Isalo National Park, Madagascar: The Complete Guide

Tranquil pool in Isalo National Park, Madagascar

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Isalo National Park

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Madagascar

Madagascar’s most popular nature destination, Isalo National Park, lies amidst the Jurassic-era highlands of the country’s southwest. Established in 1962, it protects over 190,000 acres of land dominated by a dramatic sandstone massif that has been eroded by time and weather into an otherworldly collection of plateaus, canyons, gorges, and pinnacles. Iron and mineral deposits stain the rock formations a rainbow of different colors, and the dense forests and grassland plains that surround them are filled with unique flora and fauna. Hiking is the main attraction for visitors to Isalo, with trails taking anywhere from a few hours to several days to complete. 

Things to Do

Hiking is the main activity in Isalo National Park and you'll be required to hire a local guide to lead you through the park. If you're not traveling as part of an organized Madagascar tour, it’s relatively easy to visit Isalo National Park independently. You can pay entry fees, book accommodation, and hire guides and porters at the park office, located in the nearby village of Ranohira. Some tour operators also offer options to explore the park by horse or mountain bike.

Isalo National Park is more famous for its scenery than its wildlife, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of fascinating animals to look out for. Interesting mammals include Madagascar specials like the cat-like fossa, as well as two species of tenrec and two species of civet. The park’s pristine forests provide a home for no fewer than 14 lemur species, ranging from the iconic ring-tailed lemur to the endangered Verreaux’s sifaka. If you choose to stay overnight, you also have a chance of seeing nocturnal primates like the endangered Coquerel’s giant mouse lemur and the red-tailed sportive lemur.

The park is also known for its reptiles and amphibians, with top spots including the native white-lipped bright-eyed frog, Madagascar boa, and colorfully decorated Malagasy rainbow frog. Over 80 bird species have been recorded at Isalo, of which 27 are endemic to Madagascar. The park is especially famous in birding circles as one of the best places to spot the indigenous Benson’s rock thrush. Isalo’s plant life is equally unique. Botanists should look out for specials such as the elephant’s foot plant and the Aloe isaloensis, which takes its scientific name from the name of the park and its massif.

Best Hikes & Trails

The Isalo massif is crisscrossed with breathtaking hiking routes. Together, they offer the opportunity to encounter lemurs, escape the heat with a dip in a shaded natural swimming hole, or visit the sacred tombs of the Bara tribe that traditionally inhabited the area. It is possible to walk to the trailhead from Ranohira, but it's better to take a car or hire a driver to save time.

  • Piscine Naturelle Trail: One of the most popular trails, this route will take you to Piscine Naturelle, a limpid pool fringed by old-world pandanus trees and fed by a crystalline waterhole. This route is easily combined with a visit to the Canyon des Singes via a hike past the park’s multicolored ranges and through forest inhabited by diurnal lemur and sifaka species. 
  • Namaza Circuit and the Cascades des Nymphes: This route will take you to beautiful natural swimming holes, while the Canyon des Makis et Rats route combines natural wonders with the cultural heritage of the Bara people. Choose this trail, and you’ll find yourself in a former royal village complete with the ruins of a palace wall, royal baths, and burial places.
  • Portuguese Cave Route: This route is for keen hikers with plenty of energy and high fitness levels. It's the ultimate way to immerse yourself in Isalo’s Jurassic landscape. It takes you on a four-day trek to and from the cave in the far north of the park, through the Sahanafa Forest with its rich animal and plant life. 

Where to Camp

There are two large campsites within the park, both of which offer shared toilets, showers, and barbecue facilities. Spending a night at one of them is a great way to experience the park in all its rustic glory—especially as the campsites are often visited by ring-tailed and sifaka lemurs. Overnight camping can be arranged with your tour operator and tents and meals are typically provided. Namaza Campground is located on a plateau along the way of the Black and Blue Pools and Analatapia Campground is closer to Piscine Naturelle.

Where to Stay Nearby

If you don’t feel like camping, there are several excellent hotels located along the park’s southern border about 6 miles (10 kilometers) down the road from Ranohira. Many hotels can arrange special excursions in the park, like horseback riding or rock climbing.

  • Le Jardin du Roy: The stone bungalows of this hotel are set amid lush grounds and it also has an on-site spa.
  • Relais de la Reine: Boasting panoramic views of the park, this hotel has beautiful granite architecture plus amenities like a swimming pool and a tennis court.
  • Isalo Rock Lodge: This lodge has 60 beautifully decorated rooms, all with luxurious ensuites, a private balcony overlooking the park’s splendid rock formations, and access to a restaurant and pool bar. 

How to Get There

The town of Ranohira is the gateway to Isalo National Park and the closest big cities are Toliara, which is 150 miles (241 kilometers to the southwest), and Fianarantsoa which is 170 miles (273 kilometers) to the northeast. All three settlements are connected by the RN7, Madagascar’s biggest and best-maintained road which makes access to Isalo easy. From the Madagascan capital, Antananarivo, it’s a 15-hour drive to the park along the RN7. Consider making a trip of it and stopping along the way at other Madagascar highlights such as Ranomafana National Park and the ex-colonial city of Antsirabe. Alternatively, there are typically flights from Tana to Toliara; and from there, you can hire a car or take a taxi to Ranohira. 

Tips for Your Visit

  • Before heading into Isalo National Park, pay a visit to Maison de l’Isalo, a small museum dedicated to the region’s geological and cultural heritage located just south of Ranohira in the small village of Zahavola.
  • If you choose to self-drive, don’t forget to stop off along the way at La Fenêtre de l’Isalo, a natural rock window on the park’s southern border that’s famous for framing the setting sun. 
  • Isalo National Park has a dry, tropical climate with very little rain and temperatures that frequently exceed 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) no matter what time of year you visit. Because of this, you must pack adequate protection in the form of sunscreen, sunglasses, light clothing, and plenty of water.
  • Unlike Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, Isalo is accessible year-round and there is no optimum time to travel in terms of weather. Be aware that the park can get busy during the peak tourist seasons (July to August and December); and if you plan on traveling during these times, it’s a good idea to book accommodation well in advance. 
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Isalo National Park, Madagascar: The Complete Guide