We just wrapped up one month in South India, traveling through the states of Kerala, Goa, Karnataka, and with a final brief stay in the capital of Maharashtra state, Mumbai. May is one of the hottest and most humid months in South India, so almost nobody travels there around this time. But we did, and we (barely) lived to tell the tale.
Here are some of the highlights:
1. Acclimating at Varkala Beach
Since the weather down South (and in most of India) is almost unbearable at this time of year, so we'd been relying heavily on air conditioning just to make it through each day. Then we arrived in Varkala Beach, and made the bold decision to get a room without AC.
It's a catch-22. When it's so unfathomably hot outside, having a nice air-conditioned room gives you a place to relax and get comfortable in after venturing outside for a while. The problem is that it can be a little bit too comfortable—it makes it hard to get out and do things when you know you could just sit inside for a large part of the day and stay comfortable.
On the other hand, not having AC means you're going to be uncomfortable almost all day long—and that also makes it hard to get out there and get anything done. Either you're too comfortable in AC and just want to sit inside, or you're so uncomfortable without it that sitting inside sweating is all you can really do.
Neither situation is ideal, but we lucked out stumbling into an awesome little guest house called Arabian Soul, which was right by the beach and up on a cliff so we could get at least some of the ocean breeze for part of the day. We thought if we could become comfortable with being uncomfortably hot, we could get over the shock of the heat and humidity—we needed to acclimate, especially after such a long and sunless winter back in Canada.
A few of those nights were close to full-on torture. Stuck in a small room with just a fan, you can wake up feeling like you're suffocating—it's 30+ degrees even in the middle of the night, and more humid than even seems possible. At some point you just cross a certain line of discomfort where you have no other choice but to accept it and deal with it.
Other than the heat, the rest of our stay was amazing. There were rooftop yoga classes every night for about $6 Canadian per person, and these somehow helped cool us off in the evening. We settled into our India trip and got to meet some other travelers. Our host, Naveen, was super friendly and helpful, and even took us all out to see a movie. We spent time at the beach, explored the area on a scooter, and cooled off with some amazing smoothies at the Coffee Temple.
On the other hand, the beach was completely littered with trash... and packs of stray dogs. Nothing in India is just nice or simple... everything has its pros and cons. Since it's monsoon season, accommodation can be a little bit cheaper because there aren't a lot of people traveling there.
It barely rained while we were there—the real monsoon rains start in June and last through August. Monsoon in May just means that it gets incredibly humid and storm systems start brewing off the coast—making tides too intense to really go into the ocean beyond waste deep and lots of people drown each year from doing just that.
One of our days in Varkala was particularly terrible: we rented a scooter and I tried to go to the Indian space museum, but it turns out only Indian nationals are allowed in. It ended up being a miserable day of driving a total of 100 kilometers on a scooter in the crazy intense sun, for no reason.
Despite some of the lows, our time in Varkala was memorable—and, despite the heat, one of the highlights of our time in South India.
2.Trekking in Munnar
The Western Ghat mountain range gave us a much needed break from the heat and humidity of the coast. Located 1,500 meters above sea level in the middle of the land mass, temperatures up there can easily be 10 degrees Celsius lower than down below—and significantly less humid.
We gave ourselves just three and a half days to explore the mountainous region, and we could easily have taken another two weeks to see even more of the area.
The first hike we did was the more moderate Lakshmi Hills. It's usually recommended that you hire a local guide who knows the trails (can range in price from $15 to $50 per day), but as per my normal custom we decided to go it alone. The problem is that it's hard to find maps and information about the trails and where they start, so finding this one required a lot of online research, scouring the fine details of Google Maps, and a little bit of luck.
The spot I'd marked was off from the actual trailhead by about a kilometer. Fortunately I decided to ask the rickshaw driver where the Lakshmi trail started, and he simply drove us to the actual start of the trail (all the while telling us that we needed a guide and he could call one for us, which we declined). It's located HERE for anyone who's interested.
But the trail wasn't so much a trail as a residential road, leading up into some tea plantations. It's a bit of a maze in there so we just aimed for the hilltops—and then we stumbled across some Indians who actually had a guide with them, and we not-so-discretely followed them for a short while.
After reaching the summit of the first mountain (Lakshmi is a series of 4+ mountains connected by a trail running along a grassy ridge), we ended up joining forces with the other group and spending the rest of the day with them and their guide, who had volunteered to go along with them for free because he apparently had nothing better to do (he was a bit strange...).
It ended up being a 5 hour hike and a bit of a misadventure making our way down the other side. The fog rolled in early on and our view of the valleys below us was obstructed—but it's hard to complain about a turn in the weather when you're hiking at an altitude of 2,000+ meters.
The next hike I did solo. We had limited time before our bus and I knew it was going to be a bit of a grind, so I just went for it before the crack of dawn.
This one required precise information—without it, I would never have found the trailhead. I lucked out finding one person's account that talked about a big white cross out in front of a long driveway leading up to an old abandoned church. Behind the church is the start of the trail that leads up to Chokramudi, also known as the lonely giant. The trailhead is located HERE.
I started off on my rented scooter 30 minutes before sunrise. Google Maps gave me a route that actually took me on a huge downhill into the valley followed by a brutal uphill on an aging 125cc Honda—at altitude.
What should have taken under 45 minutes ended up being an hour, during which time I got chased by a semi-rabid dog going 15 km/hr up a hill. I would have been better off sticking to the main road through Munnar than taking the historic "gap road" and its endless switchbacks, though it was a cool little pre-adventure.
Fortunately the rest of the hike went much better. After a short ascent up the initial hill, it opens up to a grassland above the clouds—followed by steep rock face you have to scramble up in some parts. While dual-wielding my phone camera and GoPro I actually fell on some rocks about 5 minutes in—putting some significant dents in the GoPro and giving myself what would later become an infected wound on my hand.
I stepped my game up after that. Chokramudi is a series of three progressively bigger peaks. Except for where each one briefly levels off at the top, the trail is entirely uphill grind, just as I was expecting.
When I reached the first peak, I spotted a group of people a few hundred meters up ahead of me making their way through some shrubs and bushes. They had a guide with them, so I decided to discretely follow them. I stayed undetected until they took a rest break, then I politely scooted past and on up the trail. It definitely helped seeing other people there, since some sections of the mountain would have been a bit creepy if I hadn't seen any other humans around.
I gave myself two hours to make it to the top before I had to start heading back in time to check out of our guesthouse, but I kept up such a grueling pace that I did it in only one hour. The group I had passed took an hour and a half and they seemed somewhat fit, though it might have taken longer because their guide was setting the pace.
The view from the top was pretty sweet, and I was there early enough that time that the fog hadn't rolled in yet. Definitely ended up getting my money's worth on this one.
We were sad to leave Munnar, in part because it was the first time since being in India that we finally felt comfortable with the climate. In hindsight, we definitely should have spent more time there and less time in the insane humidity down below.
3. Goa Vibes
The heat of South India during monsoon extends all the way up to Goa (and beyond), and the day of our arrival was actually one of the toughest days we had in India, period. We headed up to Anjuna Beach in North Goa, and the place was a ghost town. Almost everything was shut down, very few people were out and about, and our long journey to get there had put is in a bad mood (just imagine a long rickshaw ride followed by a 3km walk in the 35-degree sun trying to find a place to stay).
Fortunately, after that first day things really started to pick up. We rented a scooter almost every day thereafter, and this let us get around and see the sights on our own terms. Goa was still hot, but not as humid as it was down in Kerala state—the sun was more intense, but the humidity less. And our hotel had a pool!
In many respects, North Goa was a bigger and bolder version of Varkala beach—minus the lame party atmosphere in some spots, which we're not really into. The highlight of our day was going to a nice vegan cafe (Natti's Naturals) and relaxing by the pool—a total juxtaposition from how the rest of our trip had been going up until that point.
Again, we could have spent more time in other parts of Goa, despite the fact that it was a bit dead everywhere. We only spent 5 days in Anjuna beach, and didn't really venture more than 30 minutes away from there.
So, it turns out that all of my favorite things in India involve renting scooters (give us some much-needed autonomy), going on adventures, and having more than a few mis-adventures along the way. In my books, that's what makes for a good trip—and that's what I found most memorable about South India.
It's also nice to get a tiny slice of home while traveling in a chaotic place like India—the natural mountainous beauty of Munnar reminded me of hiking back in British Columbia; the vegan food in Goa reminded be of the home-cooked meals and salads we've been missing out on; and the hospitality of Naveen in Varkala made us feel like we were staying at a friend's place.
Overall, South India has been a difficult place to travel at this time of year. And India Part 2 is starting now, as we make our way up into the Himalayas for the next two weeks.