Way up north, the Diego Suarez area is home to some of Madagascar’s most awesome scenery, and has a wild frontier vibe that is especially appealing to those in search of paradise lost.
With the exception of Nosy Be (the island off its coast popular with package tourists from Italy and French families and honeymooners), this region still sees few visitors, remaining so remote that new species such as lemur are routinely discovered in its national parks. It is also home to some of the world’s most trippy scenery, the kind of place where hiking trails lead through spindly red rock forests and past trees with giant-squid shaped tumors growing out of their trunks.
If you’re looking for an adrenaline buzz, Diego also delivers – it is ground zero for Madagascar’s burgeoning adventure sport industry. And when you factor in the two bodies of water – the Canal de Mozambique and the Indian Ocean – that sparkle the color of the Madagascar’s famous sapphire stone, swaying coconut palms and white sand beaches, the area around Diego really scores a home run.
While far from the prettiest spot in the region, the town of Diego Suarez does have a certain je ne sais quoi that makes it quaintly appealing. It’s just something about the charming colonial architecture, wide tree-lined streets, and languid tropical vibe that makes it impeccable. This is a slow moving town where nearly everything shuts for most of the afternoon, and the residents still indulge in extended siestas. Wander down Rue Colbert – when people are awake, so try morning or early evening — as new shops open here each season. Check out Ateliers d’Artisanat, which has a huge selection of handicrafts and unique art from all over Madagascar – I bought some of my favorite Madagascar crafts here, including an intricate replica of a taxi brousse complete with passengers.
Beyond exploring the town, here are six must-see-and-do adventures around Diego:
1. Guided Quad Bike Tour
Get your adrenaline rush started by jumping a quad-bike (ATV) over a small dune ditch on a MadaQuad adventure. This is one of Diego’s top quad-biking companies, and it runs a variety of guided tours that visit the red tsingy, three bays, Windsor Castle, and surrounding beaches and dunes all via ATV.
2. Baie des Sakalava
On the eastern side of the peninsula that juts into the bay east of Diego Suarez is the Baie des Sakalava, which is the region’s kite and windsurfing center, and also home to a beautiful white sand beach. You’ll find a water-sports centre at the Hotel-Club de Sakalava, which offers kite and wind-surfing lessons, along with equipment rental. If neither is your style, it also arranges fishing excursions, mountain-bike, 4WD and boat rental. There are bungalows here should you wish to spend the night. The bay is located 18km from Diego, and it’s very easy to charter a taxi to take you here (and while in the area a few of the other places below). Just make sure you agree on a daily fee in advance and don’t pay everything up front or you’re driver might abandon you.
3. Baie Des Dunes
Wild and free, the Baie des Dunes is a favorite place to daydream. Located north of the Baie des Sakalava – hit these two, and the Emerald Sea (below) up in one trip, especially if you’re chartering a taxi from around Diego. It offers the most remote beaches of them all. It’s the kind of spot where white sand slopes gently into emerald and turquoise striped water next to a rusting military installation with a long forgotten gun emplacement and crumbling stone buildings. Don’t miss the old lighthouse standing proudly at the point, perched high above the sea that looks angry as frothy waves crash into jagged gray stone. To the left of the beach, you’ll find a small reef and a number of pools before the ocean floor drops steeply and takes you into excellent snorkeling territory (bring a mask, tube, and fins).
4. Emerald Sea
Excellent snorkeling is also found on the opposite side of the headland in the uber-gorgeous Mer d’Emeraude – literally a translucent sea of emerald. To get to Mer d’Emeraude, you’ll have to charter a fishing boat from Ramena, or arrange a trip with one of the hotels. Much of the sea sits on a bit of a sandbar, which means you can wade slowly into schools of brightly coloured fish. Just keep your flippers on please, so you don’t muck up and touch the relatively virgin coral.
5. Nosy Hara
Madagascar’s newest national park, the remote Nosy Hara is another must-see. Book an overnight camping trip with eco-friendly New Sea Roc, based out of Diego Suarez, to the archipelago located about three hours away. You’ll stay on the tiny island of Ile Andantsara, and spend the afternoon kayaking in clear blue green water or rock-climbing the limestone cliffs rising vertically from the sea.
6. La Reserve de l’Ankarana
If you don’t have time to devote multiple days to exploring this magnificent park, Evasion Sans Frontiers runs excellent day-trips from Diego, located about 70km to the northeast. The park is home to Madagascar’s most famous fiery red tsingy, a stone formation made of red laterite. The full-day trip includes lunch. The walking here is not technical, and you can get right up to the tsingy in a vehicle, so this trip works well for folks of all ages and fitness levels.