HOW TO PLAN THE ULTIMATE RAJASTHAN ROAD TRIP
If you’re travelling to India for the first time, chances are that you’ll spend some time in Rajasthan. Which would be a pretty good choice considering its easy access from Delhi, the incredible cultural sights on offer and, of course, the sublime food.
Travelling between the various sights can be done extremely cheaply using a combination of trains, buses and local taxis. Which is fine if you’ve got plenty of time to spare and don’t mind the hassles that come with such a strategy. But, like us, if you’re visiting in April, when the temperatures regularly top 40 degrees Celcius, you might want to opt for something a little more comfortable. Where all your energy is reserved for exploring the actual sites rather than negotiating the sometimes large distances between them.
Which is where a Rajasthan road trip with a car and driver arrangement comes in mightily handy.
After something of a false start with another company, we booked a car with Shafi at Invicta Tour & Travel, a small tour company based in Delhi who we’d met while staying in the city. As a result, we were able to pack in so much of Rajasthan over a relatively short space of time. Add to that the benefit of glorious air-conditioning and it really was something of a no-brainer for us.
The “false start” by the way was because we spent our first two days with another company, whose driver was so indifferent to our requests that we decided to cut our losses (in other words, our deposit) and quit before we were due to pay the full amount. Thankfully Shafi was only too willing to get one of his drivers out to us in Jaipur the following morning. We could pay him when we returned to Delhi in a fortnight. And “Bumpi” (quite possibly not his real name) turned out to be a star.
So, let’s get to it. Here’s how to plan a 16-day Rajasthan road trip. The comfortable way.
Note: We received no discounts or incentives of any kind from Invicta Tour & Travel for writing this article. Any recommendations we make are based on our genuine experiences and opinions.
OK, before you start Googling “Is Agra in Rajasthan?” (which it isn’t), if you’re on the way there from Delhi you really shouldn’t miss the opportunity to see the city’s crowning glory – the Taj Mahal – in all its marble over-the-top glory. Especially as it’s just a three-hour drive.
In fact, there are two other reasons for going. One is the tomb of Itmad-ud-Daula (or “Baby Taj”), which was built five years BEFORE its famous big brother and is reputedly the source of the latter’s inspiration. And the other is Agra Fort, home to the emperors of the Mughal Dynasty until 1638.
For most cities, they would represent sufficient reason for travelling there on their own. But then, Agra is no normal city. Almost as an antidote to the grinding ugliness of the city itself, the white marble dome of the iconic Taj Mahal rises from the scrubland that surrounds it. Read up on the background to it – how the Mughal Emperor had it built as a mausoleum for the love of his life, his wife, Mumtaz Mahal – and I dare you not be transfixed by the power of its beauty. Stick around, too for late afternoon when the sun is low and the white marble takes on warm hues of orange and yellow.
You’ll need to stay overnight before you move on. The Coral Tree Homestay – a family-run guesthouse with lovely, clean and quiet rooms, would be our choice.
Four hours from Agra, the city of Jaipur is our first port of call in Rajasthan proper. It’s the state’s capital and is known as The Pink City because of the colour of its buildings.
We loved it here, particularly in the company of our ubiquitous rickshaw driver, Gopal, who took us on a whirlwind tour of his city that will remain imprinted in our memories. If you’ve got time to spend a day or two, seek him out and let him show you what true Indian hospitality is all about. Contact details in our post.
So what’s to see? Well, there’s the City Palace – home of the Maharaja of Jaipur. Then there’s Hawa Mahal (also known as the “Palace of Winds” or “Palace of Breeze”) – a spectacular multi-storeyed pink facade with a staggering 950 windows built for the sole purpose of allowing female members of the royal household to watch festivals in the street below without being seen. They clearly hadn’t thought about curtains back then.
Perhaps best of all is the immense Amer Fort, about 11km out of town and perched imposingly on the top of a ridge overlooking the valley below. You certainly won’t be alone, but you might very well be the only non-Indian there.
Next stop is Bundi, a three-hour drive south of Jaipur and a place not featured as one of the major tourist destinations of Rajasthan. But we reckon you shouldn’t miss it, and not just because it comes without many of the hassles you might encounter in some of its larger, brasher neighbours.
Here the pace is as slow as it gets. You get the impression that this is a part of Rajasthan that hasn’t suffered from the expansion of urban sprawl that’s blighted many other parts of the state. Consequently, it still has the feel of a small market town about it. And, for the visitor, it’s all the better for it.
Across from its centrepiece green lake, narrow streets filled with colourful, sometimes crumbling buildings lead up to the hilltop Palace – which nowadays is something of a shell, but a fascinating visit nonetheless. Indeed, Kipling described it as “the work of goblins rather than of men”.
Two particular recommendations. I had possibly the best plate of food of our entire trip to India at the Lake View Garden Restaurant. It’s a small family-run cafe on the river bank and their Rajasthan Thali is a work of art! Secondly, for an inexpensive good night’s sleep try Shivam Guest House, just up the road from Lake View. And, if you’ve got the time, ask one of the ladies of the family to decorate you with a henna tattoo.
Next, it’s a four-hour drive back north to the ancient pilgrimage site of Pushkar. Like Bundi, it too has a lake. But that’s where the similarity ends.
Pushkar is a holy city and its centrepiece lake is a sacred Hindu site, said to be consecrated to Lord Brahma, the creator of the universe. As a result, the city has an eclectic mix of locals, Hindu pilgrims and backpacking tourists who flock here to enjoy the mysticism. That and the occasional bhang lassi.
It’s all a bit commercialised if I’m honest, and the lake area has its fair share of scammers on the lookout for unwary travellers. But you can’t really travel to Rajasthan and not spend at least one night here. And, if you’re up for a challenge in 40-degree heat, there’s a great walk up to the hilltop Savitri Mantra Temple, which provides panoramic views of the city and lake below. Just don’t try it after early morning.
Also known as the City of Lakes, the city is set around a series of artificial lakes. Its centrepiece attraction is the City Palace, which is the largest palace complex in Rajasthan. And it really is a stunning place to just wander around. If we had to recommend just one palace in Rajasthan to see it would be this one.
In fact, James Bond himself (in the shape of Roger Moore) stayed here for a few months while filming “Octopussy” – not one of the great Bond films but it did feature a famous chase scene on Lake Pichola.
Probably the most photographed image of Udaipur, however, is that of Jag Mandir, the Lake Garden Palace set on an island in the middle of Lake Pichola. Built in the 16th Century, it was a summer resort for the Royals, but nowadays it’s a luxury hotel. In fact, the city has some of the most renowned and expensive hotels in the country if you fancy a splurge, such as The Taj Lake Palace, Leela Palace Udaipur and the Oberoi Udaivillas.
Otherwise, we’d recommend Sun Heritage Home, a lovely haveli and without a doubt our favourite accommodation in Rajasthan. Super-clean, bright, modern room, quiet location and comfy bed – what more do you want from a room in India?
It was also in Udaipur that Bumpi introduced us to the Kachori for breakfast. A deep-fried pastry served with spicy curry sauce and a mint relish, all from the comfort of a metal bench on the side of the road, next to a van with a couple of large pots billowing steam into the morning air. “Just one should be enough,” announced Bumpi. Naturally, I had three.
Next, you’ll be heading north towards the Blue City of Jodhpur. But before you get there you absolutely MUST visit two outstanding sites along the way.
The first is in the otherwise nondescript town of Ranakpur. The only reason to visit is for the stunning Jain temple with its 1400-plus intricately carved marble pillars. We’re not exactly architecture buffs but they’re a truly magnificent sight – and no two pillars are the same. In addition, there are also exquisite sculptures and the sublime carvings of the ceilings to admire.
It’s only open to foreigners between 12 noon and 5 pm, and shoes aren’t allowed inside the temple so bring along socks. For a 200 rupee entry fee (plus 100 rupees for a camera) you get an audio tour, which also deters the men in there who will approach you and ask for further ‘donations’.
Because of the afternoon-only access, you’ll need an overnight stop. To be honest, there isn’t a great choice of accommodation but, for what it’s worth, we stayed at Roopam Resort, which was fine for a quiet night’s sleep.
Just an hour’s drive from Ranakpur is one of the great under-visited sites in Rajasthan – the awesome Kumbhalgarh Fort. Now, you might at this point be forgiven for thinking that Rajasthan is just one long procession of forts, palaces and temples. And it’s true that if wandering around in 40-degree heat gawping at historic buildings doesn’t fire your imagination then you might well be suffering culture burn out by this time. But just hold on if you can as you’re about to explore possibly our favourite place in Rajasthan.
Not only is Kumbhalgarh a Unesco World Heritage site, it’s also the second largest fort in Rajasthan. At the top, the views of the surrounding Aravalli Range and the perimeter walls that snake 36km (22miles) into the Thar Desert are magnificent. And once you’ve explored the fort itself don’t miss the opportunity to see the Jain temple (at the right of the complex entrance) and to take a walk along the ramparts of the wall.
Probably due to its location, Kumbhalgarh is not really on the Golden Triangle must-see list for tourists, so you’re not likely to see many non-Indian visitors. As a result, we found ourselves being regularly stopped by curious Indian tourists who wanted to have selfies taken with us. And, to be fair, they were universally polite about it so we were only too happy to oblige.
Bumpi’s recommendation that we stay over in Ranakpur and then explore Kumbhalgarh the following morning, before the heat of the day kicked in, was a smart one, too.
Jodhpur is a four-hour drive from Kumbhalgarh and is Rajasthan’s second-largest city. Like Bundi, it features many houses that are painted blue to keep them cool in the scorching desert heat.
And, in keeping with other cities in Rajasthan, it has its own stunning fort but it also has a historic centre laced with narrow medieval streets and bazaars. So, if you really do want to have a culture-free day off then this is perhaps the perfect place to do it. Just be aware, though, it’s quite easy to get lost!
To be honest, we didn’t spend more than a night here as we treated it as a temporary stop en route to Jaisalmer. But, thanks to Bumpi, we did get to sample another local breakfast – this time a bread omelette at a road-side food stall consisting of one man, a converted rickshaw and a mountain of eggs. The bread omelette, as the name suggests, was more like a huge piece of French Toast. Suffice to say, our morning hunger pangs were eliminated in an instant.
Known as The Golden City, it lies in the heart of the Thar Desert and was Nicky’s favourite Rajasthan destination when she first visited India nearly 25 years ago. Back then, Jaisalmer Fort would seemingly rise from out of the sand like a mirage, but nowadays the city has become something of a sprawl. Still, it’s not hard to imagine how the medieval traders must have viewed it as they approached the city from the desert.
The drive from Jodhpur is a good six hours and there’s not a lot to see along the way. We stayed outside of the city walls at The Silk Route Hotel, and then just wandered into the citadel on foot. Newly built, the hotel is clean and comfortable and the rooftop restaurant area has great views of the fort.
However if your budget allows, it could be well worth paying the extra and finding a room in one of the many beautiful havelis within the living, breathing fort walls. Here, you could immerse yourself into local life, wandering through the narrow streets and holding your nerve as your squeeze politely past one of the resident holy cows. In fact, one of the pleasures of a visit to Jaisalmer is just getting lost in the maze of the fort and gazing up at the beautifully carved facades of the many Brahmin houses and Jain temples.
Elsewhere in the city, we gave the Maharaja’s Palace a miss. Having visited the beautiful City Palace in Udaipur, we didn’t feel this would offer us anything more.
Jaisalmer is also a base for taking a camel safari into the Thar Desert. We’d originally planned on doing this, but as the mercury was heading towards 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) we thought it wise to skip that, too. But Nicky has fond memories of her safari back in 1993 and assures me the night sky in the desert is something to behold.
Bikaner is another six-hour journey from Jaisalmer en route back towards Delhi. Once again it’s a city with palaces and a fort. But that wasn’t the reason for us being there. We’d heard about the shrine of Karni Mata, about 30 kilometres out of town, with its resident population of some 25,000 black rats. It sounded like some nightmarish destination for people with a weird desire to experience something different. So, of course, we had to go.
Fiendishly nicknamed The Rat Temple, it’s a visit that’s not for the squeamish. The rodents are revered and have full run of the temple. Bearing in mind that you have to leave your shoes outside, you need to accept that you’re likely at some point to have at least one rat scurry over your bare feet – probably on its way to join its mates over a bowl of milk, as depicted in our header photograph above.
Pilgrims come from miles around to pay their respects, but we were noticeably the only foreigners there on the day we visited. And we were quickly invited to join an Indian family who’d made the journey from Mumbai, and who were there to be blessed.
So why the rats? Legend has it that Karni Mata’s stepson drowned in a pond and he implored Yama – the God of Death – to revive him. The reluctant Yama eventually agreed, but with the proviso that all Karni Mata’s male children were to be reincarnated as rats. So now you know.
Before returning to Delhi there’s one last stop for an overnight stay. Mandawa, and indeed the region as a whole, is famous for its beautiful havelis (mansions) and their painted walls. They came about as wealthy merchants of the past built themselves opulent homes on the back of booming trade which passed through the region from the likes of China and the Middle East.
Most of them are now abandoned but you can still get a sense of its bygone era from the beautifully coloured paintings that adorn the walls. A local guide took us on a short walking tour to some of the best havelis where, for some baksheesh (or tip), we could enter and lose ourselves in the intricately decorated interiors.
Best of all, we stayed in one that had been renovated as a hotel – the Heritage Mandawa. In fact, as April is considered out of season we managed to secure a lovely suite for a good discount.
There’s no doubt that it would have taken us much longer to get around without Bumpi and our air-conditioned car, so it was worth it for that fact alone. However, Bumpi came into his own when the subject of food reared its head. We’d explained to him from the outset that we didn’t want to eat in tourist restaurants but that we’d be happy to remain in his hands when it came to making food choices.
And so it was that breakfast at roadside stalls became the norm, along with lunch at restaurants in the middle of nowhere and afternoon snacks from wherever he spotted there might be something different to try. Such as stopping in a village he knew between Jodhpur and Jaisalmer to pick up some spicy lentil pakoras. That was after he’d jumped out to check they’d been freshly cooked of course. And then we ate them in the back of the car wrapped in newspaper as we headed back on the road towards Jaisalmer. Proper Rajasthani food.
In fact, we ate mostly vegetarian food throughout our Rajasthan trip and we absolutely loved it. From Daal Makhani (lentils) to Aubergine and Spinach Curry to Paneer Masala (Cheese Curry) and Corn Methiwala (Sweetcorn in a Spicy Fenugreek Sauce), it was a spice-filled vegetarian marriage made in heaven. Unless there was Lal Maas (Lamb in a Spicy, Sour Curry) on the menu – a Rajasthani dish for serious chilli-heads like myself!
Your Rajasthan road trip itinerary
Overall, our 15-night/16-day road trip seemed about the right length. Because we were travelling by car we were able to time our sightseeing better and so we didn’t suffer “wasted days” trying to get from A to B.
To give you a sense of how long to stay in each place I’ve broken down our itinerary for you….
Travel from Delhi to AGRA See Baby Taj, Agra Fort Overnight The Coral Tree Homestay (recommended)
See Taj Mahal Travel from Agra to JAIPUR Overnight Umaid Bhawan Hotel
See City Palace, Hawa Mahal, Jaipur by rickshaw Overnight Umaid Bhawan Hotel
See Amer Fort Overnight Umaid Bhawan Hotel
Travel from Jaipur to BUNDI See Bundi Palace, the lake, Bundi by foot Overnight Shivam Guest House (recommended)
Travel from Bundi to PUSHKAR See Pushkar Lake and its ghats Overnight Sajjan Bagh Heritage Home
See Savitri Mantra Temple, Pushkar by foot Overnight Sajjan Bagh Heritage Home
Travel from Pushkar to UDAIPUR See City Palace Overnight Sun Heritage Homestay (recommended)
See Udaipur by foot Overnight Sun Heritage Homestay
Travel from Udaipur to RANAKPUR See Jain Temple Overnight Roopam Resort
Travel from Ranakpur to JODHPUR See Kumbhalgarh Fort (en route), Mehrangarh Fort (Jodhpur) Overnight Krishner Prakash
Travel from Jodhpur to JAISALMER Overnight Silk Route Hotel (recommended)
See Jaisalmer Fort, Jaisalmer by foot Overnight Silk Route Hotel
Travel from Jaisalmer to BIKANER Overnight Chandra Niwas Guest House
Travel from Bikaner to MANDAWA (via Deshnoke) See Karni Mata Temple, Mandawa havelis Overnight Heritage Mandawa Hotel (recommended)
Travel from Mandawa back to DELHI
You would be really pushing it if you tried to do the trip any quicker. Perhaps one night less in Jaipur if you were really pushed? But, even though you’re travelling in relative comfort, the distances involved can still make the journey tiring. And, of course, you need to factor in the energy-sapping heat of the semi-desert and desert environment as you make your way around the various sites.
On the other hand, you could easily extend the trip to take in additional places such as Chittorgarh, Mount Abu and perhaps a night under canvas in the desert as part of a camel safari near Jaisalmer.
But whatever you decide, pick your tour company carefully as there are plenty willing to help you part with your cash. Once again, based on our experience we can thoroughly recommend Shafi at Invicta Tour & Travels. And if you’re in Delhi before your road trip then you could do worse than pop in to see him at his small office in Pahaar Ganj.
THANKS FOR READING
Hi, we're Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we'd like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.