As far as backpacking destinations go, I would say Chikmagalur is yet to be discovered. It is mostly a weekend getaway destination for Bangalore residents and people from the South. But certainly it is far from touristy and boy, did we fall in love with it!
On our first day we wandered into the town and walked around the streets just to get a feel for the place. It had such an honest, relaxed atmosphere about it. The streets were clean, there was bountiful fruits and vegetables (all locally grown) and we really fell in love with the, sort of, content vibes of the place. I truly feel that it’s the fact Chikmagalur is relatively untouched by tourism that has kept it this way.
Nestled up in the lower hills of the Western Ghats, Chikmagalur is a beautiful, scenic town which is famous for its production of coffee. Cafe Coffee Day (India’s version of Costa) has 1500 acres of coffee plantations based in and around the area! We stayed at Zostel, which itself was based on a coffee plantation of 4 acres, owned by a local man. The greatest thing about these plantations is that they are grown under shade – this means that the forest and trees are preserved. The forests are still so diverse with different fruit trees to encourage the wildlife to remain in the plantations. The farmers seem to understand here that biodiversity actually improves the quality of their produce, which was really nice to see.
We did most of our exploring in 2, full-on days, since you need to hire a taxi to get around and squeezing as much as possible into one trip helps save some money! Luckily our hostel was extremely helpful and organised all of our taxis for us.
The Mountain Circuit
This is an absolute must for anyone headed to this area! During this trip we witnessed some of the most (if not THE most) breathtaking views of the past 3 months. The mountain circuit covers an area of around 30km from the main town and passes through the must-see landscapes in the nearby vicinity. We hired a taxi for the day for 2300 rupees (a good deal!) and arranged to be collected at 5am so we could catch sunrise. The fact we woke up at 4am and our driver was then half an hour late could be forgiven since he did manage to reach our first destination with minutes to spare.
The Mountain Circuit takes you to 3 major points on the nearby peaks:
The first of these is Mullayangiri, this is the highest peak in the state of Karnataka at 6300 feet above sea level. Luckily for us the road takes you almost all of the way to the top. You then need to climb around 500 relatively steep steps to the summit. Or, if you are one of the pilgrims, you can take the stairs that start way back down the mountain (no, thank you). We arrived just as the sun was rising and the views were simply stunning.
Being a weekday and being so early, no one else was on the mountain, not one person, so we had this spectacular sunrise all to ourselves!! Although, we were joined by the usual puppies and cows, obviously. The mountains get quite cold at night due to the altitude and as a result the clouds build up and settle in around the peaks like a blanket. By midday, these are all burnt away, but in the morning they give you this insane sunrise of golden clouds being blown over the peaks and into the valley. On one side of the mountain are the green, rolling hills with winding roads built into the side. On the other lay a thick layer of cloud and the gusts of wind forcing it over the valley peaks where it dissipates into nothing. We stayed there watching it for around 1 and a half hours and probably could have stayed longer had we not a long list of other places to see!
Leaving by around 7:30 am we headed off to our next destination with our trusty taxi driver. He did try to speak to us in very broken english which was sweet, we were his first foreign tourist customers and he said that made him very happy (cute).
Kavikalgandi is the next viewpoint on the circuit. However, it is lower down than Mullayangiri and is smack bang in line with the clouds. Later on in the day I’m sure you get a great view of the valley. For us it was just a strong breeze and the grey of clouds hitting our faces. We quickly moved on.
This brings you nicely onto Buttermilk Falls (also known as Jhari Falls). We’ve not had too many waterfalls up to this point so have been excited to see some cool ones around this area. You pay a slightly expensive fee of 700 rupees for the jeep down to the waterfall from the main road. You must do this since it is on private property. The falls are beautiful though, the water trickles over rocks that have flowers growing on the underside and flows quite gently down the rock face. It was pretty hard to get a good picture though since there was so much mist flying towards our cameras! It did look like they might be building a cafe next to the falls. Not sure that’s a good idea since there was already quite a lot of litter around the waterfall. Cleaning up should probably take priority.
Our final ‘view point’ was Manikyadhara. By this point all the clouds had cleared and we were able to look down the mountain slopes onto the canopy of the coffee plantations. The lush, green hills really reminded us more of New Zealand or Austria, nothing like any part of India we have seen so far.
After taking a few wrong turns and being lost for around an hour, our driver took us to Hirekolale Lake. This was our last stop for the day. We got out for a walk (and an ice cream, of course) down the path. It looked to me like it was just a small reservoir; the views in the distance are quite nice though. The best thing about it for us was that we kept spotting snakes in the water! Maybe keep the swimming to a minimum…
To top off our amazing day, we bought some local produce from the town and cooked our own veg stew in the hostel. Our first ‘home cooked’ meal in months!
Our whole second day was based on taking the road trip to Hebbe Falls (70km away). This would take us around 2 hours to drive to with our taxi man and so we decided we would stop at a couple of points along the way. Luckily, the drive was also pretty interesting and beautiful since it passes through a mosaic of plantations. It seems every corner you turn in the mountains reveals a new, beautiful outlook across the valleys!
Kalhatti Falls is a minor waterfall on the route to Hebbe, which we stopped at. Unfortunately, we almost wish we hadn’t since the area had been littered so much. The waterfall has a temple built directly next to it and there were people praying whilst we were there. I do wonder sometimes how the people that visit here daily to worship at the temple are OK with the unsightly mess that has built up around them. To the contrary I would imagine since it is a holy place, extra care would be taken to keep it clean and respect the surrounding area – apparently I was wrong. Sadly, there does seem to be a correlation across India with regards to sacred places/temples and the amount of litter you find.
Obviously, we didn’t hang around and moved on to Kemmannagundi Hill Station. The views from the top of the gardens are simply stunning, the greenery of the surrounding hillsides remind you more of the rolling hillsides of Northern England, than India. I was interested in trekking down to a waterfall called Shanti Falls, but the two boys sat outside the beginning of the trek wanted to charge me 700 rupees. I don’t know whether he was an official or just some lad trying to make some money off of tourists, but I decided not to bother (which was a shame).
Finally we made it to the main event! From the entrance of Hebbe Falls you need to take a jeep another 15 kilometres through Bhadra Tiger Reserve, then a 1km hike, before actually reaching the falls. The jeep is 3200 rupees, but luckily after just 5 minutes of waiting, 3 policeman from Chikmagalur turned up and we were able to share with them to save some money. The waterfall without a doubt is the most spectacular waterfall we have seen in India, maybe even ever. The pictures we got simply don’t do justice to how humungous it really is. It scales the whole way up the cliffside, in 2 separate parts. The amount of mist being flung off the falls, down the valley, was ridiculous. Definitely worth the effort to reach it!
On some of the trees beside the river, a little further downstream, you can see loads of dried up mud on the tree trunks. Our driver told us this was where elephants had bathed and then had a scratch on the tree! Considering we still have not seen a wild Indian elephant, that was pretty exciting to hear. Unfortunately, with eyes peeled wide open on the drive back through Bhadra, we still did not see any Elly’s.
Chikmagalur is by far, one of the best places we have visited to date (if not the best). There is so much to do within a 50km radius of this cute, coffee-centred town. We could visit again and spend another 3 days exploring a completely different direction into the mountains. Even just to relax, drink some good coffee and take in the nature that is all around you, Chikmagalur is perfect. There is just something about waking up, stepping out into the forest and looking out across the mountains that makes me feel so peaceful inside.
This little taster of what the Western Ghats (the mountain region that runs parallel to the South Eastern coastline of India) has to offer definitely has got Brad and I intrigued. I’m sure we will add this to our ever-growing list of places to revisit and venture further in!
Chikmagalur was our last stop in the state of Karnataka. Now we head into Kerala – ‘Gods own country’. I hope it lives up to our expectations.