I found it. I found my paradise. Lost in the south of India. A place I have never heard of before – Kerala. A huge state with incredible beaches, miles of forests, tea plantations and mazes of canals. Locals modestly call it “The God’s own country”. National Geographic included it on the list of 10 paradises of the world and 50 must see destinations of a lifetime. Let me tell you why it’s awesome.
The literary meaning of Kerala – land of coconuts. The whole area is covered with millions of coconut trees on never ending white sand beaches. Water is warm. Swimming is like taking a bath. Steady 28 degrees. It is never cold outside. I know it might sound like any of the other beach resorts. I might be describing Philippines, or Thailand. But there are a few things that make Kerala very special.
What to see
Kerala has something to offer for any kind of traveller. Deserted beaches and romantic dinners right on the beach in the light of wooden torches. Parties and bar hopping in popular beach towns. Colonial architecture and charm of the narrow cobbled streets. Slow and ambient backwaters. And of course lush tea plantations.
You won’t find distinguished monuments or temples here. Forget museums and galleries. Above all – tourism in Kerala is completely experiential. It is about beach hopping, relaxing in backwaters and embracing Ayurveda massages. Just make you won’t miss any of the cool stuff – checking our list of top-10 experiences in Kerala might help.
Where to stay
Imagine being in the center of 200 sq km expense of water. No electricity, no gadgets. Completely cut-off from the outer world. This what it feels like to stay in a houseboat. In the past these huge barges were used to transport rice, coconut and other commodities. Today they have been refurbished to accommodate a growing inflow of tourists. Many have been converted to luxurious floating palaces, with their own living room, kitchen and chef and even a Jacuzzi on top.
Houseboats in Kerala are probably the most popular – but definitely not the only unique accommodation option. If you prefer land to water – consider staying in a mansion in the middle of a tea plantation. Or a cave in the jungles of Wayanad. An Ayurvedic resort by seaside. Even better – fulfill your childhood dream and live in a tree house. Most popular options – Vythiri Tree House, but there are also quite a few budget choices available.
What to eat
South Indian food is quite distinct. Be prepared to get lost in the menu – dishes are many, and most will sound completely unfamiliar. Regardless of what you choose – the food will be extremely spicy. Spicy, juicy and coconutty.
The breakfast will usually feature a dosa (rice crepe) with a choice of fillings and chutneys; or some other variety of a rice dish (appam, idli, puttu etc). Lunch and dinner will be almost entirely dominated by curries. For a true feast try Sadya (or Sadhya), Kerala traditional buffet. Encompasses up to 24 different vegetarian dishes, consisting various popular dishes served with boiled rice. For non-vegetarian options opt for fish or prawns – proximity to the sea guarantees an excellent seafood meal.
And of course don’t forget to try all the famous snacks: lentil fritters, samosas, fried rice pancakes (neyyappam) and many, many varieties of fried bananas. Keep in mind sharing food from the same plate is considered rude (even for couples) – so you usually have to wait to be served by the waiter.
What to drink (and how to find alcohol)
Being a tropical state Kerala offers an amazing choice of freshly squeezed juices, tropical shakes and juice cocktails. Mango, orange, pineapple, pomegranate and watermelon – all can be found for a very decent price of under 1$. Another must-try – traditional masala tea (extremely sweet tea with milk) or masala coffee.
Matters are a bit more complicated with alcoholic drinks. Alcohol in Kerala is prohibited. Just last year government closed more than 400 bars – all due to the epidemic of alcohol abuse in the state. 8 litres per person per year, nations heaviest drinking state.
Don’t get just too disappointed yet. Like with many things in India – prohibition had a bit of a flexible feel to it. Fancy hotels are allowed to serve alcoholic drinks. And favourite whiskey or wine can still be bought in specialised government shops (tip: those can be easily spotted by large queues of men outside).
Is it safe?
I know many people are scared to go to India because they imagine it is crowded. And dirty. Some even fear it’s unsafe. I understand how all of these fears might be legit. But thing is – in Kerala you don’t have to worry.
The state is an outlier. Human development indices here are comparable to European countries. Literacy rate is at almost 100%, healthcare standards – highest in the country.
Of course all this does not mean you will be entirely comfortable at all times. Local people will stare at you – and many foreigners find it extremely uncomfortable. Women particularly might be prone to additional attention. And you have to be warned – swimming in bikini outside the hotel beaches will most likely attract a small crowd of men who’ll watch you and try to get a photo on their mobile phones.
Apart from that people are generally nice and welcoming. Tourists are treated well, travelling around is safe. Pay courtesy to local customs – drinking and smoking by women are considered as social taboos, so do it quietly. Same applies to clothing – whenever possible, try to be modest in the choice of outfit; you will fit better if you avoid excessively short dresses and shorts.
What about all those communists?
A word of warning: Kerala is still largely a communist state. More than that – it was actually the first place in the world to democratically elect a communist government.
Don’t be too scared just yet. Contrary to experience in other countries there is no oppression here. Despite being heavily influenced by Moscow in the early 40s-50s Communist Party in Kerala has done much to leave a positive mark on state’s development: they pushed literacy and women’s rights and opposed the caste system. Slow pace of reforms and high unemployment lead to them loosing elections in 2013 – but the influence of the party is still felt heavily across the state. You’ll see for yourself: at every corner and bus stop – waving red flags, portraits of communist leaders and huge monuments of hammer and sickle.
When to go
Kerala has an amazing climate. Being close to the equator it gets a very pleasant weather throughout the year. December to February is generally the best time to visit. March to May the weather gets hot and humid – so be prepared to sweat a lot. June to November is the time for monsoon and heavy rains. It is also a very popular time to visit with budget travellers: hotel rates are generally lower, and Kerala Tourism website (link: https://www.keralatourism.org) even lists a number of incredible “dream offers” for the season.
How to get there
The state is easily accessible by plane with two international airports: Cochin and Thiruvananthapuram. They serve a number of international flights, as well as regular flights from Delhi, Goa, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai. For more adventurous travel you can also get in by train or bus. The journey is likely to take longer – and especially with trains you’ll have to book well in advance.
For all those planning a trip – we will be coming out with a full detailed guide very soon! Until then: don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook to make sure you don’t miss the latest stories and travel guides!
If you are planning on going to Kerala – make sure to read some of our stories from the journey: