To get to the Elephanta Caves, you will need to go to the Gateway of India in the city of Mumbai. From here you can purchase the tickets for the launch (boat or ferry) from the Maharastra tourism development corp (MTDC) at the entrance of Gateway.
The journey by sea takes 1 hour to reach the island. The launch travels at a speed of 14 Nautical miles per hour. The Caves are not open to visitors on Mondays although the MTDC will still sell boat tickets with the ticket saying so, so beware. The launch (boat) leaves from gate no.4 at the rear of Gateway of India.
There are 2 types of launch: Economy and Deluxe. One is large, the other is slightly smaller in size. Travelling by either carries its own fun experience.
A ticket for the Deluxe boat is Rs.150 for Adult, Rs. 90 for Child (3 to 7 years) which includes a return journey. If you want to see the view from the upper deck, you have to pay Rs.10/-extra to the launch (boat) operator. Economy boat charges are Rs. 20 less being Rs.130 for Adults.
The first boat of the day is at 9AM; they may wait a little bit for more passengers, but they will pretty much leave the dock on time. A boat leaves for Elephanta Island every 10 minutes. Week days are less crowded than weekends.
If you are an Indian male travelling alone, the boat operators will not let you buy a ticket. Apparently there have been some cases of suicides which has made them take that call. You might have to request other travellers to book on your behalf or provide an ID proof as a guarantee.
From the Gateway of India to the world famous Elephanta Caves, and from the hustle and bustle of the contemporary commerce of Mumbai, this trip is a journey back in time; to a time when faith, mysticism and art reigned supreme, when the challenge of carving out gigantic statues and caves from monoliths was accepted as a blessing, when the tryst with stone gave birth to passionate effigies of Hindu faith, a glorious testimony, even today, of the aesthetics and hard labour of our ancestors.
When you arrive at the Elephanta Island, there will be lots of locals offering you the service to guide you around. Unless you are unfamiliar with the Indian god Shiva and would like to know the details of what happened to Shiva's world, you do not really need a tourist guide. Their charges are not really reasonable (Rs 2500 or more). They will tell you about Indian Gods, but if you are unfamiliar with them, you will not know if they are telling you the true stories or not, and you will probably forget much of what they tell you by the time you leave the island. If you really want to know about the Elephanta Caves and Shiva, you can buy a good book from any vendor as you walk up the hill to the caves -- but remember, you should always barter.
There is a small train to take you from the dockside to the entrance -- Rs 10 for adults [March 2012] -- unless you want the exercise, and also regret, as you'll have a chance to really exercise by walking up to the cave -- 120 steep steps.
The island, small and round, rises like the back of a giant turtle from amidst the azure depths of the Arabian Sea. You will take a narrow road after disembarking from the train. This travels to the site of the ascent, a steep climb broken by the persuasive cries of the jamun wallahs selling the salted plum coloured fruit in cleverly designed pouches which hold not more than 7-8 jamuns in each. The caves are located on the top of a hillock shaped island. This climb is followed by a long flight of sharp stone steps, where the elderly and those unable used to be carried in palanquins by coolies. Some locals regard the caves as a religious place dedicated to Lord Shiva, which accounts for a large number of aged visitors.
There is a tourist tax of Rs 10 for adults and Rs 5 for children. At the entrance of the park, one needs to pay an entrance fee, Rs 40 for Indian citizens and Rs 600 for foreign nationals. Your ticket will be checked by a security guard on entry to the site. If the guard at the entry booth tries to keep your ticket, insist on having it back. Only the control coupon should be detached and kept by the guard.
There are several caves you can visit. The guard may say there are only five caves on Elephanta Island, but some maps show seven caves. Apart from the first two caves at the entrance, the other caves are small and not well developed. You can also walk up higher on the Island, on Cannon Hill. There are 2 old cannons there and a view, but nothing else to see.
If you prefer to explore monuments at your own pace without hiring a tour guide, you can now use the Official Audio Guide of the Ministry of Tourism (Incredible India) called AudioCompass, a GPS based smartphone app that features audio tours of most tourists attractions in India.
Take lots of pictures and show them to your friends later. Beware of the monkeys that roam around. They are quite used to the huge masses of people, but they do not like it when kids and even pesky teenagers tease them by throwing stones or making weird noises and gestures. There have been many cases of people being scratched or attacked by monkeys in retaliation. If left alone, they will usually leave you alone. Try to keep with a crowd, especially if you have some packed food with you and want to have a picnic in the area.
There are many things for sale, including paintings (look for ones with leaves). Most of that for sale is brought in from Mumbai and sold at a double or triple price, so while purchasing mementos, make sure to look out for something unique to the Island and the craft skills of the local people.
One thing you should not miss is eating the wild berries that the locals sell as they are delicious. Also, if you are interested in Indian food, MTDC resort offers a fine spread at a reasonable cost.
The view of the sea from the MTDC restaurant is really pleasing to the eye, and you can sip on you tea, coffee, beer, etc, while enjoying the view.
It is advisable to take lots of drinkable water with you from Mumbai itself.
Overnight stay at Elephanta Caves is not permitted. If you want to rest during daytime, The Maharastra Tourism Department Hotel is a good choice. They also serve food and drinks.
If you want to stay overnight, then you have to stay with the locals and that is not advisable.
The first boat leaving Elephanta Island for Mumbai is at 12:00 noon and the last one is at 5:30PM. If you are fast, you can take the first boat from Mumbai to Elephanta Island, visit all caves, go up to Cannon Hill to see the old cannon, come back to the dockside, and take the first boat back to Mumbai.