Hampi, a small village located in the state of Karnataka in southern India, lies on the southern shore of the Tungabhadra River amidst the sprawling ruins of Vijayanagara, the crown city of the Vijayanagara Empire (1336 – 1646 CE). Built just after Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and contemporaneously with Peru’s Machu Picchu, the weatherworn structures and carvings in Hampi reflect the Vijayanagara Empire’s Hindu roots and the opulence of its rulers. 26 square kilometers of temples, palaces, pavilions, towers, markets and baths are set against the beauty of Hampi’s landscape, a worthy attraction in itself: towering piles of granite boulders rise up through the jungle as far as the eye can see. The area has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986.
Hampi retains a small-town feel, untouched by mainstream tourism. Accommodations are basic and geared towards backpackers. Access to medical care, good telecommunications, and banking is extremely limited. The dozen narrow dirt-and-stone streets that form the downtown (Hampi Bazaar) are lined with closet-sized open-front convenience stores where shop owners sell backpacker necessities: single-use shampoo packets for 3 Rupees (5 cents), 1L bottled water for Rs. 20 (35 cents), sunscreen for Rs. 60 ($1.00), bug repellant, batteries, soda, candy, cigarettes, and rolling papers. Alcohol and meat are not sold in Hampi Bazaar: it is a dry and vegetarian area for religious purposes. Cows, stray dogs, and occasionally monkeys wander the streets and get shooed away by residents.
A number of guesthouses in Hampi Bazaar offer private and shared rooms at budget prices. Most guesthouses have attached restaurants, several of which are located on rooftops overlooking some of the immediate ruins. Small shops offer leather sandals, bright Indian garments, earrings, necklaces and other trinkets. A couple small salons offer facials, massages and aromatherapy. Several bicycle and moped rental shops are located around town.
Across the Tungabhadra River from Hampi Bazaar sits a small village called Virupapur Gaddi with ten or so bungalow-style guesthouses and a few residential houses and local shops. The north shore is cheaper, more laid-back, and attracts young, budget backpacker types and a few artists and musicians. Two of the main attractions accessible from Virupapur Gaddi are the Hanuman (Monkey) temple 3.5km to the east and the reservoir lakes in Sangapur 4km to the west.
Stunning sunsets and sunrises that bathe the boulders and ruins in color can be enjoyed from the tops of hills on both sides of the river.
Tourism starts ramping up from October through January, but stalls during the spring monsoons and the summer heat.
Hampi is directly accessible by road only. The closest international airports are in Bangalore and Goa, each around 300km away. The nearest domestic airport is in Hubli, 143km away. The nearest bus and train stations are in Hospet, 14km away.
The Hampi Express train runs regularly from Bangalore to Hospet and costs Rs. 750 ($12.25) each way. Trains to Hospet also run from Goa and Hyderabad. Take care to set an alarm for early morning train arrivals as no on-board announcements are made to alert passengers of approaching stations. Cleartrip.com and Yatra.com are convenient places to book train tickets in India.
Overnight sleeper buses also run to Hospet from Bangalore, Goa, and Hyderabad.
From Hospet’s train and bus stations to the center of Hampi is roughly 14km and takes around 25 minutes in an auto rickshaw. The price is around 100-200 Rupees ($1.65-$3.30) one-way. Prices are determined through negotiation, as the rickshaws don’t have meters.
There is also a public bus to Hampi that costs less than Rs. 20 (30 cents) per person from downtown Hospet.
Once in Hampi, there are no nearby bridges over the Tungabhadra to Virupapur Gaddi, but a small ferry operates daily until 6pm. Fares are Rs. 10 (15 cents) per person and boatmen insist on reaching a quota of around 14 people before launching. The 100m crossing takes about 5 minutes. Paying the boatman Rs. 10. for each unoccupied seat can save a lot of time during slow periods. Another option, which costs about Rs. 50 (80 cents), is to take a coracle (a traditional circular bamboo boat) if a paddler is offering a ride.
Towards the end of your stay, several travel agents in Hampi and on the north shore can help book train or bus tickets to your next destination with a negligible surcharge. They are well versed in securing last-minute tickets.
“We took the Hampi Express from Bangalore’s Cantonment Station in 2nd Class AC sleeper berths for 750 rupees each. The train was an hour late and Car 1A was not in the place indicated by the sign on the platform, so we had to sprint down a quarter of the length of the train to find our car before it started moving. The beds were hard but comfortable and the temperature was great for sleeping. In the 2nd Class AC sleeper, 4 beds are stacked in pairs, upper and lower, behind a curtain. The curtained compartment has a main light on the ceiling and a reading light at the head of each bed. There is little room for luggage. Depending on who your share your comportment with, earplugs may be necessary for a good night’s sleep. Windows are scuffed and difficult to see out of, so scenery viewing must be done from the car heads where the exit doors have been left wide open to the world rushing by. We arrived less than an hour late in Hospet and had to ask an Indian family if it was the correct stop because no announcement had been made. Once in the station, we were greeted by a crowd of rickshaw drivers and bargained one down to Rs. 200 to deliver us to a suitable guesthouse in Hampi. He brought us to a guesthouse his family runs and after looking around at others, returned and were happy staying there.”
Most of the ruins are situated on an 8-kilometer trail that can be traversed by foot, bicycle, motorcycle, van, or auto rickshaw. Old mountain bikes can be rented for less than 100 Rupees ($1.50) for the day, while TVS XL 70cc mopeds cost 150-200 Rupees ($2.50-3.25) plus 100 Rupees ($1.50) per liter of fuel. Generally you will need 2 liters of fuel for a day of sightseeing. Although harder to find, geared motorcycles are also available, including Royal Enfield Bullets and Bajaj CT-100s for 300-400 Rupees ($4.90-6.50) a day plus fuel. Bicycles, mopeds and motorcycles are also available in Virupapur Gaddi and are slightly cheaper. Most shops do not offer helmets, as they believe they’re unnecessary since there’s such little traffic on the roads.
Auto rickshaws cost 500-800 Rupees ($8.15-13.00) to hire for the day (depending on your negotiation skills) and their roofs provide a nice respite from the sun on hot days. Rickshaws can be hard to find on the north shore, and most people get around on foot, by rented van, or on mopeds.
Roads around Hampi are in fairly good condition, except for a few dirt roads leading to specific temples. ‘Accident Prone Zone’ signs feature skull and crossbones to indicate sharp corners. Horns and bells should be used liberally.
“Our first day, we rented TVS XL mopeds to see the ruins around Hampi. We were able to get 2 mopeds with 1.5L of fuel each for a total of 600 Rupees. The shop collected 1 student ID as collateral and we paid in full up-front. The bikes ran well initially but the horns were pitifully weak and the sparkplug on one failed about 6km into the ride. A local man had to help us for about 20 minutes before it would start and run again. Next time, we’ll pay half in advance and the rest when we return. If you are from North America or other regions that drive on the right-hand side, remember that India drives on the left!
On the second day we rented a Bajaj CT-100 on the north shore and were quite happy with its performance carrying two people. It cost 400 Rupees for the day with 2L of fuel.”
Guesthouses in the center of town run from 500-1200 Rupees ($8.15-20.00) a night for a private room with en suite bathroom. Soap, shampoo, and toilet paper can be bought on the street or directly from the guesthouse. Ceiling fans are standard but hot water and air conditioning will cost more. Towels and additional bedding are usually available upon request. Mosquito nets hang from the ceilings above the beds.
Guesthouses in Virupapur Gaddi run from 100 Rupees ($2.50) for bamboo huts with shared toilets to 200 Rupees ($5.00) and up for bungalows with attached private bathrooms. Budget rooms on the north side are generally less well kept, don’t have bug screens in the windows, often don’t have hot water, and can be dirty.
For more comfort and much higher prices, Hospet offers a couple of hotel options near the train and bus stations.
“We stayed in Venu Guesthouse in the heart of Hampi our first night. The room was 600 Rupees with an en suite bathroom and hot water. We chose the Venu Guest House after surveying several others in the area. Most guesthouse rooms were similar, but Venu was on the cheaper end and the staff seemed nice. We bought shampoo, soap and toilet paper at Venu’s small convenience shop. We didn’t have to use the mosquito net with the fan going full blast on the ceiling. The lady who runs the guesthouse is extremely nice and provided us with towels because we didn’t bring our own. Breakfast on the roof was decent and cost a little more than $2.00 for coffee, a masala omelet and toast.
On the second night, we stayed at Gopi Guesthouse in Virupapur Gaddi. It wasn’t as clean, there were more bugs; power outages and no hot water didn’t make things much better. But the atmosphere was great… more youthful and ‘hippie’ and it was cheaper. Only Rs. 200 per night for a bungalow with en suite bathroom. The food there was great too, enjoyed in their open-sided dining area on the edge of a lush green field.”
Restaurants serve similar fare all around town, and few have been reviewed online. Hampi is meat-free, but meat dishes can be found across the river in Virupapur Gaddi. Menus generally offer breakfast items (Indian and Western/Continental), Indian dishes, Chinese dishes, European dishes, Israeli dishes, and Italian dishes. Almost all offer fresh juices, lassis, and milkshakes in addition to tea and coffee. One or two shops on either side of the river sell freshly made dosas for breakfast. Small snacks and drinks are available at all the convenience stores. Meals generally cost 70-150 Rupees ($1.15-2.50) per person.
Food options on the sightseeing trail are limited. A reasonably priced good lunch can be had at KSTDC Mayura Bhuvaneshwari, not far from the Queen’s Bath after the turn onto Route 49 off of Route 131. Small stall owners sell crackers, peanut brittle, soda, bananas, and chips near the large ruins.
“We ate at Mango Tree the first night since it was one of the few restaurants that was rated online. We ordered veg thalis. The food was good, and the atmosphere was great. But as we ate at other restaurants, including the Laughing Buddha on the other side of the river, we came to the conclusion that most of the restaurants were of similar quality. We did have some amazing Paneer Chilly at Gopi Guesthouse in Virupapur Gaddi. And all the fruit lassis were amazing. Laughing Buddha offered a great view of Hampi across the river while we ate – pretty good food there too. The only issue was finding dosas, which are not offered by many guesthouses. However, if you look around, there is a small Indian snack shop that offers them on the main road in Virupapur Gaddi and at the guesthouse next to Venu Guesthouse in Hampi Bazaar.”
SEEING THE RUINS
If you did not bring a map or print-off, vendors around town offer small hand-drawn maps for Rs. 5-10 (8-16 cents).
For most temples, proper etiquette requires that you take off your shoes and socks to enter. Sandals or flip-flops are recommended.
Virupaksha Temple, one of the most intricately decorated and holy landmarks in Hampi, is just on the south edge of Hampi Bazaar and its 50-meter entrance tower is viewable from most of the town. A Rs. 2 (3 cents) fee is collected upon entrance to the inner temple.
Only two sections of the ruins require paid passes: the set of structures including the watchtower and the elephant stables closer to Hampi Bazaar, and then the set of structures housing the Stone Train at the far end of the sightseeing trail. The passes, 250 Rupees ($4) for foreigners and 10 Rupees (16 cents) for Indians, are valid only for the day of purchase so budget travelers should schedule visits to the main sites for one day.
Ruin entrances are relatively well marked on maps and signs, especially for the ticketed sites, but further guidance is almost entirely non-existent. Be prepared to explore on your own and read about the details online or in literature you buy. It is easy to go off the tourist paths and explore as security and barricades are minimal. At some of the sites, unemployed students offer their services as informal tour guides for around 100 Rupees ($1.50).
Cows, monkeys and stray dogs roam the temples, while colorful parakeets fly overhead and perch on roofs and walls. Lizards and chipmunks can also be seen scaling the walls of the ruins. Dozens of beautiful jungle flowers and plants grow from cracks in the ruins and line the dirt paths.
“Our favorite ruins were off the beaten path. The stone train and the elephant stables (the ancient equivalent of a 11-car garage) were very impressive, but some of the less-noted baths surrounded by columns and steps were simply gorgeous. Other small temples and shrines near the river and on the sides of rock formations were fun to climb to and felt secluded and unexplored. Some of the small carvings of Hindu gods and goddesses we found among the rocks while climbing were incredibly well preserved.”
ATTRACTIONS NEAR VIRUPAPUR GADDI
The main road in Virupapur Gaddi borders a beautiful green field, named the emerald ocean by one of the businesses that sits on its edge. More verdant fields along the north side’s roads and next to guesthouses offer open space unavailable in Hampi proper. Farther north, beyond the emerald ocean are more of the giant rock formations that define Hampi and its surroundings. This is a popular area for bouldering and rock climbing, with some guesthouses offering equipment such as crash pads and chalk powder.
The Hanuman (monkey) temple is located around 3.5km east of Hampi across the river on Route 130. A strenuous walk up several hundred stairs takes visitors to the summit of a rock mountain with a Hindu temple and stunning views of Hampi, the Tungabhadra River, and surrounding rock formations. Inside the temple, visitors may be offered sugar crystals and a stroke of color on their foreheads.
The reservoir in Sangapur, 4km west of Virupapur Gaddi on Route 130, offers cliff diving and swimming against a beautiful backfrop. Most people ignore signs warning of crocodiles. Informal guides can show you where to safely plunge into the refreshing depths of the lake from heights of 7 to 20 meters. They may also offer to jump from a 20 meter high boulder into the water for a fee of 100 Rupees ($1.50).
“We spent our last day exploring the north side of the river by motorcycle. It was more relaxing and fun than the hustle and bustle of the more touristy south side. Hanuman temple was well worth the hike up. We met a holy man there who invited us to tea and then watched him play an impromptu game of cricket with several of his young disciples. The views from the top were incredible.
The lakes in Sangapur, which are man-made reservoirs, are gorgeous. The pictures we took while swimming and cliff jumping could have been taken in the Caribbean, Thailand, or the Mediterranean. Two young men with decent English showed us places to jump into the water safely from 10m high rocks and then sold us cold beers. They were fun to hang out with and their guidance for swimming and jumping was well worth the Rs. 400 for the beers. They told us about parties they held with music, beer, and BBQ steak during high tourism season.”
POWER, INTERNET AND MOBILE INTERNET
Scheduled and unscheduled blackouts are common in Virupapur Gaddi, and most guesthouses do not have robust back-up power systems. They usually only have enough reserve power to keep the lights of the restaurant lit. Flashlights and candles are useful.
Internet is not ubiquitous, and is less reliable in Virupapur Gaddi. Many guesthouses in Hampi Bazaar offer decent wireless Internet connection, but network stability is unreliable. 3G and Edge access is spotty on both sides of the river.
There are no ATMs in Hampi. Small moneychangers take Euros, Pounds and Dollars but generally do not accept Chinese RMB. There is one bank outside of Hampi Bazaar, a tiny office with no ATM, that can exchange money, but it will soon be closing. Anegundi, a town 7 kilometers east of Hampi across the Tungabhadra on Route 130, has an ATM that takes most cards. Hospet also has ATMs.
Ayurvedic massages, offered in Hampi Bazaar around the corner from Venu Guesthouse, cost Rs. 900 ($14.70) and last 90 minutes. Appointments should be made in-person in advance. The salon also offers massage courses, facials, and other types of massage.
A small music shop in Virupapur Gaddi offers classes and jam sessions and sells instruments.
“Having had many traditional Chinese and Thai massages massages during my travels, I’d say that the Ayurvedic massage I got in Hampi was one of the best massages I’ve ever had. Combining relaxing music, aromatherapy, and a true full-body (front, back, feet, belly, buttocks, face and scalp) oil massage, the 90-minute experience was intensely relaxing. The only issue was the massage bed lacked a face hole and my neck got quite sore while lying on my stomach. The massage cost Rs. 900 but I would gladly have paid 3000.”