The intense whiff of cardamom greets visitors even before they arrive at Periyar Tiger Reserve. That’s because Thekkady, the town that is the gateway to the reserve, is surrounded by spice plantations. It’s filled with signboards inviting travellers to tour the farms and stock up on organic ingredients. Countless shades of green cover this forest reserve, an ecosystem abundant with animal, bird, insect and reptilian life.
Periyar is an easy park for first-timers to explore. Booking treks, guided tours and forest visits through the central system of the Periyar Foundation is effortless. It has one office on the main street leading to the entry gate and representatives in nearly every shop and hotel near the reserve.
Periyar’s vibrant flora and fauna make it easy to forget that the forest was not always this lively. In 1998, as the depleted tiger population and rampant debarking and smuggling of its cinnamon (vanaya) trees took their toll, conservationists stepped in and worked out an eco-tourism model to save the park. The men of the local communities were weaned away from poaching and trained to be forest guards and tourist guides instead. Many have never attended school but can talk in detail about the feeding patterns of the tiger butterfly, the ideal time and place to spot the grey headed owl, and the frequented trail of the closest tiger. This has made Periyar one of India’s most successful community conservation projects. All tourism revenues are directed straight to salaries, training, and to the families of villagers. Since the tigers live in the core area of the forest where tourists are not allowed, it’s quite rare to spot one of the big cats that live here. Despite this, their presence can be felt through pug marks, bark scratches, and a healthy ecology.
Periyar offers an extremely immersive forest experience, allowing visitors to walk, raft and camp in the forest. There is much interaction with the guides and forest guards who protect the forest. Their personal touches make it easy for hardened city dwellers to be converted into forest addicts.
Don’t be alarmed if a forest guide hands out a pack of tobacco before a walk. It is prudent to rub tobacco on your feet and legs before entering the bush. This simple trick, along with leech guards, offers protection from the jungle’s ubiquitous blood-sucking worms. Even if a leech does latch on, rubbing salt on it or burning it off with a lighted match will have them off in a jiffy. Leeches aside, everything about this tropical forest is a delight.
There are several walking options for people of all ages, interests and fitness levels to explore the forest. Nature Walk is a simple three-hour trail where the guide introduces novices to the wilderness by teaching them to spot a tiger butterfly or identify the racket-tailed drongo and blossom-headed parakeet. The five-hour Cloud Walk is ideal for those who want to spend a while longer hiking in the forest. It is a bit harder and leads to a watchtower with a sweeping view of the varied terrain of the forest—the evergreen trees, grassy marshland, and arid land. For the more experienced trekker, Border Trekking is an exhausting day-long walk that runs 15 km, and climbs to an altitude of 1,300 m. Lucky visitors may spot the rare Nilgiri tahr or the shy lion-tailed macaque on this trail. This most thrilling experience is the Tiger Trail with the opportunity to camp in the forest for one or two nights and join the armed forest guards on their night watch. Visitors gain insight into the difficulties of protecting a forest, and have a better chance of spotting the big cat. All arrangements including food, tents and sleeping bags are taken care of, so first-time campers too can partake without much preparation. The guards on these camps are ex-tiger poachers who are articulate in their stories about encountering tigers.
In addition, there is a bamboo raft ride around Periyar Lake, which is great for close-up views of elephant, dhole and sambar quenching their thirst. A half-day bullock cart ride takes visitors through vegetable farms in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. This ride is organised by former sandalwood smugglers.
The popular boat ride on Periyar Lake is a fun activity for all ages. After an accident in 2009, boats now limit the number of passengers and are equipped with lifejackets. Carry binoculars for the kids and introduce them to basic mammal and bird watching during the calm ride. There are also a few easy trails that children (above 12) will enjoy hiking. Prepare for the leeches and explain to children that they are not scary.
Open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Park Entry ₹25 (Indian) ₹300 (foreigners); Boat ride ₹150. Contact Periyar Tiger Reserve information office (04869-224571); Website www.periyartigerreserve.org.
Periyar’s guides are a storehouse of information. Show interest and they will relate fascinating forest stories and take visitors along less-frequented paths. The late night hike involves a three-hour hike through the forest with a guide. This is a rare chance to experience the stillness of a forest at night. Turn off your torch to spot fireflies and glowing eyes of sambar.
Malabar pied hornbill This huge bird has a very large colourful bill and feeds on figs and berries. Peer at trees laden with fruit for a chance to spot this attractive black-and-yellow creature.
Dhole The Indian wild dog or dhole is commonly spotted during a boat ride on Periyar Lake. These endangered hunters roam in large packs that are capable of hunting down big mammals like water buffaloes and wild boar.
Lion-tailed macaque It is quite an achievement to spot this extremely shy and endangered monkey. They spend all their time on high tree canopies and it takes a high level of concentration to keep up with this black and brown primate. Blink and the entire family will disappear from sight.
Blossom-headed parakeet This colourful parakeet is found in plenty at this reserve. It usually has a bright red head and purple-blue neck. Their bright colours, long tail, and loud call make them easy to spot on walks.
Nilgiri tahr The state animal of Tamil Nadu can be spotted on longer treks in the interior of the reserve. It is fascinating to see them balance themselves on steep slopes as they munch on the abundant grass in the hilly parts of the reserve.
Periyar is located in southeast Kerala, near the border of Tamil Nadu.
Air The closest airports are Kochi (190 km) and Madurai (140 km).
Rail The closest train stations are Kottayam (114 km) and Madurai (135 km). Prepaid taxis are readily available at both.
Road The NH49 highway from Madurai till Theni is smooth. The road from Uthamapalayam to Thekkady is rough. From Kochi it is a smooth ride to Kottayam after which it gets quite hilly. Getting around most of the hotels and homestays are near the reserve so everything is in walkable distance. To visit one of the spice farms nearby, hire a taxi from the main street.
Periyar is open throughout the year. November to March is great for cool weather and a bright green canopy. Visit between April and October to avoid crowds and see more wildlife, but be prepared for heat and humidity. Monsoons are the most peaceful, though wildlife sighting is scarce.
Mickey’s Homestay offers comfortable, large rooms, swings on the porch, and a friendly host (04869-223196; www.mickeyhomestay.com; doubles ₹950).
Michael’s Inn has all the basic hotel facilities and is good value for money (08281514307; www.michaelsinnthekkady.com; doubles from ₹2,100).
Aranya Nivas is located inside the reserve, which makes it closest to the wildlife (04869222023; www.aranyanivasthekkady.com; doubles from ₹4,000).
The Bamboo Grove has spacious huts made of natural materials like bamboo and grass. there are fun tree houses to climb in to for a meal. this is part of the community eco-tourism project (04869-224571; www.periyartigerreserve.org; doubles ₹1,500)
Lake Palace is on an island in Periyar Lake and the only way to get to this resort is by a 20-minute boat ride. Choose this if you want to see wildlife from your window (04869223887; www.lakepalacethekkady.com; doubles from ₹10,000).
Spice Village is where luxury meets a simple village experience. The resort prides itself on being environmentally conscious (04843011711; www.cghearth.com/spice-village; doubles from ₹9,500, inclusive of breakfast and taxes).
Appeared in the August 2012 issue as “Saving Stripes”. Updated in May 2015.