Varkala or ‘Varks’ if 3 syllables is just too much… Is a backpackers paradise atop redstone cliffs, white sand beaches and the Arabian sea. A melting pot of hippies, yogis, eagles, fishermen and pilgrims chilling out in a beautiful setting.
Trivandrum Airport operates many international flights – most require a transfer in another Indian or Middle Eastern city. Transfer from the airport can be made by rail. There is a railway station in Varkala town. The journey takes 38 minutes.
Get off at Trivandrum Pett (TVP). Services run approximately every 4 hours so try qand plan ahead for this – having a reserved seat is less stressful.
Cost = 680-1030 Indian rupees (around 8-12 GB pounds/ 11-16 US dollars).
The whole process can be somewhat baffling – read this excellent guide from the man in seat 61 for guidance.
Alternatively get a taxi – there are pre-paid taxi booths at the airport. This should cost around 1500 rupees (around 18 GB pounds/25 US dollars) Uber also appears to be operating in Trivandrum so if you have the app and a working SIM with data/portable WIFI router give this a try. Here Rome to Rio outline all possible routes. These guys are invaluable for route planning and you can also download their fantastic app for free.
Many international flights operate from here – most of which require a transfer in another Indian or Middle Eastern city.
You can also get the train to Varkala from here, though the train station is in Ernakulum which is some distance from the airport. I made this transfer recently with a prepaid taxi and it cost me 1000 rupees and took around 60 minutes. Once you are at the train station the journey is longer than from Trivandrum at around 3-4 hours.
Rome to rio route options are here. Many people chose Kochi airport as Kochi itself is generally considered to be a more interesting city than Trivandrum. I have been several times and always find it to be a joy – pretty coastline, fabulous shops and restaurants and if you time it right there is a fantastic art bienalle.
I explored this in 2014 (for the bargain price of 1 GBP in local currency!) and was astounded by the depth of interesting exhibits. Random parts of abandoned land get transformed into interesting interactive exhibits of thought provoking art from round the world. The next one is in 2018 – keep up to date here.
The other reason to land here is in order to travel south to Allepey for a backwater cruise on the way down.
I did this route recently and can recommend this though if you have time I have heard from others that there are better backwater experiences south of Varkala. Stay tuned for my guides to Allepey and Kochi. If you plan on doing a north to south route try to fly out into Kochi and out of Trivandrum to avoid doubling back.
My experiences of bus services in the area is getting a bus from Allepey to Varkala.
There was no website to guide me. I turned up at the main bus station and waited in vain for the air conditioned bus. After around an hour I gave up and got the local bus. This was quite an experience. There were no windows just metal shutters. There is no luggage hold. I got lucky and there was plenty of space in the gangway at the back. You wait for the conductor to come and you pay on the bus. What made me laugh is that despite there being no windows or air con he did have a very fancy machine which printed the paper ticket! This is a guide to doing things on a budget and bus is undoubtedly the cheapest way to get around this area. It cost just 92 rupees to do a 3.5 hr journey…
If you are coming directly from Kochi airport you need to travel to the KSRTC bus stand in Ernakulam. This takes just over 60 mins. See google maps route here.
A taxi will cost around 1000 rupees but there are also buses running to this location – see website here. Just to add to the confusion the bus company refers to Kochi airport as ‘Nedumbassery airport’ (this is the area of kochi which the airport is situated in and is one and the same thing!). This blog provides the most comprehensive guide I have found to getting cheaply onwards from Cochin airport.
The arrival times are often early in the morning from international destinations and my advise is to take the first day easy. This is especially important if you are new to India or a solo traveller. India can be a crazy and draining place and is best taken at a slow pace. I arrived to Kochi alone at around 0200 on my most recent trip 4 weeks ago. I wanted a hotel which offered a pick up service. I shelled out for the Marriot Courtyard 5 min drive away because it was my first time alone in India and I had been roughing it for months. It was great but there are many other options nearby.
Budget hotels in the vicinity with good reviews are here.
There is one main highway going from Kochi to Trivandrum- a very different type of route 66 from the movies…..
You need to get off at Kallambulam. This is a really tiny little town – my bus conductor was very good and let us know well in advance when we got there but make sure to stress that you need guidance when to get off because blink and you will miss it!
Kallambulam to Varkala
You need to cross the road to get the local bus going to Varkala town. However, you will more than likely then need to get yet another bus from Varkala town to Varkala beach. Depending on how strict your budget is and the time you arrive you may find it easier to get an auto rickshaw at this point going directly to your accommodation.
I paid 350 rupees to do this. This seems crazy as it cost just 92 rupees to travel the whole way from Allepey to Kallambulam!It’s really just a matter of weighing up convenience over cost.
This map shows the main area around Varkala cliff where most of the bars and restaurants are situated.
If you prefer a quieter location here is the area beyond the helipad looking out at Papanasam beach. Not too many budget options here but Surf and Soul is a great spot with rooms
There is another quieter area around Oodayam beach north of the cliff area.
Where are the budget options? If you want cheap – the best area is around the helipad area.
The helipad is well known as the area for getting taxis from and a good point to start searching. I generally book 1 or 2 nights online to minimise stress after a long journey and then look on foot. If you want to stay for a long period you can end up getting a fantastic cheap deal.
The Lost hostel, Varkala is cheap and just a 5 min walk from the cliff with hammocks in the garden and with a very socialable vibe. Pagans backpackers is similarly located with beautiful murals and many rate it as being one of the cleanest options
However, Vedanta Wake Up! gets the most traveller hype possibly because of its beach hut options and it has also been going the longest.
If you have been on the road for a while and your weary bones crave a little bit of luxury then you are in luck as Varkala offers excellent value for hotels.
I can personally recommend the Raja park resort which has a large pool (great if you crave a swim and a cool off as the sea is very choppy)
We were able to haggle them down to the local equivalent of around 15 GBP a night for a 1 week stay.
If you are able to forgo a pool and don’t mind not having hot water or aircon a private room or hut can be had for very little. If you want to look down at that cracking view every sunset Santa Claus resort on the cliff is your cheapest bet. Rooms can be had from as cheaply as 430 rupees/5 GBP dependent on the time of year.
I have not found Airbnb to be very fruitful in these parts.
Stay for free!
If you would rather work for your accommodation Surf and soul do volunteer schemes. I can’t find the details on their website but contact them for more info – I met a charming sports broadcaster from Mumbai there. He was working in the cafe and helping with digital media in exchange for bed and surf lessons. They also have some rooms and a fabulous outlook onto the ocean.
Watching the sunset
Mother Natures free daily gift! Some of the best sunsets of my life have been watched from the bars and restaurants on the cliff. If you are really skint consider heading to Black beach with a picnic.
Swimming in the Arabian Sea
Strong currents so be very careful but well worth a splash in the warm and inviting waters as the sun goes down. There are lifeguards with flags alerting you to where is dangerous with red flags.
Going to Janardhana Swami temple
Only Hindus are allowed directly inside the temple but the temple grounds are interesting. Behold the tree strung up with many barbies. I think this is to encourage the person to have a child. Beautiful at night when all the oil lamps are lit up. You need to pay 10 rupees for your shoes to be looked after by the shoe looking after man.
Long walks along the beach
The beach is long and each day I got my 20,000 or so steps done by enjoying the long stroll from one end to the other. There are amazing flocks of eagles swooping down to eat the small fish killed by the rapid withdrawal of the waves.
A lovely bunch of coconuts
There is a chap selling coconuts just up from the helipad. Just 70 rupees. He chops it – you drink the juice then he chops it in half for you to eat the insides. Cheap and delicious.
Watch the fisherman at Oodayam beach
What is quite special about Varkala is that is not JUST a backpacker/tourist place – it really is a centre for fishing and watching the men with their catch is quite a sight.
Watch a Bollywood Film
You may be unable to understand exactly what is being said but this is an unmissable Indian experience. The cinema is air-conditioned with comfortable seats and a good quality picture. Situated in Varkala town near the train station. The same film is shown 4 x a day for a bargain price of 110 rupees.
The food in this area is top notch. Keralan cuisine is a real fusion of all the influences to the area over time. Due to the value of the spices in this region there has been Arabian, Portugese, English and Dutch occupation and trading which has developed the unique dishes. Syrian Christians emigrated as far back as 52 AD and there is a sizeable Jewish contingent especially in Kochi
Fish features heavily which is not surprising in a place so close to the sea and curries are typically fairly mild – often made with coconut milk – another plentiful ingredient.
Many advertise the catch of the day outside their restuarants on ice and this can work out to be very reasonably priced if you are in a larger group. You can advise on how you want it cooked – with salt and lemon or with spices etc.
If you are fed up of Indian food there is enormous diversity of every global cuisine under the sun (well maybe not ALL but close!)
Juice bars are also common – just look closely to ensure they are using mineral water in the ice.
This is a typical South Indian budget thali restaurant overlooking the bathing ghats across from the Janardhana temple. You used to be able to sit on a terrace overlooking the view but they have redesigned things. Prices are very reasonable – all you can eat for around 70 rupees. The remote traveller has written an in-depth review and advises on the best individual choices from the menu.
Ootapura vegetarian restaurant
This authentic veggie option also has cheap thalis for around 100 rupees. It is blessed with a great seashore outlook and is popular though some online reviews are mixed
Bit more expensive
Restaurants on the cliffside are more expensive but you do get that incredible view of the sunset.
Cafe Himalayan (formerly Little Tibet restaurant)
Service is a little slow at this popular restaurant but expect wonderful views, kind waiters and excellent momos and naan bread.
This Swedish/Nepali run tourist favourite is always busy. It also has great views and is probably the best option for western favourites like pizza and cheesecake.
Probably the best option for seafood – has 2 floors and excellent views
Yoga is very popular and cheap – there is also a yoga school so you encounter quite a lot of yogis discussing their downward dog.
Ayurvedic massages and inpatient hospitals are everywhere too if this is your bag. There are loads of inexpensive purveyors of t shirts, jewellery and all manner of ethnic knick nacks. The sellers along the cliff path can get a bit OTT. The Tibetan Market has a more relaxed attitude so check it out.
One of the best things about Varkala is the vibe. Its laid-back and the combination of natural beauty, ayurveda, yoga and inexpensive accommodation attracts many a chilled out traveller. It lacks the raveyness of Goa but is social, fun and I have met many interesting people in my times here. Many people come here for months at a time every year. I have met digital nomads, porn directors, artists and everything in-inbetween.
Darjeeling cafe is my top pick for hanging out and watching the sunset. Be aware that due to licensing laws alcohol bottles are served in a brown bag kept under the table or are decanted into a clay mug. Adds to the fun!
There are not really stand alone clubs and pubs but Rock and Roll cafe has live music most nights and a dance floor. Food is a bit naff though so eat before arriving and make the most of their very reasonable happy hour (palatable cocktails for less than 1 GBP!)
Have you been to Varkala? What did you think?