My crisscrossing adventure across the subcontinent as part of the South India Revealed trip was jam-packed with opulent palaces, ancient ruins, and delicious dosas.
I had the added bonus of taking the 16-day journey with the region’s only female tour leader, Usha Mary, whose effervescent personality made for plenty of shared laughs on long train rides.
Born and raised in Madurai, and a South India guide for Intrepid Travel since 2016, Usha showered us with the kind of insider knowledge that turns a trip into a deeply meaningful experience. Her insights of the area made us feel like an old friend welcoming us to her home while pointing out all the hidden corners that make a place memorable, beyond the list of must-see sites.
Here are some of those insider tips for visiting South India:
Step inside Madurai’s temple
Madurai is the buzzing heart of the Tamil Nadu region and the Meenakshi Amman Temple complex is at the center of its pulse. The brightly-colored gates soar into the sky, covered with gods, goddesses and demons. While it’s a major attraction for national tourists, many foreigners don’t get past the painted facade. With Usha by our side, we navigated security — you need to leave your shoes, phone, cameras and any other electronics in a locker outside — before entering centuries-old landmark.
Photos are prohibited so Usha encouraged us to step to a quiet corner in the maze of a thousand hand-carved, stone pillars, to take it all in. Amid the frenzy of pilgrims and worshipers, I closed my eyes. Incense wafted across the cavernous space, and the rhythmic chanting and percussion from temple musicians filled the air.
The street market is also a gem. Walk through the throngs of vendors, butchers, and knife sharpeners to the outer reaches of the market to the banana stalls. Dozens of men sit hawking every type of banana you can imagine (definitely try the sweet red bananas). For just a few cents, you can take home a big bunch wrapped in newspaper, making it easier to carry.
Climb high atop the hills of Mysore
After days of beach towns from Varkala to Kochi, Mysore snapped us out of our relaxed coastal vibes and reminded us of how colorful the country is. In addition to the must-see Mysore Palace, the temple on Chamundi Hills came highly recommended so we could experience a very local worship experience.
Usha, queen of the handwritten handouts, gave us notes on how to reach the Chamundeshwari Temple located around 6-miles outside of town. Because my fellow Intrepid travelers are always ready for an adventure, we took a tuk-tuk to the stairs and climbed. Once at the temple, we referenced the notes and found our way to the right line (you can pay a few Rupees extra to avoid the longest lines) and rode the wave of visitors as we all gently pushed forward through the temple and back out again.
As a visitor in India, one of the most humbling experience is having local worshipers show me around and welcome me. I’m often asked, “where are you from?” But I’ve never been asked why I’m there, or what religion I am. Instead, we are all treated the same—which might mean someone’s grandmother gives you (or the local standing next to you) a tap on the shoulder or a jostle (with a smile) if you don’t hurry it up and move quickly!
Sunset climbs in Hampi
Everyone who visits the once-majestic medieval city of Hampi spends a day or two roaming the nearly 20-square miles of ruins. After a day of strolling through partially standing arches, royal palaces and a spectacular stable that oozes with character, Usha had an even bigger surprise for us on one of our final evenings in India–a trip up 525 steps to the Hanuman temple. The 500-year-old temple for the monkey god is tended by monks, and you’ll also meet plenty of monkeys along the steep staircase and on top of the mountain.
Don’t bring food (especially fruit) in your bag and you’ll be fine. It’s one of the finest sunsets I’ve had the opportunity to experience. From that vantage point, you can see clear across the ruins while being lulled by the sound of the rustling wind.
Roam India’s largest mall
A mall might not seem like a destination worth taking a public bus to a ferry to yet another bus, but the Lulu mall outside of the coastal city of Kochi is the largest in India. When we asked Usha about the mall, she noted, “it’s nothing special, just a mall.” What it does offer is the ability to live like local, if just for a few hours. We wandered the aisles of a large grocery store within the complex, filling our bags with spicy potato chips, packets of saffron-scented instant oatmeal, and Cadbury chocolate alongside residents taking home fragrant mangoes, frozen pizza, and other mainstays.
Our extremely ordinary afternoon gave us the opportunity to chat with others in line about everything from the heavy rains to the state of current politics. But the biggest accomplishment of the day? Using Usha’s hand-drawn map as a guide, and hopping aboard buses without signage (with plenty of help from passengers on board) to get to our destination and back. Sure, we could have taken a taxi, but what fun would that have been? We ended up seeing the majority of the city via bus for about a $1 USD.
Inspired to visit South India with a local leader? This traveller ventured on Intrepid Travel’s South India Revealed trip.
Check out all of Intrepid’s India trips here.
(All images courtesy of Kristin Amico.)