The reason for this trip to India was the wedding of my friend Mayank. The wedding in Goa, so I decided to spend some time there to sightsee before the wedding, as I would not get to do any sightseeing during the wedding itself.
Goa is a unique part of India. While most of India was colonized by the British in the 1800´s, Goa was Portuguese since the early 1500´s. While the rest of India gained independence in 1947, Goa remained Portuguese until 1961 when India took it by force.
Goa is not a single place, but rather an entire Indian state. To drive from the northern border of Goa to the southern border would take 4 hours. It is an oversimplification, but the north is considered more popular and a party central for India, the middle has the main cities and historic towns, and the south is quiet beaches. The wedding was in south. So decided to spend 1 day in north and 1 day in center. Luckily there is a brand-new airport in the north that opened 3 months before my trip.
May 16, 2023: North Goa
After 2 days in Dharamshala and 1 day in Gurgaon, it was time to fly. The flight from Delhi took 2 hours. I landed at the brand-new North Goa airport in Mopa. It is so new that the grass on the airfield still has not grown in.
Goa has outlawed Uber, my go-to transportation method in India. Instead, there is GoaMiles, the local app built by the taxicab union. The pricing is upfront and constant. However, there is one major issue: you must pay with an Indian credit card. Even though there is a “pay with cash” option, you still have to load 350 rupees into the app with an Indian credit card to pay the developers. I was not aware of this requirement until I was 10 minutes into the ride. Since I could not pay with a credit card, I simply paid the fare to the driver in cash. He said he would remedy the situation with the app – and he did – but he could easily have reported me.
I was dropped off in Vagator, a sleepy beach town in North Goa. Perhaps it was the timing of my trip in the off-season, but I found Goa to be considerably quieter and more peaceful than the rest of India. People did not honk. Tropical foliage and ancient Portuguese churches dotted the landscape. I immediately felt the energy that have attracted travelers here for decades.
My hostel played into the “vibes” (pronounce the v like a w for full effect). There was a huge shaded outdoor hang-out area as yoga music played. The crowd was a mix of cool Indians including a Bollywood writer looking for inspiration and hippie/yogi Westerners.
For lunch, I walked to the famous Bean Me Up vegan restaurant. There I sat next to an “enlightened” British woman wearing white yogi robes and sporting a tilak. I ate a grains bowl and had a hemp/cacao smoothie all for $10 USD, which is quite expensive by Indian standards.
I then walked into the empty Vagator town. After drinking a freshly made pineapple lassi, I got the cheapest haircut of my life: 150 rupees or $1.80. Honestly, it looked just as good as a haircut in the US.
Just past the W Goa resort, where a room is 51x the price of my hostel dorm, was the Muslim-built 17thcentury Chapora Fortress. The fortress has sweeping views of the coastline but is best known for its appearance in the Bollywood film Dil Chahta Hai where the three main characters make a pact.
Below the fort and in front of the W is the beach itself. The beach was buzzing with Indian families and people of all ages. While some people were in the water, most were simply walking along the beach in normal clothing. India is still a conservative culture so I would guess many, especially women, do not feel comfortable swimming in public.
I got in contact with some business school friends who arranged dinner in the town of Anjuna, just south of Vagator. Based on my struggles using the GoaMiles app, I decided to walk. The trip took 30 minutes and along the way I got to see a bit of the town.
Anjuna town is much busier than Vagator. There were many restaurants, nightclubs, and tacky souvenir stalls.
At the south end of the town is the Wednesday flea market which is a remnant of the Hippie Trail from the 1950´s and 60´s.
In the middle of the market, I met up with my friends and we ate a bougie dinner with views of the sunset over the ocean. At dinner, I learned that a subset of this group had planned a day tour to visit some of the historic parts of central Goa en-route to the wedding in the South. I immediately hopped onto their tour.
After dinner, we visited a couple nightclubs, but they were empty because it is May and a Wednesday. During the months of December-March, the clubs would be packed.
May 17, 2023: Central Goa
I started my day with an omelet on Portuguese bread.
At 9:30, I was picked up by a car containing my friends Maren and Bruno. We joined up with another car containing Bernardo, Diana and Andrei. After a 45-minute ride we reached our first stop Velha Goa (Old Goa).
Velha Goa was the original Portuguese capital of their Indian possessions (Goa and several cities up and down the east and west coasts including Kochi and Mumbai). Between 1510 and 1759 when the capital moved 9km west to Panjim, the Portuguese built a series of monumental churches at Velha Goa. Even though the city lost its population, the churches continued to maintain their status and popularity. Today, the “Churches of Old Goa” are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and among the nicest Portuguese-style churches anywhere on earth.
The churches are clumped together in a plaza divided by a two-lane street. On the south side of the street is the Basilica de Bom Jesus. The massive baroque church contains the remains of St. Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Jesuit movement. The church was the first basilica in India and is one of the Seven Wonders of the Portuguese Empire.
The interior of the church is massive and very ornate. The tomb is in a conspicuous spot on the right side of the transept.
Next, we walked across the street to visit the rest of the churches. However, our progress was delayed because people wanted to take pictures with Maren and her blonde hair.
Across the street we visited the Church of St. Francis of Assisi. The church had an attached museum which happened to be free today for World Museum Day!
The final stop was the Se Cathedral, the seat of the Bishop. While technically the largest, it felt smaller than the Basilica and was far less ornate.
Next, we drove 45 minutes east to the Tropical Spice Plantation, a working spice farm. Bernardo found it in Lonely Planet. After a 30-minute guided tour, we ate lunch seasoned with the spices from the farm.
Finally, we stopped in the town of Ponda. The fortress is now named for and topped by a statue of Chhratapati Shivaji Maharaj, a 17th century Indian ruler/hero to Hindus who captured the fort in 1675. However, the reason we are visiting this place is because Bernardo´s grandfather, one of the final 600 Portuguese soldiers in 1961, was imprisoned here for by the Indian government for 6 months. Nobody in his family had gone back until today.
With that, it was time to head to South Goa and Mayank´s wedding.
The Portuguese influence and tiny state government has clearly created a unique place in India. Goa has calm. Goa has beaches. Goa has funk. Goa has beautiful Portuguese architecture. Goa has widespread Christianity. Goa has parties and real nightlife outside of a big city. Goa has strong foreign influences. Yes, all these things exist elsewhere in the country, but not in combination and not on this scale.
I would recommend Goa as the first stop for a first timer to India so they can ease into the craziness. I would also recommend it as a respite as part of a longer trip. But, for the average international traveler, I think there are more “different” parts of the country.