If you are keen to visit India but feel unsure of what to expect, you may want to follow the advice of our Indian friends.
Their recommendation was to book a stay in Kerala, southern India or visit Sri Lanka.
And meeting some travellers in Kerala, we were pleased we took their advice. Travelling in northern India is the total opposite of Kerala.
This is why on our return trip to Europe, we spent a week in Sri Lanka and planned a 7-day itinerary of Kerala.
Kerala is a mixture of rivers, lakes, waterfalls and lush mountain scenery.
It has a network of backwaters where freshwater from the rivers and lakes meets saltwater from the Arabian Sea.
There are five lakes linked by canals and rivers in the 900 km of waterways, an important trading area in its early years.
The capital of Kerala is Thiruvananthapuram, where the IT industry is expanding along with the tea, coffee and spice plantations.
The language spoken is Malayalam, but English is taught in schools where education is highly regarded.
How we found a Guide to explore Kerala
Since leaving New Zealand, our Instagram following @Travelkiwis grew to over 10,000 wonderful followers within one year.
It was here we found MTG Travels to help us visit the highlights of this beautiful province of Kerela.
They organized Spiceland Tours to provide a car with a driver to explore Kerala.
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Organize a Visa before you Get to India
India, unlike Sri Lanka, requires a visa to be organized 72 business hours before your arrival.
The most convenient way to get a visa is to use the iVisa service.
iVisa organising the application online will save you money than leaving it too late as we did.
We thought India, like Sri Lanka, would have a facility at the airport. So we had to pay over and above the normal rate.
On arrival at Cochin airport, your hand luggage will be scanned before entry to the airport terminal.
You will be ushered to the EVisa office for processing. So ensure you have organized your Indian visa prior to arrival with iVisa.
Once you are cleared, you can collect your larger bags from the carousel.
If you need to exchange any money, there is a money exchange office within the terminal building.
ATMs are located outside the terminal building but have a limit of withdrawal of 10,000 Rupees (USD150).
How many days to Spend in Kerala
It depends on how much time you have and if you have particular places of interest in Kerala to explore.
Spending seven days in Kerala will cover the major points of interest of Kerala plus some lesser-known local places. This way, you get to see the destinations of Kerala :
- Cochin (Kochi)
- Kundala and Mattupetty
- Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram)
But if you only have 3 – 4 days in Kerala, then spend your time seeing Cochin, Munnar, Kovalam, and Thiruvananthapuram.
Thekkady is also popular for natural spice gardens and the Periyar National Park, depending on the season to see wildlife.
You also need to factor in more time for driving on roads not built for speed.
What you’ll see is oncoming cars and trucks on a two-lane highway travelling 3-4-5 vehicles across the road.
Where to Stay in Kerala
COCHIN – great staff, clean and spacious rooms with a fabulous dining experience of local dishes for dinner and breakfast.
Location: Pandit Karuppan Rd, Behind Folklore Museum
MUNNAR – Lumino Wyte Mist – small cottages, basic shower, with a rustic on-site restaurant.
Location: NH49/Anaviratti po, Kochi – Madurai – Dhanushkodi Rd, Munnar
THEKKADY – Holiday Vista Hotel
Location: 1/594, Kottayam-Kumily Rd, Thekkady
KOVALAM – Travancore Heritage Hotel
Location: Poovar – Vizhinjam Rd, Adimalathura, Chowara
Destinations of Kerala for a 7-Day Itinerary
From waterways to the green mountains, Kerala has a vast array of places to visit.
Over seven days, you can pick the best places to experience the wonders of Kerala.
1. See the Best of Cochin (Kochi)
We arrived from Sri Lanka at Cochin airport, where our driver George was waiting for us.
We spent the morning along the fishing waterfront, checking into the hotel and the afternoon at Fort Cochin. The highlights of the Cochin were:
Chinese Fishing Nets of Kochi
Along the Vypin Promenade on the Periyar River, a type of fishing was introduced by Chinese traders from the court of Kublai Khan around 1400AD.
The nets look like spiderlike devices which are lowered using a winch with huge stone rocks as counterweights.
St Francis Church of Kochi
Originally built in 1503, it is the oldest European church in India and the burial place of the famous Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama died in Cochin in 1524.
But after 14 years, his remains were removed to Lisbon, and a place of remembrance is set aside in the church.
Dutch Palace of Kochi
Built by the Portuguese in 1557, it was renovated by the Dutch in 1663. It has some of the best murals in India.
A section of the palace is now a Hindu Temple which includes an upstairs museum.
This area has a mixture of old shop buildings selling silks, jewellery, clothing, and knick-knacks. One item we did love was the powdered watercolour paints used for festivals.
Fort Cochin has a Sunday market selling all sorts of things, including food stalls with products like yummy Tapioca chips.
Jewish Synagogue of Kochi
On the street of Mattancherry is the oldest synagogue in the Commonwealth.
Kerala Folklore Museum
2. How to Spend two days in Munnar
Munnar is up in the highlands of Kerela at 1,800m above sea level, with Anamudi at 2,695m, the highest peak of southern India.
The hillsides are beautiful and green, with fertile grounds for the growing of spices.
The drive from Cochin to Munnar is a 4-hour, 120km drive on steep and winding roads with some spectacular views across valleys.
The road has many bends, where cars overtake on corners which seems to be the method of driving here.
Cheeyappara and Valara Waterfalls
In April, the rainfall is less, so the waterfalls on the way to Munnar were not overflowing with water.
Munnar Spices and Ayurvedic Garden
A stop at Munnar Spices And Ayurvedic Garden, one of the many spice shops in Munnar where the climate and soil are ideal for growing spices.
We could purchase some items we learned about in Sri Lanka, but at cheaper prices.
We bought some clove oil for the whitening of your teeth and wild garlic oil to clear your sinuses. But on one sniff, it was so powerful it cleared your sinus but blows your mind as well.
The cashew nut tree we found at the front of the shop amazed us as it produces only one nut per fruit. No wonder cashews are so expensive.
But we also learned the nut is inside a hard case containing a liquid that can cause nasty burns, so it needs to be handled very carefully.
Munnar Tea Plantations
A visit to the Tea Museum and Gardens is a chance to learn more about the tea process, but a drive-in and around Munnar has amazing patchwork fields of tea plantations.
We learned tea plantation workers receive free medical, accommodation, and schooling for their children. Allowing families to form communities on the plantations.
And for the tea plantations to grow, dams were built.
Lakes and Dams of Kundala, Mattupetty and Echo Point
In the hills of Munnar are the lakes and dams of Kundala, Mattupetty and Echo Point. Dams were built by the British to provide much need water for irrigation.
However, now the lakes and dams are visited by locals for photos and for TV ad campaigns.
But what we also discovered was the famous Neela Kurunji flowers which bloom once in twelve years. Only in the hills and valleys around Kundala Lake.
Climb to Pothenmedu View Point
The road up to Pothenmedu Viewpoint takes you past the most amazing patchwork of tea plantations.
The small entry fee of USD.30c to access the viewing platform has views across the next province Tamal-Nadu. The highest tea plantation in the world.
A walk down from the viewpoint to the historical site Top Station is also accessible for a fee of USD.50c.
It was here tea was transported by ropeway to the uppermost railway station on the Kundala Valley railway line built in 1902.
We met a group of young ladies on a school field trip, learning more about their history. We loved their beautiful, colourful saris.
Vegan Lunch and Mayura Ayurvedic Clinic in Munnar
Munnar town has a busy local market, small supermarkets, and electrical shops.
And it has one of the best vegan restaurants – Purohit Restaurant.
When we asked for lunch suggestions, our driver advised us to eat vegetarian meals for their freshness. We used this advice throughout our travels in Kerela. He chose:
Purohit Restaurant – Tea County Rd, Ikka Nagar, Munnar
The dishes chosen for us were flavoursome, but it was the lime and water drink that had us confused. We were asked if we wanted our drink “sweet, salty or both.” We went with one of each.
This drink is to cleanse the body, and the salt option was different. If you didn’t let the straw sink to the bottom of the glass, you could sip the drink to avoid the salt.
Mayura Ayurvedic Clinic was an afternoon 90-110 minutes healing massage for USD38. The building has two levels; one level for men and one level for females. The clinic was clean, and the staff was professional.
3. Cruise the Periyar National Park in Thekkady
Thekkady (also known as Periyar) is the location of the Periyar National Park, which offers a boat cruise through the national park.
It is a three-hour, 90km road trip from Munnar to Thekkady on narrow roads, winding through hills as the driver tries to avoid the oncoming crazy drivers. At least the bus drivers are more courteous with their driving.
We passed by local temples, and catholic churches dotted along the roads, often next door to each other.
A refreshment of local tea, served with lots of milk, from an extensive menu was so interesting. We chose the Cardamom and Masala tea to try first, but then we couldn’t resist trying the Chocolate tea.
Each tea was very different but full of flavour.
Take a boat cruise in Periyar National Park
The Periyar National Park is a wildlife sanctuary for elephants, langur monkeys, tigers, deer, wild boars, and birds.
On arrival at Thekkady, our driver drove directly to the Periyar National Park administration to pay:
- park entrance fee
- camera permit fee
- return bus ticket to the sanctuary entrance 4km each way
The cost of an individual ticket for this was INR500 (USD7).
Our driver then accompanied us on the bus to the sanctuary entrance to purchase the boat cruise at USD7 each. It was good to have his local knowledge and speed to get us to the front of the queue.
While we waited to board our boat, we were harassed by the local monkeys. They were looking for items sticking out of people’s bags, but when they saw the park ranger, the monkeys scarpered.
Our boat set off at 1.45 pm with everyone on board decked out in their life jackets.
But in March, when the water level is low, the sun is hot, and the time of the cruise is in the middle of the day, there isn’t much of a chance to see wildlife.
Things to Do in Thekkady
There is always shopping on the main street with owners ready to sell you all sorts of items or food. Especially banana chips fried in coconut oil.
Thekkady still offers a commercial attraction of elephant rides or being showered by an elephant. We declined as the elephants are chained solely for the entertainment of tourists.
Kalaripayattu (Kathakali Show) is an attraction worth seeing. It is one of the oldest forms of martial arts involving spears, swords, shields, and bows with the movement of dance.
Kung Fu, taught in Shaolin, China, was based on the teachings of an Indian monk.
4. Photo Memories of 7 Days in Kerala
One thing we noticed about the churches and temples in Kerela was a prominent flagpole out front. It seemed odd to us, but a flag flying indicates a festival for the church or temple.
And the style of the churches of the Dutch and Portuguese.
Lots of tea Choices in Kerala
5. Lunch on the waterways of Alleppey
Leaving Thekkady for Alleppey was a drive of 4.5 hours for a distance of 128 km. Tonight we would stay on a houseboat – or so we thought – on the waterways of Kerela.
Again the drive was slow, with a stop to see a local stock market on the side of the road. We guessed these animals aren’t fed on lush grasses like in New Zealand. And no auctioneer at this stock sale.
Another stop for tea and coconut cake at an art café, as we watched a local family pass by on the motorbike.
See the Canals of Alleppey with a Houseboat
The approach to Alleppey gave us an idea of what to expect.
We travelled alongside a canal, busy with the activity of locals loading rice bales from the harvest of the rice fields, which is a staple food source of Kerela.
Our 7-day itinerary of Kerela included a night on a houseboat with a cruise on the lakes for lunch and an afternoon ride through the canals.
So how did we find the experience?
We found the lake itself uninspiring (maybe we are spoilt with the beauty of our home in New Zealand).
However, the ride through the canals was much more interesting travelling through the canals was much more interesting.
The skipper brought us coffee and fried banana as we watched locals go about their daily lives while we interacted with other boats as we passed by.
But the disappointment would be the evening when the boathouse was moored along a tacky wharf with no view.
Our suggestion: Hire a smaller boat and spend a couple of hours in and around the waterways.
6. Stay Two Days at Kovalam Beach
Kovalam is a four-hour drive (160km) from Alleppey along a two-lane highway where once again, 3-4-5 vehicles would drive the road.
For our final two nights in Kerela, we had a beach villa with a pool and a gate to the beach for walks. The rock area was our favourite spot for photos of waves pounding against the rocks.
And when you walk the beach, you discover fishing is a major source of food and income for locals. Each night the lights out to sea are fishing boats. In the morning, it’s dividing up the small amount of fish caught.
But for a better beach experience, spend time at Kovalam Beach.
Lighthouse at Kovalam Beach sits high on a rocky promontory in a bay of calm water and white sandy beach. The water looks so inviting at this swimming beach.
7. Take a day trip to Trivandrum
Trivandrum (now known as Thiruvananthapuram) is the capital and largest city of Kerela.
Today it is the IT hub of India, a contrast to 1000 BC when spices, sandalwood, and ivory were traded.
Mahatma Gandhi referred to Trivandrum as the “evergreen city of India.”
Our morning visit was to two historical sites:
- Padmanabhaswamy Temple
- Old Royal Palace
Padmanabhaswamy Temple is the richest Hindu temple in the world.
We thought it was a beautiful golden appearance, but beneath the temple, the vaults hold 22 billion gold and jewels.
The temple is only accessible by Hindus, who must wear white and the men a sarong.
Old Royal Palace is on the other side of the temple, accessible for a fee of about USD7. Shoes off, when you enter, a guide is waiting for you who explains in English the history and artefacts of the building for a small gratuity.
The most amazing thing we saw was the Ivory Throne and Bohemian Crystal Throne. There are so many gifts from other countries on display in the 20 rooms of the museum. No photos were allowed inside.
Wrapping up 7 Days in Kerela, a stopover to Europe
Our short visit to the Kerela has given us a small taste of India for its culture, food, and people.
Having a local driver’s knowledge gave us added value through an explanation of the places to see, restaurant suggestions and learning more about the cultural aspects of the Indian people.
You have the option of international flights into Cochin and leaving from Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram) with Ethiad.
So, if you are looking for an alternative stopover, or to experience a softer side of India, choose Kerela.