Munnar, 130km east of Kochi and 110km north (4hr 30min by bus) of the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, is the centre of Kerala’s principal tea-growing region. A scruffy agglomeration of corrugated-iron-roofed cottages and tea factories, its centre on the valley floor fails to live up to its tourist-office billing as “hill station”, but there’s plenty to enthuse about in the surrounding mountains, whose lower slopes are carpeted with lush tea gardens and dotted with quaint old colonial bungalows. Above them, the grassy ridges and crags of the High Range offer superlative trekking routes, many of which can be tackled in day-trips from the town – though note that peninsular India’s highest peak, Ana Mudi (2695m), is closed to visitors for the time being.
It’s easy to see why the pioneering Scottish planters who developed this hidden valley in the 1870s and 1880s felt so at home here. At an altitude of around 1600m, Munnar enjoys a refreshing climate, with crisp mornings and sunny blue skies in the winter – though as with all of Kerala, torrential rains descend during the monsoons. Munnar’s greenery and cool air draw streams of well-heeled honeymooners and weekenders from south India’s cities. However, increasing numbers of foreign visitors are stopping for a few days too, enticed by the superbly scenic bus ride from Periyar, which takes you across the high ridges and lush tropical forests of the Cardamom Hills, or for the equally spectacular climb across the Ghats from Madurai.
Clustered around the confluence of three mountain streams, Munnar town is a typical hill bazaar of haphazard buildings and congested market streets; the daily vegetable market in the main bazaar is a good place for a wander (closed Wed).
State-run and private buses pull into the town bus stand in the modern main bazaar, near the river confluence and Tata headquarters; state buses continue through town, terminating nearly 3km south. For most hotels, you should ask to be dropped off at Old Munnar, 2km south of the centre, near the ineffectual DTPC tourist office.
Munnar’s accommodation costs significantly more than elsewhere in the High Range region, reflecting the high demand for beds from middle-class tourists from the big cities. Rooms at the low end of the scale are in particularly short supply; the few that exist are blighted by racket from the bus stand and bazaar. There are some options outside town that would suit travellers with their own transport.
The thattukada (hot food stall market) just south of the main bazaar, opposite the taxi stand, gets into its stride around 7.30pm and runs through the night, serving delicious, piping-hot Keralan food – dosas, parathas, iddiappam, green-bean curry, egg masala – ladled onto tin plates and eaten on rough wood tables in the street.
Although it doesn’t physically demonstrate how tea is made, the Kanan Devan Hills Tea Museum, 2km northwest of the centre, is worth a visit for its collection of antique machinery and exhibition of photos of the area’s tea industry, ranging from 1880s pioneers to the modern Tata tea conglomerate. The highlight of the visit is a short audio-visual presentation outlining how tea was introduced to the region and how it is processed today, rounded off with a tasting session; and there’s a shop selling various KDH products.
Buses wind their way up to the aptly named Top Station, a hamlet famed for its views and meadows of Neelakurunji plants, and to the more distant nature sanctuaries of Eravikulam and Chinnar, where you can spot Nilgiri tahr, elephants and many other wild animals. To reach the most remote attractions, however, you might want to hire a taxi for the day.
Encompassing 100 square kilometres of moist evergreen forest and grassy hilltops in the Western Ghats, Eravikulam National Park is the last stronghold of one of the world’s rarest mountain goats, the Nilgiri tahr. Its innate friendliness made the tahr pathetically easy prey during the hunting frenzy of the colonial era. Today, however, numbers are healthy, and the animals have regained their tameness, largely thanks to the efforts of the American biologist Clifford Rice, who studied them here in the early 1980s. Unable to get close enough to observe the creatures properly, Rice followed the advice of locals and attracted them using salt, and soon entire herds were congregating around his camp. The tahrs’ salt addiction also explains why so many hang around the park gates at Vaguvarai, where visitors – despite advice from rangers – slip them salty snacks.
You’re almost guaranteed sightings of tahr from the minute you enter the park gates, reached by shuttle bus (₹20). From there, you can walk a further 1500m up a winding single-track road before the rangers turn you around, but expect to do so in the company of hundreds of other tourists on weekends – a rather hollow experience.
Although it borders Eravikulam, the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary is far less visited, not least because its entrance lies a two-hour drive from Munnar along winding mountain roads. The reserve, in the rain shadow of the High Range and thus much drier than its neighbour, is one of the best spots in the state for birdwatching, with 225 species recorded to date. But the real star attractions are the resident grizzled giant squirrels, who scamper in healthy numbers around the thorny scrub here, and the near-mythical “white bison of Manjampatti”, thought to be an albino Indian gaur.
Members of local tribal communities (who won’t be fluent in English) act as guides for popular day-treks that might take in prehistoric rock art, dolmen sites or a waterfall – all of which can be arranged on spec at a counter next to the Chinnar Forest Check Post. For multiday treks, you can camp or book a bed in the thirty-bed dormitory, but this needs to be arranged in advance at the Forest Information Centre in Munnar or with Kestrel Adventures.
Although south India’s highest peak, Ana Mudi, is off-limits due to the Nilgiri tahr conservation programme, several of the other summits towering above Munnar can be reached on day-treks. The hiking scene is surprisingly undeveloped and it makes sense to use the services of a guide, particularly for Meesapulimalai Peak (2640m), which can be accessed from Silent Valley or Kolukkumalai estates and could easily be incorporated into a multiday excursion. Always check whether transport to and from the trailhead is included.
This professionally run local adventure company arranges treks, sightseeing by jeep and mountain biking.
The Kerala Forest Development Corporation arranges 24hr treks, including basic overnight accommodation in Silent Valley and transfers in packed jeeps.
Top image: Tea plantation in Munnar, India © saiko3p/Shutterstock