I’ve always been wary of organized group travel. I value my freedom to explore a new destination over any other criteria, and I have avoided tours because of this intense fear of losing my ability to connect to a place. I had the opportunity to travel to Kerala, India with Kalypso Adventures, an eco-adventure tour operator out of Kochi, the catch of course was that I would have to adhere to the itinerary they organized. Now, I am not complaining here. It has been my dream to travel to India practically my entire life, and I would jump at any and all opportunities to make that dream realized. Still, I worried whether or not I would be able to truly see India, have an opportunity to interact with her people, and have that freedom to explore in my own haphazard style.
Before I left England, I was sent a tentative itinerary of basic locations, activities, and lodging for each day. It was simple, but enough information to allow pre-departure research of where I would be headed. I decided to arrive in Kerala ahead of schedule so that I could get accustomed to the country on my own beforehand, and explore a little without an itinerary guiding each and every step along the way. A pick-up location and time was set-up, and I received the contact details for my guide in case I had any problems.
After a couple of days exploring Kochi, the morning of my tour had arrived. My guide arrived, along with an intern who would be my companion and roommate throughout the trip, and a driver. Our vehicle was very modern and clean, with plenty of room for the long drives you can expect to endure when exploring such a large state. There was a plentiful supply of bottled water, that I was able to help myself to at any time during the trip.
We jumped right in, the friendly guide giving me some background on our first destination and answering all the questions I had compiled in my first days in India. I was immediately slightly uncomfortable that he would only refer to me as ‘ma’am’ and not by my name, I came to find that this was completely cultural, and not a reflection of my guide’s laidback nature. Still, I didn’t like feeling that I was superior in some way. Imagine only being referred to as ma’am in every scenario. “Ma’am, it is time for dinner. “Yes, ma’am, it is incredibly hot.” I eventually stopped asking him to call me by my name, because I realized it would be more uncomfortable for him to do this as a professional in India, than it was for me to endure.
I think there are probably types of people who would expect this type of guest/staff separation when they book an organized tour, but I am much happier in an environment where we can all be equals and friends. (My cruise with Caledonian Discovery in Scotland was a perfect example of how this can work.) Staff also ate separately, and slept in staff quarters of the properties which were not close to the same standards as the guests. Again, I learned that this was simply a cultural quirk; I was being shown respect. Despite the formal nature of our relationship, my guide was everything I could have hoped for- courteous, friendly, and knowledgeable.
Each day or two we went to a different part of Kerala. As I was on an adventure tour, the days included lots of activities such a cycling, hikes, and mountain treks. I never received a more detailed itinerary as expected, so a lot of times I was left unsure what we would be up to for the day, until we were doing it. One thing I really loved about my tour with Kalypso Adventures is that they are fully flexible, especially when it comes to the activities. The driver follows along behind the group at all times, so if you find yourself too tired or too hot, you can take a break or call it a day. One day, for example, we began a full day cycle from the Thattekad Bird Sanctuary to Munnar. The altitude of Thattekad is between 30 m-620m and Munnar is up there at 1,700m. That is a climb of approximately 5,500 feet, no small feat for even an accomplished cyclist. Which I am not. I loved cycling around the small villages, but once we began climbing those very steep hills, my physical capabilities were no match. I didn’t feel so bad when I couldn’t go further, especially after my guide told me he sometimes takes professional Austrian cyclists on the same route. Still, it was an adventure!
I saw a lot during my eight day tour with Kalypso, and I honestly feel like we really covered the main things to see in Kerala. Here is an overview of their activity holiday.
Day 1-2: Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary, supposedly the richest bird habitat in India. We stayed at The Hornbill Camp, which I can’t recommend enough. (Review to come.) While at Hornbill we went bird watching, explored the spices and produce grown on and around the property, cycled through small villages, and went on a hike where we were able to see an indigenous tribe who live up in the hills.
Day 3: Munnar, a town and hill station covered in tea plantations up in the Western Ghats. We stayed at Olive Brook, a property set outside the city with wonderful food and views. While in Munnar we visited the Kanan Devan Hills tea factory to learn how tea is processed from the field to the bag and took a walk to a nearby tea plantation.
Day 4: Trek to the top of Meesapulimala, the second highest peak of the Western Ghats. This was by far the most challenging day, but it was also my favorite. If you want to see Kerala, there is no better view than looking down from 2,640 metres (8,661 ft). On the way down we stopped at the Kolukkumalai Tea Estate, the highest tea plantation in the world. As there were obviously way less tourists due to the location, I was able to really take in plantation life and get a better idea of the conditions the workers endure. It was an incredible experience. We camped at a tent style property which was by far the least luxurious during the week. Let’s just say I had a few friends in my room…
Day 5-6: We left camp late due to a strike which made it unsafe to be on the roads. Eventually we made our way to Thekkady, location of the world famous Periyar Tiger Reserve. We stayed at Wildernest, a fabulous bed and breakfast crawling with monkeys. Here there was a lot of free time to walk around Thekkady, get some henna, attend a cultural show, and eat. The next morning we went with a guide at Periyar to look for tigers and elephants, which we saw none of. (But still an amazing walk nonetheless.) We also visited Elephant Junction, a popular place for elephant rides, admittedly at my own insistence. I was completely disgusted by the treatment and conditions of the elephants here, I would not recommend visiting. Needless to say we left quite quickly, I had no interest in taking part. After this experience I am officially in the ‘don’t ride elephants’ camp.
Day 7-8: The last two days were spent back in Kochi, staying at the uber luxurious Brunton Boatyard. After a tour of the city by tuk-tuk, my guide said goodbye, and left us to our own devices. Kalypso arranged a taxi to take me back to the airport, and I said goodbye to India.
I don’t know about you, but one of the biggest reasons I wanted to go to India was to eat. From the first day, to the last, all of the food was exceptional. Even at the budget camp up on a mountain we were served incredible food- and always way more than any person (or 20 people) could eat in a sitting. As all the spices are grown locally, food is farm to table just about everywhere. Keralan cuisine is spicy, but I love a good kick. Foodies will be more than happy on any tour with Kalypso- that is a promise.
Overall Experience with Kalypso Adventures
While there were a few negatives such as the staff to guest formalities and an unclear itinerary, as a whole my experience with Kalypso Adventures was phenomenal. It is also worth noting that many of the activities, such as the trek to top of Meesapulimala, are extremely difficult without a tour company due to government restrictions, fees, and bureaucracy. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the company for those looking for an adventure tour in Kerala, and honestly I would use them again in the future.
Kalypso Adventures is an eco-responsible company. This means that all activities consider the environment, local people, and wildlife in order to make the smallest impact possible during the trip. All properties used during the tours adhere to the same standards. When you aren’t eating at the properties, you can expect to eat at local, family run establishments. The companies Kalypso uses during your tours are all local, small businesses. This makes for much more authentic interactions and you know that your money goes toward the region and the locals who live there.
Kerala, India is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. The people are warm and genuinely friendly, regardless of circumstance, the food may just be the best in the world, and the nature and wildlife are life-changing. I hope my review of Kalypso Adventures was helpful, if you have any further questions- don’t hesitate to get in touch!
For more info on the tours offered by Kalypso Adventures, you can visit their website or Facebook page. Tours start from $550 per person and include accommodation, activities, transport, and most food.
Disclaimer: I was a guest of Kalypso Adventures. Flights, visa fees, and extras were covered by myself. All thoughts and opinions expressed here are purely my own. As always.