Welcome to Kerala. Why go?
The communist state of Kerala is a great place to dip your toes in the Indian subcontinent. It’s a laid back state, very wealthy compared to the rest of India, and its people are some of the most highly educated in India. There are palm-lined beaches, jungle-clad mountains, wildlife sanctuaries where you can spot tigers, elephants and leopards and don’t forget the endless tea plantations of the Western Ghats.
The state’s biggest tourist draw, however, has to be the vast network of backwaters, a chain of rivers, canals and lagoons lying parallel to the Arabian Sea, which forms more than 900 km of waterways. There are over 2000 Kerala houseboats (kettuvallams) which offer tourists the opportunity to explore the lush, watery world.
In addition to relaxation, Kerala is rich in culture and seeped in colonial history. The state was the centre of the world spice trade during the 15th and 16th centuries following Portuguese Trader, Vasco Da Gama’s, arrival in Kozhikode (now Calicut in Kerala) in 1498. There are many reminders of the Portuguese settlement from whitewashed churches to Portuguese shop houses.
There are also plenty of excellent Yoga and Ayurvedic retreat centres where you can detox and get yourself healthy in the tropical heat.
Where to go in Kerala?
(South to north)
After flying into Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram), Kerala’s capital, many people head straight to the popular beach resort of Kovalam, which is just 15km away. This is Kerala’s most developed beach town, and there are many hotels and resorts, ayurvedic and yoga centres, restaurants and Western style cafés. Kovalam consists of several beaches, such as Lighthouse Beach and Hawa Beach. Samudra Beach 2km away is quieter and more upmarket. Like many beaches in India, the beaches near Kovalam can be plagued with litter and many prefer the beach town further up north…
Perhaps our favourite place to stay in the whole of Kerala, this picturesque beach town perched high upon the red cliffs above the Indian Ocean, offers the traveller laid-back times. Sunbathe on the beach, swim (with caution) in the crashing waves, even take a surf lesson if you’re feeling up for it!
The ‘Heli-pad’, which is the south end of the cliffs, is where most of the action happens in Varkala. Here, you’ll find a variety of international restaurants, cafés (with good coffee!) and tourist shops selling clothes, souvenirs, books, musical instruments and anything else you can imagine. Haggle hard if you decide to shop here as the sales people drive a hard bargain! There are also yoga schools, Ayurvedic health and massage centres, cooking classes, travel agencies, places to hire a motorbike, get your laundry done, and various other travel services – you get the picture.
To eat, we recommend Coffee Kingdom and Tibetan Kitchen, both serving great food at decent prices. There’s an interesting migrant worker mix in Varkala, with most of the restaurant workers hailing from Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet or northern India, which gives the tourist strip a colourful Tibetan vibe.
Heading north from the heli-pad, you’ll walk along a bright red bricked path, along the cliffs to numerous quieter beaches, and past a small fishing village, where you’ll finally come to Kappil Beach, the famous spot where the backwaters meet the ocean. You’ll spot hundreds of golden eagles along the way circling above the cliffs feasting on whatever rubbish has been thrown down into the ocean. (If only there was a better way of disposing of waste in Kerala!)
Allepey is the place where many people go to organise themselves a boat trip on the famous backwaters. Like many places in Asia it’s been called the ‘Venice of the East’, and you’ll need to step away from the chaotic town and onto the boat deck, before this becomes a reality. Once you’re floating, passed lush rice fields, tranquil villages, toddy shops and local fishermen on canoes, you’ll see why this is Kerala’s biggest attraction.
There are many options to explore the backwaters from taking the local ferry, to hiring a luxury houseboat, where you’ll be waited on for days as you glide through the waters. Houseboats can cost anything from 5,000 rupees / night in the low season to over 30,000 super luxury vessels! Being the backpackers we are, of course we don’t believe that the most expensive house boat is necessarily the best option, plus the tourist demand has been increasingly damaging the environment in recent years. Other options are taking the local ferry along the main waterways, at a fraction of the cost, or hiring a local fisherman to take you from toddy shop to toddy shop. Here’s an excellent article about the alternatives to getting a houseboat in Kerala.
And, if you’ve got your heart set on it… Here’s a good guide to getting a good deal on a house boat in Kerala.
– Along the way from Varkala to Allepey –
Along the coastal road from Varkala to Allepey, we almost crashed the motorbike looking at an enormous shipwreck right on the beach! The Hansita V was beached almost a year ago and provides dramatic views for passersby. We didn’t see a way onto the shipwreck, although we suspected people were living on it, but it certainly makes for a cool holiday snap!
Scruffy and atmospheric Fort Kochi is an fascinating place to visit if you’re a bit of a history buff. The dusty streets offer a mix of religious buildings, Portuguese colonial buildings, shop houses of different trades, from spices to mechanics to tea shops, crumpling temples and trendy cafés.
The population of Fort Kochi is an intriguing mix of different religions, one minute you’ll walk past a mosque with the muezzin singing from the minaret, and the next, you’ll be standing outside an impressive synagogue in Jew Town. There are catholic churches, Hindu temples and even a Jain temple.
The ancient Chinese fishing nets lining the river are a great sight as the sun is setting, where you can sit at a street side cafe and indulge on delicious Keralan fish curry. (Just don’t gaze in the for too long in the dirty waters where they actually catch the fish!) If you want a beer with your curry however, you may be asked to disguise it in a tea pot as Kerala has some very strict alcohol laws.
Want to see the town from the other side of the river? For 9 cents take the 10 minute ferry over to Vypyn for an hour and check out the old Portuguese church and plaza.
Looking for a chilled out, clean place to check your emails and get a good coffee? Check out the new Celestial Café, a lovely restaurant and café set in an old colonial building. The salads are organic and washed in fresh bottled water and the smoothies are delicious!
To get to Fort Kochi, you’ll need to take the train or bus to the main town of Ernakulam and then catch the ferry to the old colonial town of Fort Kochi.
Whilst the actual town of Munnar is a traffic clogged, scruffy mess, it is the surrounding bright green misty hills that entice people to the area. Home to the vast tea plantations of TATA, one of the most prominent Indian companies (who now own Tetley tea!), Munnar is a great place to go trekking amidst the tea terraces, visit a tea factory or just take in a very different Keralan landscape from the coast.
The driving around Munnar is crazy, so hiring a motorbike is not recommended. If you’re coming from Fort Kochi, the best way to get to Munnar is from the main bus station in Ernakulam, take the KSRTC air conditioned bus costs 232 rupees.
Ashrams, yoga and Ayurvedic retreat centres in Kerala
- Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Ashram
Not so far from Kovalam, located near the Neyyar Dam in South Kerala is the Sivananda Ashram which offers a strict daily routine of yoga, meditation and chanting. Vegetarian meals are included as part of your stay. There are lots of contrasting reviews on Trip Advisor about the ashram, with some people saying the place is an absolutely amazing centre with great food and fantastic yoga classes, whilst others claim it is an evil cult! Visit and make your mind up for yourself.
- Amritapuri ashram
Amritapuri in the Keralan backwaters is the home of Amma’s ashram, one ofIndia’s only female Gurus. She is known as the ‘hugging mother’ (Amma means mother) as Amma hands out hugs as her blessing ‘dharma’ to anyone who comes to see her. Amma has become a worldwide phenomena and is often on tour spreading her hugs to her thousands of international fans, but you can stay at the ashram for 250 rupees / night per person
- Ayurveda Centres
Many people visit Kerala for ayurvedic treatments. Whether you just want a full body massage (abhyanga), you want to try a shirodhara treatment (hot oil dripping on your head) or want to do the full 10 day panchakarma (intense body detox) treatments, then there are many centres that will do it all for you! Before you book, make sure you understand fully what you’re getting yourself in for. For example, panchakarma is an intense cleansing treatment that can include butter ghee drinking, blood letting and induced vomiting, as well as those relaxing massages.
Here are a few Ayurveda Resorts / Retreats that we looked at:
- Elephant Pass Resort – 6,660 rupees per day (90 Euros) for Ayurvedic Rejuvenation Packages that include AC accommodation, full vegetarian meals, doctor’s consultation, two sessions of ayurvedic treatment / massage per day and any medicines as prescribed by the doctor.
- Shanti Ayurveda* (Very good reviews) – 72 Euros per day. This includes accommodation (double room for 2 people), homely food, one treatment per day per person, Yoga and meditation, cost of medicine, laundry service. (If you want an extra treatment the cost will be 15 Euros. This is a family run ashram where you will stay with the family in a countryside area of northern Kerala. (Kottoppadam –Venga, Mannarkkad, Palakkad district.)
Ideal Ayurvedic Resort & Panchakarma Centre* (Good value for money, near Kovalam) – 7 nights full board Ayurvedic Treatment Package is 91,000 for 2 people. The package includes: accommodation, panchakarma treatments (2-3 hrs every day), Ayurveda vegetarian meals, daily consultation with doctors, internal & external medicines, yoga classes, airport transfers, swimming pool access.
Where we stayed in Kerala?
For a decent double room you are looking at around 1000 rupees / night in Kerala. If you’re interested in staying on a more long-term basis, it is also possible to rent a house for around 500 rupees / night. (This was a rate offered to us in Varkala).
In Varkala, we spent a week at the lovely guesthouse run by a German lady, Om India Om, Good Karma Beach Resort, which is away from the busy cliffs at the quieter north end of the beach. They offer good breakfasts, wifi, partial sea views, and a little plunge pool. We would recommend it!
In Fort Kochi we stayed at The Nest Homestay, which was a cute, clean family run guesthouse in the heart of the city with excellent breakfast. For more cheap guesthouses and hotels in Kerala search on Booking.com.