I had heard of Munnar in Kerala’s western ghats for years but had never ventured to visit until two weeks ago. No billboard, ad, or promotion had motivated me to consider the place. About a month ago, a relative offered us her one-week timeshare at a club in Chinnakinal, about 25 km west of the hill resort. We are happy we accepted it.
Munnar lies in the district of Idukki, which is nestled by cardamom, spice, and tea plantations. Malayalam and English are the two official administrative languages. The district is vast, but the Indian census reports that the population density is the lowest among all regions in the state.
And it shows. Everywhere we went, we saw scores of breathtaking waterfalls and streams, but there was no one else but us around. An occasional vehicle would pass us by, but the locals rarely stopped to savor the sights. They didn’t have to. This was their home, and they were used to it.
A grand welcome
We had driven through Salem and Erode from Bengaluru, taking in the rolling, green landscapes and coconut trees. Google maps failed us again, and we took a wrong turn to head toward Coimbatore. But we finally entered the Munnar foothills at the Anamalai Tiger Reserve. The signs said 67 km to Munnar.
We stopped at a checkpoint to provide our vehicle information, one of several such points enroute. Our map application stopped working altogether. We had no cell coverage.
We worked our way up the hills on the winding single-lane road, embedded with potholes and speed-breakers, pulling over to the side every minute or so to let a bigger vehicle cross us from the opposite direction. The progress was slow, but the experience was thrilling when we rolled our window down and shut the engine off. As Alistair MacLean described in one of his books, the silence was loud.
Signs warned us not to stop and get out — this was elephant and tiger country — but we risked a couple of quick selfies standing in the middle of the deserted road. The hills towered over behind us, the fog lifting higher to uncover miles of deep-green forest.
We crossed the Kerala state line and stopped again to provide our vehicle information. Shortly, we were going uphill in the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary, and the road began to wind around the hills as the Ghats were in front of us.
It took us nearly four hours of arduous driving to reach Munnar. The last hour was scary as the dusk had settled and it was pitch dark, the red reflectors guiding us away from the steep fall cliffside into the raging rapids deep below, and the yellow reflectors warning us about the rockface. One more hour of treacherous driving finally brought us to our resort.
The curtain that held tight as the night wore on opened in the morning as daylight dawned to reveal one of nature’s most beautiful scenes. It was one that Bob Ross could have drawn on his canvas, palette in hand.
We were perched up on a hill with several cottages higher than us, each with a balcony view. There were miles and miles of lush and dark green tea estates going all the way down to a lake formed by the Anayirankal Dam Reservoir. A silver thread represented the lone highway to Munnar. Farther above were hills reaching the sky with a dense white cloud lazily moving east. And there were no people anywhere.
We spent seven mornings admiring the sheer beauty of nature. As we drove around to see local sights, we felt like we were in Switzerland or Scotland, with snow the only missing highlight.
For the adventurous, Munnar offers a very active portfolio of activities, including Zipline, rock climbing, valley crossing, and an off-road Jeep safari that takes you to the hill’s peaks. The 8,842 ft peak of Anamudi is also the highest elevation point in India outside the Himalayas.
For everyone else, there are numerous fun things to do. A hot-air balloon ride takes you up and brings you down, all the time tethered by ropes. Lateral flight is not approved. For the bold, one can venture on an elephant ride up the hills or a speedboat ride in the lake forming the Sengulum dam.
Munnar, a jewel in Kerala’s lush landscapes, is a paradise worthy of eclipsing other world destinations for what it offers. It remains an unknown location for most people, making it even more attractive, right in India’s backyard.