The southern Indian town of Varkala may be small—but it’s mighty in the wellness world. Perched in palm-covered cliffs overlooking the Arabian Sea, Varkala is where Ayurveda–a Hindu system of natural health care that aims to balance body, mind, and spirit–was founded in 5000 B.C.E. Centuries later, wellness is still the draw: the small town is rife with Ayurvedic spas, restaurants specializing in Ayurvedic food, and dozens of yoga studios. Even the seawater that laps the shores of the local Papanasam Beach is believed to be holy and healing.
Varkala is a relaxing alternative to Goa, a sentiment I heard dozens of times on a recent visit, from shopkeepers, waiters, and travelers themselves. While Goa, with its famous beaches and nightlife, draws backpackers from around the world, Varkala, some 600 miles south in the state of Kerala, lures a slightly older, less debaucherous crowd, a mix of both European and Indian travelers. There’s virtually no nightlife in town because until 2017, Kerala banned the sale of alcohol in most restaurants and hotels, and it’s still difficult to apply for a license. No matter; Varkala visitors are morning people anyway, waking for the sunrise yoga offered by nearly every hotel or at studios along the main strip of town known as North Cliff.
There’s a small 2,000-year-old temple, Janardhana Swamy, near Papanasam Beach and a few shops along North Beach that sell linen beachwear and silver jewelry, but aside from that, the thing to do in Varkala is just be. Travelers are here to practice yoga, lounge on the beach, and live the Ayurvedic lifestyle. My week in Varkala was the most relaxing—and therapeutic—I’ve spent in a very long time. Here’s how to embrace the tranquility.
Salute the sun
In the mornings, wake for yoga, which is offered at most hotels, or at one of the many local studios. I stayed at the Krishnatheeram hotel—a collection of cottages with a swimming pool, a wonderful restaurant, and a terrace overlooking the ocean—that offers daily sunrise yoga for $4 a class. It’s one of the better hotels in town and runs around $35 per night. Affordability is another hallmark of Varkala. I take yoga classes here and there back home in Chicago, but because of cost and inconsistency, I’ve never been able to perfect a headstand. Two days of classes in Varkala and yoga master Sunilkumar had me balancing like a pro, which I credit to the one-on-one attention and small, intimate classes. Views of the sun rising over the ocean only hurt my focus a bit.
Eat as the locals do
After yoga, indulge in an Ayurvedic breakfast. The word “Ayurveda” means knowledge of life and longevity in Sanskrit. Ayurvedic healing practices have been around for 5,000 years and combine herbs, plants, essential oils, touch techniques, and more to treat ailments. Diet also plays a critical role. The Ayurvedic diet focuses on vegetables, fruits, nuts, spices, and fermented foods; most meats, processed foods, and fried foods are not allowed. Most restaurants in Varkala serve Ayurvedic options, some exclusively. Breakfast at Krishnatheeram, for example, included fresh mango and papaya juices, eggs, and sautéed vegetables with ginger and other spices. Ayurvedic dinners around town feature seafood, vegetables, and grains–nothing fried. I ate many of my meals at Cafe del Mar and Oottupura, a vegetarian restaurant. I also found fantastic Tibetan food at Little Tibet and sipped iced coffees at Darjeeling Cafe.
Find your own private beach
Spend the rest of the morning browsing the shops or on the beach. Varkala Beach, also known as Papanasam Beach, has soft yellow sand and a long coastline where even on crowded days you’ll find space to relax. It’s also a popular surfing spot, and there are a few places that offer parasailing lessons, such as CanFly. For something even more serene, seek out Black Beach, a black-sand beach folded into the cliffs on the north side of town. I visited the beach every day of my visit and saw fewer than five people the entire time—it felt like my own private island.
Detox the Ayurvedic way
No visit to Varkala would be complete without an Ayurvedic treatment, designed to remove toxins and harmonize your mind, body, and spirit. There are dozens of spas around town (and most hotels have one) that offer a variety of massages and facials for around $20. I had a 90-minute detoxifying massage at my hotel with herbal medicated oil that left me in a happy daze for the better part of an afternoon. Many visitors I spoke to were in Varkala as part of a program where they had daily massages and other treatments tailored to their needs. This is a common offer from many spas in the area. AyurSoul has packages for everything from aging to infertility. A popular eight-day detoxification program includes assorted detoxifying and rejuvenation treatments, as well as a dhara treatment–a mix of herbal oils, coconut milk, and ghee that’s rubbed on the body and meant to relieve chronic pain, insomnia, and other ailments.
Most people I encountered noted Varkala’s relaxing, therapeutic vibe. But perhaps no one summed it up as well as the man at the front desk of Krishnatheeram: “Here, it’s all about rejuvenation,” he said. “People come to be restored.”