The first people arrived in Madagascar between 350 BC and 550 AD from Borneo on outrigger canoes. These Austronesian first settlers were joined around 1000 AD by Bantu migrants crossing the Mozambique Channel.
Other groups such as Arabs, Indians, and Chinese continued to settle on Madagascar over time, each one making lasting contributions to Malagasy cultural life. The Malagasy way of thinking includes a mixture of cultures, as well as their appearance and fashion style. It is a melting pot. Madagascar is part of the African Union, but that is now being reconsidered due to the recent 2009 political turmoil regarding the African Union members.
Madagascar's long isolation from the neighbouring continents has resulted in a unique mix of plants and animals, many found nowhere else in the world. This has led some ecologists to refer to Madagascar as the "eighth continent". Of the 10,000 plants native to Madagascar, 90% are found nowhere else in the world. Madagascar's varied fauna and flora are endangered by human activity, as a third of its native vegetation has disappeared since the 1970s and since the arrival of humans 2,000 years ago, Madagascar has lost more than 90% of its original forest. Most lemurs are listed as endangered or threatened species.
The eastern, or windward side of the island is home to tropical rainforests, while the western and southern sides, which lie in the rain shadow of the central highlands, are home to tropical dry forests, thorn forests, and deserts and xeric shrublands. Madagascar's dry deciduous rain forest has been preserved generally better than the eastern rainforests or the high central plateau, presumably due to historically low population densities.
The climate is tropical along the coast, temperate inland, and arid in the south. The weather is dominated by the southeastern trade winds that originate in the Indian Ocean anticyclone, a centre of high atmospheric pressure that seasonally changes its position over the ocean. Madagascar has two seasons: a hot, rainy season from November to April, and a cooler, dry season from May to October. There is, however, great variation in climate owing to elevation and position relative to dominant winds. The east coast has a sub-equatorial climate and, being most directly exposed to the trade winds, has the heaviest rainfall, averaging as much as 3,500 mm (137.8 in) annually. This region is notorious not only for a hot, humid climate in which tropical fevers are endemic but also for the destructive cyclones that occur during the rainy season, coming in principally from the direction of the Mascarene Islands. Because rain clouds discharge much of their moisture east of the highest elevations on the island, the central highlands are appreciably drier and, owing to the altitude, also cooler. Thunderstorms are common during the rainy season in the central highlands, and lightning is a serious hazard.
Antananarivo receives practically all of its average annual 1,400 mm (55.1 in) of rainfall between November and April. The dry season is pleasant and sunny, although somewhat chilly, especially in the mornings. Although frosts are rare in Antananarivo, they are common at higher elevations.
Nationals of any country can obtain a visa on arrival valid for 90 days. Stays up to 30 days are free of charge while there is a fee for a maximum 60 or 90 days stay. All visitors must hold a passport valid for 6 months.
As of Feb 2016, 30 day visas received at the airport are obtained using cash only for either 25 Euros/27 US dollars/or equivalent in Madagascar Ariary. A counter before entry issues visas for longer stays.
From Europe, the best connections are with Air Madagascar  ("AirMad"), Ethiopian Airlines from a number of European cities including Dublin, London and Frankfurt via Addis Ababa, Air France or Corsair  from Paris to Antananarivo. Turkish Airlines recently started direct flights from Istanbul to Antananarivo.
Air Austral (french) runs flights to Madagascar from Paris with transfer on Reunion Island.
Flights from Johannesburg, South Africa, using Air Madagascar codeshared with SA Airlink . Flights run 6 days a week.
Note that the airport is located right next to the city Ivato with cheap public transport to Tana center (500 ariary). You can sleep in the airport.
Air Madagascar serves numerous destinations throughout the country, which is a good thing considering the bad state of the roads. Besides the big cities, lots of little hamlets are also served.
It is advisable to check the status of your flight in advance, as timetable changes can occur at fairly short notice.
There was some political unrest in 2002, which resulted in some airports being temporarily shut.
Passengers who arrive in Madagascar on a long-haul flight from Air Madagascar can benefit from reductions on the order of 50% on the company's internal flights.
With the Malagasy railway network dating from the colonial period, breakdowns are frequent due to poor maintenance, and a line may be closed for several weeks.
The train is not the fastest and most comfortable means of travel, but it lets you admire the magnificent landscapes (especially on the line connecting Fianarantsoa to Manakara) and discover the Malagasy fruits and dishes offered at every stop. You can taste what is in season at little cost : crayfish, bananas, cinnamon apples, sambos, zebu sausages, oranges. Travelling by train is cheap (1st class from Fianarantsoa to Manakara only 25000Ar (less than 10€)). You want to choose a 1st class seat; or get up very early if you want to be sure to get a 2nd class ticket since it is always extremely crowded (the train is the only mean of transport for many villagers) and no booking is possible in 2nd class. Unfortunately, the train that runs between Manakara and Fianarantsoa has become less reliable lately (early 2007) due to poor conditions of the tracks.
This is the only inexpensive way to get around, but Madagascar's roads are almost all of very low grade (with the exception of 2 routes leading out of Tana). Many roads are studded with potholes and are quagmires in the rainy season. Be warned that travel by road will almost always take much more time than you would normally expect. Hire of a 4WD vehicle can reduce this problem but the cost will be higher but still very cost effective if you are not traveling alone and able to split the rental fee between the members of your group. (Rent a 4WD with driver is around 50 EURO/day/car excluding gasoline, updated SEP 2015) Due to the poor condition of the roads many car hire companies will only rent you a car if you use one of their drivers. In most cases, the driver can act as your guide and translator as well.
This is the way most natives travel around the country. There are three major modern roads in the country: RN7 from Tana to Toliara, RN2 from Tana to Tomasina (via Brickaville) and RN4 from Tana to Mahajanga. Trips between those towns take about a day whereas traveling between Tana and Taolagnaro, a south-eastern coastal town, would take about 3 or 4 days due to the condition of the road. Travel is cramped and don't expect air conditioning. Expect dust to be a problem in the dry season. Travel by Taxi-Brousse is guaranteed to test one's patience and sanity, but there is quite possibly no better way to meet and interact with the locals and experience Madagascar as the Malagasy do. Taxi-brousse is by far the cheapest way to travel, but do not expect to leave or arrive on time. Indeed, the drivers wait for their 15 seats small buses to get full before leaving, therefore a few hours delay is never excluded! However, during the trip it allows you to admire the breathtaking landscapes Madagascar holds.
In Tana, the cheapest way to get around is by taxi-be, or big taxi, which is a bit larger than a mini-van. There is one aisle with seats to fold down so they can cram in even more people. During peak season, buses run frequently.
If you are looking for an unusual holiday, a yacht charter to Madagascar might be a good choice. You can be sure that your neighbors have not been there and done that. For those who would like to bareboat (hire a ship or boat without provisions or crew), a “guide” is usually included in the price of the yacht charter. Although obligatory, he comes with the price and is essential for the multitude of services he will provide. He will prepare the food, recommend anchorages, know where to fish and refill the water tanks. He will speak the local language and have an established relationship with the local people. He will protect the boat from theft when you leave it to explore on land. The guide lives completely on the exterior of the boat and does not require a cabin. A yacht charter to Madagascar is a bit of a “Robinson Crusoe” adventure. Once you embark, you will not be able to stock up provisions again and must live off the fish and seafood you will catch for yourself (or with your guide). So take great care with your provisioning list. This problem can be avoided by chartering one of the crewed catamarans. Cats are designed for stability so sea sickness is not really a problem. The crew prepare the boat with linen, food and drinks before your arrival -basically these boats are like a personal floating hotel. Depending on which boat you choose you could receive excellent service and food and suggestions of where to go and what to do. Choose your catamaran carefully as there are some really old ones in service- make sure the crew can speak your language.
Madagascar is a great place to tour by bike and staying in small towns and villages along the way gives a real sense of what the country is all about. A mountain bike or heavy duty tourer at least is required as the roads can be in poor to terrible condition. In rainy season on the East coast the main North-south road can become impassable, possibly leading to a two day walk - over soft sand in one section - this is not an easily rideable route. Generally there is little to no traffic which makes cruising around a great pleasure. The people are amazingly friendly and you'll be greeted with crowds of children shouting 'Vazaha' in every village. There are little or no facilities for cyclists, so be prepared to camp rough (ask if it is somebody's land and never too near a family grave) or sleep in very basic guesthouses. Likely you will be invited to stay in people's houses. Bring a spare tire, puncture kit, chain, brake/gear cable, derailleur and all the tools you need.
Organised Madagascar Cycling tour can be arranged with specialised operators, they will accompany you with a car, reserve hotels and sort out any problem may arise during your ride. More expensive but definitely safer and hassle free.
Malagasay is a Malayo-Polynesian language related to Malay and Indonesian that is spoken by the majority of the island as a native language. As well as being the name of the language, "Malagasy" also refers to the people of the island. Because the island is so large there are many different dialects. The Merina dialect is the "Official Malagasy" of the island and is spoken around the highlands of Antananarivo. Most Malagasy, however, speak Merina across the island.
French is the second official language of Madagascar. The government and large corporations use French in everyday business, but 75-85% of Malagasy only have limited proficiency in this language. Attempts by foreigners to learn and speak Malagasy are liked and encouraged by the Malagasy people.
Tourist workers and some government officials will have a reasonable command of English.
Note: tours combine the Tsingy, a three day piroque boat trip and the Allee de Baobap in 7 days for 200 or more euro dependent on group size. This is most easily arranged in and from Antsirabe.
The unit of money is the ariary (Ar). It is subdivided into 5 iraimbilanja and is one of only two non-decimal currencies currently circulating (the other is the Mauritanian ouguiya).
As of February 2015, 1 € is equal to 3200 Ar while $1 is 2850 Ar. Hotel and tour prices are frequently quoted in Euro, and Euro is accepted for most high-end transactions.
The currency system was overhauled in 2006, when a previous currency, the Malagasy Franc (Franc Malgache) was replaced at a ratio of 1 ariary = 5 francs. Confusingly, many people continue to quote prices in francs, so it is imperative to confirm the amount in ariary.
There are ATMs in most cities and towns. Visa is much more useful and commonly accepted than MasterCard, which is limited to BNI Bank and a couple of restaurants. An American Express card is basically useless.
In general the cost of travel in Madagascar is a good value at nearly every budget level. Basic beds can be found for just a few dollars even in big cities, while a meal at a hotely can easily be under a dollar. Mid-level hotels and jungle lodges generally are better values than on the African content, with high-service and beautiful bungalows available for just $50 in many places. Even Tana's most expensive eateries rarely charge more than $10 for a main.
Shoppers will find much to buy in the country. Spices, such as vanilla, are a great souvenir and a great value. (Vanilla is about €2 for 10 pods, compared to €3 for 2 pods in Europe.)
An exception to all of this is transportation, which can be ruinously expensive for the casual traveller. Air Madagascar charges tourists double on all tickets (unless you flew into the country on the airline) which means that round-trip tickets to anywhere in the country average $600-700! Limited public transportation means that the only alternative to a taxi-brousse (which can be erratically scheduled or not available in many areas) is a private car or boat hire. Expect to pay 200,000 Ar or so a day for a car, fuel and a driver's accommodation and even more if travelling by sea.
The cheapest way to get a meal is to eat at a "hotely" or at market places. Simple meals that include a plate of rice, laoka (malagasy for side dish accompanying rice) like chicken, beans or pork, and rice water often are about 2000 Ariary (about 1 dollar) but could even be as low as 500 Ariary. For 200 ariary extra you can get a small glass of homemade yogurt. 'Compose' is a small salad that often includes potato salad and some other vegetables, often available for 300 to 600 Ariary. The same is also available on a baguette. Soups in various kinds, often including pasta are also very popular.
Bananas (hundreds of varieties) and rice cakes (Malagasy 'bread') are staple 'street food' and available everywhere. Coffee is very good, usually hand-made by the cup and served very sweet with condensed milk. Steak-frites is available in restaurants in the larger towns.
Supermarkets - In Tana there is a supermarket chain called Jumbo Score. This Western style supermarket is well stocked, but the expensive prices reflect the need to import just about everything. There are many Casino (a French Supermarket) branded goods but also some more local produce (veg, spices etc, far cheaper from any the street markets). Shoprite is a slightly cheaper alternative but usually a smaller selection of stock items.
While in general tap water is considered not safe, in most cities it seldom causes problems. Bottled water costs 30 to 60 eurocent per liter and can be found almost everywhere. The same holds for Fanta, Coca Cola, ... Bonbon Anglais, and various beers like Three Horses Beer (THB), Castel, Queens, Skol, ... Locals often drink rum because it is much cheaper than beer. Natural and not so natural juices can also readily be found, for 5 to 10 eurocent per cup. Another option is ranon'apango (RAN-oo-na-PANG-oo) or rice water (water used to cook rice, which will therefore have been boiled) which is often served when eating in local places. It's particularly important to plan ahead if visiting rural areas. It is worth taking with you some chlorine tablets, which can be used to make the local water drinkable.
Home brewed rum, and creme de coco, is also available - in many flavours!
In most places a budget room can be found for 12000 to 25000 Ariary, which provides for a double bed. Single travelers therefore end up spending more on accommodation, with dormitories or single rooms being rare. Mosquito nets are mostly provided where necessary, a net costs about 1 to 8 euro in Tana. Camping's exist in and around several national parks, but for some you may require your own tent.
Please learn some Malagasy. The single best thing you can do to have a fun and safe trip on this beautiful island is to speak the local language. Even ten words will make your trip monumentally better than if you speak French. There are a number of guidebooks you can buy to learn Malagasy or ask someone to teach you. Just a few words, I promise you, will make all the difference.
Madagascar is a fairly safe country. You must, however, respect some simple principles:
Like any other developing country, the presence of beggars never goes unnoticed. This is sometimes uncomfortable for tourists, but these people should be respected none-the-less. They are, predictably, attracted to foreigners as they view them as being wealthy and will not hesitate to ask for a hand out. If you don't want to be bothered, a simple "Non, merci" or "Tsy Misy (tsee-meesh)" (I have nothing) will do the trick. If they persist, try shouting "Mandehana! (man-day-han)" (Go Away!). It is recommended not to give money, but other useful items, such as a banana, a piece of bread, etc. It is usually accepted with gratitude, and if the beggar is a child, he will run away with a smile on his face. NEVER take a child to the hotel or you would be suspected of pedophilia.
It is imperative not to encourage begging - in Madagascar the people do not really believe in getting something for nothing and will invariably offer you something first. For example a chameleon to photograph.
While the AIDS epidemic has not reached the devastating level found in many southern African countries, it is widely assumed that the incidence of HIV is underestimated and rising. You should take no risks and avoid unprotected sex in all cases.
Areas inhabited by humans will invariably have large populations of stray dogs. Never provoke a stray dog, and although bites are rare, if bitten seek medical assistance promptly as rabies is not unheard of.
Research malaria prophylaxis options, and follow through. If you are not taking any prophylactics, be sure to always use a mosquito net for sleeping, and apply mosquito repellents once dusk sets in. On-skin repellent (only repellents containing ~40% DEET are effective, such as NoBite, Azeron Before Tropics etc.) is good but should be used in combination with on-clothes repellent (eg: NoBite). The clothes repellent is odourless approximately an hour after application, and clothes can be washed up to 4 times before it needs to be re-applied. If you wear long-sleeve clothing treated with the repellent and apply on-skin repellent to the skin parts not covered, you will be very safe against mosquito bites and can skip the prophylaxis with its notorious side effects. Be sure to take the repellent issue seriously, though, as it's very easy to fall into a more 'relaxed' mode after you've spent some time in the country.
Remember that Madagascar is in the tropics and take precautions against sunburn and heat exhaustion seriously. Wear lots of sunscreen and keep hydrated. Remember that a cloudy day does not mean you won't get burnt.
Everyday life in Madagascar is regulated by numerous fady (taboos) which vary from one region to another. They can forbid foods (pork, lemur, turtle... ), wearing clothes of a particular colour, bathing in a river or a lake. Observance of "fady" is mostly limited to rural areas, as tourists will most likely not run into this problem if they stay in the main towns. However, there are fadies in places such as Antananarivo but most Vazaha are exempt.
Fady are attributed to ancestors, to whom Malagasy adopt a respectful attitude whatever their religion. It is safest to respect these prohibitions and not violate them, even if you feel they don't make sense. Inform yourself about local fady when you arrive in a new place.
When addressing anyone older than you or in a position of authority (e.g. police, military, customs officials), use the word "tompoko (TOOMP-koo)" the same way you would use "sir" or "ma'am" in English. Respect for elders and authority figures is important in Madagascar.
Do not ever take photos of a tomb without permission. Always ask permission before taking photos. Also, if you go to a remote village or hamlet, it is fomba, or tradition, that you first meet with the head of the village if you have business in the village. Meeting this person can save you a lot of time if you have work to do there.