Var…what?, When we first came to these parts of Kerala, I was wondering what could be so special about a tiny little, nondescript place called ‘Varkala.’ But sometimes, unattractive looking old boxes kept in the attic need to be dusted off to find the real treasure within.
And so was the case with this town, pretty much off the beaten track. Situated in the Trivandrum district and located 55 kilometers from the main city, this place is not really highlighted in that ubiquitous travel guide tourists tend to carry around. But I am sure it will soon find its place, considering the growing number of curious travelers who decide to stop by and then end up planning their next vacation here.
Situated off the main highway, this beautiful little town holds as much of the flavor of Kerala as the other popular places. Varkala basks in the glory of a 2000- year-old Sree Janardhanaswami Temple, a virgin beach and a beautiful cliff lined with a string of eateries and shacks offering a choice of world cuisines. The Papanasam (meaning ‘destruction of sins’) beach is a place where people come to offer rituals to the dead in order that the wandering spirit may attain peace.
High ‘Spirits’ on the Virgin Beach
There is a stark contrast in the two main beaches one finds here. While the Papanasam Beach with a natural spring believed to have medicinal powers, is a place where people make offerings for their dead to help liberate their souls or attain ‘moksha,’ the Kaapil Beach marks the confluence of a river, sea and backwater and offers picturesque sights to capture at different times of the day. I personally loved the latter because it isn’t too crowded and one would find mostly fisher folk with their hutments and boats lining the beach. No matter how many times I cruise along the road separating the sea and the strip of backwater, I am tempted to stop and soak in the sights. Having grown up in cities and metros most of my life, one finds here the peace and tranquility that the human soul craves for.
I mean where else would you find yourself standing under a canopy of palm trees staring at sparkling, calm waters lapping gently at your feet and then turn around to see the tumultuous waves crashing against the rocks along the shore on the other side. And all this under a clear blue sky forms the perfect setting for an artist to capture.
Occasionally, an odd water scooter training exercise is conducted on the backwaters but it thankfully isn’t a commercial activity; it would create such an imbalance to the perfect solitude found here. There is a tiny resort located here for anyone who wants to catch the different scenes and changing hues of the day. Kaapil Beach has also been used as a cinema setting for many popular Malayalam films.
More than tickle your taste buds…
For foodies like us, the Kerala cuisine is simply delicious with its unique and complex blend of spices. I feel that if vegetarian food can be made tasty, then you have truly mastered the art of cooking! And the cuisine here brings that concept to life with every bite. The festival of Onam, which is also the harvest festival, has 21 items served on a plantain leaf out of which there are at least 5-7 various vegetable preparations, each unique in its taste, with coconut being the common ingredient used in all. Varkala has a high amount of Muslim population which makes the non-vegetarian food here, to die for! The preparations of fish masala, fried fish and curry preparations of beef, chicken, mutton and fish along with the array of biriyanis can leave your mouth watering at the very thought! I have had the lightest and fluffiest Kerala Parathas here, which are the best accompaniment to all the Kerala spicy meat preparations; they come hot and simply melt in your mouth. Well, ‘a moment on the lips and a lifetime on the hips’ is common with this kind of food but then taking on from Shakespeare, I say it is better to taste it once than never taste it at all! After that, fighting off the temptation to go for seconds depends on your self control… if you do ever plan to exercise it on a holiday!
The cliff at Varkala offers some of the best sunrise and sunsets you can capture. There are tiny little eco-friendly wooden cottages and resorts nestled between the chain of shops selling clothes, jewelry and accessories. The menu varies from the fresh catch of seafood displayed outside the shacks done to your taste and choice of sauce, to regular a la carte that may comprise of almost a hundred dishes to choose from. The Juice Shack offers a simple breakfast and snack menu with very honest prices. Their combination of fruit and vegetable juices can wake you up after a hangover or simply energize you to face a long itinerary ahead. Café del Mar is another popular choice for some excellent Italian and local food. They have a unique way of serving beer since most of the restaurants serving liquor may not have the license to do so. But at the end of the day, a happy customer is a happy tourist who brings money into the till. So everyone gets a good share and all is well! The walk along the cliff takes you to many interesting spaces, some offering Ayurvedic massages, special oils, and even a library experience while you wait for your order or sip on a drink. The ‘Coffee Temple’ offers an interesting array of coffees from all over the world along with some of the restaurateur’s own unique combinations. There are a few Tibetan refugees settled here with their tiny shops and restaurants serving momos and Tibetan food.
The walk that seems to lead you to the end of the cliff gradually slopes down until you find yourself climbing down on to the other side of the beach. It is also a more secluded area on the beach which some tourists who discover the path, seem to prefer.
Varkala town is bustling with activity, vendors, fish mongers, a busy market place and merchants with shops lining the main road. There are several bakeries that sell some very tasty baked goods, biscuits, pastries and savory items. Fresh banana chips are a common item for tourists to buy and are available in plenty. The variations to the usual fried ones are double fried and jaggery coated chips.
It is easy for people to understand that I am not a local, when they take one look at me and hear me struggle with their language. I found I could easily pass off with Malayalam in the city, but when you are in the heart of Kerala, it isn’t as easy to make yourself understood. Each letter is pronounced in so many different ways that I almost always find myself misunderstood. But the people in shops are understanding and try and speak in English to make life simpler for this otherwise ‘confounded’ shopper! It’s a nice gesture which I found lacking in big cities like Cochin and Trivandrum where one expects to be spoken to in English. They are simple folk who may not appear friendly at first but underneath the guarded exterior, they have simple needs and are fierce guardians of their culture, faith and customs.
Staying in Varkala
The Taj Gateway hotel is a good option for a stay and so is the Hindustan Hotel located on the beach. For cheaper options, one could look for rooms on the cliff as well. On the whole, Varkala is a must-see for people traveling to Kerala, and especially Trivandrum. Compress it to a one day stop if you are pressed for time, but visit it all the same. Witness the hands of time stand still, before you set out to grab the days ahead.