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! Kerala’s backwaters consist of 38 rivers and 5 big lakes which form a 1500-km long water system.
I am on a boat cruise along the backwaters of Alleppey, 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 rice field 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 the backwaters of Kerala, it never feels crowded on the intriguing network of numerous lakes, lagoons and 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?, ..) It’s the ideal combination of nature and culture!
The lack of currents makes the kayaking feel like a doddle, but you might have to paddle pretty hard to get through the water lilies and mangroves though…
Make it happen: Kalypso Adventures
3. Hiking and camping in the Western Ghats
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. The Western Ghats are a mountain range that covers an area of 140,000 km² parallel to the western coast of the Indian peninsula. I hiked the trail called the “Pappathi Shola” leading up to “Phantom’s Head”. It’s 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 efforts when reaching the top! The views over the sheer mountain peaks and Anaerangal lake are only interrupted by endless tea plantations.
And how about spending a night in a tented camp after that?
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, the beach or the backwaters you are after, make sure to spend a few days unwinding, chilling by the pool, and enjoying a well-deserved Ayurveda massage! If it’s good enough for Prince Charles to celebrate his 65th birthday, it’s good enough for me!
5. Hanging out with the fishermen in Kochi
Kochi, also known as Cochin, is the main port city of Kerala, known for its huge, spider-web-like 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! The nets require 5 to 6 people to lift them, so they might even let you help them, in exchange for some small change.
You can easily spend a few days in Kochi, discovering its palaces, architecture and restaurants.
6. Enjoying the beaches
Kerala has some stunning beaches. My favourite one would be Marari beach. Coconut trees, golden sands, fishermen repairing their nets: all this without huge crowds!
If you are looking for a less quieter experience, then head to Kovalam beach. This one is definitely busier, since there are a few hotels nearby, but I had a great time chatting to a group of local teachers on holiday. The nearby streets are full of local flavour and are THE place to get your daily fix on Ayurveda massages and shopping sessions.
7. Rural empowerment in Wayanad
Uravu is a non-profit organisation in Thrikaipetta that strives for rural empowerment through sustainable solutions. The focus is on bamboo. Promotion of bamboo handicrafts and utility products as means of employment for rural women and cultivation of bamboo for its environmental and economic benefits are the core activities of the organisation. Uravu’s bamboo nursery is the largest in South India and hosts around 50 different species. This small rural remote village is known today for its expertise in bamboo and around 100 families depend on bamboo based actives as their primary income source in Thrikaipetta.
Make it happen: Uravu
8. The tea plantations of Munnar
Munnar is a hilly region in Kerala, famous for having some of the most elevated tea plantations in the world. The hills are carpeted with the most scenic verdant tea plantations in India, while the factories around Munnar produce the finest quality tea in the country. You can visit some of the factories to see how the tea is grown, hand-picked and processed or simply go for a wander in the quaint little town of Munnar itself.
9. Periyar Tiger Reserve
The Periyar Nature Reserve is a wildlife sanctuary, located in Thekkady. It’s also called “Periyar Tiger Reserve”, though you are unlikely to see tigers, there are only 40 of them left. We did get the chance to see an elephant family, coming down to Periyar lake for a drink!
The thick forest inside the reserve is filled with thick tropical evergreen trees, inhabited by abundant wildlife and sambar deer.
Make it happen: Periyar Tiger Reserve
10. A cultural village tour of Kumarakom
Kumarakom is a village situated along the famous Kerala Backwaters. If you are interested in the local traditions and life style in the backwaters, then a village tour is the way to go. You will learn how local housewives make a living from coir making. You will be taught how to weave a thatched roof from palm leaves and witness the traditional “toddy tappers”, climbing up the coconut trees to extract the fresh nutritious juice.
Make it happen: Kumarakom village experience
Have you been to “God’s own country”? What are, according to you, the best places to visit in Kerala?