Exploring Kerala's Backwaters
Featured destinations: India
Published 30 March 2016
Kerala is a very popular tourist destination within India, not only for international but also national tourists. It is not hard to see why: Kerala is beautiful and diverse, with secluded beaches, palm-fringed backwaters, picturesque hill stations, lush forests, spectacular waterfalls, delicious food and welcoming people.
The long and narrow state is located in the south tip of the country, facing the Lakshadweep Sea on the west, and bordering Karnataka and Tamil Nadu states on the north, east and south. One week is not enough to visit an area of nearly 40,000 sqm, so I had to pick three spots to explore at this time: the colonial town of Fort Kochi, the backwaters of Alleppey and the tea plantations of Munnar.
1. Fort Kochi
Kochi is usually the starting point of any trip to Kerala, thanks to the Kochi International Airport being the main point of arrival for tourists. Usually visitors skip the modern city (Ernakulam) to visit the old village of Fort Kochi instead, a water-bound region reached by ferry or through bridges with a harbour facing the Arabian Sea.
If you are tight on time, one day is enough to see Fort Kochi, although many Westerners choose to stay here for long periods. It’s a lively place with a lot of young tourists and a great place to learn about Indian traditions such as ayurvedic medicine, yoga practices, tabla music and Kerala cooking.
My tour of Fort Kochi with a local guide started from the beach, then continued to the harbour where I watched the fishermen at work with Chinese fishing nets. These structures are 10m high and operated by 5-6 men who have to pull up and push down the net every 5 minutes throughout the day.
Since Fort Kochi was under the possession of the Portuguese, Dutch and British at different points of time, the region still bears a European influence in the names of streets and churches and in the architecture. Walking past the Parade Ground, you reach St. Francis Church, the oldest European church in India, where Vasco-da Gama had once been buried. The tour continued to Mattancherry (also known as Jew Town) with its colourful houses, the beautiful Dutch Palace and the Paradesi Synagogue, the only functioning synagogue in Kochi.
Foodwise, Fort Kochi has a lot to offer from street food stalls by the harbour to fancy restaurants in colonial style hotels such as the Old Harbour Hotel or Malabar House. The town is also buzzing with coffee shops and bakeries, my favourites were the Pepper House Cafe and Kashi Art Centre.
A visit to Kerala cannot end without watching a Kathakali show, a unique blend of dance, drama, music and literature. The actors wear elaborate make up and costumes, and tell the story through intricate gestures and facial expressions, to the sound of drums playing live.
The city of Alleppey is surrounded by a large network of lakes, lagoons and fresh water rivers known as the backwaters. Taking a cruise through the narrow canals is the ultimate Kerala experience, skimming past palm trees, water lilies, lush paddy fields, coir villages, rustic homes, ancient temples, churches and coconut groves.
I chose an overnight boat cruise leaving form Alappuzha at noon for a round trip of the canals, coming back the next day around 9am. I had lunch, dinner and breakfast on the boat. Lunch was the traditional “Kerala Meal”, a spread of chutneys, curry and rice similar to the thali you find in northern India.
The rest of the time was spent relaxing on the deck, reading a book and admiring the view. The spectacular show of sun setting over the backwaters was alone worth the trip.
Munnar is situated at the confluence of three mountain streams, 1600m above sea level. Nowadays the land has mostly been converted to tea and spice plantations, which the main source of income for the local population. The road to Munnar from Kochi Airport is steep and winding, and as you get higher, the surrounding landscape disappears in a thick blanket of fog.
Indian tourists are attracted to Munnar by the cooler weather and stunning mountain views, with tea plantations and shola forests stretching as far as the eyes can see. Munnar itself is a small town revolving around the main street buzzing with market stalls, shops and restaurants selling homemade chocolates, souvenirs and traditional food.
Restaurants are cheap, stripped back and with large tables to share. My favourites were Saravana Bhavan (which is “pure full veg”) and Guru Bhavan, where a must try is the Chicken Curry with Kerala parotta.
One day is enough to visit Munnar and the main attractions around the city: Mattupetty Dam, Echo Point and Top Station where you get fantastic views of the valley (the station is actually located in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu).
I also learned a lot about tea, how it is picked, processed and brewed at Munnar’s KDHP Tea Museum. Tea is a tree, not a plant, and it can grow as high as 20 meters, but local farmers keep the trees small to make it easy for women to pick the leaves. After it’s picked, the leaves are taken to the tea factories to be processed to produce black, green or white tea.
Kerala has so much more to offer than what I had the chance to see in just a week, but it was enough to get a taste of this spectacular state. No wonder it’s known as God’s Own Country.