God’s Own Country
Kerala is India’s most South-western state sitting at the bottom-most tip of the giant sub-continent. It stretches out along the Arabian sea bordering Karnataka to its North and with Sri Lanka situated across the Laccadive Sea to the south-east.
Lush Kerala is a nature lovers delight and is amongst India’s greenest states being covered from top to bottom in endless forest and jungle. This is partially on account of fertilization from the watery network of tributaries running across it – indeed, the peaceful “Backwaters of Kerala” are one of the states most prized tourist attractions.
Kerala’s paradise-esque greenery and natural wonder are a few of the reasons why Kerala is often referred to as “God’s own country” which, strangely enough, is an accolade often also bestowed upon my home county of Yorkshire in the UK…
“Sleepy Kerala” as it is often called, is also amongst one of India’s most tranquil and peaceful regions. Kerala is slow & laid back (or Shanti as they say in India) making it a far cry from the bustling Goa to the north and a world apart from the 24/7 bustle found in up in Mumbai.
It is for these reasons that Kerala has found favor as a popular go-to destination for first-time visitors to India, for older visitors to India and especially for solo female travelers to India. Basically, it has all of the charm, mystery, and magic which visitors look for in India but is a lot more chilled out than many other parts of the country.
Human By Nature
One of the most special aspects of Kerala is the sheer warmth and kindness of its people. Whilst Indian’s are by nature a happy and helpful lot, Keralites especially seem to make an impression on visitors with their warm, soft smiles and their humility. Fittingly, some of my best Indian friends are either Keralite or of Keralite descent (Addi, if you are reading this, big up!).
Whilst you will naturally come across the Keralite during your trip, there are some sure-fire ways to get down with the locals in Kerala and help you build your own local connection. Let’s take a look…
Book a Homestay
There is all manner of accommodation available across all of India to suit all budgets and all tastes. There are hostels where you can meet backpackers, swish hotels where you can experience sublime comfort and budget guesthouses where you get a room of your own and maybe a fan.
Another option though is to book a homestay and live with a local family. Traditional Indian homes were built rather large to accommodate numerous children as well as the extended relative’s all living together under one roof. However, these days family sizes are gradually reducing and many Indian homes now have a few spare rooms which they rent out to guests.
Booking a homestay is kind of like booking a guesthouse in that you still get your own bedroom but you are living with a real family going about their lives. You get to play with the kids, jive with the grandparents and the Mother may even invite you to come to eat and try some delicious home-cooked Kerala food!
Note that a lot of Homestays still don’t advertise on booking sites. In India, it is always worth trying to find accommodation the old fashioned way; by wandering around and checking the places out for yourself.
Catch the Train
Yep, one of the absolute best ways to meet the locals in India is simply by getting on a train. I once took a 16-hour train ride from Kochi up to Goa and after 16 hours of sharing sweet chai and showing photographs of my hometown I had a new Keralite family!
Train travel is one of the best options for getting around Kerala as the network is pretty extensive. There are also regular trains from Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram headed to either Karnakata or Tamil Nadu.
Hit The Local Festivals
India’s religious & cultural festivals are absolutely legendary. Whilst Holi and Diwali are probably the best-known ones, they by no means the most fascinating.
Rather, one of the most unique and stirring festivals in all of India has to be Kerala’s Theyyam Festival, or “living Gods festival”. Basically, for several months each year, ordinary citizens of Kerala become God’s entering into trance states and granting blessings upon devotees each night during the Theyyam season.
To the outsider, it may just look like somebody dressed in an elaborate costume dancing frantically to music but to Keralites, the transformation is absolutely literal and even the rich and powerful of the state will tremble before the Gods! If you do come to see this spectacle for yourself, you will surely understand why they feel this way; the Theyyam is a powerful, unforgettable experience.
The festival occurs in numerous villages across North Kerala between the months of October to May. Once the festival is over, the Gods return to their ordinary lives.
Best Things To Do in Kerala
So what of Kerala aside from the human touch? What is there to actually do other than rub shoulders with the wonderful locals? What are the best experiences and the best things to see and do in Kerala?
Well, let’s take a look…
Visit The Old Towns
Kerala’s old towns and colonial quarters are lovely. Much of the architecture reflects the Portuguese colonial influence and the old colorful houses and white Catholic churches look like they belong in South America more than in India. It certainly reminded me of being back in Colombia and I had to keep on reminding myself that I was definitely in Asia.
The most prominent example is the old town in Kochi/Cochin known as Fort Kochi. You can stay in a traditional family home, tour the old colonial buildings and then stroll along the seafront to watch the local fishermen.
Try the Cuisine
Kerala cuisine is pretty unique in India as it is notably less spicy that the food found in the rest of the country. In terms of spiciness, many of the typical local dishes are in the milder “Korma” range. However, don’t think that less spice means less taste because it does not; Kerala food is delicious as well as being healthy and hearty using a wide array of vegetables.
Of course, being next to the sea and riddled with waterways, Kerala fresh fish is also plentiful. Either ask for the catch of the day or the fish curry. You will not be disappointed.
Kerala is also a great place to learn to cook Indian food. My friend once did a 5-day cookery course in Kerala and has been wowing us all at his dinner parties ever since.
Yoga is ubiquitous in India and each year the country churns out countless scores of newly qualified Yoga teachers. Yes you can do Yoga pretty much anywhere in India but Kerala continues to be a very popular destination for it.
This is partially because the state is so chilled out that getting into the Yoga routine comes naturally. There are also some top-notch Yoga centers in the state. Finally, because of Kerala’s reputation as being especially welcoming for solo travellers t India, many solo travelers come here to do their Yoga courses.
The hippy/backpacker hub of Varkala is a great spot for Yoga centers. It’s also a fun place to meet with other backpackers.
As with Yoga, no visit to India is complete without at least a little bit of mediation. Even if you don’t consider yourself to be a “spiritual” person, mediation has been scientifically proven to reduce stress & anxiety, improve sleep and enhance concentration. There are loads of different mediation styles and techniques available and you can try pretty much all of them in Kerala.
Personally, I did a 10-day silent, Vipassana meditation in Kerala in the city of Chengannur. It was hard work but it was also incredibly rewarding. You find out more about Vipassana from Dhamma.org.
Head For The Hills
India’s Hill Stations are little towns built up into the hills by the colonial rulers who used to retreat to them during the Indian summer when the heat of the lowlands became too much.
The Hill stations are great places to get some mountain air, do some trekking and enjoy epic views. Munnar is the most popular with visitors but if you wish to escape the crowds head to Chinnakanal which is 20km south and a bit quieter.
Be sure to take a visit to the tea plantations where you can watch hard-working Keralites picking leaves in the traditional way.
As I said earlier, Kerala is crisscrossed by a network of rivers and tributaries known as the “backwaters”. The backwaters are one part local transport network (seriously, kids paddle a boat to school!) as well as being a source of sustenance providing fresh fish.
You can take a tour of the back-waters and ride in a traditional wooden boat. Tours can last a few hours, all day long or you can even live on a traveling houseboat for a few days and spend your evenings watching the moonlight bounce across the waters.
Alleppey is a very popular city in which to take a back-water tour although they can also be arranged from one of the many tour operators based in Kochi.
This post was sponsored by Kerala Tourism.
Freeborn Aiden. Senior Editor and long serving member of team Broke Backpacker. Can’t resist a colourful shirt. Psytrance addict and cat fancier. Aiden recently realised that his entire reality is an elaborate ploy.