India offers far-ranging opportunities for outdoor adventures. You can go trekking or paragliding in the mountainous north, take a jungle safari in one of the many protected areas, or join a motorcycle tour. The south offers diving, surfing and canoeing. And don't forget that this is the birthplace of yoga and ayurveda.
Mountain Biking & Motorcycle Adventures
Exploring by bicycle or motorcycle is a great way to immerse yourself in India and see parts of the country that few travellers see. Bikes, including mountain bikes, are available for hire at reasonable rates in many tourist destinations, and Himalayan towns such as Leh and Manali offer excellent opportunities for dramatic downhill descents. Organised motorbiking tours are also on the rise, particularly in Ladakh, Kerala & Rajasthan, with many companies using iconic Royal Enfield Bullet motorbikes. Renting or buying a motorcycle to tour the country is perennially popular; Mumbai and Delhi have operators with decades of experience of getting travellers out and about on two wheels.
Yoga, Spas & Spiritual Pursuits
India offers a profound spiritual journey for those so inclined, and all travellers can enjoy the benefits of trips to spas and yoga centres.
Sidebar: What to Choose
India has plentiful ashrams – places of communal living established around the philosophies of a guru (spiritual guide or teacher). You can arrange to stay for an extended period, living by the rules of a particular organisation.
Ayurveda is the ancient science of Indian herbal medicine and holistic healing, based on natural plant extracts, massage and therapies to treat body and mind.
Many centres in Buddhist areas offer training in vipassana (mindfulness meditation) and Buddhist philosophy; many require a vow of silence and abstinence from tobacco, alcohol and sex.
India’s spas offer an enticing mix of international therapies and local techniques based on ancient ayurvedic traditions.
Yoga’s roots lie in India; you’ll find hundreds of schools following different disciplines to suit all levels of skill and commitment.
Many ashrams ('places of striving') are headed by charismatic gurus. Some tread a fine line between spiritual community and personality cult. Many gurus have amassed fortunes collected from devotees, and others have been accused of sexually exploiting their followers. Always check the reputation of any ashram you wish to join.
Most ashrams offer philosophy, yoga or meditation courses, and visitors are usually required to adhere to strict rules. A donation is appropriate to cover your expenses.
Where to Go
Matha Amrithanandamayi Mission Amrithapuri based; famed for its female guru, Amma, ‘The Hugging Mother’.
Belur Math Ramakrishna Mission headquarters.
Mahabodhi Centre Yoga classes.
Ayurveda – Indian herbal medicine – aims to restore balance in the body.
Where To Go
There are clinics, resorts and colleges across India where you can learn ayurvedic techniques or enjoy an ayurvedic massage.
Shanti Ayurvedic Massage Centre In Mandrem.
Dr Franklin’s Panchakarma Institute In Chowara, south of Kovalam.
Ayurdara One- to three-week treatments by the water on Vypeen Island in Kochi (Cochin).
Neeleshwar Hermitage Ayurveda, meditation and beachfront yoga in a luxury Bekal setting.
Harivihar Yoga, ayurveda and meditation retreats at a 19th-century royal residence in Kozhikode (Calicut).
Men-Tsee-Khang (Tibetan Medical & Astrological Institute) The primary authority on Tibetan medicine; has its HQ and two clinics in McLeod Ganj, plus nearly 50 other clinics across India.
Ayuskama Ayurvedic Clinic In Bhagsu; Dr Arun Sharma gives highly rated treatments and courses for would-be practitioners.
Sita Ayurveda and yoga in Puducherry (Pondicherry).
Sivananda Vedanta Yoga Centre Classes and training in central Madurai, plus courses and teacher training at its ashram.
Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram) Lots of yoga classes (of varying quality). The nearby village of Kovalam (Covelong) has beach yoga and the annual Covelong Point Surf, Music & Yoga Festival.
Swasthya Vardhak Varanasi's real-deal ayurvedic pharmacy. Free consultations.
Yogacara Ayurveda and massage in Mumbai.
Whether for an introduction or more advanced study, there are India-wide courses and retreats. McLeod Ganj is the main centre for the study of Tibetan Buddhism; public teachings or audiences are given by both the Dalai Lama and the 17th Karmapa.
Where to Go
Library of Tibetan Works & Archives Serious Buddhist philosophy courses in McLeod Ganj.
Himachal Vipassana Centre Strict 10-day retreats in Dharamkot, near McLeod Ganj; they operate monthly.
Tushita Meditation Centre Ten-day introduction-to-Buddhism tasters as well as retreats and drop-in meditation sessions; Dharamkot.
Deer Park Institute Courses and workshops on Buddhist and Indian philosophy, and meditation retreats led by Buddhist masters; in Bir.
Jammu & Kashmir
Mahabodhi Centre Three-day introductory vipassana courses and daily drop-in meditation classes near Leh.
Global Pagoda Vipassana courses from one to 10 days on Gorai Island.
Vipassana International Academy Holds 10-day vipassana courses in Igatpuri.
From solo practitioners to opulent spas, there are choices nationwide. Be cautious of dodgy one-on-one massages by private (often unqualified) operators – seek recommendations and trust your instincts.
Where to Go
Lodhi Spa A luxury-defining spa.
Madhya Pradesh & Chhattisgarh
Haveli Hari Ganga In Haridwar, overlooking the Ganges.
Vedic Village Touted to have the finest medical spa in the country; near Kolkata.
Emerge Spa Indulgent Asian-influenced treatments near Mysuru (Mysore).
Humming Bird Spa For all kinds of pampering; in Palolem.
Barefoot at Havelock For ayurvedic and other spa treatments; on Havelock Island (Swaraj Dweep).
Mhenla Spa Experience a Sikkimese dottho (stone-heated wooden bath) with a tub of tongba (a millet-based alcoholic drink) as refreshment; in Pelling.
You can practise yoga almost everywhere, from beach resorts to mountain retreats. In 2014, at India’s initiative, the UN adopted a resolution declaring 21 June International Yoga Day.
Where to Go
Destinations with a yoga scene include Anjuna, Arambol, Assagao and Mandrem in Goa; Vashisht, McLeod Ganj and Dharamkot in Himachal Pradesh; Udaipur, Pushkar and Jaipur in Rajasthan; and of course Rishikesh in Uttarakhand.
Kovalam, Varkala and Kochi are popular places for yoga.
Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram Waterside ashram in Neyyar Dam, near Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum); renowned for longer courses.
Soul & Surf Rooftop yoga, retreats and meditation in Varkala.
Secret Beach Yoga Homestay Yoga and kalaripayatt (ancient South Indian martial art) in Kattoor.
International Centre for Yoga Education & Research Has 10-day introductory courses and advanced training in Puducherry (Pondicherry).
Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram Chennai-based yoga courses, therapy and training.
Isha Yoga Center Well-known ashram 30km west of Coimbatore. Visitors are welcome for meditations; if you want to stay or take yoga courses, book ahead.
Jalakara Poolside yoga plus massage at an exclusive boutique hotel on Havelock Island – for hotel guests only.
Rishikesh Take your pick from centres and ashrams offering yoga for all levels.
DarkLotus Highly recommended yoga classes are held along the river in Varanasi and at temples around the city.
India has world-class trekking opportunities, particularly in the Himalaya, where staggering snow-clad peaks, traditional tribal villages, sacred Hindu sites, ancient Buddhist monasteries and blazing fields of wildflowers are just some of the features that create extraordinary mountain experiences. Hit the trails for easy half-day jaunts or strenuous multiday expeditions.
Sidebar: Best Treks
- The Himalaya
Jammu & Kashmir The moonscape ranges rising in Ladakh offer some incredible trails, including routes through the popular Markha Valley and the wildly beautiful Zanskar region. Several treks here, including the six-day Markha Valley trek and the tougher three-day Hinju-to-Alchi trek, are homestay treks, meaning you don't need any camping equipment.
Himachal Pradesh Alpine adventures are easily accessible, whether on day walks between Buddhist hamlets on the high-altitude Spiti Homestay Trail, or on full-scale adventures like the Pin-Parvati Trek.
Sikkim Gaze at Khangchendzonga (8598m), the world’s third-highest mountain, on the Goecha La trek.
- South India
Karnataka Explore the serene hills and forests of Kodagu.
Kerala Go in search of tigers, elephants and deer at the Periyar Tiger Reserve.
Sidebar: Most Adventurous Treks
Guided treks here can take you through little-travelled and unbelievably dramatic routes.
The wonderfully remote Har-ki-Dun Valley (3510m), within Govind Wildlife Sanctuary & National Park, is a botanical paradise criss-crossed by glacial streams. You might glimpse the elusive snow leopard above 3500m.
The trek over the Kuari Pass (3640m) was popular in the Raj era and is still one of Uttarakhand’s finest and most accessible treks, affording breathtaking views of the snow-clad peaks around 7816m Nanda Devi – India’s second-highest mountain.
- Kashmir & Ladakh
Zanskar and Ladakh both have plentiful camping treks.
- Himachal Pradesh
The strenuous but rewarding, six- to nine-day Pin-Parvati Trek crosses the snow-bound Pin-Parvati Pass (5319m).
- Arunachal Pradesh
The isolated, pristine land of Pemako is known in Buddhist legend as a hidden paradise. Hardy trekkers (and Buddhist pilgrims) can reach the mystical lake Danakosha, among snowy peaks at 3750m, and do a kora (ritual circuit) of several lakes nearby.
Detailed maps of the Indian Himalaya are difficult to buy in-country. Some maps found online are good enough for planning, and even navigating if you're experienced at reading them. For Ladakh, excellent Olizane 1:150,000 maps cover the region in three large sheets, available (at a considerable price) in Leh; some maps from the more schematic 1:200,000 Leomann series are sporadically available in Manali and McLeod Ganj.
On popular pilgrims’ trails it’s impossible to get lost, but less-travelled tracks can fork or vanish altogether, so hiring a local guide can be wise.
For information on climbing Himalayan summits over 6000m, check the website of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (www.indmount.org).
- Bring gear and clothing that are appropriate for the conditions you expect to encounter.
- On well-established trails, heavy hiking boots are overkill, but on remote mountain tracks they can be lifesavers.
- First-aid and water-purification supplies are often essential.
- Rain gear is a must, and warm layers are crucial for comfort at altitude.
- Remember a hat and sunscreen!
- Follow low-impact trekking practices (you know the mantra: take only photographs, leave only footprints).
- Cook over stoves, since local people rely on limited fuel-wood sources.
- Respect local cultural sensibilities by dressing modestly.
- Ask permission before snapping photos.
- Remember that while locals' hospitality may be endless, their food supply might not be.
- Refrain from giving gifts to children.
The commercial trekking industry is much less developed in India than in neighbouring Nepal, so some places still feel wild and relatively unspoilt. Still, on most routes, you can hire porters or pack animals to haul your gear. If you go with a trekking company, some gear may be supplied. Specify everything that’s included beforehand, and get it in writing if possible – some trips can be fairly bare-bones.
Wherever you go, make sure you have any permits you may need.
Monitor your health – acute mountain sickness is a serious risk on trails over 3000m.
Beware of herding dogs in the mountains; they're famously aggressive.
Mountaineers need permission from the Indian Mountaineering Foundation to climb most peaks over 6000m. Expedition fees vary, rising with the height of the peak and the number of people on your team. Fortunately, permits for quite a few high 'trekking' summits cost only US$30 to US$100, particularly in Ladakh, Lahaul, Spiti and Sikkim; among them is Stok Kangri (6120m), an affordable but rewarding taste of high-altitude mountaineering.
Throughout the Himalaya, plan for some extra days to acclimatise while en route to high-altitude destinations. These mountains deserve your respect – don’t try to trek beyond your physical or technical abilities.
When to Go
With India’s diverse topography, the best trekking times depend on the region.
May and June This is a good time for mountain trekking but also high season for domestic travellers. Trails to holy Hindu sites can be packed.
Mid-July–mid-September During monsoon, trekking in the wrong place can be deadly. Ladakh and Spiti stay pretty dry. Uttarakhand’s famous Valley of Flowers National Park unfurls a dazzling botanical carpet.
Mid-September–mid-November Post-monsoon, searing blue skies usually bless the Himalaya. While nights may dip below freezing, days are usually sunny and warm. Facilities often close for winter, so check in advance to see what will be open.
December–March February is the only month when you can attempt the hazardous Chadar Trek, walking along a frozen river to the Zanskar region.
April Head for the hill stations, as it's ripping hot down low and usually still snow-packed up high.
Coming face-to-face with India's iconic wild creatures is an experience like no other. India's national parks and nature reserves teem with everything from deer and buffalo to tigers, leopards, bears, elephants and rhino. Exploring from the back of an elephant is falling from favour for animal welfare reasons, but jeep safaris are available almost everywhere, and some reserves can be explored by boat, raft or on foot. Standout wildlife reserves include Ranthambhore National Park, Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, Kaziranga National Park and Sunderbans Tiger Reserve in the north, and Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, Periyar Tiger Reserve, Bandipur National Park and Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve down south.
India's gorgeous coastline offers ample opportunities for kayaking, surfing, stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), snorkelling and diving, with the best locations predictably in the south. The Andaman Islands are famed for world-class diving and snorkelling in glass-clear waters, and there's also good diving in Goa, Maharashtra and Lakshadweep. The south's surf scene continues to blossom in Puducherry, Kovalam, Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram) and Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu, at Aswem and Agonda in Goa, and in Varkala in Kerala. In the north, water activities are focused on rafting and kayaking trips on the rivers charging down from the Himalaya, particularly in Himachal Pradesh, Kashmir & Ladakh and Uttarakhand.