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The Periyar Tiger Reserve

Originally the hunting grounds of the Maharajah of Travancore, Periyar Tiger Reserve was declared a wildlife reserve (previously called the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary) in 1933. In 1979 it became a Project Tiger Reserve -- India's homegrown initiative to protect the big cats' dwindling numbers. Today Periyar covers 777 sq. km (2,012 sq. miles), and is divided into core, buffer, and tourist zones. Although tiger sightings are very rare, particularly in the tourist zone (although there was a sighting reported on Dec 26, 2008), the reserve is home to elephants, sloth bears, sambar, gaur (a relative of the water buffalo), dhole (a wild dog), leopards, spotted deer, Malabar giant squirrels (a sighting is likely to be a highlight -- they're huge), barking deer, Nilgiri tahr, and over 300 species of birds. It contains around 1,700 species of flowering plants, including at least 145 different kinds of orchid.

The best way to experience Periyar is with a Periyar Tiger Trail; other than this, all access to the park is cheap, making excursions popular with exuberant domestic tourists who tend to be noisy, which somewhat inhibits one's enjoyment of natural scenery. Most opt for the 2-hour boat cruise on Periyar Lake, from where -- if you're lucky -- you can view animals coming to drink at the water's edge. Unfortunately, you're more likely to experience nonstop din from children (and their parents) who refuse to obey pleas for silence, preferring to rove around the boat and video each other. There are five boat departures a day, and you'd do well not to be on any of them. Less subscribed are the daily nature walks and green walks; these 3-hour treks depart at 7am, 10am, and 2pm and cost Rs 100 (maximum five in a group), and provide you with the opportunity to admire some of the stunning flora of the region; better still are the bamboo rafting trips in which a maximum of 10 people are taken on a full day's worth of rafting combined with some trekking (Rs 1,000 per person; 8am-5pm). Check www.periyartigerreserve.org for details on these and other adventures such as jungle patrol (a nighttime hike; Rs 500), and the bullock cart discovery, where you ride through the countryside exploring traditional villages. However you choose to explore the park, remember that temperatures can be freezing from November through February, so pack warm layers.

Note: Whatever activities you have in mind, you're better off making all your arrangements through your hotel. Avoid any unsolicited offers from "guides" promising to take you on walks or tours into the reserve; this will only waste your time and test your patience.

Back to Nature on the Tiger Trail

By far the most exciting and tranquil way to experience the park is a 2- or 3-day Periyar Tiger Trail. Armed with antileech footwear and a sleeping bag (supplied), and accompanied by two forest officials and five guides, you are taken farther into the tourist zone than any other operator is allowed to penetrate. What's more, you are being led and looked after by a team of reformed poachers (sandalwood, cinnamon bark, and bison being their loot of choice) who know the terrain and the wildlife better than anyone. They skillfully track and spot animals, carry all the gear, strike camp, cook, clean, and -- most important -- stand sentinel throughout the night when the danger of being trampled by elephants becomes a serious risk. They also now play an essential role in catching poachers who remain active in the reserve.

You need to be moderately fit for the trail; you'll walk between 20km and 35km (12-22 miles), and there are (this being the great outdoors) no luxuries or conveniences along the way. The chances of spotting a tiger are slim at best, but you'll almost certainly come across elephants, wild pigs, sambar, black monkeys, wild dogs, and bison, and when you're not trekking to your next campsite, you'll be relaxing under forest cover or alongside a lake tributary. Meals are wholesome, authentic Kerala vegetarian fare: sweet chai and pleasant snack lunches served on silver trays with the grass for a tablecloth and a beetle symphony as background. Toilet functions are performed in the great outdoors. Each trail is limited to five visitors, with very limited departures each week, so reserve well in advance, particularly in peak (winter) season, when it is often booked a year in advance. The trek starts between 8 and 9am, so you'll have to stay near the park the previous night -- your last taste of luxury before hitting the great outdoors. As of this writing the 1-night trail is Rs 3,000 per person (Rs 5,000 if you happen to be the only person on the trail), and the 2-night trail is Rs 5,000 (or Rs 7,500 if you're alone). For bookings or information, contact tourism@periyartigerreserve.org or call tel. 04869/22-4571 or visit www.periyartigerreserve.org

Note: All trails are run by the park, so while there are tour operators offering Periyar Trails excursions, all you essentially get by booking through them is an additional middleman fee (though you might think the $30-odd additional charge worth it if you're struggling to contact the park or get confirmation on your booking). If you prefer to go this way, contact Trivandrum-based TourIndia (tel. 0471/232-8070 or 0471/233-1507; www.tourindiakerala.com; tourindia@vsnl.com), which charges $170 per person for the 2-night trail, subject to a two-person minimum. If you have any special interests, such as ornithology, TourIndia will make arrangements to have a specialist guide you.

Alternatives to Spotting Elephants in Periyar

You can pick up a range of spices from a massive number of shops lining the streets of Kumily, the nearest town to Periyar, but the best option is to head straight for Kerala Spices Centre (Thekkady Rd.; tel. 0486/92-2201), where the gregarious owner offers an informal tourist bureau. He also sells nuts and delicious cardamom tea, and has created a spick-and-span room for a homestay experience (around Rs 6,000 a night), with an emphasis on cooking -- not only are you invited into the kitchen to watch his talented wife prepare her delicious meals, but you will accompany her to the local markets. A stone's throw from here is the Mudra Kathakali Centre (Thekkady Rd.; tel. 94-4715-7636; http://mudrakathakali.com; Rs 125). The 1-hour shows feature graduates of the Kalamandalam school. Show times (usually at 4:30pm and 7pm, but get there 30 min. early to watch the performers put on their elaborate makeup) change with the seasons, so call ahead. And, if only to experience one of the most unlikely attractions in Kerala, you could always visit the wax museum next door. The most appealing place to shop hereabouts -- at least in terms of visuals -- is Red Frog (Lake Rd.; tel. 04869/22-4560 or 94-4703-2276; www.galleryredfrog.com), which sells organic spices and clothing made from natural fibers in a gleaming white space; there are pretty objects resembling antiques, too, and a few decent books.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.