Continuing on from our Rainforest adventures at Ranomafana National Park, we get back on the RN7 and head south towards Ranohira, a little town at the edge of the Isalo National Park, our next destination. Isalo is home to numerous species of lemurs and is one of the most visited parks in the country due to its incredible desert like scenery.
Our drive towards the Isalo changes from the terraced hills of the Madagascan highlands abruptly to open savannah like grass, with cacti and other flora that resemble the American southwest. Truly, this country must have the most geological diversity of any place I’ve seen. The drive is through of course, terrible roads, and we arrive in Ranohira at 5pm but not before we make one detour.
Visiting Anja Park
A nice stopover en route to Isalo is the Anja Park. This is a small nature reserve set up by the locals and all proceeds go to maintaining the reserve and helping the local community. The park is surrounded by huge, imposing granite mountains and is known for its large population of ring-tailed lemurs. Some 700 of these guys live in the park. Why are ring-tailed lemurs cool? Well, they do look pretty cool but their claim to fame is the movie Madagascar. King Julien anyone?
Again, we have to pay an entrance and guide fees. There are numerous hiking trails but we were only staying for a few hours as we needed to get to Isalo. We elected for the short two hour hike and paid 50,000 Ar for the both of us ($20).
The hike was a cakewalk compared to the hikes we had already done, and within 15 minuets, we saw our first ring tailed lemurs. No need to get too excited, these guys are everywhere! The best time to visit is early-mid morning or mid-late afternoon. They prefer to sleep when the sun is at its hottest. Nevertheless, these lemurs were curious animals and we were able to get very close to them.
Our guides spoke decent English and told us stories of the area from the old days. Some were quite interesting. Lemurs used to be hunted for their meat!
Isalo National Park
Isalo’s popularity among tourists means there are many different levels of hotels here and it is here that we decided we’d splurge and stay at an upscale hotel and by that, I mean 80 euros split between two people! Our hotel, Relais de la Reine, felt a step up from everywhere else we had been, and those weren’t bad by any stretch. This also meant that we were easily half the median age of everyone staying. This was also the ONLY place we used a credit card during our entire 4 week stay in Madagascar.
Where I stayed – Le Relais De La Reine
This was by far our most luxurious hotel stay of the trip. It was located right outside of town in its own estate and had stunning views of the surrounding mountains. This was also the most expensive of the trip with double rooms over €100 a night.
Our hotel had a great restaurant, bar, and was surrounded by sandstone hills. Like the hotel, the restaurant was the most expensive of our entire trip. Three course dinner was 40,000 Ar ($17) and drinks were cheap, but about 2x more than what we had become used to.
The Two Canyons Hike
The next morning, we woke up early so we could begin our day’s activities before the scorching sun took form. Like all other national parks in Madagascar, we first went to the tourist office in the town of Ranohira to decide on our itinerary and meet our guide, an English speaking man our driver knew (he knew someone everywhere we went!).
We had two full days in Isalo and decided that the first day would be a shorter half day hiking the Canyon des Makis and the second day would be a full day hike around the Isalo.
I haven’t hiked through canyons before so I didn’t know what to expect in this place. But as we drove towards the entrace, sandwiched between two huge sandstone mountains, I knew this was going to be something special. The day was hot with temps nearing 35C, and while the first half hour were dreadful, the weather cooled significantly as soon as we got into the canyons.
Wow. Just wow. Another amazing sight in Madagascar. Perhaps all canyons were this amazing but I have nothing to compare to. This blew me away regardless. The mountains surrounding us were a few hundred meters high, trees everywhere growing out of the rocks, streams, wildlife, everything really. The Two Canyons remind me a lot of The Narrows hike in Zion National Park.
I would definitely have to give the nod to Madagascar however. Larger Canyons, more vegetation and lemurs. Zion National Park does not have lemurs!
The hiking here is a challenge, and likely impossible for people with bad knees. There are no paths or walking trails here. Stepping and climbing from rock to rock is only way to see this place. Likely one of the reasons we only saw two other tourists the entire day! The first canyon (Canyon des Makis) took about two hours. Then we proceeded to the second canyon (Canyon des Rats) which took less time. There are two canyons and the canyon des Makis is the more impressive. Is there any reason to do both of them? Probably not.
Windows of Isalo
A quick and worthwhile stop in the Isalo is the windows of Isalo, a rectangular formation of rocks atop a hill with a large hole, hence a window. It is a PERFECT setting and photo for beautiful Madagascar sunsets. I like to think of this place as nature’s picture frame. Sadly, this is also one of the biggest tourist attractions in this park.
The picture to capture here is to have the sunset through the hole with the rocks surrounding it. Sadly, there were too many tourists here and they were all taking pictures of the sunset through the hole…which is the same as just taking a picture of the sunset from anywhere in the world. The picture, is to have the rock formation surround the sunset like a natural picture frame. Damn idiot tourists messing everything up for everyone else!
Full Day Isalo Hike
The second day began even earlier than the first as we wanted to get as much hiking in as possible before the scorching sun. The hike would be most of the day and was the longest one day itinerary available. There are options in the Isalo to hike for multiple days by camping.
First stop are the viewpoints of the Isalo. Just a short walk from the starting point, there are immense views of the Isalo. (Insert picture of cactus). We continue our walk and stop at the Piscine Naturelle (natural pool), another popular stop in the Isalo. There is a natural stone cave that overlooks a waterfall that tumbles into a deep green pool surrounded by overhanging pandanus trees. The water is refreshingly cold making it the perfect place to cool off after hiking through the mountains. We both took short dips in the pool before continuing out hike.
The rest of the hike was walking through the canyon that we gazed upon earlier. We hiked for hours through numerous trails and viewpoints, all beautiful. While the park is not the most dense in animal population, we saw lemurs quite often too.
The sheer amount of geographical diversity in Madagascar is absolutely astounding. It’s crazy to think that a few hundred kilometers north of the Isalo, a desert in its own right, is the Ranomafana National Park, a rainforest!