Baga Beach explodes with noise every night. Booming bursts of bass and tabla, whistles and shouts that crush against the night-time waves diving inland from the Arabian Sea. Hands and ankles twist to the beat in such fluidity, with such ease you might be convinced people were purpose-built to dance. Bieber and Drake and DJ Khalid are mixed in discerningly with Bollywood hits of the moment. The noise goes until it wakes the dawn, and then Baga Beach transforms into a different scene.
Children arrive with parents and grandparents in modest dress to manufacture castles from sand the color of the roasted cashews sold everywhere in Goa. Music still plays but not anywhere near the volume as at night. The sound of the waves are what you hear and it is a pleasant change from the EDM. Walking near the shore, or into the blissfully warm water, the rushing waves are all that fills your ears for many moments — until a life-patrol jeep churns up to shout orders to the bathers who have drifted too far, making them vulnerable to powerful currents known to haul tourists out to sea. To prevent drownings, the municipality doesn’t mind spoiling the care-free atmosphere intermittently with a noisy life-patrol vehicle. Ensuring the safety of foreigners has been a primary goal of the government, which wants to attract more tourism dollars while also transforming North Goa’s image.
For more than a generation, this part of the state has been considered the closest thing India has to a hedonistic experience. Hippies settled into the area near Baga Beach in the 1960s and forever changed it. North Goa became a haven for late-night parties, and remains so but it is also relaxed and in India — where panhandlers and street merchants can be aggressive with foreigners — that is refreshing.
The town of Baga is touristy, but there are degrees of touristyness and the little village around the beach is low on that scale compared to similar destinations. At any time during a stay in arguably Goa’s most popular beach, a visitor might liken it to the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, or Spain’s party island of Ibiza, or Thai destinations where foreigners from northern countries flock for rays and daze. What Goa will not be confused with is Delhi, Bangalore, Amritsar, or most other places in India.
Goa was a colony of Portugal from 1510 until 1961, when it was finally patriated into India. It boasts the highest GDP per capita in the country while also being the smallest of the 28 states, covering only 1,430 square miles (3,702 square kilometres), roughly the size of Rhode Island. Goa’s lack of territory doesn’t mean it is short on experiences. There are wellness retreats, wildlife sanctuaries, river cruises, casinos, historical tours, culinary classes, water sports, and many resorts with access to the shoreline.
Bargains and Beaches in India
In North Goa, all of that fun can be had for cheap, despite the tourist numbers. A bottle of beer on Baga Beach can be purchased for as little as 80 Indian rupees (INR), or $1.15 USD. By contrast, the same beer at a restaurant at Goa International Airport will cost 590 INR, or an outrageous $7.25 more. The cost of fresh seafood grilled with Indian spices will make you wonder if you might still be under the influence of whatever you consumed at the club the night before. Dungeness crab, red snapper, lobster, tiger prawns, pomfret, lemonfish, kingfisher, and others are plucked daily from the sea and delivered to the restaurants lining the beach. Sit on a chaise lounge or take a seat on a beanbag as you place your order and relish the flavors that dribble on your tongue.
The best spot I tried was Las Olas Beach Club, which wins for being the one restaurant on Baga Beach smart enough to set up its seafood grilling station every night in an enticing spot directly on the sand. The fish and shellfish at Las Olas are grilled over a deep tandoor oven that you can view. Las Olas’ decor is also eye-catching. Its name adorns a neon sign and tiki torches lead the way to the front door. Bright bean bags come out in the evening to encourage you to laze around while inside a warm, pristine, and clean restaurant that wouldn’t look out of place in Scottsdale or South Beach welcomes you to linger. The wait staff everywhere in Goa are friendly and genuine, especially so at Las Olas.
A few hundred yards south is Indian Summer, whose prices are slightly less and decor not nearly as appealing, but its masala-lacquered tiger prawns are a match for the heavenly view of the sea guests take in while lounging beneath umbrellas. When someone thinks of a beach vacation, what’s in mind is a laid-back scene like this, with an abundance of sun, fresh food, and time enough to count your breaths.
For those who like to explore farther, Goa has roads that lead to other beaches in the north. By Indian standards, the traffic is mild and while the roads could use with more maintenance, they are paved and smooth enough. Around Baga, you will only find single-lane traffic, so getting from one destination to the next will almost always take at least 30 minutes. Ashwem Beach, about 20 miles (26 kilometres) away, is a quiet, secluded spot with a few restaurants and resorts lining the shore. For anyone looking for bargains, travel to Mapusa Market, which is much larger than you might imagine. You’ll find spices, sarees, formal clothes, cheap beach wear, traditional sweets, and lots of those cashew nuts. I bought a variety of spices, including nutmeg flower and black cardamom, that are destined for my next batch of chicken curry. A couple of miles north of the market is the town of Assagao, with cafes and North Goa’s most well-regarded restaurants. About 45 minutes south is Panjim (or Panaji), the state capital, with Catholic churches, Hindu temples, and centuries-old Portuguese homes.
After a few days you’ll realize that Baga and area isn’t just for revelry and baking skin. It is for getting acquainted with an India you may not have pictured. One that feels a lot more familiar than anywhere else in the country, yet wildly Indian as well.
MORE ABOUT VISITING BAGA
Getting There: Goa International Airport is about 90 minutes by car south of Baga Beach. It receives flights from India’s major cities. North Americans are most likely to arrive via Mumbai or Delhi.
Getting Around: Download the Goa Miles app. It is the state-owned ride-hailing app and provides significant savings over a taxi. There is no Uber, Lyft, or Ola in the state. The Goa Miles interface is much like Uber’s, but the wait times for a driver to arrive were often inaccurate, in my experience. Be prepared to wait about 10 minutes longer for your pickup than what the app indicates. Goa Miles is a new offering by the state government and not all taxi drivers welcome its arrival. At the DoubleTree by Hilton Goa-Panaji Resort where I stayed, a group of taxi drivers prevented my Goa Miles driver from entering the property. I had to walk beyond the gates and watch as the men surrounded my driver to each check and re-check his credentials before realizing he was properly licensed by the state. Then they allowed me to enter the car.
This article is the latest in an ongoing series on India by VacayNetwork Managing Editor Adrian Brijbassi, who was recently a visiting journalist with both the Goa Tourism Board and Karnataka Tourism Board.
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