Cochin / Fort Kochi is an enchanting place to spend a couple of days once (if) you ever tire of Kerala’s beaches. But figuring out what to do in Fort Kochi can be a bit bewildering at first. Ferral dogs roam in packs around the beach front, intimidating tourists whilst they too roam in packs, swarming around the fishermen to photograph their catch of the day. Goats saunter down the streets aimlessly, dodging motorbikes or nonchalantly lounging on the doorsteps of shops and guest houses. Fort Kochi may initially feel rundown and unkept but there’s a rustic charm to it.
ABOUT FORT KOCHI / COCHIN
Cochin or Fort Kochi, as it’s also known, is in the state of Kerala in the Southern tip of India. The state proclaims to be “God’s own country” and you’ll see this slogan emblazoned everywhere from shop exteriors to bus registration plates. The best way to take in Kochi is to stay in Fort Kochi, a pleasant ferry ride across from the urban metropolis of Ernakulam, where the bus will normally drop you.
Fort Kochi is renowned for its homestays and intimate guest houses but restricted by my budget, I stayed in a dorm bed at the Maritime Hostel, listed in the Guardian as one of the top hostels in the world. I wouldn’t go quite that far but it is a delightful haven for backpackers, with fridge-cold AC dorm rooms and a tasty Indian breakfast included. The buzzing reception area is a good place to meet people people and it’s got prime position near the ferry terminal, bus station and beach. The only drawback is their sketchy wifi – I found that Kochin Fort restaurant (about 50 metres to the left as you walk out of Maritime), was much more consistent. And the food isn’t bad either.
After settling in to your hotel, hostel or homestay, make your way down the waterfront for sunset – the perfect people watching opportunity and to take in the industrious fort town. Don’t be deceived by the name ‘Kochi beach’ as it’s more like an open air dump – underfoot is carpeted with litter and you’ll be followed by hungry stray dogs, fighting each other for the scraps of food they scavenge in the wasteland that calls itself a beach.
It’s not an unpleasant place to be though and if you can see past the rubbish, there’s lots of sights to behold. Huge ships and tiny fishing boats share the waterways and you’ll be able to experience the impressive traditional Chinese fishing nets in action. You can also purchase fish directly from the waterfront which local restaurants will then cook for you – seafood doesn’t get much fresher than this.
BIKE RIDE OF FORT KOCHI / COCHIN
After a night’s rest, get up early to avoid the beating sun and explore Fort Kochi on bike. You can rent bikes at Maritime Hostel too but their one women’s bike was broken when I was there so I headed to Ali’s clock shop instead (turn right out the door and it’s about 200 metres away), which also rents bike. For 20 rupees an hour, he’ll begrudgingly rent you a rickety old 2-wheeler which will creak and squeak the whole way. But for 20 rupees an hour, you can’t complain! Cycling is definitely the best way to take in the whole town after exploring the waterfront on foot.
My bike ride took my around the maze-like streets of Mattancherry and Fort Kochi, often carrying my bike up steps to cross canals or finding dead ends as I got lost in colourful residential back alleys. Fort Kochi is quite dirty and scruffy when you get off the main roads, litter fills the waterways which is a shame as the backstreets and canals are quite enchanting, with street art found on every corner and animals zig zagging through traffic.
JEW TOWN, FORT KOCHI / COCHIN
The best route is to cycle towards Jew Town where you can have lunch at Caza Maria and visit the charming Paradesi Synagogue. Photography isn’t officially allowed but I managed to get away with sneakily taking one or two. The Dutch Mattancherry Palace is another popular sight nearby but I struggled to focus on the artefacts on display in the stifling hot rooms full of snap happy tourists. If you can cope with the over-eager shop owners trying to cajole you into perusing their wares, then this is a good spot to stock up on souvenirs.
WHAT TO DO AT NIGHT IN FORT KOCHI / COCHIN
After a half day of cycling in the searing heat, you’ll probably want to head to Kochi’s only alcohol parlour for a much-earned kingfisher larger. XL Bar (although it’s not somewhere you’ll want to linger long) can be found on Rose street close to the waterfront. Although you’ll have to consume your purchase subtly (in the confines of your hostel or guest house) as drinking on the street is illegal. Despite the State’s strict stance on alcohol consumption, Kerala has the highest liquor consumption rate in India.
Care-free Kochi is the perfect place to potter at the start or end of a trip to Kerala. It’s a photographer’s dream and the laid back atmosphere is the perfect antidote to stressful India.
BACKACKING IN HEELS TIPS:
- If even laid back Kochi gets a bit too much for you, spend an indulgent afternoon lounging by the swanky pool at Xandari Harbour in Mattancherry. Non-guests can use their pool free of charge between 11am and 4.30pm. It’s got spectacular views over the water and an enticing, albeit pricey, menu at the poolside restaurant called 51.
- The Kerala Kathakali Centre is an enjoyable way to while away an evening. I went to watch a traditional concert where musicians showcased their talent on the sarasvati vīna (a kind of lute-like string instrument)
- Eat at Fusion Bay restaurant to try out Keralan specialities including my favourite – fish cooked with spices in banana leaves.