For some reason India was never in the top five on my ‘wish to travel to countries’ list. To be honest, it wasn’t even on the list at all. People who’ve been would always come back with mixed reviews, complaining that India was too hot, too humid and that the poverty rate was overwhelming and depressing. And none of them failed to mention the smell, of course.
I won’t lie to you. All of this is true. But essentially, it comes down to what type of traveler you are, what you expect from the trip and where in India you will be going. But keep in mind that India is not for the soft at heart, it’s for the curious.
Having married a photographer with a habit of taking me to remote and unheard-of places, it was no surprise that a trip to India would ultimately be in the cards. And not only did he take me to India, he took me to South India, an area still virgin-like to tourists like myself who only know India for the Taj Mahal and spicy food.
But I was pleasantly surprised, and by the end of the trip, I was not looking forward to my flight back home. Yes, I sweated every day through every layer of clothes on me, a leech sucked on me for over three hours until my blood plumped it up to the size of a fist, I got irritable bowel syndrome from all the spicy food, I almost stayed in a hotel with a rat stuck in the AC, I almost died several times on the narrow roads due to crazy (and painstakingly slow) driving habits, and I slept on overnight trains giving the public a view they won’t forget (curtains in first class are wide enough to cover only half your bed — make sure to book the closed-compartment first-class rooms).
But you know what? I got to discover South India first hand, and it was beautiful. It has backwaters, grand temples, tea estates, wildlife sanctuaries, rainforests and happening cities, and it’s definitely a trip I won’t be forgetting anytime soon. And neither will you. Just make sure you get yourself a bagful of antibacterial hand gel and you’re ready to go.
When to go: To make sure the weather is not too hot and humid (it ain’t sexy to smell like sweat for the whole trip if you’re planning to go with your loved one), book your trip between November and March, considered India’s high season but also its busiest.
What to pay: Prices vary widely when it comes to accommodation, transportation and eateries, depending on what type of traveler you are. You will easily find budget, midrange and top end options anywhere in the south. Make sure you make the bookings yourself (don’t leave it to a travel agent, or a husband in my case) or you’ll find yourself at a Chinese business hotel in an alleyway full of roaming cows.
What to bring: Make sure you get the Indian visa from the consulate. The process is straightforward and doesn’t take long. Pack non-revealing clothes for sightseeing, frequently used medications (especially for diarrhea), sunscreen and super-strong mosquito repellent.
Recommended stay: two nights
Known for its hippies, all-night dance parties and a coastline of beaches on the Arabian Sea, Goa has been a popular destination luring in tourists for decades. But there’s more to this beach-side destination away from the party scene and crowded beaches. With its joie de vivre atmosphere, crumbling Portuguese architecture (Goa was an outpost of Portugal for nearly 500 years), centuries-old cathedrals, exotic-smelling spice plantations, cosmopolitan dishes and the old city’’s charm, Goa is worth a visit, though it may not live up to your expectations. It’s a Sharm El-Sheikh-like city with foreign crowds and annoying hawkers trying to sell you stuff, minus the pretty empty beaches.
What to do
Spend your first few hours of the day discovering Panaji (downtown Goa) on foot, as most sights are close to one another. The picturesque town is full of Portuguese-era colonial charms with its bright, colorful buildings. Make sure to check out the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, a World Heritage site, after your stroll.
Spend the rest of the day touring the still-grand churches of Old Goa, some of which are still in use today. Start your tour with Sé Cathedral, the largest church in Goa, continuing with the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, the Monastery of St. Augustine, the Basilica of Bom Jesus and the Church of St. Cajetan, modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome. If you’re a history and adventure buff, stop on your way to St. Cajetan by the Arch of the Viceroys, built for the famous explorer Vasco da Gama when he arrived in India.
Spend your second morning at the Anjuna Flea Market (every Wednesday) bargaining over an array of Indian clothing, jewelry and souvenirs. If you enjoy a bargain and unique one-offs like me, you’ll be sure to find a gem or two at the market; just make sure to use your Egyptian bargaining powers to get good steals.
For the rest of your day, explore one of Goa’s beaches. Most of the ones we checked out were disappointing compared to the beaches we have here, but if you really are in need of a dip then choose your beach wisely. Most are crowded and full of hawkers selling anything you can imagine. For a hippie vibe, head out to Anjuna Beach. For a quieter option, check out the beaches in Mandrem.
Where to stay: Alila Diwa $$$
Pamper yourself (one of the few times you will be able to on the trip, so go for it) at the Alila Diwa, a romantic boutique hotel situated in the laid-back and much less crowded south of Goa. You’ll probably spend at least one of your days lazing by the infinity pool sipping cocktails.
Recommended stay: three nights
Take a train from Goa to Hampi in Karnataka, an ancient Indiana Jones-like city made up of ruins scattered over 26 kilometers. The remains of this 15th-century city of Vijayanagar look like an unreal movie set with its giant granite boulders, lush landscape, paddy fields and banana plantations. A World Heritage Site, Hampi was once one of the largest Hindu empires until it was attacked by Deccan sultanates in 1565.
Hampi’s ruins are breathtaking, and the destination will definitely be one of the highlights of your trip. It’s like you’ve stepped back in time, but it’s also still bustling with color, people, life, animals and kids running around barefoot asking you to take their photograph, hoping they could be the next cover shot for National Geographic magazine.
Where to eat: Le Poisson Rouge $$
Finding good food is not hard in India; South India is popular for its tangy cuisine. But for a combination of Goan mixed spices, local seafood, veggies and a touch of French delicacy, try Le Poisson Rouge.
Located in Baga, north of Goa.
What to do
For your first day, start with the Virupaksha Temple dedicated to an incarnation of Shiva, where Lakshimi (the super cute elephant in the temple) will bless you for any loose change you have. Next, head to the Vittala Temple, home to the musical pillars (they used these pillars in different ways to create music that can be heard from miles away) and a stone chariot in the middle of the temple courtyard. On your way to the Vittala Temple, it’s worth stopping to check out the Sule Bazzar and Achyutaraya Temple,.
Rent a bike on your second day and explore the rest of Hampi. It is one of the best ways to get around, and, if the weather is nice, the ride alone will be a treat.
Spend the rest of your day at the Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary, 15 km south of Hampi, to see India’s sloth bears. You will also see jackals, leopards, hyenas, birds and wild boars if you’re lucky. You can only watch the animals from the sanctuary’s watchtower, but if you’re lucky and have one of the more lenient rangers with you, he’ll take you as close as possible to see the bears.
Where to stay: Mowgli Guesthouse $
For a chilled vibe and cosmopolitan crowd, pick one of the guest houses across the river from Hampi Bazaar. If you want a relaxed Nuweiba-like haven with views of rice fields, book the Mowgli Guesthouse with its simply decorated cottages.
The Backwaters: two nights $$ - $$$
Kerala’s 900 km network of waterways used to be villagers’ main form of transportation before modern roads were built. Still used for transportation by villagers on paddle boats, Kerala’s backwaters are now also one of India’s main attractions.
Start your trip from Kumarakom, an hour’s drive from Kochi, where you can find an array of houseboats (kettuvallams) to board from the dock. I recommend that you book your houseboat before you get there to guarantee your choice of size, quality, price and number of nights onboard. Many tourists opt for the day village and sunset tours. If you want crowds and quick stops, go for it, but if you really want to enjoy the backwaters and drift along quiet canals exploring villages, temples and the rural lifestyle of the backwaters, book two nights on the houseboat. It will be the most relaxing experience of your trip, maybe even your year.
Try to bring an iPod and speakers to play your favorite music as you slowly drift down the waters.
Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary: two nights
The Periyar Sanctuary in the Western Ghats of Kerala is South India’s most popular wildlife sanctuary. Originally a hunting ground, Periyar covers 777 sq km and is home to elephants, Indian bison, deer, wild boars, sambar, tigers, bears and hundreds of different bird species. It is known as a tiger reserve, but to actually spot a tiger in the park is very rare (our guide told us he has lived in the park for 22 yearsand has never actually seen a tiger!). Driving up to the park alone is an experience all on its own with the mountain scenery, cloud rainforests and tea plantations.
Spend your first day in the park on a four- to five-hour open jeep safari ride covering 40 km of trails for sightings of the animals and exotic birds. Then take one of the daily three-hour treks, accompanied by a guide, through the rainforest to check out the flora and enjoy the feeling of being right there in the midst of nature.
Unfortunately, this is also where the leeches (very common if it rained the night before) will come out to greet you. You’ll find hundreds of them crawling up your shoes. Make sure to wear long socks and jeans or cargos if you don’t want one of these tiny suckers to get their fill of your blood like they did mine.
For your second day at the park, book a two-hour cruise to spot wildlife on the banks of the man-made lake, making for amazing photography opportunities. The only problem is that some of these boat trips can be crowded and noisy, so it’s best to pick the earliest cruise available. Spend the rest of your day exploring the Highrange Spices Plantation or a tea plantation to learn the tea-making process.
Where to stay: Green Woods Resort
For a cozy stay, book a room at the mid-range priced Green Woods Resort in Thekkady, a few kilometers from the park and only a walk away from downtown. The rooms are beautifully designed and spacious, and the hotel’s Tree House Café is perfect for breakfast or a sunset meal with your loved one.
Kochi (Cochin): three nights
Situated in central Kerala, Kochi has been a traders’ hotspot for centuries, and still has that historic allure for visitors with a love for art, history, culture and heritage. Very much colonial in its structure, Fort Cochin in the north of Kochi is the place to spend your time while in Kochi.
Easy to explore by foot, start your first day at the harbor near Vasco da Gama Square to see the Chinese fishing nets and walk around the morning fish markets. Next head to St. Francis Church, which was where Vasco da Gama was buried for 14 years (we had to go to anything related to Vasco da Gama because of my husband’s slight obsession with him). Continue to the Catholic Santa Cruz Basilica then finish the day off with a tuktuk ride to the Mattancherry Palace, built by the Portuguese in 1555 as a gift to the Raja of Kochi.
Spend your second day strolling around Jew Town, the center of the old spice trade in Kochi. Full of antique and spice shops, you’ll find some of the most interesting and unique pieces for your home, and of course make sure to get lots of aromatic spices to use for future Indian meals. Check out the beautifully detailed Pardesi Synagogue right in the middle of Jew Town after your shopping frenzy.
For a dose of art and culture, spend your last day at the Kerala Folklore Museum then head to the Kerala Kathakali Centre for a performance highlighting Kerala’s history and culture.
For one of the best hotels you’ll probably ever stay in, book a room at the heritage Malabar House (malabarhouse.com). Centered around a courtyard and tiny swimming pool, this pricey boutique hotel is worth every penny. The rooms are colorful and bright, the food is delicious and it’s located in the center of Fort Cochin. For other great eateries try the waterside restaurant at the Fort House Hotel and the Ginger House in Jew Town.
Leave a Comment