The port city of Toamasina is located in the east of Madagascar on the Indian Ocean. In colonial times the city was called Tamatave; the name is still widely used today. Toamasina is the second largest city in the country with 326.000 inhabitants (as of 2018). The port is the largest in the country. The city is the provincial capital, administrative center and university location. But above all, because of the port, it is the center of Madagascar's export economy.
Madagascar - Toamasina docks
Toamasina - the little known travel destination
Toamasina is not a tourist destination of international importance. Instead, the residents of the Malagasy capital Antananarivo often use the city as an excursion destination. Attractions of regional importance are the partially navigable Pangalanes Canal and the Ivoloina National Park, 30 minutes north of the city by car.
Madagascar - Toamasina docks
We get to know Toamasina during a cruise in the Indian Ocean with the Costa neoRomantica. Seen from the ship, Toamasina presents itself with a wide, natural beach and dense tree cover. There are no tall buildings at all; only church towers tower above the greenery. It is difficult to imagine that the population should be around 326.000.
Madagascar - Toamasina Bay
Unfortunately, we only have a short seven-hour stop at this stage destination. There is not enough time for an independently organized tour to the aforementioned sights. But there is always enough time to explore the city by tuk-tuk.
City tour by tuk-tuk
Tuk-tuks are motorcycle rickshaws. Several tuk-tuks are waiting at the port exit. Vouchers for the journeys are sold at a kiosk. For 15 euros, guests are driven through Toamasina for an hour. The drivers stop when and where the passenger wishes. Otherwise, the driver follows a standard route that includes prominent points in the city.
Madagascar - Toamasina - Waiting tuk tuks
A tuk-tuk looks tiny. However, once you have taken one of the two seats in the back, the rustic vehicle looks quite comfortable. We leave the outside area of the large port facility and drive parallel to the sandy beach towards the center.
St. Joseph Cathedral
On the way is the Cathedral of St. Joseph. The church, which has two mighty twin towers, cannot be overlooked. As can be read, the mass is held there in a combination of French and Chinese. Originally, many Chinese with Christian beliefs lived in Toamasina.
Madagascar - Toamasina - Saint Joseph Cathedral
The beach opposite the church is very wide and partly interspersed with grass islands. There are also enough dense, shade-giving groups of trees. If we hadn't booked a rickshaw, it would all invite you to go to the beach and swim in the Indian Ocean. A visit to the beach would be acceptable, but you have to do without a bath. The ocean, which seems clear to us, is polluted with environmental toxins, and sharks are also said to lurk for prey near the coast.
Madagascar - Toamasina - riparian zone
Buildings on avenue de l'Independance
You don't have to be afraid of sharks on Avenue de l'Independance. It is the city's boulevard. The palm-lined street has two lanes running in opposite directions and a wide, green median with footpaths. Along the street, next to the Anglican Santa Jakoba Cathedral, there are a few banks, restaurants, the post office and several public buildings. Avenue de l'Independance meets the former Boulevard Maréchal Foch, now Boulevard de l'OUA. There, at the front, is the modern town hall. Visually, the Hôtel de Ville stands up to any other modern administrative building in the western world. From the steps of the town hall, the view extends over the green area adorned with a fountain and beyond to the bay of Toamasina.
In the market hall Bazary Be
Past the train station, a cattle market and through a commercial district, the journey goes over to the Bazary Be, the large market hall. Obviously there is everything your heart desires here: cookshops, clothing, groceries, furniture and much more.
Detour to the beach
Our driver shows us the busy Boulevard Joffre, after which he turns back towards the beach. There we admire the many thatched beach restaurants and bars. It is lunchtime and the charcoal fires are already smoking in some huts. Cows graze on the shady green between the restaurants and the beach. Some men have parked their bikes and are relaxing in the shade. Further away there are umbrellas, tables and chairs on the shore. Apparently they belong to one of the beach restaurants.
In the opposite port, the modern loading facilities soar into the sky. And our cruise ship lies in front of us as if on a presentation plate.
Costa neoRomantica in the port of Toamasina
Along the sea to the lighthouse
Next we find ourselves near the Toamasina lighthouse. In front of us is the city's central hospital. It is an institution of the University of Antananarivo. The route ends here; the driver turns back. A landmark is a large, completely destroyed building in a garden. It's sad to see such damage. And later we see other dilapidated, uninhabitable houses.
On the Pangalanes Canal
We are now crossing the Pangalanes Canal once more. The more than 600 km long freshwater canal, artificially created by the French colonial power, runs parallel to the east coast of the country. The canal, built between 1986 and 1904, connected Toamasina with Farafangana. Existing natural lagoons were used when the watercourse was built. According to ancient sources, the canal was considered the most expensive French colonial project at the time. Armies of slave labor were deployed and the canal was built with innumerable fatalities. Large parts of the canal have now silted up. Pirogues and barges can only use parts of the Pangalanes. A visit to the canal is offered to cruise ship passengers as an excursion destination.
Soon afterwards we pass dozens of parked trucks in an industrial park, and shortly afterwards a harbor basin with quays and a small shipyard lies ahead of us. From there the Pangalanes boat tours for locals and tourists start. Some passengers and quantities of goods are waiting for the next departure.
Busy street scenes
Toamasina's streets are lively. Trucks and cars, minibuses, pousse-pousse rickshaws, tuk-tuks and strange four-wheeled vans pushed by men create a mess.
Meanwhile, the driver passes the Notre Dame de Lourdes Church, the largest Catholic church in the entire Archdiocese of Toamasina.
Madagascar - Toamasina - Notre Dame de Lourdes Church
Then we drive through avenue de l'Independance again. Soon afterwards we reach the port entrance.
Madagascar - Toamasina - restaurant on avenue de l'Independance
Wherever possible, we avoid tours organized by third parties. They are tailored to the general taste, overpriced and also require adaptation to the needs of the majority of participants. We like to use taxis in exotic regions. Compared to the taxi, however, the ride with the tuk-tuk is much more authentic.
The money for a tour like this is well spent. It reaches those who really need it. Incidentally, this also applies to the drivers of the cycle rickshaws. They are very low in the reputation of the professions, and even more need the money to survive. We recommend this form of transportation, which is unfamiliar to westerners.
Update March 2021