The EA guide to Sri Lanka holidays
Sri Lanka holidays are hugely rewarding with experiences at every turn. There’s a rich culture, impressive history, awe-inspiring architecture and wonderful wilderness areas and wildlife. Sri Lanka is only 65,610 square kilometres and has extremely high levels of endemism, that is species found here and nowhere else in the world. With Buddhism culture strong in the country, society overall is really positive and passionate about wildlife which sees a natural emphasis on conservation.
There are 448 bird species and 33 are endemic. You could see 125 mammals, 21 of those are endemic. There are over 173 reptile species and 103 are endemic. Out of 120 amphibians, 101 are endemic. With 358 spiders on Sri Lanka’s species list, there are 250 endemic. Finally, would you believe there are 57 crab species and 50 are endemic? So a visit to one of the 26 national parks and reserves can be highly rewarding, albeit different in experience to Africa so it’s best not to compare.
Yala National Park is perhaps the most famous, not without reason that’s for sure. The area is huge, covering much of the southeast belt and it is home to decent elephant numbers, leopard and sloth bear. North of Colombo, some 3 hours’ drive is Wilpattu National Park. Lesser known than Yala, it’s our personal favourite because of its low visitor numbers and a handful of properties that offer an authentic tented experience. Minneriya National Park is a small area and combines well with Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle. It’s awesome in July and August when massive herds of elephant come to the water to drink. You can literally do one or two game drives for great reward!
We’ve not even touched upon the ancient cities and historically significant sites!
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Once a seaport strategically positioned on the east-west sea trade routes used by Romans, Arabs, Persians and Chinese, Colombo is today a bustling city with a great deal of charm that many overlook because they pass through too quickly. Divided into 13 districts, Colombo 1 is the Fort area and the centre of the city. It’s also the most ethnically mixed in Sri Lanka with Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Buddhists living in harmony. The other district worth exploring is Pettah or Colombo 11. You don’t want to miss the beautiful colonial buildings, local markets and historically significant landmarks. So get a private guide and a tuk tuk and take time out on foot here and there.
The city highlights are the colonial buildings in the Fort area, a tuk tuk ride, wandering the streets of Pettah and exploring the markets. There is the Federation of Self Employees Market with household goods, fresh produce and the Manning Market for the wholesale side of the business. Visit the Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque beautifully built out of red and white bricks dating back to 1909. Wolvedaal Church build in 1749 is the most important Dutch building in Sri Lanka. The Dutch thought the jackals roaming the area at the time were actually wolves. There is also a Dutch period museum and Old City Hall worth seeing and of course the National Museum.
The Old Dutch Hospital dates back to the 1600s and has been restored to now house some wonderful cafes, restaurants and shops including the famous Ministry of Mud Crabs.
Wilpattu National Park
Wilpattu National Park is more off the beaten track than some of Sri Lanka’s wildlife areas and far less busy in terms of tourist numbers. Located in the northwest of Sri Lanka, it is a dense evergreen forest area abundant with wildlife. The name translates as land of the lakes and the region is peppered with natural shallow basins of water even today. These waterholes attract wildlife and a myriad of bird species.
In Wilpattu you are likely to see buffalo, deer, crocodiles, over 200 bird species and leopard and sloth bear if you’re lucky. Open all year round, it’s certainly worth a visit. May to September is popular and dry October sees wildlife around waterholes more readily. Sloth bears are attracted to the palu fruit trees that bear fruit between May and July. December and January are considered the rainy season and yet conditions remain ideal for a safari.
Yala National Park
This is the country’s most popular national park thanks to a decent population of elephant and leopard. Yala sits in the southeast corner of the country and is divided into five different blocks stretching from the jungles to the coastline.
Yala National Park can get busy so we always recommend arriving before the gates open to get in quickly and away from the crowds. Once inside, you’ll spot deer, monkeys, birds, buffalo, elephants and sloth bear and leopard if you’re lucky. You can visit any time of the year and peak leopard spotting time is usually between February and March. Peak season runs from December to April. There’s an abundance of high end and affordable accommodation and a handful of authentic tented safari-style outfits similar to what Africa offers if you have that to compare to.
Highlands and tea country
The typical image portrayed of Sri Lanka is generally golden beaches and a tropical setting. But the country has a cooler side shrouded in mist with mountains, cloud forests, highland moors, waterfalls, quaint colonial towns and endless hills carpeted by green tea plantations. This region is in the centre of the island and an ideal escape from the lowlands. The old-world British charm exists in the form of railways, quaint houses and geo-gothic churches. Mansions are reminders of the lavish life of yester-year and a rail journey traversing the hill country is a must.
The great attraction of the highlands is its natural beauty. There are spectacular lookouts at places called Worlds End, Corbetts Gap, Mini Worlds End and Haputale not to mention Adams Beak, the country’s holiest mountain that seems completely surreal. Some of the last remaining cloud forests are here with their stunted, gnarly trees bordering open plains akin to England and Scotland’s highland moors.
This region is also the origin of springs that flow into streams and become rivers feeding into the Indian Ocean so waterfalls are magnificent.
Sigiriya Rock Fortress
One of Sri Lanka’s iconic historical sites, Sigiriya began thousands of years ago as a series of caves and temple complexes used by Buddhist monks. Fast track to 477 AD was made the Kingdom of Kassapa and it’s believed he sought the refuge of Sigiriya rock for its strategic location to mount a defence. His palace was built at the summit and the rock fortress was born.
Around the rock fortress was an inner-city of massive ramparts and moats, royal pleasure gardens, water gardens, fountain and boulder gardens. There are the two giant lion’s paws (only one remains today) that led to the stairway up to the summit. On the top are the remains of the palace building foundations, a few ponds and the total area is around 3 acres. This iconic site is fascinating geologically and historically and worth including in any visit to Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s Southern coastline boasts some beautiful beaches and a surprising Fort city!
Mirissa is a beach town with stunning stretches of sand, surf waves, fantastic restaurants, bars and the opportunity to head out blue whale watching. The best time for whale watching is late November through until March.
In the 18th Century, the Dutch built their base on the south coast of Sri Lanka called Galle Fort. Today, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a fascinating city to visit. Of course the city now far extends the fort walls but the fortress itself is being preserved. There’s the iconic light house, fort walls, cobbled streets, beautiful architecture and of course old churches and beautiful clock tower. Wandering around the narrow streets of Galle Fort almost transports you to a European city far away from Sri Lanka.
Arugam Bay neighbours Yala National Park and is a surfers’ paradise not to mention a laid back beach finale for your island safari. The beaches around here are beautiful and an impressive viewpoint is Elephant Rock. It’s not that easy to find so we recommend asking your private guide to take you. It looks out along Elephant Point and a beautiful bay. There is also an impressive white temple in the sand dunes of Pottuvil called Muhudu Maha Viharaya worth visiting and a series of untouched lagoons.
Around 45 minutes away is Kudumbigala Monastery. It’s hidden in the rocky forest area and when you’re at the base of the rock, it’s a tricky climb to the top but the view is worth it.
Ayurvedha and wellness
The ultimate mind-body healing and detoxification treatments are available in Sri Lanka. The country is actually famous for this natural healing and medicine. It’s an ancient system of medicine that was developed thousands of years ago in South Asia and the name is derived from Sanskrit words “Ayuh” meaning life and “Veda” meaning knowledge.
If time permits, it’s ideal to visit a wellness centre that specifically focuses on Ayurvedha treatments. Many wellness retreats and boutique hotels also offer treatments, yoga and meditation to vitalise your body, mind and soul.