Welcome to Madagascar! Impressions of Antananarivo

Yesterday, after spending 4 days traveling from Melbourne to Sydney to Johannesburg, Richard and I arrived in Antananarivo – Madagascar’s capital city. This is the last stop on our way to Antsiranana, the starting point of our upcoming ultra marathon. Though we’re only spending a day and a half here, it has been quite easy for us to get an overall sense of the city and what we have to look forward to over the next 2 weeks.

It’s gorgeous

As we were flying into Antananarivo I was left speechless by the beauty of the country. It’s absolutely stunning. The hues of the landscape cover the entire spectrum of the rainbow, with lots of greens, browns, and reds. Jutting up from the island nation are rolling hills as far as the eye can see. Separating sets of hills are low and wide flood plains.

The houses are anything but uniform, with some of the most eccentric color combinations I’ve ever seen. The buildings range from tin shacks to dilapidated French colonials. Churches are far and away some of the larger buildings in the area. Each house is perched on the hills, with nothing situated along the flat lands.

It’s high in the sky

Antananarivo is situated approximately 1,280 meters (4,199 feet) up. This is something neither Rich nor myself were expecting. Though we’re reasonably fit people, we’re now finding walking up a few flights of stairs more difficult than usual due to the decreased oxygen.

Happily, the elevation of Antsiranana is only 43 meters (141 feet). Hopefully this means that after we’re done in Antananarivo our lungs will be ready and able to take on the race course.

The locals are very friendly (though aggressive)

When Rich and I got through customs in the airport at Antananarivo, we walked out to the arrivals terminal hoping to quickly get ourselves into a taxi. We were anxious to finalize the packing of our gear, and triple checking that everything made it into Madagascar alright.

Unfortunately for us, a quick exit was not an option. We were instantly mobbed by people offering us taxi rides, and to push our trolley for us. Even as we said no (the US government has previously warned Americans against using “unknown taxis” in the area, and we wanted to make sure that we took an authorized cab) people would follow us around, repeatedly asking and grabbing at our things.

Eventually we found a “real” taxi, and without consulting us, the driver grabbed our things and stuffed them in the trunk of the cab. Even as we got into the taxi people groped at the windows, asking for money, saying that they would push our trolley back to the terminal if we gave them some cash. Nervous as I am, this did not make me particularly happy.

However my nerves were calmed substantially when we reached the hotel and were greeted by some of the most friendly people I’ve encountered in awhile, in broken English and heavy French accents. Everyone we have talked to since, other than the ones hoping for cash, have been lovely.

A taxi driving down a cobblestone road in Antananarivo
A taxi driving down a cobblestone road in Antananarivo

Antananarivo was not made for tourists

It became apparent quite quickly to us that there is nothing to do as a tourist in Antananarivo. Despite my assumption that the area would have developed some sort of tourist attractions in the years since the Madagascar movie was released, for tourists, this city should be looked at as more of a transit area than a place to spend time.

There is nowhere to go and no way to get around without the use of a taxi. Having stopped by the travel agent we used to book our domestic flights and hotels to pick up our itineraries, we asked if she had any recommendations of places to go and visit while we were in town. To say the least, she was stumped.

There were a few options that sounded interesting, like the Lemur Park, located an hour outside of the city, but that drive wasn’t all that tempting considering the condition of most taxis in the city and the cost we’d incur going back and forth via cab.

The options that she came up with was for us to see the Rova Palace (which burned down in 1995 and has yet to be fully restored), visit the High City (for the view), or head over to the local zoo. As much as we love zoos, given that most reviews of the zoo on TripAdvisor are negative, stating that the zoo is in disarray, we ultimately decided to use the rest of our day to have lunch at a beautiful restaurant overlooking the city, and then heading over to the palace. The palace was quite stunning on its own, but we can only imagine what it would have been like if the restoration of the building was actually completed.

Rova Palace
Rova Palace

Getting around is an adventure

Between the traffic and the cobblestone streets, moving around the city is an adventure on its own. The taxis are rustic, to put it kindly. We have found that it is really not uncommon for there to be holes in the floor, for the door handles to be completely non existent, or for the seats to be lumpy – Rich even noted at one point that he felt like he was like sitting on a bottle of beer.

Occasionally, the roads will be tarmac, but most of the time they’re cobblestone. Therefore, getting around in a taxi that’s floor already looks like it is going to fall out from underneath you makes for a very bumpy and slow ride. Markets selling bags, sunglasses, and shoes, and parking spaces seem to pop up from nothing as well, making it very difficult for drivers to navigate the streets. At one point we got stuck in between rows and rows of suitcases that were up for sale! It was actually quite funny.

Our cab trying to squeeze through a local market
Our cab trying to squeeze through a local market

The food is amazing

Food around here really is wonderful. An expat who lived in Madagascar for several years advised us against eating the street food, unless we were interested in spending the next few days propped up on the toilet, but otherwise, the local food is fantastic.

We’ve eaten everything from duck with baobab sauce (a very sweet type of gravy) to steak covered in the major 4 local spices, to chicken fried rice, and each dish has blown us away. Even in nicer looking restaurants the food is quite affordable. The most expensive meal we’ve had so far cost all of US$20 for the two of us. You can go a lot cheaper than that too.

Lunching near Rova Palace
Lunching near Rova Palace

Overall, Rich and I have really enjoyed our first couple of days in Madagascar. Aside from the lack of things to do in Antananarivo, and the overaggressive folks waiting for us at the airport, our first impressions are quite positive. Between the stunning views, the amazing food, and just wandering around the city, I can say with confidence that I am really looking forward to getting up to Antsiranana and seeing what this race (starting on Sunday!) brings.

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