Goa: Chasing Susegad
GOA is a coastal state that stretches along the western shores of central India. Expansive and diverse, we found ourselves overwhelmed by the must-do's and must-see's declared by other travellers. Unlike neighbouring regions in India, Goa remained a Portuguese colony until 1961; this heritage has shaped Goa’s distinct culture, cuisine, and architecture. While Goa is home to the post-colonial city of Panjim, hundreds of Catholic churches, and the 16th century UNESCO World Heritage Site of Old Goa, it is also widely known for its 34 beaches, wild nightlife, and psychedelic trance raves.
Two weeks simply wasn't enough time for us to experience it all, but we did touch each tip of the region and scratch the surface of Goa's hidden gems. We walked the pews of churches four centuries old, circled a local market thrice in search of a lost scooter key (and found it!), learned how to hand-roll aloo bajji at a roadside cantina's kitchen, did not join the hostel club crawl in favour of early morning bouldering in a hidden cove, nearly adopted several doggos, and became fish thali connoisseurs.
In the end, what we sought was susegad, derived from the Portuguese word “sossegado” — meaning quiet — a term coined to describe Goa's uniquely laid-back atmosphere. We traveled the length of Goa, searching for susegad amidst the chaos and bustle of India. This is what we found...
Starting in the north, we chose to base ourselves in Vagator because it was central to a myriad of hot destinations yet reputed to be one of the quieter beaches (if you’re after a spot with nightlife, we hear Anjuna is the place to be!)
Chapora Fort | all that remains of the fortification built in 1510 are ruins, which are now decorated with the litter of daily tourists. More notable than the fortress’ remnants are the hilltop’s commanding views of the surrounding landscape; one can look south to Vagator, North over the Chapora river to Pernem, and west across the Arabian sea (pictured above). A narrow dirt path provides direct access to the beach below, making for a cheeky hike.
This Is It (Arambol Beach) | A long walk in the hot sun mixed with indecision led us down the long stretch of restaurants lining the beach; we took the restaurant’s name as a sign to finally choose a spot! It turned out to be a great place to recharge on cushioned floor seats with a view of the beach, fresh lime sodas, and tasty fish thalis!
Moonlight (Vagator) | Since it was recommended on our hostel cork board, we were initially skeptical. We were eventually drawn inside by its modern and bright atmosphere –– turns out it served the best of the many fish thalis we tasted. In fact, we dined there a second time to utilize their above average wifi, and found the serving staff to be consistently friendly and efficient.
Jungle Hostel (Vagator) | Large, leafy common areas with some hammocks, a cafe serving up legit coffee (no watery Nescafe here), and plenty of nightly activities or outings organized by the staff. The included breakfast is the standard DIY backpacker fare of hard boiled eggs, toast, cereal, and a splash of India in the form of samosas!
For a seaside scramble | From Chapora fort, follow the walking trail down the ocean-facing hillside to access a secluded climbing site. Best accessed at low tide, Goa’s first bolted route and some low grade bouldering can be found on the stretch of beach, between Vagator beach and the Siddeshwar Temple. Unfortunately, the bolts have been rendered rusty by salt spray from the ocean—so we didn’t climb it. We did, however, have some fun bouldering on the swiss-cheese like black rock of the beach coves. I certainly wouldn’t base a trip to North Goa around the limited climbing, but if you do find yourself near the fort it’s a worthy (and secluded) diversion from beach lounging.
Roam by scooter | Ride to the beaches north of Vagator. Rather than taking the more direct coastal route and doubling back on the same roads, we chose to explore further inland, looping around by way of a village called Pernem. After a pit stop at a local market, curious looks and smiles suggesting that tourists scarcely make it out this way, we drove the slightly hilly, palm-lined road that follows the Terekhol River, a natural border marking Goa’s Northern edge, until we reached the sea. We made the mistake of taking off on rental scooters without a quick check, and ended up riding back in the dark without working headlights or turning signals (an absolute disaster on Indian roads!) Don't make the same mistake we did! (Rental from any of the many roadside shops: Rps. 300/day)
Navigation Tip: Download an offline map of the area for scooter navigation (trust us, you’ll need it!). It’s also useful to avoid auto/rickshaw drivers running the meter through the big cities – we used maps.me.
Colourful streets of Panjim | Explore a myriad of Portuguese colonial buildings, boutiques, churches, and food stalls. It’s best to wander and get lost, but one itinerary is to have a coffee on the verandah of the Panjim Inn or Bombay Coffee Roasters, then poke your head in and out of art galleries like the Velha Goa Galeria (we bought ceramic mugs and black and white prints). Meandering up the hill towards the impressive High Court of Bombay offers views of the city while descending a set of stairs on the other side leads to the Immaculate Conception Church, Singbal’s Book House (where we picked up The White Tiger by Indian author Aravind Adiga), and Kamat Hotel –– a quick-turnaround restaurant slangin' delicious thalis and dosas (a/c tables with a street view available on the upper floor!)
Black Sheep Bistro | we walked into the ‘chic fine dining’ spot just after 7pm, disappointed to be the only customers there but too ravenous to turn elsewhere. We were rewarded for staying with a farm-to-table menu reflective of Goa’s mixed heritage, as well as excellent service (if not a little too formal for us Birkenstock-clad backpackers). Making a rare exception to our mostly vegetarian diet in Goa, we had the shrimp and chorizo paella, catch of the day with lime beurre blanc, a beet salad, and churros.
Kokni Kanteen | We enjoyed a Royal Challenge whiskey on the rocks and bebinca, a coconut milk-based Indo-Goan dessert, in a cozy corner booth at Kokni Kanteen. When we tried to score a classic Goan thali there for lunch the next day, we were met by a long line of excited locals—always a good sign!
Old Quarter Hostel, Panjim | They’ve put thought and care into the service and aesthetics. They provide guests with unlimited filtered water and decent wifi. Though they could improve upon soundproofing their rooms and dependence on mothballs, everything appears as advertised. The complimentary breakfast will tide you over till lunch, and comes with a good coffee (the Bombay Roasters Cafe doubles as the reception desk).
Old Goa via local bus | Taking the bus is what makes this adventure! Make your way through the maze of colorful buses at the Panjim Bus Stand and ask the ticket counter which bays serve buses to Old Goa; that day we were directed to bays 13, 14, or 15 (note that the 15 rupee fare (about 30 cents) is collected onboard). Old Goa is comprised of several churches built by the Portuguese in the 1600s. Of all the beautifully preserved churches, some with ornate gold altars and centuries-old inscriptions in the stone floor, we enjoyed breaking away from the crowds and exploring the crumbling ruins of St. Augustine Tower.
Palolem | In search of the susegad that had eluded us thus far, we headed south. We first arrived in Palolem, weaving through a lane of double-sided shops to reach the sandy beach lined with swaying palms and colorful beach shacks. We sipped cocktails on the beach while a nearby drum circle created the perfect ambiance for sunset.
Agonda | Unable to find accommodation in the hub of Palolem (it was a national holiday weekend), we decided to spend a night further up the coast on Agonda beach. The ~3 kilometre stretch of beach is far less crowded than Palolem, largely due to the fact that it’s a nesting site for the protected Ridley Turtle. While this beach was devoid of nightlife, it was a romantic place for starry beach strolls and ambient dinners.
Inda Desa | All you need to know is that this British-owned establishment nails its ambiance, cocktails, and veg burgers!
Cassoi | The most serene of Goa's beaches is undoubtedly Galgibaga, also known as Turtle Beach, one that is equal parts rugged and pristine. Similar in nature was our resort, Cassoi (meaning turtle in the local tongue) where we called a white canvas tent 'home'. Though simplistic in many ways, we luxuriated in a four poster bed and took our meals on a patio for two, looking out to sea through a thin wisp of forest. We experienced great interactions with Fletcher, Sanu, and other staff, and grew especially fond of the resort pup Tarzan.
Kakolem Beach | From Agonda, rent a scooter and rip down to what the locals call Tiger Beach, pictured above. It is a small beach enclosed by steep cliffs and lush palms, and its waters are frequented by dolphins (which we can confirm with a mid-swim sighting!) While its 9.6km distance from Agonda (partially via an unmarked dirt path), and the hundred or so steps from parking lot to the sand, deter enough visitors to create the feeling of a being stranded in paradise, stranded you are not—one small shack serves cold drinks (beer and cocktails included) and hot thalis! Palm Discoveries also accommodates guests in their simple huts (location visible on maps.me)
Galgibaga Beach | As deserted as a big beach in Goa gets, Galgibaga was an immaculate 3 km stretch of white sand where we found our version of susegad. We spent three days wave-bashing, lounging in the sand, sampling honey brought beach-side by local vendors, and enjoying peaceful sunsets. The handful of modest beach shacks on Galgibaga—set back from the beach behind a thin stand of pines—all somewhat bizarrely claim to be the favourite of either Gordon Ramsey or Jamie Oliver. Celebrity chef endorsements aside, the two we tried served up delicious seafood platters and whole-steamed garlic fish. There is no nightlife here, perfect for some R&R after too many nights hitting up the psy-trance scene in North Goa. We got here using the local bus from the main Agonda bus station.