By the time I hit Kerala I was more than ready for it: with Rajasthan’s dusty forts a distant memory I was ready to hit up something a little more tropical. That’s the incredible thing about Kerala: after a short and breezy (read: forty hour and mosquito-infested) coastal train down from the north, you find yourself in paradise. Of course, to the rational mind that doesn’t doubt the existence of continental drift, this shouldn’t really come as much of a shock. But I was still in awe of the abundant African-esque flora and fauna at my disposal.

After adjusting to communist Kerala for a few days we opted to take a local bus through the windy Western Ghats to Thekkady, an untainted town with lots of things on offer. For some reason Thekkady seems to evade some people’s schedules, but I’d list it as one of my favourite Keralan destinations. For this leg of the trip I’d arranged a home stay with the lovely Cyriac and Dolly at Pepper County ( – be warned that hostels can be really hit or miss, so if visiting be sure to have a look at the thriving home stay scene.

The home stay was lovely: Pepper County comes equipped with beautiful bedrooms, views of the surrounding countryside and a commercial farm that Cyriac will gladly show you around. Here I really felt at home as Dolly served up the best Keralan cuisine I had the pleasure of eating: egg curry, sweet cardamom pancakes and frosty beer. Cyriac is a brilliant host, and took me up to some viewpoints before letting me head out in search of tigers.

Head to Thekkady and get lost in the undergrowth

Thekkady sits alongside the Periyar Tiger Reserve, making the 5 o’clock start for the full day safari that little less tragic. I only spent a few days ambling through this gorgeous national park but could have easily spent more – unfortunately, the tigers are elusive at the best of times, with some workers only catching a glimpse of a dozen or so in a decade’s work. Regardless, the various trek routes and abundance of other animals make it worthwhile. In just a few hours I managed to tick off just about everything but the tiger, including elephants, bison and vibrant birds. All of this hard work was concluded with a relaxing bamboo raft across the park’s tranquil lake.

Thanks to tips from Cyriac I managed to avoid a lot of the tourist traps in the town: every taxi driver and hostel owner seems to know about an ‘elephant sanctuary’ in the town, but usually these amount to nothing. Cyriac arranged for me to visit a proper elephant training camp, where I was able to help care for the elephants and see how the villagers incorporate them into village life. With just a few simple commands, the elephants are trained to help in various construction processes by moving heavy materials. In this camp you can tell that the elephants are well looked after: they have a beautiful home, respectful owners and a more-than-ample food supply. Giving the elephants a coconut scrub after a rough day at the office is a must for visitors to Thekkady.

Having been tempted by Dolly’s artisan Keralan culinary skills, I spent my last night in town attempting to replicate some of the results. I spent far too much time in India in cooking classes but could have easily kept going: in spite of the results being sub-par the feast is always a delight. Plus it’s a great place to hook up with other backpackers on a similar circuit. Thekkady was a great place to dabble with Keralan cuisine, what with all of the necessary ingredients literally being taken from the garden outside the family home.

In short, don’t bypass Thekkady if you’re in the area (and indeed, go out of your way to be in the area): it’s sure to be a high point of your trip. The locals are humble, the nature serene, and the sights, sounds and smells as alluring as ever. When you’re bored of temples and forts, head to Thekkady and get lost in the undergrowth.

Planning a trip to Kerala?

Kerala Holidays were awarded as India’s Best In-Bound Tour Operator 2011, and offer tailor-made tour packages for groups of all sizes. Visit the website and check out some testimonials.