Why God’s own country, Kerala will lift your spirit?

Sunset in Cochin beach, Kerala

Located in the south of Indian subcontinent, God’s own country, Kerala is a vertical shaped State clubbed between the Arabian Sea on the west and the Western Ghats on the east.

Best known for its beautiful palm trees, sandy beaches, hill stations and tea plantations, Kerala is one of the most beautiful states in India still unblemished by industrial pollution that typically plagues the northern industrial States.

The most populated cities of Kerala – Ernakulam (formerly Cochin), Trivandrum and Kozhicode (formerly Calicut) – are all located along the Arabian coast. However to experience the true beauty of Kerala one must venture into places like Varkala, Munnar, Wayanad, Idukki and the backwaters of Alleppey.

Historically speaking both Cochin and Calicut were centers of spice productions as the kingdoms that ruled Kerala during this time were trading spices with western empires (Greek, Persian, Roman and Ottoman). Spices Kerala were much sought out in the western hemisphere (and still is).

Kayaking Backwaters in Kottayam, Kerala
Kayaking Backwaters in Kottayam, Kerala

There are two primary seasons in the southern part of Indian subcontinent – hot summer months from March to May and rainy monsoon months from June to July and October to December. Kerala sports a temperature of 30+ celcius (typical of any subtropical places) in most time of the year. If you want to cool off then you head to the hill stations in Western ghats. The two most popular districts in Western ghats for cooler weather are Idukki and Wayanad.

In my second visit to Kerala (first one was back in 2011), I visited Alleppey, Kottayam, Idukki and Cochin. It was in early February when I visited Kerala, which seemed like the best time to go if you want a milder weather. As a backpacker, I wanted to travel light and use public transportation as much as possible.

How I planned the visit to God’s own country?

This time my plan was to visit the backwaters, go to Kottayam and then to Idukki. I started my journey from Alleppey which is the gateway to the backwater of Kerala. I decided to spend a day in Alleppey to get my bearings straight before I continued exploring the other places in my itinerary.

First I head to the ferry terminal where they have regular passenger ferries to Kottayam (which was the next stop in my itinerary) the next day. After confirming the schedule for the boat trip the next morning (the second boat is at 9:35 am), I had some lunch and then head to Alleppey beach to see the sunset. Anywhere along the Arabian coast you can see a perfect sunset and Alleppey beach is one of those places. Alleppey beach is only a short tuk-tuk ride from the center of the town.


After a good night rest, I wake up early in the morning and have a typical Kerala breakfast consisting of Aapam with coconut milk and Gotsu curry. Then head to the ferry terminal on the banks of the canal to catch the passenger ferry.

The ferry ride is inexpensive and it usually leaves the boat terminal on scheduled time. As the ferry slowly pulls off from the boat terminal and head to Vembanad lake the backwater journey starts to get into a high gear.

The boat passes through groves of palm trees neatly aligned along the banks. We see other fancy looking house boats carrying western tourists for a day trip.

Since my destination was Kottayam, it was much easier to take the passenger ferry. We come across some fishermen in canoes casting their net to get their “catch of the day”. There were some old brick houses, rice paddies and big open farm with cattle grazing the fields. We see women washing their clothes on the banks. birds looking for their prey. It was great to sit and take all in from the slow moving motor boat.

Houseboat ride is the highlight in God's own country
Typical Houseboats on Vembanad Lake.
Credit: mongabay.com / Photo by Shibu Bhaskar

The ferry ride is slow and rewarding. The experience is memorable as you watch the locals hop on and off the boat during the 3 hour journey to Kottayam. The commuter ferries are widely used by people who are going to work in a different villages and school children going to schools.

As the boat comes close to Kottayam ferry terminal, the lake starts to look more green as it is covered with water hyacinth like a canopy over a tree. Later I found out that these weeds of hyacinth can be a hindrance to both boat traffic and fishing activities if their growth was left unconfined.

Vembanad lake covered with fast growing water hyacinth

Kottayam

Kottayam was a part of Travancore Kingdom of Kerala before the Indian independence in 1947. The city is at the foot hills of western ghats and is a good starting point to explore the hill towns such as Idukki and Munnar. Since Kottayam is surrounded by the backwaters of Vembanad lake, one can find a variety of water activities like Kayaking.

After checking in to the airbnb house which was placed right on the backwaters, I made an appointment with the caretaker of the house to take me on a Kayak ride the next morning.

My plan was to get up early at 6 and start the Kayak ride so it will be just in time to see the sunrise. Kayaking in the early morning is a great way to enjoy the serene outdoors and watch everything comes to life. The beautiful chirping sounds of Cuckoo felt soothing to our ears as we sail past the birds perched on the tree branch.

As we head further both sides of the water is covered with lush mangrove with some trees sticking out their branches into the air above us. We caught some river fish (pearl water I was told) that was to be cooked later for our lunch. There were many fruit trees along the sides like Durian, Mangosteen and Rambuttan. Durian is not my favorite but I like the other two fruit. I picked some rambuttans when we visited a cottage along the shore.

Kumily, Idukki

The next stop in my travel itinerary was Kumily in Idukki district. I chose Kumily for its vantage point to both tea plantations and to Thekaddy Wildlife reserve. But due to covid pandemic, private bus services were not available. So I was stipulated to take the bus service offered by Kerala state bus company. And even the bus services from State government were not that frequent.

Even though the distance between the Kottayam and Kumily was only 130 kms, it took the bus almost 4.5 hours to reach Kumily. For the most part of the journey, we were climbing over Western ghats until about 1,200 meters (3,900 ft). The climb was gradual and time consuming. We started to notice the drop in temperature. By the time the bus reached Kumily, the temperature dipped down to about 20 celcius.

After a good night rest, it was time to discover what Kumily has to offer. There were some tea plantations that were open and free to visit while others were closed due to pandemic. The biggest ones in Idukki district were Connemara and Tata Tea Factory. And to my disappointment both were closed due to pandemic. In normal times they have a guided tour at Connemara Tea factory where they walk you through the tea production process – from picking the tea leaves, rolling, drying, fermentation etc

Influence of manufacturing process on the contents of iron, copper,  chromium, nickel and manganese elements in Crush, Tear and Curl black tea,  their transfer rates and health risk assessment - ScienceDirect
Source: ScienceDirect

Not to be disheartened, I was told by the guy who worked at Connemara factory to visit the nearby Churakulam tea estate which was open to visitors.

Being that this is a private tea garden, I couldn’t stay more than an hour of walking around the farm and taking pictures of the coffee plantation. There were some pepper vines that wrapped around the tall rubber trees.

Hike to View point

If you are staying near the Kumily center, I highly recommend hiking to see this amazing view point at the very top of the hill. Be prepared for a long steep hike up the hill. It will take you about 1 to 1.5 hours to reach the top but once you get there you are rewarded with a breathtaking view of a valley that spans across the states of Kerala and Tamilnad.

Thekkady

One cannot go to Kumily and not visit the jewel of Idukki – Periyar National park sanctuary in Thekkady. This sanctuary spreads across an area of 777 square meters with an unadulterated nature containing a mix of nature’s best – lake, wildlife, dense evergreen forest and sky. The lake itself is an artificial lake created by Mullaperiyar Dam across the Periyar River.

Before visiting the park, I had to book the tickets online a couple of days in advance before my visit. This is preferable as the tickets sells out quickly during peak season. The boat ride offers a guided tour of the park and the guide will help to spot wild animals as the boat makes it way through the lake. I managed to get a glimpse of Bison, Wild boar, Sambar deer, and Malabar Hornbill. But to my disappointment I didn’t come across any tigers or elephants.

Video of the boat trip in Thekkady Wildlife sanctuary

Cochin

The last stop in my three week itinerary was Cochin (Ernakulam). The city is a major port in the south west Malabar coast of Arabian sea. I chose to stay in the old town of Kochi for its history, museums and relative tranquility from the more industrial and modern part of Ernakulam. The newer part of Ernakulam is only a ferry ride from the old town. Some of the highlights in Old Cochin are Jew town (and visit Paradesi Synagogue), Chinese fishing nets, Santa cruz Basilica, Mattancherry Palace and Indo Portugese museum. You will find some cute little cafes and restaurants in the old town. I felt this area was deserted which was really nice to walk around without being bothered by the tourist crowd.

As my three week long journey in Kerala was coming to a close, I realized why they call this place “God’s own country”. This land is truly blessed with nature’s gift. And I truly hope the future generation will preserve and cherish this land. Somewhere deep in my mind, I felt that I am connected with this land and I will come back here in the near future wanting more of this experience.