On a bend in the road, just before the hairpin drop into the Koottickal valley, in Kerala we stopped for a moment to admire the view. All we could see was lush, tropical greenery: betel nut, coconut and banana palms; forests of rubber creeping out of the valley and up the slopes of the Peermade hills. After the steamy heat of Kerala’s crowded plains, it felt amazingly fresh.
The Koottickal valley is at the heart of Kerala’s rubber belt. In the foothills of the Western Ghats, the belt is a wide band of plantations. It’s an area often overlooked by tourists. Many Keralan planters here let out their estates to tourists. Most estates are neo-modern bungalows with louvred windows and a Miami-style carport. Keralan planter George Abraham Pottamkulam runs a small travel agency, Stay Homz, specialising in "plantation tourism". And he has just written a book about southern India’s plantation history — a copy of The Path to the Hills. There’s not much that he doesn’t know about his native "rubber country".
A lot of what you see here is standard Keralan fare: flat-roofed concrete houses in vivid shades of candy and citrus, creaking rust-bucket buses, crowds of uniformed schoolchildren. But some local attractions are far from typical. On a guided plantation tour, you could hike along red-earth paths, through industrial forests of rubber, where each tall, spindly tree is skirted with a polythene tutu to protect the latex which drips into a little cup strapped to the trunk below.
Get up early — before dawn — and you can see the "tappers", torches strapped to their heads, carefully cutting thin strips of bark to release the milky fluid. If you’re really keen you can visit a rubber factory. At Bharanaganam — a name that encapsulates the timbre of the local Malayalam language — you can also visit the tomb of St Alphonsa (India’s first and only female saint, she was canonised in 2008), join the crowds of silent pilgrims, and pick up a kitsch light-up Alphonsa from a convent-runkiosk of church souvenirs.
Another must visit is the final resting place of John Joseph "JJ" Murphy, who founded India’s first commercial rubber plantation, in 1902. He is buried near Koottickal in an overgrown, middle-of-nowhere cemetery, close to the hilltop plantation he used to own.
Other places to stay in Koottickal
Kottukapally Plantation Home: On a 1,300-acre rubber estate, this rustic bungalow has been owned by the Kottukapally family since the 1950s. Double rooms start from R6,402.
Plapally Estate Bungalow: On a former rubber plantation, founded in the 1920s, this is the home of Saijan Pulickal. It’s a low "heritage" bungalow on a wooded hillside. The rooms are simple but the views are sensational.