Kerala is famed for its backwaters, and the most popular thing to do when heading to Alleppey or Kollam is to hire a houseboat and cruise slowly through the serene waters, spotting wildlife and watching village life at the water’s edge as you go.
But here’s the problem. The houseboat tours are just so expensive. A two bedroom overnight tour will cost you at least 11,500 rupees (about £115), or nearly 3,000 rupees per person when split four ways, which in India is a small fortune. Daytime tours are also available, but they cost upwards of 900 rupees per person.
Whilst I can attest that the overnight tour is a nice experience, it definitely didn’t fit within my budget, which when you’re travelling means that other things have to be sacrificed. As with any tourist activity, it was very crowded too, with hundreds of houseboats fighting to dock at sunset.
So if you’re travelling India on a budget, and you want to get a cheap backwaters experience, here’s a tip for you. Forget the overnight backwaters boat tours. You’ll see much more on the local ferry from Kollam to Alleppey (or vice versa), AND it’s a fraction of the price.
I couldn’t find much about this ferry service online so I decided to write a comprehensive guide of what you’re likely to see along the way. I also created a video, embedded below, to show what treats lie ahead.
It’s worth noting that as you’re travelling by public ferry, you do take some of the larger canals so you’re not always right by the edges. Plus there is no option of exploring the smaller canals by canoe, which is a really nice thing to do but cost an extra 500 rupees per person on the overnight tour. OK here we go!
We were travelling north from Varkala so decided to take a rickshaw from Varkala to Kollam (750 rupees / £8) to meet the ferry. During our time in Varkala we had met and got to know a very friendly rickshaw driver called Suresh, and had even been invited to his house for a meal, so we asked him to take us.
The journey from Varkala to Kollam was about an hour and passed by beaches, churches, temples and shrines, and even an elephant! Suresh kept us entertained by telling us about his favourite places along the way.
The ferry departed at 10.30am from Kollam Boat Jetty and took approximately 8 hours. In low season (August-November and February-April) there’s no need to book, you can just turn up and pay the 400 rupees (£4) per person fare, and you’ll be on your way.
In high season (December and January) the captain, Toji tells me that the boat gets to capacity (around 100 people) so it’s best to get there early (before about 9am).
The boat also departs from Alleppey to Kollam (the reverse direction) at exactly the same time each day. The service only runs during the high tourism season (August – April), as the canals can be flooded out in monsoon rains.
We chugged along the backwaters from the seas of Kollam through the narrow canals and open waters of Kerala at a maximum speed of 15 km per hour. The going is slow so bring a book, or even better, use your time to relax and take photos of the surrounding scenery. There is a lot to appreciate!
The morning was mainly palm groves and large, open waters, with the occasional view of daily village life on the water’s edge. People fishing, chatting or simply doing the laundry… and friendly too. Most will give you a wave on your way past.
The first stop was for lunch at a hotel based at the side of the water. They served a delicious fresh, steaming hot vegetarian lunch of traditional Keralan curries for just 100 rupees (£1). My favourite was the plantain curry which was lightly spiced but so warming! They also brought around extras such as fried fish and pineapple in case you wanted something a little special to accompany your food.
Then, it was back on board for the remainder of the journey, and some smaller, more intimate canals, where the waters were a distinctive green colour, and shone like glass. The canals are home to so many different types of birdlife including white headed eagles who swoop down to catch their prey, and the water is also absolutely packed with jellyfish, so strangely enough, we didn’t see anyone daring to swim!
The afternoon brought more of the same, and we were treated to a couple of bird displays, such as the gulls who follow the boats each day and check the churned water for fish. When one appears, they skim the waters and gobble them up in one go!
The other incredible bird display wasn’t what you would think. As it was nearly Easter, the local farmers were rearing ducks for the big Easter breakfast, and there were hundreds of them which our boat cleared out of the way with ease (see the video to find out what I mean).
In the mid-afternoon, we passed through a loch which separates the salt water to the south from the fresh water to the north.
The scenery changed to an even more vibrant green, and there was life everywhere. People washing, swimming, fishing and farming from the fresh water. The banks also showed empty rice paddies, where the harvest s had been taken for the season.
Overall, it was a wonderful experience. And at just 400 rupees, an absolute bargain! If you’ve enjoyed this post, why not follow me on Facebook or Twitter, or subscribe to my email list for more adventure inspiration each month?