February 13 – 17, 2017
Accommodations: JJ Cottage; 850INR/night (bookings.com). JJ came highly recommended both by guidebooks and by people we met on the road. We phoned ahead and Eric, our host, saved a room for us. We loved our wood-lined room and toasty hot shower (handy in the cooler, high altitude climate). Eric also arranged two excellent tours for us.
Transport: We arrived in Munnar on a state bus from Alleppey. We were at the back of the bus, feeling all the sway and bumps of the twisty mountain roads! While in Munnar we did a tour to Chinnar Park via taxi, with R.P.S. Holidays, that was a much better deal than with any of the tour/trekking companies. We rode a local bus to Top Station; also a much better deal than any of the other options and lots of fun (reminded me of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride!). And we walked often, both in town and the countryside.
Food: We ate several times at SN Restaurant, just around the corner from JJ’s: good food and prices. Also twice at Sarya Soma Restaurant, downtown; we loved their Keralan Veg Plate.
We chose to go to Munnar to escape the heat and humidity of the coast. We’d heard good things and, as a tea drinker, I wanted to see the plantations and buy tea from the source. We also desperately needed to do some serious walking.
Walking was our first activity. We signed on for a full day trek with Sri (recommended by a fellow traveller. 1000INR). Our group of 8 gathered at 7am; walked out of town and into the hills, climbing steadily through tea plantations and then high grasslands. The pastoral tea plantation landscape is very picturesque. Workers trim tea plants at about waist level, for easy harvesting of the tea leaves (only the top leaves are trimmed, several times a year). Sri explained that the tea plants are all the same variety and that the difference between black and green tea is in the processing. Silver Tip tea is, as the name sounds, the very tip of the leaves, carefully hand harvested.
Reaching the highest point of our walk we stopped for breakfast (supplied by Sri’s wife): chappaties, curry and pineapple slices. We sat and ate gazing at the surrounding peaks and down into the plantation covered valleys. The weather was perfect for our trek: a light rain shower as we started (our first in India) and a mix of sun and cloud the rest of the day with refreshing breezes.
On our way down the other side of the hill we passed through several spice plantations and Sri pointed out the various spices and fruits: cardamon, nutmeg, vanilla, cloves, pepper, mango, papaya, bananas, pineapple and jackfruit (I’m sure I’ve missed one or two!). We bought pepper from a small farm: .5kg/350INR. We walked down paved and dirt roads, small and wide trails and rock faces and stopped for lunch part way down. By the time we finished our walk I could feel it in my legs. But it felt good. Popping out on a main road we were met by a jeep that drove us back to Munnar (yet another exciting ride on the mountain roads!). Overall it was a wonderful, informative walk in good company.
Our second day we didn’t feel up for major hiking so simply walked out of town a few kilometres to Aranya Natural, a Srishti project set up to aid differently-abled people. We toured their fibre dying and paper making workshops and fell in love with their products. It was hard deciding which scarves to buy and how much elephant dung paper we wanted.
Sue has an unfulfilled dream of seeing elephants in the wild. We’ve seen them up close at temples and working but never in the wild. We know it’s hit and miss seeing wildlife (we’ve both worked as kayak guides taking people out who really want to see whales but seldom do). We looked at our options around Munnar and decided to try a short trek in the Chinnar Wildlife Refuge. We were up and out the door at 5am. We were driven there by Panani in a taxi. He also provides multi-day treks and showed us videos he’d taken of elephants and an amazing video of a tiger he’d seen on a trek. As the day broke we passed through a sandalwood forest (all fenced in to protect it), saw some deer and stopped to chat to workers harvesting sugarcane. At Chinnar we were met by our guide, an employee of the wildlife refuge. We spent several hours walking in the woods, lower in altitude (and warmer) than those around Munnar. We saw no big animals but many birds, including a small owl. Our guide was an expert birder, spotting birds where we would have seen none. We also saw monkeys, scampering through trees far below us. Although slightly disappointed we’d seen no large wildlife we had a great walk and did see a variety of colourful and interesting birds. Our drive back, in daylight, was very enjoyable with stops to see a small sugarcane processing operation and a waterfall. The road itself was very picturesque, winding through tea plantations and often lined with poinsettias.
On our last day we caught a local bus to Top Station, a former high altitude transfer station for tea moving from train to ropeway, to move tea down the mountains. Our bus ride was fun; the windows were large and wide open providing great views of the hills and valleys. The traffic, sometimes congested around tourist attractions, added to the excitement. We had to wonder why anyone would go for a horseback ride on the road with the zany traffic. But we saw many happy people on horses.
Munnar is a small town and easy to wander around in short time, although one has to watch out for the auto-rickshaws and buses. We shopped for tea and spices and poked around the local bazaar. We were tempted to stay longer (we only added two days to our original plan of three) or move further out into the countryside but with four weeks left in our South India journey and lots left to see we decided to move down out of the hills to Madurai, in Tamil Nadu.