India is one country that I feel every person needs to travel to at least once in their lifetime. It is a myriad of colors, smells, cultures, history, and experiences. India is a whole different world and one that will fascinate and challenge you. Many people, especially solo female travelers, are quite intimidated, or even scared, to travel to India, for a variety of reasons. It was a country that was always on my list of places I wanted to go to but did not see it happening soon because of all my concerns about traveling there alone. So when Contiki, one of my favorite group tour companies, announced they were starting tours to India, I got really excited! This is my Contiki review of their India trip - the Eternal India.
WHAT IS CONTIKI?
Contiki is a group tour travel company that caters to travelers between the ages of 18 and 35. Contiki is infamous for their world-wind, party vibe Europe Tours, but offers trips across the world, with India being one of the newest destinations. Typically, Contiki tour includes all breakfasts, and some lunches and dinners, all accommodation, transport within the country and fees for the main sights (usually). I have traveled on to Peru on Contiki and to Mexico with Contiki and have loved both my trips – what an excellent way to see a part of the world I wouldn’t feel brave enough to travel to solo. When Contiki opened up the Eternal India trip in around July of 2016, I quickly booked my place on their March schedule – which coincided with the festival of Holi.
WHERE DOES THE CONTIKI ETERNAL INDIA TOUR GO?
AGRA & THE TAJ MAHAL
RANTHAMBORE NATIONAL PARK
If you want to be surprised by your trip, skip this part. If you want insight, want to be prepared, or are a planner (like me), keep reading.
Delhi is India’s capital city, containing some 18 million people within it. I arrived just in time for Holi, which coincided with the start of our trip to India. Before our tour group meeting in the late afternoon at the hotel, I met up with my friend at our hotel, and we (she dragged me) to explore Delhi on our own. It was quite an intense experience, that first day in India.
After our pre-tour meeting, we headed out for dinner, all 30 of us in a tiny restaurant. It took some time to get food for all of us, but Indian food is so worth the wait. The following morning was the day of Holi, so many of the tourist attractions were closed, and the morning time was quite deserted for such a bustling, densely populated city. In the morning, we visited the Jama Masjid, the India Gate, and the Gurdwara Sikh Temple.
The Jama Masjid, however, turned out to be one of my highlights of India. It is one of India’s largest mosques and is made of red sandstone and white marble – this kind of architecture quickly resonated with me throughout the trip, and if you follow me on Instagram you will have noticed I posted about it ALL THE TIME! The Jama Masjid was built by Shah Jahan between 1644 and 1656, the same emperor who built the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, and the Red Fort. The mosque can hold 25,000 people in the courtyard alone and is located in Old Delhi, a fascinating part of Delhi to explore. This mosque is magnificent and impressive.
Visiting the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib Temple is also a highlight of the tour of Delhi. I have had very little exposure to the Sikh religion, so I was excited to visit a temple and learn more about Sikhs in India. We had to remove our shoes and tie orange clothes around our hair before entering the temple. I liked that we toured the Sikh Temple too, and were able to make food with some of the locals in the temple also. Every day, volunteers help feed hundreds of people living in poverty in Delhi from this temple. It was indeed a fascinating experience, and we all enjoyed it.
Later, we were taken to the Moon Music Festival to celebrate Holi in a contained area. We had to pay extra for this. I don’t know, I guess I wish Contiki had come up with a more authentic traditional way for us to celebrate Holi, but I also understand the logistic nightmare of looking after 30 foreigners in one of India’s more crazy festivals! My friend and I still had a lot of fun, and the food was delicious (although overpriced).
In all fairness, I don’t know what to make of this part of the trip. We arrived in time for Holi, so that was somewhat disruptive to a lot of our plans. Please keep that in mind if you are planning on traveling in March! With the experience of the first day in Delhi, unless Contiki has changed their itinerary, I recommend coming to Delhi a day or two before and seeing the sights, notably the Red Fort. We missed this on our tour - it still isn’t clear whether Contiki just shows you it in passing, or takes you around. If the Red Fort is on your list - I would go the day before, or call Contiki and get more clarification on it.
AGRA & THE TAJ MAHAL
After our day in Delhi, we headed to Agra and the Taj Mahal by bus. Our local tour guide provided us with information on the bus as we drove over to Agra. Contiki’s local tour guide was fantastic. He was full of knowledge and was always there to answer questions. He was also a great sport in putting up with all of us! There is nothing to see in Agra except the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. The Contiki tour has you head over to the Agra Fort first and then shuttles you over to the highlight of everyone’s trip – the Taj Mahal.
I’m so glad that Contiki included this part of Agra on our tour. The Agra Fort is beautiful, and I think it is sad that many people may miss it in their rush towards India’s crown jewel, the Taj Mahal. The Agra Fort has beautiful gardens and courtyards, stunning red architecture (my favorite) and tons of history. It was built by Shah Jahan too, and he was later imprisoned here, overlooking the monument to the love of his life, the Taj Mahal. The Agra Fort is enormous, and it is easy to get lost, mesmerized by many of the different courtyards, views, and gardens.
After the Agra Fort tour, you head on over to the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal is everyone's highlight in India, even though there are much more waiting. We got to spend a few hours at the Taj Mahal in the afternoon and going on into the sunset. It is entirely packed and so busy, but it is one of the most visited tourist destinations in India and the world. Our guide gave us some history and background of the Taj Mahal outside and then allowed us to explore on our own for a few hours. The Taj Mahal is truly spectacular, even in the cacophony of tourists. The changing light makes the colors of the white marble shift throughout the day, and the gardens are pretty. It's incredible also to see so many people, and many of them think you are just as interesting and exciting. If you want to make the most of the Taj Mahal, I recommend checking out my guide to visiting the Taj Mahal. I will also be posting a guide to photographing the Taj Mahal soon! Stay tuned and enjoy the TAJ!
RANTHAMBORE NATIONAL PARK
After the Taj Mahal, our next stop was the Ranthambore National Park to go on safari to see tigers. Ranthambore is one of the best national parks in India, and sightings of tigers are relatively high. Before arriving at the lodge, we were treated to a stop at the Dhonk Craft Center, a women empowerment program where the profits go to the women who create crafts and towards tiger conservation. Afterwards, we checked in at the lodge.
After three days in busy and noisy India, the relative quiet of the safari lodge was welcome, and I needed it to recharge. We relaxed and drank by the pool, ate dinner and went to bed for the early mornings start the next day. I was so excited to be heading out into India’s wilderness and looking for wildlife in India. As a South African, I grew up going on safari a few times a year, so getting to go on safari in India was an experience I was super looking forward to! It is possible I was just as excited about this as I was for the Taj Mahal. I wrote a whole post about our incredible adventure looking for tigers in Ranthambore National Park here.
Jaipur is one of my favorite cities in India, and I was excited to get to the Pink City. After a long day on the road ended up trying McDonald's in India before headed to watch a Bollywood movie. I think their paneer burger is probably one of the HOTTEST and SPICIEST things I’ve ever tasted. It was insane, and I love hot, spicy food - be warned! Try it, but watch out! I loved it despite the fact that it was so hot!
So, Bollywood has become one of my ultimate favorite things, and experiencing the film in India was sure part of it. We watched Badrinath Ki Dulhania which features the extremely popular Alia Bhatt and Varun Dhawan. There were no subtitles, and during the intermission, we had a fierce debate amongst ourselves about what was going on in the film. It was honestly hysterical to find out the actual plot afterward. I loved Bollywood so much that when I traveled back to the States, I watched several more Bollywood movies on the plane, and have forced my boyfriend to sit through several more of them since. Even when I fly internationally now, my first stop on the in-flight entertainment system is to see what Bollywood movies are on offer.
Early the next morning, (there are many early mornings on Contiki), we road in little jeeps to our starting point for the Amer Trek. Note that this is listed as an optional in your trip, but if you don’t join the hike you don’t even get to go the palace afterward. I feel like you are kind of forced to do this option if you want to see Jaipur, but the optional is worth it! The trek is fantastic, you’ll see tons of views of the mountains and the walls of the fort, and a couple of dogs will follow you on your trek. They were quite sweet! Afterwards, we have a lovely cup of tea on the top of the mountain looking out to the Amer Fort and the rest of the town below. How our tea guy hiked up the mountain with china and tea on his back, and none of it broke, I will never know!
After our tea and trek back down where we had to watch out for the monkeys, we were taken up to the Amer Fort. I am so glad that Contiki has become more ethical in their travel tours and do not use the elephant rides to the top of the fort. We drove in the same jeeps and walked the rest of the way. The Amer Fort is terrific, and if you follow any travel influences on Instagram, you will recognize a lot of different spots here.
Amer (or Amber) Fort is a vast and complex fort and palace and has some of the most beautiful architecture I have ever seen. I wasn’t prepared to fall in love with India’s structures the way I did. There are several gorgeous courtyards, beautiful views of Rajasthan and our guide gave us a compelling account of the history of this fort. This fort is magnificent, and you must not miss it on your optionals - I think Contiki should include this in the tour's overall cost.
Afterwards, you get a quick tour of the rest of the pink palace and the pink city, and you go for lunch and some shopping. There are plenty of small shops to do shopping, and even get Henna done. Be mindful that while everything in Jaipur is ultra cheap, it is also poor quality. I saved my shopping for Udaipur where the quality and the price is considerably higher. Many of the girls bought elephant pants in Jaipur, and some of them did not last the entire trip. We also had a cooking demonstration at a local's restaurant and house and got to ask the family some of our burning questions about India and life living in this beautiful country. It was really a lot of fun!
Udaipur is one of my absolute favorite cities in India. It is called the Venice of the East and for obvious reasons. It is located in a valley with numerous bodies of water. Many famous western and Bollywood movies and music videos have been filmed here, and almost all the architecture in the central city areas are white. It has a hipster type vibe to it, with many of the shops and restaurants owned by younger people, in the know with Facebook and Instagram. The architecture everywhere is stunning, and I really loved this part of India.
In Udaipur, you visit the City Palace, which is incredible, albeit busy. City Palace is another beautiful part of Rajasthan and another place where I fell more in love with Indian architecture. The archways, carvings and courtyards, and beautiful mosaics. What a stunning part of the world! It’s hard to keep up with the local guide, take pictures and enjoy the spot, so I would honestly recommend finding out if you can stay longer, afterward. It gets hectic, and there is just so much to see, and so much of it a maze, but it is stunning.
The rest of the day is spent shopping or relaxing and includes multiple optionals. After visiting City Palace we went to the Jagdish temple, followed by lunch and shopping. I spent a lot of money on beautiful tapestries and scarfs. Going to the Ganesh Handicraft Emporium is an excellent choice, although it is expensive. I picked up an exquisite wall tapestry and a beaded table runner, and some gorgeous pillow cases for my lounge back home. Later in the day, there are other optionals that your tour manager can arrange for you, like visiting an animal shelter but my friends and I traveled to the Moon Palace for sunset. We arranged a taxi to pick us up from the hotel, take us up to the mountain, and wait for us there. It was a hair-raising drive, and my ears popped all the way up, but it was fun to run around this abandoned palace, taking photos and watching the sunset. There were some more tourists there, and a lot of monkeys, even a feral cat, but it was nice to escape some of the hustle and bustle of the cities and the ever honking tuk-tuks and motorbikes. It was super pretty and lovely to see the city spread out below. Later we had dinner and packed for our morning flight to Mumbai.
The following we do we got on a flight to Mumbai and went on a city tour by bus. We stopped for lunch at Leopold’s and visited the Gate of India, and had the rest of the afternoon off. Some of us noticed that not everything listed on our itinerary was included today, but our flight was delayed. We went Bollywood dancing as one of the optionals. On our itinerary, it said it was a tour of Bollywood, which some of us thought meant we would be visiting the studios and dancing or seeing some of the homes. That didn’t really happen - it is just a dance class, and it is a little overpriced. Contiki might have changed that, but we still had a lot of fun. We learned a cool Bollywood routine, which was tricky! That evening we could head out, but I was exhausted and opted to stay in – one of our highlights was coming up – our tour of Mumbai at Dawn. I will dedicate an entire post to this optional as it was fantastic and well worth getting up early. The tour takes you to all the local markets of India’s biggest city – the fish market, vegetable market, newspaper distribution center, and the flower market. It is one of the absolute best optionals I’ve been on with Contiki on all my tours.
Our last destination in Eternal India was the Portuguese old colony town of Goa. What a stark contrast to the dry and arid Rajasthan, and bustling metropolis of Mumbai. We were greeted with palm trees, humidity and ocean air. I am not a big beach person, so I wasn’t particularly taken with this part of our trip, and I didn’t enjoy our optional either. Our itinerary sent to us said we had the option of doing another cooking class and doing a yoga class. I was really excited about both of these, but the cooking class was no longer available, and the yoga class was more of a class for beginners, not the kind of yoga class you might expect coming to India. I was disappointed that our tour manager wasn’t more upfront about this in our first meeting. I genuinely could have skipped on this part of the tour, but a majority of the rest of my fellow travelers LOVED Goa. I guess to ask a Ginger to enjoy sitting in the sun on the beach is just too much when reliving memories of sunburn on a flight. If you enjoy partying, drinking, and the beach then this one's for you! I spent my time relaxing, planning my next part of my trip to Qatar, and eating and shopping!
Tips for Contiki Eternal India
Travel with cards and cash, withdraw from ATMs whenever you can
The currency will likely no longer be an issue once you travel to India. I visited a few months after they re-did the currency and often it was quite difficult to withdraw money from the ATMs. Many of the places we went to took credit cards, but not in smaller restaurants, and often they weren’t prepared to use them when we were seated at such a big table. I would recommend asking AHEAD of time to be put on a separate bill, though there is no guarantee of the establishment doing this. Try and be the first person to pay your bill to avoid major headaches and time wasting. You do want to try and get rupees in 100 bills, as well as smaller notes for when you want to buy things locally or in markets.
Drink and use bottled water only and don’t eat street food.
Check expiry dates on snacks in petrol/gas stations along the road.
Take snacks with you from home for long travel days or in case you get sick.
Everyone is always worried about the food in India and wants to avoid getting Delhi belly as much as possible. Only a few people on our trip suffered with it. I didn’t have any issues and to be completely honest, eating in India has completely changed my dietary habits today. I felt WAY healthier than usual in India. The irony right? I eat FAR LESS meat than I used to now because of this trip. In fact, I almost avoid eating meat now. I got into the habit of eating mainly vegetarian when we did travel through India, and when we did eat meat, I was genuinely repulsed by it (Indian chicken is way different, and I am particularly sensitive to chicken on a good day. Plus, see cows and chickens eat anything and everything on the floor, including plastic, really put me off - but I am super sensitive to eating meat so). I digress! A large part of what helped me avoid Delhi belly was drinking only bottled water and using bottled water to brush my teeth. I also rarely ate any street food. I know others did that were fine, and I know other travelers who have eaten street food and been extremely sick. Its like Russian roulette I guess, as well as how strong your stomach is. In hindsight, I wish I had experienced more of India’s street food, but after my tour to Peru, and missing a full day exploring Lake Titicaca because of a combination of altitude sickness and motion sickness, I wanted to play it safe. If you get to explore India at a slow pace, eat the street food and tell me all about it ok?
I am a huge fan of Indian food, but honestly, I thought I would eventually get sick of it. I never did! Not even on the last day. Still to this day I wish I could have an Indian breakfast or lunch and dinner. Indian food is the best food in the world. Alcohol is also a lot more expensive in India, and the drinking age is 25.
Plans for Before and After your Contiki
Check with your Contiki representative whether or not some of the itinerary above has changed, and find out whether some of the tours in Delhi, etc. have changed. You’ll want to see the Red Fort the day before if they still follow the same one as I did. The day in Mumbai is too short for what all the city has to offer, and I would recommend going back to Mumbai for a few more days. A lot of my group opted to stay in Goa longer to get some rest. After exploring India for two weeks, I cannot blame them!
Don’t be afraid
Many people were shocked that I was traveling to India “alone.” I was maybe going alone, but I was traveling with Contiki and meeting my friend I met on Contiki in Peru. Don’t be afraid of traveling to India or in India but be mindful of what you are doing and your surroundings. I think women need to be cognizant that this is not the Western world they are used to, and I think it's best to be mindful of what you are wearing and the context you are wearing it in. I wrote a post about what to wear for women in India. India gets a lot of bad rep for how women are treated, and while I didn’t have any personal experiences of this, I specially dressed in a certain way to avoid unwanted attention. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn't. But don’t be afraid to travel to India. There are so many beautiful and exciting and challenging things about this country - it will test you, but you may also just fall in love with it as I did. Plus, with a group, local guides, and a tour manager - you are in a lot safer hands.
contiki tour Review
I really loved India. I expected to hate it - my dad has traveled to India several times and has only told me negative stories (apart from the food). I knew I was going to face an onslaught of sounds, smells, and people, and I am one of those super auditory sensitive types of people. But I loved India! I loved being able to experience a completely different part of the world, a completely different culture (cultures!), and I just love Indian food. I was enthralled by the architecture of India, the colors, textures, and smells. There is so much history in this country, and traveling through India is challenging and rewarding. I had the time of my life and managed to cope surprisingly well with all the things everyone warned me against.
Contiki really has hit a lot of the highlights of India, like the Taj, the beautiful palaces in Jaipur and Udaipur, the bustling city of Mumbai and the tiger safari. The tour is fast paced, and it would be nice to have spent a more extended amount of time in each city - but this is how it is with Contiki. A lot of the optionals were terrific - like the Amer Fort Trek and Mumbai at Dawn Tour, but I feel like it should be included in the tour already. Some of the optionals were not that great for various reasons (pm me for more information if you would like to know), but overall I enjoyed my trip through India.
I have to be honest and say that it has taken me a while to write this post, because I did have several issues with this trip and our tour manager, and to be frank, it was not on the same level on my previous tours. I have always loved Contiki to travel to countries I would feel worried about traveling on my own, but I do want to be honest and fair. I have to acknowledge the fact that when I went on this tour, it was still in its infancy, the eight trip overall, and that in any brand new tour, there may be many kinks to work out. However, this tour is not cheap by any standards, and you can certainly do the same for less cost, either on your own or with Contiki’s competitors. To be transparent, I did bring my issues to the attention of customer service, and they handled some of my concerns. I am hopeful that Contiki has considered some of the problems that myself and other travelers on my trip mentioned, and that many of those kinks have since been worked out.
To answer the question: did I love Contiki India and would I recommend Contiki India to other travelers? It is hard to answer that - I traveled on this trip in its infancy, so hopefully, many of the kinks have been ironed out. I have loved the Contiki brand for my past trips, and have touted and raved about them to anyone and everyone who has ever told me they are afraid to travel on their own. I would still recommend the other tours I have done with them, and I would recommend this trip if some of the kinks and issues have been solved. My friend’s friends went on the tour after us, with a different tour manager, and didn’t have the same issues as us. It may just have been issues specific to our trip and the timing, but I do want to be honest and transparent about my experience, as that’s the whole reason you’re here. Contiki still provides some of the best tours in the business, and I have loved all my previous tours and stayed friends with many of the people on my trips. India is an incredible place, and Contiki does make it easier to see a lot of part of the country in a short period. India will test you like no other country, but I think you will also fall in love with it!
Have you been to India or on a Contiki before? What did you think? Are you thinking about doing this trip and have questions? Put them in the comments below :)