A trip to Southern Madagascar is “classic” Madagascar travel, abounding in scenery, culture, and wildlife worthy of any National Geographic spread. It’s no wonder, then, that this is Madagascar’s most visited region and a feather in the country’s ever-growing tourism cap.

Just south of the central capital of Antananarivo, the unassuming yet pretty, fresh mountain air town of Ambositra is widely considered to be the hotbed of Madgascar’s wood carving industry, as evident from its ornately carved balconies and marquetry souvenirs. It also just so happens to neighbor one of the most important mammal sites in the country, Ranomafana National Park. Located on the edge of the High Plateau, the steep slopes and mid-altitude rainforests of Ranomafana only came to the world’s attention in 1986 with the discovery of the beautiful Golden Bamboo Lemur. Five years later, Madagascar’s fourth largest park was born and now plays host to 12 species of lemur, 100 species of birds, and countless reptiles, butterflies, insects, and vegetation varieties, all endemic to the island.

Venturing further south and west, the landscape alters dramatically, transforming into abstract, sandstone sculpted environments often compared to the surface of the moon. This is Isalo National Park, where strange massifs create an arid, sweeping panorama, frequently interrupted by lingering rivers and natural swimming pools for rare, endemic plants and various lemurs to congregate. The “cascades” here are considered one of the best waterfalls in Madagascar and a notable hike for those so inclined.

The final stop on any journey south is Fort Dauphin, or Tolagnaro, the point at which the Indian and South Atlantic Oceans collide to create the kind of waves surfers travel the world over to catch and the likes of which sailors avoid at all costs, as perceivable by the multiple half-sunk shipwrecks dotting the horizon. The town of Fort Dauphin, once a tranquil surfer’s paradise, is now rapt in the promise of big oil, while just down the road, the Antandroy Tribe, one of Madagascar’s fiercest and most traditional tribes, exist in quiet domesticity within the sacred forests of Ifotaka. These woods along the Mandrare River are one of the very few remaining strands of Spiny Forests, eluding certain deforestation because of their unique position above the family burial grounds of the Antandroy. A visit to Southern Madagascar is incomplete without a stay along the pristinely preserved Mandrare River with the native villagers, learning about their ancient customs, visiting their vast tombs, and singing and dancing with them in the shadow of the ancient Baobab trees.