Our last stop in India before heading to Sri Lanka was going to be the Keralan Backwaters. The backwaters are a network of canals, rivers and lakes mainly natural but also man-made. Covering an area around 900km long, the backwaters have been and still are one of the main transportation methods for the people in the area. Nowadays it is also one of the main attractions for tourists visiting Kerala.
There are many routes through the backwaters and many possible destinations, but we didn’t have much time left, so we had to limit our route to just a couple of areas. While many tourists choose to travel by houseboats, which are expensive and a little bit too posh, we choose to travel by local ferries, which gives you the opportunity to get a little bit closer to the locals. This was our route:
Varkala – Kollam
The starting point for our route around the backwaters was Kollam, which is just 1h away by train from Varkala. We arrived to Kollam after lunch, and the ferry to Alappuzha was leaving the morning after, so we had to stay there for one night. This little town has nothing special, but for some bizarre reason it was very busy and it almost became a challenge to find accommodation. After two hours of walking with our backpacks and asking in many hotels and guest houses, we even run into a place which was for bachelors only (…ummmm….), we finally got to find a room for the night.
Kollam – Alappuzha
The ferry to Alappuzha was departing from the boat-jetty at 10.30. The night before when we bought the tickets we were advised to arrive early if we wanted to get a good spot, and so we did. But even arriving 1h before departure time all the seats in the upper deck were taken, so we had no choice but to seat in the lower deck (during the trip we got to realize that the lower deck was far more comfortable, so happy days!).
The 8h trip to Alappuzha was long but well worth it. The scenery was incredible, beautiful lakes, labyrinths of canals, countless coconut trees, leafy plants and bushes growing alongside all with amazing green hues. We could also see how life grows around the banks of the canals, fishermen on their boats or using the Chinese nets, people bathing or washing their clothes in the water, kids going to school and even WCs on the water.
During the trip we chit-chatted with one of the crew members, a very friendly man from Alappuzha. He used to work as a computer developer in Mumbai a few years ago, but he was so stressed and unhappy with his live that he quit his job and started working as a boatman. Now he seems the happiest man working in such relaxed environment and spending his time talking to people instead of talking to computers. One would think that in a country like India no one would quit such a job, but we were delighted to hear that the pursue of happiness is still far more important than a good job and a few more rupees.
Tired of the trip, we didn’t do too much in our first night in Alappuzha apart from dinner.
Alappuzha – Nedumudy – Alappuzha
Eagers to see a bit more of the day to day life in the backwaters, we took a local ferry to a small village called Nedumudy (just 2-3 h away from Alappuzha). The boat is to them what the bus is to us, children use it to go to school, women to go grocery shopping, elders to go to church… The scenery in this area was even more stunning. Freshwater from the river meets the seawater from the Arabian sea what makes the backwaters have an incredible ecosystem.
Apart from a few food stalls and shops we didn’t find much signs of a village beside Nedumudy’s boat-jetty, but still we went to explore the area. We walked by the canals, in between the houses and rice fields, we run into a retired boatman who almost invited us for lunch, I unsuccessfully tried to open a coconut that felt down from the tree. The locals were quite surprised to see two tourist walking around, and one of them a little bit too curious felt to the water while staring at us!!
Back in Alappuzha we took a long walk to the beach to see the sunset. To our surprise, the beach was lovely, in my opinion nicer than Varkala beach, a little bit on the wild side but full of locals who were there playing with the waves and like us enjoying the sunset.
Alappuzha – Kottayam
We had read that the area between Alappuzha and Kottayam was renowned for its natural beauty so we didn’t want to miss it. So after checking out from our home stay in Alappuzha we took the ferry to Kottayam. The boat trip was around three hours and while the surroundings were very beautiful we thought the routes of the previous days were far more enchanting.
Friends of my dad were staying nearby and even though we didn’t know them we decided to pay them a visit. Estrella and Juan Mari, second timers in India, had been traveling for a month around the south visiting the missions and spending new years with their Indian family, before heading to Tellakum for a 3 week Ayurvedic treatment. We had a lovely evening sharing stories about India and the people we had met along the way. We wish them the best of luck and we hope to catch up when we get back home.
Back at the very Indian hotel we were staying in Kottayam, as it was the night of the 5th of January, we got ready for the visit of the three wise men (three kings). As it’s tradition we left them some food and drinks to make sure they could continue their trip after leaving us our presents :).
Kottayam – Kochi
We woke up all excited to find out that the three kings had stopped by and left us a couple of gifts. We must have been very good this past year! :)
We took what was going to be our last train in India to go from Kottayam to Kochi. Kochi is one of the biggest towns in Kerala and its Fort still keeps some character from its Portuguese, Dutch and British past with all the churches and houses. That explains why it is so popular and touristy, but unfortunately as years go by and because of the impact of tourism, the city is little by little loosing this colonial charm.
The main attraction in Fort Kochi is the Chinese finishing nets, but we didn’t see them in action because, as we later came to know from a local fisherman, it was not the right season (which is after the monsoon). The Jewish neighborhood was the other thing not to miss while in Fort Kochi, but aside a synagogue little remains from the Jewish community that used to live here. Most of them emigrated to Israel in the 40s and just about 60 Jews remain in Kerala.
Apart from blogging, researching about Sri Lanka, drinking ice coffee and tasting the local gastronomy we did little else during our last two days in India.
The backwaters have for sure the most beautiful scenery we have seen in India. The vibrant and colorful wild life, the intricate water-ways and the unusual and relaxed style of living make this area unique and so worth visiting.
Kollam, Hotel Prashanthi – Modern and posh but no personality. Far from the city center, more convenient for beach seekers. Huge room with fan and attached bathroom but no internet. 1150 INR per night (tax included).
Alappuzha, Antony’s home stay – 5 mins away from the boat-jetty, simple room with fan and attached bathroom. With wifi, but not included in the price. What we didn’t like, the owner trying to sell anything and everything! 600 INR per night.
Kottayam, Ambassador Hotel – A very Indian hotel in the middle of the city. Clean but old room with fan, attached bathroom and no hot water (not that you need it). A/C at an extra cost. Very helpful staff. 550 INR per night with no A/C.
Kochi, Santa Cruz Guest House – Small rooms with attached bathroom. Although with fan, the rooms are extremely warm and there are no mosquito nets so it’s not possible to open the windows at night, what makes it difficult to sleep. No internet but well located in the heart of Fort Kochi. 700 INR per night.