Roughly 88 million years ago, the island nation of Madagascar split away from the Indian subcontinent. Ever since, its plants and animals have continued to evolve in isolation. Today, more than 90 percent of the country's species—including 103 different types of lemur—cannot be found anywhere else on Earth. This high level of endemism has led to Madagascar being dubbed the “eighth continent,” making it a bucket list destination for birders and wildlife enthusiasts.
Unfortunately, despite Madagascar’s status as a biodiversity hotspot, human activity including deforestation, hunting, and the introduction of invasive species has led to widespread destruction of its natural resources. As such, its national parks are invaluable sanctuaries for the island’s remaining wildlife. From the fantastic stone forests of Tsingy de Bermaraha to the waterfalls of Amber Mountain, each one has its own weird and wonderful reasons to visit. Here are our favorite picks.
Andasibe-Mantadia National Park
Located a 3.5-hour drive from the capital of Antananarivo, Andasibe-Mantadia National Park is one of the country’s most accessible and frequently visited protected areas. Covering 60 square miles, it is divided into two distinct areas: the Analamazaotra Special Reserve in the south, and Mantadia National Park in the north. Both are part of the same primary growth rainforest, and feature dense, humid green spaces filled with exotic flora and fauna.
In particular, the park is known for its 14 different lemur species. Of these, the most famous is the indri, Madagascar’s largest lemur. There are several habituated families living in Andasibe-Mantadia, making it the best place on the island for a close encounter with these critically endangered primates.
The park is also a hotspot for Madagascar’s rainforest-dependent endemic species of birds; in total, there are more than 100 different types living in Andasibe-Mantadia. You can spot them on a series of guided hikes. The easiest trails are in the Analamazaotra section of the park, while the most scenic are in Mantadia.
Isalo National Park
Another of Madagascar’s most popular reserves, Isalo National Park covers more than 300 square miles of land in the southwest of the country. It is famous for its scenic sandstone landscape, which has eroded over time into a spectacular array of mineral-stained plateaus, canyons, outcrops, and pinnacles. In between, rivers and streams wend their way through grassland plains and tracts of dense forest. This diversity has made Isalo a top destination for hikers, who come to test their stamina on trails that last anywhere from a few hours to several days.
Things to see along the way range from idyllic natural swimming pools in jewel-like shades of jade and turquoise to the sacred burial places of the native Bara people. Wildlife abounds, too, including 14 lemur species and 81 species of birds (27 of which are endemic). In particular, Isalo National Park is known among birders as one of the best places to spot the rare Benson’s rock thrush. Guides are mandatory and can be booked at the park office in Ranohira village.
Ranomafana National Park
Ranomafana National Park is one of the six Rainforests of the Atsinanana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s located a roughly eight-hour drive southeast of Antananarivo, and comprises 160 square miles of pristine montane rainforest. Above all, Ranomafana is famed for its incredible biodiversity. It was established in 1986 after scientists discovered the golden bamboo lemur here; now, the golden bamboo lemur is just one of 12 lemur species to call the park home.
Others include the endangered Milne-Edwards’s sifaka and the critically endangered Sibree’s dwarf lemur. Of the park’s 115 bird species, 30 are narrow endemics only found in this region of Madagascar. Visitors come to the park to hike on five trails that range from half-day adventures to three-day expeditions. Along the way, keep an eye out for sacred lakes, waterfalls, traditional Tanala villages, and the thermal pools that give the park its name (taken from the Malagasy phrase meaning “hot water”). You can also go kayaking on the park’s main river, the Namorona.
Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park
Only accessible during the April to November dry season, Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park is located in the remote wilderness of northwest Madagascar. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it covers 580 square miles and is most famous for its two unique geological features: Great Tsingy and Little Tsingy. The word “tsingy” comes from the Malagasy word meaning “the place where one cannot walk barefoot," an apt description for karstic plateaus made up exclusively of razor-sharp limestone pinnacles.
The only way to traverse these otherworldly landscapes is via a network of aerial suspension bridges, with several different routes to explore. In addition to the park’s majestic scenery, animals to look out for include 11 lemur species (five of which are only found in western Madagascar), falanoucs and fossas, and 96 bird species. Several animals, like the Antsingy leaf chameleon and the Tsingy wood rail, only exist in this national park. Dugout canoe expeditions along the Manambolo Gorge are another highlight, stopping en route at natural swimming pools, Vazimba tombs, and caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites.
Amber Mountain National Park
Located in the extreme north of the country, Amber Mountain National Park is situated on an isolated volcanic massif that towers above the arid countryside and has its own unique microclimate. Whereas the surrounding area receives 39 inches of rain annually, Amber Mountain receives 141 inches. It’s a verdant wonderland of dense montane rainforest intersected by rivers, streams, crater lakes, and majestic waterfalls. The plant life here is particularly diverse, with more than 1,000 species of exotic lianas, orchids, and ferns.
25 mammal species also call Amber Mountain home, including eight different kinds of lemurs. Among them are the endangered crowned, Sandford’s brown, and aye-aye lemurs, as well as the critically engendered northern sportive lemur. Endemic reptiles and birds abound, and in particular visitors should keep an eye out for two park specials: the Amber Mountain leaf chameleon (one of the world’s smallest reptiles) and the Amber Mountain rock thrush. The park can be explored using 19 miles of marked hiking trails, including one that takes you to the mountain summit. There are several campsites as well.
Masoala National Park
Comprising 888 square miles of rainforest and 38 square miles of marine parks, Masoala National Park is the largest protected area in Madagascar. Located in the northeast of the country on the Masoala peninsula, it is also one of the six UNESCO-recognized Rainforests of the Atsinanana parks. Because of its large size, the park incorporates an astonishing variety of different habitats, including tropical rainforest, coastal forest, marshes, mangroves, and flourishing coral reefs.
It is exceptionally biodiverse, and home to many peninsula specials. Among these is the red ruffed lemur, one of 10 lemur species living in the park. Birders come to look for the Madagascan serpent-eagle, a species so rare that it was previously thought to be extinct. You can traverse the park on a series of guided hikes, some of which last for several days. Other activities include spotting elusive aye-aye lemurs on the island reserve of Nosy Mangabe, snorkeling and kayaking in the marine reserves, and lounging on golden beaches. From July to September, migrating humpback whales congregate in Antongil Bay.
Andringitra National Park
Another member of the Rainforests of the Atsinanana UNESCO World Heritage Site, Andringitra National Park covers 120 square miles in southeast Madagascar. It is dominated by the granite massif of the Andringitra Mountains, including Imarivolanitra, the second highest peak in the country. Soaring ridges and plunging valleys make for some spectacular scenery, while three distinct habitats (low altitude rainforest, mountain forest, and high altitude vegetation) harbor a diverse array of flora and fauna.
In total, Andringitra boasts more than 1,000 plant species, 100 bird species, and more than 50 different kinds of mammals. Among these are 13 lemur species, including ring-tailed lemurs with especially thick fur. This is an adaptation to allow them to cope with the cold temperatures in the mountains, which have been known to see snowfall in winter. This national park offers a series of short and multi-day guided hikes, with sights to see along the way such as unique flora and fauna and sacred waterfalls. It’s possible to climb to the summit of Imarivolanitra, and there are several park campsites to choose from.
Ankarafantsika National Park
In northern Madagascar lies Ankarafantsika National Park, which protects one of the island’s last remaining tracts of dry tropical forest. The park spreads for 520 square miles on either side of the R4 highway and is home to many endemic and endangered species—including more than 800 rare species of plant and tree. Of the eight different kinds of lemur found here, only the Coquerel’s sifaka is active during the day. For that reason, it’s well worth planning at least one night walk during your stay.
The golden-brown mouse lemur is one of several species that can only be found in Ankarafantsika National Park. Of its 129 recorded bird species, no fewer than 75 are endemic. There are 11 well-maintained hiking trails, with possible points of interest ranging from groves of giant baobab trees to the sacred sites of the Sakalava people. Don’t miss Ravelobe Lake with its crocodiles and abundant birdlife. The endemic Madagascar fish eagle is a particular highlight. It is also possible to enjoy a boat cruise on the lake.