Travel: Nature tries its best in Varkala

Despite its dodgy tourist practices, Varkala in Kerala can still charm you with its coastline’s natural beauty

Shrabonti Bagchi
First Published18 Jun 2024, 11:17 AM IST
The cliffs running parallel to the Arabian Sea are an unusual feature on the otherwise flat Kerala coast
The cliffs running parallel to the Arabian Sea are an unusual feature on the otherwise flat Kerala coast (Photo: Kerala Tourism)

Insta-popular restaurants rarely turn out to live up to the hype, but as we walk into the courtyard of Cafe Trip Is Life on Varkala’s south cliff, we silently thank the influencer who led us here. The cafe’s popular tree-dotted courtyard area is perched high above the shore below—a sheer drop with a narrow strip of beach lined with wild custard apple trees. The views along the shoreline are spectacular this late May afternoon, when the rains have let up enough to allow sea-hungry Bengalureans to drink in the natural beauty of the Varkala coast, so perfectly lined by cliffs and swaying palms that it is almost a picture-postcard cliche.

The monsoon ‘off-season’ timing means the beach is deserted except people who have walked down from the cafe, and a few at a distance setting off some sort of a flying contraption into the air. This turns out to be the extreme ‘sport’ of paramotoring or ‘tandem powered paragliding’, in which people fly high above the Varkala cliffs in a jerry-rigged contraption consisting of what appears to be a three-wheeled bike affixed to a parachute and a propeller. Not being brave enough to try this—and wondering how it could even be legal—we shoot videos before sitting down to a sundowner at the cafe.

Steep stairs leading down from the cafe to the beach below

Varkala is among a few places in India, including Mumbai and Udaipur, where paramotoring is allowed, and it turns out it is not regulated by the government, which means anyone can buy and fly a paramotor without a license. This feels symptomatic of how tourism has been run in Varkala. Once a tiny seaside town on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram best known for the 2000-year old Janardanaswamy Temple, which you cross today on your way to the main beach, past a massive temple lake where people can still be seen taking dips before entering the living temple, it is a tourist hotspot today along what many call the ‘Banana Pancake Trail’: backpacker destinations.

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Its famous north and south cliffs—Varkala is the only region in southern Kerala where cliffs run parallel to the Arabian Sea, and are a unique geological feature on the otherwise flat Kerala coast—are overrun today by resorts, shacks and cafes built right along the edge of the rapidly eroding cliffside, especially in the north cliff area, where a long unbroken line of eateries does business pretty much through the year. Ironically, signs of ‘Caution: Eroding Land’ are scattered everywhere, though neither the owners of these establishments nor tourists like us seem to be paying much heed to the ongoing destruction of what the Geological Survey of India (GSI) has declared a geo-heritage site.

The soil erosion is starkly visible on the Odayam beach

In fact, just a few days ago, the GSI strongly criticised a move by the Thiruvanthapuram district administration to demolish a portion of the cliff to arrest landslides, while environmental activists say regulating tourist and commercial activity in the fragile area should be the first order of business.

If you plan to travel to Varkala—and it is in many ways still a charming seaside town—I’d advise steering clear of the north cliff area, or at least its resorts and restaurants. There are many small hotels further inland and just a few kilometers away, the Taj Gateway Varkala, where we stayed, is a beautiful heritage property with stunning sea views. The south cliff area also offers more upscale resorts than the ones in the north, though the most reliable accommodation the town still offers is probably the Gateway. If you are headed to Varkala in the monsoons, be prepared to stay indoors and enjoy the rain and the views while sipping hot Kerala chaaya. And if the sun does shine, even occasionally, a walk along the cliffside and the beaches will feel worth it.

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First Published:18 Jun 2024, 11:17 AM IST
HomeLoungeideasTravel: Nature tries its best in Varkala

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