Kerala backwaters are one of the most popular destinations in the world. Located in the sunny south Indian state of Kerala, the backwater is an intricate network of lakes, canals, inlets, lagoons, and rivers. Stretching over 900 kilometers, these waterways are both man-made and network and have been used in history for transportation purposes. Dense human habitat can be found along the backwater and some spots attract migratory birds in hordes. The backwaters, however, are so vast and complex, that for a first-timer, exploring them can be a daunting task, especially if you are looking for slightly offbeat experiences. Kerala backwaters have been mapped for convenience sake and at different places, there are cities and villages, that act as jumping off/ending points of cruises. This Kerala backwaters guide has been made to decipher the enchanting waterways and help you select the experience which suits your travel style and budget.

A beautiful sunset cruise on a Kerala houseboat

Let’s begin this Kerala backwaters guide by understanding what makes this region so unique

The picturesque backwaters of Kerala run parallel to the coast of the Arabian Sea and at some places, the freshwater of the rivers mingle with the saline sea tides. At Vembanad Kayal in Kumarakom, an artificial boundary prevents the lake freshwater from getting mixed with the saltwater of the sea, and this water is used for irrigation purposes. This is important since the backwaters are home to a huge agrarian population, and nourishes Kerala’s abundance of rice fields. Many different animals, reptiles, fishes, and amphibians call it home and these include frogs, crabs, mudskippers, turtles, and otters. Many birds can also be found here and the darters, cormorants, kingfishers, and snake birds are the most common ones. along with water birds such as darters, terns, cormorants, and kingfishers. Palm trees, frangipani, and pandanus shrubs line the banks of the channels creating the famous lush, verdant look of Kerala.

This map will help understanding kerala backwaters guide

Kerala Backwaters Map  PC  Indmaps

Kerala backwaters guide to the most beautiful spots

Irrespective of whether you love comfort and liveliness, or wish to go off the well-trodden path, Kerala backwaters destinations has something for every travel style. Presenting a Kerala backwaters guide to some of the most beautiful places in the region.

  • ALLEPPEY Famous for being the destination of the annual Aranmula or Nehru Snake Boat Race, Alleppey is most popular among the tourists. It is easily accessible and is a hotbed of traditional houseboats. Alleppey offers many day/multi-day trips and cruises along the backwaters on the boat suitable for your budget and taste. The Cochin International Airport and the Trivandrum International Airport are the nearest airports to Alleppey and are located at a distance of 75km and 150km respectively. Alleppey Railway Station is well connected with major cities and towns of Kerala. Public transportation can be easily found there and one can get buses, autos, and taxis to reach Alleppey. The best time to visit Alleppey is September to March. Don’t miss the Nehru Trophy Boat Race which is conducted on the Punnamda Lake, near Alappuzha, on the second Saturday of August every year.
  • KUMARAKOM Famous for the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary, this backwater is more tranquil than Alleppey. It is also an ornithologist’s paradise. Kumarakom is just 70 kilometers from Kochi and has the unique Bay Island Drift Museum, which houses a unique collection of driftwood and root sculptures. Try out a rustic, fiery meal at one of the local toddy shops. This backwater destination is well connected with Kottayam and Cochin by train and road. The Kottayam railway station is only 13 kilometers from Kumarakom and it takes three hours to reach there from Cochin International Airport.
  • KOLLAM We explored Kollam recently and it offers one of the finest backwater destinations in Kerala. Around 30 percent of the backwaters of Kollam is occupied by the famous Ashtamudi Lake and this city has one of the oldest ports on the Malabar Coast. Renowned for its cashew industry, Kollam and nearby Munroe Island offer slices of the authentic local life of Kerala backwaters. Check out Alumkadavu in Kollam. The first houseboats in India were built here. Kollam is best suitable for those wanting to get away from the tourist traps and enjoy the tranquility. Kollam and Munroe Island are around 4 hours by train from Cochin. Direct trains and buses are available and at 70 kilometers away, Trivandrum is the nearest airport.
  • KASARGOD Placed in the northernmost tip of Kerala, Kasargod backwaters have their own unique charm. Surrounded by the Western Ghats with the Chandragiri River flowing close by, Kasargod has a number of forts, temples, and beaches. Blessed with verdant views with 12 rivers flowing through its plains, a boat cruise in Kasargod will take you through meandering channels, lagoons, while the sights of key-shaped Bekal Fort will not fail to take your breath away.
  • POOVAR  A small village, Poovar has a lovely beach and tranquil backwaters. The Thiruvananthapuram Airport is only 30 kilometers away.
  • KURUVA ISLAND Also known as Kuruva Dweep is home to exotic flora and fauna. A major tourist attraction in Wayanad, Kuruva is made up of a cluster of small islands formed by the delta in the river Kabini. It spreads across 950 acres of uninhabited area and is a seasonal attraction since entry to Kuruva Island is restricted during monsoons.

    Beautiful Kerala backwaters sunsets

Kerala backwaters guide to the types of houseboats and categories 

Locally known as Ketuvallam, Kerala houseboats are modeled after the grain barges that they traditionally used to be. Most come with the signature thatched roof made from coconut fronds and are equipped with modern facilities. These houseboats are available for day cruises and night stays. Unlike the Srinagar houseboats, Kerala rice barges sail up and down the backwaters and you can select the route of your choice. The rates of the houseboats depend upon the category and the state government has divided them into Platinum, Gold, and Silver based on the facilities. These boats have single/double/triple and five bedrooms along with a private balcony, sundeck, toilet, fully equipped kitchen, T.V, lounges, PlayStation for the kids, or Karaoke machines. The luxurious ones come with double decks and sundecks. During peak season, it is advisable to reserve a houseboat beforehand, irrespective of whether you prefer a day cruise or an overnight stay. The crew consists of a cook and usually two skilled oarsmen. Given below are the different categories of houseboats in Kerala:

  • Standard houseboat comes with basic necessities and most of these are without air-conditioner.
  • Deluxe/ Premium Houseboat is quite comfortable and has air-conditioning which works at night.
  • Luxury / Super Deluxe Houseboat is equipped with world-class luxuries and comforts like round the clock air-conditioner and trained butlers.

    A traditional Kerala rice barge which is now used as a houseboat

Kerala Houseboat Food

The food seems to be a pretty standard fare which is served on all houseboats. Vegetarian and non-vegetarian options are available and some even cater to special dietary needs. Fresh coconut water is served as the welcome drink and lunch is usually rice, sambhar, mixed vegetables, fish, and fruit slices. Dinner consists of vegetarian or non-vegetarian curry, chappati or Indian bread, dal, rice, and salad. Tea, coffee, and local fritters are served as snacks and breakfast options vary between dosa and eggs, bread, butter, and jam. Alcoholic beverages like beer and wine can be enjoyed on board, provided you bring them along with yourself.

Kerala Backwaters Guide on the houseboat tours

There are a number of routes in these canals where houseboats can sail. The backwaters of Alleppey and Kumarakom are the most famous and the following are some popular routes of these regions.

  • Alleppey or Alappuzha Backwater Route The Alleppey round-trip day cruise is very popular among the day-trippers. In this route, the houseboat sails through Kuttanad, the “Rice-Bowl of Kerala”. Needless to say, the main attraction on this route is the Kuttanadu Paddy farming which takes place below sea level. The 11th-century statue of Lord Buddha or Karumadikuttan is located near Alleppey and for overnight stays, the houseboat is anchored in the lake.
  • Kumarakom Backwater Route Lying close to the beautiful Vembanad Lake, Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary is a popular attraction. The most popular activity here is a houseboat cruise on the waters of the Lake when one can enjoy bird watching and scintillating sunsets.
  • Alleppey to Kumarakom Backwater Route Alleppey to Kumarakom Backwater Route is a mix of everything enchanting about rural backwaters Kerala. The highlights of this route are paddy fields, local villages, and a bird sanctuary.
  • Alleppey to Alumkadavu Backwater Route Alumkadavu is 21 kilometers away from Kollam. The cruise between Kollam and Alleppey is the longest backwater cruise is in Kerala and is covered in a duration of 8 hours. This cruise covers the whole backwater area, including traversing through narrow channels. Half of the distance is covered on the first day, and on the second day, the cruise reaches Kollam. It is an extremely scenic route and a beautiful option for honeymooners.
  • Alleppey to Thottappalley Backwater Route Alleppey to Thottappalley route has a number of attractions such as traditional houses on the banks called Chavara Bhavan, a sail on Punnamada Lake, Ambalappuzha temple, 11th century Buddha state temple-Karumadikkuttan, and Champakkulam Church.

    Local life along the Kerala backwaters.

Duration of the Kerala backwaters tour on a houseboat

  • Day trips If you do not prefer to sleep on a houseboat then this is the best option. The day trips are available mostly in Alleppey and Kumarakom and the trip consists of a short sail, lunch, and snacks before heading back to the shore at sunset.
  • One Night  It gives you the experience of sleeping on the water, witnessing a beautiful sunrise, see some village life and relax a little.
  • Two Nights This is extremely relaxing especially if you need to recharge your batteries and get away from the chaos of the Indian cities.
  • Best of both worlds For a more unique and pricey Kerala backwaters experience, mix up your trip with an overnight stay on a houseboat followed by a luxurious night at a resort at Kumarakom.
  • Go off the well-trodden path and canoe or paddle around This is suitable at locations that are more remote like Munroe Island. We took this option by staying at Munroe Island Backwaters Homestay, enjoying the village life, and canoed all the way to Ashtamudi Lake on a paddle boat at sunset. We even enjoyed a sunset swim in Ashtamudi Lake. You can canoe yourself or rent a boat with an oarsman.

    Kerala travel should include a boat race

    Kerala snake boat race

Activities to do while visiting the backwaters and other tips

  • Canoe or paddle down narrow channels to explore the local villages
  • Enjoy a cooking class
  • Try your hand at fishing
  • Cycle around the paddy fields
  • Hop on a government ferry to experience the local life of the backwaters residents

All these arrangements can be done on request and confirm with your houseboat operator at the time of booking. Do not forget to pack sufficient cash, a flashlight, a mosquito repellent, identity proof, and so on before embarking on your Kerala houseboat cruise. Most houseboat cruise packages include pick-up and drop from hotels, airports, or railway stations.

A bit about responsible Kerala backwaters guide

Every single day at least 1,200 houseboats ply the backwaters and many of them are unregistered. This leads to many unhealthy practices like unsafe boats, unhygienic living accommodations, improper waste management, and environmental abuse. Recently, it was found out that houseboat operations on Vembanad Lake exceed its carrying capacity, leading to depleted fish stock, fuel spill, and direct disposal on boat waste on the water. Incidentally, Kerala backwaters residents face a shortage of clean drinking water and many incidences of ill health due to prolonged contact with polluted water have been reported. Farmers also let pesticide residues from their paddy fields seep into the water, and water hyacinth chokes up whatever life remains. Loud drunken behaviour of tourists on the houseboats, explicitly sexual gestures, and vibration of the motorized boats are the other drawbacks leaving negative footprints on the Kerala backwaters. Think about it before you embark on a backwater cruise and know if you can make a positive difference by opting for a non-motorized vessel, canoeing instead of a cruise, etc.

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