Where To Do A Safari In Sri Lanka

A safari in Sri Lanka is a great way to admire the incredible wildlife variety that this country has to offer.

Though most people think of African countries when they hear the word “safari,” you should know that Asian countries such as India, Nepal and especially Sri Lanka are great wildlife viewing destinations.

There are many fantastic national parks in Sri Lanka that you can choose from to do a safari. However, you have to pick wisely depending on the kind of experience you want to have, and you have to go prepared knowing what to expect and what to look for.

I have been on a few safaris in three different national parks in Sri Lanka, and each place offered a different experience. In this post, I highlight three of the best places in the country to do a safari, and share some information and considerations that will help you pick the most suitable one.

But, first of all, let me explain why you really should consider doing a safari during your trip.

Safari in Sri Lanka
A safari in Sri Lanka is simply a must!

Why You Should Consider Doing A Safari In Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is blessed with an incredibly lush landscape, perfect for wildlife to thrive. Chances are that even if you don’t actually go to one of the 26 national parks in Sri Lanka, you’ll end up spotting animals here and there.

Among the species you’ll be able to spot there are Asian elephants (around 7000 currently live in Sri Lanka), which are a bit smaller than their African cousins, with the majority having no tusks (something researchers say is a result of evolution to minimize the risk of being poached). You can spot them in many places, and in regions with the highest concentration you may come across them even while you drive – elephant crossing signs are quite common in Sri Lanka, just as actual elephants crossing! (I saw a couple myself).

You’ll also have a chance of seeing water buffalos, jackals, bears, spotted dears, a wealth of bird species, and if you are really lucky you will be able to see leopards – it is said that around 100 leopards live just in the area of Yala National Park.

Another reason to do a safari is that it is very budget friendly. Safaris are normally associated with luxury, and to be fair they usually are. Thanks to the small national park fees and the overall budget friendly costs of traveling in Sri Lanka, doing safaris in this country is actually much easier than anywhere else in the world. This obviously has its consequences – but I will talk about it later on in this post.

Gal Oya National Park
Gal Oya National Park is a lesser visited one

3 Beautiful National Parks To Do A Safari In Sri Lanka

With a whopping 26 national parks in Sri Lanka, picking one for a safari is a difficult task. Each park offers something different in terms of landscape, wildlife and overall experience.

Some parks are a bit more difficult to reach compared to others, and have less accommodation options nearby, which in turns means that they are lesser visited and you are bound to having a more private experience.

Other parks are significantly more accessible and, because of that, more crowded. With crowds, animals tend to retreat to safety and spotting them may become more difficult.

My advice is to pick a park which is within your itinerary – with so many parks to pick from, it wouldn’t make any sense to go out of your way!

Now, without any further ado, let me tell you about my favorite national parks in Sri Lanka.

Gal Oya National Park

Of all the national parks in Sri Lanka, Gal Oya has to be my favorite. I went during my first trip to the country and fully enjoyed my time there.

Located on the eastern part of the island, Gal Oya was established in 1954. It’s one of the largest national parks in Sri Lanka, and one of the lesser visited, thanks to the blissful isolation and the fact that there are very few accommodation options nearby. Chances are that if you go for a safari there, you won’t see many other visitors.

Gal Oya is a prime destination for elephant watching, but you’ll also be able to see spotted dears, crocodiles and various species of birds.

At Gal Oya you’ll have the chance to either do a classic jeep safari, in cars that fit up to six passengers, or a boat safari (this is the only place in the country where you’ll have the chance of doing that) in Sri Lanka’s largest man made lake. Safaris start very early in the morning, or in the late afternoon, when the days is cooler and animals are out and about feeding.

Various companies run safaris in Gal Oya National Park. I recommend joining game drives led by Gal Oya Lodge, as they are run in full respect of animal welfare by experienced and knowledgeable guides.

How to get to Gal Oya National Park

Getting to Gal Oya National Park via public transportation is not easy – and this is probably why not that many people go.

The closest large town is Bibile, which can be easily reached by public transportation from Kandy and other places in the Hill Country. From there, you can take another bus towards Ampara, or a tuk tuk, to go all the way to Gal Oya Lodge, which usually is the place where visitors stay when visiting the national park. The ride from Bibile to Gal Oya Lodge usually lasts around 45 minutes.

Where to stay near Gal Oya National Park

Gal Oya Lodge is the only good place place to stay near Gal Oya National Park. It’s not cheap at all, but it is 100% sustainable, entirely immersed in nature, and they organize game drives with well trained rangers. The on site restaurants serves delicious food. There is no phone reception, so you will be blissfully isolated.

Kaudulla National Park
Kaudulla National Park is an excellent place to see elephants

Kaudulla National Park

Together with Minneriya, Kaudulla is home to some of the largest elephant gatherings in the world. Elephant gatherings usually take place between June and November, when the levels of water decrease and elephants move from one area to the other in search for food and drink.

Going on a safari in Kaudulla means you’ll have the chance of seeing the highest number of elephants you can think of – there are hundreds of elephants (adult male and females, juveniles, and even new borns) all close to each other, grazing through the grass. Other animals you may be able to see are storks, fish eagles, and leopards (though the latter are not seen very often).

The main drawback of doing a safari in Kaudulla National Park is that it is very crowded. Getting there is easy if you are staying in the area of Dambulla and Sigiriya, and with the budget rates to get in the park, this means that there generally are quite a few jeeps driving around in search of elephants.

In other words, if you are going for a safari in Sri Lanka pick Kaudulla knowing that this won’t be a private experience. It’s still better than Minneriya, which is even more crowded – to the point that elephants are now accustomed to jeeps and their migratory route has been changing because of that.

At Kaudulla you’ll be able to go for a morning or afternoon game drive, which usually lasts between two and three hours, to which you should add the time to travel from and back to your hotel. You’ll be going around in a jeep that sits up to six passengers, and that has a canvas roof that can be put down so that you can stand up and take photos. Unfortunately, when I visited it was pouring – so the roof had to stay on.

Safaris in Kaudulla can be arranged directly from your hotel, which will take care to find a good jeep and driver for you. The price of the safari will include the fee for the jeep (this is usually fixed and can be shared among passengers) and the entry fee to the park. Any tip for the driver / guide is an added cost.

Alternatively, you can book your safari in advance online. These are some good options:

The Crowded Planet has a full guide about Kaudulla National Park you may find useful.

How to get to Kaudulla National Park

Most people visit Kaudulla National Park from either Polannaruwa or Dambulla / Sigiriya. From either towns, it is an easy tuk tuk drive. Alternatively, you can join a tour that directly departs from your hotel.

Where to stay near Kaudulla National Park

The best place to stay near Kaudulla National Park is Dambulla. There, the best hotel is by far Jetwing Lake. The hotel has spacious rooms decorated in traditional local style, with views of a beautiful lake and park. There is a 72 meters long pool, a spa where you can get beauty treatments and massages for a real steal, a buffet restaurant and even a Chinese restaurant.

Yala National Park
An elephant showing signs of stress at Yala National Park

Yala National Park

Of all the national parks to do a safari in Sri Lanka, this is my least favorite. Yala National Park is the second largest and by far the most famous national park in Sri Lanka. The wildlife variety in Yala is outstanding. There are 215 species of birds; more than 40 mammals including elephants and leopards (it is said that around 100 live in the park, making it the one with the highest density of leopards in the world) and sloth bears; reptiles such as crocodiles and the cobra.

Yala National Park is divided in five different sectors, and visitors normally get to visit one or two at the most – the majority goes to sector 1, as it is the easiest one to reach. Some tourists occasionally go to sector 5.

The main issue with Yala is that, because it is so popular and so easy to reach, it is extremely crowded with jeeps. Chances are that you will see a line at the gate well before opening time, at 6:00 am, and as soon as you get in, jeeps will start racing and driving recklessly, passing other jeeps from all sides, so that they have a chance to be the first ones and the first in line at an animal sighting.

As a result of the crowds and the noise, animals tend to hide more than usual, or they show signs of stress – an elephant charged a jeep right in front of ours when we visited!

Despite the fact that Yala should be a prime location for wildlife watching, the overall experience tends to be a bit disappointing.

Safaris in Yala usually start very early in the morning, or in the late afternoon. They last around 3 hours, during which you go around in a jeep, including heading to a beautiful, secluded beach.

You can book your safari in Yala through your hotel, and even online. This is a good selection:

How to get to Yala National Park

The closest town to Yala National Park is Tissamaharama, which can be easily reached from Ella (around 2 hours) or even Galle (3 hours).

Where to stay near Yala National Park

You will find a good range of budget accommodation options in Tissamaharama.

If you are opting for something more comfortable, go to Jetwing Yala – it has gorgeous rooms in a nature setting, and it is very close tot he park.

peacock in Yala
Peacocks are a common sight in Yala National Park

Practical Information And Tips

The best time for a safari in Sri Lanka

National parks in Sri Lanka are open for safaris year round, so you can really go when you want. Having said so, the best time to do a safari in Sri Lanka is usually the dry season, as more animals are out at the fewer water sources, and this means you’ll have more opportunities to spot them. On the other hand, dry season also means more crowds!

GOOD TO KNOW: Sri Lanka has two monsoon seasons, so different parts of the country are hit with rain in different months. Keep this in mind when planning where to go for a safari.

How long to factor in

This is totally up to you! However, Sri Lanka is not like Africa and you don’t have to spend days doing a safari. Most safaris take half a day, or a day at most, which I am sure you can easily spare in your itinerary. If you really want to extend your safari experience, you could consider going glamping in places like Gal Oya, where you’d have a whole range of other activities to keep you entertained for days.

The costs of a safari in Sri Lanka

Doing a safari in Sri Lanka is really not expensive – and that’s probably part of the reason why parks are so crowded.

This is a typical breakdown of costs:

$25 USD for the park entry fee – to be paid in Sri Lanka Rupees, and according to the daily exchange rate.

$35 USD – around 6000 Sri Lanka Rupees – for the jeep rental, to be shared among the various members group.

Additional tip for the driver.

Elephant in Yala
An elephant literally surrounded by jeeps in Yala National Park

Issues with safaris in Sri Lanka

Safaris in Sri Lanka aren’t nearly as nicely regulated as they are in Africa.

First of all, the government doesn’t limit the amount of jeeps that can get into a park. National parks thus end up being terribly crowded, and the fact that there is no regulation establishing how close to an animal you can get only adds to that – with cars that really get too close.

Jeep drivers behave terribly bad – they race among themselves to get closer to animals; they encircle them; and the end result is that animals are so stressed that they even charge the cars (I saw an elephant doing that in Yala). I have also been told that a reason why drivers behave so badly in parks is that they feel the pressure of pleasing their tourists and showing them more wildlife, so that they get higher tips.

Tips for a better safari experience

Having said so, if done properly a safari in Sri Lanka can be an incredible experience!

So, here are a few tips to make sure that your safari runs smoothly:

  • Do your research before you go! Check reviews of tour companies running safaris in search of signs of bad behavior. Do tourists mention the car getting close to animals, rather than the opposite? Do they mention reckless driving or chasing wildlife? If so, then it’s a big no no.
  • Make sure you tell your driver that you won’t tolerate any bad behavior. Tell him that you won’t accept speeding, chasing animals, and driving recklessly through the park.
  • Look for reviews pointing to a good guide that shows excellent knowledge of the local wildlife.

Make sure to read my posts “A Quick Guide To Ethical Animal Tourism and The Complete Guide To Becoming A More Responsible Traveler.”

What to wear for a safari in Sri Lanka

The main key when doing a safari, anywhere in the world, is to wear color neutral clothes. Go for comfortable pants vs. a dress or skirt, as there are likely to be mosquitoes; make sure to wear shoes rather than sandals for the same reason; and wear a long sleeves shirt. A hat will be necessary if you are going in the dry season and the canvas roof of the jeep is rolled up.

Remember to put sun block on, and to carry enough water for the duration of the safari. And don’t forget your camera!

For a more detailed guide, head over to my post “What To Wear On Safari.”

Further readings about Sri Lanka

For further readings about Sri Lanka in general, you can check one of these books:

Make sure to also read my other posts about Sri Lanka:

Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau during my trip to Sri Lanka, and I wish to thank them for the incredible trip and all the useful insights. Needless to say, the views expressed in this post remain mine. 

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Find out where to go for a safari in Sri Lanka - via @clautavani

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