The best places to visit in Kerala

Slow travel and India, it looks like a challenging combination…  How do you slow down in a country like India, a place known for its somewhat organised chaos, for its huge crowds and for its mystical world, undecipherable at first to western eyes? Turns out the southern state of Kerala has all it takes! You see, Kerala is a “different sort of India”, a softer version if you wish and an excellent place for first-time visitors to this immensely intriguing country!
Let me show you the best things to do and best places to visit in Kerala!

1. Cruising the backwaters on a houseboat

Think “Kerala” and automatically the houseboats come to mind. They have become somewhat the emblem of the state.  And rightly so!

I am sipping a cold beer on deck, waiting for the cook to prepare tonight’s dinner as I watch the local women do their laundry in the river. Water buffalo’s are being herded to the next ricefield and children run along the canals on their way back home from school.  It’s as peaceful as it sounds. Despite the fact that there are more than 1500 traditional kettuvallam (or houseboats) cruising these waters, it never feels crowded on the numerous lakes, lagoons and smaller canals.

And the comfort you ask? No worries, these houseboats are like floating apartments! A dining room, bedroom, small kitchen and the deck as your outside terrace, means you have everything you need to unwind and concentrate on the local village life passing by. We anchor for the night and watch the sun disappearing behind the horizon. Do I really have to leave tomorrow?

Make it happen: Lakes and Lagoons

2. Kayaking in the backwaters

If the houseboat has you hungry for more, you can venture deeper into the backwaters all by yourself! Kayaking is a fantastic way to get even closer to the river banks. You’ll be able to overhear the locals’ conversations and even exchange a few words with the teenagers, curious about your name and your general state of well-being (What’s your name? How are you?, ..)
The lack of currents makes the kayaking feel like a doddle, but you might have to paddle pretty hard to get through the water lillies though…

Make it happen: Kalypso Adventures

3. Hiking and camping in the Kerala hills

What a better way to take in everything slowly than by using your feet, right? Well, there’s no lack of hiking possibilities in the hill stations of Kerala!
I hiked in the area around Munnar, where the sheer mountain peaks are only interrupted by endless tea plantations.  The “Butterfly Forest Track” leading up to “Phantom’s Head” is a moderate hike of 9 km but the heat can make the uphill part pretty challenging. Don’t let it stop you though, you’ll get rewarded for your effort reaching the top!

And how about spending a night in the hills after that?

Make it happen: Kalypso Adventures and Suryanelli Camp

best places to visit in Kerala

4. Unwinding in a luxury resort

Enough of the outdoors? No worries, Kerala’s got you covered! If you’re after some pampering, then staying in one of the many luxury resorts is the perfect way to recharge your batteries! Whether it’s the hills (Windflower), the beach (Leela Kovalam) or the backwaters (Kumarakom Lake Resort) you are after, make sure to spend a few days unwinding, chilling by the pool, and enjoying a well-deserved Ayurveda massage!

Make it happen:
Kumarakom Lake Resort
Leela Kovalam
The Windflower

5. Hanging out with the fishermen in Cochin

Cochin, also known as Kochi, is the main port city of Kerala, known for its cantilevered Chinese fishing nets that have been in use for centuries. It’s a great pastime walking around the shore, seeing the fishermen cast their majestic nets and pull them back in!

Have you been to “God’s own country”? What are, according to you, the best places to visit in Kerala?

I was a guest of Kerala Tourism, as part of the Kerala Blog Express. All opinions are my own.

That day I got lost in the Bulgarian woods

We just hung up a bag of food in one of the nearby trees. Food, soap, shampoo: anything that smelled really! I remember from my trip to the USA a few years ago, that, if you are in bear-country, you’d better make sure to keep everything that could possible attract them, far away from you.

And apparently, the Bulgarian Rhodope mountains, the place where we are stuck, is bear territory indeed. When setting off this morning the lady at the Chepelare tourist office warned us: “Be careful of bear, bear ate chips”
No, my friend Arnie and I didn’t know exactly what she meant either. but here we are, hiking in Bulgaria and horribly lost in the middle of the woods. The word “bear” sounds ever so slightly more intimidating now.

How did we get here you ask?
Armed with a basic map and keen to get off the beaten path, Arnie and I had a brilliant plan to walk from Chepelare to the village of Shiroka Laka through the Rhodope mountain range. It started off pretty well: the weather was gorgeous, we passed along the peaceful Bulgarian countryside and the trail signs were plentiful. Unfortunately that didn’t last long… We soon found ourselves in the middle of the woods, occasionally passing a small farm surrounded by wild and pretty scary dogs. A few hours later, we were genuinely lost. We were tired, cranky and, let’s be honest, a bit scared. Just when we thought we would have to spend the rest of our lives here, we came upon a sign saying “Shiroka Laka”! Unfortunately there was no way we were going to make it there before dark…

So we set up camp for the night, made a fire and pretended that this was all part of the plan.  Needless to say we didn’t sleep very much, the slightest noise made us cringe and we were trying hard not to blame one another for this “brilliant idea”.

When dawn finally came, we set off again, hoping to find Shiroka Laka today.  To our surprise it went incredibly smooth! Once we got out the woods, we took a ride with a friendly elderly couple who kept on offering us their hand-picked cherries and found a place in the nearby village to spend the night. Life was good again and after a good night sleep and renewed energy,  we decided to check out the Chudnite Mostove or “ The Wondrous Bridges”, a gorgeous little place in the middle of nature, only a few miles away walking… through the woods of the Rhodope mountains…

Have you ever ended up somewhere horribly lost? Looking forward to read all about it!

Why I DON’T want to travel full-time

“How I became a full-time traveller and so can you” ! The number of articles dealing with the subject pollutes my e-mail nearly every day. Everybody and their auntie seem to call themselves “digital nomads” nowadays, it seems to be the new trend. Even though I travel very often, I just can’t see myself doing it full-time.
Why not? Glad you asked!

1/ I love travelling too much
What do you mean it sounds contradictory? Please allow me to explain! Whether you have a fixed address or whether you are travelling,  you are going to need money… Assuming you didn’t inherit a big fortune, it means you’ll somehow have to work for it, even when you’re on the road. And that’s exactly the sticking point! Full time travelling isn’t really “full-time travelling”.
If you’re travelling remotely, it means spending a lot of hours roaming the country in search of free wi-fi to stay in touch with your clients. And that’s not something I am willing to do! When I’m abroad I want to spend every single moment enjoying the new city or country, I want to totally “commit” to the place. I don’t want the stress that comes with being a digital nomad! I only want the true travelling part!
What’s it really like to be a digital nomad is a brilliant article that perfectly illustrates my point!

travel full-time

2/ I need time to “recover” in between trips
If you’ve been following me for a while, you know that my travel motto is “slow travel” No rushing around for this girl. “Doing” 5 countries and 10 cities in two weeks sounds more than a nightmare than a dream to me.  I want to get under the skin of a destination, I want to stroll around the markets, I want to enjoy a cappuccino on the main square, in short: I want to take time! When I’m in a country I try to blend in as much as possible by reading/listening to the local news, by learning the history and by getting to know the local customs and culture. Believe it or not, but this takes time and energy! More often than not, I feel quite drained when I get back from travelling. I need to recharge my batteries and for me, the best way to recharge them is to do this at a place called “home”. A place where I know the people, the culture, the language, …

Recently I came back from Brazil and only had 5 days before taking off to Kerala, India. My mind was still set on Brazilian food, the Portuguese language and basically all things Brazilian. I was pretty confused during my first days in India and I realized I really need time to clear my head from one destination before I’m ready to fully commit and enjoy the next one.

travel full-time

3/ I want to belong somewhere
I’m a Belgian expat living in Northern Ireland, which makes “home” a rather confusing subject. Instinctively I would call Belgium home, but when I’m in Belgium, I call Northern Ireland home. Even if I’m perfectly happy with where I’m living now, moving abroad meant I lost contact with most friends, I don’t see my family as often as I’d like to and sometimes I miss out on important events. It’s difficult to feel like you “belong somewhere”. Full time travel just wouldn’t make it any easier…

Don’t get me wrong, travelling is and will always be my number one passion! I could easily go away for a few months, but to travel full-time… naaah, not for me!

What about you? Do you or would you like to be a full time traveller?  Do you agree with the arguments I mentioned?

Camping in the Nicaraguan cloud forest

The bus from Matagalpa to Jinotega climbs higher and higher up in the mountains. The higher we climb, the chillier it gets. I am off to the “Datanli El Diablo” nature reserve where I will be staying at La Bastilla Ecolodge Nicaragua for a few days, taking in the coffee culture and the surrounding beauty of the cloud forest of Nicaragua.

A pick-up truck brings me from the main road into the forest and on to the lodge. My adrenaline is reaching peak level as we drive at very high speed on the bumpy forest tracks! Adventure!
The ecolodge is situated at a height of 1200m, in the middle of the cloud forest and the views from the main terrace are simply indescribable! Wanting to stay as close to nature as possible, I booked a tent for a few nights. From the platform I get equally magnificent views over the trees, banana- and coffee plantations and local birdlife. The first thing that strikes me though, apart from the view, is the difference in temperature with the rest of Nicaragua and the humidity. It looks like I will finally be needing the jumper and trousers that I brought along for the trip.

La Bastilla Ecolodge cloud forest of Nicaragua

La Bastilla Ecolodge cloud forest of Nicaragua

The mattress in the tent is pretty rough, but the gorgeous views make up for it. The morning dew drops gently off the leaves and the powerful sounds of the awakening fauna make me forget about the bad night straight away!

Today I plan to go a bit deeper into the forest. I start my walk together with some coffee pickers on their way to work. Once they have arrived, I find myself alone amongst the birds and butterflies and the peacefulness of the forest. I walk for quite a long time, looking for a track towards another ecolodge, but the tracks get thinner, the forest thicker and not sure of being on the right path, I decide to retrace my steps.

Another road leads to the Agricultural and Technical School, a project supported by the ecolodge. In this school, students between 15 and 18 years old learn by doing: they help out on the egg farm, the pig rearing, the ecolodge, … The school is financed by the money the ecolodge brings in. It feels good to indirectly do something for the local community! I walk around the school buildings, take a look at the students’ rota and have a chat with the director before returning to the lodge.

There are endless walking possibility in the nature reserve, so the next day I walk all the way down to the entrance of the forest, where the local bus dropped me off a few days ago. The butterflies and birds accompany me as usual, but it seems as if most wildlife is having a rest after 9am.
I pass the dormitories of the coffee pickers, the school and the huge kitchen, where a man seems to be chopping endless amounts of wood for the fire. There is almost nobody on the track apart from a few workers and even the small settlement a bit further on is almost deserted. A few children hang around observing me very closely and dogs barely lift their head when they see me passing by.

With all the lovely birdsong I’ve been hearing for the last few days, I’m curious to see the actual birds, so I decide to borrow a pair of binoculars to try and spot them. It takes some practice though: in the beginning I am barely able to locate the tree, let alone the tiny bird sitting on one of its branches, but after a while I do manage to spot a few!  I could really get used to the slow way of life here!

La Bastilla Ecolodge cloud forest of Nicaragua

It’s time to leave this little corner of paradise for the big city: Managua! It looks as if I chose the right day: last night torrential rainfall broke out and this morning the sky is completely covered. It gets hotter and hotter as I approach Managua and upon arrival, the difference in temperature is so immense that I seek  refuge in an air-conditioned shopping mall. The contrast with the peaceful cloud forest couldn’t be bigger!

Have you ever camped in a cloud forest or stayed in an ecolodge? Where was it?

How to meet locals while traveling

I don’t know about you, but for me, travelling is a lot more than seeing the sights. Yes, of course I want to visit the Louvre on a Paris trip and yes, I’ve been to Lady Liberty in New York, but what really makes a trip is to meet locals while traveling, to meet the ordinary people like you and me, who live, work and play in the city or country you’re visiting! And no, that doesn’t mean you have to strike up a conversation with every person on the street. (although feel free to do so)

Follow these tips on how to meet locals while travelling:

1/ Couchsurfing/AirBnB

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last few decades, chances are you’re familiar with Couchsurfing and AirBnB. What better way to interact with locals than to actually stay with them, right? They’ll be showing you the places where they shop, where they eat and where they drink! Store away your Lonely Planet and let them give you a real, authentic feel of the place!

2/ Meetup

Every big city has “meetup”-groups. There are meetup-groups for all kinds of activities: walking groups, foodie groups, book-lovers groups, … Have a look at www.meetup.com for your next travels, I’m sure you’ll find something that interests you!

Being in Madrid around Christmas, not knowing anybody and despite my Spanish language skills being quite rusty, I decided to go to one of the meetings. It was one of my best ideas ever! I met up with an Argentinian bunch for New Year’s eve and together we painted the town red until the early hours!

3/ Virtual Tourist

Virtual Tourist was a worldwide travel community where travelers and locals shared their advice and experiences, long before Facebook and/or travel blogging was around.  The site was all about ” meeting the people behind the places”. Its members did not stay “virtual”, but met and still meet up on a very regular basis!
Every year there was a big Euromeet, where nearly 100 of travellers flock together for a weekend of laughter, food and visits!

Thanks to Virtual Tourist I spent one week in Tel Aviv with Nathalie, went to the Eurovision Song Contest in Düsseldorf with Sabine and had a great meeting with several VT-members in Copenhagen!

Unfortunately TripAdvisor, the company that bought VT in 2007, decided to close the site down in February 2017.
The millions of tips might have vanished, but the friendships and meetings survived!

4/ Slow travel

It’s pretty simple really: the longer you stay, the more chances you’ll get to know the local community!
I volunteered in a small mountain village in Spain, a place with +/- 100 inhabitants. My social integration went a little something like this: I met Silvia, the cleaner at the place I was volunteering, she was involved in the local women’s community who invited me to prepare Easter celebrations with them and before you knew it, I found myself dancing around the main square at the village fest!

Those things don’t happen if you pass through places like a whirlwind, so … learn how to slow travel!

5/ Embrace the occasion!

I was having a quiet drink in the old town of Faro, Portugal, when a local group of friends walked up to me, asking if I wanted to join them! We shared a few drinks, a few stories and had a great night out!

In Krakow, I was staring at an indecipherable Polish menu when Zibi , a middle-aged Polish man, offered me some help. He ordered a local dish for me and we spent the afternoon driving around Krakow in search of more Polish delicacies.
Sometimes you just have to keep an open mind and embrace the occasion!

meet locals while traveling

Do you already follow one or more of these tips? Any other tips on how to meet locals while traveling you’d like to share?