If you’re still having a tough time choosing your next holiday destination, Diego Suarez in Madagascar’s northern region should definitely be on your checklist.
Whether you’re a fan of breathtaking beaches and mountains or a devotee of awesome architecture and culinary offerings, discovering this port city is a must if you’re looking for an unforgettable adventure.
Diego Suarez Overview
Also known as Antsiranana, Diego Suarez is nestled in Madagascar’s far north and is the capital city of the Diana Region. It has a population of 125,103 inhabitants and flaunts an eclectic mix of Arab, Colonial, Indian and Creole influences.
Bordered by pristine beaches and diverse landscapes, aside from its abundance of natural resources, Diego Suarez was once considered a very important fueling station for French military and commercial steamships in the 1880’s.
If you’re wondering why this port city in Africa that was colonized by France is called “Diego Suarez,” its name was inspired by a Portuguese navigator, Diogo Soares, who had a stopover in its bay way back in 1543.
Legend has it that the place used to be a popular mooring spot for pirates from various parts of the globe looking to stock up on food, water and coal before embarking on long ocean voyages in search of treasures and other possible loot. This encouraged trade among locals, which eventually resulted in the amalgamation of different culinary and architectural styles over the years.
While the part about the pirates is rather hazy, Diego Suarez’s richness and diversity with regard to its natural resources is still apparent until now. Besides being the second largest bay in the world next to Rio de Janeiro, the city holds the third biggest port in Madagascar and plays a key role in the country’s overall economy.
Although traces of its colonial past are still apparent here and there like the rustic lighthouses and forts spread around the city, Diego Suarez still retains a unique old-world charm that never fails to mesmerize old and new tourists alike.
Destination Highlights You Should Not Miss Out On
Diego Suarez is no doubt a dream destination if your ideal holiday involves communing with nature and sampling sumptuous local dishes while you’re at it.
Given the city’s numerous vacation offerings, you’re sure in for a pleasant surprise whether you’re a beach buff, a hiking enthusiast, an architectural aficionado or a dedicated foodie.
Ramena Beach, Andovokonko Bay and Sakalava Bay are the three most popular beach destinations in Diego Suarez when it comes to sea and sand. They collectively surround a lagoon called the “Emerald Sea or Mer D’Emeraude,” which earned its name for its uniquely deep, turquoise hue.
With Madagascar having a tropical savannah climate that lets tourists enjoy summer-like weather almost the year round, it’s no wonder why this port city’s beach spots are attracting more and more surfers, divers, snorkelers, windsurfers and kitesurfers annually.
If you’re more into stunning landscapes and hiking escapades, Diego Suarez boasts of two out of the ordinary destinations that you’ll never find anywhere else in the world: the Ankarana Natural Reserve and the Tsingy Rouge Park.
Featuring a 150-million-year-old karst topography mainly composed of gray limestone from the Middle Jurassic era, the Ankarana Natural Reserve spans an area of more than 180 square kilometers. This reserve is one of the few places on Earth where an evergreen dry forest is side by side with an arid savannah.
Its name is taken from a Malagasy phrase that translates to “people from the rocks,” which according to folk tradition describes the caves and rocky outcrops the natives of this place used to take shelter in during the ancient times. While most of the caves in the reserve can be visited by tourists, some of them are deemed as sacred and can only be viewed from a distance.
Besides having a complex network of underground rivers, whose main attraction is the “perte des rivieres,” a stone hole that is believed to be the spot where all of the water from these underground rivers merge, the Ankarana Natural Reserve is also home to 11 species of lemurs, 60 types of reptiles, and a variety of blind crabs and fish, among other interesting flora and fauna.
On the other hand, the Tsingy Rouge Park is an unusual canyon-like expanse that lies 50 kilometers south of Diego Suarez. It is filled with hundreds of natural needle-like structures made up of red laterite, a type of rock and soil prevalent in Madagascar that contains very high levels of aluminum and iron.
The term “tsingy” is a Malagasy word that translates to “the place where one cannot walk barefoot.” This is so because according to local legend, these unique land formations are filled with terrain so rocky and rough that travelling on them without any footwear for a prolonged period of time will lead to blisters, nicks and even bruising.
Although the Tsingy Rouge Park is not the only destination in Madagascar with the word “tsingy” in its name, what makes this place in Diego Suarez really unique is that everything in it practically comes in a shade of red, save for a small patch of greenery here and there. It’s even got a red river flowing in it, too.
From the very ground you’ll step on and the walls of the rock hills, right to the natural structures themselves that are continuously sculpted by wind and rain, everything in the Tsingy Rouge Park looks like some painter went over the top with red paint and lots of it.
The 5 Best Things to Do While in Diego Suarez
Take a dip in the waters of the Emerald Sea
Tourists who have already visited the Mer D’Emeraude or the Emerald Sea describe it as “having one of the clearest waters” they have ever seen. Apart from being a good place to swim and snorkel, this popular lagoon in Diego Suarez is also an ideal spot for kitesurfing and windsurfing for its generally shallow depth.
The best time to visit the Emerald Sea is between 7 to 9 AM when the water is neither too deep nor too shallow and the sun isn’t scorching hot yet. Make sure you choose a bigger boat than what is usually available to get there since you will likely negotiate strong winds and varying tide levels along the way. Sun protection is a must.
Don’t forget to bring your camera along as well since the waters of the Emerald Sea shift from a soft blue to turquoise depending on the weather, which makes for awesome pictures to share on social media.
Average travel time from the heart of Diego Suarez to the Emerald Sea is usually an hour.
Go back in time in the Ankarana Natural Reserve
If you’re into flora and fauna, visiting the Ankarana Natural Reserve should definitely be on your list of activities when you visit Diego Suarez. Featuring a unique karst topography of Middle Jurassic limestone that is approximately 150-million years old, it’s also teeming with plants and animals that are only unique to Madagascar.
Apart from being the home of a variety of uncommon songbirds endemic to the country such as the Sunbird (Nectarinia souimanga), the Greenbul (Phyllastrephus madagascariensis) and the Paradise Flycatcher (Terpsiphone mutata), this reserve is a refuge for the Sanford’s brown lemur (Eulemur sanfordi) and the crowned lemur (Eulemur coronatus) as well.
Depending on your preference, length of stay or general well-being, you can either choose the no-fuss trek in the reserve’s flat trail that can be completed within an hour or the “technical” hike, which can run for 4 to 5 hours and covers most of the park’s expanse, particularly its caves, forests and footbridges.
The biggest cave that you can explore in the reserve is the La Grotte d’Andrafiabe. There are some areas, particularly caves and water sources, that are considered as sacred by locals, so make it a point to always consult your guide before deviating from the given trail.
The Ankarana Natural Reserve is situated 108 kilometers southwest of Diego Suarez and travel time is approximately 2 hours.
Get thrice the fun exploring the Les Trois Baies
Les Trois Baies directly translates to “the Three Bays” and it is made up of the Dune Bay, the Pigeon Bay and the Sakalava Bay along Madagascar’s northeastern coast.
Having Les Trois Baies in your itinerary while visiting Diego Suarez is essential since you are not just in for a fun time of snorkelling, kitesurfing, windsurfing and swimming in clear waters teeming with marine life, but there are also stopovers along the way where you can have laid-back hikes up hills and crags for awesome views of the whole place.
Moreover, while you won’t have to pay for any fees to have a trip in and around Les Trois Baies, you’d have to charter a boat for a tour, though. Alternatively, you can also rough it out on sandy tracks by renting four-wheel drive quad bikes to explore the area.
The best time to visit Les Trois Baies is from the middle of December to March when the only thing you’ll have to worry about is sufficiently protecting yourself from the sun, which can be a bit harsh during noon to the late afternoon.
On the other hand, the climate between April to November can be rather windy and you may not get the most out of your kitesurfing and windsurfing activities during these times.
Check out the Tsingy Rouge Park
Described by tourists as “very interesting” and “out of this world,” the Tsingy Rouge Park covers approximately 15 kilometers of red laterite formations framed by rocky walls and hills. Each natural formation – nicknamed by locals as “fairy chimneys” – varies from being a few inches tall to 20 to 30 feet in height.
The most ideal time to check out the Tsingy Rouge Park is between 8 to 10 in the morning and 2 to 4 in the afternoon, preferably during a cloudy day. Besides keeping clear from the scorching hot sun, you’ll also be able to trek the dirt road much easily, which spans for about 15 kilometers from the entrance gate to the end of the trail.
A word of caution, though. The only toilet available in the park is located near the entrance gate. There are no other facilities you can use as you go along the trail. Don’t forget to also bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer since none are available within the area. Bringing at least a liter of water is also highly recommended as well.
The access road from the center of Diego Suarez to the Tsingy Rouge Park is riddled with potholes, so you better brace yourself for a bumpy ride. Sure the trip getting there may be a bit gnarly, but the whole thing’s definitely worth it when you arrive. Average travel time is usually 40 minutes to an hour.
Hike up Castle Windsor for an unforgettable view
Perched on the highest peak of a hill that is approximately 1,300 feet above sea level, Castle Windsor was built in 1900 by the French military to serve as a lookout tower against enemy marine vessels.
Although Castle Windsor was retired as a military tower after World War 2, it became one of the most prized historical sites of Diego Suarez over the years. Getting there requires a 2-hour drive from the city to the base of the hill where it’s located, followed by a couple of hours’ hike up the peak.
The trek up Castle Windsor can be very exhausting and it’s not recommended for tourists who are not healthy and willing enough to endure the ascent. Those who have already conquered the Castle Windsor peak share that it was “one of the most rewarding experiences” of their lives.
The best time to climb Castle Windsor is from January to September when the air is not as strong and punishing the higher you go. It is highly recommended that you bring your own food and water since there are no stores or restaurants along the way.
Where to Stay When You’re in Diego Suarez
Diego Suarez is teeming with nice places to stay when you’re in for a visit. However, there are two options that you can go for if you’re looking for quality accommodations without spending a lot, namely Varatraza Wind Riders and the Allamanda Hotel.
Varatraza Wind Riders
Built directly facing the Sakalava Bay, Varatraza Wind Riders offers accommodations that combine old-world simplicity with modern amenities.
While its bungalows for guests are made from indigenous woods and materials that add a touch of rustic authenticity as you enjoy the sea breeze, tourists can also avail of free high-speed Internet to stay connected with the rest of the world.
Voted as the second highest-rated hotel for value in Diego Suarez by kitesurfing and snorkelling buffs, Varatraza Wind Riders also offers bicycle tours, hiking trips and canoeing excursions for those who prefer a different way of enjoying the sea, sand and trails in and around the city.
The only downside about Varatraza Wind Riders is its power amenities. It may take a very long time to fully charge your phone, laptop, camera and similar gadgets especially during the evenings.
All in all, its rustic charm and idyllic location makes Varatraza Wind Riders an ideal pick when choosing a place to stay in Diego Suarez.
The Allamanda Hotel is set right in front of the Bay of Diego and considered as one of the most accessible hotels in the city of Diego Suarez. It is also voted as the best hotel for value by tourists. The place is named after a plant that bears a golden flower shaped like a trumpet and blooms throughout the year.
Given its location in Rue Richelieu, it only takes a 5-minute walk to reach Joffre Square, one of the city’s main thoroughfares and viewing decks, and a 5-minute tuk-tuk ride to the town center.
Apart from being abundant with coconut trees that seem to dance while the sea breeze sings, the Allamanda Hotel is also surrounded with rows and rows of its floral namesake adding a touch of laid-back vibes.
The only setback that you might encounter when staying in the Allamanda Hotel is that some rooms may not have a nice view of the Bay of Diego. Make sure you go for the rooms with a deck facing the sea to really get the most out of your buck when booking your stay.
Getting Around in Diego Suarez
The primary mode of transportation in and around Diego Suarez is the tuk-tuk, which is basically a tricycle powered with a two-stroke engine and designed to carry two or three people at a time.
These vehicles are fitted with metal cabins sporting tarpaulin roofs and upholstered seats that also function as luggage compartments. There is also a bit of extra space behind the seats that can be used to accommodate another passenger or store additional luggage.
Although they are not made for speed (the average maximum speed of a tuk-tuk is 40 to 50 kilometers per hour), they sure make it up in the power department since each of these souped-up tricycles can carry a load of 500 kilograms without missing a beat.
There are also car rentals available to get around the city, but hopping on a tuk-tuk should be on your checklist if you’re looking to get the most out of your Diego Suarez holiday experience.