Port of Cochin, India: Houseboat through the Alappuzha Backwaters & Old Cochin

Our first stop in India was Cochin (a/k/a Kochi) in the state of Kerala on the southwest coast. My first time in India, Cochin was a port I was really looking forward to and it didn’t disappoint. We loved this stop! I used Cruise Critic connections to book us with a group of ten fellow cruise passengers on a full day tour, including lunch and a cruise on a traditional houseboat on the Alappuzha (a/k/a “Alleppey”) Backwaters near Cochin. (Find details at the end of this post.)

It’s about a 2-hour drive from the port of Cochin to the Alappuzha Backwaters where we boarded our houseboat. Kerala is one of the most prosperous and well-educated states in India with a nearly 94% literacy rate. Women have higher standing than elsewhere in India as it is a traditionally matrilineal society with inheritance following the female line and mothers the heads of households. While more than 50% Hindu, there are large populations of Muslims and Christians in Kerala. The drive to the Backwaters took us through lush green rural areas, small towns, markets, ubiquitous garbage and ramshackle buildings, as well as some upscale-looking homes and apartment buildings; the chaotic hodgepodge we came to expect of India.

Our Backwaters houseboat turned out to be a 2-bedroom, 1-story boat of the traditional type, in very good condition. We sat in the bow, just behind the captain at his wheel, on benches that ran along the sides of the boat under the shade of a canopy. Four chairs around a cocktail table and a large dining table occupied the center of the space.

We spent a couple of hours leisurely cruising the Backwaters, making a lazy loop that took us out into a big wide-open lake. We spent most of the time in narrower canals bordered by homes that sit below sea-level and flood regularly each year despite low dams built along stretches of the canals. We passed people bathing, doing laundry, fishing and, in general, going about their daily lives.

Life in the Alappuzha Backwaters
Fisherwoman and child
Duck farm

The call to prayer began as we passed a small mosque, music played from somewhere out of sight. Many other houseboats and smaller boats plied the waters. It’s a unique place and I really enjoyed the whole experience.

A cook prepared our Indian food lunch in the galley at the stern of the ship, then served us buffet-style on the dining table under the canopy. Due to recent regulations in Kerala, beer is not allowed and we were served juice and water. The food was good and plentiful, if not spicy enough for my tastes.

Alappuzha Houseboat buffet lunch
Boards served as walkways between houseboats which docked several deep.

After our Backwaters cruise, we drove back into Old Cochin. We visited the dhobi khana or town laundry operated by Tamil-speaking members of the Vannar Sangham community of untouchables whose ancestors were brought here by the Dutch in the 1700’s to wash army uniforms. (Even though our guide told us the caste system was no longer followed in Cochin, he seemed to think the Tamil origin of these people explained the difference.). The only woman ironing at the time was using an old ember-filled iron since the electricity was out due to a recent electrical storm. Old-fashioned, labor-intensive cleaning and ironing methods are used. Clothes are starched prior to ironing by dipping in rice water.

Ironing with an ember-filled iron
Each family of Vannar Sangham has their own washing station in the laundry

Washed clothes are hung to dry on wooden frames in a large field. In monsoon season, they use dryers, but it takes a long time as the workers hang the clothes out whenever they can so have to continually hang them and take them down. Washermen and women can lose half of their income during monsoon season.

No clothespins: Clothes are fastened for drying by tucking ends into twisted rope

We walked along the riverfront to view fishermen using “Chinese nets,” fishing nets of ancient design, operated with weighted structures of the size and shape of a fair-sized sailboat sail. Some of the seafood on offer was entirely new to us like weird, flathead “river lobsters.”

“Chinese net” and fishing boats
Framing photos wider shows the less-picturesque aspects of India
Flathead river lobsters (front left) were new to us

In another historic neighborhood, we took a short walk to the only remaining synagogue in Cochin which occupies a dead end on a shopping street. The Paradesi Synagogue was built in 1568 by descendants of Spanish, Dutch and other European Jews and is now maintained by the five remaining Jews in the city. A clock tower attached to the synagogue, built in 1760 and under restoration, adds the only architectural detail of interest visible from outside the plain blue synagogue (which is not open to the public). We had a little free time to explore the many shops on the street leading to the synagogue before heading back to the ship.

Paradesi Synagogue clock tower
Old Cochin shopping street viewed with the synagogue’s blue wall on the right
Spice shop. What great smells from this place!

Practical info: Our tour operator was Muziris Heritage Day ToursOur pre-trip contact (not our guide) was Lijo Jose who was recommended by a fellow cruiser who’d used him before. The company apparently does a lot of cruise excursions and their site has a whole section on those. They were waiting to meet us, holding signs, as we debarked. They did several similar-sized tours on the day we were in port, so have the capability to handle a fair number of customers. We were very happy with the tour, pre-trip communication, houseboat, and the value (especially when compared to the cruise price and product as discussed below). The only snafu in the tour came at the very end when we spent about 15 minutes parked on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere while we waited for someone from the tour company to arrive with a credit card machine for those wishing to pay by card. (We paid cash in U.S. dollars. There was a small charge for credit cards, I believe 3%.)

To give you an idea of just how outrageous cruise excursion prices usually are: We paid $80 each versus the $220.75 apiece the cruise ship wanted for the same itinerary. We had ten people in a very nice, mini-van-style small bus vs. a cruise excursion which would have been 40 or so people on a motor coach. From complaints we heard later, our houseboat was nicer than what the cruise excursion people got. The only downside to our mini-bus was that, while we had three “captain’s chairs” on either side of our main aisle, the remaining four us had to take the four seats across the back that were not as spacious. We had a great group with us, though, and volunteers swapped the front seats for the back seats on the return ride. Given the huge price difference, the small size of our group, and the quality of the tour, we were more than happy.