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.
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 €150 per night for the smallest kind of houseboat. Way too expensive for our meagre budget.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.