If you’re planning a Kerala backpacking trip, there are plenty of things to see and experience in South India’s gorgeous green land known as God’s Own Country. Here are my recommendations of eleven essential activities, including some of the best places to visit in Kerala.
- 1 Where is Kerala?
- 2 Spend the night sailing in a houseboat
- 3 See the Chinese fishing nets in Fort Kochi
- 4 Smell the perfumes and spices
- 5 Feel welcome in a homestay
- 6 Take in a traditional theatre show
- 7 Discover the origins of tea
- 8 Be wowed by a martial arts spectacle
- 9 Relax on Varkala beach
- 10 Be blessed at a temple
- 11 Take a train ride
- 12 Feel welcome on your Kerala backpacking trip
Where is Kerala?
Kerala is a popular destination for backpacking in South India. If you are in Goa, the distance to Kerala is 338 miles (544 km) south and it can be reached via an overnight train taking around 15 hours. Otherwise, you can catch a flight via Mumbai. This Indian state has almost 372 miles (600 km) of coastline on the Arabian Sea. As well as its sandy beaches, Kerala is known for its lazy backwaters, laid-back lifestyle, tropical weather and rolling tea plantations. It was recently ranked one of the world’s top 10 cheapest winter sun destinations, as there are many fascinating tourist places in Kerala.
Spend the night sailing in a houseboat
This one isn’t cheap if you’re on a backpacking budget, but a taking an overnight trip in a Kerala boat house is a divine experience, if you can afford it. There is a long network of canals, lagoons and lakes stretching 560 miles (900 km) along the state, known as backwaters. For the best backwaters in Kerala, head to Alleppey for the chance to spend the night travelling along the waterways on a traditional Kerala houseboat. You will have your own crew to manage the boat and steer it along on a Kerala backwaters tour. They will even serve you mouthwatering feasts – all you need to do is put your feet up and relax.
Expect to be charged a price of around £100 or $130 per night for a houseboat. These rates include all the food. You can browse and book a great selection of Alleppey boat accommodation in advance here. If you haven’t booked in advance, it’s best to arrive at Alleppey harbour early for the biggest choice of boats – and be prepared to negotiate. Most of the houseboats have two double rooms, so you may want to pair up with another couple of travellers. This way, you can split the houseboat price. The Kerala backwaters houseboat rates don’t include alcoholic drinks, but you can buy these yourself before you board. A cheaper option for Kerala backwaters tours is to book a daytime group sailing trip.
For us, the best houseboat in Kerala was called Alakapuri, a beautiful boat with just one double bedroom, which was perfect for us. In fact, as it was smaller than many of the other Kerala houseboats, it meant we could explore smaller backwaters that were inaccessible for most. It was a blissful experience to watch the local children play along the banks. At one point, we floated into an expansive lagoon where we felt like the only people in the world. There were a couple of stops, to pick up fresh seafood for dinner and explore an island while they are cooking. Otherwise, you are cocooned in houseboat bliss until the sun rises. Tucking into your freshly prepared breakfast, enjoy the final moments as you sail back into the harbour to return to civilisation.
See the Chinese fishing nets in Fort Kochi
Fort Kochi (otherwise known as Cochin) is one of the best tourist places in Kerala and conveniently close to the international airport. Walking around, you get a sense of the local community and traditional customs.
One of the most fascinating things is to watch the contraptions they use to catch fresh fish and seafood. Known as Chinese fishing nets, these Kerala points of interest are in fact lift nets that are fixed and operated on the shore. Tall wooden beams extend branches holding horizontal nets over the sea. Operated by a team of fishermen, each structure is counterbalanced by large stones suspended from ropes at the other end. They move elegantly and slowly, as they make their catches.
This way of fishing is unusual in India and almost unique to the area, as it was introduced by Chinese explorers who landed there in the 14th century. Indeed, one interpretation of the city name is ‘co-chin’, meaning ‘like China.’
Smell the perfumes and spices
Sandalwood, cloves and cardamom are among the most popular perfumes and spices grown in Kerala. Indeed, the region has been a prominent spice exporter since 3000 BC, attracting ancient Babylonians, Assyrians and Egyptians. Centuries later, the 15th century’s burgeoning spice trade in Europe brought Portuguese traders to these shores. The state is still referred to as the ‘Spice Garden of India’, so the state’s spice shops are simply must visit places in Kerala. This is also one of the best places for perfume lovers. Famous international perfumiers behind the biggest brands often turn to Kerala when creating their latest scents, thanks to the state’s natural supplies of rose and jasmine oils.
A stroll through Fort Kochi’s ‘Jew Town’ area reveals small streets with shops selling spices, incense sticks and brightly coloured perfumed powder. We stopped for ages at one called IRS Natural Incense and Flower Oils. Here the friendly and attentive staff match you with the perfect natural scented oil, if you tell them the designer perfume you normally wear.
Feel welcome in a homestay
If you’re on a Kerala backpacking trip, you will be looking for affordable accommodation. In the smaller places, you may not always find hostels, but one of the best options is to stay in a homestay. This means, essentially, you are staying in one of the rooms of someone’s house and they are your host for the duration. This may or may not include meals – it’s always worth checking this. Other more unusual accommodation options include staying the night in a treehouse.
In Cochin, one of the best places to stay in Kerala is also great value. The Pod Cochin has countless rave reviews and for good reason. It’s well located close to the main tourist spots in Cochin, with clean, comfortable and cool rooms. The homestay owners are very kind and friendly and full of good advice. They even booked a private hire car for us and coordinated with two other guests so we could share it and keep costs down.
We also stayed in a lovely homestay in Thekkady, not far from Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, where the owner – despite feeling unwell – was incredibly kind and generous. Nothing is too much trouble for his guests and we enjoyed chatting with him and his lovely family.
Take in a traditional theatre show
One of the best things to do in Kerala is to take in a traditional show. We went to the Kerala Kathakali Centre in Cochin. A classical Indian dance form, Kathakali is an all-male Hindu performance art that dates back to the 17th century. We were advised to arrive early in order to see the guys applying their make-up, which was fascinating as we witnessed their theatrical transformation.
In our vibrant and colourful show, three men would play all of the characters – man, woman and demon – with elaborate make-up, masks and costumes, as they portrayed an episode from epic Hindu legend.
The next section, before the performance started, was an introduction to the hand and eye movements, music, footwork and facial gestures that would act as their language for the next hour, expressing a range of emotions. We were impressed by the eye movements in particular, which looked dizzying in their exaggerated enthusiasm. A host informed us that these actors train for around seven years in order to perform these roles.
The performance itself was entrancing and bewildering, as a green-faced prince was seduced by a screeching demon disguised as a beautiful woman, who was later outed and punished.
There are no words in the script – everything is communicated via intricate hand and eye movements, music, footwork and facial gestures. It’s a bewitching and bewildering show. Definitely a unique theatre experience and one of the most fascinating things to see in Kerala.
Discover the origins of tea
The Munnar hills are famous for their rolling tea plantations and they are one of the most beautiful places to visit in Kerala. Munnar is around 1,600 metres above sea level, in the Western Ghats mountain range. Known as the ‘Kashmir of South India’, Munnar is one of the most popular Kerala tourism destinations and honeymoon spots thanks to its spectacular views.
India is the second largest producer and exporter of tea in the world after China, producing famous teas including Assam and Darjeeling. The country is also the world’s largest consumer of tea, using nearly 30% of the global output – it’s a nation obsessed. While Kerala is one of India’s wealthiest states, its Munnar tea plantations offer an important source of employment for people from poorer parts of the country.
The Munnar plantations are good tourist places in Kerala to visit for two days. Unfortunately when we visited, the hilltop station was closed due to overcrowding, as we were visiting during an Indian holiday. Apparently from the hilltop station you can hike around the Munnar tea plantations, but we were lucky enough to have a car to drive us around these stunning landscapes. Even when at one point the clouds rolled in, the Munnar tea plantations were utterly beautiful and calming.
We learned how the different types are tea are picked from the different parts of the plant and how the trees are strategically planted to help protect and irrigate the land. We also saw the people at work plucking the tea leaves by hand and collecting them in their baskets.
Here you can learn how the different types of tea are selected from the plants and how the trees protect and irrigate the land. You can also see people at work, hand-plucking the tea leaves and collecting them in their baskets. Of course, you can also stop at a shop to buy some freshly picked Indian tea leaves and powders, for a taste of Kerala to take home.
Be wowed by a martial arts spectacle
While Thekkady is only worth a one day trip in Kerala, we enjoyed a jaw-dropping martial arts performance here. One of the most important historical places in Kerala is the town’s Mudra Cultural Centre, It is home to the Kalaripayattu which, at over two thousand years old, is thought to be one of the world’s most ancient fighting systems. It comprises lightning-speed gymnastics with the use of wooden and sharp metallic weapons.
The audience looks down on a roofed red clay pit, 3.5 feet below ground level to protect the practitioners from the elements as they perform. In the south-western corner of the hall is a ‘puttara’ or seven-tiered platform where candles are lit in honour of a guardian deity, who is worshipped before each training session or show.
A talented group of young men perform impressive gymnastics. Brandishing weapons in mock fights, they punctuate the moves with clangs and bangs. It is a spectacular performance and certainly the most exciting of Kerala’s sightseeing places. The audience was constantly in dumbstruck awe as these young men demonstrated tightly choreographed battles and even jumped through hoops of fire.
Relax on Varkala beach
Next up on our list of Kerala tourist places list is Varkala, a laid back, cliff-side beach resort in Kerala, around four hours south of Cochin by car or public transport. We intended to stay here for three days, but it’s so charming we ended up staying longer. It’s a perfect stop if you’re on a Kerala backpacking trip.
Not only does Varkala have one of the best beaches in Kerala, it has a varied collection of bohemian bars and restaurants, and the views across the sea are wonderful. The pace of life is slow and there are plenty of market stalls and boutiques to tempt you away from your money. It’s not too over-developed, making it one of the best holiday destinations in Kerala for a winter beach break.
It’s also lovely for an evening wander along the clifftops or the beach, where you can stumble across things like this beautiful mermaid sculpture. It’s also fascinating to watch the local fishermen bring in their seafood catch of the day.
There’s plenty of things to do in Varkala, from yoga classes, to cooking classes, Ayurvedic massages or going for a walk to see the neighbouring black sand beach. Or just sit in a cafe and people-watch as you let the day unfold without a care in the world. Simply, it’s the coolest place in Kerala.
Be blessed at a temple
The region’s temples can be one of the most memorable places to see in Kerala. There are a number of colourful and intricate temples around the beach resort of Varkala, where religious rituals take place every day. Visitors must respect the rules, which include covering your knees and shoulders, and removing your shoes.
The temple I enjoyed visiting the most is not the most ornate, but it is where we received our first blessing. Sivagiri is a hilltop pilgrimage centre, a short motorbike ride from the beach resort. It is one of the most important places in Kerala, as it houses the tomb of the famed social reformer Narayana Guru. He believed in social inclusion and his concept was ‘One Caste, One Religion, One God’. I found the experience very moving, as the Guru had clearly inspired a great many people, thousands of whom come to pay their respects every year.
Take a train ride
It’s not always easy to get around Kerala. While there are local buses, hiring a private car is much faster and less hassle, if you have the budget. However, it’s worth taking a train just for the experience. There are different classes on Indian trains. In third class, passengers seem to be more or less squashed in. We took first class, which is still very cheap compared with Europe, at around £15-£20 ($20-25) for a four hour journey from Varkala to Kochi.
There is an official Indian railway operator website, but for non-Indian travellers, the Cleartrip app is more straightforward. In first class, you are seated in four-bunk sleeper cabins, separated from the main corridor by a curtain. The seats convert to beds, with sheets and pillows provided. We got chatting with our lovely fellow passengers in the comfort of our air-conditioned cabin. The best part about the journey is that every few minutes someone will walk along the length of the train selling food and drink, so you won’t go hungry if you forgot to bring snacks.
Feel welcome on your Kerala backpacking trip
You never know what to expect in India, including who you will make friends with – and that’s part of the magic. The local people in our experience were all friendly, helpful, polite and kind – when we had the opportunity we spent time chatting and learning about their daily lives. On our Kerala backpacking tour we met homestay owners, local kids, drivers, fellow European travellers and local bar managers.
After a sudden and unexpected government ban on large-denomination rupee bills, in the queue for the last remaining ATM in the town that was still dispensing cash, we met almost everyone we’d met during our journey.
One of my most heart-warming memories of our stay in Varkala is when I was spontaneously invited to a wedding. I was standing next to a house, which was decorated with extravagant lights. A man inside spotted me and beckoned me over. With a warm smile, he explained that his brother was getting married and asked me if we’d like to invited me in to dine with them. It was a very special moment and encapsulated the openness and generosity of the people in Kerala. You can be sure you will receive a warm welcome while you are backpacking in Kerala and you’ll have an unforgettable trip.
Next up, check out more of India with my comprehensive guide to solo female travel in Goa.