Kerala was a region in India that had been on my travel hit list for several years. Towards the end of last year an opportunity arose to spend 10 days there, as part of an organised trek and tour with adventure travel company, Explore.
If you’d like to read about my experience of exploring Kerala as part of a group, I’ll be publishing a post soon reviewing the trip. But in the meantime I wanted to share a few of my highlights with you.
Our group actually got together on the final night of our trip, over late night coffees and masala chai at our hotel near Kochi airport, and anonymously wrote down our highlights and lowlights of the trip. Anonymous because there were no names attached when Liz read the list out loud. It was a great way to reflect upon the places we’d visited, the sights we’d witnessed, the people we’d met and the experiences we’d shared over the past 10 days.
The majority of the lowlights (the exception being the overpriced cooking demonstration; more on that in next week’s post) were all aspects of the tour that only Mother Nature had the power to change – the persistent torrential rain and thick cloud, and the leeches. I have honestly never seen so many leeches in my entire life.
However the highlights were a wonderful mix of incredible landscapes and heart-warming experiences, and reminded me of everything that was great about our 10-day trip, including those aspects that I’d personally forgotten to mention.
So here they are: my top 10 highlights from 10 days in Kerala.
#1 The moment I first laid eyes on the beautiful tea plantations
Despite having travelled to China and to Myanmar – both places where a lot of tea is grown – I’d never seen landscapes quite like those I witnessed just outside Munnar, in the Kannan Devan Hills. There was tea literally as far as the eye could see.
I loved the patterns in the landscapes, created by the way in which the tea plants are grown and cultivated.
And I loved the vibrant bursts of colour amidst an endless sea of green.
#2 The wonderful camaraderie in our group
When you book these types of group holidays, you’re always taking a bit of a gamble regarding the people you’ll end up travelling with for the next few days or weeks. Not everyone shares the same likes, dislikes, standards, expectations, abilities, beliefs and morals, and this can often create friction or cause difficulties within the group.
Whilst I have generally been fairly lucky with the groups I’ve travelled with previously, I can honestly say that my Kerala group were nothing short of amazing – especially considering the appalling weather conditions and abundance of leeches. Everyone stayed positive and upbeat, no-one refused to do anything unless they felt physically unable to do so, everyone was up for new experiences (whether that be sampling street food, visiting a spice garden in the pouring rain or squeezing into the luggage rack of a jeep), and no-one moaned about anything.
What’s more, everyone looked out for one another, praised their fellow trekkers when praise was due and spurred them on when encouragement was both necessary and very welcome.
Having a group like this definitely makes all the difference between a good trip and a great trip.
#3 Seeing elephants in their natural habitat
Up until my Kerala trip I’d only ever seen elephants chained up and with saddles strapped to their backs in order to give rides to tourists (yes, I have been one of those tourists; no I’m not proud of it) or at conservation centres.
I always assumed that the only time I’d see an elephant in the wild would be if I went on safari. I never expected to see one smack bang in the middle of a tea plantation!
As if this wasn’t excitement enough, we were lucky enough to spot some again on route to Periyar a few days later. The spot – known as “Elephant Crossing” – has clearly earned its name for a reason, but I still consider it quite serendipitous that there were in fact elephants crossing when we drove past. And that the light was almost perfect for photographing them.
#4 Our fantastic guide, Rejanish (“Reggie”)
This guy honestly always had a smile on his face – from the moment he greeted me, following a 12-hour flight, at Kochi airport, to the moment he bid us all farewell at the same location 10 days later. A smile counts for a lot. But not only that, Reggie was kind, thoughtful and a lot of fun, as well as being a talented artist, masseur, and flower arranger.
Explore employed quite a few local guides on our trip – as well as cooks, drivers, boat pilots and tent erectors, there was Muthu who kept a good pace and ensured we didn’t get lost during our trek through the Western Ghats, the knowledgeable gentleman who showed us around Chennamkary, and our homestay hosts from the same town. Every time we had to say our goodbyes to these people, Reggie drew them all a picture that was customised to our experience with them, and subsequently got one of us to present it to them. It was a lovely touch, and one that we (or rather, Natasha) reciprocated when we made a presentation to Reggie on the final night of our trip.
As we rocked up at our second campsite of the trip, after two of the longest and most challenging trekking days, Reggie offered us all massages. Whilst I wasn’t aching and all my limbs and joints seemed to still be in good working order, I was’t about to turn down a free massage. And what a massage it was! Reggie is good! I’ve never had quite such a personal touch from a tour guide before 😉
And, in case you’re wondering about his flower arranging skills, Reggie can take several of these:
and make them into one of these:
To top things off he also took us to his family home in Kumily, to meet his mum. Awww…..
#5 Learning what spices look like in their raw state at Abraham’s Spice Garden in Kumily
Although I came away from my Thai cookery class 11 years ago, swearing that I would recreate every single one of the dishes we cooked in Chiang Mai, at home, the reality is that it’s only in more recent years that I’ve truly found a passion for cooking in my own kitchen. At the end of last year I signed up to a £1 trial with Simply Cook and loved their dishes so much that I decided to continue the subscription at the end of the trial (if you’d also like to take advantage of a £1 trial, click through this link and enter my discount code “KG6420” at checkout).
I’ve cooked smoked haddock kedgeree, spinach and paneer curry, goan fish curry, Keralan prawn curry, spiced butternut squash risotto and wild mushroom penne – and those are just my favourites!
It’s really given me inspiration to be a bit more adventurous in the kitchen, to experiment a little and to cook outside my comfort zone. And in line with this, I’ve become very interested in the way spices can be used to really bring life to a dish. There are so many spices out there, and when I think that I only ever used to keep dried basil and oregano in my spice rack.
For these reasons I found our visit to the spice garden utterly fascinating. It made me realise just how little I knew about the origins of those powders found in glass jars on the shelves of my local supermarket.
Nutmeg was just one of them.
#6 The food. Oh, the food…
The first time I travelled to India I visited Rajasthan to explore the country’s famous Golden Triangle, and the cities of Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Pushkar. Whilst I managed to avoid the infamous “Delhi belly,” and I did really enjoy the food, by the time I got home a couple of weeks later I was desperate for some sustenance that wasn’t curry.
However, the opposite was true when I returned from Kerala – I was desperate to recreate almost every one of the dishes I ate there. Especially those created by our cook, Sheila. With the exception of the luncheon feast that was presented to us on the penultimate day of our trip, by our homestay hosts in West Chennamkary (it was such a tough call between the two), the best food I ate on the whole trip was cooked by Sheila.
Unfortunately I don’t have any great photos of the food she cooked, because most of it was eaten around a camp fire in the dark, but take my word for it, she should have her own restaurant; the flavours were amazing!
#7 Feeling like I’d worked for my food: several long walks up a few big hills
Usually I enjoy the challenge of hiking up mountains because of the amazing views I know I’ll be rewarded with at the top. However what good views there may have been at the summit of all nine peaks we climbed (including Meesapulimala (2635m), the second highest in South India) were totally and utterly obscured by dense cloud and thick fog. At one point we couldn’t see more than about two metres ahead of us.
But I surprised myself by how much I still enjoyed the physical challenge of making those climbs, even in spite of the knowledge that the only place I would be gazing was into an abyss of impenetrable fog.
#8 A village walk around Kerala’s Backwaters
Although the rains continued throughout our stay on one of Kerala’s traditional houseboats, when we arrived into the village of West Chennamkary the sun was shining and I actually had to hop back on the bus to grab my sunglasses for the first time in over a week.
We met with a local guide who showed us around, imparting a wealth of information about the area as he did so.
This was the Kerala I imagined when I booked the trip, and with the kind of weather I was expecting, to accompany it.
Tall palms bent over the water’s edge, flowers bloomed, and birdsong filled the air. Men peddled through the village selling freshly-caught fish from baskets on the front of their bicycles. Women stood knee-deep in the backwaters, washing clothes. And children played on self-made rope swings, posing for photographs as we passed.
Our visit culminated with an absolutely incredible lunch spread, cooked and presented to us by our hosts at a local homestay. They even fitted us out with saris for a photoshoot afterwards.
#9 Wandering the streets of old Cochin
I’m kind of a bit gutted that we didn’t have longer to explore Cochin, because I loved the history and vibe of this place.
It’s where the Portuguese erected their first walled citadel, and where you’ll find the oldest European-built church in India. You’ll also find influences from China (head down to Fort Cochin’s eastern shore and take a look at the traditional Chinese fishing nets), a 400-year-old synagogue, ancient mosques, Portuguese houses and the crumbling remains of the British Raj.
#10 The little villages we passed through during our trek
For the majority of our trek through the Western Ghats (which encompassed the Seven Malai Hills, Silent Valley and Rhodo Valley), we didn’t see a single soul. We passed the odd cow or two, and a couple of villagers carrying bundles of firewood they’d collected for their families back home, but on the whole it was a fairly solitary affair, save for our fellow group members and guides.
Whilst the landscapes around us (when we could see them!) were vast and beautiful, I absolutely adored every single occasion that we arrived into, or passed by, one of the local villages. There was usually a tea shop (yay, chai), a temple and a church (the churches were always much grander than the temples, even though only 18% of Kerala’s population are Christians (?!), a local school, a collection of farm animals, orderly lines of tiny painted houses, and some colourful sheets and saris blowing gently in the breeze.
Moments like these gave us genuine glimpses into the daily lives of the people who lived there, and that’s what made it special for me. Because visiting a country is not just about seeing the sights; it’s learning about the lives of the people who live there.
Have you visited Kerala before? If so, what were your highlights? If not, does it look like somewhere you’d like to go?
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