Close your eyes for just a moment and picture a wide canal lined with coconut trees and the small, tin-roofed homes of local villagers. The mirrored surface of the river is disturbed only by a lone fisherman, poling his narrow wooden canoe downstream. Now open your eyes–and say hello to Kerala, one of India‘s southernmost states perhaps best known for its intricate network of canals, lakes and rivers covering nearly half the state.
But beyond these blissful backwaters, Kerala offers myriad other delights to travelers–from the colonial heritage of Fort Kochi to breathtaking natural scenery. Here are seven spots you can’t miss:
1. Fort Kochi
When the Portuguese began to arrive in the 13th century, establishing Kochi as their Indian headquarters in 1505, they were quick to take advantage of the city’s spice trade and location by the sea. Today, you can wander through Fort Kochi‘s quiet streets and see much that remains from its colonial days.
The Santa Cruz Basilica, with its cream facade and unique wooden ceiling, dates to 1506, as does the nearby St. Francis Xavier Church. The latter was even constructed by the great explorer Vasco da Gama, giving you a further sense of the region’s rich history.
2. Chinese Fishing Nets
Lining the shore of Fort Kochi are these distinctive Chinese fishing nets were first brought to India in the 13th century by the Chinese. Great swathes of blue netting are strung between arching wooden beams, requiring at least four men to operate them from the shore. A series of ropes and stone weights connect with the net, which slowly rises from the water as fishermen tug and pull from the other end.
Although this technique is no longer needed because of modern fishing equipment, the government of Kerala has developed a special initiative, supporting the fisherman to keep this unique part of its heritage alive.
3. Spice Markets
Another thing Kerala offers is the chance to see a spectrum of spices right where they were grown and processed. Step inside the spice markets of Kochi and be greeted by the aromatic flavors of cinnamon, cardamom and cloves swirling in the air like a heavenly concoction.
One place especially worth visiting is a ginger factory, whose courtyard is covered by ginger to be coated with lime powder, which acts as a natural preservative. Inside the buildings, you can also watch workers sift and sort ginger pieces according to size before being shipped out abroad.
4. Jewish Quarter of Mattancherry
On your exploration of Fort Kochi, follow faded signs to Jew Town Road, where the Paradesi Synagogue and cemetery give evidence to the Jewish community that has existed in the area for centuries. Although only five families remain today, services are still held in the synagogue.
While you’re in the area of Mattancherry, be sure to visit the Dutch Palace, which was built in 1555 by the Portuguese–despite what its name might suggest. What is perhaps most remarkable about the complex are the vibrantly painted murals depicting scenes from the Ramayana, which stand out in contrast to the rest of the palace’s white-washed walls.
5. Athirapally Waterfalls
While the sights surrounding Fort Kochi alone will keep you busy, don’t forget to travel north of the city for stunning natural landscapes. Two hours from Kochi lie the Athirapally Waterfalls, a set of thundering falls that cascade 80 meters (or 250 feet) to the river below. Venture close enough if you dare to feel the cool spray on your face, and to dry off, hike back up to the top where the awesome panorama of falls, river, forest and a bowl-shaped valley in the distance will tempt you to never leave.
6. Kodanad Elephant Camp
On your way to the waterfalls, stop off at this unassuming spot along the Periyar River, home to a camp that trains several wild elephants for tourism purposes. Gentle hills rise before you, one even rumored to have been visited by Saint Thomas in 52 AD.
But this peaceful scene won’t stay quiet for long–just after eight o’clock, elephant drivers, or mahouts, lead their charges down the path for their morning bath. Find a seat on a rock and look on as the elephants get rubbed and scrubbed, the ends of their trunks playfully peeking out of the water like a submarine’s periscope.
7. Allepey’s Backwaters
Yes–the seventh and final spot to see in Kerala is none other than its backwaters. The best place to explore the backwaters are an hour and a half south of Kochi in the small town of Allepey, where scores and scores of houseboats depart on overnight stays on the river. Don’t let the sometimes rustic exterior of the boats fool you–inside you’ll find all the creature comforts, letting you relax in style on your own private houseboat through the backwaters.
- Candace Rose Rardon