Situated on the southwestern coast of India, Kerala faces the Arabian Sea and is backed by the Western Ghats which tower up to 2,700m. From the highlands, the undulating hills and valleys merge into the unbroken coastline, spliced by an intricate net-work of canals and rivers.
Thanks to its varied geography and location, Kerala’s history is closely linked with the spice trade of early merchants and travellers, with Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Chinese, Portuguese and British having left an imprint – from architecture to cuisine – on this coastal state.
No stranger to travellers, Kerala has long been known as a cultural destination – images of houseboats cruising along the lazy backwaters, as well as cultural performances and Ayurvedic retreats often top a visitor’s itinerary. However, in recent years, Kerala has been introducing a number of adventure-oriented activities that allow you to see the state in a diff erent – and eco-friendly – way.
There is nothing more eco-friendly than getting around on a bicycle. Cyclists have plenty of options to choose from: rustic country lanes, winding paths across lush paddy fields, dusty tracks in remote hamlets, and exotic trails in tea gardens, spice plantations and rubber estates. It’s a lot easier to meet friendly locals, break for chai, or stop by destinations not on tourist maps when you’re travelling at a leisurely pace.
The Hill Trail
The journey begins from the lowland forest of Thattekkad in Ernakulam, a globally acclaimed bird sanctuary that’s home to over 300 bird species including drongos, bulbuls, parakeets, and hornbills. The route follows the banks of Periyar River and spice-scented mountain roads until it reaches the foothills of the Western Ghats in Adimali. Situated in an area called the Cardamom Hills, this region is famous for producing some of the world’s best pepper and cardamom, and is dotted with plenty of waterfalls and pretty valleys.
The route winds its way uphill towards Munnar (1,600m), a hill station known for its undulating landscape of tea plantations, before bringing you to Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary, a habitat for the endangered Giant Grizzled Squirrel.
Heading down to lower elevations, you’ll reach Kerala’s most famous waterfalls – Athirappalli and Vazhachal, situated at the edge of the Sholayar forest about 5km apart from each other.
Numerous cycle outfitters provide tours to the hill region, with itineraries that include wildlife tours, nights on a houseboat, a river raft cruise or visits to coastal villages. Depending on the operator, trips can start either from Kochi or Munnar, and itineraries range from 3 to 12 days.
Beach to Backwater Tour
A fairly level ride, the route takes you past fi shing villages, paddy fi elds and coconut plantations along the beaches of Alappuzha (or Alleppey), a backwater country with a vast network of lakes, lagoons and rivers. This ‘Venice of the East’ is famous for its boat races and coir industry, and you can see coconut husks being made into ropes and mats at small villages as you ride by.
From the resort area of Marari Beach, you can cycle to Kuttanadu, the ‘Rice Bowl of Kerala’, one of a few places in the world where traditional farming is done below sea level. The vast expanse of green paddy fields is dotted with coconut groves and canals, and flocks of parrots can be seen hovering above.
Further along the coastal road is Kumara-kom, a backwater resort area that’s also popular for birdwatching, particularly for migratory birds like darters, herons, cuckoos and storks.
A variety of cycle tours are available, and accommodation options range from homestays to houseboats and eco lodges.
Tucked in the hills of the Western Ghats, Wayanad is home to sub-tropical savannahs, picturesque hill stations, sprawling spice forests, and some of the oldest tribes in India. Here, you can ride along tea and spice plantations, quaint villages and thick jungle.
Attractions along the way include spice town Vythiri (790m), and Sulthan Bathery (1,000m) which is known for its pre-historic caves, jungle trails, and lush undulating hills. The winding uphill roads can be quite challenging, although you can break the ride into 2 days and add the option to get off the saddle for a bit of hiking up to Chembra Peak, one of Wayanad’s tallest peaks. The 2,100m climb takes you up to Chembra Lake, with breathtaking views of the surrounding valleys and tea plantations along the way.
For a bit of culture, you can ride to Thirunelli, site of a Vishnu temple that’s believed to be over 1,000 years old. Surrounded by mountains and hidden in dense woods, you can see the Brahmagiri range from here.
Kerala has also developed a number of other options for adventurous visitors – these include rock climbing (particularly at Eruthavoor and Thenmala) and paragliding in Vagamon (home Paragliding Festivals).
Thanks to its network of rivers, water-sports are popular. At Alappuzha, the palm-fringed backwaters can be explored on a kayak, while at Boothathankettu (Ernakulam), the rushing river and rapids along the Periyar River make it an ideal rafting destination (Paneli Poru is said to be the most exciting stretch). Along the coast at Kovalam, the large waves (up to 2m) and strong currents make it an ideal surfing destination.
Kerala is also home to 16 wildlife sanctuaries and 5 national parks, and safaris are a great way to see protected wildlife. You can follow a tiger trail at Periyar, come face to face with the rare Lion-tailed Macaque at Gavi, or spot herds of free-roaming elephants at Wayanad.
Kerala’s mountains and forests are ideal for trekking, with a variety of trails to suit any level of hiker; a typical hiking trip takes you past spice- and tea plantations, rural villages and majestic valleys. From misty knolls to herb gardens and teak planta-tions, you may be able to spot elusive wildlife like gaurs, elephants and maybe even a tiger.
Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary (also a tiger reserve), is a land of challenging hills (ranging from 300m to 1,438m) boasting 9,000 hectares of teak plantation. Here, there are 2 interesting trekking options.
The Parambikulam Tram Trekis a 40km, 2-day itinerary that follows the disused line of the Cochin State Forest Tramway (built in 1905 to transport teak from the area), taking hikers through the wildlife sanctuary that’s home to sambars, sloth bears, porcupines, deer and elusive tigers, in addition to wetland birdlife like hornbills, owls and eagles. Pieces of the tramway (like elevated teak bridges and rusted wagons) still remain, making it a unique heritage trail that passes thick jungle, scenic lakes and fantastic scenery.
The 6km-longKariyanshola(or Karian Shola) Trail is ideal for nature lovers. Starting from Anappady, the guided trek (with naturalists) will take you through forests that are rich in birdlife like woodpeckers and parakeets. Parambikulam also hap-pens to be Kerala’s second Tiger Reserve, and is also home to leopards and black panthers. The trail visits a watch tower before returning via a teak plantation.
Popular with trekkers, the undulating lush terrain of Munnar offers a picturesque 6-hour trek through a butterfly forest before reaching the peak of Meesapulimala (2,624m), the second highest peak in South India. The trail undulates past high altitude grasslands (where elephants and rare Nilgiri tahrs can be spotted) and sholas (high altitude rainforests); at one point of the trail you can see the world’s highest tea estate – Kolukkumalai – in the hills just below. While the beginning of the hike ascends slowly via undulating hills, the final ascent to the top of Meesapulimala is steep. The descent takes hikers through tea plantations onto scenic Rhodo Valley.
Agasthyakoodam (1,868m) is the second highest peak in Kerala. The Agasthyamala Biosphere Reserve (permits required) is home to colourful orchids, as well as an abundance of rare medicinal herbs and plants used for Ayurvedic treatments.
The mountain is also a pilgrimage centre for devotees of Agastya, and there is a full-sized statue of Agathiyar at the top of the peak. Trekking to the peak is open to pilgrims from January to mid-March, with passes issued at Trivandrum. The route starts from Bonacaud, one of a few tea plantations established by Europeans.