The image of a vacation in Kerala’s backwaters is about as idyllic as it gets: calm rivers winding into large lakes dotted with houseboats as big as Arks. The reality is not much further from the truth. The area known as the “backwaters” of Kerala is fairly large, comprising of over 30 brackish rivers, lagoons, and large lakes that run along the Malabar Coast that hinges on the Arabian Sea. It is a sort of aquatic nervous system that flows for over 120 miles from the Western Ghats: the texture of the region has been compared to the American Bayou and the Florida Everglades.
Getting here is relatively easy: you could take one of the numerous local flights to Cochin or the state’s capital (Thiruvananthapuram) and rent a car from the airport to drive to the backwater region. Since there are many places to the backwaters, finding the right place to enjoy a vacation flanked by coconut trees shouldn’t prove that difficult. Here are a few budget-friendly ways to get the most out of your vacation in “God’s Own Country”:
Choose a base: Popular places with options that go beyond houseboats include Thekkady and Alleppey (both great options for the beach lover); Kottayum (ideal if you like the nearby vibe of a city); Kumarakom (as rustic as it gets) and the area around Cochin, which has superb Malabar-style cuisine. Any one of these major bases will have several styles of lodging to suit your budget and taste, from motels to floating cottages.
Beach hop: The word “kovalam” itself means “beach” in Tamil, and the town of Kovalam in Kerala’s capital (Thiruvananthapuram) might be the prettiest beach town in the entire south, with silk-smooth crescent-shaped inlets and a stately lighthouse. Other beaches to explore include Varkala and Alleppey (you can find elegant hotels and homestays in these areas too).
Splurge Wisely: Houseboats or “kettuvallams” are essentially the floating cottages that most people think of; these also typically come with staff who prepare fine Kerala-style cuisine like appams and avial; this option is widely available no matter where you go in the backwater region but will set you back roughly $700 per night depending upon the type you choose (there are gold, silver, and platinum categories, each with its own charm; thatched roofs are a given). Houseboats are essentially glorified living quarters that stem from Kerala’s long and varied fishing history, where modern versions are motorized, and some are split-level. They are ideal ways to experience the sunrise and sunset since you can always maneuver the boat for the perfect Instagram-worthy shot.
Apartment Rentals: One popular option for those who want a backwaters experience without staying in a houseboat is to rent a home from reputed sites like Homeaway.com or Flipkey.com (these average anywhere from $25-$50 per night). Make sure you determine the proximity of the rental to the backwater region; you can always rent a houseboat to take you on a sunrise or sunset ride and pay a fraction of the cost of an overnighter.
Hotels: Luxury properties like Vivanta by Taj in Kumarakom or The Gateway Hotel in Ernakulam are worth a splurge at the rate of around $135 per night. They are also a pole vault away from rivers, and complete with all the cushy comforts of a luxury hotel.