The Route south includes many typical Madagascar highland towns as well the remarkable Isolo National Park and Ranomafana National Park. We talk about ‘the route south’ on one page because they are usually visited together, though the time spent depends on your overall trip length.
Check out our Southern Madagascar itinerary for a sample itinerary.
So, heading south from Antananarivo, you first drive through luxuriant vegetation to Antsirabe. Along the way you see the highland landscape with its rice-fields, Merina villages and eroded hills called “lavaka”. This is almost reminiscent of the Far East with its rice fields and green landscape.
Antsirabe (‘the place of salt’) is a colonial spa town on Madagascar’s high plateau. Founded by a Norwegian in 1856, Antsirabe is the agricultural and industrial centre of Madagascar, best known as the centre for beer. With a cool climate and thermal springs, it is one of the most attractive towns in Madagascar. Its former colonial glory can be seen in the wide boulevards, cathedral and the original thermal baths. But this is now jumbled up with modern Malagasy life with colourful “pousse-pousse” carriages and street vendors everywhere you look. Antsirabe is also known for its gems and semi-precious stones. You can spend a happy hour or two visiting different craft workshops watching the local craftsmen such as stone cutters or zebu horn carvers at work. The tiny model cars and bicycles are very cute and there’s even a traditional sweet shop!
Ántsirabe is a convenient overnight stop between Tana and the Ranomafana National Park. We recommend either a charming guesthouse, Couleur Cafe. If you have time, spend a second night and enjoy a cycle tour around some of the scenic lakes nearby. You can also opt to spend a night or two at a cultural home stay in the village of Belazao. Here you can walk, mountain bike, hike up to Mount Itavo and visit the various artisans rope-making, weaving and farming.
Ranomafana National Park
Quite a long drive further south lies the Ranomafana National Park. Ranomafana means ‘hot water’ and it was the lure of health-giving thermal waters, not the lemurs. Which originally drew well-heeled visitors in colonial days. These days you are unlikely to find the rather muddy waters too appealing.
The Ranomafana National Park was created in 1991 to protect some of the mid-altitude virgin rain forest in this mountainous region. If you are interested in botany, this park should be on your ‘must- see’ list for Madagascar. It first came to world attention with the discovery of the very rare Golden bamboo lemur. These can often be seen grazing in the bamboo stands, but this is just one of 12 species of lemur here.
Ranomafana consists of a series of steep hills. Numerous small streams run into the main river. Which tumbles down the valley in a series of waterfalls and rapids. It can only really be explored on foot because of these streams. You meet up with a local guide and set off for a morning of trekking for about 3-4 hours. The habitat is primarily rain forest which straddles the hillsides and can be quite humid. There are five well defined and well kept, trails although they can be quite steep at times and slippery after rain. There are opportunities for one to two day longer hikes if you have more time and inclination.
The park covers nearly 40,000 ha. And some of the commonly seen lemurs include the diademed sifakas. Which love to leap through the forest canopy, red-bellied and red-fronted lemurs, the golden and greater bamboo lemurs and the eastern grey bamboo lemur.
But lemurs are not the only attraction! It is also home to striped civets, which seems to have become very inquisitive and habituated to humans. And seven species of tenrec and various mongoose species. Including the eastern ring-tailed and broad-striped mongoose – though these are rarely seen. And an array of interesting reptiles. Keep an eye out for the incredible giraffe beetle.
Night walks are also on offer in Ranomafana (usually at an extra cost). Especially between September and April. This allows you to see the nocturnal lemur species which race up and down the trees. These include the eastern woolly lemur, the rufous mouse lemur, the brown mouse lemur and the greater dwarf lemur.
Birding is excellent in the Ranomafana National Park. With over 110 species, at least 30 of which are endemic. With a good guide you might be lucky enough to view the brown mesite, the short-legged, the pitta-like and the rufous-headed ground rollers, Henst’s goshawk, Madagascar yellowbrow, wedge-tailed jery, red-fronted coua and Madagascar magpie-robin.
Given the spartan accommodation available with Setam Lodge or Central L’Est being the best bet, you could stay just one night, enjoy a guided walk in the park on the following morning and then continue south to Fianarantsoa which is about 1-2 hours drive away. The wettest time is in July and August.
Fianarantsoa, the second largest city in Madagascar, means ‘ Place of good learning’ and it is one of the more attractive Malagasy cities with the ambience of a large sleepy town. It is the capital of the Betsileo tribe and also the centre of the catholic church in Madagascar and the headquarters of the Jesuits. It has a lovely setting on a series of terraced hillsides, rather like a smaller version of Tana, but surrounded by forest as well as tea plantations. Like Tana, it has an atmospheric old upper town with crumbling colonial buildings, narrow winding streets and plethora of churches. We recommend taking a walk through the Upper Town, enjoying the wonderful views, especially in the early morning when the mist is curling up from the valley.
Fianar (as Fianarantsoa is nicknamed) is also the perfect place to enjoy a sense of Malagasy city life with lots of street traders selling all manner of produce including local spices. It is also home to some attractive small hotels such as Tsara Guest House. Here they have 18 individual en suite rooms as well as a lively restaurant, bar and small garden. They can arrange a variety of excursions such as tours of the town or visits to the nearby tea plantations.
Isalo National Park
The striking Isalo National Park stands out, literally and figuratively. The Isalo massif lies amidst the relatively flat arid grasslands and is a focal point for all visitors travelling south. It offers an awe-inspiring landscape where quirky eroded sandstone outcrops protrude in seemingly architectural formations, suggesting many shapes such as ‘the tortoise’, ‘the masks’ and ‘the crocodiles’. Dramatic gorges and canyons have small streams and the many natural pools are coloured a surreal brilliant turquoise-green, the colour a result of their mineral content.
The park is largely inaccessible by vehicle so walking tours are the order of the day. With a local guide, you’ll be able to walk up Monkey Canyon (Canyon des Singes) or the less charmingly named Rat Canyon (Canyon des Rats) which have been eroded through the great massif by the wind and rain. Along the way, there may be Verraux’s sifakas, brown lemurs and ringtails, but most of the park’s many lemurs are nocturnal.
There are a variety of trails, most leading to delightful natural springs such as La Piscine Naturelle, are great for a quick dip to cool off after a warm walk. You can visit the fenêtre de l’Isalo in the late afternoon as the sun sets. From here you can continue to the beaches of the Dry South, such as Ifaty, for some well-earned R & R.