A Hippie Escape

A Hippie Escape
Waterfall at Vattakanal, near Kodaikanal, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Altaf's Cafe is the hidden gem of India's 'Little Israel'

Himadri Sharma
June 07 , 2020
05 Min Read

Better known as Vatta among backpackers, Vattakanal is a small town a little ahead of Kodaikanal, a serene hill station in Tamil Nadu. It is also well known as the 'Little Israel of India' because of its heavy Israeli tourist population. About 5 kilometres from Kodai, travellers can easily be seen hitchhiking and walking to the destination via two routes, one by road and another via a narrow lane through the woods. Vatta was a backpacker’s attraction earlier, unlike its neighbour Kodaikanal.

A traveller and fellow hostel resident, listening to music in solace at Altaf's cafe. This was her first image that I shot, right after which, we connected on our mutual interest in music and became friends. We spent this and the next afternoon together, discussing crystals. listening to music, journaling, and talking endlessly.

Right behind Altaf's, you can spot this stay at the edge, with a graffiti on its back quoting

The only existing hostel was a green youth hostel and its first café was the famous Altaf's Café. Today, Bhaskar, who is originally from Rishikesh, another hippie hotspot in India, runs the place. Bhaskar opened this café (along with friend Altaf) around seven years back. It focuses on Middle Eastern and Italian cuisine There are various affordable backpacking hostels in this town and several other pocket-friendly cottages to accommodate budget travellers. 

A group of backpackers indulging in middle eastern cuisine and conversations about their past travels at Altaf's cafe.

The Western Ghats shimmering in all it's glory at the 'Blue hour' in Vattakanal.

Two friends at Altaf's cafe, awaiting their lunch order while sketching the scenery, as a cat decides to accompany their shared silences.

Both tourists and slow travellers can experience this peace-loving town in their own ways. There are various tourist attraction spots within reach from here, Dolphin’s Nose and Pine Tree Forest being the top visited places by tourists.

For a slow, chilled out experience, Altaf's is great. You can have some authentic tahini and falafel, with some amazing ginger lemon tea, and a beautiful view of the mountains. Or go find a corner at Manna’s Café, read a book (or do some journalling) as you see people heading to Dolphin’s Nose below with the mountains far away through the lush trees.

A Tibetan Music bowl with the backdrop of Vattakanal's cloud-covered mountains, early in the morning.

Residents enjoying breakfast together at a backpackers hostel in Vattakanal.

Most hostels arrange for a bonfire every night as the cold in Vatta can chill a city person to the bone. Backpackers from around the world and India live as a community in these hostels and cook meals for each other, maintain the hostel property, and arrange group tours to sunrise points in the village.

A welcoming board stating 'Happy Vatta' is spotted right before you enter the village. It's made out of used plastic bottles and possibly cardboard or wood. At various spots in Vattakanal, you will come across structures made of reused plastic material and boards stating environmental friendly quotes. Responsible and eco-friendly tourism is promoted by both hostel owners and backpackers here.

One of the many quirky graffitis at Altaf's cafe.

This is the friend I made from the first image of this story. Right after we struck a conversation over music, I shot her portraits (with consent) and we shared our individual tattoo stories. She got these tiny tattoos done in Rajasthan, from one of her early travels in India.

If travelling and seeing places is not your cup of tea, you can also enroll yourself in rejuvenating yoga and meditation classes organised by the locals or foreigners who settled here.

Logistics can get a little tricky though if you do not know how to bargain. There is a taxi point right near Altaf’s Café where the charges per ride are said to be fixed (around Rs 400 one way to Kodaikanal town) but are negotiable. What you get charged depends on whether you are an Indian or a foreigner. If you want to go easy on your pocket, a solution could be to find a group of people who plan on heading to Kodaikanal at the same time as you and split the bill. Most travellers prefer this. Or you might just get lucky if you know the local language and know how to socialise with the drivers.

Residents of the backpacker's hostel circled around the bonfire, played guitar, and sang songs while keeping the bonfire alive. This is an every night ritual, after dinner is served at the hostel. The bonfire is set collectively and often, one among the group voluntarily makes Chai for the rest. This one time, it was me! I helped an Israeli, who was staying here way longer than most of us, make chai at midnight and we served it hot to the others who were still singing and playing music.

A quiet afternoon at Manna's cafe, which is usually less crowded than Altaf's, attracts peace-seekers to journal or read throughout the afternoon while overlooking the view of the mountains and the wild from above, as the cafe is situated on the first floor.


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