Backpacking India: Overland Travel from Kerala to Punjab
Are you thinking about backpacking India? There is SO much to see and do within the country! From tropical beaches, magnificent mountains and desert landscapes, to posh metropolitan cities and spiritual temples – India has it all.
How do I even describe such a special place?
It has this mysterious and enticingly exotic charm to it. It’s bold and chaotic, marching to the beat of it’s own drum. It is diverse, culturally rich and spiritually awakened. The vibrant sights and sounds captivate and overwhelm the senses – It can be infatuating and infuriating all at the same time. It’s the kind of place that will test your patience and your character; it will open your eyes and challenge your beliefs; it’s a place where comfort zones dissipate and life lessons are unveiled…and to top it off, just when you think you’ve begun to figure it out, India will blow your mind all over again.
I spent three months backpacking India solo by land, from Trivandrum (Kerala) to Amristar (Punjab). It is completely possible to do this independent of a tour group or guide, and to travel solo as a female.
This guide is a loose itinerary and resource for you to help plan your backpacking trip. If you have more or less time then 3 months, simply use this article as inspiration and modify it to meet your needs! I also always recommend Lonely Planet as a useful planning tool for new travellers, or those less familiar with backpacking logistics (you can get yours here).
Solo Female Travel in India:
My experience backpacking India solo was largely positive, apart from one taxi scam in Mumbai and a few creepy men (though I exercised quite high precautions, like not walking alone at night, not taking taxis alone at night, wearing very modest clothing, and covering my hair).
My main issues were discomfort in being stared at…hence why I chose to cover my body and hair (I use a buff) and with unwanted attention from males who I naively thought I made “friends” with. In one of these cases, he turned into a stalker who showed up in two different cities to find me. This was a lesson for me in gender dynamics in diverse cultural contexts).
With that said, as a female traveling alone I was still able to take night buses and third-class sleeper trains and felt safe — though again, I took precautions and locked my bag to my seat while I slept (I use this retractable cable lock).
I did try couch surfing in India 5 times (if you aren’t familiar with couch surfing, it is a social platform which facilitates travellers connecting with locals hosts with a spare bed or couch). Four out of my 5 experiences were amazing…the other one was a male host who falls into the creepy men category above. Unfortunately he had an immense number of glowing reviews on his profile, so be aware if you want to try out the platform to take reviews with a grain of salt, always trust your gut and always leave authentic reviews even if they are negative (it could help another woman avoid a situation which could put her at risk).
Overall, I would still return to India as solo female traveller and don’t want to scare you off from it. I am simply sharing my experience and emphasizing both the positives and negatives so you will know what to expect regarding safety.
During my 3 months backpacking India, I spent a total of $1500 (excluding flights). That works out to roughy $16 per day, which I consider extreme budget backpacking. It is however quite easy to do in India and with a higher budget, you will be traveling like a King or Queen.
I took public transportation ranging from “third class” train carriages, air conditioned coach buses, rickety school-bus styled buses, to a filthy livestock truck claiming to be a sleeper bus. How you decide to get around will depend on your preference for comfort, your budget and the time you have to travel. I tend to travel on a whim without a fixed itinerary, which didn’t jive well with the foresight required to book a first-class train ticket.
India is quite a large country, so if you want to travel by land with public transport like I did, you may want to budget a significant chunk of time. If you only have a short vacation or have your heart set on other parts of the country, I would recommend considering hiring a driver to maximize your time (for example, you can drive to the Taj Mahal as a day trip from Delhi instead of taking a bus or train to Agra and staying over).
My accommodation ranged from yoga and meditation ashrams, hostels, guest houses, hotels and couch surfing. If you are comfortable “winging it” and finding lodgings when you arrive, you can actually barter the cost of a room upon arrival, particularly in off-season. I once got a private room in a guest house for $1.50 by doing this.
Backpacking India Itinerary:
Neyarr Dam, Kerala
Neyarr Dam is a small rural village approx. 30km outside of the larger city centre Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram), were I began my journey. From Trivandrum, I set off in search of Neyarr Dam’s serene ‘Sivananda Yoga Ashram’ founded in 1959 by Swami Vishnudevananda. Located on the waters of the Neyarr river, the ashram is as peaceful as it gets, where your days will be filled with meditation and yoga practice. I stayed in the ashram for two weeks, but it is totally possible to stay for just a few days. Alternatively, if you aren’t into yoga, head to Varkala where you can relax on a beach.
Varkala is a tiny, touristy beach town on the Western coast of India. Atop the cliffs you will find various shops, cafes and restaurants overlooking this beautiful beach, perfect for a few days of rest and relaxation.
Kochi (Cochin) is a port town off the West coast of India, known for its history of trading and for its spices. Take advantage of this and pick up some amazing spices at one of the markets, or take a cooking class and learn how to cook traditional Indian cuisine.
Munnar is home to Kerala’s lush green tea plantations. Discover how tea and cardamom are grown while taking in the picture-perfect scenery. You can also do a gorgeous guided hike! I would recommend finding a guide for this versus going alone though, as there are wild elephants in the area.
Explore the vibrant markets and busy streets of Mysore, where you can see how incense and perfumes are made. Also be sure to check out the palace!
The architecture and geographic landscapes in Hampi are incredibly beautiful and intriguing. Take a tour of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites to learn about Hampi’s past and present gems. Don’t miss monkey mountain!
With roughly 12 million people, Mumbai (formerly Bombay) stands out as the cosmopolitan jewel of India, offering a diverse range of cultures, religions, and cuisines. Its posh restaurants, shopping malls and nightlife are sure to provide tons to keep you occupied during your stay.
Udaipur is an exquisite lakeside town in the state of Rajasthan, boasting dreamy sunsets, an eloquent palace on the water and romantic outdoor restaurants. Take a boat ride around the water palace, dine under the stars or take a hike up to see the distant mountains.
Take a camel-back, camping trip through these dunes in the Thar desert – it’s one of the most incredible experiences I have had! Sleeping out in the open under the stars, you can feel the immense silence and darkness envelop you and calm your senses. The sky is so clear, you may just see out into the galaxy!
You can also explore the maze-like Jaisalmer fort, taking in the rustic beauty and old-world charm.
With palaces and old-world kingdom walls, the history and architecture in Jaipur is not to be missed! Not to mention the famous Lassiwala shop!
Agra, Uttar Pradesh
The world famous Taj Mahal is sheltered within Agra’s city limits – the ivory white mausoleum is quintessential to any trip to India! Be sure to avoid going on Fridays like I did (oops) because it’s closed to the public. You can get a beautiful glimpse of the Taj from behind.
New Delhi, Delhi
India’s capital city has much to see and do! For amazing food, historic sites, theatre, shopping and culture – look no further! During my time in New Dehli, I ate my body weight in thalis, saw a play, shopped in the markets, photographed some amazing sites like Humayun’s tomb and met some new friends at my hostel.
Manali, Himachal Pradesh
Manali is known for its laid back mountain vibes, positioning itself as a perfect base to explore the Himalayan mountains. Take a time out from the hustle and bustle of larger Indian cities and find a trekking group to set out in the heavenly Himalayas. I did a 4 day hike and camp trek and absolutely loved it.
Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh
On the edge of the Himalayan mountains, this city is home to the Dalai Lama’s temple and a rich Tibetan culture. Learn about the Tibetan government-in-exile, partake in some meditation courses at the Tushita Tibetan Buddhist centre or get some fresh mountain air in the Himalayan foothills. I was lucky enough to be in the area for the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday celebration and even saw him in person!
Best known for its treasured Golden Temple, pilgrims come from across the world to to bathe in its sacred waters, which are said to be blessed. In the temple complex, you can literally feel the positive vibrations as hundreds of people simultaneously pray and chant to pay homage to the Sikh holy book. The temple has a “foreigner dormitory” where you can stay overnight by donation. Don’t miss the free chai and chapatis generously made by volunteers and provided by the temple.
Have you tried backpacking India? If not would you? Let me know in the comments below!
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