Goa, with its beautiful shoreline of soft sandy beaches and swaying coconut groves has long attracted tourists from India and abroad. Since the hippies discovered its charms in the 60s and 70s, Goa has had the reputation of a chilled out party destination by the beach and while this remains true even today, the sunshine state has plenty to offer those who are willing to go further.
Here are five unique Goan experiences you need to tick off your list before you can truly say you have seen Goa!
Live in a Goan village
To experience the state of the local Goan, leave behind the chaotic beaches of the north and instead take the road less travelled through green paddy fields and sleepy villages (stay here). Experience the state’s true susegadi life in Aldona, where you can live with a Goan family in their centuries-old rambling family home surrounded by coconut trees or visit villages like Chador and Loutolim with their massive Goan – Portuguese mansions of yore, filled with elegant splendour.
If neither appeals to you, spend your days lazing with a good book or exploring quiet village lanes, where the sound of silence is only occasionally interrupted by the chirping of birds or the call of the local bread man, bringing home delicious freshly baked poi. Should you feel the need to eat in a more formal setting, or at least as formal as it gets in Goa, make your way to Vinayak’s.
Explore ancient caves and prehistoric rock carvings
On the banks of the Karnavati river in southern Goa lie an ancient wonder, the stone age Petroglyphs of Usgalimal. The carvings, discovered by villagers in 1993 when layers of mud, whihc hid them for centuries, were washed away by monsoon floods, are etched in laterite rock and date back to 8000 BC. Of varying sizes, the carvings are absolutely fascinating. There are depictions of animals like bulls and deer, birds, hoof prints, a depiction of a mother and a child and even some hunting and mating scenes.
The most interesting though is the large Oculus or circular labyrinth, which is similar to depictions of Triskelion in Celtic culture. The meaning or symbolism of these concentric rings to the people who occupied this region thousands of years ago is something archaeologists and anthropologist are still grappling with. Also interesting are the nearby Rivona caves, natural enclaves said to be occupied by Buddhist monks between the 6 – 8th Century.
Goa’s Portuguese past is well known, but to truly understand, one must drive half an hour south of Panjim to UNESCO recognised Velha Goa. Velha Goa or old Goa was the capital of the Portuguese Empire in India and its spiritual centre, which is reflected in the many churches and cathedrals built here. From the red brick Basilica of Bom Jesus which houses the relics of St. Francis Xavier, to the humongous Se Cathedral built to commemorate the victory of the Portuguese General Afonso de Albuquerque over Adil Shah’s army and the beautifully intricate wooden altar at the Church of St Cajetan, the churches here are stunning. Their beauty and grandeur rival Europe’s best, and are testament to the power and scale of the Portuguese empire. Drive up to our Lady of the Mount on the hill behind St. Cajetan which affords a stunning view of the tops of the cathedrals over Velha Goa and the Mandovi river.
Explore Goa’s lush forests and the green hills
While it is the beaches that draws the crowds, to see a different side of Goa, make a monsoon visit to witness the freshly awash western Ghats burst into life. Monsoon is also the time when the Dudhsagar waterfall comes alive in all its glory as it empties from the hills of Karnataka into the Mandovi river in a roaring milky white torrent from which it gets its name. The south of Goa on the Karnataka border is also home to rainforests, spice plantations and wildlife sanctuaries, like the Bhagwan Mahavir Sanctuary which boasts thick jungles, numerous waterfalls, leopards and the ancient Tambdi Surla Temple said to be built around the 12th century, predating Goa’s first churches by at least 300 years! For a bit of adventure, take the path on the left just before the temple and follow it as it leaves the Surla river and snakes up through the higher reaches of the forest to the Tamdi waterfall.
India’s only Latin Quarter, Fontainhas is said to be named after a fountain from a spring fed well around which early Portuguese settlers built their homes. In Portuguese cities like Lisbon, even today, there exists a locality called Fontainhas on the banks of the river, though we found the two to be quite different. It is said that as per tradition in Portugal, only churches could be painted white and all other homes had to be of a different colours, and the Goans of Fontainhas seem to have taken this to heart! It is a joy to wander around this UNESCO declared heritage precinct, with quaint homes done up in bright hues of yellows, oranges, maroons and blues. Here, you can still hear snatches of conversation in a mix of Konkani and Portuguese over the soft strains of a violin, and evenings bring the aunties out onto their cute little balconies, gossiping with neighbours or simply watching the world go by. No visit to Goa can be complete without some authentic Goan food and in Fontainhas you will plenty of options from Goan sweets like Bebinca at the 70 year old Confeitaria 31 De Janeiro, to scrumptious pork and fish dishes at the family run Viva Panjim to the small roadside cart which opens up every evening on the corner of Rua 31 De Janeiro serving local delicacies.