If you’re planning to travel through India and you’re perhaps a little unsure about where to start, may I suggest Varkala? Situated in the south of Kerala, India’s southernmost state, it’s the perfect launching spot as you can start here and work your way to the noisier, more chaotic north. Or, if you’re just looking for a VERY cheap holiday with sun, sand and incredible food, then seriously, look no further!
Unique along Kerala’s coastline for its red sandstone cliffs backing onto the beach, the hubbub centres around the North Cliff area of Papanasum Beach (also known as Varkala Beach), and if I’m honest, I think you’d be hard pushed to find a more beautiful spot to watch the sun sink into the sea. Shops, restaurants and hotels perch perilously close to the cliff’s edge, and there’s no shortage of spots to see this daily natural show.
Check out this 360 degree of the south end of Varkala Beach (it’s a little crude, but you can feel like you’re really there). Click below to expand.
What is Varkala known for?
Apart from those fireball sunsets and wide red cliffs, it is a Mecca for yogis, with all levels of yoga classes available right along the cliff tops. Early morning yoga sessions on the beach are ten a penny, and if you descend the steps to watch the sun set from the sands, you’re likely to see people practicing their sun salutations in bikinis and baggy pants too.
You can’t escape the hippy vibe here, with more dreadlocks per square mile than is technically healthy, and endless chatter about ‘finding oneself’ overheard in bars. If you picture the Thai islands about 20 years ago I think you’d be on the right track, and it’s definitely one of those ‘up and coming’ destinations for a ‘gap yah, dahling’.
Varkala is about 1 hour 20 mins by taxi from Trivandrum airport, or 3 hours from Kochi. We flew with Air India, who admittedly lost our bags for a day but for the bargain price of £270 for a one way ticket via Mumbai, you can’t argue with that value! A quick scout around on Skyscanner shows prices for an average of £350 – £450 return from London, depending on the time of year.
You can also get to Varkala by train, which is a speedy 25 minutes from Trivandrum train station on the fast service. The train station is around 4km from North Cliff, and a tuk tuk to North Cliff will cost you between 80 and 100 rupees (about £1).
How much does it cost?
The cost of living here is incredibly cheap, with accommodation available for just 500 rupees (£5) a night for 2 people. If you want more mod cons like hot water (not really needed, considering the heat of the place) and air conditioning (an absolute dream) then you can find mid-range hotels and guest houses for about 1,500 rupees (£15) to upwards of 50,000 rupees (£50) per night.
Food is a bargain, with entire meals costing an average of 200 rupees (£2) per person, and large beers coming in at around 160 rupees (£1.60) each. It’s possible to live on 1,000 rupees a day for 2 people easily.
Clothes and jewellery is just as cheap too, with trousers costing roughly 300 rupees (£3), T-Shirts and tops between 200 and 300 rupees (£2-£3) and jewellery from 100 rupees (£1) up.
With an average temperature of around 30 degrees and the humidity of a wet towel, the answer to that question is probably ‘you’. Spend your days sunning yourself on the beach (sun umbrellas and loungers available to hire for 200 rupees / £2 each, so 600 rupees for an umbrella and 2 loungers), or take one of the millions of different types of yoga classes. Apart from the brilliant beginner’s yoga class at the north end of the cliffs, I also saw a sign for ‘Laughter Yoga’, which sounds like, well, quite a laugh.
Aside from getting tanned and toned, you can also get pampered to your heart’s content (is this actually the best place on Earth??). Massages are cheap and plentiful (prices from 500 – 1500 rupees / £5 – £15 for an hour’s massage), or treat yourself to a manicure or pedicure. You can even get a tattoo, if you fancy half an hour of agonising pain… Your call!
If you want to learn something new then a cooking class (750 rupees / £7.50 for 2 people for 2 hours) is a great way to take a new skill home with you. You’ll cook a few traditional Keralan curries, and use a LOT of coconut.
Opportunities for Adventure
Swimming in the sea is an adventure in itself! In fact, Varkala has some of the biggest, curliest waves in the whole of India, which makes it just perfect for surfing and body boarding. You can rent surf boards from the beach for the princely sum of 1,800 rupees (£18) for 4 hours, although it’s possible to barter them down to about 1,000. Just do it with a smile on your face and you’ll be golden.
There are entire resorts springing up dedicated to surfing, the most famous of which is Soul & Surf, south of Papanadam Beach. If you’re into both yoga and surfing then this is pretty much heaven!
At the south end of North Cliff by the helipad (yes, helipad!) you’ll also find the launching area for some pretty amazing paragliding. The warm air rising from the beach along the cliffs creates air currents which can be ridden for hours, and some of the more showy-offy gliders will put on a bit of a show for those on the beach by skimming past the cliff edges and doing loop the loops and somersaults.
Shopping until you are dropping
Don’t bother bringing too many clothes to Varkala, as for less than 20 quid you can pretty much refit your wardrobe! Apart from the usual hippy tourist clothes (which are brilliant), there’s also a huge Tibetan influence here with Tibetan handicrafts, silks and singing bowls available to buy.
All of the shops are housed in temporary shacks which are broken down at the end of the tourist season (around March / April), so each year it will all look slightly different along the stretch.
A note of caution: As you walk along the top of the cliffs, you will be constantly targeted with calls of ‘see my shop?’ and ‘you buy something today’. However a polite ‘no thank you’ normally does the trick, and the harassment is not nearly as bad as other places. I found that I actually got to know a lot of the vendors during my 10 days here and they were great people just trying to make a living.
For more shopping options including authentic Indian clothes made to measure, head the 4km back to Varkala town in a tuk tuk and ask your driver where’s good.
Top tip: Save cash on roaming charges by picking up an Indian SIM card from one of the phone shops in Varkala for around 500 rupees (£5). Take your passport for them to photocopy and allow a few hours for the phone to be registered with the network (you’ll need to go back to the shop later) but then for five quid you’ll have 1GB data and a ton of talk time. I found this invaluable in Varkala as the WiFI can be patchy, and there are frequent power cuts, so an Indian phone means you’re always reachable (only if you want to be, of course!)
The best places to eat
Due to the large number of Western tourists, you can find all manner of foods in Varkala. Anything goes from pizza and pasta to Chinese sweet & sour, however the real star of the show is obviously the Indian food. I chose to be vegetarian throughout most of my stay (at the request of my yoga instructor), however if you’re carnivorous, you can’t go wrong with the chicken pagotas at the Sky Lounge. Little lightly spiced fried chicken portions served with a cool raita. Divine!
Other favourites during my stay in Varkala include the vegetable jaipuri at My Place, the potato and cheese momos (Tibetan dumplings) at Lhasa, and literally anything from Hungry Eye. I know… Weird name for a restaurant but it’s cheap, delicious and has a really cool vibe. My favourite restaurant in Varkala for sure.
For breakfast, make sure you hit up the Coffee Temple, at the far south of the cliff near the helipad. It’s one of the only places in town which serves real coffee, and the Tsunami Frappe is to die for.
Where’s the party?
Alcohol is technically illegal along the cliffs of Varkala as it’s a sacred area. However that doesn’t stop the restaurants serving sunset cocktails and ice cold beers with a little help from ‘Mr Bribe’. Some restaurants will ask you to hide your beer under the table and will serve it to you in a kind of stone goblet. I can only assume these places don’t keep on top of their bribes as well as others!
There aren’t really any standalone bars, however some restaurants such as Garden Bistro, Sunset Bar and Rock Cafe will host live music and keep the doors open until late. There are historical problems with complaints about loud music from the nearby hotels so they try to keep it down after 11pm.
If you’re looking for a more authentic Indian experience then there are festivals taking place along the Keralan coast every other day from January to April. Simply hop in a tuk tuk and ask your driver where the nearest one is. I visited a town around 10km away from Varkala which had a carnival procession with live bands, costumed people and around 30 elephants, all decorated in traditional finery. However, you should be aware that the elephants are chained around the feet and they do look pretty miserable, so it may not be a comfortable viewing experience.
Where to stay
Accommodation is cheap throughout Varkala and it’s possible to just turn up and walk along the cliffs to find a guest house. However if you’re the kind of person who likes to book in advance, here are a few suggestions to help you find your ideal spot.
Budget: Bamboo Village
Mid-range: Dreams Beach Resort
In and around town there are hundreds of dogs, which all seem to look exactly the same. Some have collars, some are strays, and most are beautifully friendly. When going down to the beach, try to accommodate them by creating a makeshift ‘water bowl’ out of the bottom of an old water bottle. They’ll really thank you for it in this heat and you’ll make a friend for the rest of the day.
I hope you’ve found my guide to Varkala helpful. If you’ve enjoyed this post, why not sign up for email alerts or join me on Facebook or Twitter?
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