Swimming in Kerala’s Waterfalls and Rock Pools

When you think of India, do you imagine a majestic swimming spot shaded by mango trees? Probably not. Forts and temples maybe, or malls and cows. Although the subcontinent doesn’t lack for beaches, water sports aren’t yet popular with the rising middle class. In Fort Kochi, Kerala, a region renowned for its coastline, one waterfront hotel views swimming with ambivalence:  “No Breath Holding,” say its pool rules.  But if you’re nearly amphibious, like us, you needn’t fear. 

pool rules

Tucked away in Kerala’s Western Ghats, the tropical mountains we call home, are a few of the most perfect swimming holes on the planet. We swam all afternoon at this gem of a spot between Pala and Vagamon, finding not a single piece of trash or a single person.

Vagamon falls

These places aren’t in the guidebooks. Trails leading to them are unmarked. In many cases, they’re virtually unknown even to locals. Why? Worried about people slipping or drowning, hotels don’t promote them as tourist destinations. And locals in the know often treat them as closely guarded secrets. Here’s a spot we discovered near Munnar, after considerable bushwacking, and despite assurances from the staff at our five-star hotel that no such place existed:

Munnar

If you drive far enough through the mountains of Kerala, you’ll certainly notice a few natural swimming spots, but they’re often too close to the road, and crowded with cars and tourists. If you want to find paradise, you’ll have to hike in.

Reaching this waterfall (also pictured in first image above) requires a three-hour round-trip hike with a government guide through the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary:

chinnar

The first rule of rock pool swimming: don’t talk about rock pool swimming. But if you really want to know about free and (relatively) easy hikes to great spots, spend a night or two at a charming plantation house homestay known as Vanilla County. Their guide took us on a tour of local rock pools that was a highlight of my parents’ visit to India:

rock pool parents.jpg

I took the above photo from atop this 20-foot boulder. . .

rock jumping.jpg

From which you can jump into the pool below. . .

rock pool below.jpg

Which brings me to a note about safety: If you are new to a swimming spot, you should definitely go with a local guide. S/he will help you judge the depth of the water and when the current is dangerous. When we take our nine-year-old son and five-year-old daughter with us, we always test the waters before they get in and closely supervise them. Our daughter stays in shallow areas. Jumping off that boulder is not something we’d let her try.

And we remind the kids: Pack out more trash then you bring in. Stay on the trails. Don’t trample sensitive water plants. Leave each place in better shape than you found it. These spots probably can’t forever remain hidden, but with your help, they can remain stunningly beautiful.

Josh Harkinson
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