Right at the southern tip of India lays Varkala; one of the most unique little hippie towns in all of India. With its laid back vibe, plethora of places to eat, cheap shopping and of course the most picturesque beach, it definitely serves as a backpackers haven. Varkala is known for its striking red cliffs that hug its brown sandy beaches, and although it may be a prime destination for the sun worshippers it also is a place with so much religious and cultural importance.
Getting to Varkala is relatively easy by Indian standards.
There are two airports to consider if you are flying directly to Varkala:
- The Trivandrum International Airport is about 51km away from Varkala and takes approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes by taxi.
- The Cochin International Airport is about 160km from Varkala and takes approximately 3.5 hours by taxi.
The Varkala Train Station is located right in the town of Varkala, which is approximately 5 km inland from all the action. Once you reach the train station you can easily hire a tuk tuk for about 100 Rupees.
Across from the Train Station is Trivandrum’s Bus Terminal. From here you can catch government-run, air conditioned buses that take you to wide range of destinations.
When should you go?
The peak season runs from December to April, with December and January experiencing the biggest rush. I was in Varkala in February and I honestly did not feel like the beach was crowded at all, but if you are interested in something even more remote there are plenty more beaches to the north and south.
What to do?
- Those who seek adventure have a plethora of watersports to choose from; there is wind surfing, parasailing, surfing and snorkeling to name a few. There are several surf schools in the area that you can rent gear or take lessons from. With its relaxed vibe, this is a great spot to take up a new sport!
- Taking in the beautiful scenery by foot is definitely a must. The touristy area of Varkala lies along two cliffs overlooking Papanasam Beach. There is an accessible walking path along the edge of the cliff, just to the north. The walk takes about an hour and a half and will pass by striking black beaches, phenomenal lookouts and eventually reach Kappil.
- Southern India is well known for its Ayurvedic Medicine. Ayurvedic medicine is one of the world’s oldest holistic healing practices and was developed over 3000 years ago in India. It is based on the belief that health and wellness rely on a delicate balance between body, mind and spirit. Its main goal is to proactively promote good health, rather than fight disease. There are several ayurvedic practitioners in Varkala and finding a specific treatment, whether it be consultation, a cleanse or even a massage at one of the spas is as easy as walking around the next corner.
- Yoga is another big activity that Varkala is well-known for. There are many high quality yoga studios, and some even offer rooms for rent which are included in the price of the classes. I was able to take a class on the rooftop of a building overlooking the ocean and it was hands down the best classroom that I have ever practiced in! Top it off, our yogi was a man that was easily in his 60’s but he could bend far better than most children!
Looking for some culture?
- The famous 2000 year old Temple of Vishnu (Shree Janardhana Swamy Temple) is situated on the hilltop overlooking Papanasam Beach. This temple has been a Hindu pilgrimage site since the 12th Century. Every year between the months of March and April a ten day Arattu Festival is celebrated at the temple. The waters that engulf this beach are said to be holy and have medicinal properties that wash away sins. Although it is worth seeing this ancient pilgrimage site with its intricate Kerala style art and architecture, Non-Hindus are not permitted to enter the inner sanctum.
- During the peak season the traditional dance drama of Kerala known as the Kathakali are performed every evening from 6:30pm-8pm at the Varkala Cultural Centre. Watching a live performance of this authentic art form is truly awe inspiring. From the intense, exaggerated facial expressions to the articulate movements of the body, this truly is a spectacle that you will never forget.
- I would have to say that the highlight of my time in Kerala was when I was able to experience an authentic Indian festival. There are literally festivals that take place every other day from January to April along the Keralan coast. It is definitely worth your while to ask around and find out what festival may be just around the corner. While I was there I was able to take a tuk tuk (approximately 10km away) to the Thaipusam Festival, where Hindus were celebrating Shiva and Parvati. The atmosphere was absolutely euphoric and something that I have never felt in my life. It was like a parade of sorts with dancing, music and floats. But the premise of this festival was to watch those give thanks by inflicting pain upon themselves. If you have a weak stomach this festival would not be for you, but this is a day that I will never forget and truly made my experience in India just that much more authentic and mesmerizing.
Where to eat?
You definitely will not go hungry when staying in Varkala! There is so much variety here, with endless ethnic cuisines that it will quench any palate. Below are a few restaurants/cafes that stand out in my mind:
- The Darjeeling Café is place where you can sit back and relax in a chill but euphoric atmosphere. With flower petals strewn about beautifully painted tables it’s hard not to indulge and keep the drinks coming. My favorite item that I tried was the vegetarian momo’s; amazing Nepalese dumplings filled with delicious combinations of vegetable concoctions.
- Having eaten at the Juice Shack multiple times I can say that it is a great place to grab breakfast or lunch before a day on the beach. They have delicious smoothies, fresh naan and my favorite was the falafel wrap. Tables are arranged so that you can enjoy your meal with a perfect view of the Arabian Sea.
- The Sea Queen is a great place to go if you want fresh seafood for a great price. With lovely murals painted on the walls it is yet another perfect place to have a meal, watch the sun set and enjoy some delicious food!
As you can see, there is no shortage of things to do or see in this majestic southern Indian town. My time in Varkala was fairly brief, but had I had more time, I definitely could have settled down and enjoyed more of what this amazing place has to offer.
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