Last updated on February 1, 2018
Is any trip to India complete without a trip to see the sacred Mother Ganges? This famous river winds through the country, giving life to northern towns and accepting life at Varanasi, where the ghats sit on the banks of India’s holy Ganges River. After nearly two months in India, it was time to make the pilgrimage and find the sacred waters. I had relaxed in McLeod Ganj learning more about the Tibetan culture, and now — with my flight to Kathmandu just a week away — I spent for days in Rishikesh. The plan was to raft the river, bend and twist in a yoga class, meander the many ashrams, and to enjoy my last week of Indian cuisine.
Rishikesh is a strange town; it’s unlike the other Indian towns I have visited these past two months. It’s a tourist hotspot, but for foreigners and locals alike. Some Indians travel to Rishikesh on vacation, while others see it as a pilgrimage — a chance to stay at an ashram on the holy river and soak in the divinity of temples and religions. Getting to Rishikesh from McLeod Ganj was brutal. It was a taxi to a bus to an overnight train. And while that’s not uncommon for backpacking India, I had eaten questionable street veggies in Dharamsala and then spent the next 15 hours becoming reacquainted with said veggies. I don’t often get sick on the road, but when I do, it takes a toll. It was a long night. But by morning I was determined to shake off the weak achy feeling and explore this new spot.
The fantastically blue-green waters of the Ganges River greeted me when I exited the train station. Most stories of the Ganges River are largely negative. And it’s not just the banter around town. Even Indian literature portrays the Ganges River as a festering gray slush with feces, filth, and the ashes of dead bodies clogging the banks of the river. With those images embedded in my brain, seeing the heart of Rishikesh on the far side sun-glinted blue river surprised me. I crossed the rushing clean river on a large pedestrian bridge and landed in an area of town where motorbikes and push carts are the only transportation options clogging the streets. The place has tons of places to stay, from ashrams to boutique hotels to hostels. I was on a budget so I went with the Shiv Shakti Hostel — highly recommended.
Rishikesh is essentially the first place that the sacred Ganges River exits the mountains and enters the plains of India. In the high mountains, the water travels through forests and remains in clear glory. At this part of the river, nothing of the slush to come is visible. The Ganges’ poor reputation is well deserved once it reaches Varanasi, where riverside cremations and funeral pyres create a thick, polluted river that flows into the rest of the country.
Rishikesh has a lot to offer, but for many backpackers, it’s best known as the Yoga capital of India. I eased into the yoga scene with a free meditation class offered by the Cultural Center. The class is led by a Yogi guru and assisted by a team of pubescent girls who circle the room like vultures over a kill. The girls adjust your position and patiently shove your body deeper into the postures. The girls’ flawless execution of the deep bends and twists intimidated me, a newbie. But yoga is about honoring your own pace so I followed the flow and postures as best as possible. The free class was an excellent way to ensure a gentle evening workout. Plus, it stretched out the kinks from all those hours of buses and trains.
And even more than the kinks from train rides, I really looked forward to that nightly yoga class after whitewater rafting down the Ganges River. Because the river is so clean this far north, the Ganges is a viable rafting spot. It draws adventurists to the area since the this section of the river offers three to four grade rapids this time of year. Even more, it was pretty budget-friendly to take a morning rafting trip down the river. I am not one to pinch pennies if it’s a memorable trip, but this was both memorable and affordable so it became a must-do.
My cousin and I arrived early and met the four other tourists in our raft — a group of Indian twenty-somethings from Delhi who were vacationing in Rishikesh for the weekend. They were jazzed for the weekend vacation from the city and they were a lot of fun, but they were not the best paddlers. There were times on the river when my cousin and I were the only two paddling in the boat! Two of the others, Deepak and his friend, sat at the helm chatting. Meanwhile, our guide would shout for us to paddle and they wouldn’t even listen. It got to the point where the chubbier guy was relieved of his paddling duties and instead asked to splay himself across the front of the boat to act as a weight. That turned out to incite the others into guffaws because he was traveling face first through the rapids. He must have swallowed bucket-loads of the Ganges River!
My cousin and I are adding to our arsenal of Hindi phrases. In addition to knowing how to say “please dance” in Hindi, we can also say “dude, paddle harder!” It’s not the handiest of phrases (when could I possible need this in the future?!) but it’s a fun parlor trick now.
This was my first rafting trip and while my arm muscles ached that evening, I’d love to try rafting again. There’s this fun adrenaline high that comes with adventure sports like rafting, climbing, and diving. And while I am not an adrenaline junky, rafting is good fun!
Beyond the rafting and yoga, Rishikesh is a spiritual center where people come for weeks and months to live at an ashram, meditate, and practice yoga. This wasn’t my plan for now (I will be taking a ten-day Vipassana meditation course in Nepal), so my cousin and I enjoyed exploring Rishikesh and we walked the sandy white shoreline of the Ganges River.
Fun and random anecdote: I spotted this black cow and decided to do a mini photo-shoot of the cow on the beach. He stood so tall and proud and he stood out against the white sand. Unfortunately, one of the nearby cows was less impressed by my presence and intentions. While I was consumed with the task of framing the perfect picture, my cousin snapped a very brief video of our scramble to avoid the charge of the lighter colored and oddly huge cow. How ridiculous is it that neither of us realized the cow was charging us until he was very close!
Besides the rafting, yoga, and relaxed pace of it all, Rishikesh was just quietly lovely. I loved this gorgeous fruit salad and curd (you know how I love curd!) served at one of the hippy tourist restaurants. It was the tastiest of the entire trip. It’s as if India put its best foot forward during my final days in the country. I hadn’t seen a snake charmer before. Is it cheesy and cliché? Totally. But it was cool nonetheless. :)
Quick Tips: Visiting Rishikesh, India
Where to Stay: Shiv Shakti is the best hostel in town, and it’s in the backpacker area, Lakshman Jhula, so you will find affordable eats nearby. Although many people come for the ashrams, if you’re passing through you can still practice yoga and meditate from the many hotels. Rishikesh Valley Hotel is the eco-friendly option with wooden huts and great sustainable choice. Atali Ganga Cottages has the best views in town, and Ganga Kinare Boutique Hotel is the best all-around mid-range and convenient option.
- Adventure. Besides rafting — which I highly recommend — this is a hotspot for the adventurous. You can bungee jump, rappel, cliff jump, rock climb, and kayak.
- Yoga. The largest ashram in town is Parmarth Niketan, this would make a good starting point for those serious about yoga. There are dozens of yoga programs in Rishikesh, however, so you can certainly find other options, too. (The yoga section of this guide lists out all the options along with contact details.
- Daytrips. Head to Kunjapuri Temple, an easy day trip from Rishikesh. And don’t miss Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram, which is the abandoned ashram that the Beatles visited in 1968 to learn transcendental meditation.
Best Guidebook: I can’t imagine backpacking India without the newest Lonely Planet India. Although some of the hotel recommendations and restaurants become lower quality once listed (because of the influx of travelers), the transportation and activity recommendations were spot on and I wouldn’t have explored half of the neat places without the guidebook there to recommend towns and activities off the beaten path a bit. To keep the weight down, I ripped out the sections that I no longer needed as I traveled.
Reading: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. This was among my favorite reads so far this year. I am just finishing it up — the narrator’s voice is bizarre, but the story was compelling and it has given me a lot of insight into the Indian culture without reading like a history book. Highly recommend it, and I have a list of other country-based travel reads too. This is one of my favorite ways to learn about the places I am visiting!