For most travelers, a vacation in Kerala has become synonymous with the backwaters experience – cruising down the labyrinthine waterways in your own houseboat or enjoying the sights and sounds of nature through the eyes of your resort. While the waterways of Alleppey and Kumarakom, the cultural experiences in Kochi or the idyllic beach life in Varkala are major crowd pullers – we decided to forego all of the above for a tête-à-tête with Kerala’s mountains and forest reserves. This was my second time in ‘God’s Own Country’, and I decided to travel to the eastern part of the state this time. If like me, you’re returning to the southern state the second time around or looking at extending your trip post the mandatory backwaters experience, this Kerala itinerary may be of help to you. Read on –
Day One – Kochi To Munnar
We landed at Cochin International Airport before noon, taking an early morning flight out of Mumbai. The airport at Cochin is systematic, efficient and resembles a heritage resort property more than an airport. Did I mention it’s the world’s first airport fully powered by solar energy?
We set off towards Munnar immediately, the lush fields, coconut trees and picturesque bungalows making the 107 kilometer drive seem like a breeze. You can stop at one of the local restaurants along the way, for a nap inducing meal of Prawns Masala, Beef Chilli Fry and Parothas. Where We Ate – Hotel Mount Park Inn on the Kochi-Munnar highway. Here we were treated to a Mixed Seafood Kizhi – prawns, king fish and crabs cooked in spices and steamed in a banana leaf.
As you leave the city, and drive towards the mountains the roads get narrower and wind treacherously . This is the right time to pop that Avomine if you suffer from motion sickness. On the way, stop at the magnificent Valara falls; a gushing force that you can hear before you can see. Not applicable during the summer months, of course.
Another great pit-stop to make on the way, if the long drive hasn’t tired you out, are one of Munnar’s many spice plantations. We halted at the government run Spice Garden, where after a steep ride downhill, we were escorted around the spice plantation by our guide who pointed out the various shrubs, plants and trees that grow abundantly on the mountainside. They insist on taking you to the Ayurveda store post the tour which honestly felt like a tourist trap and if you aren’t too careful you’ll end up buying a whole lot of herbal products that you definitely don’t need.
Check into your hotel for the night, but avoid staying in Munnar town as it can get extremely chaotic and touristy. Where We Stayed – Devonshire Greens, a colonial style, four star property situated at the base of the Attukad Waterfall. The best amenities they provide in the rooms are the scenic valley views and the sound of the gushing waterfall.
Day Two – Munnar
Tea, tea everywhere but not a drop to drink!– My father echoed these words as we drove around Munnar’s undulating roads with tea plantations stretched around us, as far as we could see.
Munnar is seeped in history (pun intended), as it served as a holiday home to the British during the summer when they wanted to escape the coastal heat. During the later half of the 19th century the first tea shrub was planted by the tribal natives, and the rest as they say is history. Start off your day driving around Munnar town, the lush green hills providing a treat for the eyes, the herbaceous fragrance of tea following you wherever you go. Don’t forget to stop your car on the way for a photo-op in the hills. We clicked some absolutely stunning images, the tea estates and waterfalls providing a beautiful backdrop.
A must do in Munnar is a visit to a traditional tea factory where the entire process of converting a tea leaf into tea powder was demonstrated to us. After learning about the painstaking process, I am sure you’ll savour that next cup of tea a little bit more. We visited the Kanan Devan Tea Factory where we could look down at the entire process through a viewing platform. If you have some time on your hands, then I’d recommend the Kolukkumalai Tea Estate – the world’s highest elevation tea plantation where most of the tea making process is still done like it was during the British era. The two hour bumpy jeep ride, and high altitude is not for everyone, however. You can find more information on Kolukkumalai here. Don’t forget to bring back loose leaf tea and flavoured tea for your friends back home.
Other spots of tourist interest in Munnar include the Mattupetty dam and the Echo point. Even though the Matupetty lake and the adjacent dam were immensely crowded, the water body with it’s surrounding lush trees and mountains in the distance made me feel like I was at a lake in the Alps. ‘Echo Point’ however felt like one of one of those tourist traps, thronging with people and showcasing nothing of interest. The drive from Mattupetty to Echo Point is beautiful, and lined with plenty of tea estates for that above mentioned photo-op.
Day Three – Munnar to Thekkady
Do not leave Munnar without watching the sun rise over the mountains. We woke up at the crack of dawn and trekked to the nearby Attukad falls. I’d recommend you do the same, as most hotels in Munnar are located bang in the middle of the hills. If you’re lucky you may just spot some tea pickers maneuvering their way through the tea plantation, baskets strapped on their backs. Sadly this is a dwindling sight now as most of the tea picking is being done by machinery owing to it’s speed and cost effectiveness.
Post breakfast we began our drive to Thekkady. Unfortunately, the Munnar Thekkady connecting road was undergoing some renovation and we had to take a back breaking, nausea inducing detour. (That heavy breakfast did not help!) We ended up taking five hours for a three hour drive with plenty of stops on the way to buy banana wafers and local ice cream. The landscape underwent a distinct change from the lush hills of Munnar to spice plantations, banana farms and swaying palm trees. Closer to Thekkady, green forests surrounded us on either side – we were entering the jungle!
Where We Stayed – Greenwoods Resort located bang in the heart of Thekkady, a ten minute drive from the Periyar nature reserve. The resort comes complete with individual cottages, activities such as Nature Walk where you can acquaint yourself with flora around the property, cooking demos focusing on traditional Malayali dishes and cultural dance performances in the evening. There’s so much to do and see here, you won’t feel the need to step outside. The only thing they severely lacked was an in house Ayurveda spa.
Spend some time in the evening soaking in come cultural experiences from the state. Both Munnar and Thekkady are home to cultural centres that have hour long Kathakali and Kalaripayattu shows every evening. Even though the shows feel a bit touristy, it is a great way to acquaint yourself with the traditional dance form and martial art form from the state. Would strongly recommend the latter – thrilling, nail biting and invigorating all at once. For more information on the shows click here.
One thing I’d urge you not to do while in Kerala is to encourage elephant rides or other activities with these gentle giants. The conditions these creatures are kept in is not exactly ideal, and I saw people queuing up to ride the same elephant one after the other. As travelers we need to be more mindful about respecting nature and animals – let’s not encourage animal abuse under the pretext of tourism.
Day Four – Periyar National Park
We woke up at the crack of dawn for our Boat tour across Periyar lake. The probability of spotting wild animals or birds becomes higher at sunrise or sunset, especially around a water body. Our car dropped us off at the national park parking lot from where we took a private bus of the forest department that dropped us off at the boating spot. Luckily we had prebooked our boating tickets online so we skipped the exhaustively long queue and were taken right to the boat.
The boat ride started right on time, but the motor of the boat was noisy and constantly emitting smoke into the water, which is not what you want to see at a national park. Barring two random Indian Bison (Gaur) and a coupe of water birds such as egrets and cormorants we barely saw anything. The entire experience was cacophonous and disappointing – definitely avoidable. Only reason I’d recommend the boat tour is if you’re traveling with senior citizens or young children who may not be able to do other adventurous activities in the forest.
The park conducts a number of different activities including a jeep safari, bamboo rafting and a day long intensive border hike. You can find more information on the activities and book tickets online here. We decided to opt for the Green Walk – a three hour long walk into the forest along with an unarmed forest officer. I’ve experienced the jungle before, but seeing it on foot was a whole different experience. Time slows down, you become more mindful of everything around you, and you begin to notice smaller creatures and plants that you wouldn’t whizzing past through the jungle in a jeep. It is also a lot more intimidating and scary to be on foot! We spotted a whole herd of Indian bison, Malabar squirrels, Malabar hornbills, kingfishers, drongoes, macaques, and even two cobras mating. Strongly recommended!
If all that walking has tired you out, end your day with a foot massage at a local Ayurveda massage center.
You can read about another jungle experience at Kruger National Park in South Africa here.
Day Five – Thekkady to Kochi
You may want to amble around the markets at Thekkady after you’ve checked out of your hotel. There’s plenty to take back home – spices, banana chips, tea, coffee, herbal skincare and beauty products, souvenirs and traditional gold border saris. Begin driving back to Cochin airport with stops along the way to fuel up on coconut water, jackfruit and banana chips.
A great way to extend your road trip is by taking a longer route into Kochi town. An hour away from the airport is Fort Vypin where you can see the famous Chinese fishing nets that are still operational even today. The old Jewish quarter in Fort Kochi, a 15 minute drive from the fishing nets is another tourist attraction. You can spend late afternoon roaming around the streets of the Jewish town, shopping for souvenirs and nibbling on some local fare. Don’t forget to leave well in advance for your flight back home as the airport is a 90 minute drive away.
(This post is not sponsored or associated with Kerala Tourism in any way. As always, the views are unbiased and entirely the author’s own. All images posted here are the author’s property, and not to be circulated without prior permission.)