DIY Kerala Backwaters

A boat trip around the backwaters of Kerala is high on many travellers’ lists, but it can leave you with a big hole in your wallet. Here’s where we teach you to do it yourself. For peanuts. 

Think Kerala, and it’s likely you’ll conjure images of palm-fringed canals and sunsets from the deck of a houseboat. A trip around the backwaters of Kerala is one of the must-dos around the state, and perhaps the reason why we decided to visit the area.

The Kerala Backwaters are an interconnected system of brackish canals, lakes and rivers, some natural some man-made. There are over 900 km of navigable waterways, creating an ecosystem that has been compared to the Bayou of Louisiana. Life still happens in and along the backwaters, with several villages built on the banks, among the paddy fields. Transportation to and from these villages still happens via the backwaters.

India Backwaters Twin Boys
Smiles all around on the ferry

One of the most romantic ways to tour the backwaters is by houseboat. Kettuvalam, traditional Keralan boats, are used for this purpose. They can be chartered by a couple or group and come with staff on board to cater to your needs. Sounds amazing, I’m sure. The flip side of the coin? Prices start at โ‚ฌ150 per night for the smallest kind of houseboat. Way too expensive for our meagre budget.

India Backwaters Boat and Powerlines
Fancy houseboat? Next time, maybe!

We’re fans of indie travel, and don’t usually feel comfortable with cooks and maids. On top of that, when we visited it was the end of monsoon season. The weather was damp and humid, the sky thick with clouds. We wanted to visit the backwaters, but without spending a bunch of money for an adventure that wouldn’t be the romantic experience we had dreamed of.

India Backwaters Old Building
Old buildings on the backwaters

A fellow traveller tipped us on the existence of a public ferry plying the backwaters daily, covering the distance from Alleppey to Kottayam, two of the biggest backwaters city. That’s what we did, and had a great day touring the area on a ferry packed with locals, all for the meagre cost of 10 rupees. Yes, 10 rupees, I’m not joking. Here’s a quick how-to guide:

India Backwaters Twin Boy
One of our friends on the public ferry

1) Catch a bus to Alleppey. From Fort Cochin, you should either take the ferry across the water to Ernakulam, or make your way to the Thoppumpady bus stop 5 km south of the centre. Fort Cochin-Alleppey is about 50 km and will take between one and two hours.

2) Make your way to the waterfront in Alleppey, and get your ticket from the government ferry ticket office. Locals are happy to help, but you’ll probably be targeted by touts trying to sell you a houseboat tour. There are 5 daily ferries from Alleppey to Kottayam. We took the 12 o’clock one.

3) If you’re stuck for a while in Alleppey waiting for your ferry, grab some food and drinks from vendors around the harbour, as there’s nothing for sale on board.

India Backwaters Boy Washing
A glimpse of backwater life

4) Once you’re on the ferry, sit back and enjoy the ride. Travel time is 2.5 hours, with several stops at forgotten backwater villages.

5) When you’re dropped off at Kottayam harbour, catch a rickshaw to the bus station and ask for the first bus to Ernakulam or Fort Cochin. Distance is about 70 km and travel time is one to two hours, depending whether you’re on a fast or slow bus.

India Kerala backwaters swinging
Life on the backwaters

We loved touring the backwaters on a public ferry, but beware it’s far from being a romantic experience. The ferry has no outside deck, so try to get a sit near a window to enjoy the view. The upside is that you’ll travel through forgotten, non-touristy backwaters, past ramshackle villages and toddy huts, getting a glimpse of daily life that looks straight out The God of Small Things.

India Backwaters Happy Girl
A girl playing on the banks of a canal

If you’re looking for extra info about Kerala, here is our post on Kerala’s best beaches and about the latest tourism campaign, Kerala Human by Nature!

39 thoughts on “DIY Kerala Backwaters”

  1. I took the 6 hour slow boat trip through the backwaters. It was really peaceful and beautiful, but also shocking how polluted these beautiful eco-system is getting.

    I think the magic of these trips are the possibility to see life go by at the shore, while children play aroumd and colorful saris dry out in the beautiful sun.

    • Thanks for your comment Yara! You’re so right, the pollution is really bad sometimes. The water was very high and murky after the monsoon so we didn’t notice it too much, and the children had all my attention!

  2. fun! That fancy houseboat looks crazy! I think I would prefer your experience to be honest- plus all the locals look very happy! You captured some great smiles.

  3. That houseboat does look really nice! Maybe one day ๐Ÿ™‚ I was hoping to visit Kerala in February but that didn’t work out. Hopefully one other time, I’d like to take this ferry ride!

  4. I can certainly see how this wasn’t a romantic choice of transportation but at the same time it really looks like an enduring experience that is worthwhile just to expose yourself to different cultures and surroundings. Thanks so much for sharing this with us and I am sure that whenever we head over to this part of the world, we would want to experience something similar.

    • You should Chris! I’m sure the houseboat was lovely but we couldn’t afford it (and the weather was not that great) so all in all, I’m glad!

  5. The essense of boat trips on backwaters of Kerala is to capture a glimpse of routine life of the local people. Which you guys sure did, and seems like you had so much fun too! The house boats with stay are a bit expensive, and the price goes up if there’s more luxury added to it. And goes without saying the prices are bit hiked up for foreign travellers. You can sure enjoy the backwaters on a short boat trips like these which capture more essense. Best prices on house boats will be available if booked as tour package type.

    • Hey Anu! It was a really great day out. The houseboat was too expensive for us, and the weather was not the greatest so we didn’t want to splurge!

  6. I looked into doing Kerala on my India trip but did Delhi to Goa instead. This post was great and has given me ideas for when I get round to another trip to India. It sounds better than a houseboat because you experienced local people in their environments away from the tourist parts. Great photos and great read!

  7. Wonderful pictures and great tip! I found your blog looking for information about Kerala (I’m traveling there in November). I’ll try to do the same as you, it seems a more authentic experience. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Great experience! I took the comfort trip via a houseboat and was certainly worth the money. Had fabulous view of life along the waterways a very memorable experience.Your photo’s of the children are really beautiful.

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