Nearly two days of travel from Tana (short for Antananarivo) lies Isalo National Park bordering the town of Ranohira in Southern Madagascar. Isalo is the most visited national park in Mada for good reason – its easy to get to and incredibly beautiful. Much of Southern Madagascar is flat open grasslands; however, during the Jurassic period a large chunk of sandstone measuring 59 by 22 kilometers was shifted upwards creating a rare area rocky plateau among the vast open plains. Through time, water has carved incredible canyons throughout this park supporting an oasis of animal and plant life giving Isalo “holy” status by the local tribes living in the region.
How to get there?
Transportation in Madagascar is not easy. Only 5% of the countries roads are paved, and travel times between places take significantly longer than expected. Often if you visit in the rainy season, many areas of the country are completely inaccessible by vehicle. Fortunately Isalo is located along Route Nationale 7 (RN 7) which is the “best” road in Madagascar. The road runs from the capital all the way to Tulear in the south and despite some potholes, the road is mostly paved all the way. Even though it is barely wide enough for two cars, traffic is so infrequent that passing is rarely an issue.
Getting from Tana to Ranohira in a day is possible, but very long and uncomfortable. The best way to get to Isalo would be to take a Taxi-Bousse from Tana to Fianarantsoa (locally known as Fiana) and spend a night before continuing on to Ranohira. I stayed in Raza Otel in Fiana, located near the bus station, and the staff was extremely helpful in arranging onward transportation to Ranohira. Again, I strongly recommend spending the night in Fiana. On my way back I decided to take a taxi-bousse straight through over night to Tana and let me just say I regretted that decision. You don’t want to sleep in a taxi-bousse.
Before coming to Madagascar it is also helpful to brush up on your French. French is one of two national languages and most people speak it in cities and towns. English is not very common outside of hotels. I wound’t be too worried about it because I barely know any French, but I survived. Downloading a French-English dictionary on your phone before coming is a good idea though.
Where to stay?
Once you get to Ranohira, I recommend Chez Alice – a bungalow style resort located close to the town center. Ranohira is very small, and there are signs from the drop off point for Chez Alice. You’ll be able to stay in a mud hut style bungalow with an incredible view across the plains to the mountains bordering Isalo National Park. The restaurant onsite is also very good. I didn’t bother to eat anywhere else.
How to get into the park, guides etc.
If you want to enter Isalo National Park, you required to hire a local guide. This is standard throughout Madagascar. While the guide can be expensive for Malagasy standards, they’re extremely well trained and completely worth the price. The guides spend nearly a year learning about the flora and fauna in the park and will be able to point out and find just about anything. If you speak French, finding a decent guide will be easy to do onsite, but English speaking ability varies from guide to guide. Other languages are available as well including Italian, German, and even Chinese.
Raza Otel back in Fiana hooked me up with a guide who met me at the bus stop in Ranohira and I heard through other sources that he is probably the best guide in the park. I definitly agree with that. My guide’s name was Tody and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Similarly if you ask Raza Otel, they can help you find Tody, but I would recommend trying to email first just so you make sure he is available.
There are many different hikes you can do in the park, and Tody explained all of them to me in front of a park map. Tody went through all the prices for various options and everything was extremely transparent. While the guides can be expensive for Madagascar, the process is easy to understand and very fair. I opted to go for a overnight hike which included meals and camping equipment all carried to the campsite for me by a porter. The total cost was about $180 USD. The real killer is the park and guide fees. Camping and porters were so cheap comparatively that it makes total sense to camp and see more of the park. Before you go on your hike, I recommend buying a ticket for your onward transportation just so you have it reserved when you return to Ranohira. Spend another night in Chez Alice and leave the following morning.
While the park is quite expensive, the one thing you can be happy about is that all the money you’re spending is going into the local economy. Some of the park fee goes back to the national government, but the vast majority of the cost is used to protect the park and support local schools in the region. Madagascar is incredibly poor, but it is inspiring to see how much of an effort they make to protect their natural treasures. This is all they have, and they know that if they sell it short now for a quick profit, they will have nothing for the future. I totally respect that and was happy to help.
Hiking Isalo National Park
This was by far the best thing I did in Madagascar. The park is just incredible. We started our hike at 7am by taking a ride north to Canyon De Makis, hiking through the canyon, and then crossing over a ridge to reach a scenic waterfall and swimming area for lunch before finally making it to the campsite around 3pm. The guides’ knowledge of the flora and fauna is just insane. One example of this was when we were walking along the ridge and my guide pointed to a random bush and said “do you see anything in here?” After a minute I told him I give up, and he pointed out a stick insect which looks just like the branches of the bush. You can only know its an insect by seeing its feet and hands clasping the bush. I still have no idea how the guide could spot something like that while walking. The guides are also like encyclopedias of the park. They kept citing the Malagasy, French, English, and even Latin species name of every plant and animal. I honestly think they do it to show off.
At the camp, I had an incredible dinner. We initially started with tea and biscuits, moving into Malagasy rum with pineapple and ginger before our three course dinner. I’d go back again just for the food.
On the second day after breakfast we left the camp for another waterfall and a morning swim before hiking back up along the ridge to the Piscine Naturelle – a natural spring running from the mountain. Unfortunately due to some recent brush fires, there has been a lot of erosion in the park leading to a large amount of sand in the Piscine Naturelle so it wasn’t possible to swim when I was there since the pool is so shallow now. Fortunately though every year the locals come up to the park and spend a few days removing the sand from the pool to restore it to its natural state. Hopefully as the erosion starts to calm down, they will no longer need to do this, but I was visiting just a few weeks before they annually clean out the pool so I missed seeing it the natural state.
On my final day Tody explained to me a lot about the local tribes in Madagascar. There are several main tribes throughout the country, and the one in the Isalo region is called “Bara”. Living in a grasslands, these people mostly make their living off raising zebu which is sort of like a cow, but they have horns and do not produce milk. Bara people have a special relationship with the zebus and make talismans out of their horns. They fill the horns up with precious objects, many from Isalo National Park, and use them to protect themselves. The Bara people consider the park holy ground and because of their relationship with zebus, it is forbidden to bring goats, that are also raised in the area, into the park. The Bara people believe that if goats are brought into the park, their talismans will no longer work.
In Madagascar only about 50% of the children attend school. While some of this can be attributed to not having the means to attend and pay for school supplies, many of the Bara people in the Isalo region choose to not send their children to school for cultural reasons. Being cattle farmers, they’re actually quite wealthy, but the Bara people believe that if they send their kids to school, they will slowly lose their cultural identity. In Ranohira, almost all of the residents are “reformed Bara” meaning they’re of Bara ancestry, but they choose to live modern lives while the rest of the people further out continue to keep their traditional cultural lifestyles. Luckily on my last day I was able to see some of these Bara people as every other Friday in Ranohira there is a “market day” where people from the country side come to town to sell their goods. My guide, Tody, told me that many of the younger kids in town that Friday were actually there to try and meet potential husbands or wives. In the Madagascan country side, it is very common to get married at around 16-18 years of age so many young kids use these market days to set up “dates” sometimes recommended through their relatives to meet potential husbands and wives.
If you only have a week in Madagascar, Isalo National Park is the place to spend it. Madagascar is a massive country with poor infrastructure making it very difficult to visit places within a short period of time. If you do plan to come here, it is much better to spend two to three weeks to really see the country.
All in all, I give Madagascar my full endorsement. You MUST come her. Being one of the poorest countries in the world, it is fortunate enough to have unreal natural beauty. The people here need your help, and the best way to do it it visit and spread the good word about this amazing place.
Check out my short video on Isalo National Park: