HIKING ISALO NATIONAL PARK – MADAGASCAR

Hiking Isalo National Park

Hiking Isalo National Park. Everything you need to know and what to expect when visiting this region and hiking through its dry and dramatic park

Isalo National Park in the Ihorombe region of Madagascar was the furthest south we had planned to travel on our month backpacking around Madagascar. Unlike the other parks we had visited and planned to visit, the reason for visiting Isalo was more about experiencing the stunning landscapes, rather than spotting wildlife.

It was a longish slog getting here. It started early from Ranomafana National Park taking a taxi-brousse (‘Regional’) to the Fianarantsoa bus station, taking 1.5 hrs. We didn’t have to wait long in the crowded and chaotic bus station at Fianar, thankfully. We boarded a taxi-brousse ‘National’ for the 280km journey to Ranohira, the gateway to Isalo. After being told we would be 5 people per row, we were pleasantly surprised when we pulled away with only the 1 person per seat in the 4 seat rows. It was never going to last and we shouldn’t have been surprised that was soon to change. It was after an unscheduled 45 minute stop to load the roof with massive baskets of tomatoes in Ambalavao, that the comfortable journey ended as they squeezed in another person per row.

We noticed that the road conditions from Ambalavao onwards were drastically better than any roads we had travelled on over the past couple of weeks. Something else that also caught our attention was the rising temperature and the increasing aridity. The landscape was slowly becoming more and more barren, with little to no tree life, or life at all.

With a numb bum and after a short lunch stop in Ihosy we arrived in Ranohira. We wandered down to the traveller’s favourite accommodation choice, Chez Alice. The contrast in temperature and scenery from the cool and wet rainforests of Ranomafana to the oppressive dry heat of Isalo was huge. It was like suddenly arriving in the wildwest!!

Chez Alice, Ranohira

As is standard in Madagascar, we were quickly approached by a park guide offering to take us hiking in Isalo National Park. We hadn’t really looked into hiking options in great detail and got a nasty shock when we followed the guide to the park office and saw the prices!

This park was one of 3 parks that fell into the category of ‘Parcs Exceptionnels.’ In short, this means the entrance fee was a hefty Ar65,000 (USD$17) p/p. On top of that, there was Ar5000 (USD$1.30) p/p tax. Then the guiding fee was Ar80,000 (USD$21) for up to 4 hrs and Ar120,000 ($32) for 5+hrs. Further more we then had to negotiate a fee for a driver to drop off us at the start point and pick us up from the end point of the hike. We were quoted Ar60,000 (USD$S16) for the driver but were able to negotiate that down to Ar40,000 (USD$10.50). After totting this all up we decided we would have a think about what we wanted to do before committing to anything, as it was getting costly. How could they possibly charge that much for such a short amount of time?

Not long after we got back, Imbi’s stomach decided enough was enough and she was toilet bound for the rest of the evening. That made the decision for us and we decided it was best to have a chill day the following day.

Sitting at the restaurant area staring out at the landscape the following day, I felt a twinge of sadness that we had travelled all that way and weren’t going to explore the diverse terrain. Then fate intervened as I heard a voice at the reception desk that I recognised. It was our friend, Erik, who we had met and travelled with down the Tsiribihina River to Tsingy de Bemaraha and the Alleè Des Baobabs. Eric was keen for hiking Isalo National Park, doing the 5hour+ hike.

So off we went off to arrange a guide and driver for the following day. The driver wouldn’t budge on the price. But we were able to negotiate a ride to and from a sunset viewpoint for that evening to be included. Due to a recent flash flood the popular Piscine Naturelle had been filled with sand and was out of action. So we decided on a combined the Crest Circuit and Namaza Trail hike.

Trails for Hiking Isalo National Park
Click on the map to expand for an interactive ‘AllTrails’ map of the hiking trails in Isalo National Park

Eric and I set off early the following morning to meet our guide at 6.30am at the park ticket office in Ranohira before, driving 3 km to the park entrance.

For a park not really known for its wildlife, I was instantly excited by the birdlife as soon as we entered. Straightaway we saw Grey Headed Lovebirds, Madagascar Bee-eaters, Broad-billed Rollers and Crested Drongo’s.

Islao lovebird

I then saw my first Ring-Tailed Lemurs of the trip, basking in the morning sunlight. Seeing these iconic Lemurs in the wild had long been a dream of ours. It was such a shame my toilet-bound wife was unable to enjoy this moment with me. Still, with Anja Community Reserve next on our itinerary, I was confident she would see them there!

Ring-Tailed Lemur Isalo

For the next couple of hours, we hiked through the sandstone rock formations and up to the higher viewpoints for panoramic vistas over Isalo National Park. The landscape was just beautiful, almost otherworldly.

Walking along the ridge line gave us stunning views not only along the parks steep cliff edge, but beyond its boundaries to barren lands on the horizon.

Isalo National Park ridge line

Our guide was a wealth of knowledge and was keen to point out all the different flora and fauna. Of particular interest, was the unique Elephants Foot plant or Pachypodium rosulatum. This rare succulent is endemic to Madagascar and if you time your visit right, covered with bright yellow flowers.

Elephant Foot Plant, Isalo National Park

As with Kirindy Forest, there were plenty of Madagascar Spiny-tailed Iguana. Also known as Collared Iguana, Black Collared Lizard, Cuvier’s Iguanid and Cuvier’s Madagascar Swift. These little reptiles have more names than Sean Combs. Or is that Puff Daddy, P, Diddy or Brother Love these days?

Madagascar Spiny-tailed Iguana

There was also ample opportunity for macro shots too. His keen eyes easily picked out multiple highly camouflaged insects. Can you spot the Stick Insect below? He also found several hiding scorpions. There were numerous brightly coloured, but slightly grotesque Rainbow Milkweed Locusts too.

stick insect Isalo National Park

After we began to descend down through the Canyon to the Namaza campsite for lunch, we were greeted by one of our favourite birds. An African Hoopoe, busily running around digging for insects and picking spiders off their webs.

madagascar hoopoe

Our visit also coincided with the Ring-Tailed lemurs coming down to lunch on the fruiting trees nearby before taking a well earned siesta. Seeing so many of these lemurs was an awesome experience. We had hoped to see more Red-Fronted Brown Lemurs and Verreaux’s Sifaka, as we had done in Kirindy Forest. But, unfortunately they were a no-show. But we couldn’t complain, with all the Ring-Tailed lemurs scampering around us.

Ring-Tailed Lemur in Namaza campsite

Once we’d refuelled on our packed lunches, we continued down the Namaza Trail and Gorge towards Piscine Noire (Black Pool) and Piscine Blue (Blue Pool). Hiking through the lush green gorge with the cool water trickling by was a surreal contrast to the hot and arid hike we’d done earlier on the above ridge line.

Namaza Gorge, Isalo National Park

After passing the Blue Pool we were rewarded with an incredibly welcome dip in the Black Pool. It was amazingly refreshing given we were hiking in the hottest and driest time of the year. With all this water and greenery around it was no surprise to find plenty of birds down here too. This included the Benson’s Rock Thrush, Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher and the Madagascar Wagtail.

Madagascar Wagtail in Namaza Gorge

After hiking out of the park and getting driven back to Chez Alice for a quick shower and beer, we headed out to watch a sunset at the ‘Window of Isalo.’ That was, to be honest, a little underwhelming. There were lots of people milling around and not a great deal to see. The ‘window’ itself was an interesting rock formation and the ‘golden hour’ colours on the surrounding area was beautiful. It certainly wasn’t a terrible way to spend the evening, but maybe a little overhyped.

ranohira views
window sunset

With Imbi feeling a bit better, we hit the RN7 early the next morning for our onward travels. Next stop Anja Community Reserve.

Getting to/from and around Isalo National Park

From Ranomafana National Park to Isalo National Park

Ranohira is the gateway town. If travelling by taxi-brousse, there are direct minibuses running from Fianarantsoa-Ranohira (6hrs, Ar15,000p/p). And from our Ranomafana accommodation we flagged down a passing bus from Ranomafana town and paid Ar6000p/p to Fianar.

From Ranohira to Ambalavao (for Anja Community Reserve)

There are taxi-brousse running from Toliara which do the long route up to Antananarivo. Any bus passing through Ranohira towards Ambalavao would likely have been full and as there was no bus station in Ranohira. So we had to pre-booked a taxi-brousse ‘regional’ with one of the many touts in Ranohira. We made a small deposit the day before (Ar10,000 – likely the touts commission) and then paid the remainder directly to the driver when we were picked up, a further Ar15,000p/p. The total journey took six hours including an hour driving around to fill up the taxi-brousse and a one hour wait when we changed taxi-brousse in Ihosy.

Accommodation at Isalo National Park

Chez Alice was the cheapest accommodation option in and around Isalo. Our bungalow was perfectly clean and comfortable. We were very close to the small town centre with restaurant and bar onsite. As it was not the peak months of July/August or December we didn’t pre-book and just turned up without a reservation.

A Private en-suite bungalow at Chez Alice – Ar46,000 (Dec 2018.) A really nice spot for those not needing luxury accommodation.

Best time to visit Isalo National Park

Madagascar is a massive island and its climate varies from east to west and from north to south. But as general rule April to October are the drier months, with December to end of February, the wetter months in Isalo National Park. Though this part of Madagascar is a pretty dry area, it doesn’t see too much rain and is accessible year round.

Things really start getting busy from June with the peak months being the European school holidays of July and August. If you can avoid those two months you will have a quieter experience in parks and accommodation will be far less busy! December can also be quite busy here too.

For wildlife, September through to October are great for lemurs, as babies are born at this time. Birds, also breed in this period. And there tends to be less mosquitoes. Lizards and snakes tend to come out of hibernation from September through to December too.

How much time do you need at Isalo National Park

Depending how much hiking you want to do will dictate this. A day of hiking for us, seemed adequate. There wasn’t a great deal more to see and do in Ranohira. On the outskirts of the town there are some very fancy looking accommodation, so you could well want to spend some time just lounging by a pool in this lovely hot and dry weather.

Prices as of November 2018

  • Park entrance fee – Ar65,000 p/p + Ar5,000 tax
  • Guiding Fees as
    • Up to 4 hrs – Ar80,000 (per group)
    • 4hrs+ – Ar120,000 (per group) 
  • As a lot of the guides don’t drive you also need to arrange transport to your hike start point and from the pickup point. Expect to pay Ar60,000 per vehicle.

Essential information & tips

  • Hiking Isalo National Park is not cheap! The entrance fees and guiding prices are steep. If you are on a budget, try and find a couple of other people to hike with. This way you can share the guide and transport fees.
  • Take plenty of water on the hike as it gets super hot.
  • Sturdy shoes are recommended as the terrain is rocky and uneven. Its also slippery in and around the gorge and pools.
  • If planning on taking a dip in one of the pools taking some flip flops (sandals) is a good option.
  • Likewise a pair of swimmers. On our overland trips I (Chris) live is quick dry shorts/fitness shorts. They are lightweight, quick-dry, perfect for hiking and if there’s a swimming hole at the end, no need to change out of them. Then you can easily washing them out in the shower of a night and they are good to go the next day.
  • The park can organise a picnic lunch, but it was quite expensive. Take your own lunch to save the budget. There’s a bakery near the park office where you can buy cheap pastries, that make ideal packed lunch fillers.
  • DON’T feed the wildlife.
  • Reef-friendly sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat.
  • Long, lightweight clothes for sun protection.
  • Band aids for blisters are handy to have on hand, just in case.
  • Biodegradable wet wipes or antibacterial hand wash. Good way to clean the hands before a packed lunch.
  • Head torch for night walks and when theres no electricity.
  • Quick-dry travel towel, for the swimming spots on the hike.
  • If you have a passion for wildlife photography, we highly recommend taking a decent zoom lens as sometimes the animals are far away. We shoot the majority of our wildlife pics with a Canon 100-400mm.
  • The Madagascar Wildlife – Bradt Guides book was so informative and helpful for identification purposes.
  • Download Maps.me to your phone so that you have offline maps. We love pinning our journeys as we travel.

Our Highlights

  • I want to say the Hoopoe and the Ring-Tailed Lemurs because I love them. But Isalo National Park was really all about the awesome scenery!

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