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 all visited on one trip. (Apologies for the page length!)
So, heading south from Antananarivo, you 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. It is the agricultural and industrial centre of Madagascar, best known as the centre for beer. With a cool climate and thermal springs, it is also 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. Colourful “pousse-pousse” carriages and street vendors are everywhere you look. You can spend a happy hour 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 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 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
Continue south to Ranomafana National Park. Ranomafana means ‘hot water’. The Ranomafana park was created in 1991 to protect some of the mid-altitude virgin rain forest. If you are interested in botany, this park should be on your ‘must- see’ list for Madagascar. Here you can find the very rare Golden bamboo lemur. But this is just one of 12 species of lemur in Ranomafana.
The park is of a series of steep hills. Numerous small streams rung into the main river, tumbling down the valley in a series of waterfalls and rapids. It can only really be explored on foot because of these streams. You meet with your local guide and set off for a morning of trekking for about 3-4 hours. The habitat is primarily rain forest and it can be quite humid.
Some of the commonly seen lemurs include diademed sifakas. These the ones who love to leap through the forest canopy. Plus 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! You may also see striped civets, and some of the 7 species of tenrec and various mongoose. And an array of interesting reptiles. Keep an eye out for the incredible giraffe beetle.
Birding is excellent in the Ranomafana National Park: 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.
Fianarantsoa, the second largest city in Madagascar, means ‘ Place of good learning’ . It is one of the more attractive Malagasy cities with the ambience of a large sleepy town. It has a lovely setting on a series of terraced hillsides, rather like a smaller version of Tana. But it is surrounded by forest rather than just tea plantations. It has an atmospheric old upper town with crumbling colonial buildings, narrow winding streets and churches everywhere. We recommend taking a walk through the Upper Town. 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.
Isalo National Park
The striking Isalo National Park stands out, literally and figuratively – a real focal point. The Isalo massif lies amidst the relatively flat arid grasslands. It offers an awe-inspiring landscape where quirky eroded sandstone outcrops protrude in architectural formations. They suggest many shapes such as ‘the tortoise’, ‘the masks’ and ‘the crocodiles’. Dramatic gorges and canyons contain natural pools which are coloured a surreal brilliant turquoise-green. But the colour is a result of their mineral content not algae.
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.) Along the way, you may see Verraux’s sifakas, brown lemurs and ringtails. But most of the park’s many lemurs are nocturnal.
In the afternoon you can visit delightful natural springs such as La Piscine Naturelle, a great place for a quick dip to cool off after a warm walk. Plus 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 Southern Madagascar, such as Ifaty, for some well-earned R & R.