The humidity hit us as soon as we walked out of the airport. The state of Kerala, in India’s far south, is basically the swamp. I had the strangest sensation of feeling fleetingly at home, because the humidity here slaps you in the face the same way it does in South Florida. It felt like every time I flew home for the holidays in college - muggy and hot even at 10pm, making it hard to move or breathe or even exist.
The craziest part is that this is winter weather - it’s cold to the locals. I’m not exaggerating, we heard complaints about the cold every day. Meanwhile, we were drenched in sweat at all hours, my hair was so frizzy it put Book Hermione to shame, and the hot sun beat down on us mercilessly whenever we stepped outside. At least in Florida I could dress for the weather. Here, I was rocking kurtis (long Indian shirts) and loose pants in an effort to be respectful, and I relished the compliments I got from local ladies but it didn’t make it any easier to be draped in long layers of fabric when it was 90 degrees and 80 percent humidity.
I digress. Let me take a step back and explain how we got here, because if you’ve been following along you’ll have noticed that Kerala was not part of our original India itinerary. I’d read so much about the south, but with only 6 weeks in India we were originally convinced that we wouldn’t be able to fit it in. But we’re learning that things have a way of working out.
We’d originally planned to fly to Bangalore or Chennai and work our way north from there, but when searching for flights from Varanasi we found that tickets to Kochi were cheaper than either of those cities. We flew Air India, which was nice because they don’t charge you for baggage like the rest of the Indian discount carriers. We paid less than $100 each and got a meal on each of the two legs of our flight! We wish American carriers would take note.
So we flew into Kochi and booked a guesthouse in Fort Kochi (aka Fort Cochin, everything in India has two names, one Anglicized from the British and one Indian. Most places have been slowly changing their official names back to the Indian names in recent years, but they are totally interchangeable in everyday conversation). Fort Kochi is the ‘touristy’ part of Kochi, located on a small island about an hour from the airport. You have to cross a couple bridges to get there but, again, Uber is prevalent here so getting around is easy, and most guesthouses (including ours) offer airport pickup if you ask.
Kerala is a drastic change from the north of India. Not only is it less overtly touristy, with fewer touts and overall less hassle. People seem genuinely friendlier and curious to meet us, and we didn’t feel like walking dollar signs the way we sometimes felt in the north. The religious influences are different - there is a large Christian population and tons of churches, an influence from colonial times. The food is different - people eat seafood and even meat here (uncommon in the North where the cuisine is mostly vegetarian), and coconuts, tamarind, cashews and fruits are common ingredients.
Also, the landscape is WILDLY different from up north. I honestly felt like we took a wrong turn and ended up in Sri Lanka because we were literally in the jungle. At our guesthouse in Fort Kochi, we were surrounded by lush vegetation. Tropical birds made a ruckus in the morning and could hear monkeys jumping on the roof. There are beautiful beaches on the coast, and palm trees everywhere. It’s a far cry from the dusty, dry climate of Northern India. Both are beautiful in their own right, but it’s just incredible how diverse this country’s landscapes are.
We spent two nights in Fort Kochi, and it’s a really lovely little town to spend some time in. It’s easy to walk most everywhere, and we spent our days doing just that. There isn’t really any one specific sight to see in town, but there are lots of little churches, a couple palaces, and some really beautiful scenery especially along the coast. Probably the most photogenic thing in all of Fort Kochi is the Chinese fishing nets, which have been in use for hundreds of years and are still a popular method of catching fish all over the state.
We stayed in Honolulu Home Homestay (yes, the name is a little redundant) and really liked it, it was in a good location and the included Western breakfast was delicious. Our only regret about our time in Kochi was that we didn’t spend any time on the mainland (technically the town is called Ernakulam). It seemed very lively and modern as opposed to Fort Kochi which is more quaint, and there were some cool malls, skyscrapers (!) and restaurants that we didn’t have a chance to check out.
Probably the most famous thing about Kerala is the backwaters. The state runs along the coast of the Arabian Sea and the whole area is made up of scenic little lakes, canals, lagoons and islands, complete with palm trees and all manner of plant and animal life. It's incredibly beautiful out here. If you come this far south, you must explore the backwaters, preferably by houseboat. Alleppey, about 90 minutes south of Kochi, is the main hub for backwater cruises (both daytrips and longer overnight rentals), but basically anywhere you stay along the coast will be able to organize a boat.
We found a guesthouse called Breeze Backwater Homes that was actually located in between Kochi and Alleppey, which ended up working out in our favor because it was a lot more reasonably priced than places further south. There is a bus that runs between Fort Kochi and Alleppey, but we actually ended up taking an Uber directly to the guesthouse that only cost us around 600 rupees for the hourlong ride.
We spent two nights in a serene little bungalow right on the water. It was basically in the middle of nowhere with a beautiful, peaceful view of the backwaters and lots of lush green vegetation. There were hammocks to relax in during the day, and our bungalow was ridiculously cute and charming. The nearest village was two kilometers away, so we were effectively isolated for the duration of our stay, which was actually exactly what we wanted. It was so, so relaxing!
We ate all our meals at the guesthouse and the food was seriously incredible - we tried all kinds of local specialties from coconut-based dishes to prawn curry and fresh-caught grilled fish. For breakfast we’d have puttu (steamed coconut-rice cakes) and sponge dosas, which are thick and chewy, more like pancakes than the crispy paper dosas you might be familiar with. And the seafood - my God, the seafood! We ate whatever was the freshest catch of the day, and one day we actually got to meet the crab we ate for dinner! He didn’t seem too thrilled with the arrangement, but he was so delicious I didn’t feel guilty (sorry to any crabs that are reading this).
Part of the reason we wanted to do the whole backwater retreat thing was because we wanted to celebrate my birthday. It was definitely the chillest birthday I’ve ever had - we celebrated with a cold Kingfisher beer and the aforementioned masala crab, which was easily one of the messiest things I’ve ever eaten - our host/cook said it’s not often on restaurant menus and I think the mess factor is probably why, but I’m so glad we got to try it. I’m not a seafood person (except for sushi, obviously, because sushi rules) but was glad to make an exception because it was just so, so tasty.
After two nights at the guesthouse, we arranged for an overnight boat cruise. One of the reasons we stayed at Breeze is because they have a punting boat, which is a non-motorized houseboat. That means no motor pollution (good for the environment) and no sound pollution (good for my nerves). In Alleppey I think you can expect to pay upwards of Rs 6000 for one night in a houseboat, more for fancier boats or AC or if you come around Christmas/New Year’s.
Most cruises are 24 hours which we feel is enough time, but you can do additional nights if you wish. The rates should always include the crew (two guys) and a chef, who will prepare 3 meals. Usually you launch midmorning and eat lunch and dinner on the boat, then eat breakfast the next day before disembarking. They should be able to find alcohol for you if you ask when booking, but that would of course cost extra. You should confirm what exactly is included in the rate before leaving, we haven’t heard any horror stories but it’s just good practice.
I’m not sure if we got lucky or just got a good price because we’d been staying at the guesthouse for a couple days, but we paid Rs 4500 for an overnight trip which is an amazing price, and our houseboat had AC and hot water. The whole experience was just incredible. In the morning we cruised through some canals and passed by villages full of adorable children and old ladies who’d wave to us as we passed. Since we weren't in Alleppey proper, there was no traffic on the backwaters - it was pretty much just us, but I've heard it can get crowded with tourist boats farther south.
Around noon we docked near an overgrown empty lot, and our skipper directed us to follow him. After weaving past some run-down houses and around a large trash pile, we were a little confused but kept following him (I mean, I really didn't THINK we were gonna be murdered although anything can happen). Eventually we wound up on this beautiful, vast stretch of beach that was completely empty except for us and a few fishermen coming in on their boats. The ocean was warm and we strolled down the beach for an hour or so, just basking in the beauty around us. It was so romantic and special and is one of our favorite memories of India.
After that, we docked in the middle of the water and ate lunch, then just relaxed for a few hours. We returned to the guesthouse to dock for the night, and we slept on the houseboat as a storm rolled through. We sat in the dark in our little stateroom and watched the sky light up. It was absolutely mesmerizing and not at all scary since we were right next to the guesthouse in case of emergency. In the morning, we switched to a smaller canoe and took a short trip through some shallow canals, observing life around us.
Kerala was really, really good to us, and our only regret is not staying longer. After the hustle and bustle of Northern India, we really needed a chance to relax and soothe our nerves, and between Fort Kochi and our homestay in the backwaters, we emerged feeling a lot more calm, and got a chance to experience a side of India that was completely different from everything we’d seen in our first few weeks in the country. The south feels like a completely different world, and in many ways we found it more rewarding and less difficult than the north. If you’re planning a trip to India, we definitely suggest venturing south to Kerala and experiencing this warm (both literally and figuratively) and welcoming state.