Hampi is legendary on the South India backpacker circuit. We’d heard great things about its precariously stacked boulder formations, crumbling temples, beautiful rice paddies, and chilled-out vibe since our first stay in an Indian guesthouse.
We arrived ready to relax. What we got was by far the worst tout experience we’ve encountered in India. Throughout the subcontinent, drone-like auto-rickshaw drivers/tour guide/guesthouse touts wait for new arrivals at bus and train stations. In Hampi it started before we arrived. Touts met our bus at a 5:30 am bathroom break 30 km outside of Hampi. 30 dudes piled up the bus stairwell, screaming their names in our ears and lacerating our blurry eyed faces with their cards.
Tourism is the primary industry in Hampi. This seems to be a growing problem at tourist hotspots across India (and is definitely an ongoing issue with our overall perception of the country). But Hampi touts took things to a new level. When we finally reached the end of the line, the same guys were waiting. “Remember me? Remember me! I talked to you first, you come with me!” They were relentless, and we were second guessing our decision to leave our beautiful Agonda Beach coco-hut in Goa. Cliff used his Turkish towel/blanket as a battering ram just to exit the bus. We singled out the only non-aggressive driver waiting on the sidelines (“..But I talked first, you come with me!…”) and hauled ass to the “Old Bazaar” neighbourhood.
Its proximity to the Virupaksha Temple is undeniable. But the old bazaar is not the chilled out and beautiful Hampi of lore. It’s a collection of typical guesthouses and stores. These are next to the new “ruins” of old homes and businesses that were built atop the ruins of ancient Hampi before the town received its World Heritage status. The relocation process has been slow an inconsistent, creating a modern mess against a beautiful ancient background.
We checked in to a guesthouse recommended by a friend. It seemed way too expensive for what it was, so we decided to check out the “island” on the other side of Hampi’s “river”. On the way we spotted Lakshmi, the Hampi mascot and temple elephant, enjoying her morning bath in the river. It was a great surprise. Lakshmi is no Chan Chal, but keeping up with her about town was a Hampi highlight. Bath time is 9 am daily, so if you’re headed to Hampi, get your pothead ass out of bed and visit Lakshmi.
One 10 rupee “ferry” later, we were in backpacker’s haven known as Hippy Hill, Hippy Island, Little Israel, or in our mood, Backpacker Purgatory: the place where longterm backpackers go to boulder, get high, and let their dreadlocks dry out the Indian sun.
Despite our shit-tinted glasses outlook start to the day, the other side of the river did have a lot going for it. Namely rice paddies, less congestion, and a cheap guesthouse with a nice rooftop and strong wifi.
After you’ve settled on a guesthouse, everyone in Hampi wants to rent you a motorbike. Really they want to sell you overpriced gas; rentals are just the means to that end. Undeterred, we took our little 80cc gem of a bike and set out to find an ATM to pay for the overpriced petrol.
At the ATM, we found out something incredible. Our little bike is a local celebrity! School children saw her shiny finish (or was it our shiny white faces and shinier debit card?) and mobbed us calling, “School Pen! School Pen!” But this School Pen couldn’t be contained. A motorbike named School Pen set her course and road into the sunset.
School Pen The Bike was great entertainment in more ways than one (as you see). Her engine size could be rated in goat rather than horsepower, but School Pen still had enough get-up-and-go to cruise all around Hampi (as long as Natalie walked the steepest hills). In the land of overbearing touts and drivers, having your own wheels is liberating. School Pen brought us unexpected adventure. We stumbled upon a banana picking crew, and Cliff joined their ranks. And we spent one evening in the company of a lovely mechanic when School Pen ran over not one, but two nails.
The scenery around Hampi really is epic. Its ancient volcanic ruins, aka boulders, are the size of large houses perched atop lush green hills (and one another) overlooking rice paddies. Its manmade ruins date back to the 14-16th centuries, we Hampi was the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire. It was one of India’s greatest Hindu empires, and the ever-watchful Virupaksha Temple still dominates that Hampi skyline (although it’s gone a little wonky over the years). After exploring the main temple complex in Hampi proper (and checking in with Lakshmi) we found the country views from School Pen’s saddle better than actually stopping to explore each site on foot.
It doesn’t take more than a few deep breaths to understand Hampi’s reputation with young (and incredibly ancient) backpackers: hash and marijuana are in steady supply. You walk through a plume of burning hashish every 10 feet. It’s not legal, but there is no attempt to cover it up. Hash can even be ordered at resturants. Hard drugs are rumored to be just as available, although we didn’t see or hear of any during our stay. Not really our travel style these days.
We probably missed out by not getting into bouldering, but a couple days of School Penning around the countryside was really all we needed to see of Hampi. We get the hype, but to that we say, go to Agonda. Enjoy the beach. Like all things travel, it’s all a matter of taste.