You’ve heard it before: traveling to India represents a polarizing experience for many Westerners — you tend to either love it or hate it. Having spent time in India, this is a notion that makes a lot of sense. The streets and roads of India are beset by piles of trash and seem to have no traffic rules; the rich seem to coexist with the poorest of the poor seamlessly; the food tastes like it has the power to light your stomach aflame.
But What Brings Westerners to India?
There is also the India of immense natural beauty, of profound cultural richness and of infinite spirituality. These are the sort of characteristics—the ones that hold an intangible potential for magical experiences—that place India among the most desired travel destinations in the world. They seem to magnetically attract travelers seeking a life-changing transformation or just an immersion into a way of life that is as far from their own as possible.
You may have heard of the city of Cochin (a.k.a. Kochi), in the tropical southwest state of Kerala. What you need to know, though, is that while the city of Cochin is quite ordinary when compared to India’s other big cities, its Fort Cochin district is what you’ve been searching for—the land of beauty, honesty, sanitation, diversity, and of course, cuisine, tucked away in the tip of the Cochin Peninsula.
Why Fort Cochin?
While certain times of the year can draw tourists from across the globe to the village of Fort Cochin, it nonetheless remains a quaint haven for all travelers to relax and enjoy themselves even during the height of its visitor seasons. Here are five essential experiences when spending time in Fort Cochin.
Chinese Fishing Nets and Waterfront. Lining the waterfront of the Fort Cochin village are souvenir vendors, restaurants and hotels. Past these typical establishments, though, are a series of Chinese Fishing Nets operated by fisherman every day of the year. The contraptions are huge, seemingly alien and extremely photogenic. The fishermen are also happy to let you try your hand at operating them if want a taste of centuries-old technology still in use. The waterfront, with tons of towering trees, provides a quiet setting for a relaxing walk.
Kathikali Dance (pictured above). Dating back to the 17th century, Kathikali dances are a staple of any visit to the Kerala region and are easy to attend in Fort Cochin, as it is home of the Cochin Kathikali Center. See actors dressed in elaborate costumes and make-up as they dance and sing in the highly emotional, very intense performances.
Aryuvedic Massage. Another essential Indian experience, an Aryuvedic Massage is guaranteed to be unlike any other massage you’ve ever had. While the specifics of the massage are best left as a surprise, I can tell you that it is an oddly spiritual experience that you don’t want to miss.
Princess Street. This is the main street of Fort Cochin. Though not very long, Princess Street offers an assortment of shopping and eating options, as well as quiet and reasonably priced Bed & Breakfasts. If you are planning on staying a while (why wouldn’t you?), the Sonnetta Residency is an intimate, comfortable and extremely hospitable hostel that will do much to personalize your connection with Fort Cochin. Grab a book and soak in some art at the Kashi Art Café, or bargain your way to a new wardrobe of Indian garb. No matter what you choose to do, Princess Street will have no problem keeping you busy.
Churches, Temples, and a Day in the Life Tour by Rickshaw. As the most religiously diverse state in India, Kerala is home to scores of a variety of houses of worship. From Cathedrals to Jain Temples and even Synagogues, any rickshaw-driver in town will be happy to take you around from place to place. These tours often include short stops at slices of the everyday life of a Cochin resident—fruit markets, parks, schools, etc. Your driver will probably make stops at various souvenir shops because the shop owners cut deals with them for stops, but don’t be afraid to call them out on it. They’ll be happy to continue the tour once they know you’re on to them. The drivers speak excellent English and are normally very informative and friendly. Plus, this is a great way to learn your way around town.
Being in the southwest corner of India, Cochin seems pretty far removed from the giant metropolises of India like Mumbai, Chennai or Delhi, often prompting the question, “Well how would I get to a place like this?” Getting to both Cochin and Fort Cochin is simple. First, there is an International Airport in downtown Cochin. After landing here, the trip to Fort Cochin can be made simply by an hour-long bus ride. If train is your preferred method of transportation, then look for trains headed to the Ernakulam Junction. From this stop, just hop on a rickshaw for about 20 minutes, requesting that the driver takes you to Fort Cochin.
All photos public domain except initial fishing boat photo by author.