A Guide to Alappuzha & the Kerala Backwaters

Alappuzha is a city in the southern Indian state of Kerala, coined as 'the Venice of the East'. The vast network of palm tree lined canals and lagoons known as the slithering Kerala backwaters, offer a unique and tranquil travel experience filled with succulent greenery, striking sunsets, lush paddy fields, waterside villages and thousands of houseboats. 

Kerala Backwaters

The Kerala backwaters are a labyrinth of 900km of serene canals, lagoons, rivers and extensive lakes stretching across the state that drain into the Arabian sea. The Kerala backwaters run inland from the coast with Alappuzha, formally known as Alleppey, being its main entry way. The backwaters connect villages and are used as a transport network for mainly fishing, coconut, spices, rubber and other agriculture. However, today they also serve as regenerated travel experiences, being the foundation to Kerala's tourism industry. The backwaters is home to a rich array of aquatic animals in its unique ecosystem from crabs to turtles, and water birds like the Kingfisher. 

Alappuzha Backwaters

Although the backwaters extend across the entire state of Kerala, the main backwater regions are around Ashtamudi Lake and Vembanad Lake. Arguably, the most majestic and charming backwaters are those found around the coastal city of Alappuzha, south of Vembanad Lake showcasing Kerala's backwater paradise. The district has many backwater routes, each offering something different. Popular routes are:

-  Alappuzha to Thottappally

-  Alappuzha to Kumarakom

-  Alappuzha to Kottayam

-  Alappuzha to Mankotta

-  Alappuzha to Alumkadavu

-  Alappuzha to Kidangara 

How To Get To Alappuzha

The nearest airport is Cochin International Airport. There are multiple domestic flights coming in from India's big cities like Mumbai and Delhi everyday. The distance from Cochin to Alapuzzha is 53km and can be reached by car or by train, although that will take longer. A private driver or prepaid taxi from the airport will cost around €40 and will take over an hour, sometimes closer to two hours to reach the backwaters and is what I recommend. You can also arrange the private shuttle via your accommodation. Trains are available from Ernakulam Junction railway station to Alapuzzha and will cost around €1-2. More information regarding trains to Alappuzha can be found here.

Best Time To Visit The Kerala Backwaters

Kerala has a tropical monsoon climate with three seasons - winter, summer and monsoon. Winter expands from October to February, summer is March to May and monsoon season is from June to September. The most comfortable time to visit is from October to early March with the coolest and driest month being January with a temperature of 29C. Monsoon season will still be warm but with more rainfall it will take away from the serenity, therefore not recommended. 

As winter is peak tourist season, this results in an increase in demand, thus inflated prices. Temperatures can still soar during this time so it is recommended to seek accommodation with air conditioning. 

Kerala Backwaters Houseboat

So, how do you navigate around the Kerala backwaters? One of the most popular and unique ways to experience the palm-fringed backwaters is to cruise along on a kettuvallam - the traditional rice barges which have been tastefully reinvented into houseboats. Alappuzha is the houseboat capital with a thousand in the district. Houseboats are available to rent for a few hours, overnight or multiple days. It makes for the perfect vessel to soak in the backwater paradise. The thrilling views of the sunset and sunrise, the moonlight, ancient temples, village life on the banks, and the rich biodiversity are at your disposal from the balcony 24/7, with the boat only stopping for the night. The modern houseboat has all the luxuries of an impeccable hotel with beautifully furnished bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchenettes and balconies, complete with a cook and cabin crew who will prepare and serve you local delicacies and traditional Kerala cuisine. More modest and budget friendly options are also available and can be booked via AirBnB, hotel websites or preferably via a local tour company within Kerala. The cost of hiring a houseboat depends on the size and quality of the boat starting from around 5,000 rupees for a basic houseboat with no air conditioning, to 20,000 rupees a night for a more luxurious experience.

Backwater Stay Without A Houseboat

Staying on a houseboat is definitely not the only way to enjoy the backwaters. There are various backwater facing resorts, AirBnBs and villas that you can rent, ranging from luxury to budget friendly. Many of the resorts will have their own houseboats, private boats, canoes or kayaks to rent for a few hours, or they will arrange to book one for you, allowing you to experience the backwaters in motion as well. Staying in the backwaters without a houseboat also provides you with the freedom to explore the water banks by foot or bike, discovering day-to-day village life, toddy tapping, and mingling with the locals. Bike hire is usually available free of charge or for a small fee from your accommodation. I rented a water facing AirBnB pictured below which included free use of kayaks and bikes. Through the AirBnB I booked a private luxury boat tour for three and a half hours, which cost 3500 rupees, but can definitely be found for cheaper when booking direct. 

What To Do In The Kerala Backwaters

It is likely that you are rightly visiting Alappuzha and the Kerala backwaters to switch off and unwind. However, there are many things to do in Alappuzha to soak in the Malayali culture. 

CANOE RIDE - If you're not staying in a houseboat then renting a canoe (or boat) for a day or a few hours is a must. This is an idyllic way to spend a few hours taking in the serene paradise around you. The canoes are small therefore have the advantage of being able to reach the smaller backchannels where larger boats can't access. The experience is relaxing, slow paced, and quiet, allowing you to see the waterside village life close up. The trip will often include breakfast or lunch also. A private canoe will cost 200 rupees an hour for 2 people and can be arranged directly or through your accommodation.  

KAYAKING - For the more active and adventurous traveler, strap on a lifejacket, pick up a paddle and take thrill in kayaking through the Kerala backwaters. As the channels get narrower while you escape the main rivers, you get to know what the region is truly all about, and will make friends with the locals in no time. Kayaks are often free of charge or available to rent for a small price from your chosen accommodation. This can be done with or without a guide. 

VILLAGES - Staying in Alappuzha offers you the chance to experience life on the water banks close up and personal. As you get into the smaller canals, the twisting waterways open up to vibrant village life where you will encounter the rich culture the Malayalis beautifully display. Kids swimming in the water, women washing crockery and laundry, and men bathing in the backwaters are some of the familiar sights you will see. The locals are very friendly and will wave and smile at you. In the evening, public boats will drop off the villagers from work or college, and you will see them disperse into the paddy fields and small paths. Fathers and sons, husbands and wives and groups of men will sit by the banks fishing for their dinner. Groups of men will congregate around toddy shacks, laughing and joking with one another with the faint sound of Malayalam music playing in the distance. The pastel painted churches look straight out of Wes Anderson movie sets and are open to visitors. There are stunning fruit shacks scattered across the roads leading to the backwaters where you can buy a variety of seasonal fruits and local specials like jackfruit. 

TODDY TASTING - Wherever you decide to stay, ask for local toddy! Toddy or kallu is palm wine or fermented coconut liquor created from the sap of palm trees, and is very popular in Kerala. A toddy tapper belonging to a particular sect of society, will climb the palm tree by foot and will extract the unfermented sap. You can drink it straight from the jug if the toddy tapper is on-site, or at a toddy shack. A number of nondescript toddy shops or shacks can be found in the rural villages, where you are likely to see a dozen men huddled around plastic tables playing cards, and chatting after a day of work. Toddy is commonly served with a helping of fried fish and boiled tapioca - a local delicacy. Toddy is tapped twice a day - once in the morning at 8am and the other at sunset. Don't be surprised if you re offered toddy at breakfast - when toddy is initially extracted it is sweet and non-alcoholic but by evening, it transforms into a stiff alcohol. You will notice jugs tied at the top of many palm trees across the backwater region for toddy tapping.

ALAPPUZHA (ALLEPPEY) BEACH - The beach is a nice alternative way to spend an afternoon or evening when in Alappuzha. Its a sand beach with lots of typical beach restaurants and cafes, as well as stalls. It is not recommended to swim in the water due to the strong under currents but makes for a great location to watch sundown. 

PADDY FIELDS - Alappuzha district sits in the region of Kuttanad, known as the 'rice bowl of Kerala', therefore there are many flourishing paddy fields in the surrounding area. A morning or evening stroll through the rice fields in Alappuzha is highly recommended. To do this, go through your accommodation as they will know the best ones to visit closest to you, as well as seek permission from the landowners. On the waters you will notice canoes and boat packed with rice, being so weighed down that they are only a few centimeters above the water!

WILDLIFE - Kerala is honored for its diverse wildlife owing to its vast forest and jungles. Spend an afternoon on a thrilling safari spotting elephants, wild dogs, and native gaur, which you can book when in Kerala. Although, you do not need to go far to spot wildlife. On the banks of the water you will spot turtles, crabs, frogs and mudskippers. Perched within the trees you will notice lots of stunning kingfisher, darters, paradise flycatchers and egrets. For bird enthusiasts, Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary is a wonderful option where you can learn about migratory birds. And you will undoubtedly spot at least one lizard in your sleeping space! 

What To Take To The Kerala Backwaters

With the Kerala backwaters being relatively remote, there are some things you should take with you.

BUG REPELLENT - Along with the water and jungle comes mosquitos, ticks and other bloodsuckers. Take anti-insect repellant from home as the local varieties may not be as accessible or effective. I recommend this

SUNSCREEN - It is hot and sunny for most of the year so stock up on face and body sunscreen before you go. 

ALCOHOL - Liquor consumption in Kerala tops the charts in India. Restrictions have eased in the state and you can readily buy and consume alcohol in most places. However, there are local caps on how much you can purchase in liters from liquor stores in a single visit. We could only purchase 5 x1 liter bottles of beer for our boat trip in one day so check in advance to avoid disappointment. It is also not uncommon to take hard liquor from duty free upon entering Kerala. 

APPROPRIATE CLOTHING - With the tropical climate, its recommended to bring loose cottons that you feel comfortable in, a hat to protect your head from direct sunlight, sunglasses and comfortable footwear. Avoid heels of any kind (including wedges). 

CAMERA - You will want to capture the beauty and uniqueness of the backwaters! You are allowed to fly drones in the region as well, respectfully. 

BLUETOOTH OPERATED PORTABLE SPEAKER - A nice addition to take on a canoe or boat. Many resorts are 'off the grid' therefore do not have TVs or sound systems, so a speaker is recommended. Please respect the locals in terms of volume. I recommend this - something we take with us everywhere.

Responsible Photography

The locals are very friendly and you will notice this right away. When photographing local life, ask permission before you take photos. Although I am of Indian decent, I do not speak Malayalam, but it was easy to seek permission by showing them my camera and asking if I could shoot. People will most likely say yes, although I advise you gauge comfort levels as many will say this out of respect and politeness. As many locals bathe in the waters, be very respectful to their personal space and avoid taking photographs of them doing this. Drones are not prohibited but be respectful to the villagers when using them by not flying it too close to their personal space. 

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©2021 Anika Pannu.