Walking vacations in Kerala

The Indian Himalayas pull in hardened trekkers who love a steep climb and a snow-capped peak, but way down south, the quiet, undulating trails of Kerala offer something a little greener and less gruelling.
Walking in Kerala remains a bit of a best kept secret, so you won’t find many other walkers here – it’s not yet on the worldwide walking web – but you will meet villagers farming the slopes and may stumble across elephants, deer, endemic wild goats and clouds of butterflies flitting across the trails. Hike through tea estates and spice plantations to open grasslands where the air is cool and the views are long over the emerald landscape.
The Western Ghats that run down Kerala’s eastern side are the destination for walking vacations. The seaward slopes are drenched by the southwestern monsoon, but there’s a wide variation of rainfall throughout the year which, combined with the complex geography, means there’s a huge range of landscapes. In the lowlands there are plains and scrub forests, then as the land pulls up this gives way to deciduous and tropical rainforests. Above 1,500m things change again, with a patchwork of cloud forests and rolling grasslands. Naturally this makes the Western Ghats superb trekking territory, with ever changing views, pretty village and abundant wildlife and birdlife all adding to the biodiverse bliss of walking in Kerala.
To really get off the beaten track, choose a walking tour with point to point trekking over four or five days, that leads you deeper into the landscape than day walks can. You’ll camp each evening, which is a wonderful way to be fully immersed in the scenery. Camping is typically fully serviced, so you won’t be lugging your tent uphill, or cooking either, just soaking up the views and tucking into a tasty Keralan meal after a good day on the trail.
“Go with an open mind and let your senses be astounded.” – Lisa Brollo in a review of her Kerala walking vacation in India

Highlights of walking in Kerala

Walking vacations in Kerala are run as both small group trips, with no more than 16 people, and tailor made tours. Trip lengths vary from just six days to 16 (although on a tailor made trip you can choose how long you’re away), but if you want to combine walking with game watching in Periyar National Park, a cruise on the backwaters around Allepey in a traditional rice boat and time in beautiful Cochin, you’ll need more than a week.

Mathikettan Shola National Park

Local environmental activists are to thank for this park, as their campaign helped protect the land from development. It’s home to a range of birds, butterflies and plants, found nowhere else in the world. Elephants are common here, and buffering the park, cardamom, pepper and coffee are grown beneath the forest canopy by villagers. In Santhanpara, on the edge of the park, you can stay in a luxe planter’s bungalow.

Meesapulimala Peak

At 2,630m, Meesapulimala Peak is the second highest mountain in south India and marks the border with neighbouring Tamil Nadu. You can trek up to it through rough shola grassland, perhaps passing the odd herd of wild goats called Nilgiri tahr on the way, until you reach open ridges and the top. From here, there are long, lovely views over the two states. You’ll see the world’s highest tea estate, Kolukkumalai, and the great plains of Tamil Nadu stretching away below. Some treks tackle the peak after a day hiking through the Silent Valley and camping overnight.

Munnar

Most walking vacations in Kerala visit Munnar, a hill station established in the late 19th century at a cool and fresh 1,600m above sea level. It’s the gateway to the treks and trails that wind through the Western Ghats, surrounded by pretty villages and hills lined with tea plantations. Just to its north is Eravikulam National Park, habitat for the endangered Nilgiri tahr and home to Anamudi Peak, the highest in South India at 2,695m.

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Papathy Shola

Trek up from Suryanelli and you reach the Papathy Shola ‘Butterfly Forest’, which takes its name from the vast numbers of butterflies that migrate here every October. Here, thick high altitude cloud forests also provide a home for endemic Malabar giant squirrels. On the descent, there are great views of Anaerangal Lake. Meaning ‘the lake where the elephants come down’, it draws herds of elephants out of the forests to graze and drink. It’s fringed by spice plantations farmed by tribal communities.

Seven Malai Hills

From the tiny village of Nagarmudi outside Munnar you can trek up into the Seven Malai Hills, climbing gradually through tea plantations. As you travel higher, the landscape shifts from tea to cardamom and coffee plantations and then, from the top, there are superb views over Munnar and surrounding villages.

Silent Valley National Park

This national park lies in the Nilgri Hills and treks here head upwards through a landscape blanketed with tea plantations, eucalyptus and plane trees to grasslands where there are lovely views over the tea estates below.

Vattavada

From Top Station, outside Munnar, you can trek to the village of Koviloor, passing through the lush vegetable farming region of Pazhathottam and plenty of tea stations, and then reaching the tribal village of Vattavada. This is a chance to meet the village residents and learn about their lifestyle, customs, art forms and natural remedies. This is also butterfly country, with lots of rare species fluttering about. The region around Koviloor village is known as the ‘market of India’ because of the huge amounts of fruit and vegetables grown here.

Kerala walking practicalities

The walking in Kerala is pretty moderate, with good paths and no altitude to contend with, so you don’t need to be a hardened Himalayan trekker to enjoy it. Most organised walking vacations include walks of between 5km and 15km a day, with the odd steep ascent. A guide will lead the walking and on point to point walks there will be porters and cooks, too, providing fully serviced camping.
The dry season, from late November to March, is the best time to walk in Kerala. Days will be hot and nights warm, with daytime temperatures ranging from 21°C to 30°C. The higher you climb, the cooler it gets, though, with the mercury even dropping to freezing at night, particularly during December and January.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: solarisgirl] [Western ghats: Thejas Panarkandy] [Mathikettan Shola National Park: Koshy Koshy] [Papathy Shola: pamsai, 200k viewspamsai, 200K views, thank you] [The Nilgiris: Thangaraj Kumaravel] [Hike: Sankara Subramanian]
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