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Kuttanad: the backwaters of Kerala

One of the most memorable experiences for travellers in India is the opportunity to take a boat journey on the backwaters of Kerala. The area known as Kuttanad stretches for 75km from Kollam in the south to Kochi in the north, sandwiched between the sea and the hills. This bewildering labyrinth of shimmering waterways, composed of lakes, canals, rivers and rivulets, is lined with dense tropical greenery and preserves rural Keralan lifestyles that are completely hidden from the road.

The region’s bucolic way of life has long fascinated visitors. And the ever entrepreneurial Keralans were quick to spot its potential as a visitor destination – particularly after it was discovered that foreigners and wealthy tourists from India’s cities were prepared to pay vast sums in local terms to explore the area aboard converted rice barges, or kettu vallam. Since its inception two decades ago, the houseboat tour industry has grown exponentially in both size and sophistication, and has brought with it major environmental drawbacks as well as increased prosperity. You can, however, explore this extraordinary region in lower-impact ways, too.

Tourist cruises

The most popular excursion in the Kuttanad region is the full-day journey between Kollam and Alappuzha. All sorts of private hustlers offer their services, but the principal boats are run on alternate days by the ATDC and the DTPC. The double-decker boats leave from both Kollam and Alappuzha daily, departing at 10.30am (10am check-in); tickets (Rs300) can be bought in advance or on the day at the ATDC/DTPC counters, other agents and some hotels. Both companies make three stops during the eight-hour journey, including one for lunch, and another at the Mata Amritanandamayi Math at Amritapuri – ashram of Kerala’s famous “hugging saint”, Amma – around three hours north of Kollam. Although this is by far the main backwater route, many tourists find it too long, with crowded decks and intense sun. There’s also something faintly embarrassing about being cooped up with a crowd of fellow tourists, madly photographing any signs of life on the water or canal banks, while gangs of kids scamper alongside the boat screaming “one pen, one pen”. One alternative is to charter a four- or six-seater motorboat, which you can do through DTPC and ATDC for around Rs300/hr. Slower, more cumbersome double-decker country boats are also available for hire from Rs250 per hour.

Village tours and canoes

Quite apart from their significant environmental impact, most houseboats are too wide to squeeze into the narrower inlets connecting small villages. To reach these more idyllic, remote areas, therefore, you’ll need to charter a punted canoe. The slower pace means less distance gets covered in an hour, but the experience of being so close to the water, and those who live on it, tends to be correspondingly more rewarding. You’ll also find more formal “village tours” advertised across the Kuttanad area, tying together trips to watch coir makers, rice farmers and boat builders in action with the opportunity to dine in a traditional Keralan village setting.

Kettu vallam (houseboats)

Whoever dreamed up the idea of showing tourists around the backwaters in old rice barges, or kettu vallam, could never have imagined that, two decades on, six hundred or more of them would be chugging around Kuttanad waterways. These houseboats, made of dark, oiled jackwood with canopies of plaited palm thatch and coir, are big business, and almost every mid- and upmarket hotel, guesthouse and “heritage homestay” seems to have one. Nearly five hundred work out of Alappuzha alone, the flashiest fitted with a/c rooms, wide-screen plasma TVs on their teak sun decks, imported wine in their fridges and Jacuzzis that bubble away through the night. One grand juggernaut (called the Vaikundan, based near Amma’s ashram in Kollam district) holds ten bedrooms and won’t slip its lines for less than Rs100,000 ($2200). At the opposite end of the scale are rough-and-ready transport barges with gut-thumping diesel engines, cramped bedrooms and minimal washing facilities.

What you end up paying for your cruise will depend on the size and quality of the boat and its fittings; the number and standard of the bedrooms; and, crucially, the time of year. Rates double over Christmas and New Year, and halve off-season during the monsoons. In practice, Rs6000–15,000 is the usual bracket for a trip on a two-bedroom, a/c boat with a proper bathroom, including three meals, in early December or mid-January. The cruise should last a minimum of 22 hours, though don’t expect to spend all of that on the move: running times are carefully calculated to spare gas. From sunset onwards you’ll be moored at a riverbank, probably on the outskirts of the town where the trip started.

You’ll save quite a lot of cash, and be doing the fragile ecosystem a big favour, by opting for a more environmentally friendly punted kettu vallam. This was how rice barges were traditionally propelled, and though it means you travel at a more leisurely pace, the experience is silent (great for wildlife-spotting) and altogether more relaxing.

Houseboat operators work out of Kollam and Kumbakonam, but most are in Alappuzha, where you’ll find the lowest prices – but also the worst congestion on more scenic routes. Spend a day shopping around for a deal (your guesthouse or hotel-owner will be a good first port of call) and always check the boat over beforehand. It’s also a good idea to get the deal fixed on paper before setting off, and to withhold a final payment until the end of the cruise in case of arguments.

Recommended operators include: Lakes and Lagoons (t0477/223 6181, whttp://www.lakeslagoons.com); River Goddess Houseboats (UK t01726/844 867, India t 9847 846441), whttp://www.rivergoddesshouseboats.com); and the Nest Houseboat (t 0477/2245825 or t9961 466399, whttp://www.johnsonskerala.com).

Local ferries

Kettu vallam may offer the most comfortable way of cruising the backwaters, but you’ll get a much more vivid experience of what life is actually like in the region by jumping on one of the local ferries that serve its towns and villages. Particularly recommended is the trip from Alappuzha to Kottayam (dep 7.30am, 9.35am, 11.30am & 5.15pm; 2hr 30min; Rs10), which winds across open lagoons and narrow canals, through coconut groves and islands. Arrive early to get a good place with uninterrupted views.

There are numerous other local routes that you can jump on and off, though working your way through the complexities of the timetables and Malayalam names can be difficult without the help of the tourist office. Good places to aim for from Alappuzha include Neerettupuram, Kidangara, and Chambakulam; all are served by regular daily ferries, but you may have to change boats once or twice along the way, killing time in local cafés and toddy shops (all of which adds to the fun, of course). Whatever service you opt for, take a sun hat and plenty of water.

Threats to the ecosystem

The African moss that often carpets the surface of the narrower waterways may look attractive, but it is a symptom of the many serious ecological problems currently affecting the region, whose population density ranges from between two and four times that of other coastal areas in southwest India. This has put growing pressure on land, hence a greater reliance on fertilizers, which eventually work their way into the water causing the build-up of moss. Illegal land reclamation, poses the single greatest threat to this fragile ecosystem. In a little over a century, the total area of water in Kuttanad has been reduced by two-thirds, while mangrove swamps and fish stocks have been decimated by pollution and the spread of towns and villages around the edges of the backwater region. Tourism adds to the problem, as the film of oil from motorized ferries and houseboats spreads through the waters, killing yet more fish, which has in turn led to a reduction of over fifty percent in the number of bird species found in the region.

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