A Quick Guide to Varkala ~ Southern India’s Laid Back Beach Town

Varkala Kerala India

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.

By Air

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.

By Train

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.

Indian Railways

By Bus

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.

Varkala Kerala India

  • 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.

Kathakali Centre, Kochi, India

  • 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.

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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.

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  • 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 Juice Shack Varkala

  • 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!

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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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Traveling through the majestic state of Kerala? Why not spend a few extra unforgettable days in Kochi!

Kochi or Cochin as it is also known as, is the gateway to India’s tropical and hypnotizing state of Kerala. With its international airport as a means of arrival it is more than just a big city. At the heart of the city lays Fort Cochin – an interesting fusion of heritages from many past explorers that reached its shores from as early as the 14th century.  The spice trade first brought the Chinese and Arabian traders and later the area became occupied by the Portuguese, Dutch and the English. This diverse influence makes Fort Cochin a mesmerizing but perfect place to take in the mix of flavors, architecture and religions.

Fort Cochin, Kochi, Kerala, India

TOP SITES IN KOCHI:

St. Francis Church

St Francis Church, Kochi, Kerala, India

Originally built in 1503, St. Francis Church is the oldest European church in all of India. Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama’s remains were buried in this church, but eventually his body was later moved to Lisbon. The Franciscans retained control over the church until the Dutch captured Kochi in 1663. Because the Dutch were Protestant and the Portuguese were Roman Catholic, the Dutch destroyed all the churches in Kochi except this one. The church was eventually declared a protected monument in 1923 and is now owned by the North Kerala diocese Church of South India. Services run on Sunday’s and on weekdays it is open to the public.

 

Chinese Fishing Nets

Chinese Fishing Nets, Kochi, Kerala, India

For one of the most photographed sights of Kochi head to Vasco da Gama Square, where you can check out the Chinese fishing nets. These massive nets are attached to bamboo poles and are slowly lowered into the water by a pulley that is attached to weights.  Watching the fishermen hard at work against this gorgeous backdrop is definitely a sight to be seen. Fishing is usually done in the early morning and evening, and both times provide great entertainment. In the morning you will also be able to experience the fish market where vendors are lined up near the water side selling the catches of the day. In the evening watching the sunset behind the nets makes for a perfect photo opportunity!

Fish Market, Fort Cochin, Kochi, Kerala, India

 

Jew Town and the Pardesi Synagogue

Jew Town, Kochi, Kerala, India

Within Fort Cochin is the Jewish Quarter, known as Jew Town. It is a mix of wonderful old architecture and monuments that represent the Jewish community in Kerala. The most impressive site is the Paradesi Synagogue, which happens to be the oldest active synagogue in the Commonwealth. It was built in 1567 and the impressive floor is completely laid with intricate hand painted tiles. It is open to visitors from 10am to 12pm and again from 3pm to 5 pm (Fridays, Saturdays and Jewish holidays the Synagogue is closed to visitors). You could easily spend an entire afternoon wandering around Jew Town as it is lined with cute little shops and lovely cafes.

Jew Town, Fort Cochin, Kochi, Kerala, India

 

The Dutch Palace

Close to Jew Town is the Dutch Palace (also known as Mattancherry Palace). Originally the palace was built by the Portuguese as a gift to the King of Cochin in 1555, but later it was renovated and expanded by the Dutch.  What makes this place so special is that it houses the most incredible murals.  The impressive wall to wall intricate images illustrate The Ramayana from the beginning of the sacrifice of Dasaratha to Sita’s return from captivity. Unfortunately taking  photos is not allowed inside the Palace, however the amazing Hindu Temple art that dates back to the 16th century  is so stunning that it certainly is worth checking out.

 

Kerala’s Kathakali Centre

Kathakali Centre, Kochi, India

Located near the Santa Cruz Bazilica is the Traditional Kathakali Centre and Theatre. This facility is Kerala’s best arts school and the only authentic theatre where Kathakali, music, martial arts and other traditional dance forms are demonstrated and performed. 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.

 

PLACES TO EAT:

There are few places that stand out which I definitely recommend when looking for a good place to eat.

If you are looking for a delicious and cheap meal look no further than Dal Roti. This locally owned restaurant serves the best kati rolls in the world! Basically they use freshly baked paratha (Indian bread) and make it into wraps filled with various vegetarian and non-vegetarian options. It is utterly out of this world and makes me salivate just thinking about it. The restaurant itself is pretty small and with the lack of air conditioning, it might deter you; but I promise the food will not disappoint and will make you want to come back for more! Dal Roti is open every day from 9am to 10pm and is located on Napier Street.

Roti, Kochi, Kerala, India

 

If you are looking for a café style restaurant with all the bells and whistles (wifi and coffee) head to the Qissa Café. Serving everything from western breakfasts, to smoothies and good cup of joe, this café is a comfortable place to kick back, relax and cool off. With its unique and urban-style décor the Qissa Café definitely feels like an oasis in the middle of the hubbub of sightseeing. Qissa Café is open from 8:30am to 9:30pm every day and is located in No.18 Hotel on Jacob Road.

 

STREET ART

Lastly don’t forget to take in all the amazing street art that line so many of the walls within Fort Cochin. I promise you that if you spend an afternoon wandering the streets, you will stumble upon so many original pieces of art that take your breath away.

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My experience in southern India was far different from the north. I found it to be laid back, less chaotic and absolutely stunning. The people seemed friendlier and most had beautiful big smiles across their faces. There is a something so special about Kerala that I can’t quite put my finger on; but I promise you that by the time you leave you too will be spellbound by its culture, colours and charm!  With so much history, art and beauty located in such a small vicinity, spending a couple days in Kochi before carrying on India’s tourist route is definitely a must.

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One of the many beautiful smiles in Kochi!

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