Things to do in Varkala: Kerala’s beach paradise
This post is about the best things to do in Varkala. A small beach town in Kerala with a laidback atmosphere that has lots to offer for travellers.
Varkala is perched high on a red sandstone cliff with sweeping views over the ocean. I thought it would be a good start of my Kerala itinerary. What would be better than planning the rest of my journey in a lovely beach hut with a hammock surrounded by palmtrees?
Varkala was indeed the perfect introduction to South India. The only problem was that I didn’t expect there were so many things to do in Varkala.
Why visit Varkala?
Together with Gokarna and Goa, Varkala is among the best beach destinations in India. What sets Varkala apart is its central location in Kerala and its picturesque setting. Varkala beach has a long stretch of sandy beach and red sandstone cliffs in the back.
Like Gokarna, Varkala is an important Hindu pilgrimage center that attracts local devotees as well as backpacker tourists from all around the world. Varkala cliff is therefore a curious mix of hostels, restaurants and other places to pamper your body and soul. Be it ayurvedic massage centers or yoga workshops.
If Varkala beach is too crowded for your liking it’s easy to find more tranquil places in the neighbourhood. Just around the corner of the Varkala cliff lie secluded beaches, palm fringed backwaters and scenic little temple towns. Truth be told, the beautiful Keralan landscapes beyond the cliff are the real reasons why you should visit Varkala.
There are so many things to do in and around Varkala, that many travellers stay much longer than planned.
Things to do in Varkala
Varkala’s beach, also known as Papanasham beach, is a 6 kilometer stretch of sand with red stone cliffs in the back. This is the center of activity in Varkala and if you walk along the shore there is always something going on.
Varkala beach can become crowded, especiallly during the day. Because local pilgrims also visit Varkala beach it is important to dress modestly. Unfortunately this is not the beach where you can always dress in your bikini or swim shorts to soak up the sun.
Don’t worry if that is what you are looking for. The beach is large enough that you can keep a respectable distance from the religious ceremonies. Some hotels also have a swimming pool and not far from Varkala beach are more quiet and secluded beaches where there are not a lot of other people around.
Watch Hindu ceremonies
Varkala beach is a very holy place for Hindus. Locals believe the waters have healing powers and that a dip in the ocean clears away all sins. Therefore, Varkala attracts its fair share of Hindu pilgrims.
Varkala beach is also a place where Hindus come for the traditional ceremonies for those family members that have passed away. Priests are there to help families perform the last rites and this all happens right at the beach. Remember that these are private family ceremonies so keep your distance and ask permission before taking pictures.
That said, some families don’t see a lot of tourists in their daily life. Don’t be surprised if they approach you for a selfie. Before I knew it, I had a baby in my hands and a large Tamil family around me.
Janardhana Swamy temple
The 12th century Janardhana Swamy temple is the main reason why Varkala became an important religious center. All pilgrims first visit the Janardhana Swamy temple to pay their respects to Vishnu before heading to the beach. If you are not a Hindu you are not allowed inside, but you can see the colourful carvings on the outside.
Meet the fishermen
The early morning was my favourite time on Varkala beach. Besides a gorgeous sunrise you have the beach all to yourself, except for the fisherman that return with their catch of the night.
They are quite happy to show you what they have caught. Red and blue snappers and even swordfish. Once it is all sorted out they will leave to sell their catch to the restaurants on the cliff.
This is what makes Varkala such a great place to taste seafood. Almost all restaurants serve fresh fish and they make use of local herbs and spices. Do try a Keralan fish curry or a grilled swordfish.
Varkala is a great place to learn more about ayurveda, a traditional medicine system with a long history in India. The practice of ayurveda is more than 5000 years old and is getting more popular among tourists as well.
Varkala has a huge variety of ayurveda activities from ayurvedic massages to treatments, workshops and courses. Most of it caters to foreign tourists though. For example, to become an ayurvedic doctor in India you need to study for at least 6 – 8 years.
Another popular thing to do in Varkala is yoga. Again there is a variety of activities. From yoga retreats to walk in classes and proffesional courses. There are more than 30 centers to choose from, so whatever you are looking for, you will likely find something to your liking in Varkala.
Things to do near Varkala
Kappil beach trail
Like I said before. The true beauty of Varkala lies beyond the touristic and crowded main beach. A great way to spend the day, if it’s not too hot, is to hike all the way along the coast to Black beach, Odayam beach and Kappil beach. Hiking this 7 kilometer trail was one of my favourite things to do in Varkala.
The Kappil beach trail is easy to find and runs along the coast for most of the way. It gets more quiet the further north you get with the beach on one side and palm trees dispersed with coconut grooves on the other side. At the end you will have the Kappil beach with the Kappil backwaters.
From Kappil you can either hike back the same route or go to the road and take a tuk tuk back to Varkala.
Odayam beach is a world away from the hustle and bustle of Varkala cliff. Here you will find kilometers of quiet palmfringed sandy beaches. The perfect place to escape the crowds.
There are several resorts here and though they are not as cheap as the accomodation on the cliff, the location certainly makes the higher prices worth it. If these resorts are out of your budget or you want to have all the facilities near you, the cliff is still within walking distance.
From Odayam beach you can go further to Kappil beach where you can find the Kappil backwaters. Most people explore the backwaters in Kerala from Alleppey, but Kapil is equally beautiful and much more quiet.
The Kappil backwaters are relatively small and you will not find the traditional house boat experiences here. Yet, it is one of the few places in Kerala where you can walk on the beach and the palm fringed shore of the backwaters at the same time. The canoe tours only take a few hours, but those are hours well spent if you love solitude.
From the cliff its a 7 kilometer hike along the coast to Kappil beach. The trail is quite scenic, but if you are not up to walking, you can also organise Kappil backwater tours in Varkala itself.
Ponnumthuruttu island & Anjengo lake
The Kappil backwaters are not the only ones in the area. More backwater sceneries are waiting for you at the Anjengo lake south of Varkala. Anjengo is now known as Anchuthengu that translates as five coconut palms. The old colonial town of Anjengo is indeed surrounded by coconut groves and has an old fort too.
The Anjengo backwaters are linked with the Anjengo lake. The highlight here is the uninhabited island of Ponnumthuruttu with its 100 year old Shiva temple and coconut groves. The only time it gets busy here is during the annual Shiva ratri festival in February when locals come to visit the temple.
For more beautiful islands and lesser known backwaters I can also recommend Munroe island.
South of Varkala, near Anjengo lake you can also find the ruins of Anjengo fort. This fort was build by the British East Indian company in 1696 and it was attacked by foreign powers several times. It also played an important role when the british fought against the kingdom of Mysore in the 18th century.
Anjengo fort lies in the old colonial town that is now known as Anchuthengu or five coconut palms and there are indeed lots of coconut grooves in the area. You will see some Portugese style architecture as well, including a church.
It’s not as well preserved as Fort Kochi, but it makes a nice day trip. The location just at the beach and close to Anjengo lake is its main attraction.
Renting a scooter
One of the top things to do in Varka is renting a scooter. It’s the best way to escape the crowds and explore the small fishing villages in the area. The colourful temples, the great local food and the stunning views on the ocean make it a delight to drive around.
Either head south towards Anjengo Fort and Anjengo lake or head up north towards the Kappil backwaters.
There are so many temples near Varkala and each of them celebrates their own festival to show off their wealth. Often this includes traditional music, dance and fireworks.
The biggest trophies are the elephants. Each temple tries to hire as much elephants as possible to take them on a procession through the village. People told me it would cost 200 euro per day per elephant and to prevent them from going wild there is a special elephant police squad.
My hostel informed me about a festival in Edava. I went there by tuk tuk in the afternoon to see the procession. Everyone was waiting outside with their offerings of flowers and bananas for the elephants who were welcomed like gods in this small town.
Varkala travel tips
Where to sleep in Varkala
Varkala cliff is full of hotels and guesthouses ranging from cheap and simple beach huts overlooking the ocean to guest homes and luxurious ayurvedic resorts.
At black beach and Odayam beach are some more up market resorts that are perfect if you are looking for a more quiet and peaceful place to stay.
I stayed in Bamboo village. A good budget option on the north side of the cliff close to black beach.
Where to eat in Varkala
Varkala is a great place to try sea food. Fish plays a great role in Indian food and you can’t go wrong with a fish curry. The cliff is full of great cafes, vegetarian restaurants and places serving traditional Keralan food. Some of my favourites were the Darjeeling cafe and Gods own country kitchen.
How to get to Varkala
From Trivandrum there are frequent buses and trains taking less than one hour to Varkala. The train station is about 4 kilometers from the cliff area where most hotels and restaurants are.
Convenient trains from Trivandrum are the 09:45 AM Netravati express, the 11:15 AM Kerala express or the 11:45 AM Ananthapuri express. From Fort Kochi it takes about 4 hours. Convenient trains from Cochin are the 10:00 AM Kerala express, the 13:30 PM Sabari express or the 14:40 Netravati express
You can make reservations in advance, but all of these trains have an unreserved class as well. Tickets can be booked online directly through the Indian railways (IRCTC). Unfortunately this is not always a straightforward process. For a small extra fee you can use 12goAsia or Makemytrip.
When to visit Varkala
The best time to visit Varkala is between October and March. In October temperatures cool down and you might have a chance to join the festivities for Dussehra and Diwali. India’s biggest festivals.
Temperatures remain pleasant till March. In April and May it becomes extremely hot. In June it is the start of the monsoon that lasts till September and will see lots of rainfall. Floods are not uncommon in Kerala during this period.
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