Apr 18th-26th, 2017
Gokarna is not far from the border separating Karnataka and Goa, and we would only have to take a short train ride in order to reach our first destination in Goa.
As luck would have it, our train showed up an hour and a half late (and super packed) and delayed our whole day. I had been in contact with Jay, the manager at Rococo Pelton (our beach front accommodation), and he offered to have someone pick us up from the Canacona train station, the one closest to Palolem Beach.
We were greeted by Jay once we arrived and were led to our beach shack, a simple wooden room with a private bathroom and small balcony.
We were a 15-second walk to the beach, so we sat down at Rococo’s Restaurant and got our first view of this beautiful beach.
Palolem is described as Goa’s most idyllic beach and it’s easy to see why: fine golden sand fringed with perfect palm trees and multicoloured beach bungalows up on stilts interspersed between the palm trees. Not to mention the innumerable cafes, bars, and restaurants that also respectfully line this beach catering to all desires and budgets.
We spent our first day just lounging on the sun chairs, eating snacks and having cheap beers. Goa has the lowest taxes on alcohol in all of India, so the beers are gloriously cheap by Indian standards.
We finished our day by walking down to the northern end of the beach and taking a swim in the shallow waters separating Palolem from the Green Island.
Palolem, despite its absolutely stunning appearance and cheap prices, seemed to attract far more western tourists than Indians. The tourists were also overwhelmingly British. Not that that’s a bad thing. Palolem doesn’t have a party scene to speak of so that may be why there aren’t many Indians, who prefer to party it up in northern Goa. That didn’t bother us in the slightest. Who could say no to this?
We did pretty much nothing but lounge for our first two days, which was well needed, and on the third day decided to rent a scooter and check out Agonda Beach, regularly touted as one of India’s most beautiful beaches.
The ride over was really enjoyable and distinctly Goan: green hills, palm trees and only a handful of people.
We pulled up into the village of Agonda and were surprised by all the backpackers. It looked like we had missed the mark for a second time in a row. However, once we made our way to the beach itself, we were glad we were staying at Palolem.
While still wide golden sand and 2km long, Agonda was dirtier, offered no shade, and had far fewer accommodation and restaurant options. It seemed more like a ghost beach and perhaps that’s what draws the backpackers here, but we didn’t really see the appeal. Not only that, but it is also a nesting beach for turtles meaning that you have to be quiet on the beach starting at 8:30pm or something like that.
Having seen Agonda, we had a quick bite and made our way back to Palolem and resumed our typical sun bed chillage routine.
Since Palolem was literally closing down the following week, many places were already closed due to the low tourist numbers and an impending monsoon season so we had some really amazing deals. After our first night in the little shack, Jay had allowed us to stay in a stilt hut over the beach on our second night for a meagre dollar or two more.
Unfortunately, that room was booked the night after and Jay made us an interesting offer to stay in an aircon room right on the beach for the same price as the stilt house. We jumped at the offer. It wasn’t physically possible to be any closer to the water.
We had originally planned on staying in Palolem for two nights but ended up staying five because we loved it so much. Our constant travel pace and sickness in Mysore made this the best remedy money could buy.
The only excitement we encountered was an injured and bloody cow on the beach who we informed the lifeguard staff about, and then checked on everyday thereafter.
In the evenings, Rococo put tables out onto the beach, lit candles and although repetitive after 5 days, played some pretty good tunes competing with the restaurant next door. Not to mention, their restaurant staff were second to none and always had smiles on their faces and were really nice guys.
There was a noise ban in Palolem after 10:30pm, so you could be assured of having a good, un-interrupted night’s sleep.
After 5 days and nights in paradise, we decided that we would make a move north and visit Goa’s capital city, Panaji.
The Portuguese had arrived to Goa in 1510, wanting to control the spice route. They remained there until they were forcefully removed by the Indian army in 1961. Their presence has influenced the language, religion, architecture, cuisine and leaves Goa feeling almost Mediterranean. It is a pleasant change from the typical dusty, hot and arid feel from much of southern India.
From Canacona, we caught a local bus to Margao. From there we caught another local bus that took us the remainder of the way to Panaji. These little buses felt very unique as well: they were much smaller than normal Indian buses and played Latin-influenced music rather than shrill Hindi standards. They were quite enjoyable to be honest if not taking into consideration the heat, the crowding, and the filth.
We arrived in Panaji and took a tuk tuk to our accommodation, the quaint A Pousada Guest House (http://apousadaguesthousegoa.com). We signed in and decided to check out Old Goa that evening by local bus.
Old Goa is 9km east of Panaji and is the original Portuguese capital established upon their arrival to the area.
Today, it is a Unesco World Heritage Site and quite popular with Indian tourists and Christian pilgrims. The site itself is relatively small but is jam-packed with churches and cathedrals.
The first site we visited was the Se Cathedral, the largest church in old Goa. Its construction began in 1562, but was only fully finished in 1652. Unfortunately we were not allowed to go into it because there was a private service going on.
We walked across the street and visited the famous Basilica of Bom Jesus. This basilica is pretty cool on the outside and has a really medieval look to it.
We were lucky that we got to see the interior before it was shut down to tourists because of a wedding which was about to take place inside.
Our next stop was the Convent and Church of St. Francis of Assisi. While mostly empty, this church had incredibly impressive paintings on its walls and was probably the nicest, in my opinion.
These three are the heavy hitters on the tourist map, but since Tracy and I never settle for just the basics, we went further afield and visited the Church of St. Cajetan.
It is said to be modelled after St. Peter’s in Rome and construction began in 1655.
We thought it was quite beautiful and there was nobody in it, due to its more remote location, which enhanced its appeal.
Having been nearly churched-out, our final stop in Old Goa was the Church of St. Augustine. It was built in 1602 and now lays in ruins. I love forts and ruins, and this church was my favourite of the day.
It had an enormous 46m tower and was really quite picturesque. The grounds felt much more like a fortress than a church in my opinion.
We walked back down the hill we climbed up and managed to catch a local bus back to Panaji.
That evening we had a wonderful Goan meal at Viva Panjim.
Goan cuisine is unique in that they use different flavours and ingredients (like pork!) and the food is a nice change from the typical masala flavour we’d been having every day. I opted for fish, which was truly unique, but Tracy still stuck to vegetarian.
The following morning we decided to check out old Panaji before resuming our journey towards northern Goa.
Panaji, or Panjim as it was known under the Portuguese, became the capital of Goa in 1843 when Old Goa was abandoned for a reason unbeknownst to us.
It is a picturesque little state capital and we both agreed that it is the only liveable capital, should we ever have to live in India, for Tracy and I thus far.
We walked a little farther and had to climb up a hill and were face to face with the pink-coloured Maruti Temple. This was a beautiful temple that was unlike anything else we had seen in India and it also provided nice views over the rest of Panaji.
We continued to walk uphill and saw the unimpressive Bishop’s Palace, which looked more like a regular building, as well as the chief minister’s residence.
Thankfully, once we saw these two buildings, the walk was downhill and we passed the swanky Portuguese consulate and ended at Panaji’s signature church, the Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception.
This church was established in 1541 and was the first port of call for Portuguese sailors sailing from Lisbon.
It was standing on a small hill and was a nice way to end our little walking tour of Panaji.
Tracy and I had deliberated for quite some time, did tireless research and questioned everyone we met regarding which beach we should stay at in North Goa. Some said Calangute, some said Baga, and some said beaches further north like Anjuna, Vagator, or Arambol.
There are at least 10 beaches in northern Goa and each one has its pros and cons. The deal breaker was talking to the lovely couple at our guest house in Panaji, who said that Calangute and Baga were way too crowded and popular with Indians and that we would be best off in either Anjuna or Vagator further north.
Since we wanted to be in Anjuna for their famed Wednesday flea market anyways, I took the executive decision that we should stay there.
From Panaji, we walked to the bus terminal (our second home at this point) and took a small local bus to Mapusa, the biggest town in Northern Goa. From there, we caught an even smaller local bus to Anjuna town.
The distances were ridiculously small, but it still took us over 2 hours to go a meagre 13 kilometres.
The small bus dropped us off and we started to walk along the beach. We approached two western guys who recommended a guesthouse with air con only a stone’s throw away from the beach.
We walked along the beach for what seemed like forever with our heavy packs and Tracy checked out a place that had a team of creepy Indian men working there and a larger team of cockroaches inhabiting the room.
We decided to leave our big bags with a woman at a shop and continued our search, finally finding the place the guys had spoken of.
The manager was the biggest dick-bag I have ever met and he refused to give us the rate the other travellers had quoted. We argued for a bit until a Spanish woman who was staying there vouched for us and gave us our desired rate.
The guy begrudgingly brought us to the third floor and gave us a room which looked like it was a recently converted kitchen: it was completely tiled and still had an industrial sink in the middle of the room. We knew for a fact that the hotel was empty, but he probably just wanted us to suffer a bit because we got our way. On the bright side the bed was pretty comfortable.
We left our kitchen/room and made our way to the beach. While nice overall, we were already missing Palolem. The beach itself was dirtier, smaller, and the waves were ridiculously ferocious.
We spent the rest of the day just chilling at the much better Sunset Guesthouse and watched as the waves bowled people over.
One advantage to Anjuna is that there is somewhat of a nightlife and many establishments there play good music and have shisha. We were too tired to go out our first night but vowed to at least smoke shisha on one of our nights.
The next day we rented a motorbike and decided to explore some of Northern Goa’s other beaches. Our first stop was Calangute. While Calangute was the first beach to attract hippies back in the 60s, it has definitely lost its serene and untouched appeal. This beach was wall to wall beach shack restaurants and was inhabited by literally thousand of Indians who were littering left and right.
As soon as we arrived, we were really happy we weren’t staying there. It was primarily huge groups of Indian men who were either already drunk, or high on something, and there was no solo beach space to be had. The waves were also crazier here than in Anjuna and there were countless touts giving speed boat rides and jet ski rides to terrified Indians who definitely don’t know how to swim.
We left as quickly as we had arrived and made our way further up the coast to Baga Beach. This beach is supposed to be more upmarket than Calangute, but it is a physical extension of it and nearly identical.
It seemed to have nicer restaurants and bars and more respectable beachgoers but ultimately wasn’t our cup of tea either. We had a quick bite here and decided to continue heading north.
The highlight so far was just driving around the small roads and enjoying the countryside.
After taking a few wrong turns, we finally found a sign that said Vagator Beach. It led us to a parking lot and to a beautiful viewpoint of the surrounding beaches.
To our right we could see Vagator’s beach and were surprised by how empty it was, both of people and of beach shacks.
To our left looked like a nice place to grab a beer and relax. Since we were up on a hill, we would have to somehow make our way down to the beaches themselves.
On our way, there was a nice little roadside bar where we chilled for an hour or so and chatted with some other travellers from Australia. Tracy enjoyed a Breezer or two (or three!) and soon we were on our way.
We had to climb down the cliffs to reach the beaches themselves but it was well worth it. Although somewhat rocky at various points, they were really wild and picturesque, kind of like Varkala in Kerala.
I asked around but no one knew what the beach we were on was actually called. I believe we were on either Little Vagator, aka Tel Aviv Beach due to all the Israelis that congregate there, or Ozran Beach, aka Spaghetti Beach due to all the Italians who vacation there. Regardless of the names, they were both really beautiful and peaceful and would have made equally great substitutes for Anjuna.
The following day was the day we had been waiting for, the day we revolved our entire Goa experience around thus far: Wednesday, or Flea Market Day in Anjuna, which is famous all throughout Goa.
Both western hippies and locals come to Anjuna to sell various trinkets or homemade crafts here every Wednesday in high season.
Tracy really enjoyed it and bought a few anklets but I didn’t find it that different to other markets we had visited in the past (although she assures me it was very, very different!). The only major difference I found there to be was that old white hippies were selling their stuff at inflated prices.
Alas, our time in the wonderful state of Goa had come to an end and we needed to keep moving north to the mega metropolis of Mumbai.
Goa was everything we hoped it would be and while visiting some slightly less-than-stellar beaches, we were still impressed with what the region had to offer.
If you visit, don’t be afraid of the hot temperatures found after March. The prices are far less and the value much greater.
Goa had everything: cheap beer, good food and an amazing, unique culture. Paradise does exist in India, it is called Palolem. Go there above all else, we promise you won’t regret it (and be sure to give the staff at Rococo Pelton our best)!