Bagni San Filippo Thermal Springs in Tuscany, Italy

South Goa

Photos and words by Katie McKnoulty

I spent two weeks floating around South Goa’s beaches one very hot April at the tail end of the tourist season. The quieter alternative to North Goa’s party scene, it’s closer to the unspoilt paradise I always imagined sixties and seventies Goa to be, with just a hint of hippie.

I was looking for a beach to while away a few weeks in India fresh off the back of 21 days in an Ayurvedic retreat in Kerala. I’d meditated, practised yoga, read books and generally abstained from anything even remotely resembling a party for three weeks. I was in no state to tackle North Goa’s party scene. I’d scoured the Tripadvisor reviews, too many, of North Goa’s beaches; each one sounded more like a Mykonos day rave than the last.

It sounded so far from the utopia that attracted international travellers to Goa during the flower power years. Freethinkers aplenty fled the west in the sixties and seventies to live an alternative existence in North Goa: more spiritual, less materialistic. Now that place seemed to be gone.

I opted for the beaches of South Goa instead. Many years behind its northern counterpart in terms of tourism and infrastructure, South Goa looked and sounded like the kind of place where bungalows and shacks still lined the sand and beaches were still beaches, not bars, much closer to the down-to-earth Goa I was searching for.

Palolem Beach

We choose to base ourselves at Palolem Beach, a wide bay with long, gentle waves. Palm trees fringe the curved shore, growing dense and tall, dominating the manmade structures housing hotels and cafes. We walk the beach the first afternoon of our arrival and find open-air, sandy-floored thatched-roof cafes with fans whirring and simple, unassuming shacks to sleep in where air-con is optional and extra.

It’s without a doubt a beach set up for tourism, but not just for foreign tourists; plenty of local kids run around in the sand, Indian families walk along the beach together at dusk and fisherman casting huge nets together in the waves after the sun goes down.

With even cheaper deals on beach bungalows and shacks at this time of year, we easily find a place we like just by walking around with backpacks on.

Our shack is perched on the very top of a hill all on its own, very Robinson Crusoe-style, with a rickety wooden balcony overlooking the wide expanse of the bay. Faded patterned curtains temper the hot sun outside and a blue mosquito net and seventies-style quilt adorn the bed; it feels pretty close to the back-to-basics, barefoot image of Goa I’d held in mind. We institute a candlight-only rule at night, partly for the mood, partly so as not to encourage the many insistent mosquitos even further.

The day we arrive we discover there’s a statewide ban on the sale of alcohol during the next five days of our stay; it’s the lead-up to an important election and they want everyone as sober as possible. So my abstinence continues, perfect for a post-Ayurvedic retreat come-down and my re-entry into the real world.

The mosquitos and the rising heat do win in the end though and after five days, we move from our very Goa accommodation to something less dreamy, more modern: an air-conditioned apartment in a town close by. We can cook and get some work done here with the wi fi and feel cool and clean for a while in between outings.

Outside our new apartment in a nearby town.

Even with our fancy new apartment, we keep going back to Palolem Beach and getting our feet sandy every day, eating meals and swimming at the beach there. We find our favourite places we like along the main road behind the beach, christened Palolem Down Street, and it makes me giggle every time I see the signs announcing the street name. Downtown anything when it comes to Palolem doesn’t seem like the right word for this beautifully undeveloped place. It’s lined with stalls, shops and cafes, some more thrown together and impermanent looking than others.

Dropadi restaurant, a local institution, and its sandy floors blurring boundaries between beach and bar/restaurant.

We find our favourite spots: Shree Ganesh, an Indian cafe housed within a bright pastel-painted concrete box serving traditional thali plates and our favourite dosas (rice and lentil pancakes served with all manner of chutnies and sauces, heart-breakingly only served at breakfast time), Little World, a health food cafe offering vegetarian salads and breakfasts with an Indian twist, Dropadi on the beach side, what seems to be an institution that’s always full, serving fresh seafood cooked on the barbecue with indian spices and sauces.

Getting Around

In town, on the road to Palolem Beach.

As soon as we arrive, we head out to find a scooter to rent; it’s not hard. We ask around along the main ‘Downtown’ street and we easily find a guy renting them. We give him a tiny deposit and he gives us the keys to our scooter for the next week, no passport, address or even first name required. They seem to rent to tourists based on the honour system which I find charming. We use our scooter to get around Palolem and to start exploring the other beaches of South Goa.

Delightfully wild scene by the side of the highway.

Agonda Beach

We venture to Agonda Beach a few times and find a more modern, slightly more developed strip of sand, the beach is longer and more exposed to the elements than Palolem Beach; we almost get blown away one windy afternoon there.

Agonda is noticeably more upmarket than our base at Palolem, a little more yippy (short for yuppy-hippy) than hippy. We come to love this area for its modern, hipster cafes, our favourite is Kopi Desa for the international food and cocktails in a cool and chill beachy setting.

One evening, we walk along the sand after dinner and discover phosphoresence in the sea and sand, a magical luminous glow emanating from millions of tiny marine organisms.

Right, cashew apples, both contain a seed: the cashew “nut”.

At Sunset

It starts to get too hot to venture outside into the sun during the days; I start to feel the necessity of the imminent arrival of the monsoon season to break this relentless heat. We start working during the days, reteating inside our air-conditioned apartment to our laptops and the wi fi.

For digital nomads and anyone looking to bring their laptop with them to South Goa, I can definitely recommend finding a clean, air-conditioned apartment with wireless Internet (check the reviews of the Internet quality!) just off the beach around Palolem or Agonda. The internet worked fairly well where I was, though at the time I went (2018) it wasn’t good enough for a reliable video call, and there were minimal power cuts during my stay.

Every day, we wait until the sun goes down and then drive the short drive to Palolem beach for our daily beach trip. We watch the light fade immersed in the warm water, riding the gentle waves, only emerging after it gets too dark to see. The water stays warm enough to keep us warm even without the sun’s rays.

We’re not the only and definitely not the first ones with this ingenious sunset beach trip idea. Local families, the women is beautiful saris, stroll the shore together too at this time of day and fishermen get together in groups to cast their nets out into the waves.

 A Palolem Beach sunset from our beach bungalow on the hill.

In spite of all my nostalgic fantasies, I’m quite sure nothing could ever come close to the real-deal, free-love Goa of the sixties and seventies. From what I eventually saw for myself of North Goa though, the southern beaches around Palolem and Agonda offered something closer to that ideal than the original hallowed grounds.

North Goa didn’t seem in desperate need of any more tourists; even at the end of the season it was clear the huge impact over-tourism has had on the area. The good news: a new sustainability and conservation plan is being implemented in the area, more on this topic: 7 Awesome Ways Goa is Going Green and Reinventing Goa, India’s Hedonistic Beach Hideaway.

While the Goa we’ve all read about might be long gone, there’s still something special here in South Goa for the flower-power, peace-and-wild-loving soul. With down-to-earth, barefoot beach towns, natural, undeveloped beaches, a mix of local Indian eateries and vegan-leaning healthfood cafes, the modern hippie can find their nirvana here.

Follow my South Goa map with a few of my favourite spots pinned down including the beach bungalow where we stayed.

The Travelling Light ©2020
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