After exploring North India with a travel tour group, I spent three days in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, with the intention of holing up in the Himalayan mountains by myself and doing absolutely nothing. I know myself well and figured I needed a respite after being in chaotic cities for a week.
Rishikesh, however, still has plenty to do. This town is the birthplace of yoga, and drop-in classes are everywhere. Many visitors come here to receive their teacher training in yoga and meditation, and Rishikesh hosts the annual International Yoga Festival in March. The Beatles visited an ashram here in the '60s to learn Transcendental Meditation. They denounced drugs in favour of TM shortly after and made the yogic lifestyle popular in the West.
Most of Rishikesh's action takes place around the river Ganges, or Ganga, one of the most sacred rivers to Hindus. You may have heard that the Ganges is dirty. That may be true in the south, but not so in Rishikesh. The water here is a clear blue-green, the cleanest as it emerges from the mountains.
In this Rishikesh travel guide/travel diary, I cover:
Where to Stay in Rishikesh
A family from my tour group (including Sarah and Lexi from @earthy.sisters) decided at the last minute to come to Rishikesh as well. They only had two days, so they stayed at The Pyramid Guest House in the town centre, which they enjoyed because it's close to all the restaurants, activities, and shopping. The Pyramid Cafe on site was also highly recommended to us.
I had booked my stay at Shaantam, a spa resort at the foothills of the Himalayas. To get to Rishikesh from Delhi, we flew into Dehradun airport, which takes two and a half hours. Note that there are no Ubers here, but taxis are available. I had booked a car through the resort in advance. While the ride into town centre is only 30 to 40 minutes, going to Shaantam Resort added at least another half an hour to my drive since it's higher up in the mountains.
Since I stayed during low season, Shaantam upgraded my room. My balcony had a great view. I settled into a swinging chair, drank some tea, and talked to the mountains.
I couldn't enjoy the balcony for long because I noticed monkeys jumping around the nearby trees. Sure enough, they made moves to come onto my balcony. I've been warned about the monkeys in Rishikesh. They could snatch the food right off your plates or the sunglasses from your head.
I went inside with my stuff and closed the door. When my room service came, one monkey was pressing his nose against the window pane, wanting my food.
I closed my curtains.
After a shower, I watched an Indian soap opera on TV that I couldn't understand. The actors were all yelling at each other over dramatic music. I suppose it's not much different from American soaps, but the Indian one has more intense staring and prolonged closeups accompanied by internal monologue voiceovers, all underscored by dramatic editing. (Here's an example of what I'm talking about.)
I could not stop laughing.
The next day, I went into town. The only way to do that was to hire a car through the resort to take me down. Let me tell you, the drive up or down the mountains is terrifying. I had to do this four times on this trip, and it was four times too many. I'm not one to pray for my life, but as I sat in the back seat, I prayed. I prayed hard.
The two lanes are really made for one car, but traffic flows in both directions. Usually there's nothing protecting you from driving off into the void. Numerous twists and turns make it challenging to see who's coming towards you until the last second. Drivers honk when turning a corner to let others know when they are coming, which helps, I suppose, but they often do not slow down.
My driver did things that were absolutely terrifying to me but completely normal to him. When a car in front was going too slow (i.e. at normal speed) for his liking, he'd swerve onto the oncoming traffic lane and speed up to surpass the car. Again, since we were constantly turning, we never knew when the next car would appear so I was always bracing for collision.
I asked this uncle to slow down and be careful, he only chuckled and asked, "you don't have mountains in Canada?"
By the time we arrived into the city, I felt nauseated. And I'm not one to get car sick. My driver was supposed to take me to an ATM because I needed cash to pay the resort and driver. They don't take credit cards. I'd recommend keeping cash on you in India, but good luck finding an ATM that works in Rishikesh. I must have tried at least seven machines, each one out of order. Luckily, the resort trusted me to wire them what I owed once I return to Canada, which of course I did.
Shopping & Activities in Rishikesh
I met my travel friends at the Pyramid Cafe for a bite, and then we went shopping. Rishikesh is used to tourists, so there's less interest in foreigners. No selfie requests the entire time I was here. The shopping here is also catered to tourists, endless stores to load up on your yoga clothes, hemp bags, tie-dye blankets, sound bowls, crystals, and the like. I actually wondered if I would emerge from this trip a total hippie, but I didn't. I didn't even buy the sound bowl I was contemplating (too heavy to travel with). True to my classic tastes, I bought some fake pearl earrings and metal bangles.
Animals are still everywhere. You would think I'd get used to them in India by now, but I still find it very jarring to turn a corner and see a bull or something.
There are also a lot of German bakeries in Rishikesh for some reason. Can someone explain why that's a thing here? A good one though is Pumpernickel. Their latte art is cute. Since Rishikesh is a yoga town, you'll find plenty of vegetarian and vegan meal options.
I couldn't come to the yoga capital of the world and not do yoga, so I went with my travel friends to a Yin Yoga class near the Ganga. Yin Yoga is a slower form of the practice where you hold the poses for longer than usual. I quite enjoyed it. I found it relaxing and challenging at the same time. If I can find a good Yin Yoga class near me in Toronto, I would definitely do it again.
I didn't have time to visit The Beatle's Ashram or try out a meditation class. All kinds of spiritual readings and sessions—palm, crystal healing, etc.—are available here too. That's okay. I'm not here for a spiritual awakening but to chill in the mountains. Connecting with nature is my own form of spiritual practice.
On my third day, before my afternoon flight back to Delhi, I went to Shaantam's spa for a massage, my preferred method of meditation. I was one pampered baby.
My final drive down the mountains was not as bad since my driver this time was less of a speed demon. I don't know if I'd want to experience this drive again. If I were to return, I would just stay up in the mountains and not leave for a week. Although I don't regret exploring Rishikesh's city centre when I had the chance.
This was supposed to be a sustainable guide to the city, but aside from supporting local businesses and buying locally-made goods, I had a hard time finding eco-friendly hotels and sustainable transport. Once you're in town, however, places are pretty walkable, unless you're up in the mountains like I was. I flew in because riding a bus from Delhi would take over six hours. If I had more time to spare in India, perhaps taking the train would be great. To determine your best travel itinerary in India, check out MakeMyTrip for train, bus, flight options.
I did enjoy flying. A famous guru wearing orange was sitting two seats away, his assistant between us. A bunch of people took pictures with him once we got off the plane. I had no idea who he was so I kept walking.