Kettuvallam in the Kerala backwaters of Aluppuzha

The Kerala Backwaters | How To Best Experience (& Preserve) It’s Lush Beauty

In addition to the stunning panoramic views from Kerala’s many hill stations and mountaintops, its brilliant tea plantations, serene rice fields, vast wildlife sanctuaries, and tropical rainforest area, Kerala has yet another popular tourist attraction, the Kerala backwaters; a network of lush, palm tree-lined canals, lakes, and lagoons, known as the ‘Venice of the East’.

These picturesque waterways have been an important way of life here for centuries, key for agriculture, fishing, transportation, and more. It’s a place where water takes the center stage, with wooden boats as the main family vehicle and markets that float by. A place so tranquil, tourists flock here to cruise the sleepy canals, see its villages, and experience life here.

This post covers the most popular ways to experience the Kerala backwaters, along with the pros and cons of each.

About The Kerala Backwaters

The Kerala backwaters are located near the southwestern end of India, nestled between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats. As the seawater flows inward, especially during monsoon season, the mountains act as a barrier pushing it back. Over the centuries, this back and forth action has carves an intricate network of waterways into the terrain here, known as the backwaters. These backwaters, which contain a mix of seawater and freshwater, have an unique ecosystem, teeming with biodiversity, as well as beauty.

Today there are around 560 miles (900 km) of idyllic interconnected rivers, lakes, lagoons, and inlets here, covering 10 districts in Kerala. The largest district, as well as its most popular, and one of its most beautiful, is Alappuzha (also known as Alleppey). It’s located about 33 miles (53 km) south of Kochi, bordering Vembanal Lake, which is India’s largest lake, on its southwestern side.

Kerala Backwaters

Aluppuzha is a magnet for travelers looking to escape the chaos of city life, a place to regenerate and appreciate the beauty of nature. A place to languidly cruise the waterways, watch the sunset reflect off the canal, and see birds flitting about as the palm leaves blow in the breeze.

Kumarakom is the second most popular area for backwaters cruises after Aluppuzha. It’s located on the eastern side of Vembanal Lake, northeast of Aluppuzha. It’s much more natural and more rural, so more relaxing and less touristy. There’s even a bird sanctuary here. The accommodation here is also more luxurious, with more spas and resorts.

Tourism In The Kerala Backwaters

Tourism in the Kerala backwaters has grown tremendously over the past two decades. Literally millions arrive here annually to see the backwaters here. This, unfortunately, puts a huge strain on its fragile ecosystem. There are issues with overcrowding, emissions, oil and fuel leakage, as well as numerous houseboats (which are extremely popular here) with poor waste management processes.

The government has put some standards in place to help mitigate pollution. There is reportedly a system where ratings are awarded to houseboats based on their sustainability level. They are ranked as silver, gold, or diamond status, based on a variety of different factors. Yet I can not find these ratings anywhere in marketing material. Plus, it’s not regulated.

Because of this, if you do choose a houseboat, or kettuvallam as they’re known here, it’s important to research sustainable companies. Talk to them to find out what their government rating is and ask how they uphold it. It’s also a good idea to read reviews thoroughly before booking. If business owners are not being honest or supportive of customers, they are probably not being supportive of the environment.

Also, consider eco-friendly options. Kettuvallam are hugely popular here right now, and although they’re not all bad, there are also plenty of other fabulous ways to experience the Kerala backwaters. The section below covers them, along with the pros and cons of each to help you decide which option is better for you and the environment.

Kerala Backwaters Experiences

Houseboat, or Kettuvallam 

The kettuvallam, or houseboat, is definitely one of the most popular methods of experiencing the Kerala backwaters. These exotic and enticing looking vessels are modeled after traditional kettuvallam, which were historically used to transport rice, coconuts, and spices.

Kettuvallam in the Kerala backwaters of Aluppuzha
Kettuvallam In Aluppuzha

The name kettuvallam literally means “stitched boat”, as the wooden hulls are ‘stitched’ together with coir rope (made from the husk of a coconut) before being topped with beautiful arched bamboo-thatched roofs and windows. A very eco-friendly construction.

The modern version of the kettuvallam is similar, but adapted for tourism. They’re large, some with multiple rooms including bedrooms, kitchens, living rooms, balconies, air conditioning, TV’s, and wifi. Some are even two stories and have swimming pools! Of course, with all this, today’s kettuvallam are also motorized.

Ketuvallam houseboats range from basic to luxurious and can be rented for a few hours or a few days. A typical overnight trip usually consists of cruising for a few hours in the afternoon, finding a place to park, then cruising again in the morning. Day trips range from 3 hours to 8 hours.

Some are rented for large groups or families, while others rent out multiple rooms to different families, similar to hotel rooms. Prices on in peak season range from 5,700 INR ($70) per night for two people to 45,000 INR ($550) per night for four. I found these prices offered for November 2023,

One of the downsides to these vessels, is that because they are so large, most kettuvallam are restricted to traveling only along the main canals. This, unfortunately, means that you miss cruising past small villages, to see locals going about their day. A large part of the charm of visiting. They’re also restricted from cruising during the evening hours between 5 or 6 PM to 8 AM. Something that’s not advertised and surprises some guests. This means you will probably end up parked on the lake with many, many other houseboats.

While some are still remodeled traditional kettuvallam, many have been built solely for tourism. This means not all are built out of eco-friendly materials. Some also, as noted above, leak fuel and oil, as well as improperly dispose of human waste. Many that I saw also looked like they were in need of repair, so there’s a wide range of quality.

Kettuvallam Pros

  • The kettuvallam is the most luxurious way to experience the Kerala backwaters with many modern conveniences.
  • These large vessels are perfect for families or groups to share as they’re spacious.
  • They often have air conditioning, making them more comfortable in hot weather.
  • They usually have kitchens and prepare meals for for you while you cruise.
  • Some uphold sustainable practices, protecting the environment, but you need to do your own research to verify.

Kettuvallam Cons

  • Kettuvallam is the most expensive way to experience the Kerala backwaters. Especially for the ones with the best reviews and those that adopt and uphold sustainable practices. Make sure to research well and read reviews thoroughly before booking. There is a very wide variety of quality out there.
  • These houseboats are large, which means they need to stay on the larger, main canals. They usually cannot wander down the narrow waterways where the smaller villages are, one of the more charming aspects of Alappuzha.
  • The houseboats move slowly. They are slower than the Shiraka canoes below, which means they cover a smaller area in the same time.
  • Because the boats are large, they create congestion on the waterways. I could not believe how many kettuvallam were on the water when I visited. I think there were hundreds! It was not exactly the serene experience I expected. Consider booking off-season or visit other districts (like Kumarakom) to avoid overcrowding.
  • The kettuvallam cannot cruise in the main backwaters between 5 or 6 PM and 8 AM. Something that’s not as idyllic as you would expect. Plus, you’ll miss sunset and sunrise views. Ask about these details and where they park before booking.
  • Sadly, most of the large, modern kettuvallam are not eco-friendly. Ask what their sustainability rating is and how they uphold it before you book. has a Travel Sustainability rating system that helps. They rate accommodation with 0 to 3 ‘green leaves’ noting the level of sustainability they have achieved. The best rating however, is simply “Sustainable”. The next best is the three leaves which means the accommodation “…has made significant investments to adopt sustainable practices, but have not yet achieved official third-party certification. Note that the sustainability program is always in flux as this becomes more important to travelers. Search for updated details on their site.

Shikara Canoe

Another way to experience the backwaters is to book a Shikara Canoe. A Shikara is a colorful, motorized canoe that’s smaller than a kettuvallam, but larger than a standard canoe. These canoes have seats for 4 to 15 people and have no side walls, for 360 degree views of the backwaters.

Shikara in Aluppuzha

The shikara are eco-friendly as they’re built with wooden hulls connected with coir, which is made from coconut husks, and have bamboo roofs. They have a small boat motor, usually a 4-stroke engine, which is much more eco-friendly than the diesel engines of the kettuvallam.

Also, as they’re smaller, they can cruise down the smaller channels, a chance to get away from the main thoroughfare and congestion and get a more intimate view of backwater life. They also do not have the hour restrictions that kettuvallam have, so you can book sunrise or sunset tours, as well as all day tours.

Many of these boats are tradtional shikara, with minor modifications for tourists, so they also provide a more authentic experience.

The cost of a Shikara is very reasonable. Prices range from 800-1,000 INR ($10-$12.00) per hour for up to five people. This example is from just one shikara boat company. Make sure to get quotes from multiple sources and according to the number of people in your group.

Shikara Pros

  • Less expensive than houseboats.
  • Faster than houseboats, so can cover more area.
  • Many use 4-stroke engines which are better for the environment than the houseboat diesel engines.
  • The open sides of the boat offer 360 degree views.
  • They can cruise down the smaller canals that houseboats cannot travel down. If visiting a village is important, verify that they do this before you book.
  • Less pollution as there are no cooking facilities or bathrooms.
  • Can arrange sunrise and sunset tours as hours are not as limited.

Shikara Cons

  • No air conditioning.
  • Although they do not have kitchens, many provide snacks and some stop at restaurants.
  • No bathrooms (although some do).
  • Only available for day trips (no overnight).

Canoes Or Kayaks

Standard canoes or kayaks are another great way to experience the Kerala backwaters. These options range from canoes paddled by a guide to paddling yourself. They’re very eco-friendly, with no fuel or oil leaks or waste issues, and allow you to explore the small tributaries to see more local life.

Many offer sunrise or sunset tours, as they don’t have the evening restrictions that the houseboats have. They also usually offer some type of snack or stop at a cafe for food.

Prices for canoes and kayaks vary, but a kayak can range from 800-1500 INR ($10-18). Make sure to get quotes from several different places to determine what your final cost will be.

Canoe Or Kayak Pros

  • Eco-friendly
  • These small vessels can go down the smaller tributaries where you’re more likely to see village life.
  • A more experiential way to explore the Kerala backwaters.
  • You also get a workout!

Canoe Or Kayak Cons

  • They’re slow as they’re powered by hand.
  • No shade.
  • No bathrooms.
  • As movement is slow, you generally only visit a small area of the backwaters.

Public Ferries

If you want to experience the canals the way locals do, chose the public ferry to see the backwaters. This is not glamorous at all, but it’s more eco-friendly than the houseboats and it’s very inexpensive. Plus, you get a better perspective on local life as this is a common way for locals to get around.

The ferries are reasonably comfortable, although, being inexpensive, they do tend to fill all the seats. This means you may feel a little ‘crammed in’.

This is an excellent way of getting to, or from Aluppuzha, making it a great option to combine with one of the above. You can cruise to or from Aluppuzha inexpensively, then rent space on a houseboat, shikara, canoe, or kayak. Or, you can ferry over to Kumarakom (see below), for a less touristic experience.

Ferry Aluppuzha To Kumarakom

As noted above, Kumarakom is the second most popular backwater site to visit in Kerala after Aluppuzha. It’s much less touristy and more natural. Kumarakom is on the eastern side of Vembanal Lake, northeast of Aluppuzha.

There are two main ferry options to get here (other than driving). The first is to take a ferry from Muhanna to Kumarakom, although Muhanna is on the opposite side of Vembanal Lake from Kumakarom, which is about 20 miles (32 km) north of Aluppuzha.

To get to Muhanna, there is a bus from Aluppuzha. It stops about a 5 to 10-minute walk from the Muhanna Boat Jetty. This is a little cumbersome, plus the view from the ferry is not the best as you mostly go through the large lake. It is, however, an inexpensive way to get to Kumarakom.

Vembanal Lake

For the ferry schedule from Muhammad to Kumarakom, see the Kerala State Water Transport Department schedule. Always verify the schedule in advance as they can make changes. You can ask at your accommodation or look for contact info on the website.

The cost is about 10 INR each way, which is about $0.12. I am not sure of the cost of the bus, but it will also be very inexpensive.

The second option is to take the VEGA2 express ferry. This is a loop tour. It heads up to Muhanna from Alupphuza, then over to Pathiramanal island, which is a bird sanctuary in Vembanal Lake. Here the ferry stops and parks for a while allowing passengers to take a brief walk in the sanctuary. Then it crosses to the east side of Vembanal Lake where it cruises by Kumarakom before cruising by other islands on the southern part of the lake on the way back to Aluppuzha.

The ferry ride is 5 hours leaving at 11:30 daily (except holidays). As it’s a speed ferry, it moves much faster than a houseboat and covers more area. The route for this trip is about 31 miles (50 km).

The cost of the ferry ride is very inexpensive, 600 INR for seats with air conditioning and 400 INR for seats without air conditioning. See more details and costs at VEGA2 ferry.

I did not take either of these ferries, but they are both interesting options, especially if you want to see Kumarakom and visit the bird sanctuary. The VEGA 2 ferry is a better option if you just want to tour the area, while the ferry from Muhanna to Kumarakom is better if you want to spend more time there.

Ferry From Kottayam To Aluppuzha

Kottayam is located about three quarters of the way from Munnar to Alleppey, about a 3 1/2 hour drive. Because of its location, Kottayam makes a great stop to catch the ferry to Aluppuzha. There’s honestly not much to see in the town of Kottayam, at least I didn’t stop to see anything. I only stopped here for the ferry ride.

The public ferry ride from Kottayam to Aluppuzha takes about 3 hours. At the beginning of the ride, you get to see locals going about their daily lives in their homes along the edge of the canal, which was great. There were kids waving to us from their yards/houses and moms doing laundry or preparing food.

Kerala Backwaters
Cruising On the Ferry Kottayam To Aluppuzha

Later we crossed into the southern part of Vembanal Lake. The lake is vast, so it’s not as scenic as the canals, but it’s still beautiful. At the southwestern end of Vembanal Lake, we cut down canals into Aluppuzha.

It was on the canals close to Aluppuzha that I started seeing all the kettuvallam. And the volume only increased as we got closer. There were so many! Aluphuzzha is pretty, but honestly, there were so many houseboats, it felt a bit too touristy. I quickly realized that my simple journey on the government ferry was probably much better, and much more experiential, than a ride in one of the houseboats.

Why? We mostly had the canals (and the southern part of Vembanal Lake) to ourselves for at least 2 1/2 hours of our journey, we got to see some local culture in the backwaters away from the touristy area, and we did minimal damage to the environment. Admittedly though, it was not completely comfortable as there is no air conditioning and all seats were full.

The cost of this option is very reasonable for the 3 hour ride. It’s 29 INR each way, which is about $0.35 (as of May 2023) from Kottayam to Aluppuzha. It’s not luxurious at all, but I was so glad I used this as a way to get to Aluppuzha as a think I got a better perspective on the Kerala backwaters. Or what they were like before tourism in Aluppuzha.

I also liked the carpet of water hyacinth at the boat jetty and along the canals near Kottayam. It was very beautiful. This may be just seasonal though (I visited in April).

There are several boat jetty stops along the way, where locals get on and off, but the journey starts at the Kodimatha Boat Jetty in Kottayam. It’s near the west police station.

It’s best to arrive early, as the boat can be full. Especially the mid morning ride. There’s a restaurant nearby where you can have some dosa and chai before then cruise.

For the ferry schedule from Kottayam to Aluppuzha, see the Kerala State Water Transport Department schedule. Always verify the schedule in advance as they can make changes. You can ask at your accommodation or look for contact info on the website. You can bring luggage on the boat. I’m not sure if there’s a limit, but I brought a single carry-on bag with me.

Ferry From Kollam To Aluppuzha

If you’re traveling to Aluppuzha from Thiruvananthapuram, also known as Trivandrum, consider the ferry from Kollam. Kollam is about an hour and a half north of Thiruvananthapuram. The ferry journey is long, taking 8 hours, but another unique way to experience the Kerala backwaters. It’s also convenient if you’re planning to visit both places.

The journey starts at 10:30 AM. It cruises through too many sites to mention all the details here, but it goes through Ashtamudi, Kayamkulam, and Vembanal Lakes and many places in between. For more details on the route and what to expect, see the Kerala State Water Transport Department overview. Always verify the schedule in advance as they can make changes. You can ask at your accommodation or look for contact info on the website.

The cost if this ferry is 600 INR each way, which is less than $7.50 (as of May 2023).

Public Ferry Pros

  • Very Inexpensive
  • Better way to understand local culture as locals and local tourists use this frequently.
  • More eco-friendly than kettuvallam as they generate less pollution. Especially on a per person basis.
  • Convenient and easy to access schedules via website.
  • You cruise past local villages on some routes to see more local charm.
  • Routes are pre-planned, so where you will cruise is not vague.

Public Ferry Cons

  • No air conditioning (although some may have some).
  • Boats can be crowded and uncomfortable.
  • You may not get a window seat.
  • The smaller ferries (like Kottayam to Aluppuzha) do not have bathrooms. Some guys did get off at one of the stops while we waited though…lol.
  • The Kottayam and Kollam area start/end points are not conveniently located, so you need to determine transportation to get there, which can be expensive.

Recommendations And Suggestions

As you can see, there are many options to experience the backwaters of Kerala. I personally think the best way to experience the Kerala backwaters is to take the public ferry to get to Aluppuzha, then use a more eco-friendly form of transportation to see more of the finer aspect of the area, like the Shikara, canoe, or kayak.

My intent upon writing this was not to portray the kettuvallam in a negative way, but I did learn a lot about their challenges when doing research. As mentioned above, if you do decide to go this route, just make sure that you thoroughly research their sustainability practices so you do not perpetuate damage to the ecosystem. This may mean not going with the lowest cost provider. lists many houseboats in Aluppuzha. Just search under Alleppey or Aluppuzha, and filter by boats. You can also filter to show only houseboats with a sustainable rating.

Kerala backwaters palm tree lined coast of Aluppuzha
Kerala Backwaters

Best Time To Visit Aluppuzha

The best time to visit Aluppuzha is November to February, when the temperatures are most comfortable. The average temperature is around 62 to 89 F (17 to 32 C). These will also be the busiest months and the prices will be at their peak.

March to April is another option, although warmer than the winter months. This is when I visited and got lucky as the temperatures did not seem overly warm to me. I, however, live in the desert, so prefer it warm.

The rainy season is June through October, which is not the best time to visit.

Another thing to note is that the Nehru Trophy Boat Race is in August. This is an annual event held in Punnamada Lake near Alappuzha. 100’ long boats, called snake boats, filled with paddlers, compete with other boats for the big trophy. This is a huge deal here, so this event draws a big crowd.

Want To Learn More About Sites in Kerala, Or India?

There are many great tourist destinations in Kerala in addition to its palm-lined backwaters.

Kochi, called the Queen of the Arabian Sea, is an excellent place to spend a day to two in Kerala. This multicultural city in India is the first city that Europeans stepped foot in. Visit here to explore old-world colonial architecture, its renowned Chinese fishing nets, and a fascinating history.

Munnar is another top destination in Kerala, with stunning, brilliant green tea plantations on rolling hills leading up to the incredible views at its hill stations and mountain peaks. There are views so beautiful, it’s sometimes called the Kashmir of South India.

Palakkad, northeast of Kochi, is full of lush green rice fields, rolling, misty mountains, large reservoirs and dams, and historical monuments, as well as many great day-trip options.

Adiyogi, a giant statue of the God Shiva represented as Adiyogi, the first yogi, is in neighboring Tamil Nadu. If you are on a quest for inner well-being, transformation and empowerment, this is an excellent place to visit.

And if you want to visit one of India’s more famous cities, Jaipur was definitely one of my favorites. Its sumptuous palaces, fascinating forts, and incredible royal history is riveting. It’s a city that you will always remember.

And, of course, Taj Mahal, in Agra, a several hour drive east of Jaipur, is something you just can’t miss. See my Top Tips for Visiting the Taj Mahal and the Top 10 Things to Do In Agra.

Safe Travels!


Hello! I resigned from a corporate career in product development to explore the world. Although my goal was to travel for a year, 8 years later, I’ve been honored to have explored more than 60 gorgeous countries and met some unbelievably amazing people. Our world truly is a beautiful place! Follow me into the gorgeous unknown by subscribing below. You’ll receive details on fabulous destinations, comprehensive travel guides, travel tips and tidbits, and information on travel trends, like experiential, sustainable, and transformational travel. Where is your next gorgeous unknown? Julie

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