Welcome to Karnataka. Why go?
Conveniently located in-between tourist favourite Kerala, and backpacker heaven Goa, Karnataka is a huge state that is very difficult to summarise. Taking an overnight train from the rice paddies and ancient dusty ruins of Hampi where farmers ride ox carts and women still wash clothes in the stream, to the glitzy restaurants and bars of Bangalore, one of the world’s foremost technological cities, you will feel as if you have travelled to a different country, rather than still being in the same state. Not only that, but somehow the train journey has flung you forward in time about 100 years! As the slogan of the Karnataka Tourism Board goes ‘One state. Many worlds’. They’re right!
As well as miles and miles of rice fields, dusty villages and pot-holed roads, Karnataka is home to XX miles of unspoilt coast line, beautiful golden sandy beaches and coves, which you’ll discover are much less crowded than those of Goa. The popular beach village of Gokarna in the north is the most frequented place on the coast with its cheap huts and famous ‘Om’ beach. In the south you’ll find the lush cool highlands of the Kodagu (Coorg) region in the Western Ghats where you can go trekking, birdwatching and sip freshly-grown highland coffee. And finally, don’t forget the glittering city of Mysore, famous for its UNESCO World Heritage Palace and many beautiful buildings and monuments, as well as being the home of Ashtanga Yoga.
Where to go in Karnataka?
(North to south)
Laid back Hampi, on the banks of the Tungabhadra River, is a favourite amongst backpackers to India. With its emerald green rice fields, strange hills of boulders balancing impossibly on top of one another, and ancient ruins scattered here, there and everywhere, the surreal scene looks almost artificial, like the kind of jurassic magical landscape created at a children's theme park. You half expect a triceratops to wander out from behind a boulder or a pterodactyl to fly overhead. Well, you won't find any dinosaurs, but you will find lots of buffalos, pigs, cows, golden eagles, storks and the ubiquitous Indian kingfisher of course.
The UNESCO World Heritage ruins are the main draw to Hampi. Dating back as early as the 14th century, most of the ruins are the remains of the city of Vijayanagara, the former capital of the mighty Vijayanagara Empire, which at it's time was the second biggest city in the world after Beijing. However, some of the ruins date back two thousand years. Take a few days to stroll amidst the temples, statues, and buildings, guessing the history of each old ruin, stopping to watch monkeys frolicking amidst the pillars and finding every bit of shade you can in Karnataka's unforgiving heat. (October to February is the best time to visit. By March things are getting really hot!)
Not to be missed is the beautiful and intricate stone chariot, located within the Vitalla Temple grounds, which was never actually built to be a functioning chariot, but a shrine to house an icon of the mythical bird, the garuda. Also, within the same temple, don't miss the musical pillars, 56 pillars (of which now there are only nine which are functioning) which make a musical note when you hit them sounding like a bell.
If you're into rock climbing, Hampi is your paradise! There are many rock climbing bouldering routes up those enormous rocks that offer incredible views of the surrounding countryside. If you're new to climbing and are interested in taking lessons, check out Thimma Climb who offer group lessons of 1-6 people in the morning 6.30am - 8.30am and 4.30pm - 6.30pm, which include climbing shoes, chalk and crash pad. If you're a serious climber, you may be interested to head to Badami, four hours from Hampi, which is the best sandstone spot for climbing in India. Thimma Climb offer a three day, two night trip which costs 5,000 rupees including room and all climbing gear.
For those of you who are more interested in exploring by foot or on two wheels, there are many places to explore. You can hire a motorbike for around 200 rupees a day and explore the numerous ruins scattered around the area, but beware that the roads are very bumpy and pot-holed and as in many places in India - larger vehicles rule the road! Climb up the steps to the Hanuman Temple (dedicated to the monkey warrior God) for amazing views of the surrounding countryside. Visit the serene Sanapur Lake surrounded by boulders on all sides, (though don't swim in the lake as there are believed to be crocodiles lurking in the depths!). Explore the old streets of the small town of Anegundi with its ancient temples and ruins dotted amidst the houses and 'hotels' (restaurants). In Anegundi, you'll come across the Kishkinda Trust, an NGO that is helping to develop sustainable tourism in Anegundi, working with local people in crafts, rural tourism, organic farming and other local skills that can help to preserve the heritage of the area, whilst providing the local people with an income.
Where we stayed in Hampi?
We were kindly offered three nights at Vijayshree Resort & Heritage Village in Hospet which is a beautiful five star resort with extensive grounds, a large swimming pool, fitness, games and spa rooms, as well as an unusual Rajasthani themed heritage village! The grounds of the resort are more like a pristinely kept botanical gardens with over 80,000 trees planted and many different kinds of bird life. We were looked after extremely well at the resort by the manager and all of the friendly staff (even given advice on seeing a doctor as well as being given a picnic for our overnight train!). It was very nice to take a break from the backpacker hostel scene for a while and indulge in some luxury - it was my first hot shower in two months!
From the resort, the ruins of Hampi are only 6km away and it's easy to arrange a rickshaw to take you there and back for the day. If you prefer to just relax and make the most of your surroundings, you can go one step further and indulge in an Ayurvedic massage during your stay. From Ayurvedic consultations to health massages or a unique shirodhara treatment, the hotel has it all. Find out more information on their website here.
On the other side of the river from Hampi bizarre, amidst clouds of marijuana smoke, you'll find many backpacker friendly guesthouses with cheap rooms and cheapish beer, that show nightly films to the stoned backpackers. Our pick would be The Goan Corner which is a little away from the main strip set amidst lovely rice fields. Dorm beds are 250 rupees or private rooms are 1,000 rupees for cold shower and 1,200 for hot shower. There's a social atmosphere and fun, friendly staff. many people who stay here head off bouldering during the day.
If you're looking for a more authentic stay, there are a few guesthouses in Anegundi village itself, starting from 500 rupees / room.
For those hippies for whom Goa is just too well-known and too commercialised, Gokharna is the most popular bohemian beach hub in south India. In the north of Karnataka, just an hour from the Goan border, originally the town is famous for being one of the seven important Hindu pilgrimage sites in India. Devotees come here to worship Lord Shiva, as the temple here is believed to house the original image of Lord Shiva's lingam!
Today, the town and nearby beaches contain a mix of religious pilgrims and western travellers who come to enjoy the laid-back vibe and unspoilt beaches. There are many cheap bamboo beach huts lining the beach, and guesthouses and restaurants are springing up all over the place to cater to the influx of tourists, and some pricier resorts too! The popular backpacker Zostel has set up a base here in Gokarna and offer dorm rooms from 599 rupees. Although perfect for solo travellers who want to socialise, if you're in a couple, you may like to get a cheaper beach hut which you can get for around the same price as a dorm bed.
The town of Gokarna really comes alive during festivals such as Shivaratri (a Hindu Festival dedicated to Lord Shiva at the end of February) and Ganesh Chaturthi (A festival in August in honour of Lord Ganesh). Don't miss the bizarrely shaped Om Beach for which hippie types go wild for! Other beaches which can be more deserted as they are lesser known include Kudle Beach, the quieter Half Moon Beach and the beautiful Paradise Beach.
Jog Falls is India's highest plunge waterfall, which is best visited during the rainy season, at the end of August, though the area itself is great for trekking and will be appreciated by nature lovers at all times of year. (Visitors who travel during the dry season may be disappointed by the trickle though, as you can see from the Trip Advisor reviews which vary depending on the time of year that the falls were visited!)
The nearest railway station is Shimoga, although that's still 104 kilometres from the falls. From here, you can take a direct bus to the falls, of which there are several running each day. If you prefer to travel by bus all the way, there are direct AC luxury buses with KSRTC (Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation) from Bangalore. You'll find hotels and guesthouses in the nearby towns of Shimoga and Sagara.
When we travelled on the overnight train from Hospet to Karnataka's state capital, Bangalore, we felt like we had woken up in a completely different world. International restaurants, shopping malls, good (clean!) hotels, tree-lined boulevards, trendy bars (even traffic lights!), Bangalore is one of India's most progressive cities, the third most populous (after Delhi and Mumbai) and one of the most important cities for IT in India, if not the world. The city is home to over 8.5 million people.
Located at an altitude of 900 metres, the climate of Bangalore is more forgiving than many parts of South India, with cool, sunny days and even cooler nights. The city is also blessed with many parks and green areas and trees in the city provide welcome shade for its sophisticated inhabitants. Head to Cubbon Park, the 'lung' of Bangalore, which covers an enormous area of around 100 acres right in the heart of the city. The park has roads running through it which are closed every day from 5am to 8am and completely closed on Sundays to allow for fresh air for the general public who wish to exercise and enjoy the nature of the park. Close by, you'll find several city sights worth visiting; Bangalore Palace, an impressive palace believed to have been inspired by Windsor Castle, Bangalore Fort, dating back to 1537, and Tipu Sultan's Palace, the summer residence of the Mysorean ruler, Tipu Sultan. If you're looking for more greenery, head to Lal Bagh Botanical Gardens.
As well as the 'Garden City' and 'the Silicon City', Bangalore has been nicknamed 'Beergalore' (just by me) as the city is famous for its variety of pubs, bars and clubs and enthusiasm for having a well lubricated knees up. You'll even find trendy micro-breweries serving craft beer, which can be a refreshing change for travellers who have been suffering near prohibition in the nearby states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
Where we stayed in Bangalore?
We stayed in the suburb of Koramangala, which is an easy going place to be based a little away from the centre, with plenty bars, restaurants, shops and a large shopping mall, The Forum. Here, you'll find the hostel Snoozotel, a friendly backpacker hostel with dorm beds starting at 6oo rupees.
If you're looking for a little more comfort, the Clover Suites are a good option where you can feel like you've got your own city studio apartment complete with a mini kitchen, fridge, hot shower and great wifi. The rooms start at 1,300.
If you want to meet other travellers and stay in a more central location, the hostel Social Rehab is a good choice for a fun social place for budget backpackers. The hostels have two location, the first one and longest running, located in Indira Nagar being the most popular at the moment, with beds starting at 800 rupees / night. The second hostel, Social Rehab Downtown is located 300 metres from Chinnaswamy Stadium, the world's first solar powered cricket grounds!
If Bangalore is the 'Garden City', Mysore is the 'Royal City' or 'Palace City', the most famous of the palaces being Mysore Palace, also known as 'Amba Vilas Palace', which attracts more than six million visitors annually. The palace was the residence of the Wodeyar Maharaja's who ruled over the Mysore state from 1399 to 1950.
Famous amongst yogis all over the world as the home of Sri Pattabhi Jois and his Mysore style Ashtanga Yoga, the city attracts thousand of students every year to practise the vigorous Ashtanga sequence in the land of its birth. This type of yoga is not for the faint-hearted or undisciplined. It’s hardcore and some say, competetive! Ashtanga yoga is a set series of the same movements that you practise every day until you can do each one perfectly. Only then can you move onto the next series. You can visit Pattabhi Jois’s ashram in Mysore, and as the founder is no longer alive, you can take classes with his grandson, R Sharath Jois. There are also many other schools in Mysore that practise Ashtanga yoga and you can take courses, including the Yoga Teacher Training Course.
In the south west of Karnataka, you'll find the misty hills of the Kodagu Region or 'Coorg State', part of the Western Ghats, which run all the way from Kerala in the south to Maharashtra in the north. Kodagu is popular amongst nature lovers with many beautiful trekking routes, dramatic mountain views, waterfalls and the opportunity to spot wild elephant, wild boar, deer, bison and if you're lucky a black panther or even a tiger! The region is also famous for growing some of the world's finest coffee, such as Arabicas and Robustas, grown in the shades of giant fig and jack fruit trees, which has brought wealth to the area. As well as coffee, the region has many spice farms which grow pepper, cardamom, cloves and other spices which are exported all over the world.