To be completely honest, it was probably a bad idea to book that tour to Rishikesh and Haridwar at the cusp of monsoon season in the middle of July. During monsoon the mighty Ganges river can broaden and rise several meters with destructive force; many roads get closed for days or weeks after fatal landslides; heavy rain clouds linger low between the hills creating the most terrible light for photography; animals go into hiding and national parks are closed. Even in good conditions, Rishikesh is a good 5-to-8-hour-drive away from Delhi, we could not really afford ‘wasting’ two of our 10 days in India by sitting in a car on the road into uncertainty.

Nothing seemed to speak for making our way to Rishikesh and Haridwar – except for my stubborn (maybe naive?) wish to go and the offer by Erco Travels to take us. Despite the risk, it took us less than a second to decide – let’s go to Rishikesh! Oh boy, it was so worth it! travelettes guide to rishikesh and haridwar, erco travels, india, kathi kamleitner, travelettes 9 travelettes guide to rishikesh and haridwar, erco travels, india, kathi kamleitner, travelettes (109 of 142)

Rishikesh and Haridwar are two neighboring cities in the North-Indian state of Uttarakhand, the gate to the Himalayas. While Haridwar is one of India’s most holy cities dedicated to Vishnu, Rishikesh is nicknamed the ‘yoga capital of the world’. Both are major magnets for (yoga) tourists and pilgrims alike, so even though it is a little off the beaten track (especially in monsoon season) you will most definitely never feel alone here. Let me give you an overview of what to do, see and experience while you’re here – this is our Travelettes guide to Rishikesh and Haridwar.

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Best time to visit

The main season for Uttarakhand is dry season, which considering the mighty river, the lush green forests and higher elevation is still very lush and green. When the river is at its lowest, you can do rafting tours, sleep in beach camps by the river side and hike through the surrounding national parks searching for Bengal tigers. Most of these activities close down during monsoon season, because of heavy rainfalls, rising water levels and the risk of landslides

Is it still worth it to come during monsoon season?

Yes, if you time it right! We were lucky, as the really heavy rains had not set in yet and except for a few light showers we were spared by the rain. July and August are the best months to use Rishikesh as a starting point and venture further into the pre-Himalaya hills, especially if you are interested in trekking to the Valley of Flowers, as this is when all the flowers are in full bloom. In early monsoon season there are less tourists here, but still many pilgrims (we had arrived just in time for a major religious gathering in Haridwar), so you get the full dose of ceremonies and temple visits. Also, the clouds in the forest actually add a great mysterious atmosphere.

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Planning a visit to Rishikesh during monsoon season a long time ahead still is like playing with fire – best have a backup plan and know your cancellation policies.

How to get here & getting around

Getting to Rishikesh and Haridwar from Delhi can be quite a trek; five to eight hours under normal conditions, God-knows how long when it rains or there has been a landslide. It took us around seven hours by car – great weather, but a hell-of-a-lot of traffic jams on our way out of Delhi. Alternatives to driving is a veeeery long bus or train ride, or a flight to Dehradun Jollygrant Airport, 25km from Rishikesh.

The big advantage of driving was, that it was obviously quicker than public transportation and that from the moment we left our hotel in Delhi, we had our own personal driver to take us around Uttarakhand how and when we wanted – this way we could get the most out of our trip. No haggling with tuktuk or taxi drivers, no wasting time by finding the cheapest driver in town and most importantly, a person we could ask for advice about the area.

Rishikesh is much bigger than it seems, with many villages tucked away in the hilly forest. The three main areas of interest are Triveni Ghat, Lakshman Jhula and Ram Jhula. They are not necessarily far apart and there are paths along the Ganges connecting them, but in the unbearable heat and humidity, you would do anything to sit in an air-conditioned car. Getting from bridge to bridge, from Rishikesh to Haridwar, from the river to your accommodation, from the touristy centers to the off-beat temple sites in the hills – you will need a driver for all that.

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Where to stay

Heads up, the options are endless. From very basic, but traditional ashrams, which are mainly frequented by Hindu pilgrims, to high-end yoga retreats and spa hotels, you can find everything here.

Erco Travels put us up in their guesthouse in a little gated hillside community just above Ram Jhula. From the rooftop terrace we could get an amazing view over the river Ganges and the bizarre bridges crossing it. The housekeeper was also our chef and spoiled us with amazing homemade curries, neither too spicy nor ‘tourist-friendly’. We had a large room with a balcony, but could also use the downstairs lounge to discuss the following day with our driver. Communication wasn’t always easy, but with a little effort it worked just fine.

NOTE: Do not under any circumstances drink the tap water, or eat raw fruit/vegetables that have been washed with it! I’m speaking from experience…

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I can definitely recommend to stay a little off the main roads, because it’s much quieter and the views are better. In our little community there was even a yoga ashram with drop in classes, but alas – we couldn’t possibly sweat even more.

What to do

Take part in an Aarti ceremony

All around Rishikesh and Haridwar there are daily fire ceremonies, aartis, held by the river at dusk. We attended two of them. The aarti in Ram Jhula at the famous Parmarth Ashram is quite traditional – the students and teachers of the ashram sing and play music, they set fire to the offerings and carry the flames through the chanting crowd. There were quite a few other tourists there, but mainly Indian participants. According to our driver, this is the most impressive ceremony in Rishikesh (because of the live music), but I still preferred the ceremony at Triveni Ghat despite the music coming from a metallic boombox. There was a lot more space for the pilgrims and more women selling beautiful flower baskets, which you set on fire and offer to the river Ganges – unfortunately, mine drowned within seconds of touching the water surface – it takes a skilled hand… or another 10 rupees for another attempt.

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Before the ceremony started we watched a happy crowd of Indians clap, chant and dance along to the sing-sang of a spiritual leader, who looked so happy, it made me want to convert. Prepare yourself for a sticky affair, as the humidity hardly drops after nightfall and those ceremonies last for quite a while – it’s totally worth it though!

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Hit the markets

Rishikesh is a shopper’s paradise – there are markets everywhere. Unfortunately, a lot of shops sell imported plastic crap rather than handcrafted souvenirs, but the streets around Lakshman Jhula had some great shops to offer. Funny enough this is the most touristy area – it seems like Indians are more interested in low-quality from other parts of Asia, than in their own local handcrafts… Anyways, on the far side of Lakshman Jhula (crossing the river, away from the main road) there are plenty of cool shops selling pretty jewelry, bed throws, scarfs and clothes. If I would not have already gone a little mental in Pushkar a week before, I would have bought even more.

For a relaxed treat away from the chaos head to Little Buddha Cafe (Lakshman Jhula) for salads and juices – it’s full or Western travellers and ranks on #1 restaurant in the Lonely Planet, but sometimes it’s quite nice to not draw all the attention towards you.

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Half-day trip to Neelkanth Temple

Neelkanth is only a few kilometers away from Rishikesh – theoretically. Practically you need to follow a narrow winding road for quite a while, praying for no incoming traffic, to reach the tiny village surrounding a beautiful temple site. Although the actual temple is not open to tourists, Neelkanth is worth the trek though, because you don’t only get beautiful views over the Ganges river and its side arms, you also get a completely (Western) tourist-free experience high up in the hills. Brightly organs clad priests will offer their services already before you enter the temple area – if you accept their blessings though, you will have to donate some money. Denying this might piss them off a little, but when you return on your way out, this grudge is long gone.

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On your way to the temple there are many stalls selling flowers, food and other offerings to the gods. Once you enter the labyrinth of little lanes leading to the temple’s center, just follow the locals, otherwise you might get lost. On your way back, snap some photos down the valley and maybe stop for some samosa on the way.

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Half-day trip to Haridwar

Haridwar is about an hour’s drive from Rishikesh and particularly popular for its two temples, Chandi Devi and Mansa Devi high up on two opposite hills. You can either walk up (too hot for us) or take the cable car (reach the station by rickshaw), which comes with a little bit of a wait, but also a very local feel. As we were seating away in the large waiting hall, stuffing our face with vanilla ice cream and smiling at interested children who didn’t speak English, we felt like we’re right in the middle of it all. We had no idea what would await us at the top – visiting a Hindu temple is just something you have to experience for yourself. I’ll tell you about the ins and outs of temples in a separate post.

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Again, there are plenty of market streets to hit up in Haridwar, and of course the Ghats, steps leading down into Ganges river. As we were walking back to our car, we saw hundreds of pilgrims taking off their clothes and bathe in the river, some jumping in like playing children, others in peace and quiet. We didn’t stay for the ceremony, but with the masses of people around, I’m sure it would have been a great one to watch!

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The Beatles Ashram

When in 1968 four British lads with the names John, Paul, George and Ringo came to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Ashram in Ram Jhula to be with their spiritual leader, all eyes around the world were suddenly on Rishikesh. Who would not want to know what The Beatles are up to?

Today the ashram is abandoned, but still pilgrim site for Beatles fans visiting India. In exchange for a little ‘entrance fee’ the guards will open the gates for you and let you explore the empty grounds around the iconic meditation huts, the grand halls and ruins. The compound is massive and you’ll stumble upon a new impressive building around every corner. The walls are decorated with Beatles titles and quotes, and graffitis. Large areas have been won back by nature, overgrown by dense bushes and high grass. And suddenly you find yourself in an abandoned toilet, wondering if John Lennon might have squatted right here 50 years ago… awkward doesn’t cut it.

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My favorite place of the ashram though is Beatles Cathedral, a wide hall filled with large murals and tributes to the band. As we walked in, we met a group of travelers setting up for a yoga session. It felt quite magical.

The hardest part about getting here was to convince our driver of that ‘the Beatles ashram’ is actually a thing – he had never heard of them before. A little YouTube and Google session later, he understood that we had a good reason to come here and drove us all the way. The ashram is actually a lot easier to reach by foot – just cross Ram Jhula, walk down the river and turn left into the forest. With Google Maps loaded on your phone, you’ll find it. In the heat however, we were quite happy about having the car available…

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Of course, there is a lot more to do and see in Rishikesh and Haridwar, first and foremost, finding a yoga retreat and working on your routine for a few weeks. I would have loved to do that, but alas, the time was pressing… I guess I will just have to return another time.

A big thank you goes to Erco Travels for hosting us in India and taking us to Rishikesh – we had a great time and can’t wait to come back for a longer time!

All photos by Kathi Kamleitner & Erco Travels.