Life in Goa

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Life in Goa
Festivals—both traditional religious and contemporary dance music—provide a counterpoint to sleepy villages and UNESCO-recognized history. With coconut liquor, henna tattoos, and an abundance of colorful birds, even daily life in Goa is exotic.
By Neha Puntambekar , AFAR Local Expert
Photo by age fotostock
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    Carnival, a Uniquely Goan Celebration
    Carnival came to Goa by way of Portugal, and this three-day, three-night festival is one of the liveliest and most colorful ways to see the Catholic influence on the region. Taking place immediately before Lent, Carnival (known locally as Intruz) is a spectacle that involves relentless music, dancing, and partying, alongside several parades of people on floats and in costumes. The event is unique in India, and while the festival happens throughout the state, the biggest celebrations, parades, and dances are organized in the capital city of Panaji.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Feni, the Local Liquor
    Feni is an exclusively Goan liquor made from either cashew apples or coconut. The name comes from the Sanskrit phena, meaning "froth," which refers to the bubbles that appear when feni is poured into a glass. No matter what it's made from, the resulting drink is strong—usually 40 to 45 percent alcohol—and is served straight with a splash of lime, or with a mixer. Coconut feni is more prevalent in the South Goa district, while the cashew-apple feni is available throughout the state. Make sure you purchase it from a licensed vendor or at a local bar, where you might find a creative menu of feni-based cocktails.
    Photo by Vinod D'sa
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    Intricate Henna Tattoos
    Henna is a dye produced from the dried leaves of the henna tree, Lawsonia inermis. It has been used cosmetically for hundreds of years; these days, intricate henna tattoos are a common feature at tourist markets. You can choose to get a tattoo at a salon, or from an artist freelancing on one of the beaches. Once drawn, henna tattoos have to dry on the skin for a minimum of two hours to allow the colors to deepen and set. The paste is then washed off, leaving the design behind. Henna tattoos generally last for about two weeks, gradually fading away.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Explore Goa by Scooter
    The easiest way to get around Goa is by renting a scooter. You can explore small roads and unknown alleyways, discovering crumbling ruins, idyllic bungalows, local taverns, and dusty soccer fields. Chances are you’ll see a lot more of Goa on a scooter than from a car. There are many rental-service operations—ask your hotel to guide you toward a reliable one. Even so, be sure to inspect the vehicle thoroughly. It is important to note that driving in India can be chaotic, especially at the busier intersections, so do take care; additionally, you need to carry a valid international driving license when riding. Drive out to Mapusa in North Goa for the Friday Market. Though operational every day of the week, the market has a particular vibrancy on Fridays when vendors and entrepreneurs colorfully collaborate to showcase products. Peruse for textiles, antiques, clothing, spices, handicrafts, pottery, carpets, jewelry, fruits, vegetables, and local delicacies. For a cultural immersion, head to the open-air auditorium at Kala Academy Cultural Center. From festivals to exhibitions, Kala offers a diverse and distinctive menu of events and performances. Take your time to view the art exhibits or grab a seat for a classical-music show.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Sunburn Festival
    Every December, between Christmas and New Year's, Goa hosts the Sunburn music festival. An electronic-dance-music event, it's billed as the largest of its kind in Asia. Multiple stages are set up along the beach (the exact venue varies), each with renowned DJs playing. Acrobats, fire jugglers, and other performers roam the sands, doing their thing; pop-up shops sell trinkets and more; small stalls dish out endless food and drinks; and intense games of beach soccer and mechanical-bull-riding contests add to the charged atmosphere. Tickets and more information are available on the Sunburn festival website.
    Photo courtesy of Nishant Matta/Sunburn Festival
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    Exotic Birding and Wildlife
    Goa is home to hundreds of species of birds, and the best birding season is between November and March. Visitors will want to check out the local sanctuaries: Bhagwan Mahaveer, Bondla, and Salim Ali. Among the fliers you can expect to see are vultures, buzzards, doves, pigeons, kingfishers, and kites; make sure to watch out for the ruby-throated yellow bulbul, the state bird. Morjim Beach is the best place to find seabirds; also explore the wetlands near Carambolim. If you want guidance, Canopy Goa, based out of Tambdi Surla, offers tours, as does Rahul Alvares, a wildlife guide who prepares custom trips. Head north of town to reconnect with nature in the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary. Nestled in the Western Ghats, wildlife here includes the black panther, leopard, sloth bear, and Bengal tiger. Look high! The sanctuary is also an International Bird Area with 255 recorded species.
    Photo by Neha Puntambekar
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    Panaji's Latin Quarter
    Fontainhas, Panaji's Latin Quarter, is a charming and historic Mediterranean enclave bordered on the east by Ourem Creek and on the west by the Altinho Hill, an elite residential area. The city's Portuguese influence can be seen in the area's architecture—brightly colored heritage villas share space with cafés and restaurants—giving a glimpse of how Goa might have looked hundreds of years ago. A superb walking area (it's a UNESCO World Heritage site), the normally tranquil Latin Quarter is especially lively during the annual Carnival celebrations in February.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Village Pilgrimage
    When you're ready to get away from the beach, consider visiting a Goan town, where you'll get the chance to see how locals actually live. Keri, a village just outside of the capital city of Panaji, is a great choice for those who are curious about Ayurveda—it is where the tradition started in Goa. It's also home to the Tropical Spice Plantation and numerous houses of worship. Those on a devotional trip might be interested in the village of Mangeshi in the North Goa district, where the temple of Shri Mangesh (dedicated to an aspect of Shiva) is visited by hundreds of pilgrims annually. The temple of Shri Shantadurga, in nearby Kavale, honors Durga, the other deity most revered here in Goa.
    Photo by Jordi Camí/age fotostock
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    Beachside Yoga
    Goa is an excellent place to book a yoga getaway. Yogamagic Eco Retreat, near Anjuna Beach, offers instruction in several schools of yoga, including Iyengar, Vinyasa, and Ashtanga; in Assagao, Purple Valley Yoga Retreat focuses on Ashtanga; at Ashwem Beach, YogaGypsys has a menu of classes every day as well as yoga workshops. Most retreats run from October to May, and provide specialized courses, teacher training, daily classes, or a combination thereof. Many yoga centers also offer traditional Ayurvedic treatments and serve vegetarian meals on the premises.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Must-Try Restaurants
    Follow the locals for the most iconic eateries in Goa. Mirroring Parisian bistros, La Plage is simple, chic, and unassuming. Tucked away in North Goa, the restaurant has a laid-back atmosphere that complements a stellar French menu, which includes crispy sardines in lime zest, prawn lollipops on sugarcane, grilled calamari with eggplant, beefsteak, and fresh fish soufflé. A food truck decorated with animated cartoon characters may not seem a likely spot to grab traditional Goan fare, but the three brothers who manage Noronha’s Corner know the art of food. The menu is separated into four sections: beef, chicken, pork, and fish (this is not a place for vegetarians). If you can’t decide, the brothers will suggest their favorites, including beef croquettes, Goan sausages, chicken cafreal, fish cutlets, and sorpatel. Many Goans consider it a rite of passage to dine on the sorpatel, lobster piri-piri, and chicken xacuti at Martin's Corner. The family-run restaurant has come a long way from its start as a corner shop; it features outdoor dining, live music, and one of the better bar menus around.