For me, spending time in India is the definition of adventure. The sights, the people, the natural beauty and the perpetual state of discovery make it one of the most exciting countries to visit. For adventurers looking to travel back in time to ancient India's medieval merchant bazaars, Maharaja palaces, and Jain temples, Jaisalmer is truly an adventure, a paradise, a dream come true.
The “Golden City” of Jaisalmer
As a traveler to the Thar Desert in Rajasthan “The Land of Kings”, your first vision will probably be of the ancient sandstone “Golden City” of Jaisalmer. It rises like an Oz mirage out of the Thar's rippling and picturesque desert dunes. It is a vision you will not soon forget, if ever. Most travelers take the overnight train and arrive before the sun but fear not as plenty of taxis and auto-rickshaws (aka tuk-tuks) await you outside the station. You will probably want to book the first-class “express” overnight train (from Delhi, Jaipur or Jodhpur). This being our initial train ride, we booked the wrong class and while it was a bit of an eye-opener at first, we quickly settled in and dozed off to the rhythm of the wheels on the tracks. You will, however, absolutely want to book your Jaisalmer hotel within the marble smooth time and wind-polished sandstone walls of the Jaisalmer Fort or you will spend the rest of your stay wishing you had.
Stroll and Shop the Jaisalmer Bazaar
Spend your first day strolling the souk-like walk-streets of the Fort. Don't worry about getting lost or finding the best of this or the best of that, it's all good. Buy some fresh squeezed orange juice from any of the street vendors. Have a coffee in any of the numerous cafes whose windows overlook the fort and the desert. We loved the Karma Café, we loved Free Tibet. All of the shop owners are super friendly and helpful and their goods are local and artisan made. Do buy some of the beautiful handmade traditional desert garb cotton shirts, scarves, and pants. Besides being lovely to look at, they are super comfortable and seemingly the perfect material and coverage for the hot Indian weather. The more time you spend in India, the more traditional garb you will want to wear. After about a week there, we wore nothing but the clothes we bought in India.
Ride a Scooter through the Thar Desert to discover ancient Jain Temples
Get your motor running and rent a scooter from any of several vendors along the car street that circles the fort. Or if a scooter is not your thing, you can hire a guide. Go ahead, wing it out into the Thar desert without directions, there aren't that many roads. Soon you will come to some of the finest examples of Jain temples in all of India. You are only a few km from the Pakistan border, the wind and sand are flying through your hair, you are super cool, who else does this? If fortune shines, you run into a local lad who, for a few rupees, leads you to even more secret spots of discovery. Pack a picnic lunch and make a day of it!
Take a desert Camel Safari in Rajasthan, Sleep under the Stars
Really get away from it all by taking a camel trip deep into the Thar Desert. Ask at your hotel or scout out camel trippers inside the Fort. It is probably best to get details from a few different outfits to compare pricing, times, accommodations, etc. We wanted to sleep straight under the stars and our guides took us on a 3-hour ride seemingly deep into the Thar where unobfuscated sand dunes stretched as far as the eye could see. Straight out of Lawrence of Arabia we were, with our headscarves, desert attire and bedecked camels. Our guides pitched our cots, lined them with clean wool blankets, cooked us dinner and bid us adieu. We were left completely (as far as we knew) to our own devices. We lay under the stars bonding and singing television jingles from our youth, as carefree as anyone could possibly be. The next morning our guides returned out of nowhere and cooked us a hearty breakfast before we climbed on our mounts and made our way back amongst the goat herders and rare desert denizens.
Women traveling in India
We are two women, in our mid-fifties. We took trains and tuk-tuks, bicycles and scooters and hired drivers to travel to and fro from Delhi to Varkala. We never once felt unsafe. Our accommodations ranged from budget rooms to five-star hotels. We were cautious or careful but we never once felt unsafe or financially taken advantage of.
Our Perfect India Itinerary
Our fabulous, fantastic, could-not-have-been-better two-month India itinerary included Delhi, Jaipur, Pushkar (so awesome for Holi), Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Udaipur then south to Kerala and the tea plantations of Munnar, the waterways of Alleppey and the beaches of Varkala. Besides our hotels on arrival and departure, we made no advance reservations. We knew the main places we wanted to visit when we got into one town, we made hotel reservations for the next town on our itinerary. We never had a problem getting a room. We went during the months of April and May.
The inimitable tuk-tuk was our absolute favorite mode of transportation. But for long distances, we compared planes, trains, and hired drivers. We often chose hired drivers as we were able to control times, plans, routes, diversions, etc. I have rented cars in many places around the world and would never even consider driving a car in India. In addition to the crazy haphazardness of the traffic, finding your own way to and from destinations seems only for the lionhearted. GPS isn't going to help you here.
I took my beloved Hydro Flask to India and never once used a plastic or Styrofoam cup. At every stop I filled it with water from the large refillable water bottles that are stationed everywhere or I filled it with tea at cafes and restaurants.