The seaside, cliff-side beach town of Varkala, in Kerala State, India is spectacular. The hotels and restaurants are perched on top of a towering, crumbling cliff with a beautiful beach below.
The geology of the area is special because it is one of the only places to see seaside cliffs on the Arabian sea coast. It is also interesting because it’s very easy to imagine certain of the restaurants toppling off the cliff. There is a walking ( and scootering) path along the top that gives access to the restaurants, and in some places it is undercut or just plain gone. Down at the bottom you can see big blocks of rock that have broken off and tumbled down.
In low season most of the restaurants and hotels are closed, but you can see from the signage that the popular activities are yoga, ayurvedic massage and other treatments, and the beach.
Apparently, swimming is one of the attractions, but don’t even think about it during monsoon season. After our Owl Adventure we went to the beach all geared up for some splashing around in the water. We already knew from our stay in Kovalam that we wouldn’t be able to swim; the ocean is quite rough and not so warm. We thought we would be able to splash around in the waves a little, and maybe have a mudfight…
There are two ways to get to Varkala beach. The easy but long way is to walk all the way along the cliff to get to the road. The more adventurous option is to take one of the three crumbling, gravelly, muddy staircases. Sound like fun, yes? We took one stairway to get down and another even sketchier one to get back up.
I thought the bottom was rough…
What to do at the beach?
When we got to the beach, we arrived just in time to see some tourists get whistled out of the surf by the beach police. They were too far away for us to understand what was going on at the time. We walked down the beach a ways until we arrived at the beach police station.
The Varkala beach patrol consists of two mustachioed (of course) gentlemen in uniform under a beach umbrella. They don’t seem to be visibly ready to leap into the surf, except for the silicone bathing caps in their shirt pockets. I think their job is more prevention than rescue.
We asked them about swimming, they said “No sir, no swimming permitted.”
We asked them about splashing around in the waves, they said “No sir, no entry into the sea at all permitted.”
When I looked disappointed and confused, they elaborated. The message was that even if I am a strong swimmer, “Indians can’t swim” (his words not mine). The concern is that and they might be led astray by my example. Apparently 50 people have drowned at the beach in the Trivandrum area last month!
Well, that rules out the entire Arabian Sea for the day.
Time to find something else to do in Varkala!
We wandered the beach for bit until we discovered three pipes sticking out of the cliff wall with water pouring out.
We wondered at first whether the water was “runoff” from the hotels at the top of the cliff. The distance seemed too far to be worth the trouble. We asked some locals about it and they said not only was it clean, but one of them was safe to drink, apparently. Erring on the side of caution, we chose not to drink the groundwater.
The water coming out of the pipe pooled below and then just seeped off down the beach toward the ocean. There was an area about 20 square meters downhill that was all muddy and covered in green algae.
Many local people were stopping by these pipes to rinse their feet, wash their hands, generally refresh themselves. There was a subset of locals that were taking care of a lot more business. These two men arrived with a change of clothes and proceeded to do laundry. They spread their clothes out on the hot sand to dry, and then showered and washed (hair too). The neatest part was when they plucked leaves off a nearby bush and finger-brushed their teeth with leaf pulp.
Our kids started to splash around in the water, and just to kill some time I dug a small trench with my heel. Inevitably, the trench got wider and longer, channeling the water downhill. Not bad, but would be better with tools. Enter the digging stick.
An hour later, I had drained the muddy area and the algae was drying up. The kids were sailing leaf boats down the drainage canal, and we had filled an afternoon.
I guess a grown man digging apparently pointless ditches on the beach is not a common sight. We had some locals interested but not quite ready to pitch in. Not until the Little Fella came over with an armload of digging sticks. You can count on him for an armload of sticks at any given moment.
After the Little Guy rallied the troops, we had enough diggers to trench right down to the ocean. The problem then was the flow rate of the spring water. The beach sand absorbed the water faster than it was flowing. We never made it to the sea. But we had loads of fun all afternoon!
There’s always something to do with your kids, as long as you have a digging stick.