From soaring snowcapped mountains to tranquil backwaters, bustling bazaars to soul-stirring temples, India is a spectacularly diverse land. Whether you’re here to experience the bustling festivals, partake in a Himalayan trek, or simply to immerse yourself in the country’s rich history and culture, here are 4 of the country’s main adventure destinations, all accessible via the 3 main international gateways – Delhi, Kolkata and Kochi.
Cut off from the outside world between November and May, Ladakh is bound by sheer walls of rock and ice that divide it from Tibet, Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. This rugged mountainous terrain – much of it over 3,000m – is home to one of the last bastions of Tantric Buddhist populations on earth, evidenced by stunning medieval monasteries precariously perched on rocky outcrops overlooking rivers that drain from mountain glaciers.
The capital, Leh (3,500m), is a bustling town along the Indus Valley – an old city of timber and mud bricks dominated by Leh Palace, a 16th century, 9-storey building resembling the Potala Palace.
Buddhist monasteries (gompa) can be found dotted around Ladakh’s valleys. Overlooking the Indus River, there are 4-5 major monasteries along the road from Leh to Thiksey, which contains Ladakh’s biggest chorten fields with hundreds of whitewashed shrines across the desertscape.
Two of the biggest monasteries are the red-and-gold Hemis Gompa (the largest in Ladakh, built in 1672) which is famous for its annual Hemis festival; and the layered, white-washed Tibetan-style Thiksey Gompa located on a rocky outcrop.
Other important monasteries include Spituk Gompa, with its gilt-roofed shrine and a collection of mudbrick buildings that tumble down on a steep hillock; Stok Gompa, which has one of the oldest chapels in Ladakh; and Shey Gompa, which together with Shey Palace, are located on a hillock with a giant copper Buddha statue.
Numerous festivals take place annually throughout the monasteries, when monks break out in brass music and masked dancing (cham) to celebrate local holidays.
The Indus River is ideal for rafting between June and August when the meltwater levels remain high. Organised 1-5 day tours navigate several stretches of the river (ranging from Class I-V depending on the segment).
Popular easier stretches include Phey to Nimo (an easy run passing tiny hamlets and old monasteries) and from Hemis to Choglamsar, a 3-hour trip passing Shey and Thiksey. Experienced rafters can tackle the route between Alchi and Khaltsey, taking in long rapids.
Seeing fewer visitors, the Zanskar River is also popular for rafting, and poses challenging rapids averaging Class III-IV. The northern sections – from Chilling to Nimu – are popular, where you pass dramatic gorges dotted with monasteries like the picturesque Lamayuru.
Ladakh’s canyons and rugged mountains can be explored on various trekking tours called ‘tea house treks’ where hikers spend the night in villages and tents en route.
Treks range from the easy 2-3 day ‘Baby Trek’ of Sham Valley (with low-altitudes and less walking hours) that takes in monasteries like Rizong and Lamayuru, to the popular Markha Valley Trek which is an 8-day hike through striking cold desert valleys, river crossings and rocky canyons, passing the beautiful Hemis National Park and isolated Buddhist villages.
While the main trekking season is in summer (June to September), one famous trek takes place only in winter (February): the Chadar. Between November and March, the Zanskar River freezes over, creating a centuries-old ice route that connects the remote villages of the Zanskar Valley with Leh. Starting from Chilling, you can take a strenuous 70km (7-9 days) trek along the frozen river to reach Padum, overnighting along the canyon walls.
From Delhi, there are regular flights into Leh. Alternatively, you can take the overland approach from Srinagar (434km away) or from Manali (473km away), both traversing a number of high altitude passes.