivers. The price is around 180’000 Ariary per day, plus fuel and two days to bring the car back to Tuléar.
You can decide to use public transport, i.e. the (in)famous taxi-brousses. While it is absolutely a suggestive option, you better not have strict deadlines. The scheduled time is at least double, probably triple as you will face flat tires, breakdowns, and stops in the mud that can require even a whole day to be solved.
The places that you will visit are:
Tampolove and Assassin’s Bay
Tsingy de Bemaraha
Allée des baobabs
The minimum time to cover this itinerary is 12 days, including a flight Antanarivo-Tuléar and a sixteen hours road trip from Morondava to Antananarivo, if your driver agrees on such a long journey, otherwise count one more stop in Antsirabe (which is, anyway, highly recommended!).
Personalising the itinerary
The incredible thing of this itinerary through the west of Madagascar is that it is absolutely customisable.
I flew to Tuléar to save time, but you can decide to travel through the famous RN7 starting from Antananarivo and passing through some of the best national parks of Madagascar, including Isalo, Ranomafana, and Andringitra.
You can do it North to South and in this case, you can add a three-day pirogue trip on the Tsibirihina from Miandrivazo until Tsingy. The driver can leave you at the start and pick you up again on arrival. I decided to do it South to North in order to use the plane at the beginning. Internal flights are really unreliable and most of the people I spoke to before going to Madagascar told me that their flights were cancelled or delayed. Taking the only flight at the beginning of the trip gives you more flexibility in case something happens and you do not risk to miss your flight out (even though I have to admit that there are way worse places to get stuck!).
Another option is to jump Ambatomilo and Tampolove and take directly the internal route from Tuléar to Manja. This is the only possible itinerary if you are on a heavy motorbike because of the sandy tracks, but if you have a vehicle, please follow the coast, you don’t want to miss tropical white and deserted beaches, baobabs and wonderful sunsets.
I followed tips from locals and expats and decided to avoid Ifaty and Salary. The first is pretty touristic and is pretty famous for diving. I stopped in Salary for some local food and to play a bit with Malagasy children while lunch was getting ready: it is a very nice fishermen’s village, but you can easily just have a nice walk and leave.
When should you visit the west of Madagascar?
The super high season is the period of July-August. During these two months expect more tourists, higher prices, and less flexibility, as you will have to book in advance almost all your accommodations. If you, like I did, are looking to find a place to stay once at the destination or maybe the day before, forget Peter Pan in Anakao and almost all the hotels at Tsingy, as they will most probably be fully booked. The good thing is that you might see the whales migrating north to breed. In any case, if your only goal is the huge mammals, head east to Ile Sainte Marie, where whales use to stop during the austral winter.
Avoid January-March for two important reasons: temperature and rainfalls. This is the austral summer, where temperatures can get as high as 35 degrees. As you will often be in the desert, this is definitely a period to avoid. Rain falls can be a massive problem during the summer months in Madagascar, with two main consequences. The first is that you might get involved in one of the frequent cyclones in the Southern part of this itinerary. The second, less catastrophic, but absolutely important, is that the road to the Tsingy National Park is open only from April to October and, trust me, you don’t want to miss it!
So, when is the best period to visit the west of Madagascar? All the rest! I went during May-June and the weather was perfect. Warm, but not too hot, and not cold. A good weather pairs with the possibility of being super-flexible. There is no need to book in advance accommodation, you can stop and eat everywhere and you can personalise your itinerary as much as you want. The Tsingy National Park is almost empty and you can take amazing photographs without people “ruining” them. Ah, sunsets are spectacular along the whole coast, but this is probably true all year long as far as it does not rain. Last but not least, you can save money, on accommodation, but especially on the flights.
September-December is also a good period to go to this part of Madagascar. Even though it is still high season, the busiest part of the year is ending: you still have the possibility to spot whales and the weather is getting warmer, but not excessively. You still have all the positive things of May-June, the only setback is that the temperature of the Mozambique Channel is colder after some months of winter.
Even though the west is one of the wildest parts of Madagascar, travelling is pretty safe, as far as you follow some basic rules. Do not travel by night, as attacks to cars can happen. On a similar note, while in Antananarivo, use taxis as soon as it gets dark as walking in the streets become very unsafe. Do not forget that you will be often far from hospitals, and those that you will find will probably have only basic instruments. A good travel insurance with cover for possible medical evacuation to Mauritius is strongly recommended. Roads are really bad and you will need an expert local driver. At the beginning there is a very good tarmac road built by Chinese to facilitate some business: you will think that I wrote a bunch of nonsense, but as soon as you will leave it after Ifaty, you will understand why I am insisting with a 4wd with a local driver who will recognise the right track! The coastal track is feasible only with a small and light motorbike, maximum of 250cc or the sand will prevent any progress.
How to get to Madagascar?
Until a few years ago, the only reliable airline that was flying to Madagascar was Air France, not exactly the cheapest in the world. Lately, some other airlines started flying to Ivato Airport in Antananarivo, including Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airlines. The arrival to Madagascar of more airlines allowed for a reduction in prices, which are the main cost of the whole trip.
Who should visit Madagascar’s wild west?
The West of Madagascar is for you if: you do not care spending days without wi-fi; you do not need to order food, but you accept what they have; as an (un)expected consequence of the previous point, you like to eat very well; you like fish, especially the really fresh one; you like road trips and you can stay for long periods sitting in a car on irregular roads; you like staying without shoes and walk in the sand; you like to meet new cultures and to listen to people, including expats who live there for years and are happy to share their experiences; you like bird watching; you are a botanist; you are amazed by huge baobabs; you are a newly married couple and you want to have an adventurous but extremely romantic honeymoon. If you are all or at least some of the above, take into consideration to visit the Wild West of Madagascar. Believe me, you will not be disappointed! If you are still undecided, please comment at the end of the article or contact me via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I will be happy to dispel your doubts.
Anakao is a remote village of fishermen South of Tuléar, reachable from the main city with a 50 minutes trip on a speedboat (www.transfert-anakao.com, 100’000Ar return ticket) that leaves from Blu Bar at 8.30am every morning. The way back, with the same boat, is at 7.00 from Anakao. It is the easiest way to reach the village, as going via road could take you some four hours on arduous tracks. Many activities can be organised in Anakao, including diving, surf, kite-surf, rides in quads, and visits in a pirogue to the beautiful island of Nosy Ve with its pristine beaches. You can also organise an excursion to the village of Saint Augustin and its bay, where pirates used to hid some centuries ago.
Where to stay in Anakao? Definitely at Peter Pan (www.peterpanhotel.com)! This lodge, opened in 2010 by Dario and Valerio, two Italians, is one of the most appreciated of the area and became famous in the Netherlands thanks to a popular travel show. There are some bungalows and a newly built house with some rooms, the top-floor one being the best with its beautiful view and interiors made from whale bones found on the beaches around Anakao. The restaurant with a view on Nosy Ve Island mixes Italian cuisine with local ingredients and there is also a wood fire oven for the pizza. It has a hostel like atmosphere and both the owners will be happy to spend the evening with you, telling their great stories and letting you try some of the cocktails they invented (anyone said Peter Punch?).
If you are looking for a more relaxing and luxurious accommodation, the Ocean Lodge is absolutely what you need. A well-equipped spa, a white beach, nice bungalows and good food will make it a perfect stay in Anakao. Particularly recommended for a romantic stay and for honeymoons.
Tuléar (or Toliara)
Tuléar is the capital of the region and the main reason to visit it is that..you have to! The city itself does not offer much apart from scuba diving on the coral reef and a vibrant nightlife: the most beautiful beaches of the area are outside Tuléar and the few tourist attractions are some small museums and the Antsokay Arboretum. Nevertheless, the RN7 ends in Toliara and you have to spend a night there if you want to go to Anakao, as the only boat leaves in the morning. The city has one of the biggest ports of Madagascar and is serviced by an airport with flights from/to Antananarivo, a good choice if you want to visit the coast but you do not want to spend time on the RN7.
The good thing of Tuléar is the high quality of food (even though I am biased, I ate very well in the whole Madagascar!). The first option is Esterel an Italian restaurant in a former school. Try the smoked fish salad and pastas. If you are fancy just a sweet snack, head to Gelateria Italiana and try some ice cream. Finally, when taking the boat to Anakao or before leaving for the northern coast, have breakfast at Blu Bar.
There are many hotels in Tuléar ranging from very different standards: have a look here and choose the one that best suits your needs.
It is finally time to head North and enter the wildest part of Western Madagascar. The most famous tourist locations just North of Tuléar are the diving destination of Ifaty and Salary, both of which have beautiful beaches. I decided to just pass by them and head directly to the smaller village of Ambatomilo, a hidden gem on the west coast of Madagascar a 4 hours drive from Tuléar. The trip itself is an invaluable experience: you will cross the spiny forest and will encounter the first of a long series of baobabs, and furthermore, you will cross some small villages where you could see the Malagasy life of this part of the country. If you approach Ambatomilo after leaving Anakao in the morning, you can stop for food just south of Salary at “Un Peu Plus au Nord..” (but call the owner, Cécile, in the morning so that she can get something for you); second option is Chez Guillaume; third and chic is the Five Senses Lodge. Last resort, but suggested to try the local cuisine, is to stop in Salary, where your driver will find a place where you could eat some rice and fish.
In Ambatomilo, stay absolutely at Mamirano Lodge, owned by Rosanna, a lovely Italian lady who decided to move here and build a couple of simple but really classy bungalows to host people. She is the perfect companion for a nice chat about Madagascar and, furthermore, she is an excellent cook: you will eat what she finds, most probably absolutely fresh fish, cooked with a hint of Italian cuisine. Sounds nice?
The lodge is located on a huge pristine beach, ideal for long walks, especially at sunset, when colours become astonishing. It is definitely the most relaxing place of Western Madagascar. After recharging your batteries, ask Rosanna to help you organising activities: dolphin or whale (July-August) spotting, kitesurfing, or rent a quad and explore the coast.
Tampolove and Assassins’ Bay (or Baie des Assassins)
This can be a further stop or simply a day excursion from Ambatomilo, but do not miss it out! And do not get scared by the name, the assassins that gave the name to the bay are not there anymore. In the mid-1800s some pirates caught a British ship and took it in the bay, as it was their safe harbour. Three sailors were killed and their colleagues, once back in England, renamed the cove as Assassins’ Bay. So face this 1h30m drive from Ambatomilo along difficult tracks surrounded by baobabs and reach the bay.
The place where you have to stay is “Chez Pierrot, Diana et B-Esperanza” where this tall and pleasant Swiss lives with his Malagasy wife and their beautiful daughter. Their house is on top of a promontory at the entrance of the bay, some kilometres from the fishermen’s village of Tampolove and the view is spectacular. He also has a bungalow for up to 8-100 people for those who want to spend one or more nights in this place that seems coming out of a book. Pierrot is famous among motorbike and quad riders, so if you are into them, you definitely have to be his guest and enjoy his knowledge of riding on that part of the Malagasy coast.
The food, cooked by his wife and himself, is delicious. Of course, once more, it depends on what they have and you better call in advance in case you plan to show up for lunch. I will remember forever the taste if the fish skewers with ginger or the fish tartare with some orange, passion fruit, ginger and spring onion. You will love the familiar and relaxing environment and time will pass by really quickly. Oh, I forgot to tell you that prices are in line with all the others in western Madagascar: really low.
Andavadoaka is a small fishing village 2h30m north of Ambatomilo. It owes some of its development in the latest years to two NGOs. One is the UK-based Blue Ventures that works on the conservation of marine biodiversity, organising camps for young people and conducting research in one of the most well-developed coral reefs systems of the whole Indian Ocean. An Italian NGO, called Amici di Ampasilava, established the Vezo Hospital in Andavadaoka, which boosted the healthcare of the area. The fact that healthcare is basically free (apart from a really small fee the first time) attracted also people from the neighbouring villages to access it. The hospital is operated by short and long term volunteers who take a gap period from their job in order to help the people of Andavadoaka and also, let’s admit it, to enjoy this pleasant place.
Andavadoaka has a few accommodation options, including Coco Beach which has probably one of the best views of the whole west coast of Madagascar! My personal suggestion is to go some hundred metres north of the village and stay in one of the bungalows of Elisa and Paolo, two Italians (again, it seems like we like this part of the country!) who decided to move here and live by fishing, cooking and hosting people. As always, you will eat what they will find, but you will not be disappointed. If it is a weekend, ask them to take you to the “Discopub”, one of the few places where people hang out at night: try the local rum with coke, 7’000Ar for two bottles of each, and look the impressive dancing skills of the local youths.
When you head north from Andavadoaka, Manja is a required stop, because it is impossible to go directly to Belo-sur-Mer or Morondava. The bad news is that the town itself is absolutely nothing special: a few roads crossing perpendicularly, some food stalls, a market and a couple of stalls. And only one hotel. The very bad news is that the hotel is the worst that you will encounter during your itinerary. It is definitely not the cleanest hotel of the west of Madagascar and someone particularly picky might think of taking and using a sleeping bag liner. I did not get bed bugs though! Service is not Hilton style and power and water cuts can happen, but I was happily surprised by the food: the zebu fillet is pretty good. Although I still regret that I did not try some of the skewers that they were preparing in the stalls in front of the hotel, they look greasy and dirty: delicious!
Now that I started with the bad notes, let’s go to the good news. Because if you think that this is just a lost day, you are wrong. Start the very pleasant journey on the coast and reach Morombe, the capital of the region, but one of the most inaccessible towns of western Madagascar, so that it keeps its traditional allure. You will see a chaotic town centre, with pousse-pousses and children crossing all the roads. It is also a perfect stop if you are unlucky and you need to repair your tyre(s)!! After Morombe, you will leave the coast and reach Ambahikily, whose second part of the name means tamarind. It is a good opportunity to eat something in one of the small cafés situated in the vibrant market. Once left Ambahikily, head to Manja through rice fields, cross a river on a wooden ferry boat (the first of a few if you are heading north) and then enter in a sort of savanna: termite nests, herders and wild zebus will be your companions until you reach your destination.
Laying on a beautiful long beach and perfectly located to visit some of the most famous attractions of western Madagascar is Morondava. It serves as a base to visit the Tsingy Natural Park, the Allée des baobabs and the Kirindy Forest. It lies north of Manja and I can recommend you two different roads: one is through Belo-sur-mer, a beautiful fishermen village famous for the construction of the typical pirogues; the second option is to save one day and to go straight to Morondava in five or six hours through a different track. The latter passes through many small rivers that your land cruiser will be able to cross pretty easily: sometimes children will get into the water to help you understand how deep the water is at that particular point, do not forget to tip them! Be ready also to pay at some improvised checkpoints, where locals make a living asking money to incoming cars. Your driver will bargain with them and probably will lower a bit the requested price of 15’000 Ar to 5’000. Enjoy, just before reaching Morondava, the passage from dirt road to the tarmac, which you did not even remember it existed since Ifaty!
Morondava also has an airport with flights from and to Antananarivo and Tuléar served by Air Madagascar.
Once in town, what are the things to do? Head to the beach, it is beautiful. Very long, I was lucky to be there during Independence Day and in the evening it was full of young people walking around in a really festive mood. My suggestion is to enjoy the sunset having a drink in one of the many bars on the beach, maybe at Katrafay, a hostel with bungalows established by a Corse man and his Malagasy wife. I have to admit that, apart from the Avenue of the Baobabs, I saw the best sunset of Madagascar in Morondava.
The town, which looks more touristic than Tuléar, offers a wide array of hotels, many of really good quality. My tip is to go to the Tre Cicogne, almost at the end of Rue de l’Independance road. It does not have direct access to the beach, but the dining room and some rooms are directly on the river with bougainvilleas just before it joins the Ocean, with local pirogues slowly coming in and out, creating a very relaxing atmosphere. Breakfast is abundant and of good quality, with a full baguette per person with jams and honey, and a delicious fruit salad.
Morondava is another place where you can find very good food in Madagascar. Start with Chez Maggie, which is also a very good hotel, and just explore the abundant menu looking for something fanciful: I can personally reassure you on the quality of shrimps croquettes, fish carpaccio, shrimps in coconut milk and fish skewers. For the evening, walk around Rue de l’Independance road and decide which of the restaurants is the most inspiring. A good option is Le Corail, where fish and shellfish are cooked skillfully. After it, on the same side of the road, enjoy a bit of nightlife in the near typical Malagasy bar: you will probably be the only Vasaha (white person), but people will be friendly while you have a couple of THBs.
Tsingy de Bemaraha
It is time to head to one of the most wonderful attractions of the whole Madagascar, Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park. You will remain astonished and wordless for what nature can create. Plan very well your trip: visit Tsingy from May to December, because in the rest of the year it is not accessible and it remains completely isolated.
Bekopaka, the closest town to Tsingy, is a few hours’ drive from Morondava. The road begins on the tarmac, but after 20 minutes you are back in your natural environment, a bumpy dirt road (you thought it was better than before, right?). You will immediately be surrounded by rice fields and baobabs. If you leave very early in the morning, you can stop and enjoy dawn at the Avenue of the Baobabs, but only if you convince your driver in departing so early. Do not worry, on the way back you will be there at sunset and have some of the best photos of your holidays.
The road continues boringly until Tsiribihina River, about three hours from Morondava, where you will find a very busy landing point. Boats full of people, goods and cars wait for their turn to unload and reload to cross again. Dozens of young men will try to earn some money loading trucks with hundreds of bags of peanuts. Enjoy the ferry along the large river and maybe try to talk to locals: the captain of my boat was happy to share some of his stories and he was even happier to take some photos with the Vasaha to show to his friends and family. Be careful not to fall in the river, there are many crocodiles, especially as they do not hunt them (with a peak in my environmental soul, I avoided telling them that their meat is pretty good and the cost of a crocodile-leather bag or belt in rich countries!).
When you finally manage to cross (50’000 Ar), you will be in Belo-sur-Tsiribihina, a small town with a vibrant market and a beautiful church. Eat at hotel Karibo and enjoy (but not too much!) one of the few decent Wi-Fi of Western Madagascar and probably the last until you will be back in the same place from Tsingy. The simple menu offers some very good zebu dishes: normal or green pepper fillet and skewers in black olives’ sauce. The hotel has also some decent rooms and could be an appropriate option to break the trip.
After three more hours, you will be approaching Bekopaka. The last obstacle is the usual river, with the usual ferry (15’000 Ar). The only difference is that it has no engine and a few young and strong men will pull it with a rope: if you are fit and not tired, feel free to help them! Once in Bekopaka, you can choose from many of the Indian-led big hotels. I stayed at Hotel Orchidée, the first one after the ferry, which has decent rooms, a nice swimming pool and an average set menu for dinner. Ask your driver to take you to have dinner at Chez Olivier in the main square of Bekopaka, you will not be disappointed. Be sure to book your accommodation, because during high season the hotels are always full. Wherever you decide to stay, have a good rest as tomorrow will be a tiring day.
Tsingy offers three different excursions: the Grand Tsingy, the Petit Tsingy and the pirogue tour. Both the first two have different tracks to choose from and if you do not know already which one you would like to do, ask at the entrance and they will useful suggest the best for you and your fitness. I did the big in the morning and the small in the afternoon, for a total of 135’000 Ar, including the compulsory guide. I left the pirogue for the next morning, not the wisest choice money wise as you will have to pay again the entrance fee to the park: if you are fit, try to convince the guides that you can do it in the break between the Grand and the Petit Tsingy. In all the excursions, do not forget to bring a headlamp, as you will have to pass through galleries and caves.
How was Tsingy de Bemaraha formed?
During the glacial period, the Mozambique Channel arrived there and covered the area. When the earth began to heat again, the ice melted and flowed towards the current Ocean, leaving behind a series of sharp and cutting rocks.
The Grand Tsingy is definitely the most spectacular of the two. This nature reserve lies 17 km from Bekopaka where your driver can take you in about 30 minutes or, in April, with a 3 hours’ walk, with a trip leaving the town at 5am and returning at 17pm. The maximum time required is about 4 hours, but if you are decently fit as I am, 2h30m is enough. And trust me, I like trekking but I am all but a regular hiker! Follow your guide through the forest and remain amazed of these rock formations that you start climbing up and down and through small galleries.
One of the biggest galleries is called the Cathedral for its magnificence. After a pretty tough scenic climb on almost vertical steps, you will remain astonished by the panorama that you can enjoy from the belvedere on the top. You can see the whole Grand Tsingy and the forests that surround it. Your guide will help you spot small white dots between the trees, one of the species of lemurs living in Tsingy. Between the two belvederes, there are two suspended bridges where you necessarily have to use your carabiner, a passage absolutely not suitable if you are afraid of heights, but a bit of adrenalin for all the others. On your way back, if you are lucky, you can spot some of the animals living in the Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park. The Grand Tsingy, as I told you, is slightly physically demanding: if you cannot take on the whole track, there is an easier route, suitable for everyone and especially for elder people, which culminates in a panorama view over Tsingy. So do not get discouraged and visit this wonder of nature.
Back to Bekopaka, you can rest a bit before going to the Petit Tsingy, whose entrance is just behind the pier. The maximum duration is 2 hours, but it took me half of the time to complete the track. The rocks are the same as in the Grand Tsingy, but on a much smaller scale and it is accessible for almost everyone. On top, there are two belvederes over the whole Petit Tsingy, with beautiful colours just before sunset. As a tip, if your fitness is similar to mine, there is no need to really rest between the two, ask your guide to plan accordingly. In case you really have to take a break, avoid the lunch bag and eat again at Chez Olivier!
The pirogue trip is beautiful in the early morning when the sun creates wonderful colours on the river. Step in the unstable pirogue and enjoy the sun and the people fishing or cultivating rice on the sides of the gorge. You will visit a cave with stalactites and stalagmites that during the rainy season floods and becomes a house for crocodiles. But do not worry, you will not meet any reptile! Let your guide drive you further upstream in the very high gorge and see from below some of the tombs of the ancient people living in the area, who, around the 18th century, used to bury their dead in the rocks and cliff. A few skeletons are left on one side of the gorge to show to the tourists how they were left in the walls of the gorge. The total time of the pirogue tour is around one hour.
Allée des baobabs, baobab sacré and baobabs amoureux
While these attractions can be easily done as a half day trip from Morondava, the optimum time to visit them is coming back from Tsingy de Bemaraha, after Belo-sur-Tsiribihina and the ferry.
First stop at the Baobab Sacré, probably one of the biggest and oldest trees in the area. It is famous because local people consider it sacred and all the celebrations of the village take place under its branches.
A few kilometres south, stop for a refreshing drink in front of the Baobabs Amoureux (“Baobabs in love”). These baobabs grew together and intertwined on themselves, similar to two lovers hugging themselves.intertwined on themselves, similar to two lovers hugging themselves.
Finally enjoy one of the spotlights of the whole Madagascar, the famous Allée des Baobabs (or Avenue of the Baobabs). A couple of hundred meters long, it is lined by dozens of trees. The ideal time to visit it is during sunset when you can head east into the field and take beautiful photos of the sun setting behind the whole Allée des Baobabs. Images of the most beautiful sunset of Western Madagascar are better than any words to describe this sight, so I will just give you two tips: note that during high season it will be pretty crowded and, if you want to buy some of the usual wooden souvenirs, the cheapest are those in the middle of the Avenue of the Baobabs.