A spicy city of homestays, lakes and culture, Kochi is the unofficial capital of Kerala. Go between December and March, before temperatures skyrocket. Or holiday like a local from June to August to embrace India’s southwest monsoon.
A rich trading port, Kochi was influenced by Africa, China, Europe and the Middle East for centuries, blending its diverse heritage into what is today the most tolerant and welcoming city in India.
Cochin (as its inhabitants prefer to call it) is a collection of islands and peninsulas squeezed between the shores of tranquil Vembanad Lake and the Arabian Sea. Each district has a distinct personality, from the colonial trading post of Fort Cochin and concrete towers of Ernakulam, to the sandy beaches of Vypeen Island.
A multicultural masala of humanity, there is a place for everyone here. In Ernakulam (the commercial district) Jew Street, Muslim Street and Convent Road weave together through its heaving market area. And in Mattancherry the first synagogue in India stands just down the road from the first European church. Here too you can hear the Muslim call to prayer as Hindu incense mixes with the pervading scent of pepper and spices.
- The airport’s small. Providing you have your visa in order it should be a smooth passage into the arrivals lounge for international flights or an even quicker transition in the domestic terminal.
- The cosy departure lounge in the domestic terminal is filled with rows of comfy armchairs, a little like an MFI showroom.
- The terminals sit next to each other, so if you end up in the wrong one it’s only a short schlep before you find the right place.
- There is an ATM.
- You might be met by the hotel bus driver, or your homestay host may have sent a grinning autorickshaw driver in a lungi (sarong) to collect you. If you have no pre-booked transport, the easiest way to get to Cochin is to take a taxi. Pay a fixed fare in the booth inside the terminal to avoid any unnecessary haggling. The city is about 30km away, but it could take anywhere between half an hour to an hour and a half to get there. Drivers usually like to chat all the way; they don’t expect a tip, they just want to know all about you and tell you how wonderful their city is. Keralans love visitors, particularly those from overseas.
A cheap and comfortable way to get around India, and often an adventure in its own right. If you are offered the chance to travel in one, take it for the engrossing view and chance to mix with the locals. Kochi has two main stations, both in Ernakulam, from where you can connect to just about anywhere in India. At Ernakulam Junction or Ernakulam Town, pick up an autorickshaw to your accommodation.
Even cheaper than the train. But the way they pack in the passengers can leave the unsuspecting traveller in a state of dishevelment; and the speed at which they drive on India’s less than perfect roads, in a state of shock. From the terminus use an autorickshaw to reach your accommodation.
‘Tuk-Tuk’ is a Thai word. Three-wheeled motorcycle vehicles in India are known as autorickshaws, just ‘autos’, or even ‘rickshaws’. Some of the more tourist-savvy drivers in Fort Cochin use ‘tuk-tuk’ when not referring to their vehicle as a ‘Cochin helicopter’ or ‘ Cochin Ferrari’; they will also charge you ten times the going rate.
One day tour
If you only have a day and a night, stay in Fort Cochin. Packed with old European buildings and pickled charm, it is an area which will feel familiar to travellers. It’s also a gentle way to ease into the sometimes primitive comforts of India. As you stroll through the flower-bordered lanes around the parade ground, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Sussex. There is almost always a game of cricket in progress. Take your shoes off and cool down among the simple white-washed walls, smooth flagstone floor and elegant 16th century woodwork of St Francis Church. Vasco da Gama, ‘discoverer’ of Cochin, was buried there before his remains were shipped back to Portugal.
When you’ve recharged with some freshly cooked fish straight from the iconic Chinese fishing nets, walk east towards Mattencherry. For a glimpse into the daily grind, follow the waterfront towards the customs jetty, and down congested Bazaar Road. Buildings line either side of the path blocking your view of the lake, which is a good excuse to drop into one of the hotels along the river front.
Keep walking and Mattancherry seamlessly turns into ‘Jew Town’. This is the name of the district where Jewish settlers left their mark on Cochin over hundreds of years of trading. The 16th century Pardesi Synagogue is worth fighting through the ‘antique’ shops to visit.
If you still have time, and are not exhausted by the heat, take a trip on Cochin’s excellent ferry system. You’ll be in good company as you stand among the autos on the 2 rupee car ferry to Vypeen Island, or squash together in the people carrier which runs back and forth to Ernakulam. Ferries are cheap and reliable (unless there is a strike, which happens surprisingly often) and can be a bit of an adventure as you are herded along by the colourful and inquisitive crowd.
Kerala is all about homestays. Meet the locals, eat some home cooking, experience life in a Kochi home, what could be better? Sithara Homestay, or ‘Harry’s place’ as it is known to most of its visitors, makes you wonder why you don’t just chuck it all in and run a B&B somewhere exotic, like Cochin. Double rooms start at £20.
Its fusion French/Malayalam cuisine is enough to bring you to this hotel, but the Fort House Hotel also offers cool accommodation round a garden courtyard with a coveted view overlooking the lake. It’s dry, so bring acohol to drink in your room, or try a cup of thirst-busting ginger tea in the restaurant. Rooms start at £45.
At the tip of Willingdon Island, opposite scenic Fort Cochin and the Chinese fishing nets, is the Vivanta by Taj. Like all the hotels in this famous Indian hotel group it is pure luxury, from the spotless waterfront decking to its elephant fountain swimming pool. At the time of writing rooms start from £85 per night.
Stay another day?
Most visitors pop in on their way to or from one of Kerala’s beach resorts, renowned back-water tours or hill plantation trips. But Cochin is a destination in its own right. A few days in an elegant family-run homestay among the colonial buildings of this hospitable city, with a day trip to untainted Kuzhupilly beach and a morning in the lanes of Ernakulam’s heaving market, will beguile even the most cynical traveller. But it’s the food, particularly the home-cooked variety, reckoned by many to be the best in India, that will detain you. Don’t expect to lose weight, though, as you can’t eat anything that hasn’t had a coconut introduced to it at some point in the cooking process. Meen moilee just about sums up Cochin cuisine: sear fish stakes hooked from the ocean, then cooked in coconut milk, green chillies, and curry leaves.
Need to know
Population: the 2011 census shows the metropolitan population at 2.1 million
Language: Malayalam, English
International dialling code: +91
Visas: famous for being a convoluted process, visa requirements change regularly. They vary from country to country. At the time of writing, India has announced a plan to introduce visa-oun-arrival for UK passport holders.
Currency: Indian rupee. Around IR70 to the UK£
Health: Vaccinations for any trip to India: Hepatitis A; Tetanus; Typhoid. Although it is not a high risk area, take anti-malarial precautions. Creams, sprays and covering up are the best defences against insect bites.
Climate: Kochi is hot all year, seldom dipping below 30°. The lively monsoon arrives from Africa at some point in June and around September. It brings much-needed rain and is celebrated throughout the country. May is uncomfortably hot, even for the locals.
International art festival
Get an art fix in the tropics. India’s second biennale starts in December 2014. The first biennale in 2012 was a spectacular success, and the coming event is expected to be even better attended. Cochin is a riot of art and happenings throughout the art festival, lending its assorted backdrops of walls, wharfes, and water to artists from all over the world. Kochiites are justifiably proud of their achievement. “Modern Kerala representing modern art. Modern Kerala moving forward from simply the backwaters for which it is famous,” said Jose Dominic, one of the trustees, in 2012.