A visit to Ranomafana National Park

Ranomafana is like a breath for fresh air. Just 30km off the RN7 between Abositra and Fianaransoa, it seems to be a world away from the dusty highlands and a welcome stop after a day on the road. As you wind your way towards the park you’ll feel a noticeable drop in temperature as the world around you becomes ever more shrouded in forest and mist. The sound of rushing water and the occasional glimpse of passing waterfalls provide your first tantalizing taste of what to expect from this extraordinary park.

As you approach Ranomafana, you’ll pass the entrance to the national park before winding another six kilometers to Ranomafana village. The village is small but lively with a range of accommodation and a few decent eating options. If you don’t have your own vehicle you may want to opt for a hotel located along the main road closer to the park entrance, although these also tend to be in the pricier range. If you have wheels, I recommend opting for a place in the village where you can take in a bit more of the local culture and enjoy the picturesque walk the thermal baths from which Ranomafana got its name.

Ranomafana national park

Ranomafana national park consists of 400 sq kilometers of dense jungle-clad terrain, rich with wildlife and lush vibrant flora. The park is most famous for its rare bamboo lemurs and for its abundance of amphibians, butterflies, insects and flowers. Visitors are treated to countless moments of discovery as they cross gurgling springs, discover hidden waterfalls, and pause to rest in moss-laden enclaves.

The constant mist keeps temperatures cool and the the foliage in full bloom. But be prepared that it rains almost every day and can be quite slippery. Make sure you bring a rain coat and good hiking shoes!

There are a range of circuits to choose from and I recommend combining a few in order to see the best of the park. Most guides will begin by focusing on lemurs. You’re likely to see at least 3 or 4 species (including the famous golden bamboo lemur), but expect to share this experience with other tour groups and be prepared for a bit of scrambling through thick underbrush if you want to get the best views.

Our guide recommended that we bring along a spotter (for an extra, but reasonable fee) which turned out to be a great choice and really added to our overall experience. Instead of sticking to the main circuit, we were able to explore some of the more picturesque detours, while our spotter did all the grunt work. He spotted multiple lemur families, and the almost impossible to see leaf-tailed gecko that we never would have noticed without his skills.

If you have the time and ability, I definitely recommend completing more than one circuit. Tour groups tend to stick to only the first and shortest trail, so by adding additional trails you’ll get to venture into some of the lesser explored park, where things are even more beautiful. We combined the Talatakely circuit (best for lemurs) with parts of the Varajatsy and Vatoharanana trails, first passing into dense primary forest, then finishing off with a trail leading to several waterfalls and hill top vistas. These routes were much quieter and provided some jaw dropping views. The total hike took us approximately 5-6 hours at a leisurely pace and still got us back for a late lunch and shower.

Beware that the perpetual forest mist means that not only do paths do get slippery, but also provides the perfect breeding ground for leaches. Tiny, but still rather creepy, these little guys can become quite a nuisance. Be sure to wear high socks and a good coating of DEET if you want to avoid unwanted companions!

Ranomafana town

Ranomafana is little more than a village, and most of the hotels can be found along the one main road. There are no ATMS so make sure you have enough cash to get you through your visit. While in town be sure to visit the thermal baths. It’s these baths, not the forest, that initially drew tourists and today they remain very popular with Malagasy visitors. After a long, and quite possibly very wet, hike a relaxing soak in the warm pools is the perfect way to rest those aching muscles. The baths are located in an atmospheric garden next to the river and are an easy walk from most hotels in town. On the way you’ll cross a river and pass the village soccer field where a lively game is sure to be under way. Ask you hotel for directions.

Eating & Sleeping

There is a descent range of hotels in Ranomafana and most have on site restaurants. Le Grenat is my pick for both eating and sleeping. It’s centrally located and offers clean spacious rooms and bungalows with comfy beds and hot showers. Their restaurant is the busiest in town and features local freshwater crayfish (the specialty in this region!) as well as a mix of local and French cuisine. Best of all, the hotel’s chilled-out owners will let you organize a very late check-out at no extra cost, meaning you can wash off those leaches in a nice hot shower after a day in the park!

For more casual dining there are a few gasy eateries dotted along the main road of town where you can snack on piping hot samosas and zebu brochettes right off the fire. They’re the perfect place to sip a cold THB and watch life go by.

Check out the gallery below to see more pictures of Ranomafana village and Le Grenat.

Night Walk or Not?

Many guides will be very quick to offer you a night walk where you’ll have the opportunity to spot nocturnal lemurs and chameleons. Before signing-on there are a few things you should know. Walks are completed along the main road, not in the park, and more or less comprise of a handful of guides and many dozen tourists patrolling the side of the road in hopes of spotting something in the beam of their flashlights. Bits of banana are pre-applied to specific trees so your chances of glimpsing a mouse lemur are pretty good. That said, you’ll have to battle a crowd to get a fleeting glimpse before he darts back into the night. Chameleons can also be spotted, but be aware, chameleons are NOT nocturnal animals, so don’t be dissapointed to find these little guys curled-up and fast asleep. The whole experience only lasts about 30 minutes, but will take closer to two hours once you include the long, dark, winding drive back and forth from town.

Other activities

Arboretum – Located 2 km further past Ranomafana village this community run initiative displays more than 100 trees along a 1 km trail.

Centre Valbio – An international study and conservation center located at the edge of the park offering regular evening lectures by resident researchers and day tours of the center for those interested in their work.

How long to do I need?

One day of hiking will do Ranomafana justice and still give you enough time to visit the thermal baths. Depending which way you are heading I recommend spending just one night in Ranomafana (evening activities are pretty limited) then continuing to the wonderfully atmospheric Fianarantsoa on your second afternoon after spending the day in the park. Fianarantsoa is just 60 kms down the road and offers some terrific dining and accommodation options and amazing panoramic views. Its a nice alternative to the rather limited dining options in Ranomafana and a good chance to experience a highland city.  Read more about Fianarantsoa Here.

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