The former Portuguese enclave of Goa, midway down India’s southwest coast, has been a holiday destination since colonial times, when British troops and officials used to travel here from across the country for a spot of “R&R”. Back then, the three Bs – bars, brothels and booze – were the big attractions. Now it’s the golden, palm-fringed beaches spread along the state’s 105km coastline that pull in the tourists – around two million of them each winter. Cheap air travel has made it a major package tour destination for Europeans, and there has been a dramatic rise in the number of newly affluent domestic visitors in recent years. Luckily, in spite of the increasing chaos of Goa’s main resorts, it’s still possible to find the odd quiet corner if you’re prepared to explore and can avoid the busy Christmas/New Year period. If you know where to go, Goa can still be a wonderful place.
Serving as the linchpin for a vast trade network for more than 450 years, Goa was Portugal’s first toehold in Asia. However, when the Portuguese empire began to flounder in the seventeenth century, so too did the fortunes of its capital. Cut off from the rest of India by a wall of mountains and hundreds of kilometres of unnavigable alluvial plain, it remained aloof from the wider Subcontinent until 1961, when the exasperated prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, finally gave up trying to negotiate with the Portuguese dictator Salazar and sent in the army.
It was shortly after the “Liberation” (or “Occupation” as some Goans still regard it), that the first hippie travellers came to the region on the old overland trail. They found a way of life little changed in centuries: back then Portuguese was still very much the lingua franca of the well-educated elite, and the coastal settlements were mere fishing and coconut cultivation villages. Relieved to have found somewhere culturally undemanding to party, the “freaks” got stoned, watched the mesmeric sunsets over the Arabian Sea and danced like lunatics on full-moon nights.
Since then, the state has been at pains to shake off its reputation as a druggy drop-out zone, and its beaches have grown in popularity year on year. Around two dozen stretches of soft white sand indent the region’s coast, from spectacular 25km sweeps to secluded palm-backed coves. The level of development behind them varies a great deal; while some are lined by swanky Western-style resorts, the most sophisticated structures on others are palm-leaf shacks.
Which beach you opt for largely depends on what sort of holiday you have in mind. Developed resorts such as Calangute and Candolim in the north, and Colva and Benaulim in the south, offer more accommodation than elsewhere. Anjuna, Vagator and Chapora, where places to stay are generally harder to come by, are the places to aim for if you’ve come to Goa to party. However, the bulk of budget travellers taking time out from tours of India end up around Palolem, in the far south beyond the reach of the charter transfer buses – though be warned that it too has become a major resort over the past decade, attracting literally thousands of long-stay visitors in peak season. For a quieter scene, you could head for Patnem, just over the headland from Palolem, or Agonda, further up the coast, where development is limited to a string of more upmarket hut camps and family guesthouses. The only place where the hippie scene endures to any significant extent is Arambol, in the far north of the state, where you can dip in to any number of yoga sessions and holistic therapies between spells on the beach.
Some 10km from the state capital, Panjim, the ruins of the former Portuguese capital at Old Goa are foremost among the attractions away from the coast – a sprawl of Catholic cathedrals, convents and churches that draw crowds of Christian pilgrims from all over India. Another popular day excursion is to Anjuna’s Wednesday flea market, a sociable place to shop for souvenirs and dance wear. In the south, the district of Salcete, and its main market town, Margao, is also littered with distinctively hybrid buildings in the form of Portuguese-era mansions, churches and seminaries. Finally, wildlife enthusiasts may be tempted into the interior to visit the nature reserves at Cotigao and Netravali in the far south.
Goa’s sheer inaccessibility by land has always kept it out of the mainstream of Indian history; on the other hand, its control of the seas and the lucrative spice trade made it a much-coveted prize for rival colonial powers. Until a century before the arrival of the Portuguese, Goa had belonged for more than a thousand years to the kingdom of the Kadamba dynasty. They, in turn, were overthrown by the Karnatakan Vijayanagars, the Muslim Bahmanis, and Yusuf Adil Shah of Bijapur, but the capture of the fort at Panjim by Afonso de Albuquerque in 1510 signalled the start of a Portuguese occupation that was to last 451 years.
As the colony expanded, its splendid capital (dubbed as “Goa Dourada”, or “Golden Goa”, due to its incredible prosperity) came to hold a larger population than Paris or London. Though Ismail Adil Shah laid siege for ten months in 1570, and the Marathas came very close to seizing the region, the greatest threat was from other European maritime nations, principally Holland and France. Meanwhile, conversions to Christianity, started by the Franciscans, gathered pace when St Francis Xavier founded the Jesuit mission in 1542. With the advent of the Inquisition soon afterwards, laws were introduced censoring literature and banning any faith other than Catholicism. Hindu temples were destroyed, and converted Hindus adopted Portuguese names, such as Da Silva, Correa and De Sousa, which remain common in the region. Thereafter, the colony, whose trade monopoly had been broken by its European rivals, went into gradual decline, hastened by the unhealthy, disease-ridden environment of its capital.
Despite certain liberalization, such as the restoration of Hindus’ right to worship and the final banishment of the dreaded Inquisition in 1820, the nineteenth century saw widespread civil unrest. During the British Raj many Goans moved to Bombay, and elsewhere in British India, to find work.
The success of the post-Independence Goan struggle for freedom owed as much to the efforts of the Indian government, which cut off diplomatic ties with Portugal, as to the work of freedom fighters such as Menezes Braganza and Dr. Cunha. After a “liberation march” in 1955 resulted in a number of deaths, the state was blockaded. Trade with Bombay ceased, and the railway was cut off, so Goa set out to forge international links, particularly with Pakistan and Sri Lanka: that led to the building of Dabolim airport, and a determination to improve local agricultural output. In 1961, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru finally sent in the armed forces. Mounted in defiance of a United Nations resolution, “Operation Vijay” met only token resistance, and the Indian army overran Goa in two days. Thereafter, Goa (along with Portugal’s other two enclaves, Daman and Diu) became part of India as a self-governing Union Territory, with minimum interference from Delhi.
After Independence Goa continued to prosper, bolstered by iron-ore exports and a booming tourist industry. However, dominated by issues of statehood, the status of Konkani and the ever-rising levels of immigration, its political life has been dogged for decades by chronic instability, with frequent changes of government and chief ministers, interrupted by occasional periods of President’s Rule, when the state had to be governed directly from New Delhi.
At the start of the twenty-first century, renewed fears over the pace of change on the coastal strip started to dominate the news. A sudden influx and just as sudden disappearance of Russian charter tourists has now been replaced by high-rolling property developers from Delhi and Mumbai who have provoked a backlash from successive ruling coalitions, with a state-sponsored land grab of expatriate property. Hundreds of resident Europeans had their assets confiscated, and fled. A series of high-profile attacks on, and unexplained deaths of, foreigners has done little to improve the state’s image abroad. Meanwhile, as ever-improving infrastructural links with the rest of India render Goa’s borders more porous, the survival of the region as a culturally distinct entity continues to hang in the balance.
Not unnaturally, after 451 years of colonization, Goan cooking absorbed a strong Portuguese influence – palm vinegar (unknown elsewhere in India), copious amounts of coconut, tangy kokum and fierce local chillies also play their part. Goa is the home of the famous vindaloo (from the Portuguese vinho d’alho, literally “garlic wine”), originally an extra-hot and sour pork curry, but now made with a variety of meat and fish. Other pork specialities include spicy chouriço sausages, sorpotel, a hot curry made from pickled pig’s liver and heart, leitao, suckling pig and balchao, pork in a rich brown sauce. Another traditional Goan Catholic dish is mutton xacuti, made with a sauce of lemon juice, peanuts, coconut, chillies and spices. The choice of seafood, often cooked in fragrant masalas, is excellent – clams, mussels, crab, lobster, giant prawns – while fish, depending on the type, is either cooked in wet curries, grilled, or baked in a tandoor. Chicken dishes include cafrea, a spicy stew with origins in Africa. Sanna, like the south Indian iddli, is a steamed cake of fermented rice flour, but here sweetened with palm toddy. Sugar fiends will adore bebinca, a rich, delicious solid egg custard with coconut, and the toffee-like dodol.
As for drinks, locally produced wine, spirits and beer are cheaper than anywhere in the country, thanks to lower rates of tax. The most famous and widespread beer is Kingfisher, which tastes less of glycerine preservative than it does elsewhere in India, but you’ll also come across pricier Fosters, brewed in Mumbai and nothing like the original. Goan port, a sweeter, inferior version of its Portuguese namesake, is ubiquitous, served chilled in large wine glasses with a slice of lemon. Local spirits – whiskies, brandies, rums, gins and vodkas – come in a variety of brand names for less than Rs50–150 a shot, but, at half the price, local speciality feni, made from distilled cashew or from the sap of coconut palms, offers strong competition. Cashew feni is usually drunk after the first distillation, but you can also find it double-distilled and flavoured with ginger or cumin, producing a smooth liqueur.
The best time to visit Goa is during the dry, relatively cool winter months between late November and mid-March. At other times, either the sun is too hot for comfort, or the humidity, clouds and rain make life miserable. During peak season, from mid-December to the end of January, the weather is perfect, with temperatures rarely nudging above 32°C. Finding a room or a house to rent at that time, however – particularly over Christmas and New Year when tariffs double, or triple – can be a real hassle. Find out more about when to go to India.
With its diverse cultural mix, Goa’s festivals range from Christian and Hindu celebrations to hedonistic parties and arty events. The Christmas and New Year period attracts many thousands to techno and dance parties – of which the Sunburn Festival is the largest. Outside this period, however, less touristy, more authentic draws – Carnival or Narkasur Parades, for example – go to show that Goa is not all beaches and parties.
Celebrated in Goa more than anywhere else in the country. The state heaves with foreign and domestic tourists set to party – and accommodation prices can double or triple.
Be very careful where you swim in Goa. Many places are subject to vicious currents (even in relatively shallow water) and during the season at least one tourist a week drowns here – often after they have consumed drugs or alcohol. It’s safest to stick to the beaches with lifeguards and flags indicating the safe areas to swim. Swimming anywhere during the monsoon would be suicidal.
While the vast majority of harassment of female tourists in Goa is relatively harmless (though unacceptable) – the surreptitious use of cellphones to take photos of scantily clad women on beaches, for example (report them to the beach police and they’ll be forced to delete the pictures), or unwanted attempts at conversation by large groups of men – there have been more serious cases of sexual crimes. Women should avoid walking alone in remote places (or on the beach), especially after dark, and never accept drinks from strangers. Read more about traveller safety in Goa and the rest of India.
Lots of visitors come to Goa expecting to be able to party on the beach every night, and are dismayed when most places to dance turn out to be mainstream clubs they probably wouldn’t look twice at back home. The truth is that the full-on, elbows-in-the-air beach party of old, when tens of thousands of people would space out to huge techno sound systems under neon-painted palm trees, is – for now – pretty much a thing of the past in Goa.
Goa’s coastal villages saw their first big parties back in the 1960s with the influx of hippies to Calangute and Baga. Much to the amazement of the locals, the preferred pastime of these wannabe sadhus was to cavort naked on the sands together on full-moon nights, amid a haze of chillum smoke and loud rock music. At first the villagers took little notice of these bizarre gatherings, but with each season the scene became better established, and by the late 1970s the Christmas and New Year parties, in particular, had become huge events, attracting travellers from all over the country.
Known as the Velhas Conquistas (“Old Conquests”), the land wedged between the Mandovi and Zuari rivers in Central Goa was the first territory to be colonized by the Portuguese in the early sixteenth century, and still retains a more Christian feel than outlying districts. Gabled, whitewashed churches dominate most village squares, and you’ll see plenty of old-style Portuguese dresses worn by Catholic women.
The Lusitanian atmosphere is most discernible of all in the older districts of the state capital, Panjim, and although the town attracts far fewer visitors than the coastal resorts, it certainly deserves a day or two’s break from the beach, if only to visit the remains of Old Goa, a short bus ride away upriver. Further inland, the forested lower slopes of the Western Ghats, cut through by the main Panjim–Bengaluru (Bangalore) highway, shelter the impressive Dudhsagar falls, reachable only by 4WD jeep, and a small, but beautifully situated medieval Hindu temple at Tambdi Surla.
Stacked around the sides of a lush terraced hillside at the mouth of the River Mandovi, Panjim (also known by its Marathi name, Panaji – “land that does not flood”) was for centuries little more than a minor landing stage and customs house, protected by a hilltop fort and surrounded by stagnant swampland. It only became state capital in 1843, after the port at Old Goa had silted up and its rulers and impoverished inhabitants had fled the plague. Today, the town ranks among the least congested and hectic of any Indian capital. Conventional sights are thin on the ground, but the backstreets of the old quarter, Fontainhas, have retained a faded Portuguese atmosphere, with their colour-washed houses, azulejo tiled street names and Catholic churches.
Panjim’s annual hour in the spotlight comes at the end of November each year when it hosts the International Film Festival of India, or IFFI, for which a galaxy of Bollywood glitterati, and the odd foreign director, turn up to strut their stuff.
Just 10km from Panjim, and at one time a byword for oriental splendour, Portugal’s former capital in India, Old Goa, was virtually abandoned following malaria and cholera epidemics from the seventeenth century onwards. Today, despite its UNESCO World Heritage Site status, you need considerable imagination to picture the once-great city at its zenith, when it boasted a population of several hundred thousand. The maze of twisting streets, piazzas and ochre-washed villas has vanished, and all that remains is a score of cream-painted churches and convents. Foremost among the surviving monuments is the tomb of St Francis Xavier, the legendary sixteenth-century missionary, whose desiccated remains are enshrined in the Basilica of Bom Jesus – the object of veneration for Catholics from across Asia and beyond.
Francis Xavier, the “Apostle of the Indies”, was born in 1506 in the old kingdom of Navarre, now part of Spain. When the Portuguese king, Dom Joao III (1521–57), received reports of corruption and dissolute behaviour among the Portuguese in Goa, it was Xavier whom the Jesuit Order selected to restore the moral climate of the colony.
Arriving after a year-long journey, the young priest embarked on a programme of missionary work throughout southern India, converting an estimated thirty thousand people – primarily by performing such miracles as raising the dead and curing the sick with a touch of his beads. Subsequent missions took him further afield to Sri Lanka, Malacca (Malaysia) and Japan, before his death from dysentery on the island of San Chuan (Sancian), off the Chinese coast in 1552.
Although credited with converting more people to Christianity than anyone other than St Paul, Francis Xavier owes his subsequent canonization principally to the legend surrounding the fate of his mortal remains, which, when exhumed in China a year after burial, were found to be in a perfect state of preservation. His body was later removed and taken to Old Goa, where it has remained ever since, enshrined in the Basilica of Bom Jesus.
St Francis’s incorruptible corpse, however, has never rested entirely in peace. Chunks of it have been removed over the years by relic hunters and curious clerics: in 1614, the right arm was dispatched to the pope in Rome (where it allegedly wrote its name on paper), a hand was sent to Japan, and parts of the intestines to Southeast Asia. One Portuguese woman, Dona Isabel de Caron, even bit off the little toe of the cadaver; apparently, so much blood spurted into her mouth, it left a trail to her house and she was discovered.
Every ten years (the next is due in 2024), the saint’s body is carried in a three-hour procession from the Basilica of Bom Jesus to the Sé cathedral, where visitors file past, touch and photograph it. Around a quarter of a million pilgrims flock to view the corpse, these days a shrivelled and somewhat unsavoury spectacle.
Development in North Goa is concentrated mainly behind the 7km, strip of white sand that stretches from the foot of Fort Aguada, crowning the peninsula east of Panjim, to Baga creek in the north. Encompassing the resorts of Candolim, Calangute and Baga, this is Goa’s prime charter belt and an area most independent travellers steer well clear of.
Since the advent of mass tourism in the 1980s, the alternative “scene” has drifted progressively north away from the sunbed strip to Anjuna and Vagator – site of some of the region’s loveliest beaches – and scruffier Chapora, which still has the feel of a fishing village (although overfishing means few boats actually go out these days). Further north still, Arambol has thus far escaped any large-scale development, despite the completion of the new road bridge across the Chapora River. Aswem and Mandrem, just south of Arambol, are this stretch of coast’s hot tips: still reasonably off-track, though rapidly filling up.
Candolim is prime package-tourist country, and not a resort that sees many backpackers, but, with a few pleasant places to stay in the village by the fort, it can make a good first stop if you’ve just arrived in Goa – and its predominantly more mature clientele make it much less rowdy than Calangute/Baga. The busy strip running through the middle of town holds a string of banks and handy shops where you can stock up with essentials before moving further afield, and there are some great places to eat and drink, frequented mostly by boozy, middle-aged Brits and, increasingly, domestic tourists.
A 45-minute bus ride up the coast from Panjim, Calangute was, in Portuguese times, where well-to-do Goans would come for their annual mudança, or change of air, in May and June, when the pre-monsoon heat made life in the towns insufferable. It remains the state’s busiest resort, but has changed beyond recognition since the days when straw-hatted musicians in the beachfront bandstand would regale smartly dressed strollers with Lisbon fados and Konkani dulpods. Mass package tourism, combined with a huge increase in the number of Indian visitors (for whom this is Goa’s number-one beach resort), has placed an impossible burden on the town’s rudimentary infrastructure. Hemmed in by four-storey buildings and swarming with traffic, the market area, in particular, has taken on the aspect of a typical makeshift Indian town of precisely the kind that most travellers used to come to Goa to get away from. That said, the south end of the beach around Maddo Waddo is quite mellow and there are marginally fewer domestic lager louts than in Baga to the north.
Baga is pretty much an extension of Calangute, though the scenery in the far north is somewhat more varied and picturesque. Overlooked by a rocky headland draped in vegetation, a small tidal river flows into the sea at the top of the village, past a spur of soft white sand where ranks of brightly coloured fishing boats are moored.
Since the package boom, Baga has developed more rapidly than anywhere else in the state and today looks less like the Goan fishing village it was in the early 1990s and more like a small-scale resort on the Spanish costas, with a predominantly young, male, Indian clientele. These “stags”, lured to Goa by advertising hinting at cheap booze, hard partying and erotic encounters with exotic foreign women, can be annoying. Beyond the rowdy bars where they hang out, however, you’ll find a crop of excellent restaurants and some lively nightlife.
Anjuna, the next sizeable village up the coast from Baga, was, until a few years back, the last bastion of alternative chic in Goa – where the state’s legendary full-moon parties were staged each season, and where the Beautiful Set would rent pretty red-tiled houses for six months at a time, make trance mixes and groovy dance clothes, paint the palm trees fluoro colours and spend months lazing on the beach. A small contingent of fashionably attired, middle-aged hippies still turn up, but thanks to a combination of the Y2K music ban and overwhelming growth in popularity of the flea market, Anjuna has seriously fallen out of fashion for the party crowd. As a consequence, the scattered settlement of old Portuguese houses and whitewashed churches, nestled behind a long golden sandy beach, nowadays more closely resembles the place it was before the party scene snowballed than it has for a decade or more. There is, however, a downside to staying here: levels of substance abuse, both among visitors and locals, remain exceptionally high, and the village suffers more than its fair share of dodgy characters.
Barely a couple of kilometres of clifftops and parched grassland separate Anjuna from the southern fringes of Vagator. Spread around a tangle of winding back lanes, this is a more chilled, undeveloped resort that appeals, in the main, to southern European beach bums who come back year after year.
With the red ramparts of Chapora fort looming above it, Vagator’s broad sandy beach – known as “Big Vagator” – is undeniably beautiful. However, a peaceful swim or lie on the sand is out of the question here as it’s a prime stop for bus parties of domestic tourists. A much better option, though one that still sees more than its fair share of day-trippers, is the next beach south. Backed by a steep wall of crumbling palm-fringed laterite, Little (or “Ozran”) Vagator beach is actually a string of three contiguous coves. To reach them you have to walk from where the buses park above Big Vagator, or drive to the end of the lane running off the main Chapora–Anjuna road (towards the Nine Bar), from where footpaths drop sharply down to a wide stretch of level white sand (look for the mopeds and bikes parked at the top of the cliff). Long dominated by Italian tourists, the southernmost – dubbed “Spaghetti Beach” – is the prettiest, with a string of well-established shacks, at the end of which a face carved out of the rocks, staring serenely skywards, is the most prominent landmark. Relentless racquetball, trance sound systems and a particularly sizeable herd of stray cows are the other defining features.
Huddled in the shadow of a Portuguese fort on the opposite, northern side of the headland from Vagator is Chapora, north Goa’s main fishing port. The anchorage and boatyard below its brown-walled citadel – where you can see the mostly now disused boats drawn up on the shore – used to form the backbone of the village’s economy, but there’s always been a hard-drinking, heavy-smoking hippie tourist scene alongside it, revolving around the coffee shops and bars on the main street. For a brief period a few years back, Russian mafia types took over and squeezed the freaks out, but like migrating turtles they’ve returned to their old hangout in numbers undiminished by Goa’s recent changes. Today Chapora remains the commuter dormitory for the freaks on the party scene in Vagator and Anjuna – many rent houses or rooms long-term here year after year.
Chapora’s chief landmark is its venerable old fort, most easily reached from the Vagator side of the hill. At low tide, you can also walk around the bottom of the headland, via the anchorage and the secluded coves beyond it to Big Vagator, then head up the hill from there. The red-laterite bastion, crowning the rocky bluff, was built by the Portuguese in 1617 on the site of an earlier Muslim structure (thus the village’s name – from Shahpura, “town of the Shah”). Deserted in the nineteenth century, it lies in ruins today, although the views up and down the coast from the weed-infested ramparts are still superb.
Pretty Aswem, the next settlement north of Morjim, could hardly be described as a proper resort. Officially inside the Coastal Protection Zone, its beachfront holds few permanent buildings and most of the accommodation is in temporary structures. And yet, over the past few seasons, the strip of soft white sand nestled beneath its mand of slender palms has become the place to see and be seen by India’s seriously cool set. Mumbai millionaires, Bollywood A-listers and international celebs are regularly spotted in the swanky resorts and clubs in the dunes. A more down-to-earth scene holds sway around the headland to the south, which is family friendly, with lots of children playing on the beach. How long this stretch can hold out against the rising tide of bling, however, is anyone’s guess.
From the far side of the creek bounding the edge of Aswem, a magnificent and largely empty beach stretches north towards Arambol – the last unspoiled stretch of the north Goan coast. Whether or not Mandrem can continue to hold out against the developers remains to be seen, but for the time being, nature still has the upper hand here. Olive ridley marine turtles nest on the quietest patches, and you’re more than likely to catch a glimpse of one of the white-bellied fish eagles that live in the casuarina trees – their last stronghold in the north of Goa.
Arambol, 32km northwest of Mapusa, is easily the most populous village in the far north, and the area’s main tourist hub. Traditionally a refuge for a hard-core hippie fringe, it nowadays attracts a lively and eclectic mix of travellers, the majority of whom stick around for the season, living in rented rooms, hut camps and small houses scattered behind the magnificent white sand beach. As in most of north Goa, there’s also a showing of young, often quite alternative, Russians here, joining the spiritually inclined types from northern Europe who have long formed Arambol’s mainstay. The overall vibe is inclusive and positive, with plenty of live music, lots of relaxed places to eat and drink, and more opportunities to learn new yoga poses and reshuffle your chakras than you could get through in several lifetimes. Beach life is generally laidback too – except on weekends, when day-tripping drinkers descend en masse in SUVs from nearby Maharashtra.
One of the few genuinely positive improvements to the north Goa resort strip over the last fifteen years has been the Saturday Night Market held on a plot inland at Arpora, midway between Baga and Anjuna. Originally the brainchild of an expat German called Ingo, it’s run with great efficiency and a sense of fun that’s palpably lacking these days from the Anjuna flea market. The balmy evening temperatures and pretty lights are also a lot more conducive to relaxed browsing than the broiling heat of mid-afternoon on Anjuna beach. Although far more commercial than its predecessor in Anjuna, many old Goa hands regard this as far truer to the original spirit of the flea market. A significant proportion of the stalls are taken up by foreigners selling their own stuff, from reproduction Indian pop art to antique photos, the latest trance party gear, stunning antique and coconut-shell jewellery and techno DJ demos. There’s also a mouthwatering array of ethnic food and a stage featuring live music from around 7pm until 3am, when the market winds up, as well as a couple of trendy bars with live music or DJs. Admission is free.
The night market from which Ingo’s splintered – Mackie’s – lies nearby, close to the riverside In Baga. Spurned by the expatriate designers and stallholders, it is not quite as lively as its rival, though in recent years has made an effort to close the gap, with better live acts and more foreign stallholders.
Backed by a lush band of coconut plantations and green hills, Goa’s south coast is fringed by some of the region’s finest beaches. An ideal first base if you’ve just arrived in the region is Benaulim, 6km west of the state’s second city, Margao. The most traveller-friendly resort in the area, Benaulim stands slap in the middle of a spectacular 25km stretch of pure white sand. Although increasingly carved up by Mumbai time-share companies, low-cost accommodation here remains plentiful and of a consistently high standard. Nearby Colva, by contrast, has degenerated over the past decade into an insalubrious sink resort. Frequented by huge numbers of day-trippers, and boasting few discernible charms, it’s best avoided.
With the gradual spread of package tourism down the coast, Palolem, a ninety-minute drive south of Margao along the main highway, is Goa’s most happening beach, attracting droves of sun seekers from November through March. Set against a backdrop of forest-cloaked hills, its bay is spectacular, though the crowds can feel overwhelming in high season. For a quieter scene, try Agonda, just up the coast, or Patnem, immediately south of Palolem. Among the possible day-trips inland, a crop of Portuguese-era mansions at Chandor and Quepem are your best options; and in the far south, the Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary affords a rare glimpse of unspoiled forest and its fauna.
The capital of prosperous Salcete taluka, Margao – referred to in railway timetables and on some maps by its official government title, Madgaon – is Goa’s second city, and if you’re arriving in the state on the Konkan Railway, you’ll almost certainly have to pause here to pick up onward transport by road. Surrounded by fertile rice paddy and plantain groves, the town has always been an important agricultural market, and was once a major religious centre, with dozens of wealthy temples and dharamshalas – however, most of these were destroyed when the Portuguese absorbed the area into their Novas Conquistas (“New Conquests”) during the seventeenth century. Today, Catholic churches still outnumber Hindu shrines, but Margao has retained a cosmopolitan feel due to a huge influx of migrant labour from neighbouring Karnataka and Maharashtra.
For a good dose of quirky colonial architecture, head inland from Margao, where villages such as Loutolim and Chandor are littered with decaying old Portuguese houses, most of them empty – the region’s traditional inheritance laws ensure that old family homes tend to be owned by literally dozens of descendants, few of whom are willing or can afford to maintain them.
A superb colonial-era palacio stands at Quepem, a thirty-minute drive southeast of Margao on the fringes of the state’s iron-ore belt. In 1787, a high-ranking member of the Portuguese clergy, Father José Paulo de Almeida, built a country house in the town. Known as the Palacio do Deão, it grew to become one of the grandest in the colony, and later served as a retreat for its viceroys. The palacio was recently restored to its former glory, and what you see today is a faithful approximation of how the house would have looked in José Paulo’s day. The engaging guided tour lasts around half an hour, winding up on the lovely rear terrace overlooking the river where you can enjoy a delicious Goan lunch, dinner or afternoon tea by prior arrangement.
A hot-season retreat for Margao’s moneyed middle classes since long before Independence, Colva is the oldest and largest – and least appealing – of south Goa’s resorts. Its outlying waddos are pleasant enough, dotted with colonial-style villas and ramshackle fishing huts, but the beachfront is dismal: a lacklustre collection of concrete hotels, souvenir stalls and flyblown snack bars strewn around a bleak central roundabout. The atmosphere is not improved by the heaps of rubbish dumped in a rank-smelling ditch that runs behind the beach, nor by the stench of drying fish wafting from the nearby village. Benaulim, just a five-minute drive further south, has a far better choice of accommodation and range of facilities, and is altogether more salubrious.
The predominantly Catholic fishing village of Benaulim lies in the dead centre of Colva beach, scattered around the coconut groves and paddy fields, 7km west of Margao. Two decades ago, the settlement had barely made it onto the backpackers’ map. Nowadays, though, affluent holiday-makers from metropolitan India come here in droves, staying in the huge resort and time-share complexes mushrooming on the outskirts, while long-staying, heavy-drinking Brit pensioners and thirty-something European couples taking time out of trips around the Subcontinent make up the bulk of the foreign contingent.
Benaulim’s rising popularity has certainly dented the village’s old-world charm, but time your visit well (avoiding Diwali and the Christmas peak season), and it is still hard to beat as a place to unwind. The seafood is superb, accommodation and motorbikes cheaper than anywhere else in the state, and the beach is breathtaking, particularly around sunset, when the brilliant white sand and churning surf reflect the changing colours to magical effect. Shelving away almost to Cabo da Rama on the horizon, it is also lined with Goa’s largest, and most colourfully decorated, fleet of wooden outriggers, which provide welcome shade during the heat of the day.
Agonda, 10km northwest of the market town of Chaudi (known to outsiders as Canacona), comes as a pleasant surprise after the chaos elsewhere in Goa. Accommodation in this predominantly Catholic fishing village is in small-scale, family-run guesthouses and upper-end hut camps, the restaurant scene is relatively unsophisticated, and the clientele easy-going and health-conscious. Granted, you don’t get a dreamy brake of palm trees as a backdrop, but the surrounding hills and forest are exquisite, and the sand is as clean as any in the state. The smart money says Agonda could all too soon go the way of Palolem, but for the time being the village deserves to be high on the list for anyone seeking somewhere quiet and wholesome, with enough amenities for a relaxing holiday and plenty of local atmosphere.
Nowhere else in peninsular India conforms so obediently to the archetypal image of a paradise beach as Palolem, 35km south of Margao. Lined with a swaying curtain of coconut palms, the bay forms a perfect curve of golden sand, arcing north from a giant pile of boulders to a spur of the Sahyadri Hills, which tapers into the sea draped in thick forest. Palolem, however, has become something of a paradise lost over the past decade. It’s now the most popular resort in Goa among independent foreign travellers, and is deluged from late November. Visitor numbers become positively overwhelming in peak season, when thousands of people spill across a beach backed by an unbroken line of shacks and Thai-style huts camps.
Basically, Palolem in full swing is the kind of place you’ll either love at first sight, or want to get away from as quickly as possible. If you’re in the latter category, try smaller, less frequented Patnem beach, a short walk south around the headland, where the shack scene is more subdued and the sands marginally emptier.
If the bright lights of Palolem start to lose their allure, wander around the headland to the south, where the Hindu fishing hamlet of Colom offers a more sedate scene. The shacks and bar strip resurfaces in earnest once around the next promontory at Patnem, but even in peak season the beach here rarely gets packed. Finally, to the south of Patnem, Rajbag is a worthwhile destination for a fitness walk, but little more, thanks to the massive luxury resort behind it.
The Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary, 10km southeast of Canacona/Chaudi, was established in 1969 to protect a remote and vulnerable area of forest lining the Goa–Karnataka border. Best visited between October and March, Cotigao is a peaceful and scenic park that makes a pleasant day-trip from Palolem, 12km northwest. Encompassing 86 square kilometres of mixed deciduous woodland, the reserve is certain to inspire tree lovers, but less likely to yield many wildlife sightings: its tigers and leopards were hunted out long ago, while the gazelles, sloth bears, porcupines and hyenas that allegedly lurk in the woods rarely appear. You do, however, stand a good chance of spotting at least two species of monkey, a couple of wild boar and the odd gaur (the primeval-looking Indian bison), as well as plenty of birdlife.