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.
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.
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.
Bangalore: 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.
Mysore: 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.
Gokarna: 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!
Kodagu: 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.
Jog Falls: 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.