From pristine beaches and backwaters to extensive stretches of tea and spice plantations and rolling hills, Kerala, the narrow state running 560 km (350 miles) along India's western coast, is a land of diverse natural beauty. The scenery changes across the breadth of the state, and is dotted with waterfalls, fresh springs, and forests full of the opportunity to spot unique species of birds and wildlife. It is also rich in history, with Hindu temples and Christian churches dating back hundreds or thousands of years and a culture that include dance, martial arts, and age-old ayurvedic treatments.
From the more recent past, coastal cities preserve colonial mansions and 19th-century godowns (warehouses) used to store spices and teas and coffee from the plantations. Outside of the historic, spice-trading city of Kochi, attractions are rustic: quiet beaches spiked with palm trees line the west coast; the hilly eastern interior is heavily forested. Kochi is the anchor of low-lying central Kerala, a region dominated by lazy inland waterways, broad lakes, rice fields, and fishing boats; the backwater lifestyle is best experienced from the deck of a slow-moving houseboat. Farther inland, you'll find tranquil tea and spice plantations as well as two national parks and a sanctuary. At Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, near Thekkady, you can observe creatures in their native habitat from the comfort of a boat. Rajamala Wildlife Sanctuary, in the Evarikulam National Park near Munnar, is where you'll find the endangered Nilgiri tahr, a shy but sweet-tempered mountain goat. At Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary you may have a better chance of seeing wild elephants or bison. The hills surrounding Thekkady and Munnar are lovely for trekking and rich in waterfalls and birdsong, especially in the rains. Southern Kerala is best known for the sparkling beaches near Kovalam, which lie south of the stately capital city, Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), the home of the famous Padmanabhaswamy Temple. Undeveloped, conservative northern Kerala is the state's cultural heartland; you can witness some of the region's most spectacular festivals here. Kerala's Muslim community is concentrated in the north, and Christians are largely in the central and southern regions. Note that many of Kerala's low-slung, modest temples restrict entry to Hindus only.