Sep 13, 2011

Precariously Perched Varkala

When we first read about Varkala, on the southwest coast of India on the Arabian Sea—it sounded intriguing.  Yet it made us wary at the same time.  It was described as a ‘backpacker scene’, which usually can mean crowds, difficulty finding accommodation and in general, touristy.  But as it was only 30min by train from Trivandrum and on our way northward, we set aside 2 nights to check it out.  It turned out to be one of the most unique seaside places that we’ve ever experienced.

The actual ‘touristy/backpacker’ part of Varkala is sprawled across the top of cliffs directly above the sea, about 3-5km from the town itself.  The Indian people don’t really holiday in this part of Varkala and you generally only see ‘foreign’ faces –in fact we have encountered more backpackers here than probably in our entire time in India thus far.  While some roads run perpendicular to the cliffs (and one directly to the sea), the main artery is a brick pathway that runs for about 1-2km along the edge of the cliffs; there are no vehicles allowed here, although the rare motorcycle does slowly putter by.  Along with restaurants, hotels and guest houses line the other side facing the sea together with shop after shop selling jewellery and textiles like clothes, bedsheets, wall hangings, etc.  And this is just the first row.  Further back among the coconut palm trees you can find many more rows of hotels of every price range (there is road and vehicle access back there) and occasionally more shops too.  And luckily for us, it’s the quietest month of the year at the moment due to the monsoon so not only is there an oversupply of rooms, but they are available at up to 50% off.  We got a cliff-front room with a view for only $7.50 USD/Rs300 per night (normally $12.00/Rs500)—the lowest we’ve paid yet, anywhere.  And it was very clean too, with hot water but not air conditioning (the ceiling fan and sea breeze made up for it).

Another game of Uno on our balcony

The feeling you have while in Varkala is a bit surreal, probably due to the cliffs themselves.  They are HIGH.  As we casually strolled along the coconut palm lined path, we didn’t have to worry about traffic, crowds or our girls although we did have to give them a stern warning about not going too close to the edge as at times it comes precariously close, often without any barriers to separate us from definite disaster.  Even the locals are wary about using the path at night, when many parts are not lit.  As one young man described to us, ‘You can be walking along with your friends and having fun and not paying attention, then you could accidently fall.’  But the views are incredible, with vegetation covered sides down to the beach and misty waves crashing below.  We are told that the seas are high at this time of year so there is actually only a small beach.  While it is patrolled by lifeguards, it is unadvisable to swim here as it is very rough.  Apparently during the main tourist season, the beach widens and lengthens considerably and sun beds are hot property.   And as we walked along, we also negated some of the savings from our room cost by supporting the local merchants by adding to our wardrobe and to our waistline!  There are plenty of restaurants, all with amazing views, mellow music and a few even offering free Wi-Fi (a first for us in India).  We had 2 favourites that got our vote for yummy food at fairly reasonable prices, especially given the touristy location.  

Main Beach, where the Indian people tend to visit

Straight down!

Talking with some of the merchants, most of whom have come from other parts of India due to the opportunities here or just for the seaside location and have had their shops here for over 10yrs, they tell a bit of the ‘back story’ behind Varkala.  Apparently it was much different back then, with only a handful of shops and a few hotels.  Tourists (mostly from overseas) came in high numbers year-round and during the peak season, rooms would be sold out with backpackers often having to resort to sleeping on the beach.  It was one big party.  But around 6yrs ago, the hotel industry started to boom and more and more rooms got built and are still being built.  Larger and more ‘exclusive’ (read: pricier) resorts are found on the outer fringes, especially northward along the cliffs, which goes on for another 4km.  Rooms and bungalows here during high season can be as much as $200 USD/Rs8000 per night—and they didn’t look that special from the outside at least.  (Surprisingly we noticed that Indians, probably from the cities, also frequented these up-market places.  We also noticed Russian tourists staying at here at the moment as well.) We spoke to a German backpacker who was here 5yrs ago and she only remembered the ‘first row’ of hotels along the cliff top, with only palm trees behind them.  At the same time since then there has also been a slow but steady decline of tourists, probably due to a variety of reasons including but not limited to the global financial crisis and the tightening of the Indian visa issuance.  So now there is a situation of oversupply and increased competition among traders and merchants.  It’s particularly tough for them during the off season but at least business is still fairly lucrative for the 6 months of the year from November onwards that is ‘high season’.  

Down on the north end, when the shops and restaurants finally fizzle out

Varkala was beyond anything that we had envisioned—in a good way.  You could never get tired of the view from on top of the cliffs. It was so laid back here and everyone was very friendly.  Yes, it was very touristy and you didn’t really feel like you were in India but it was pleasant for a short ‘break’ from hustle and bustle. And our fears of not being able to find a room in such a popular place were not only unfounded, but we got a good room for cheaper than we had ever imagined possible, especially given its location and position.  We had a relaxing time, ate good food, caught up on our blog and facebook, did some shopping, and mingled with merchants and other backpackers (we saw more here than in our entire time in India so far).  Best of all, we are on average 40% below our daily family budget of $50 USD, even with slightly pricier food and our new purchases.  If only we could have gone for a swim, it would have been perfect.


  1. Sounds and looks lovely. I secretly like touristy places. Not the crazy Kuta Bali touristy places, but as you say they are a nice break from travel at times. And the kids certainly enjoy every second restaurant having pizza or spaghetti on the menu.

    We so need to travel with you to improve our ability to stick to a budget - 40% under your $50 a day budget WOW!

  2. We talked to another family (from Germany with a 5yr old and 10mo) who had only been in india for 9 days (for a total trip of 1 month) and they didn't like it at all as 'it wasn't India'. While i totally agreed with them, it all comes down to your perspective. For us, after being here for 6 weeks already, 'not india' wasn't necessarily a bad thing for a few days! And touristy places keep you entertained with the shopping and different foods, although we don't give in to the pizza or spagetti thing (often anyway!) as 1) its usually more expensive than the more local fare and 2) the portions are poor. Aside from indian, we usually get Chinese fried noodles or rice for the kids and its still considered 'local'. So that's definitely one of our secrets to keeping the budget low--eat local!

    Our first few weeks in India we were surprised at our budget, but its been getting cheaper as we go along, mostly due to cheaper accommodation the farther south we've been. It was sure nice to be spending between $26-$35 USD per day in Varkala!

    thanks for visiting Tracy :)

  3. Great story, great pictures. Wish I could go like everywhere else you've been to!

  4. Nice place to vesit. I ike to visit this place. Wont to know more about this. Petter Joe