Exploring Vagamon, A Hidden Gem Of Kerala

Getting there may be a hairy ride but the meadows and hillocks of Vagamon make it a ripe destination for paragliding, water activities, and relaxing with the natural world
Walking on the hills of Vagamon
Walking on the hills of Vagamon

When you've made up your mind to take the road less travelled, why dither? Just throw caution to the wind and charge ahead. The bus driver seems to endorse my philosophy, manoeuvring hairpin bends with the flair of a seasoned daredevil to the mysterious hill station of Vagamon (I rhyme it with 'Pokemon' till a local politely corrects me that the last syllable rhymes with 'run').

The treacherous highway to the hill station, which claimed a dozen lives during construction alone, was built by the British and runs along the lower reaches of the Western Ghats in Kerala and Idukki district, not far from Munnar. It's a beautiful Sunday morning and who cares about some pre-Independence statistic?; certainly no one on board. Everybody, including the bus driver by the look of it, is in high spirits, enjoying the view of the "Scotland of Asia."

A landscape view of Vagamon
A landscape view of VagamonFlickr: SHAKEER K

After hours of trawling the internet, the enchanting valleys, lush green meadows, and meandering rivulets of Vagamon seem passé, I am more interested in the town itself. The often annoying Google has been silent on the subject, and I am hooked (at the cost of my life, judging by this journey). The area was one of the first British tea plantations in Kerala and has been voted among 50 must-see destinations in India, which serves to whet my appetite.

The British had a knack for landing in picture-perfect postcard locations, and these misty and chilly hills are no different. Homesick and sunburnt, this is where they fled as soon as business in the dusty plains was taken care of. This is how hill stations were instantly catapulted as elite getaway destinations of choice. Unsurprisingly, when the British moved out, Bollywood (notably the late actor Shammi Kapoor) and nervous newlyweds moved in. Now, of course, you can't even spot a cobblestone among the seething crowds.

However, at 1,100m above sea level, scarcely registering on an online map, and connected to the world by a lone highway, Vagamon could well be that extinct British hill town caught in a colonial time warp. At least I hope it is.

A flowing stream
A flowing streamFlickr: Irshad V. A.

I'm in for a disappointment though. There are 30-odd sorry-looking buildings on either side of the road. Most of them are matchbox-sized shops, the type where everything from broomsticks to shampoo is crammed together. They only have one brand of chocolate. A few autorickshaws are idling around and there are more shops selling multi-flavoured teas and locally-manufactured bottles of unfamiliar juices and oils.

The lush green meadows are divided into huge tea plantations, a few of which have been turned into resorts. This cannot be Vagamon. I don't see any gabled roofs or stone cottages with trimming, an abandoned clocktower, town hall, or even just a church, let alone a police station.

Tea plantations
Tea plantationsWikimedia Commons: Shijan Kaakkara

The comically stunted hills of Vagamon make me think of young-fold mountains. There is nothing angular or streamlined about the Ghats: no sharp edges, no well-defined lines, and no imposing heights. The land looks flattened, as if it was a playground for giants where they rolled their bumpy bodies, smoothing out depressions and rounding crests. Everything is worn smooth.

The edges of the U-shaped valleys are perfectly shaped giant-sized stools and the landscape has a roughly-hewn, stunted look about it. The cloudy skies cast the meadows in a soft, diffused glow, their every move across the sun magnified and tracked on the ground below. Their shifting shadows are like a spectacular light show that plays all day on the hills and lakes.

The thick film of velvety grass on the meadows and hillocks (giving Vagamon the moniker of 'motta mala' or bald hills in Malayalam) makes it ideal for adventure sports, mainly paragliding. I, however, would rather explore the land on foot as there are several hiking trails around to choose from. If you're staying in one of the resorts you might not even have to venture outside of its bounds to hike.

Boats parked on the shore
Boats parked on the shoreFlickr: Sibi John

The three prominent religions are Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism and each have their own exclusive hills: Kurusimala, Thangal Para, and Murugan Mala respectively. All three hills stand cheek-to-cheek. Kurusimala's main attraction is a statue of St Thomas at its peak. A giant clay peacock stands guard atop Murugan Mala, an ancient temple with Stone Age carvings. Thangal Para is a pilgrimage point and the resting place of a Sufi saint. It beckons to soul-hungry travellers with the unspoken promise to soothe all aches with age-old wisdom. However, if your soul is not the only thing that is hungry, you can dash down to the diary farms run by Christian missionaries on the other side of Kurusimala.

Vagamon has just a handful of resorts and hotels. I was staying at the 250-acre Vagamon Heights which has secluded cottages, private lakes, rose gardens, and a free pick-up from town. The only buildings in this massive property are five cottages and the reception, all of it scattered at liberal distances which makes for a lot of walking. The staff is quick to warn you not to venture out after dark to avoid running into the local wildlife. However, don't be surprised if a snake suddenly darts across the path in front of you in broad daylight.

Thangal Para
Thangal ParaFlickr: Anulal

Most of the staff have worked on the plantations all their lives and are the best guides around the area. They teach you how to fish in the lakes and to pluck tea leaves, direct you to the best places to hike, take you on a gravity-defying, nerve-jangling off-roading expedition, and introduce you to their assortment of pets. They do an excellent job of regular hospitality as well, make no mistake.

They will deliver piping hot meals to whichever part of the resort you fancy, set candle-lit dinners on your cottage verandah, arrange for jeeps to take you to the resort gates (snake or no snake, it isn't easy to brave the rugged paths and the thick jungle that leads to the gates), check the weather for you to carefully plan your hikes around, and even fit you out with a picnic basket if you like!

I quickly fall into the rhythm of their languid days. I take my siesta on the lake, dinner under a moonlit sky, and spend chilly nights curled up in my cosy cottage. They serve only basic home-style food and it is delicious.

Walking among the rolling hills and meadows
Walking among the rolling hills and meadowsWikimedia Commons: Vinayaraj

Every other hill station I know has been consumed by commercialization and regurgitated as one identical entity. Mall roads, momo stalls, Punjabi dhabas, sunset points, suicide points, handicrafts shops, Tibetan markets, and clocktowers; it doesn't matter which part of the country you're in, if you've seen one, you've seen them all. Luckily for Vagamon, the British never settled here but chose to go higher up to Munnar. This left Vagamon to develop its own individual personality and it escaped being reduced to a grotesque, colonial travesty.

However, Vagamon's descent into a commercial hotspot has already begun. The tell-tale signs stick out like a sore thumb: there are hoardings selling prime locations and the busloads of tourists appear to be taking over its untouched meadows. Will it join the bandwagon of popular hill stations?

Only time will tell.

The Information

Getting There

Cochin International Airport is the nearest airport 120km away. The journey by road from Kochi will take around 4hrs but there are no direct buses to Vagamon. First get to Kottayam (50km) or Pala (67km) from Kochi and take a connecting bus to Vagamon. The frequency of buses from Kottayam to Vagamon (64km) is low and it takes close to two hours to reach Vagamon by road. Pala is 30km from Kottayam and from there buses leave every half hour. To reach Vagamon you have to go via precarious hill roads so it's best to reach before sundown. Kottayam is also the nearest railhead.

Where to stay

Vagamon Heights is the ideal resort to stay at it because it is spread over 250 acres. The cottages offer single, double, and deluxe rooms which are equipped with all modern amenities and spaced at liberal distances from one other in the middle of rolling plantation meadows. The SAJ Vagamon Hideout is an eco-friendly resort that offers tea plucking, water activities, yoga, and meditation. Accommodation options include stone, wooden, and mud cottages. Ananya Hill Resort is spread over 10 acres of lush green land. Accommodation options include deluxe and standard cottages.

Getting around

Vagamon is a very small town so you'll find autorickshaws in the main market which will take you to the tourist trappings. Rates are negotiable. Ask your hotel/resort to fix up an auto to pick you up from where you are staying.

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