I’m Gabriel Martins and welcome to my backpacking guide to India – a journey of self-discovery. I was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro. As soon as I finished high school, I had an opportunity to go to Vancouver in Canada to learn English for 3 months. This experience absolutely changed my life.
I didn’t speak any English before arriving in Canada. I was far from home, living with a local family and other international students who didn’t speak my language. This trip made me grow so much that when I went back to Brazil, all I wanted to do was save money and get back to Canada.
I missed my friends in Vancouver and also wanted to travel to other countries and experience new cultures. Photography grew as a passion alongside travel as I wanted to show my friends and family all of my adventures. I bought a camera and never looked back.
Inspiration to Go Backpacking in India
Backpacking India was on my wish list for a while. I had seen so many amazing photos and movies of this country which made me curious. I decided to spend a few months in Asia and India was top of the list.
I stayed for five weeks backpacking in India. It was a journey that I was dreaming about for over five years. I’m so happy that I managed to go. It was just incredible and exceeded my expectations on every level.
My first impression of India was a bit of a shock. Jaipur was my first city. On the first few days there, I started questioning myself if I had made the right choice of going to India all by myself. It was loud, people were honking all the time, it was super crowded and the traffic was horrendous.
It got me thinking: “what exactly am I doing here?”. But those were just my first impressions as I was placed outside of my comfort zone. Everything changed after those initial days in Jaipur. I started to fall in love with India.
Five Incredible Weeks Backpacking through India
I was only supposed to stay in India for four weeks but I ended up staying for five weeks. My itinerary was as follows: Jaipur, Pushkar, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Agra, Varanasi, Amritsar, Dharamshala, Manali and Rishikesh.
Everyday was a new adventure and it was amazing how many experiences you could fit into one day. Bucket-list experiences like sleeping in the Thar Desert, seeing the beautiful Taj Mahal at sunrise, eating at the Golden Temple of Amritsar, talking with locals and seeing the smiles of the kids.
I have a fond memory of visiting the Ashram where the Beatles spent time in the early 60’s too. It’s incredible how many amazing experiences India offers and how each place is so different to the next. At one point I was melting in Rajasthan and then after I was freezing cold in Manali.
You go from hot to cold. From the blue city to the pink city. I just loved the diversity that India offers. Backpacking through India is really about immersing yourself in the rich tapestry of everyday life.
Why Varanasi was my Favourite Place in India
Watching the sunrise at the Taj Mahal was something special but I would have to say that Varanasi was my favorite place in India. I had low expectations when I went there as some people told me it was intense.
It was, indeed, an intense place. However, there was a magic and spirituality to this place that I really loved. I saw the cremations (which was tough to see), observed the morning and evening Aarti rituals by the Ganges, spent Diwali there and experienced more of the Indian culture.
I loved walking alongside the river and partaking in the sport of ‘people watching’. I also remember doing a sunset boat ride through the Ganges passing by the Ghats. I met some amazing people here that ended up traveling with me for a while. Varanasi for me was one of the highlights.
11 Best Things To Do on a Backpacking Trip to India
Backpacking through India is like no other travel experience in the world. It’s one of those life-changing events that you will cherish forever. Not only are the destinations incredible but the journey to get to these places, and the people you meet along the way, make it something special.
Below you will find my top experiences for backpacking India:
1. See the Sunrise at the Majestic Taj Mahal
The best time to visit the Taj Mahal is at sunrise. This is the time of day when the crowds are at their smallest and when the early morning light turns the dome into a golden colour. To capture that classic Taj Mahal shot, walk down into the gardens and stand in front of the blue pond.
2. Explore the Ghats in Varanasi Early in the Morning
The Ghats in Varanasi are riverfront steps which lead down to the River Ganges. The city has a total of 87 different Ghats to explore. Some are used as bathing and ceremony sites while others are used as cremation sites. I recommend getting up early in the morning to go exploring.
3. Visit the Beatles Ashram in Rishikesh
On the outskirts of Rishikesh lies the overgrown ashram that was once visited by George Harrison and the Beatles. It was over fifty years ago when the Beatles were invited here by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The ashram has become somewhat of a rock’n’roll legend and is a must-visit.
4. Spend a Couple of Quality Days in Dharamshala
Dharamshala is known as the home of the Dalai Lama. It was here that the Dalai Lama and his entourage escaped after the invasion of Tibet in 1959. The spiritual leader is based up a small hill 3km from Dharamshala in a place called McLeod Ganj, below the mighty Himalaya mountains.
5. Eat at the Golden Temple of Amritsar
One of the fondest memories I have of India was sharing a meal at the Golden Temple of Amritsar. This temple is not only an important religious place for Sikhs but it also stands as a symbol of human brotherhood. It’s a magnificent temple which takes your breath away when you visit.
6. Wander around the Beautiful Jaisalmer Fort
Jaisalmer Fort is located in Jaisalmer city in the heart of the Indian state of Rajasthan. It’s one of the only remaining “living forts” in the world with a population still residing here. The fort was built in 1156 and is a staggering 250 feet tall, protected by 30 feet of wall. Sunset is a fantastic time to visit.
7. Embark on at least one Train Journey
There’s nothing more quintessential India than travelling on a great rail journey. Celebrated by Wes Anderson, Michael Palin and Paul Theroux – this experience has captured the imagination of artists and travellers for many years now. You simply have to embark on at least one train journey!
8. Witness the Aarti Ritual in Rishikesh and Varanasi
Aarti is a beautiful ceremony seen throughout India where dias (oil lamps) are offered to God. This ritual can be performed to a deity in a temple, done to a saint or offered on the banks of the Ganges to Mother Ganga. Seeing this incredible ceremony at night in Rishikesh or Varanasi is just amazing.
9. Camp Overnight at the Thar Desert
Camping under the stars is a must-do on your backpacking trip to India. Tours leave from Jaisalmer and take you into the desert by jeep. There are a few camel rides included with most tour operators. The sand dunes of Thar are phenomenal and the night sky is one the clearest in the world.
10. Go to the Border of India and Pakistan in Amritsar
The lowering of the flags ceremony known as the Wagah-Attari border ceremony between India and Pakistan is so unique. This has been a daily military practice that both security forces have followed since 1959. At sunset, both countries come together to perform a passionate ceremony.
11. Enjoy some Peaceful Treks in Manali
India is a trekkers paradise. If you want to see pristine beauty you must head to Ladakh. Booking customized Ladakh tour packages is the best way to visit for a first timer. If Ladakh seems too adventurous, you can try Manali first. There are a variety of peaceful treks to enjoy in the Manali area.
These are great alternatives to some of the longer and more intense treks in the Himalayas. I recommend the Deep Forest Trek, Jogini Waterfall Trek, Solang Valley, Trek to Gulam Lang and Lama Dugh trek, among others.
A Special Experience in India – Seeing the Dalai Lama
I have so many wonderful memories of my backpacking trip to India. I just loved walking through the streets and seeing all the colours and taking photos. India is such a photogenic country. And the best part, when people saw me with a camera, they would ask me to take photos of them!
There was one memory, though, that will stay with me forever. That was going to the Dalai Lama’s teaching. I had no expectation to go. But there I was – listening to him and seeing him up close. It was a special moment.
Enjoying the Colourful Cuisine of India
I was excited for the food as I’m a vegetarian. I knew that India would be paradise for vegetarians but I also knew that India is home to some of the worlds spiciest food. I was a little bit apprehensive about that.
On my first day, I went out and ordered food. The first bite made my mouth burn. It was then that I realised spicy in India means spicy! It was too spicy for my liking. Although, I am a bit of a ‘chicken’ when it comes to spicy food.
I did my best and kept eating but after a few more spoonfuls I had to give up. The waiter came to me and asked: “You didn’t like the food?”. I replied by saying that I loved the food but it was just too spicy for me. He gave me some yoghurt and my mouth slowly recovered.
I ended up eating all the yoghurt! It was a learning experience that’s for sure. From then on I remembered to order less spicy dishes. My favourite food was Dal Fry, Classic Onion Pakoda and Veggie Momos.
Backpacking India and Meeting Wonderful People
One of the highlights of backpacking India was meeting the people. Indian people are super friendly, always smiling and willing to help. Whenever I needed something there was always someone there to help me.
The best way to immerse yourself in Indian culture is to eat at local places, try the street food, explore the markets, talk with people whenever you can, drink chai tea with them, ask for recommendations, try new things, visit temples, go off the beaten track and ask locals for travel advice.
Although the country has its challenges, there is still so much generosity and warmth to be found in the local people you meet along the way.
The Biggest Challenge Backpacking through India
I would say the language barrier is the biggest challenge on a backpacking journey through India. Many people in India speak English but (depending on where you are) there are some places where no one speaks English.
It can be a challenge logistically to find the correct place to go and select the right bus to catch, train station to depart from, etc. I was lucky as on my second day in India I made a friend called Prakash from Chennai. He was travelling around Rajasthan like me and wanted to visit the same places.
We ended up travelling together for around 12 days. It was awesome to have the company of a local. Although, to some people he wasn’t a local as his accent was from the southern part of India which is a different place to the north. Some people even tried to take advantage of us as foreigners.
I had a great time travelling with him and afterwards I understood more about India and the challenges I would likely face on my journey. It was easier to travel solo after I had that experience with Prakash. I also met other travellers to travel with and we shared the challenges together.
By the way – India is the perfect country for solo travellers. You always meet like-minded people who are in the same situation as you.
Tips for your Backpacking Trip to India
The first thing I would recommend is not to plan too much. Go with the flow. Of course, have the places you want to visit in mind but travel with an open-mind for everything that comes up on the way.
My plans changed all the time in India. I was making friends along the way and we decided to travel together. At one point I was thinking of going south and then all of a sudden I was heading north to Dharamshala.
I would also suggest downloading apps like Ola or Uber to make things easier whenever you want to get around the cities. Taking a tuk-tuk in the streets can be challenging as you need to bargain and barter all the time.
No plan is a good plan for India. The only things you need to organise are things like your flights, travel insurance and visa. People traveling for tourism, business, or medical reasons can apply for the India e-Visa. I hope you enjoy the beauty of this incredible country!