I ended up in Goa accidentally, after Delhi traffic caused me to miss my bargain flight down to Kochi where I expected to explore the far-Southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Goa wasn’t really on my list and, to be frank, I thought I’d hate it. Although I’d always been fascinated by the late 60s and the European travellers who travelled barefoot along the Hippie Trail, often ending up on the beaches of Goa, I’d heard that little of that lifestyle still existed today. Instead I had heard of all-night trance raves, package beach resorts and little authentic Indian culture. If you want those things, they do exist. But none of those are quite my scene, so I decided Goa was best off avoided. But as usual, the unpredictability of India had other ideas, and the man at the Indigo airlines desk informed me that the only way to get to the South (and warmer weather) that December day was to fly direct to Goa. It cost £40 and I took it. A few hours later, I arrived in India’s smallest and most touristy state, followed some backpackers south to Anjuna, and collapsed in a dorm bed to distant sounds of continuous techno music.
For the next few weeks I explored the North and South of Goa and fell hard for this little sunshine state. It was my first glimpse of the South of India, and I found a completely different energy to the North. In Goa, life slowed down; people smiled continuously, and I saw how the emerald waters and pink sky sunsets suck so many foreigners in and fail to spit them out. I found fishing villages, backwaters, fort ruins and golden beaches. More than anything, Goa was a place to reenergise, and to understand a different side of India to the one I had known in the deserts of Rajasthan or the mountains of the Himalayas.
If you want to find hippies and tie-dye in Goa, Arambol is probably the first place you should go. Backed by rocky cliffs, the long sweeping beach is one of North Goa’s best. Behind the beach, you’ll find hundreds of wooden huts, organic restaurants, shops selling Nepali clothing and a couple of hidden gems in there too.
A must see (and swim) spot is Sweet Water Lake, hidden behind Paliem beach. Just a short walk from the main Arambol Beach, the fresh water lake is a perfect secluded swimming spot. The water is still and clean and there are a few sun-beds placed around under the palm trees. This must be one of Goa’s best-kept secrets!
Lunch couldn’t be done better than at Shantaram Raw Vegan restaurant. They make the most perfect salad bowls; covered in hummus, sun-dried tomatoes and washed down with one of their home-made fresh juices.
Famous for it’s weekly flea market, Anjuna is in central North Goa and a great place to base yourself while exploring both sides. The beach is unfortunately one of Goa’s worst, but accommodation is cheap and there’s great local and international food around. On Wednesday, the Anjuna Flea Market takes place just outside of town. Here, you’ll be able to buy handicrafts from Goa, Kartataka and all around India. There’s also heaps of second hand clothing, and a few stalls of local Goan and international designers selling handmade jewelry, clothing and homeware. Arrive early in the morning to beat the crowds and take breakfast at one of the small tents set up serving food and drinks.
Make sure you try Bean Me Up, a very hippie option on the outskirts of town. Set in a beautiful garden, it serves fresh and delicious vegan food. In the centre of town, there are some great small Indian places serving Uttapam and Dosa at very reasonable prices.
A short drive from Anjuna is Baga Beach, also often referred to as Russian beach. The main stretch of sand is full of resorts and tourist restaurants, however at the North end of the beach there is a wonderful fishing market, and at sunrise you can watch fishermen bring in their morning catch under the ray of the golden Goa sun. The area around is also very nice to drive through, with rice paddies, backwaters, roadside churches and villages. I headed back here several times at sunrise and found some of the friendliest people in Goa.
Panjim is the capital of the state of Goa, a small and walkable city with old Portuguese flair and a distinctly Goan twist. There’s enough to see here to warrant spending at least one night in the city. Head to the Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church – Goa’s most iconic building, best seen at sunset when the light hits the front. The old Portuguese district, around January 31st Rd is the prettiest area to explore by foot, but it’s also worth heading into the city centre and the harbour side to taste authentic Goan food and street-side snacks.
The bus station where you can catch connections to locations in both North and South Goa, as well as to Old Goa, Hampi, Mumbai, Pune and more is located 10-15 minutes walk across the river from the main city and cluster of tourist accommodations.
From Panjim, catch an early morning bus to Old Goa, a place which was once considered the ‘Rome of the East’. It’s easy to see why, for this area is European in everything other than the sweltering humid weather and occasional cluster of palm trees. The area is home to many elaborate and well preserved Churches and Cathedrals in Portuguese style. The Church of St Francis of Assisi is a highlight.
I headed to South Goa, following the rumour of Agonda beach upon hearing it was the perfect place to chill out and forget the world for a few days. As soon as I arrived I knew it would become my favourite place in Goa. Agonda is a long, clean and relatively empty stretch of sand backed by a local village, a stretch of bungalow and homestay style accommodation and a mix of Indian and international eateries. For me, Agonda was the perfect mix of Indian culture and international convenience. You can still get a Thali for 50 rupees, stay with a local family and visit the local church. You can also enjoy flea markets, free yoga classes on the sand and organic food while you scrunch your toes in the sand. It’s a little slice of heaven, so much so that I stayed for a couple of weeks over the Christmas period. I really liked eating at the Tibetan run German Bakery where they had excellent breakfast feasts, Yak Cheese sandwiches and very friendly staff. You can get the best South Indian food at super cheap prices from The Thaali and Dosa House by the church at the centre of the strip. The Thalis are excellent (if not a little spicy!).
Agonda is a convenient place to base yourself to explore the surrounding South Goa area. From here, I hired a motorbike and headed to Palolem, Patnem, Cola Beach and the beautiful surrounding backwater areas.
Just south of Agonda, Palolem is South Goa’s busiest and arguably most swimmable beach. The perfect crescent moon bay is backed by rainbow bungalows on stilts and there’s just about everything you could need here; restaurants, shopping, silent discos and much more. While it’s much busier than neighbouring Agonda and Patnem beaches, it still hasn’t given in to being a complete resort haven unlike a few spots in North Goa.
Just South of Palolem is Pantem Beach, an quieter area than Agonda but still with some helpful conveniences and great places to eat. I didn’t find the beach as nice as Agonda’s, but the area is definitely beautiful and it’s another easy spot from which to get around the region.
Cabo de Rama and Cola Beach
Wild and raw, Cola Beach is one of the most difficult places to get to in the whole of Goa. For that reason, this little slice of paradise just North of Agonda is almost empty. There are two eco-type resorts behind the palms, but the beaches along this stretch are ragged and wild. The water is rougher than at nearby Palolem or Agonda, but it’s a paradise for those who like their beaches empty and forgotten.
Drive North and you’ll reach the craggy cliffs and the old Cabo de Rama fort perched on the hillside. The fort, while in bad condition, has wonderful views of the surrounding ocean line. It’s a huge area so give yourself a few hours to wander around and grab a nearby Thali.
There is little accommodation in this area, particularly if you are on a budget. I recommend staying in nearby Agonda or Palolem and heading to Cabo de Rama and Cola Beach by motorbike.
Further afield: Gokarna
Just South of Goa is the seaside town of Gokarna. A colourful town with long sweeping coast line which has become a pilgrimage spot for both Hindus and western hippies alike. Om Beach is the centre of the hippie action and is slowly becoming like another Tel Aviv. The town centre is well worth a visit though. Painted various shades of bright orange, red and green, it’s somewhat a mini-Varanasi in the South.
Getting There: The main entry point to Goa is Dabolim Airport. From here there are taxis available to all around Goa, or you can take a taxi to Panjim station and take a bus from there. There are also train services into Goa from around India, although the train stations tend to be a little inland from the coastal towns and resorts.
Getting Around: I travelled around the state by bus and motorbike. By locating yourself in a beach town of your choice, it is easy and cheap to rent a scooter for a few days and drive up and down the coast line, checking out other beaches and villages on the way. It is highly advised not to drive in Panjim or around unless you have an international motorbike license. I travelled longer distances across the state by bus, which are cheap and convenient.
Where to Stay: Accommodation in Goa tends to be a little more pricey than elsewhere in India, particularly if you book online ahead of arrival. Dorms in international style hostels are particularly overpriced. I found it best to search by foot when arriving in town and trying to find small, local run guesthouses and home-stays. I payed between 300 rupees and 800 rupees for a room during my time in Goa during peak season (Christmas).
Getting Out: From Goa, most people head South to Gokarna, Hampi or Kochi, or North to Mumbai. For buses and trains, you are best going to Panjim and moving from there.