Antananarivo. Antana-na- what? Yes it’s bit of a tongue twister. The locals call it Tana, and it’s the capital city of Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island.
I’d been to Madagascar before – way before I started this blog – and my first trip there left me longing for more. So when SA Airlink, asked me to join them on a whistle-stop tour of the Madagascar’s capital city, I couldn’t say no.
My first time in Mada…
My first trip to Mada was in 2010. It was a typical beach holiday in the north of the island near the popular resort island of Nosy Be, at an eco lodge on Nosy Sakatia – basically an island, off an island off an island! Days of beach time, snorkelling, forest hikes and seafood feasts. It was hot and sticky and magical.
Here are a few pics taken from my trip to Madagascar in 2010. I wish I had taken more pictures but I was too busy sipping cocktails on the beach 🙂
Of course my view was a little skewed – all I’d seen was the touristy areas of Nosy Be and the tiny island of Nosy Sakatia. Needless to say I was quite excited to see another side of the island and explore Antananarivo.
A place that the world has forgot
Madagascar seems to be one of those places that the world has forgot. It’s one of the poorest countries in the world but one of the richest in terms of biodiversity and culture. Because of its isolation, most of its mammals, half its birds, and many of its plant species exist nowhere else on Earth.
Did you know that Madagascar is home to 5% of the world’s biodiversity?
Antananarivo is the political and economic centre of Madagascar. Life seems to happen on the streets of Tana. It’s a colourful and vibrant city full of people, vehicles, and chaos. Traffic is crazy and it not’s uncommon to see cows and rickshaws in the middle of the road.
Antananarivo is known as the city of a thousand warriors. An ancient King once positioned his army of 1000 men to defend the area. I think it should be called a city of a thousand hills – everywhere you look are hills and valleys with houses clmibing up the hills and rice paddies and little farms filling the valleys.
The Royal Palace
Tana has it’s own special charm It is certainly worth spending a few days here getting to grips with the unique Malagasy culture and visiting some of the historical sites. Our first stop in Tana was a visit to the Royal Palace complex, known as the Rova of Antananarivo.
The palace complex was home to the Kingdom of Imeria in the 17th and 18th century and the rulers of the Kingdom of Madagascar in the 19th century. Unfortunately the palace burnt to the ground in 2005 and is in the process of being restored. We could visit the inside of the church and the gardens, however the interior of the main palace buildings have yet to be restored.
The palaces stands on a hill one of the highest points of Antananarivo, and has 360 degree degree views of the city.
Visitors to the palace have to make use of a local guide. Our guide Martin was super friendly and informative. You definitely need a guide to interpret the site, especially if you don’t have a guide book. He couldn’t get over how Malagasy I looked – he said I could be his sister!
Lemurs are the cutest!!
One can’t visit Madagascar and not see their most famous animals! Lemurs are unique to Madagascar with almost 100 different species inhabiting the island. They display a range of interesting behaviours from singing like a whale (the indri) to dancing across the sand (the sifaka.
The Lemurs Park is a popular day trip from Tana. Just an hour from the city, the Lemurs Park is a must visit if you don’t have time to visit one of the national parks to see lemurs in the wild. The reserve is also a botanical garden and home to 9 species of lemurs.
Lemurs are pretty lazy it seems. A lot of them were high up in the branches where it was difficlut to get a good view. The best sighting we got were of a group of sifaka also know as a dancing lemur. Sadly he didn’t dance for us. Google “dancing lemur” to get an idea of how cute these guys are!
Most of the park’s lemurs are confiscated pets which are being rehabilitated and bred for reintroduction into the wild. There is no petting of lemurs allowed, which I really appreciated. We also spotted chameleon, tortoises and learn about plants used for indigenous medicine.
City of Markets
With a large informal economy the city is a series of colourful markets and street hawkers selling anything and everything under the sun.
Visiting a market in Tana is a crazy experience. We visited the huge and bustling Zoma (Friday) market where they sold everything from textiles and spices to fresh produce and meat. I’m pretty sure you could find anything there. Walking through the stands of raw meat and fish was not for the faint-hearted. I must admit my tummy turned a few times! Sadly I don’t really have any pics of this market as our guide recommended we leave our cameras in the car.
We also visited the craftsman market of Andravoahangy. The crafts were super cheap and bargaining is required. There’s lots of fresh vanilla, spices, textiles and wooden and woven crafts.
A note on safety
Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world. On the streets of Tana there are heaps of child beggars and people asking for money.
Due to the extreme poverty in Madagascar, petty crime is not uncommon, especially in crowded areas like markets. When visiting the market our guide recommended we leave our cameras in the car and be very wary of our bags. The market was super busy and there were parts where we had to squeeze past people – it would have been pretty easy for someone to pickpocket me. My street smarts and common sense served me well. But do take precautions if you’re in crowded areas.
Why you should visit Madagascar
Madagascar is one of the last places on earth to be settled by humans. It’s like a place forgotten in time. It’s wild, it’s real, and it’s authentic. It’s tough travel, more suited to the adventurous traveller. The tourist infrastructure is quite rudimentary – the roads are terrible, (even in the middle of the city) and due to the political instability it has largely stayed off the tourist map. Though this makes travel difficult, it also makes it more rewarding!
The reality is Madagascar is probably not a destination for first time travellers. Travelling in the island is challenging – unless you plan to stay in a beach resort and fly in directly, I’d recommend hiring a 4×4 with a driver. Public transport isn’t easy, and unless you have lots of time, I’d leave that for the more maverick travellers.
That being said, Madagascar is the most unique place I’ve travelled to. Strange animals, plants and insects that look like they’re on steroids, forests of a hundred shades of green, aromas of vanilla, and turqouise beaches that go on forever. Sadly, most of us know more about Madagascar the movie than the country.
I really hope that the government of Madagascar does more to improve infrastructure in the country. There is so much potential for tourism in this amazing country, yet it is stifled by the lack of infrastructure and political instability.
I regret that I didn’t have more time to explore the island – there’s so much I have yet to experience. I would love to spend time exploring the rain forests and national parks taking in the island’s stupendous biodiversity. I really want to see the Avenue of Baobabs, and snorkel in the clear waters of Isle Santa Marie. I’ll be back for sure!
Disclaimer: My trip to Antananarivo was sponsored by SA Airlink. All opinions are my own and I maintain full editorial control of the content published on this site.