Stunningly picturesque Varkala beach provides a relatively peaceful alternative to commercialized Kovalam beach in Kerala. The setting of this beach is striking enough to take your breath away, with an elongated stretch of cliff and panorama that extends over the Arabian Sea. A paved footpath runs along the length of the cliff and it's bordered by coconut palms, groovy shops, beach shacks, hotels, and guesthouses. Nestled at the bottom of the cliff is the expansive beach, reached by steps leading down from the cliff top.
It's no surprise that Varkala is consistently rated among the best beaches in India and top beaches in Kerala. It's particularly popular with backpackers, who are attracted by the chilled-out bohemian vibe and economical accommodations. This travel guide will help you plan your trip.
Varkala is a holy temple town. Its ancient Janardhana Swami Temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the Hindu god who preserves and sustains life. The temple is said to have been founded some 2,000 years ago, although its current structure dates back to the 13th century when it was rebuilt by a Pandya king. Papanasam Beach, at the end of the road past the temple, is considered sacred to Hindus. Its name means "destroyer of sins" and pilgrims perform rituals for deceased relatives there.
According to mythology, Varkala gets its name from Sage Narada's valkalam -- a garment that he threw to mark the spot where a group of followers had to pay penance for their misdeeds.
Varkala is about an hour north of capital city Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram) in Kerala.
How to Get There
Varkala cliff and beach are located a 10-minute drive from Varkala town and railway station. Almost 20 Indian Railways trains stop at the station. If coming by train, take an auto-rickshaw from the station for about 100 rupees. Varkala town also has a bus station that receives regular buses from Trivandrum, Alleppey, and Kollam. The closest airports are at Trivandrum and Kochi (four hours north of Varkala). Expect to pay around 2,000 rupees for a prepaid taxi from Trivandrum airport.
When to Go
Varkala's climate is tropical and humid. It receives rain from both the southwest and northeast monsoons, which produce intensely heavy downpours. The rain is at its worst from June to August and late October to December. Late December to March are the best months to visit, because the weather is dry and sunny every day, and the temperature hovers around 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). The summer months of April and May become very hot and muggy, with temperatures around 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit).
It's important to keep in mind the interesting tide pattern at Varkala. Papanasam Beach is completely immersed in the ocean during the monsoon season, while Black Beach to the north is accessible. After the monsoon, this trend reverses with Black Beach becoming engulfed in water and Papanasam Beach open.
What to See and Do
Papanasam Beach, Varkala's main beach, is divided into two parts -- North Cliff and South Cliff. North Cliff is the most happening part where you'll find most of the shops, restaurants, and accommodations. When you arrive, unwind with a drink at one of the beach shacks there and soak up the uninterrupted view of a dramatic sunset.
Relaxation and rejuvenation are the ultimate activities at Varkala. The mineral spring that flows from the cliff at the southern end of Papanasam Beach is believed to have medicinal properties. Yoga and Ayurvedic therapies are big business. Ayursoul, near the Helipad, is recommended for Ayurvedic treatments. Yoga with Haridas classes are popular at the Green Palace Hotel on North Cliff. Sharanagati Yogahaus is a reputable residential yoga and meditation retreat. Soul and Surf at South Cliff also offers yoga classes and surfing lessons. It's a cool place to chill with like-minded people. Puccini Lala Eco & Wellness Retreat has Ayurvedic cooking classes, art exhibitions, yoga, and a vegan restaurant.
If you're keen to watch an iconic Kerala Kathakali folk dance, the Varkala Cultural Center behind the Helipad holds performances nearly every evening during the tourist season.
Hindus aren't permitted inside the inner sanctum of Janardhana Swami Temple. However, the temple grounds are worth a visit to see their eye-catching paintings and a bell donated by the captain of a local Dutch shipwreck in the 18th century.
To the north of Black Beach, quiet Odayam Beach is just starting to be developed. Head there for a change of pace when you've had enough of the action on North Cliff. You can walk along a coastal path all the way to Kappil Beach in under two hours.
Where to Eat and Drink
The shacks and restaurants in Varkala specialize in fresh seafood. Gods Own Country Kitchen on North Cliff stands out. Clafouti is the top upmarket option on North Cliff. ABBA Restaurant and German Bakery Cafe at the Green Palace Hotel is renowned for its extensive menu. Cafe Del Mar is a reliable favorite with fabulous Italian coffee and continental cuisine. Coffee Temple is another famous place for coffee. Darjeeling Cafe is a trendy hangout spot. The Juice Shack is unbeatable for its impressive variety of fresh fruit juices.
On Odayam Beach, try Babu Farm Restaurant for beachfront dining under the stars.
For an inexpensive vegetarian thali (platter), go to Suprabhatam restaurant in Varkala town for lunch.
As Varkala is a holy town, alcohol isn't officially allowed but the shacks do clandestinely serve it (after paying adequate compensation to the local police). Nightlife in Varkala is minimal due to alcohol and noise restrictions. Some beach shacks on North Cliff play music late into the night though and "DJ parties" are held during peak season. Check out what's on at Sky Lounge.
Where to Stay
Most people want to be on the North Cliff and beach, as this is where the action is. So, definitely avoid staying in Varkala town. South Cliff and the beach there are cheaper. However, this is the local part of Papanasam Beach where religious rituals are performed, not the tourist part of the beach. The southern end of North Cliff provides the easiest access to Papanasam Beach, as the stairs leading down the cliff are situated there. During the monsoon season, it's best to stay at the northern end of North Cliff near Black Beach, as Papanasam Beach is submerged in water and unsafe for swimming.
Varkala has plentiful accommodations to suit all price ranges, from resorts to simple rooms in family homes. Backpacker hostels have proliferated in recent years.
On North Cliff, you'll save money at one of the quality budget places clustered in the lanes leading back from the cliff. Attractive Kaiya House is a boutique homestay run by a lovely foreigner-Indian husband and wife team. Expect to pay around 3,000 rupees a night. Akhil Beach Resort has a swimming pool (which is rare!), glorious garden, and rooms for under 2,000 rupees per night. Keratheeram Beach Resort is a highly rated budget hotel (definitely not a resort!), with rooms starting from around 1,000 rupees a night depending on the time of year. Hip Mad About Coco has a collection of properties suiting everyone from families to yoga enthusiasts. Jicky's Nest, in the Helipad area, offers a wide range of comfortable no-frills rooms from under 1,000 rupees per night. Mango Villa is an inexpensive hidden gem close to the cliff, behind the Tibetan Market. Backpackers can choose from Lost Hostel and Vedanta Wake Up! hostel, both in the same area.
If you want to stay right on the cliff, Varkala Marine Palace is good value with rooms, cottages, and apartments starting from around 2,000 rupees per night. Hill View Beach Resort is conveniently located near the steps that lead down to the beach, next to Cafe Del Mar. Rates start from around 3,300 rupees per night.
The gorgeous view and vibe at Cliff Stories may be enough to entice you to stay in the South Cliff area.
On quieter Odayam Beach, about 10 minutes walk from North Cliff, if you feel like splurging Palm Tree Heritage has lovely sea-facing heritage rooms from 4,000-9,000 rupees. Maadathil Cottages offers a cluster of 12 sea-facing Kerala-style cottages in a garden setting for about 3,000 rupees per night upwards. Satta Beach Residency is one of the top choices with a swimming pool. Cheaper-priced Magnolia Guesthouse also has a swimming pool. Mint Inside Beach Hotel is a good budget option near the beach.
Dangers and Annoyances
Varkala has undergone a dramatic amount of growth to be transformed from a sleepy village into a sought-after beach destination. This has had a significant impact on the locals. Females should take particular care around local men, as incidents of drunkenness and groping are common. Many foreign women also end up being charmed by the staff from the beach shacks, who usually end up wanting money or are married. Begging and hawking are becoming issues as well. Also, bring a flashlight as power cuts are prevalent. At the beach, swimmers should be aware of strong currents and not swim out too far.
What Else to Do Nearby
It's possible to hire a boat from Kappil Beach to explore the local backwaters. Hotels and travel agencies on the cliff all offer backwater trips too.
Ponnumthuruthu Island (Golden Island) is a popular backwater destination along the Anjengo backwaters. It has a 100 year-old Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati secluded amid a thick coconut grove.
Jatayu Earth's Center is about 50 minutes northeast of Varkala. This new tourist park opened in 2017 and features the world's largest bird sculpture atop a hill.
Drive around 30 minutes down the coast from Varkala and you'll reach Anjengo/Anjuthengu Fort. This important historical fort was established by the British East India Company in the late 17th century. It served as the first signalling station for ships arriving from England, and as a depot for the pepper and coir trade.