By Erin McQuilkin

Welcome to one of the most stunning and curious places on the planet. The first thing that hits you when you step out onto the chaotic street are the smells. Exotic spices, exhaust fumes, the earthy scent of bulls roaming sidewalks, and chai tea rippling with ginger and cardamom flood your senses.

Horns create a symphony of sounds as rickshaws and cars communicate in a kind of mad language, missing each other by a hair at each intersection. Throaty shouts of chai wallahs (tea sellers) burst into the morning skies beside the laughter of bright-eyed children.

Life is on full display with a kaleidoscope of colour represented as women in jewel-toned saris and salwar kameez pass in small groups.

You have officially arrived in India, a destination guaranteed to bring you equal amounts of delight and confusion. Bharat Mata is a glittering melting pot revealing every aspect of humanity in one topsy turvy brew.

Sights That Spellbind

Where to begin is one of the hardest questions to answer when faced with the subcontinent and its thousand microcultures. The Taj Mahal, a pearl-like mausoleum with a romantic story and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, is a grand starting point. Moving on to the unmissable “golden sights” of the Golden Triangle and Amritsar, home of the Golden Temple, the spiritual hub for Sikhs. Speaking of spirituality, Varanasi is the epicentre. It is a chaotic city of pilgrims and spiritual seekers, centred on the holy Ganges and said to be the oldest city in the world, where hundreds bathe alongside hourly cremations. Catch an Aarti ceremony in the evening or take a boat out at sunrise for a scene you will never forget. 

Meander north through the sacred town of Rishikesh to find avenues full of gurus, ashrams and hippies or make your way south to explore Rajasthan, a landscape of fortresses and palaces where the dreamy white city of Udaipur and the pink city of Jaipur can be found. Or head south towards Goa, a beach playground for hippies since the seventies.

Keep going to find verdant, warm-hearted Kerala, which is famous for Ayurveda, and the backwaters of Allepey, where you can cruise the rivers on houseboats. Don’t forget to make time for Ladakh, stark and brimming with Buddhist temples, or the majestic mountains of Spiti Valley for road-tripping or camping under the stars. If you’re an animal lover, see rare wildlife including tigers or rhinos in one of the National Parks, like Ranthambore or Bandhavgarh. 

Manna For The Soul

The cuisine of India is like none other in the world, and the Indian kitchen hits the palate like a tropical storm bringing every taste to life. Spicy, sour, sweet and salty, none are left out when a knowledgeable Amma is at work behind the pots.

The star of the south is the dosa, a crispy pancake of fermented rice and black lentils, while savoury, fiery chaats rule the streets in all shapes and sizes from bhel puri to samosas. The succulent classic murgh makhani, or butter chicken, is lush, but vegetarians appreciate daal makhani, a satiating meal of black lentils and kidney beans. And when you’re ready for a jolt, go for the cups of fragrant chai steaming on every corner.

Silk, Sandalwood And Shopping  

India’s shopping is no less diverse than any other aspect of the land. Whether you seek artisan craftsmen, eclectic local markets, or modern malls, be prepared to bargain. The markets of Delhi are known to be some of the best, so make your way to Janpath or Sarojini if you’re looking for gifts. Rajasthan is a unique centre for quality handicrafts like pottery and handmade carpets. Baapu Bazaar and Johari Bazaar in Jaipur are particularly full of treasures.

Mysore in Karnataka is a paradise for colourful silks and sandalwood. And savvy Mumbai nails the street markets like Colaba Causeway or supermalls like the high-end Palladium Mall for fashionistas in the know. 

Daily Budget

India is one of the most economical countries to travel in and whether you’re looking for hostels on a budget or luxury resorts, the subcontinent has you covered. On a budget, it’s possible to live on $10 USD a day eating local food and staying in hostels. A comfortable mid-range trip can be experienced for between $20 to $50 USD with rooms ranging from $15 to $25 USD a night. If posh is your style, you can find upscale beach resorts in Goa and boutique hotels in Delhi and Mumbai for over $100 USD a day. Meals can run from less than $1 USD on the streets to $7 to 10 USD for a sit-down restaurant and above $30 USD for trendy urban spots.

Stay Safe

As a country with a high level of poverty, it’s no surprise that there are several safety issues travellers need to be aware of while touring. Food and water safety are major health issues. Never drink tap water, anything with ice, or salads with unpeeled fruits or vegetables. Delhi belly is the common term for a range of stomach illnesses that befall travellers every year, due to improper hygiene in kitchens.

Research restaurants to avoid ending up in bed instead of exploring. Exude a confident exterior on the streets and don’t trust strangers, even kids, who approach you with unsolicited advice. For solo travellers and women, especially, caution should be exercised at all times. Women can take advantage of the women-only or family compartments on trains and buses and should avoid going out alone after dark.  

Voyage Time

India is a shapeshifter that has a habit of revealing whatever it is you are searching for among her multitude of vistas.

Follow the mystical dream of wandering hippies and yogis, live like a king in what was once a vacation hub for British maharajas and unplug from the matrix like the present hordes of budget backpackers. From modern metropolises to highly sacred ancient temples of worship, Mother India has it all. As your eyes bounce from spellbinding beauties to puzzling traffic patterns, you’re guaranteed to have an experience that transcends ordinary reality.