Thekkady is known for one of the largest national parks in India, the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary occupies 777 square kilometres of the Cardamom Hills region of the Western Ghats. The majority of its visitors come in the hope of seeing wild elephants-or even a rare glimpse of a tiger-grazing the shores of the reservoir at the heart of the reserve.
Safari boats daily ferry hundreds of day-trippers around this sprawling, labyrinthine lake, where sightings are most likely at the height of the dry season in April and May. However, for the rest of the year, wildlife is less abundant here than you might expect given Periyar's overwhelming popularity.
Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary
Just a few hours by road from the Kerala coastal cities, and Madurai in Tamil Nadu, it ranks among India's busiest reserves, attracting thousands of visitors over busy holiday periods.
The park's ageing infrastructure, however, has struggled to cope with the recent upsurge in numbers. Most foreign visitors leave disappointed, not merely with the park, but also its heavily commercialized surroundings and apparent scarcity of wildlife.
That said, if you're prepared to trek into the forest, or splash out on luxury accommodation close to the core zone, Periyar can still be worth a stay. Elephant, sambar, Malabar giant squirrel, gaur, stripe-necked mongoose and wild boar are still commonly spotted in areas deeper into the park, and birdlife is prolific.
Another selling point of Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary is is its much-vaunted eco-tourism initiative. Instead of earning their livelihoods thorough poaching and illegal sandalwood extraction, local Manna people are these days employed by the Forest Department to protect vulnerable parts of the sanctuary.
Schemes such as "Border Hiking", "Tiger Trail" and "Jungle Patrol" tours, in which visitors accompany the tribal wardens on their duties, both serve to promote community welfare and generate income for conservation work.
In addition, the area around Periyar holds plenty of engaging day-trip destinations, such as spice plantations and an elephant camp, as well as lot of scope for trekking in the surrounding hills and forest. It is also a lot cooler up there than down on the more humid coast, and many foreign visitors are glad of the break from the heat.
Getting to Thekkady
The base for exploring Periyar is the village of Kumily, south of the main park entrance (known as Thekkady). The road that winds up through the undulating hills from Ernakulam and Kottayam makes for a slow drive but provides wonderful views across the Ghats.
The route is dotted with churches and roadside shrines - a charming Kerala blend of ancient and modern. Once you've climbed through the rubber-tree plantations into Idukki District, the mountains become truly spectacular, and the wide-floored valleys are carpeted with lush tea and cardamom plantations.
Buses from Kottayam (every 30min; 4hr), Ernakulam (8-10 daily; 6hr) and Madurai in Tamil Nadu (hourly; 5hr 30min) pull in to the scurffy bus stand east of Kumily's bazaar. Auto-rickshaw will run you from the bus stand to the visitor centre inside the park for around, stopping at the entrance at Thekkady.
The gates close at 6pm, after which you will have to show proof of an accommodation booking before they will let you in. For the KTDC Lake Palace, the last boat is officially at 4pm, though the hotel can arrange transport for guests as long as the light lasts.
As beds inside the sanctuary are in short supply, most visitors stay in nearby Kumily, a scruffy hill town centered on a busy roadside bazaar. In recent years, hotels and Kashmiri handicrafts emporia have spread south from the market area to within a stone's throw of the park, and tourism now rivals the spice trade as the area's main source of income.
That said, you'll still see plenty of little shops selling local herbs, essential oils and cooking spices, while in the busy cardamom sorting yard behind the Spice Village resort, rows of Manna women sift through heaps of fragrant green pods using heart-shaped baskets.
To book any of the Periyar Tiger Reserve's deservedly popular eco-tourism tours, you'll have to walk down the Thekkady Road to the Eco-Tourism Centre on Ambadi Junction (daily 9am-8pm, last tickets sold at 7.30pm; Tel: 04869 224571)-or better still, book in advance.
Both the State Bank of Travancore, near the bust stand, and the Thekkady Bankers in the main bazaar can change currency and traveller's cheques. There is an ATM at the State Bank of Travancore. Internet facilities are available around Thekkady Junction.
Plantation Visits and Excursions
As well as the attraction of the wildlife sanctuary, spice plantation tours are offered by almost every hotel and tourist agency in Kumily. Unfortunately, many places have become heavily commercialized, so it's worth shopping around.
The only certified organic spice garden in the area, and a particularly enjoyable one to visit, is the Aroma at Chelimada, a short walk west of Kumily on the Kottayam road; for more details, contact the owner, Mr Sebastian ("Baby"), on his Mobile Phone: 9495367837. Most of the plantation charge for a three-hour tour with guide and vehicle.
A popular excursion for families is to Elephant Junction (daily 9am-6pm; Tel: 04869 320474), on the outskirts of Kumily just off the Murikkady road, where you can enjoy elephant rides, help with feeding and washing sessions in the river, and watch timber-dragging demonstrations. In addition, most winters see at least one baby tusker added to the resident herd-a child -friendly photo opportunity.
The windy, grassy ridgetops and forest around Kumily and Periyar afford many fine trekking possibilities, with superb views over the High Range, weather permitting.
Ex-park wardens and other local people make redundant by the recent Eco-Tourism initiative (which reserved jobs for Manna tribal people) offer their services as guides through guesthouses, hotels and restaurants. It can be worth employing someone for a day or more to show you the paths to the best viewpoints; check out their letter of recommendation and follow up tips from fellow visitors.
One route that is especially rewarding is the three-hour hide up Kurisumala, the prominent peak towering to the north west of Kumily, whose summit is crowned with a Holy Cross. As the summit falls within the boundaries of the national park, you're only permitted to hike to it under the auspices of the Eco-Tourism Programme, who market the route as their "Cloud Walk".
Although hilly, this area is also good cycling territory; you can rent bicycles from several stalls in the market, and for heavier-going trips into the mountains, Touromark (Tel: 04869 224332), midway between Kumily and Thekkady, have imported 21-speed mountain bikes for rent.
They also offer guided tours, ranging from four-hour/fifteen-kilometre hacks through local spice gardens, coffee plantations and woodlands to longer expeditions, such as the three night/four-day ride across the Cardamom hills from Periyar to Munnar.
From the Eco-Tourism Centre at Ambadi Junction, the Forest Department runs village tours to a remote tribal settlement on the Tamil Nadu side of the mountains bordering Periyar. You're transported 10km by taxi to the start of the route, which is covered by bullock cart and coracle through a variety of different habitats and farmland. Profits go to the development of the local community.
You're more likely to take meals at your guesthouse or hotel than eat out in Kumily, but for a change of scene the following are best options within walking distance of the bazaar.
West side of the main bazaar
Quality south Indian thali "meals", freshly make each day and served on banana leaves from a buffet. It is more hygienic than the competition further down the main street. Ginger, upstairs, is swisher a/c alternative offering an exhaustive Indian-Chinese-Continental menu.
This relaxing expat-run cafe, on the ground floor of Chrissie's hotel, pulls in a steady stream of foreigners throughout the day and evening for its delicious pizzas, made with Kodai mozzarella; check out the specials board. They also do healthy breakfasts of muesli with fresh fruit, crunchy cereal, toast with home-made bread and cakes, with proper coffee.
Hotel Cochin Bake House
The best of a pretty unimpressive batch of "meals" places on the east side of the main street, close to the bus stand. Most people come at lunch time for the tasty fish curry thali, with optional karimeen masala fry, served on china plates instead of the usual tin trays or leaves.
Pepper Garden Coffee House
In a garden filled with cardamom bushes behind a prettily painted blue-and-green house, a former park guide and his wife whip up tempting traveller's breakfasts(date and raisin pancakes, porridge with jungle honey, fresh coffee and Nilgiri tea), in addition to home-cooked lunches of vet fried rice, curry and dhal, using mostly local organic produce.
Filling Continental buffet breakfasts (fruit, juices, cereals, eggs, toast, peanut butter, home make jams and freshly ground coffee) served on polished wooden tables in the ground-floor cafe of a stylish small hotel. In the afternoons they also do tea and cakes (including a particularly delicious, very British warm plum cake).
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