Wow, there are a lot of rocks to climb in Hampi. After our first day bouldering there I wrote a feverish email to my climbing buddies back home in the USA, telling them to get on the next flight to Bangalore. Yeah, there are a lot of fantastic climbing destinations in the USA and other, more accessible places around the world, but nowhere else can you live like a king for under $10 a day within walking distance of world-class granite. Oh, and if you’ve always wanted your name in a guidebook there are thousands of first ascents available in the surrounding 300 square kilometers of boulders and cracks.
Recently made a Unesco World Heritage Site, Hampi is a burgeoning tourist destination in southern India for temple-gazing as well as climbing. Split into two main areas by the Tungabhadra River, the Hampi Bazaar side caters to more of the short-term tourists, while the pot-smoking and didgeridoo-playing happens on Hampi Island. Shocker, Hampi Island is also home to most of the developed bouldering. If you’re there for climbing, stay in Hampi Island and watch out for flying dreadlocks.
Everything in Hampi Island is designed for the lazy climber tourist. A dozen small guesthouses are within ten minutes walk of multiple boulder areas, and the heat of the day is spent flopping on cushions around low tables, drinking chai and playing chess or falling off a slackline. It’s common to stumble on a drum circle at sunset among the boulders or catch a Tarantino flick over thali at the restaurant next door.
Fly to Bangalore or Goa from NYC for around $1200 round trip, and hop on an overnight sleeper bus for Rs 800 (about $12) to Hospet or Hampi. No matter your preferred flavor, you can easily append a sleepy beach holiday or hardcore party schedule in Goa to your trip.
When to Go
The coolest weather is in December and January, but most of November and February are just fine for climbing in the morning and evening, and you’ll get better rates on rooms. Don’t think of coming in March and April, when temperatures soar into the 40s celsius. The rainy season is June to September and the area will be deserted. In October most guesthouses will just be opening up for the season, but you could get lucky with the weather and a place to stay.
Places to Flop
We set up camp at Gopi Guesthouse for the duration of our month in Hampi. The staff are wonderful and the rooms are cheap. Bamboo bungalows start at Rs 100 ($1.50) per night, and deluxe rooms with a daybed in the garden run a very reasonable Rs 350 ($5) while we were there in November, though rates increase in December and January. The real highlight here is the food, which is the best in town and comes in massive, shareable portions.
Mowgli Guesthouse is a slightly more comfortable option on the strip in Hampi Island. It’s a professionally run operation where you can count on management to fulfill promises, which is sometimes a rare occurrence in India.
If you’re looking for a very quiet, reflective time and hard bouldering steps from your door, check out Baba’s Cafe Guesthouse. Small and well away from the beaten path on the other side of the main climbing area, you’ll feel more like you’re staying in an Indian village than a tourist town. It’s run by a charming Spanish expat named Hugo, who is more than happy to show you around his side of town and the areas he is developing.
No, You Don’t Need to Take Your Boulder Mat on the Plane
A couple of enterprising young local climbers named Tom & Jerry rent boulder mats, guidebooks, and a few tired pairs of shoes for Rs 80 ($1.50) per day. Cheap as chips, as they say. During busy times they’ve been known to run out of mats, but Thimma at Shiva Guesthouse and a few other spots also have some available. On the other hand, if all the mats are rented out you can be pretty sure there will be some nice folks you can tag along with.
A new guidebook came out the day we left so we didn’t get much time with it, but several copies were floating around town. It was far broader than the previous edition, reaching several kilometers into the surrounding hills with clear topographical maps and lots of pretty color pictures. Strangely, it had both English and German text. It would be hard to survive in India if you only speak German.
Rest Day Activities
Hampi is littered with temples and ruins, but I’d be lying if I said we spent much time sightseeing. This is not your source for that information. There’s a massive reservoir 4km from Hampi Island where you can laze away the afternoon and indulge in a Kingfisher or three, which are selectively prohibited in the more devout areas of Hampi. Or hop on a motorbike (Rs 150/day plus petrol) and buzz through the local villages; they are about as authentic as it gets.
Stuff Your Dad Would Ask About
- Don’t expect to practice your new Hindi here. English is commonly spoken and often preferred by locals. Most of the guesthouses are run by Nepali seasonal workers, so a few words of their native tongue go pretty far.
- There’s no ATM in Hampi Island, so plan your cash carefully. Rent a motorbike and go to Anegundi to visit the ATM. Be aware of daily power cuts that knock out service.
- The Indian visa can be a headache if you’re already outside your home country. The buzz among travelers is Bangkok, Kathmandu, and possibly Columbo, Sri Lanka are your best bets. Of course if you plan ahead and get a visa from the Indian embassy in your home country you don’t have to worry about this. Six month, single entry visas are typical, but unlike other countries they begin on the date of issue, not the date you enter the country. Five and ten year multi-entry visas are available for US citizens, rules change frequently so beware of all published information. This is probably out of date already.
- If you plan to stay for a while, an Indian SIM card will be helpful. After recent terrorist attacks the government has made it more difficult for foreigners to get a SIM, but its not impossible. You’ll need a reference (a hotel will work), a few passport photos, and a sympathetic retailer to get one.
If I had it to do over, I’d only plan to stay longer in Hampi. A month flew by and I was sad to leave. Count on getting knocked out with gut issues for at least a few days, so build some extra time into your schedule. This isn’t a place to squeeze in. Relax, enjoy it, and prepare your fingers to be shredded by small holds and sharp granite.
We didn’t know it while we were traipsing around Rajasthan, seeing the sights, but the little town of Hampi is what we have been craving since we arrived in India.
With so much history and so many really big, really beautiful historic sites, we couldn’t resist checking out the Golden Triangle. We saw the forts and tombs, palaces and temples, and our favorite, Jantar Mantar. We got tired, rested, saw some more sights, got tired again, rested again, went to a new city and did it again. For two weeks, we were full on tourists in cities where people make their money from tourism. For two weeks, I didn’t leave the guest house without telling ten rickshaw drivers “no,” or trying to avoid begging children. We were a wallet, an opportunity.
“Hey my friend! Where you from?
“Obamaland, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan! Nice country.”
“Yeah, pretty good, but we are enjoying yours as well”
“You come to see my shop? Very nice, you come.”
“No thank you.”
“Yes, you coming. Shopping. Very nice.”
And so it went until the next person came by and started from the top. “Obamaland, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan!” It was endearing the first time, but got old very quickly.
We were doing the things that you do when you’re in India. It was really cool being in the presence of structures from empires ago and learning about the history of India, but it was exhausting and felt a bit like going through the motions. Is this what traveling in India is like? Is this what people do for six months? For a moment there, we forgot that long term travel is a balance of new cultures and new activities while also maintaining some routine and indulging in things you know you like.
So when Robyn and Stephen, our former room mates from New Zealand sent us a message saying, “We are in India! Smashed it out last night all the way from Bangkok to Chennai then Bangalore to Hampi! Hampi is amazing. Actually so good I cant believe I missed it on previous trips…Climbing, friends, bicycles, a risk board…,” we scrapped our plans for further sight seeing and booked three back to back night buses to go see them in Hampi.
Hampi is quiet and comfortable. We climb the famed Hampi boulders in the early mornings and cool evenings and avoid the heat of the day by flopping around the open air restaurant at our guest house, eating thalis and drinking tea. As Stephen said over breakfast the other day, “Not everything you see here is going to be enjoyable while you’re here. That’s not why you’re here. You’re here to see what it’s like in India. Well that, and to see 50,000 camels competing in a beauty pageant.”