Budget Friendly Fun in Kochi and Munnar, Kerala India
Updated: Dec 31, 2018
What we did on our first sultry week in India
We arrived to Kochi (Kerala, India) from Doha (Qatar), and the difference in cities could not have been more pronounced. Doha is a grand neon megalopolis, a soaring dream out of a dystopian science fiction novel. The skyscrapers dwarf pedestrians and cars, with each building vying for a position of prominence on the skyline, symbols of progress and opulence instead of history and humanity.
Kochi, and all India we soon realized, resembles instead a sandcastle built and destroyed and rebuilt over the course of countless generations. There is always movement and change, always something decaying and something being created. At the beginning, this seems like absolute chaos. But after spending time inside the hive, it starts to make sense. A crazy pattern emerges, and all of the buses, taxis, rickshaws, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, cows, dogs, and pedestrians seem to move together in an intricate and graceful dance.
Basically, this means that our first day in Kochi was a huge shock, but we gradually got used to it. Here are some of our favorite experiences from a week in the sultry state of Kerala. The highlights were: sustainable explorations outdoors,cultural experiences, vegan food, and herbs and spices.
In and around Kochi:
Seeing traditional Kathakali dance.
This is an intricate and ancient dance put on by heavily costumed male performers. An hour before showtime, doors open to anyone who would like to see the actors applying their extensive make-up. The emcee also gives a demonstration of mudras, eye movements, song, and dance moves that are used in the performance. The place (#Kerala #Kathakali Centre) is easy to locate, and shows are put on every day, for around 200 rupees.
Sampling the fine fare of #Kochi.
As this was our first foray into #Indian culture, some of our favorite times were simply sitting at waterfront restaurants, ordering tasty food, and watching life pass by.
One thing that surprised us is Kerala has pretty strict alcohol rules. This is actually refreshing, as there aren’t bars or liquor shops on every street corner, like many other cities. Still, we did manage to find one waterfront restaurant that served beer and food, which was packed full of people every time we visited (called Seagull Restaurant). Another favorite was Maples Restaurant, next to Vasco de Gama Square.
Its incredibly easy to find vegan food at most Indian restaurants. They all have vegetarian sections on the menu, just make sure to ask for dishes without cheese, milk, ghee, or eggs. One of our go-to dishes was the tomato fry -- tomatoes cooked up with chili peppers, and some other magical unknown spices.
Backwater Tour of Kerala.
This is one of those excursions recommended in every guidebook and advertised by every tour company-- for good reason. For only 850 rupees ($12), we were picked up at our homestay and taken to a meeting point in the backwaters, where we joined up with other groups of travellers.
We then boarded a houseboat, and were taken to an extensive interconnected series of rivers and canals with -- surprise! -- no roads or vehicle horns.
It was an Indiana Jones-esque journey back in time, the trip quickly taking us into the jungle, past villages and fishermen paddling their boats out to the river. We stopped at a community for lunch, eating off of banana leaves and being served ridiculously spicy food by old Indian men who I’m sure were chuckling at us as we tried to eat traditional style with our hands. The return trip was back upriver in a dugout canoe, more intimate and passing through smaller waterways. Considering we were sitting for almost the entire day, the tour was very exhausting, and we fell asleep for the entire bus ride.
Limited time only allowed a visit to one other area of Kerala: Munnar. Munnar is a postcard worthy town in the hills of eastern Kerala, famous for rolling tea hills and jungle nature preserves. I had the good luck to stay in an incredible hostel (Shire Hostel) with hosts who truly cared about my experience, and they made me feel like I was in a second home. I’m quickly realizing that if you have the good fortune to meet a caring and good-natured Indian (which there are many), they will do everything they can to make you part of their family. Some highlights from staying in Munnar were:
Hike past Pallivasal Pipeline
This can be accessed by following the Pallivasal pipeline upward, until arriving at a main powerhouse. Then continue on to the peak above the powerhouse, ascending a path marked by white crosses. The top of this very steep hike gives panoramos of all the surrounding hills and valleys, with the soothing geometric patterns of tea fields inducing exclamations of awe and “woahhh, dude!”.
Tour of spice garden
Visiting the spice gardens was something I had eagerly looked forward to for days, as I’m passionate about the sourcing of medicinal plants and spices (see: previous 6 years of my life working with yerba mate). This was going to be heaven for me, as Munnar and surrounding countryside is famous for growing many of these plants for Ayurvedic medicine.
Unfortunately, the tour wasn’t quite what I wished for. I don't exactly know what that was -- I guess I was hoping for a medicine man to take us around the vibrant forest, tenderly caressing the plants with a twinkle in his eye, revealing to us the mysteries of the jungle.
Instead, we got an hour-long tour through a garden, with our guide pointing out different plants and their medicinal uses. Which was still great, but it was more like an encyclopedia than a pulsing ecosystem. But there were many plants, more than I can remember. Cardamom. Turmeric. Three kinds of pepper. Cinnamon. Two types of tulsi. Ashwaganda. Etc, etc etc. The real gem of the tour, though, was visiting the spice shop afterwards. These are sprinkled all around Kerala, and I never get tired of them. You can come with really any ailment, and the attendants will help you find what you need. I bought some ashwaganda (an adaptogen for vitality and strength) and turmeric (good for general health and circulation).
These tours can be found anywhere in Munnar, just ask the hostel or guesthouse to recommend one.
Chilling in tea fields
This was the culmination of my visit to Munnar. I was going to take a rickshaw to the bus station, but had some time to kill, so I asked the driver to take me to some scenic viewpoint on the way to town. My Indian friend and local guide Leo spontaneously decided to come along, and within minutes we were sitting in a secluded tea field, drinking a beer and gazing down on the magnificent rolling countryside. It's simple moments like these that are sometimes the most powerful, inspiring gratitude and sheer wonder, that “am I really here right now, doing this?”.
Beautiful local viewpoints like this can be found all around Munnar. The best way to find them is ask a rickshaw driver, and enjoy the journey.