The Kerala Backwaters and How to Best Visit Them

Canoeing along the Kerala backwaters.
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The Kerala backwaters is the rather unappealing name given to the peaceful and picturesque palm-lined network of lagoons, lakes, rivers, and canals that run inland from the coast of Kerala, from Kochi (Cochin) to Kollam (Quilon) in India. The main entry point, situated between Kochi and Kollam, is Alleppey (Alappuzha). At the heart of the backwaters is vast Vembanad Lake.

Traditionally, the backwaters are used by locals for transport, fishing, and agriculture. Annual snake boat races, held along the backwaters, also provide a great source of entertainment for the locals and tourists alike.

The lush green landscape, diverse wildlife, and houses and villages that line the backwaters make a journey along these waterways seem like a journey through another world. No wonder the backwaters is one of the must-visit tourist places in Kerala. Don't miss it!

These dreamy photos of the Kerala backwaters show some of the attractions.

Getting to Alleppey From Kochi Airport

Alleppey can easily be reached in just over two hours by prepaid taxi from Kochi airport. Tickets are available at the booth in the airport arrivals hall. Expect to pay about 3,500 rupees. Uber and Ola app-based taxis are also available.

A much cheaper option is to take one of the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation bus services from in front of the airport to Alleppey. Unfortunately, their departure times don't follow a schedule though. If you arrive when there's not a bus, you'll find more services departing from Aluva Rajiv Gandhi Bus Station, about 20 minutes away, and the modern Vytilla Mobility Hub located 45 minutes away in Ernakulam.

Alternatively, Indian Railways trains stop in Alleppey. The railway station closest to Kochi airport is Aluva (spelled Alwaye with code AWY), opposite the bus station. Another option is Ernakulam South, about an hour away.

Kerala houseboat.
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How to Experience the Backwaters

Most people who visit the Kerala backwaters hire a traditional Kerala-style houseboat (called a kettuvallam). It's a quintessential Kerala experience and one of the most tranquil and relaxing things you can do in India. Freshly cooked Indian food and chilled beer make the experience even more enjoyable. You can either go on a day trip or stay overnight on the boat. This guide to Kerala houseboat hire has more information.

A trip on a houseboat can also be combined with staying at a resort, hotel, or homestay along the backwaters. The resorts and luxury hotels commonly have their own houseboats, and offer overnight and sunset cruises. Alternatively, other hotels can easily arrange a houseboat for you. Most of the accommodations are clustered along the banks of Vembanad Lake near Kumarakom in the Kottayam district, and near Alleppey.

Further off the beaten track, Breeze Backwater Homes sits on the backwaters between Kochi and Alleppey (about 40 minutes from Fort Kochi). This quiet homestay offers eco-friendly cottages and reasonably-priced overnight backwater trips in quality non-motorized houseboats.

You can stay along the canals, watch the houseboats go by, and catch the public boat from a jetty. Some recommended, inexpensive options near Alleppey are Palmy Lake Resort and Lemon Dew Homestay.

Or, for somewhere a bit more upmarket, tucked away south of Alleppey check out Ourland Island Backwater Resort or Warmth Lake Haven. In the same area, Riverine Resort is a bit cheaper.

For a small village experience on the backwaters, try Riverdale Villa boutique homestay in north Kumarakom.

Options for Tourist Cruises

If you're traveling on a budget, it's possible to go on one of the many half or full day backwater tourist cruises that are on offer. The cheapest option for cruising the backwaters is on the Alleppey District Tourism Promotion Council (DTPC) tour between Alleppey and a rather unattractive Kollam. The journey takes eight hours and the boat (which is a large boat that's kind of like a ferry) departs daily at 10.30 a.m. from the DTPC boat jetty. There is a daily departure from Kollam at the same time. The cost is 300 rupees per person. Some people will be interested to know that these boats make a stop at the Mata Amritanandamayi Math, Mission of the Hugging Mother.

The main drawback of going on this type of cruise is the length (it tends to get a bit boring after a while) and the fact that it only goes along the main waterways—this means that you'll miss out on the village life that makes the backwaters so fascinating.

Public ferry, Kerala backwaters.
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Public Ferries and Water Taxis

To check out the backwaters very cheaply (only about 50 cents for a round trip), you can take one of the local public ferry services operated by the Kerala State Water Transport Department -- such as the one between Alleppey and Kottayam. Journey time is two hours one-way, with numerous daily departures (the timetable is available here). The ferry service passes through several small canals and villages. Other recommended destinations with regular return ferry services from Alleppey are Nedumudy (the route is a bit closer to Alleppey than Kottayam and has more scenic winding waterways) and Krishnapuram (the longest route, around eight hours from Alleppey). You'll find small restaurants on the jetties along the waterways in case you want to grab a bit to eat.

Of note, one of the ferries is a solar-powered ferry named Aditya, which won the prestigious Gustave Trouve Award for Excellence in Electric Boats and Boating (the world's only international awards exclusively for electric boats) in 2020. It currently runs between Thavanakadavu in Alleppey district and Vaikom in Kottayam district.

Another option is the new Kerala State Water Transport Department water taxi service that commenced in October 2020. These high-speed solar-powered catamarans have seating for up to 10 passengers and operate in Alleppey district. They must be called in a similar manner to normal taxis. Phone 9400-050325 or 9400-050322 to book. The rate is 1,500 rupees per hour.

Backwater Tours Through Villages

These days, many people are choosing "country boat" tours or canoe trips to villages along the narrower Kerala backwaters. This is the best way to really experience the backwaters. Some recommended options include:

Kakkathuruthu Island on Vembanad Lake

This tiny, little-known island rose to fame when National Geographic featured it as an outstanding sunset spot in 2016. Apparently, it used to be inhabited solely by crows but is now home to 350 or so families. The island is a short rowboat ride from the Kodumpuram ferry point near Eramalloor Junction on the mainland. Eco-friendly Kayal Island Retreat is the only place to stay there, with just four rustic waterfront cottages. Rates start from $110 per night.