Where Spice is the Variety of Life
India's cities are heaven or hell for backpackers – a densely packed population can conjure an invigorating energy like no other, or a nightmare scenario if you prefer the road less travelled.
For backpackers who prefer to stay far from the madding crowd Kerala is that road, a unique glimpse at an India normally only associated with chilled-out Goa. Kerala’s further south than Goa and, like Goa, it sits on the Arabian Sea coast but at the very tip of India, close to the island of Sri Lanka. Arguably, Kerala has more in common with its island neighbour than with the busy north of India.
Kerala is the perfect destination if you're backpacking through the winter months – go between December and February if you’re planning to hit the beach. Conversely, the 'opposite' end of the year (August to October) is a frantic period in the Keralan calendar, chock full of religious festivals and snake-boat races. It’s the ideal time to visit for a taste of south Indian culture but late enough to dodge the last downpours of the monsoon season.
What to see and do
It's no surprise the region is nicknamed ‘God's Own Country’, referring to the myth of Parasurama, who threw down his axe to hold back the ocean, creating Kerala in the process.
Kerala seems to contradict the fact it’s a part of India; the pace of life is much more laid back and you're more likely to find yourself on an empty beach than in a bustling city. However, despite it’s backwater status, Kerala is one of the most highly educated states in India, so you’ll have no problem finding someone who speaks English, no matter where you are.
If you want to learn a new skill, you could book a lesson at a Kalarippayat school. This martial art dates to the 12th century and is based on pressure points on the human body – perfect if you've ever wanted to floor an opponent with a single jab Bruce Lee stylie!
If you’re planning a trip to Kerala chances are you’re already a beach lover. You’re never far from the coast and my advice is just to explore and find your own favourite beach. But if you need a starting point I’d recommend a couple of beaches outside of Trivandrum: wild Varkala and popular Kovalam.
Varkala is not somewhere to visit for a relaxing swim; here the Arabian Sea crashes against cliffs and the undercurrents arevery dangerous. Instead you should visit the Janardana Swamy Temple or get an aromatherapy massage at one of the many beach side parlours.
Palm-fringed Kovalam, in contrast, is a beachcomber’s paradise. Set in a sheltered cove, the waters here are safe for swimming, making it the perfect spot for a lazy day. There are loads of cheap bars and restaurants on both beaches so you can easily make a day of it.
The beaches and backwaters of Kerala are always popular but if you want to really get away from it all head for the Periyar National Park in Thekkady. This primeval forest is home to monkeys, elephants, leopards, and a protected community of Royal Bengal tigers. Pre-booked tours are the way to go as local ‘guides’ will just rip you off. A day’s jeep safari plus rafting will cost you around 2,500 INR (£25) including lunch.
Kerala is about as far south as you can get in India so it’s not the easiest place to get to. Many backpackers ‘in situ’ head here after spending time in Goa but even that takes nearly five hours by air and up to three times longer by road!
If you’re flying in from elsewhere you’ll have to take a connecting flight from a major Indian hub, such as Mumbai, to one of Kerala’s two international airports, Cochin or Trivandrum.
Depending how you get into Kerala you're likely to find yourself in one of three cities on arrival – Kochi (Cochin), Kozhikode (Calicut) or Thiruvanthapuram (Trivandrum), and you should aim to end your travels here too, if you don't want to find yourself stranded with no easy travel options back out.
Staying in Kerala
The Happy Camper in Fort Cochin is the definition of cheap and cheerful. It even promises ‘happy beds’ and, as they're apparently quite a bit softer than a typical Indian bed, they’ll be welcomed by the weariest of backpackers. With standard private en-suite rooms for two starting at just 500 INR (around £5) a night, it consistently offers clean facilities and thoughtful touches, including bedside plug sockets and lockers.
LoveDale is a romantically named budget hotel located in the centre of colonial tea station, Munnar. Prices are higher than other parts of Kerala because of its picturesque hilltop location, starting from around 1,800 INR (just £19), but the hotel boasts several double bedrooms as well as conventional dorms, making it the perfect choice for backpacking couples looking for a bit of downtime.
Eating in Kerala
Keralan cuisine is defined by its location; its 370-mile long coast means seafood and shellfish of every description find their way into the local food.
But Keralans also borrow from the communities who’ve settled in the region and you’ll notice nods to Portuguese, Syrian and Hindu cuisine in regional specialities. Kerala gets its name from the Malayalam word for coconut tree, ‘kera’, so expect coconut to feature heavily on most menus. I think it gives Keralan food a distinctly Thai twist, making it taste lighter and fresher than food eaten elsewhere in India.
Masala Fort in Kochi is a good option if you've just arrived in Kerala and want food that's cheap but good, and served with at least some of the home comforts. With meals (starter, main, rice and a drink) starting at around 300 INR (about £3), it's hard to argue with the value and many travellers staying in the Cochin area end up eating here time and time again.
If you're less concerned about sampling the local cuisine, Zam Zam is an excellent choice in Trivandrum. It’s not only rated the best budget restaurant in the city but it’s one of the best regardless of price too – can’t argue with that! Zam Zam specialises in northern Indian food and it’s so popular with locals and visitors you’ll probably have to wait for a table – thanks to the super fast service you’ll never have to wait long though. With meals again priced around 300 INR (£3) stop by if you want to eat and get back out again without delay – fast food Keralan style!
For a totally authentic but budget-friendly experience, eat on a traditional Keralan houseboat; you might have to muck in and help out with the cooking but, hey, it’s part of the appeal!
Alternatively, Kallu shaps, or 'Toddy shops', are to be found throughout the region, serving Kallu/Toddy, a fresh palm drink derived from the coconut tree. Many Toddy vendors also serve a Keralan speciality, Karimeen Fry; a local fish shallow-fried in coconut oil.
Shopping in Kerala
Spice is the variety of life? OK, usually people say that the other way around, but in Kerala, the ‘Spice Garden of India,’ it really does provide the variety – ranging from allspice and aniseed, through cloves, cardamom and cinnamon, to mace, nutmeg, pepper and tamarind, Kerala is India’s leading producer of spices.
Small and cheap, easily packed, why not indulge your tastebuds in some local spices? You'll have the authentic finishing touches for your own attempts at Keralan cuisine once you get home – but don’t forget to check they’re allowed through customs!
Top 5 things to do in Kerala
1. Take an elephant safari of the Munnar tea plantations and experience a ‘walk in the clouds’ as the mountain mists spontaneously descend upon you.
2. Choose a beach, any beach, and spend the day sunning yourself.
3. Make like a celebrity chef and join a Keralan family for a houseboat meal on the backwaters around the ‘Venice of the East’, Alleppey.
4. Go tiger spotting in Periyar National Park – the big cats are notoriously elusive but there’s loads of other animals to see.
5. Watch the sunset from famous Alleppey Beach. It’s one of the most photographed spots in Kerala, add yours to Instagram #sunset #beachlife #kerala of course.