Kerala, meaning the land of coconuts, is a wonderful introduction to India. Being my first visit, my mind was overflowing with stereotypical ideas of what to expect – an explosion of chaos, dirt and general craziness. Whilst there is an element of chaos in the urban areas, I couldn’t help but feel that this thin southern state offered a much more laid back and gentle welcome than may be found in the north.
Kerala is a land of beautiful beaches, tea and cardamom plantations, palm fringed meandering backwaters and colonial architecture. It is also one of the most literate and prosperous states in India. It’s no wonder that the local’s call their state "God's Own Country".
With a more than pleasant 27 – 30 degrees awaiting me, I packed up my shorts and flip flops and set off from Gatwick for my flight to Cochin, via Dubai with Emirates. I have to mention that Emirates were unbelievably good. This was my first flight with them and it certainly won’t be my last. The comfort and service were first class (mood lighting and stars on the ceiling at night are a great touch!).
I joined a 7 day G Adventures tour in Cochin called Beaches and Backwaters. Escaping the cold British weather, early March is a perfect time to visit. This was my first group tour and with just 4 fellow travellers (all adding this trip on to a 3 week Delhi to Cochin adventure) - it was a brilliant experience.
This tour packs in plenty of things to see, but it also offers a good amount of free time to go off and explore. It certainly isn’t a “follow the umbrella” affair. Sajin, our guide, was a wealth of knowledge and really made the week as easy as it could be. Whilst it’s certainly possible to get around Kerala on your own, it was great to have all of our transport and accommodation sorted, and it helps with budgeting. Local recommendations and meetings with Sajin’s friends only added to the experience.
The first 2 nights were spent in the city of Cochin. Staying in an old monastery within the colonial heart of Fort Kochi, the surroundings had a feel of old Portugal or Spain. Ambling through the streets down to the beach, we passed local’s playing cricket, the occasional rambling cow, Vasco de Gama’s grave and many a local just passing the time. The sun setting over the Arabian Sea was the perfect ending to our time here.
After a 4 hour minibus drive, we ended up in what was to be the highlight of my trip – the famed backwaters; a series of inner waterways and rice fields, which forms a breath-taking landscape. Accommodation here will be a homestay with local villagers, accessed only by boat and after spending a few hours lazing around in a hammock watching the world go by, it was time for the main event – an early evening cruise. Reclining in a boat makes for a brilliant 3 hours of relaxation as you watch the world go by.
Moving on from the backwaters brings you to even greater diversity. A long drive up through mountains and tea plantations brings you into the cooler climate of the Periyar region. We made a brief stop for lunch at a spice garden to break the journey, but also the opportunity to foolishly eat a whole chilli. 30 minutes later, my eyes had stopped streaming and with the ability of speech returning, the journey continued. Periyar is famous for its Tiger reserve and national park and again left some great memories.
Whilst an early morning trek offered the tantalising opportunity of glimpsing a wild tiger; the reality was that we weren’t going to be lucky. Heading off into the park on foot, the ranger’s distinct lack of weapon or protection hinted at the likelihood of success. Nonetheless, the 10km walk was great fun and we did manage to get within 50 metres of 6 elephants (apparently a very rare experience in this part of the world). I felt very privileged.
Periyar also offered another highlight of this trip – a cooking class with a local family. This was a last minute addition to the itinerary and definitely recommended! Joining a few other travellers (and with the help of our hosts), we as a group prepared and cooked everything from scratch. Feeling a bit like the Generation Game at times, and amidst regular shouts of “easy peasy” from our host, we were finally treated to a superb array of 12 curries and local breads. For a self-confessed curry lover, this was truly some of the best food I’ve eaten. We washed down the last of the food with cold Kingfisher beers whilst sat around a fire pit. Perfect.
The last 2 nights of the tour were spent perched on the high cliffs of Varkala. This is a famous beach town and was a great way to end the trip. Staying just feet from the beach, I decided to upgrade my room to an ocean view suite. For just £25 more, this gave me a suite nearly as large as my flat and uninterrupted views of the sea. I must say, that from my private balcony, it would have been very easy to stay for a week longer.
After a touch too much local rum the night before, the tour ended with a 4 hour train journey back to Cochin. Passing by the rolling landscapes, you could once again see the beauty and diversity of the region. A brief chat about football and the UK, with the friendly local Indian man sat next to me, and we were back where we started.
My advice for anyone wanting to see this part of the world is get there soon. Kerala is definitely going to catch on as a must see world destination!
If you want to find out more about how to incorporate south India or the Kerala backwaters into your round the world ticket, we can help. We can also advise you on the best group trips for India, or put together a tailor-made trip entirely to suit you and the destinations you'd like to visit. Simply call us on +44 1273320580 or request a quote by email.