When in Kerala: 10 must-dos in India’s deep south

The endangered, but almost tame, Nilgiri tahr.
Image courtesy: Kerala Tourism board

Kerala has been a favourite haunt of travellers from around the world for nearly 600 years; it’s been known to exhilarate, enchant and enthral. Here’s a cherry-picked list of 10 activities to get you under the skin of this incredible state.

There is nothing as serene and intimate as a few days on a teak-and-palm-thatched houseboat.
Image courtesy: Kerala Tourism board

Cruise the backwaters: No trip to Kerala is complete without a languid boat ride on its idyllic backwaters. Lined by emerald coconut plantations and interspersed by turquoise lakes, these placid lagoons are the perfect place to shake off pent-up urban stress. For a special experience, spend the night aboard a houseboat, and witness a dreamy sunrise break over the serene bayous at dawn.

A tea plantation at Munnar.
Image courtesy: Kerala Tourism board

Live it ‘up’ in Munnar: Green is the colour that swathes the lush mountain slopes of Munnar, Kerala’s answer to the fabled hill stations of North India. The crisp air, clement weather and relaxed grain are all perfectly engineered to work up a restful experience in this scenic hill town. Order a steaming cup of tea from a nearby plantation to go with the breathtaking views.

Chinese fishing nets are a unique contraption seen only in Kerala.
Image courtesy: Kerala Tourism board

Snap Kochi’s fishing nets: Tops among Kerala’s iconic photo ops are the cantilevered Chinese fishing nets – dating back to the 1400s – that line the harbour at Kochi (Cochin). Crafted out of teakwood beams and resembling giant alien arachnids poised to sting, they form unreal silhouettes against the seascape and provide some dramatic camera fodder, especially at dusk.

A bird's-eye view of Varkala Beach.
Image courtesy: Kerala Tourism board

Get beached in Varkala: Perched on a precipitous cliff and overlooking the sapphire waters of the Arabian Sea, this backpackers’ paradise boasts some dazzling and pristine sands (try Black Beach) to relax on.

Kerala is the best place for an exceptionally peaceful and refreshing Ayurvedic vacation.
Image courtesy: Kerala Tourism board

Embrace Ayurveda: Centuries of traditional Indian therapeutic wisdom and practices, perfected to soothe the human body, mind and soul, can now be accessed at the many ayurvedic spas across Kerala. Feel your senses come alive with an invigorating panchakarma session, or pamper those knotty sinews with a revitalising aromatherapy or herbal massage.

Kerala is a great place to witness vibrant dance forms like Kathakali.
Image courtesy: Kerala Tourism board

Watch a Kathakali show: If you thought Kabuki was spectacular, think again. Kathakali, Kerala’s very own classical dance tradition dating back to the 17th century, is a highly-celebrated performing art known for its colourful make-up, elaborate costumes and graceful movements, not to mention the trance-inducing music that accompanies each spirited performance. Sit in and be charmed.

The pungent aroma of an amazing variety of spices is hard to miss in Kerala.
Image courtesy: Flickr/Liji Jinaraj

Know your spices: Pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, mace, fennel, turmeric, cumin, coriander, aniseed, tamarind, allspice, saffron, poppy, mustard – that’s some seriously spicey vocabulary. Ambush your olfactories at the spice markets of Mattancherry in Kochi (Cochin). Pack an extra bag for the inevitable shopping.

Elephants are a common sight at Periyar.
Image courtesy: Kerala Tourism board

Meet Periyar’s tigers: Some 50 of India’s fabled Royal Bengal tigers can still be found in the virgin forests of the Periyar Tiger Reserve in inland Kerala. Keeping them company are elephants, leopards, Indian bison and myriad species of snakes, deer and monkeys. Head out for a wild day with the beasts.

Kalaripayattu is one of the oldest forms of martial art.
Image courtesy: Kerala Tourism board

Learn Your Kalaripayattu moves: Want to keep the bad guys at bay? Drop by at a Kalaripayattu school and pick up the basics of this acrobatic and flamboyant 12th-century martial art. Based on the science of attacking pressure points in the human body, Kalaripayattu is known to be the fount of other revered martial arts such as kung fu and karate.

Don't forget to sample the classic appam and stew combination.
Image courtesy: Daksh Sharma

Get a taste for Malabar: Fiery pothu (beef) fry, fluffy appams (rice hoppers), aviyal (vegetables in aromatic coconut gravy), fish molee (spicy yellow curry) and payasam (semolina in caramelised milk). These are just a few of the delectable dishes that emerge from Kerala’s kitchens day after day. Pair a platter with a glass of the locally-tapped and deliciously refreshing toddy (coconut palm wine).


This article was written by Anirban Mahapatra and first appeared in www.lonelypanet.com in August 2011.

Get inspired by our brand new Kerala travel guide.