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Sri Lanka is an independent island nation located in South Asia, just off the coast of India. In recent years, the country has seen quite a boom in tourism. Sri Lanka has become known for its beautiful beaches, friendly people, incredible cultural sites, and believe it or not, its wildlife. For its size, Sri Lanka has an impressive amount of flora and fauna, many of which are endemic to the island. It’s said that the number of animal species in Sri Lanka is five times what it should be for an island of its size.
The island is only 65,610 sq km (25,332 sq mi) but has over 120 species of mammals, 183 species of reptiles, 122 species of amphibians, and 227 species of birds. Sri Lankan wildlife has become a huge draw for tourists around the world. It rivals that of African countries but a safari in Sri Lanka is much more affordable and accessible. In this post, you’ll find everything you need to know about going on safari in Sri Lanka.
Why Safari in Sri Lanka?
A safari in Sri Lanka is budget-friendly. Compared to the Sri Lankan rupee, the US dollar is strong and can be stretched quite far. The cost of safari in Sri Lanka is a small fraction of those in African countries. Sri Lanka may not have Africa’s Big Five but it does have its own incredible animals. It has numerous national parks that are home to elephants, leopards, Sloth Bears, monkeys, and many more.
Sri Lankan parks are not as remote as those in Africa countries and a lot can be seen in just a day. This also makes the process of planning a safari in Sri Lanka much simpler. Sri Lanka is small, making it easy to get around. Most destinations are very accessible due to the rail system and taxis are plentiful. Lodging is also more available and reservations are not required months in advance. My trip to Sri Lanka was very last minute and I was able to plan everything in the week prior to my arrival.
How Many Days for a Safari in Sri Lanka?
The great thing about a safari in Sri Lanka is that it’s not necessary to go for multiple days. Unlike, an African safari where many of the parks are remote, the parks in Sri Lanka are fairly easy to access. The number of days you choose to go on safari will largely depend on your budget and how much time you have in Sri Lanka.
Many people choose to spend one to three days on safari in Sri Lanka. Obviously, the more time you spend in the parks, the more wildlife you will see. However, with a good guide, it’s possible to see quite a bit in a short amount of time. It’s even possible to see both Yala and Udawalawe National Parks on the same day.
If this is something you plan to do then I recommend visiting Yala first thing in the morning and arriving at Udawalawe in the afternoon. The animals tend to be more active during cooler times of the day, so make sure you stay through the early evening.
Is a Guide Necessary for Safari in Sri Lanka?
Technically, no but should you have one? Absolutely! Currently, there are no regulations that say you must have a guide and you can even arrange for a driver at the gate but drivers usually only offer transportation and speak little English. I highly recommend arranging a guide in advance. Professional guides are extremely knowledgeable and the quality of your safari can depend greatly upon your guide. Preferably, you will want to find a safari company that can offer you a naturalist.
A naturalist guide is educated in the history of the area and the animal species that call it home. He/she will be able to spot animals that you probably otherwise wouldn’t notice and even have the ability to track animals. They are familiar with the places animals frequent and what time of day they visit those areas. A guide will make your safari much more interesting. You’ll have the opportunity to learn about different species, the parks, and animal behavior.
I came across Lakpura Travels Ltd. while searching for ethical tour operators and couldn’t have been happier with my choice. Lakpura is a reputable company that has been in business since 2008. They are properly insured, licensed, and a member of the Sri Lanka Inbound Tour Operators Association. The company is based out of Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, but can arrange transportation from just about any of Sri Lanka’s major cities. They offer a variety of tours throughout the island; however, they specialize in safari and can organize a visit to any of the major parks.
Everything with Lakpura, from start to finish, was easy. The booking process was simple and I was able to quickly complete my reservation via email. The sales agent was great and swiftly returned my emails despite the large time difference. If you aren’t exactly sure what you are looking for, a sales agent will be happy to make recommendations or even customize a safari for you. Our guide, Ruwan, was punctual in his arrival and extremely professional. He happily volunteered all kinds of great information and made our safari wonderful. Read more about my experience below.
Where to Go on Safari in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has 26 incredible national parks with the two most popular being Yala National Park and Udawalawe National Park. Others include Wilpattu, Minneriya, Kaudulla, Horton Plains, and Bundala National Parks. If you are unsure of which parks to visit, Lakpura can make recommendations based on what you hope to see and what areas you are traveling to.
Yala National Park
Yala National Park is the second-largest national park in Sri Lanka. The park encompasses 979 sq km (378 sq mi) of land. It’s located in the southeast portion of the country, near the town of Tissamaharama, and is about a six-hour drive from Colombo. Yala was designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1900 and then a national park in 1938. The park is a diverse ecosystem made up of shrubbery, grasslands, lagoons, forests, and even sandy beaches.
Yala is home to 44 different mammal species, 215 bird species, and 47 reptile species. It is also known for having one of the densest leopard populations in the world. The likelihood of spotting a leopard in Yala is fairly good but never guaranteed. It’s important not to set your expectations too high. If one is spotted it will likely be surrounded by a crowd of vehicles, high up in the trees, or partially hidden by the heavy shrubbery. If you are able to get close and/or have an unobstructed view, consider yourself very lucky. I was able to view one from a distance as it rested high up in the trees.
Other commonly seen animals in Yala include Sloth Bears, elephants, Sambar Deer, jackals, Water Buffalo, peacocks, and crocodiles. The huge park is divided into five zones or blocks. However, not all are open to the public. This allows a large portion of the park to remain a refuge for the animals and a place for them to retreat from the vehicles.
Zone 1 is the main tourist area and has been open the longest. Many of the animals in this area have become accustomed to humans and the traffic. It’s great for seeing leopards with over 20 said to be in this block alone. I recommend getting an early start as this block can get very crowded. Zone 5 is another great area to visit with a more open landscape.
Park hours are from 6 am to 6 pm but plan on arriving at 5 am to make the most of your day and be one of the first in the park. Tissamaharama, or Tissa, is an ideal base for visiting Yala and is just a 30 min drive from the park. However, you will want to give yourself plenty of time for the queue at the gate. The park entrance fee is around 3,700 LKR (usually not included in safari pricing).
Udawalawe National Park
Udawalawe National Park was designated a National Park in 1972 and is Sri Lanka’s fifth national park. It’s located about four hours from Colombo and about two hours from Yala. Udawalawe is much smaller than Yala and is only about a third of its size but has a higher density of animals. There are 42 mammal species, 180 species of birds, and 32 reptile species.
Leopards exist in Udawalawe but sightings are rare. The park is best known for its Asian elephant population. There are over 500 elephants that call the park home, making the probability of seeing them very high. Udawalawe is made up of marshes and a lot of open grasslands, making it easy to spot the park’s many animals. Other animals you may see include Water Buffalo, wild boar, Spotted Deer, Sambar Deer, mongooses, crocodiles, foxes, and more. If you only have time to visit one park, I would recommend Udawalawe. I greatly preferred it to that of Yala.
The best place to stay near Udawalawe is in the town of Udawalawa. It’s just 15 min from the park entrance and will make an early arrival at the park more convenient. Park hours are 6 am to 6 pm. Right before sunset is a great time to view the elephants and makes for some gorgeous photos. The park entrance fee is around 3,500 LKR.
Best Time to Visit Sri Lanka
Many of the national parks in Sri Lanka can be experienced throughout the year. Unlike African wildlife, most of the wildlife in Sri Lanka doesn’t migrate long distances, with the exception of some bird species. Choosing when to visit Sri Lanka can be somewhat challenging because the weather can vary greatly from coast to coast. The country experiences two monsoon seasons, each in a different part of the island, so determining when to visit depends on where you would like to stay and what you wish to do.
Generally, the best time to visit is from December through March (also the high season) and mid-July through September. Monsoon season in the southwest portion of the country takes place from May through August and from October through January in the northeast portion. The best time for a safari is going to be that particular location’s dry season.
When to Visit Yala National Park
The ideal time for wildlife in Yala National Park is from February to July. The dry season brings the animals out to the open in search of water. They can easily be spotted congregating near watering holes. However, it can be visited throughout the year with the exception of a period of six weeks in September/ October when the park is closed for annual maintenance.
November through February brings rain but it also brings the arrival of many migratory bird species from central Asia. The weather in Yala is generally warm and can be humid with temperatures ranging from 68°F (20°C) to 91°F (33°C).
When to Visit Udawalawe National Park
Udawalawe National Park is open year-round and animals can be spotted throughout the year. However, during the dry season, it’s fairly easy to find elephant herds near the watering holes. The dry season is generally from May/June through October.
September and October can be great months to visit. These months are during elephant mating season and migratory birds can start to be seen. If you’re not afraid of the rain, the months of October through January are great for seeing baby elephants. Temperatures are pleasant but the humidity can be high.
Why an Ethical Safari is Important
Sri Lanka’s national parks are wildlife refuges where the animals are free to roam. The parks are their home and it’s important to respect them and their space. They shouldn’t have to fear humans. Safaris are not well-regulated in Sri Lanka so it’s important to find an ethical safari operator that obeys the park rules and tries to have as little impact on the environment as possible.
Please do your research when choosing a safari operator. You’ll want to read reviews and ask the operator questions. Lakpura was fantastic. Our driver stayed on designated roads and allowed us to get great views of the animals without crowding them.
Make sure to bring out all your trash with you and please don’t feed the animals. You’ll also want to be aware of places claiming to be elephant sanctuaries, such as Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. Pinnawala keeps their elephants chained and is extremely abusive.
Cost of Safari in Sri Lanka
Safari in Sri Lanka is very affordable compared to an African safari. However, it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact cost because there is such a wide range of options available. Cost can vary widely and depends on multiple factors. There are budget and luxury safaris, day safaris and week-long safaris, safaris that include lodging or camping, group and private safaris, and safaris that include multiple parks. The options are endless.
For reference, a safari with Lakpura in Yala National starts at just $42 USD/person. This includes an experienced driver/guide for 5 hours, pick up/ drop off from your hotel (within 3.1 mi or 5 km of the park gate), bottled water, and applicable taxes. Park entrance fees are an additional cost and are paid at the park gate.
My Experience on Safari in Sri Lanka
I had a wonderful time with Lakpura and can not recommend them enough. My friend and I chose a private safari so we would have room to move about the vehicle and easily take photos. Our vehicle was fairly new and despite the bumpy roads, was very comfortable. Our trip was very last minute and we only had six days in Sri Lanka so we chose to do just one day of safari.
We split our time between two parks, Yala and Udawalawe. We arrived at Yala upon park opening. It was already extremely crowded but we got lucky and saw both a leopard and a sloth bear within the first hour of our arrival. We also saw a handful of incredible animals that I wasn’t expecting to see such as wild peacocks, crocodiles, jungle fowl, a cobra, and water buffalo. Many of these sightings were at a distance due to the massive crowding of vehicles on the road.
In the afternoon we headed to Udawalawe National Park. Udawalawe was a really special experience. It was far less crowded and at times, we were the only vehicle on the road. Our guide was able to locate a few different herds of elephants throughout the afternoon. We parked and observed them cooling off in the lake. Upon exiting the water, they approached the vehicle and came very close to us. It was spectacular.
What to Bring on Safari
- Insect repellant
- Hat/hair tie
- Cash for park entrance fees and driver/guide tips
- Water (provided by some tours)
- Camera with zoom or telephoto lens
- Comfortable clothes and jacket
- Lunch and snacks
- Bring TP and a plastic bag
Other Important Tips
- Arrive in the area the day prior to your safari so you have time to relax and can wake up early. Your day will be so much more enjoyable if you feel refreshed and ready to go.
- Don’t set your expectations too high. Just enjoy the day and it will be wonderful no matter what. Wildlife can be very unpredictable and no matter how great of a guide you have, sometimes what you see will be entirely up to luck.
- Many of the parks are densely vegetated and you’ll be viewing wildlife from a distance. Your iPhone camera just isn’t going to cut it. If you don’t have a camera with a good zoom and don’t plan on purchasing one then I recommend looking into a rental. There are a handful of online camera shops that offer rentals, such as Samy’s Camera. Panasonic’s Lumix FZ-2500 is a great choice for a beginner on safari.
- Avoid wearing dark colors, such as black and blue. These colors attract mosquitos and other insects.
Where to Stay on Safari in Sri Lanka
EKHO Safari Tissa is a great choice for accommodation near Yala National Park. It’s located in the town of Tissamaharama, which is roughly 30 minutes from the park. EKHO Safari Tissa is a great value for the money. The rooms are fairly basic but the property is beautiful. The hotel is lakefront and offers beautiful views from its pool. There is also a spa on site.
Cinnamon Wild Yala is considered a luxury hotel but is still very affordable. It’s located in the town of Kirinda and is just a 10-minute drive from Yala National Park. The hotel sits on a lake and is surrounded by nature. Wildlife can occasionally be seen passing through the property. The hotel offers lake and jungle chalets, a beautiful pool area, and even a rooftop bar.
Kottwatta Village is located in Udawalawa and is about 15 minutes from Udawalawe National Park. It’s a great eco-friendly accommodation with affordable rates and individual luxury cottages. The property can even arrange a fun night of BBQ or camping under the stars. Kottawatta Village has a restaurant and bar, a children’s play area, and a pool. Other things to do in the area include hot springs and cave exploring.
Have you been on a safari in Sri Lanka? I’d love to hear about your experience. If you’ve enjoyed this post, please leave a comment or share using the social media buttons below. Interested in learning more about African safari? Continue to my post, “What to Expect on Safari in Tanzania“.