Munnar and Idukki's high ranges

Inland from the plains around Kottayam and Kochi lie the foothills of the Western Ghats, swathed in tropical evergreen forests and an ever-creeping tide of monoculture rubber plantations. As you climb higher these give way to pepper and cardamom, until finally you reach the rolling tea plantations and rarefied air of landlocked Idukki District. To the south sits Thekkady and the unmissable Periyar National Park, home to tiger, wild elephant, and an innovative project that is steadily turning yesterday's poachers into tomorrow's tour guides. Overnight treks into the park's hinterland offer an unmatched opportunity to see big animals up close and on foot, but even on a day visit Periyar can show you some impressive nature: wild boar foraging along the lakeside, butterflies as big as bats bouncing beneath the canopies of prehistoric jack trees, and the thud-thwack-holler as unruly gangs of Nilgiri Langur swoop through the high branches of giant figs.

Munnar, meanwhile, five hours uphill from Kochi, is chai central: a surreal rippling mosaic of yellow-green tea bushes and red dust roads stretching from valley deep to mountain high, with dark granite peaks pointing like fingers toward the bald grassy dome of South India's highest mountain, Anaimudi. At 1600 m, Munnar is much higher than Thekkady and gets genuinely cold, a fact that made it a favourite summer bolthole for the raj. Wildlife tourists flock to the nearby Eravikulam National Park for a glimpse of the endangered but semi-tame Nilgiri thar, a variety of ibex, while further to the north are the forests and deeply etched ravines of magnificent, rarely visited Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary.

The Midlands (Kottayam to Thekkady)

An interesting drive to the hills, this route follows the Ghat road, which has superb views down the east side of the Ghats onto the Tamil Nadu plains. You may meet herds of Zebu cattle, buffalo and donkeys being driven from Tamil Nadu to market in Kerala. Above 1000 m the air freshens and it can be cold. Be prepared for a rapid change in temperature.

, off the Kottayam-Thekkady road, is a town famous for its learned citizens - graduates of the European-style Gothic university, which was built, along with the Gothic church, by one of its affluent sons. Nehru visited in the 1950s and said that Pala was full of “people of vision”. The town was the most literate place in India long before Kerala achieved 100% literacy, and Meenachil
has the highest proportion of educated women in the country. It is also famous for its tamarind and pepper as well as the rubber estates belonging to the Dominic family, who serve hot Syrian-Catholic lunches in their 100-year-old plantation bungalow and 50-year-old estate mansion.

Further east lies
, whose grey St George's Church holds naïve wood- painted doves and disembodied cherubims, and which hosts the
High Range Festival
every April. Carry on for
, a village set on a chain of three hills: Thangal, Murugal and Kurisumala. A dairy farm here is managed by Kurisumala monks.

Some 25 km south from Vagamon is
, named after Peer Mohammed, a Sufi saint and crony of the royal family of Travancore. It is surrounded by tea, rubber and cardamom plantations, including
Abraham's Spice Garden
, where a member of the family gives excellent spice tours for Rs 50. Buses between Kottayam and Kumily can drop you here.

Many Hindu pilgrims make the journey to the forest shrine dedicated to Sri Aiyappan at
, 191 km north of Thiruvananthapuram . Aiyappan is a particularly favoured deity in Kerala and there are growing numbers of devotees. The shrine is only open on specific occasions:
, mid-November to the end of December;
, mid-January;
, mid-April;
one day in May- June; and during the
festival in August-September.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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