That was the first time I had seen a hornbill in the open sky. I might have seen them before in the zoo, but it was the first time I saw the bird spanning its wing and taking a flight. Believe me, it was a spectacular sight. The hornbills are themselves, magnificent creatures. They make a loud sound screeching before taking a flight and they look beautiful as they fly. Visiting Latpanchar had been quite a great decision. We came to know a lot about the Himalayan birds. And visiting Ahaldara was an added bonus.
It had all started with an impromptu decision to go for a weekend trip. It was suddenly decided that we would visit Latpanchar to see the Himalayan birds. We had not known about Ahaldara at that time. We only came to know about the place once we were at Latpanchar. Infact, it was suggested by Gurung Ji, our host in Latpanchar. Together it was a great weekend trip and in this article, we are going to share important information and our experiences at Latpanchar and Ahaldara.
Latpanchar is a beautiful Himalayan hamlet tucked away in the hills. Latpanchar is the home to some exotic and rare Himalayan birds and is thus a delight for serious birdwatchers. Infact, every year a number of birding enthusiasts and ornithologists visit here to watch the birds, especially the hornbills. Moreover, Latpanchar can also be a perfect weekend getaway from Kolkata for the mountain and nature lovers.
Latpanchar forms the highest part of the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary located at an altitude of 4200 feet. Being a part of the wildlife sanctuary, you might come across some wild animals like deer, barking deer, wild boars and even leopards in addition to a variety of Himalayan birds. Latpanchar is still not so popular among the general tourists and even in peak season, you will find fewer tourists here. However, a lot of birding enthusiasts and professional wildlife photographers visit Latpanchar during the hornbill mating and nesting season to get pictures of the birds. Ahaldara, on the other hand, has all the ingredients to be a great tourist destination. Ahaldara is located only about 5 km from Latpanchar.
Things to do in Latpanchar
Being a part of the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary, Latpanchar is an ideal place to get acquainted with the wildlife of the lower Himalayas. Apart from birdwatching, the village itself is quite beautiful and you can simply relax here away from the hustle-bustle of the city. There are also a few places near Latpanchar worth visiting.
Birdwatching in the sanctuary area
The best thing to do at Latpanchar is to take a visit to the sanctuary area even if you are not into bird watching. It will take about two hours to explore the area. You will see many beautiful Himalayan birds and of course the great Indian Hornbill. Please take a guide with you when you are visiting the forested areas.
Birding guides are also available at Latpanchar. Birding enthusiasts can accompany them to other areas of the Mahananda Sanctuary for proper birdwatching.
Walking through the cinchona plantations
There are close to 1400 acres of cinchona plantations in the area. Cinchona extracts were used to prepare medicines for malaria. The plants are no longer used as medicines are now made by artificial methods. The plants however remain, and walking through the cinchona plantations is a pleasant experience.
Visit the Ahaldara View Point
Ahaldara is about 5 km from Latpanchar and then you have to walk up around 500 metres to reach the viewpoint. I will talk about our experience of Ahaldara later in the post. Ahaldara boasts of a wonderful viewpoint from where you can get a spectacular view of the Kanchenjunga peaks. Look lower down and you will see the valleys, meandering Teesta River and tea plantations.
Take a visit to Namthing Pokhri
From the base of the Ahaldara Viewpoint, the main road continues and leads to the Namthing Pokhri. It is a small lake surrounded by dense pine trees. When we visited Namthing Pokhri, the lake was completely dry and it looked like a playground. The area is very scenic and peaceful, worth spending some time. Various birds are found in the area as well. Considering you have seen so many wonderful birds at Latpanchar, I don’t think birds will be a major attraction here. However, Namthing Pokhri is the home to the rare Himalayan Salamander. If you happen to visit during the monsoon season, then you might be able to see one.
Visit the ancient monastery
If you go further down the road from Namthing Pokhri, you will reach a village where stands an ancient monastery. The area is very peaceful and you will hardly find any people. The monastery itself is a small one with a few chortens in the ground in front of it. If you have extra time, you can take a visit to this monastery.
Get a sweeping view of the mountains from Sarsari Dara
Sarsari Dara is another viewpoint about 1.5 km from Latpanchar village. From here, you will get a magnificent view of the surrounding mountains.
Visit the orange village of Sitong
Sitong is a large area and is divided into 3 sub-divisions. Latpanchar comes under Sitong-III sub-division. You can visit the villages under Sitong and explore the orange orchards. If you happen to visit during the winter, you will see oranges everywhere. But if you want to pluck oranges from the garden, do take the permission of the owner. We had visited Latpanchar and Sitong during the winter and saw the orchards full of oranges. You can also stay at Sitong.
Animals and Birds found at Latpanchar
Almost 36 species of animals and 240 species of birds are found in Latpanchar area of the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary. As I keep saying, this is a great place for birding enthusiasts.
The most common animals found in this area are deer, black bear, leopards, mountain goats, wild boar and sometimes even elephants. If you want to see the animals you can visit the core area of the sanctuary, but you will be required to take an armed guard with you.
Birds are found in abundant. Apart from the great Indian Hornbill, Rufous-necked hornbill, you will also find other Himalayan birds like Burn Swallow, Laughing Thrush, Sunbird, Scarlet Minivet, Minla, Yuhina, Scaly Thrush, Ashy Backed Shrike, Spotted Eagles, Magpie, Drongo, Woodpeckers, Black Bulbul, Drongo, Kingfishers, Robin, Himalayan pheasants, Long Tailed Broadbill, Great Barbet, Grey Headed Flycatcher, Blue Fronted Redstart, Himalayan Griffin and many more.
Ahaldara is a hilltop located only 5 km from Latpanchar. The speciality of the place is the 360-degree view of the surrounding area that is viewed from the hilltop. On a clear day, you can view the magnificent Kanchenjunga ranges along with the lower mountains, tea gardens, valley and the meandering Teesta River. The sunrise is spectacularly beautiful from Ahaldara.
There are 3 huts on top of the hill with the arrangement of night stay. There is a small kitchen a few metres away. And there is nothing else. This is what we loved about Ahaldara. When we visited there, we were the only guests at Ahaldara. We took one of the cottages and felt like kings. The entire place was ours and we could actually do anything there. We would lie down in the fields looking at the sky, walk towards the tea gardens, sing and dance at our will. It was an ecstatic feeling. Just imagine visiting the place with family and friends!
Having said these, I would also like to request you all to treat nature and place with care. Ahaldara is not the place for loud music, parties and throwing garbage. Visit there and enjoy nature. Instead of playing the loudspeaker, sing a song yourself. I am sure this will be enjoyable as well.
Our Experience at Latpanchar and Ahaldara
Latpanchar is quite a big village. As we reached the place traversing the winding, uphill and broken hilly roads (the hill roads in this locality are all the same), we already became aware of the presence of birds. We could hear them chirp, but the sight eluded us. Our driver and guide did point us a few birds but all we could see were foliage of green! Nevertheless, we reached the homestay, the only one in the village.
Someone had once told us that to photograph birds, you need 3Ps – (1) Patience (you really need to have a lot of patience to photograph the birds); (2) Pocket Strength (Yes, the equipment and lenses are quite costly) and finally (3) Power (you need strength in your muscles to carry the equipment)! The first P we had in abundance, but we did not carry any good lens. The Tamron 70-300 lens was our companion for birding!
So we consoled ourselves saying seeing the birds will be a great experience, even if we were not able to photograph them. And yes, it was indeed an experience to see the different types of Himalayan birds. With two other bird enthusiasts and our guides, we went out in search of birds.
The Himalayan birds are small, beautiful and extremely quick. At one moment they are in front of you and by the time you are ready with your camera, they are simply out of your camera range! We saw some really wonderful birds – Sultan Tit seemed to be the most favorite among the birders and also the most elusive one. Our personal favorite was the scarlet minivet and the leaf bird. But seeing the great Hornbill was our greatest satisfaction in this trip to Latpanchar. What a mighty bird the hornbill is! And you would easily know that a hornbill is near you from the sound of its flight. Before its flight, it makes a peculiar noise and you know it is ready for taking off!
After spending a day at Latpanchar, we went to Ahaldara at the suggestion of Mr. Gurung, our host. We were the only guests at Ahaldara and I have already mentioned how much fun we had there had the entire place to ourselves.
Unfortunately, the weather was cloudy and we did not see the splendor of the Himalayan peaks from Ahaldara. But we could clearly imagine how beautiful it might have looked from the hilltop. It was 3 days well spent at Latpanchar and Ahaldara. These two places are the perfect weekend getaways from Kolkata.
Latpanchar and Ahaldara Travel Tips
How to reach Latpanchar?
The nearest Railway Station is New Jalpaiguri (NJP) and the nearest airport is Bagdogra (IXB). Latpanchar is about 44 km from NJP, 49 km from Bagdogra and 41 km from Siliguri. From NJP/Siliguri/Bagdogra, you can hire a car to Latpanchar.
You can also take a shared jeep from NJP or Siliguri towards Kalijhora on Sevoke Road. The jeeps towards Kalimpong will take you to Kalijhora. From Kalijhora, Latpanchar is about 11 km. A winding hilly and bumpy road from Kalijhora would take you to Latpanchar. From Kalijhora, you have to hire a car to Latpanchar. You can inform your homestay beforehand to arrange for a vehicle from Kalijhora.
Tentative fares (as on February 2020)
- Hired car from NJP to Latpanchar: Rs 1800.00
- Hired car from Bagdogra to Latpanchar: Rs 1600.00
- If you wish to hire a car for a round trip to Ahaldara viewpoint, Namthing Pokhri and the monastery from Latpanchar, t would probably take around Rs 800.00
How to reach Ahaldara?
For reaching Ahaldara, you have to come to Latpanchar first. From there, Ahaldara is about 5 km. You can take a car to Ahaldara from Latpanchar.
Where to stay in Latpanchar?
When we had visited Latpanchar, there was only one homestay. But of recent, a number of homestays have come up. We had stayed at Hornbill’s Nest whose owner is Padam Gurung. He is quite knowledgeable on birds and the surrounding. He is quite well known in the area and the homestay stands out from the rest of the houses in the area. Just ask anyone about Gurungji and you will be pointed in the right direction.
There are a few rooms with very basic amenities. Do not expect luxury there. The rooms are quite clean and spacious.
Contact (Padam Gurung): +91 8926015477, 8906232202, 9475959974
Where to stay in Ahaldara?
Gurungji himself has developed 3 cottages at Ahaldara Viewpoint for the guests. The cottages are clean and basic. There is a kitchen a few metres away and there you will get all your meals. Do remember, that at Ahaldara, you will hardly get any shops or other amenities. Contact Gurungji for booking the huts at Ahaldara.
Best time to visit Latpanchar and Ahaldara
The best time to visit Latpanchar is between October to May. However, during the winter months, it could be quite cold there. Carry sufficient woollen clothes in winter. Monsoon seasons should be avoided as the roads become muddy and really bad. The sanctuary also remains closed during the rainy season. The sanctuary remains closed from mid-June to mid-September.
For photography of hornbills, March is the best time. It is the nesting and feeding time of the hornbills and you can take some wonderful pictures from one place.
Have you visited Latpanchar? Let us know about your experience in the comments below. If you have any questions about the place, let us know as well.
Some other Weekend Getaways from Kolkata
Click the links and visit these pages to know more about these places.