Set on Kerala's Arabian Sea coast, Varkala is a mellow beach town known for yoga and surfing. Here, plunging red cliffs meet golden sand and paths lined with eclectic handicraft stalls. Along the coast, wooden fishing boats sway on beaches from north to south. Varkala has a strong traditional culture, so you can immerse yourself in historic temples and Kathakali dance performances. As a visitor here you'll spend long, sunny days on the beach, soaking up culture, taking boat rides – and relaxing with a massage here and there.
Varkala hostels are clustered in the northern end of town, and colourful paintings and hippie vibes abound. You can stay in traditional bamboo cottages, boutique accommodation perched on the clifftop, or even fall asleep to the sound of the waves in an outdoor tent. Look out for a Varkala hostel with in-house yoga classes and holistic Ayurveda body treatments. Most hostels in Varkala have free Wi-Fi and there are some with free breakfast. A few offer airport transfers and bike hire to help you get around.
Varkala is centred around Papanasam, the town's main beach, and its two major areas. Busy North Cliff is lined with stalls, and you'll find most of the town's restaurants and hostels here. Quieter South Cliff is home to rainbow-bright Janardhana Swamy Temple, known for its wall of lanterns. This part of the beach is sacred to Hindus. Past the north end of the cliffs is Black Beach, named for its charcoal-coloured shores, as well as tropical Odayam Beach's tall palms and soft sand.
Kerala is the birthplace of Ayurveda holistic medicine, and you'll find plenty of massage spas in Varkala, plus Reiki and crystal healing treatments. For sightseeing, attractions include Anjengo Fort's fully preserved walls and towering lighthouse. From secluded Kappil Beach, you can take a boat ride along the winding backwaters to catch a glimpse of the Golden Temple on Ponnumthuruthu Island. Or head inland from Varkala Beach to Sivagiri Mutt, a holy site spread across 200 acres of land.
The easiest way to get to here is by train. From Varkala Railway Station, it's a short auto-rickshaw ride into town. The closest airport is Trivandrum International Airport, and from here you can take a taxi to Trivandrum Pett, and then a train on to Varkala (around 30 minutes' journey). From Cochin port, the bus or train will take three to four hours. Varkala itself is small and easily walkable, but you can also hire a bicycle or hail an auto-rickshaw to get around.