25th November 2015
Travelers and explorers from all over the world have been drawn to Kerala for centuries drawn to this slice of tropical South India by spices. Nowadays there are even more reasons to visit enchanting Kerala from luscious landscapes, wildlife, tantalizing cuisine and not forgetting perhaps the most magical ingredient travelers encounter when visiting Kerala – the warmth of the Indian hospitality and smiles that linger long in the memory after leaving Kerala’s tropical shores.
India can be quite a culture shock for the first time visitor but it is also probably the most fascinating and rewarding place you could ever visit and laid back Kerala is a world away from the hectic, dirty, noisy streets of Delhi. I always advice first time travellers to start with the South of India, because, generally speaking, I find the South of India a lot easier, cleaner and safer to travel in and a real gem and highlight of South India is Kerala. Whilst all the colour and exoticness of India is found here in this tropical state also known as ‘God’s own Country,’ Kerala is different from the rest of India and traveling here is a cleaner, less hassled, and laid back affair – a perfect, easy introduction to Incredible India.
For most travellers the historic, atmospheric and multicultural port of Fort Cochin is the gateway to Kerala and the colourful, old streets of Fort Cochin and Jew Town are a delight to explore. Fort Cochin is also home to the famous Chinese Fishing Nets, a 400 year old Jewish Synagogue, Mattancherry Palace (also known as the Dutch Palace), the fantastic Kerala Folklore Museum and several Portuguese Churches. Fort Cochin also has many great restaurants, nice hostels and heritage hotels, chances to try Ayurveda, cooking classes, watch Kathakali dance shows and shop for souvenirs as well as chill out on nearby Cherai Beach. Sure, it’s pretty touristy but there’s plenty to explore in Fort Cochin and it’s easy to arrange onward travel around Kerala from here too.
Read more: A Flashpacker’s Guide to Fort Cochin
Cruising the backwaters of Kerala is one of the most serene, beautiful and peaceful things you can experience in India and something not to be missed while in India. Alleppey is about 2 hours from Cochin and is the gateway to the famous Kerala backwaters – Alleppey has been called the Venice of the East but in truth it doesn’t have that much to offer but is a good place to arrange a houseboat to take you on the backwaters. You can also board a houseboat at Kollam (Quilon) and Kottayam.
The Kerala backwaters is a system of canals stretching 900 km across Kerala lined by palm tress of a thousand shades of green, paddy fields and colorful houses and a way of life that seems romantically unchanged for centuries. Originally the backwaters were busy as thatched barges called kettuvallams carried spices towards ports on the Arabian sea, but nowadays most of the kettuvallams have been transformed into house boats that carry tourists as they softly traverse these languid and beautiful backwaters.
Cruising the Kerala Backwaters in a Houseboat
How to enjoy the Kerala Backwaters on a Budget
Munnar is a hill station and tea plantation famous for it’s fresh, cool air and stunning views. The dusty town of Munnar holds few attractions and, as the highlight of a visit to Munnar is the mesmering views over the rolling hills that are blanketed in a million shades of green, it’s better to stay outside the main town. Soak up the views, go trekking, take a jeep tour through the countryside and make sure to visit the Tata Tea Museum to find out how tea has been made here since colonial times and of course, you need to indulge in a cup or 2 while in Munnar.
Thekkady, up in the luscious Western Ghats, is the base for exploring Periyar – South India’s most popular wildlife sanctuary. Periyar is over 777 sq km and is home to bison, elephants, tigers, sambar, wild boar and many other animals. Thekkady is quite a touristy place with it’s strip of hotels and spice shops and there are numerous options for organising trekking, bamboo rafting, boat trips jungle safaris, cooking classes, spice plantation walks and other activities. One of the most popular things to do in Periyar is taking a boat trip along the huge, scenic man made lake to spot wildlife but the KTDC boats are pretty packed and not great for spotting wildlife but if you take a smaller boat, or even better a bamboo raft, you may be lucky and spot some wild elephants.
The coastal town of Varkala is perhaps the best backpacker hangout and place to chill for travellers in Kerala. Varkala is essentially a temple town, the Janardhana Temple, popular with Indian pilgrims, dominates one end of the beach, but not far away the whole scene changes as the sandy strip of beach becomes popular with travellers while the towering red cliffs offer stunning ocean views, restaurants, shops and a real traveller scene.
Read More: A Flashpacker’s Guide to Varkala.
Trivadrum is the capital city of Kerala and, although the nearby beach resort of Kovalam is a more popular place to stay, Trivandrum is quite a pleasant city that offers some interesting sights that are worth a look, including the impressive golden Shri Padmanabhaswamy Temple, believed to be the richest temple in the world (non hindus are not allowed to enter but it’s still a spectacular sight from the outside) and nearby the historic wooden Puthe Maliga Palace. There is also a large zoo and gardens complex that also houses the Napier Museum, Natural History Museum and art gallery.
A stones throw away from Trivandrum is Kovalam, once a calm fishing village and now Kerala’s most popular beach resort with a beautiful bay overlooked by the famous lighthouse and many touristy options for accommodation, eating and shopping.
Tucked away up in the Western Ghats in the North of Kerala lies Wayanad, not so many tourists make it up here as its a good 8 hour journey from Kochi but those who do are rewarded with possibly the prettiest part of Kerala. Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the best places to see elephants in the wild, you can organise trekking, rafting and jeep tours and explore caves, temples and lakes. Wayanad is also still home to some fascinating tribal people and you can organise a tour to take you to meet them or just relax and enjoy the unspoilt nature and stunning views.