When I was interviewing expats about the cost of living in India, that brought back a flood of memories about the months I spent traversing the country over several visits. It reminded me of all the madness, yes, but also made me nostalgic about my time exploring the country, from the Himalayas down to the backwaters of Kerala.
One thing you notice if you travel through a wide swath of India is that the country changes quite a bit as you head south. The food gets more vegetarian, with more coconut and dosas. The pace slows down and the dialect changes. Most importantly though, for travelers, is you get hassled a whole lot less than you do in the most popular tourist areas. Kerala, the most progressive state in the country, feels like a breath of fresh air.
The Draw of Kerala Travel
It’s not that Kerala doesn’t get a lot of tourists. The tourism board has done a good job, so plenty of people come from abroad and within India. But you’re not going to spend every waking hour fending off touts and vendors like you would in say, the triangle of Delhi/Agra/Jaipur. This is a more enlightened land of women’s rights, green environmental initiatives, and a strong middle class.
This state is right in the middle of the pack in terms of size, with 15,000 square miles to explore, but there’s a lot packed into that space in terms of variety. It’s kind of a microcosm of the country, with beaches, mountains, tea farms, and inland waterways. If you visit this state as a traveler, you’ll get a lot of different experiences and sights.
International Kerala Tours
If you book an India tour from abroad, it’ll save you a lot of time and hassle, with all the accommodations and transportation taken care of. Intrepid Adventures has several good South India tours that include Kerala, ready to start up when we can travel around safely again. Their South India Revealed tour is just $1,120 per person for 16 days. Or there’s a Southern India tour with a little nicer hotels in the mix that starts at $1,500 per person for 15 days.
Any Kerala tour will include the state’s main claim to fame: the backwaters. These are a series of rivers, lakes, and lagoons that extend inland from the coast. They were used throughout history to transport rice, spices, and other goods, but now they also transport a lot of travelers who just want to soak in the beauty of the countryside. I just took a guided tour with a group last time I was there, but even if I go on an organized tour next time, I’ll probably rent a houseboat with the wife and have a romantic few nights on the water.
Kerala Tours From Kochi
You can find domestic tours to Kerala from Mumbai or other cities, with airfare. These are mostly marketed to domestic travelers, so they can be as cheap as if you tried to set it all up on your own. These will be a step up from bare-bone backpacker level of course, but a good value and stays in vetted hotels. Everything is planned out so you don’t have to research and negotiate.
If you’re a slow traveler who is taking your time, however, you can just get yourself to the capital of Cochin and book your Kerala tours from there. Agencies in the city will set up excursions to the backwaters, nature reserves, or hill stations if you’re wanting to try multiple things from the tourist menu. This is what I’m planning to do next time I’m there, with maybe a longer time in the backwaters than I spent before when I just did a day trip. It would also be nice to spend some time on one of the lakes taking it easy for a few days.
If you want to set some things up ahead of time, you can book a local Kerala travel tour through Viator. There’s a wide range available, from a two-hour tea country walk for $5.50 to an overnight houseboat tour and stay for $183. In between are tuk-tuk city tours, kayaking excursions, yoga/meditation experiences, and backwater cruises. See the options here.
The Beaches of Kerala
I spent a good bit of time in Goa when I was in India, but I never made it to the beaches of Kerala. I was on a work assignment reviewing hotels and there wasn’t anything I had to cover in Kovalam, Payyambalam, or Marari beaches. So I had to move on after less than a week in the state. That’s one of my biggest regrets from my time in India, so I need to make up for it next time I’m there.
Those three beaches are not the only ones either–they’re just three of the best-known. They get called out in the glossy travel magazines now and then, usually in some kind of “place to watch” or “where to go next year” list these editors love to put together. (I guess the 2021 versions will be “Where to Go Next Year That’s Actually Open.”)
These tropical beaches rimmed with coconut palms fit the vacation vibe perfectly. You can rent a chair and umbrella and let the food come to you when you get hungry. Then you won’t pay a lot for a place to sleep or go out either.
You could visit the only beach in India that’s next to a cliff: Varkala.
Kochi (also known as Cochin) is the capital and it’s a good base to strike out from. There’s a lot of history to explore in this long-important spice trade port and some great photo opportunities. It’s also a good place to catch a Kathakali story dance performance, where men in elaborate make-up and costumes look menacing.
You’ll eat very well in Kochi also. My mouth starts watering when I think back on the masala dosas I had there. I was a vegetarian most of the time I traveled around India and in Kerala, the food was so flavorful that it never felt like a sacrifice. If you are a pescatarian though, you’ll be in heaven here with giant prawns, lobster, and fresh fish with coconut chutney
I’d like to make it to Munnar next time, the hill station town surrounded by tea plantations. Imagine waking up to this view in the morning!
Periyar National Park is one of India’s best wildlife refuges, a large protected area with trekking paths through the jungle. If your timing is right, you may catch a tiger or elephant in the wild and you’re sure to see monkeys swinging from the trees. There are (tiger-proof) lodges where you can stay, so I’ve got that on my list as well.
I’m personally not into yoga and holistic medicine, but my wife is. So she’ll be happy to return to the birthplace of Ayurvedic medicine and the land of countless yoga studios.
India is featured in my book The World’s Cheapest Destinations, now in its 5th edition. The whole country is a great value, but if you head to Kerala you can enjoy it more than in some other states, with a laid-back tropical atmosphere that’s welcoming. To give you an idea on hotels, in Kochi/Cochin the Marriott is $54 a night and there are elegant 5-star hotels going for less than $70. At the budget end of the scale, I found two dozen hotels going for $12 a night or less for a double room.
For more information on Kerala travel, see the official tourism site. You can find hotel recommendations for each place there and you can get a quick feel for rates at this Cochin page of Booking.com.
This post was made possible by the financial support of Kerala Travel tourism board. As always, all opinions are my own and I never recommend a destination unless I would pay to visit it.