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The Islands of Goa

The river islands of Goa are bound by the Mandovi River in the north and the Zuari river in the south linked by the Cumbarjua canal in the east. Known as Tiswadi in Konkani, and Ilhas de Goa in Portuguese, this area encompasses the islands of Ilha de Goa (Goa Island), Chorao, Divar, St. Estevam, Cumbarjua, Vanxim and other smaller mangrove islands.

Few realise that the city of Panjim and Old Goa lie on Ilha de Goa, the largest island of Ilhas de Goa. The contrast between the two presents an important historical juncture. Velha Goa or Old Goa was abandoned as the former capital of Portuguese India in favour of New Goa or Panjim. Once a major port city of the Bijapur Sultanate, and a fixture in global trade under the Portuguese, the ruins of Old Goa and its concentration of historic churches tell a complex story of empire. Where Old Goa represents the early era of Portuguese rule – one of the intense Christianization characteristic of early colonial rule, Panjim marks the break between the church and the Portuguese state in 1821.

Unlike any other city in India, highly modern in its conception and construction, Panjim was born of an urban, culturally hybrid administration; of imperial rule radically different from the British Raj; of the values of a commerce-driven globalised Goan elite who moved between Europe, the Americas and India in the 19th century. Pretty Iberian facades obscure the level of planning behind the city in the 19th century – the first gridded city in India with a seven-kilometre promenade, pavements, German engineered sewerage and drainage systems and public parks. The beautiful 19th and 20th century homes of Panjim demonstrate a uniquely Goan identity and language. Built by Goans, these homes take into account the climate, the society and diverse cultural exchanges that form Goan identity. Today, many of these homes are part of Panjim’s urban revival, particularly in the Latin Quarter where they house impossibly chic restaurants, bars and businesses.

On our Old Goa Heritage Walk, our storytellers reveal the tales behind legendary churches, their architectural finesse, and their religious significance. Followed by the Fontainhas Heritage Walk, an exploration of the most vibrant parts of Panjim, one cannot help but marvel at the evolution of Goa Island over time.


From Panjim, one can easily drive to Chorao. However, a Goa island trip ought to be done via its ferries for gorgeous views along the river. Free, government-run ferries plough between the islands all day. Chorao once housed a Jesuit Seminary rumoured to have grafted the alphonso mango Goa is renowned for. Its western edge is famous for well-preserved mangroves where you will find the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary. During the winter, migratory birds descend into the ecological richness of its mangrove forests and waterways. We offer a tour of the bird sanctuary combining a boat ride with a nature walk. Chorao was also known as Ilha des Fidalgos or Island of Noblemen, as members of the Portuguese aristocracy (fidalgo) resided in expansive homes there.

Hop over to the next adventure with our Chronicles and Echoes of Divar Island experience. Crossing the Mandovi river, Divar is a heritage hotspot with a Baroque Indian church on a hilltop, ancient Hindu temples, and holy river flows that have attracted Hindu pilgrims for centuries.

The Island of Vegetables, Ilha de Verde, St. Estuvem are all names for Zuvem, your next stop on a Goa islands trip. In Konkani, the island of vegetables translates into Shakecho Zunvo. Zuvem is famous for the cultivation of seven-ridged okra or saathsheera. It grows up to 30 centimetres and remains tender at this size. Aside from some of the most expensive bhindi in India, this unusual island is steeped in history too. Just 8.2 sq kms in size, Zuvem occupied the frontline as various outsiders tried to conquer Goa. Peculiar to Zuvem are houses that share common walls and roofs, a legacy of times when villagers needed to come to each other’s aid quickly. Portuguese ships were repaired in the Cumbarjua canal next to Zuvem. Historically, Zuvemkars replaced Portuguese sailors who died on the way to Goa from scurvy on the journey back to Portugal. Zuvem boasts a 450-year old church and also offers one a peek into a fiercely loyal and tight-knit community in Goa.