Background: Encouraging advances in the control of Plasmodium falciparum malaria have been observed across much of Africa in the past decade. However, regions of high relative prevalence and transmission that remain unaddressed or unrecognized provide a threat to this progress. Difficulties in identifying such localized hotspots include inadequate surveillance, especially in remote regions, and the cost and labor needed to produce direct estimates of transmission. Genetic data can provide a much-needed alternative to such empirical estimates, as the pattern of genetic variation within malaria parasite populations is indicative of the level of local transmission. Here, genetic data were used to provide the first empirical estimates of P. falciparum malaria prevalence and transmission dynamics for the rural, remote Makira region of northeastern Madagascar. Methods: Longitudinal surveys of a cohort of 698 total individuals (both sexes, 0–74 years of age) were performed in two communities bordering the Makira Natural Park protected area. Rapid diagnostic tests, with confirmation by molecular methods, were used to estimate P. falciparum prevalence at three seasonal time points separated by 4-month intervals. Genomic loci in a panel of polymorphic, putatively neutral markers were genotyped for 94 P. falciparum infections and used to characterize genetic parameters known to correlate with transmission levels. Results: Overall, 27.8% of individuals tested positive for P. falciparum over the 10-month course of the study, a rate approximately sevenfold higher than the countrywide average for Madagascar. Among those P. falciparum infections, a high level of genotypic diversity and a high frequency of polygenomic infections (68.1%) were observed, providing a pattern consistent with high and stable transmission. Conclusions: Prevalence and genetic diversity data indicate that the Makira region is a hotspot of P. falciparum transmission in Madagascar. This suggests that the area should be highlighted for future interventions and that additional areas of high transmission may be present in ecologically similar regions nearby. Electronic supplementary material The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12936-016-1644-4) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.