Why Galle Should Be The Last Stop On A Sri Lanka Tour

Why Galle Should Be The Last Stop On A Sri Lanka Tour

Galle is the last stop of my trip to Sri Lanka. In the three weeks I spend there, I realize that this small country has a lot to offer. Historical cities and holy temples; lush nature and wild animals; beautiful landscapes, beaches and sea and, most importantly so, a welcoming and friendly people are all things that make me fall in love with Sri Lanka.

Come to think of it, many of my friends and colleagues have told me, before my departure, that they fell in love with Sri Lanka. After having traveled across the country, I can understand why: I have had a great time throughout my trip, and I would gladly stay longer. But I have just received a last minute invitation to visit the Maldives and in the space of two days I have to pack my bags and move on. Such is the life of a travel blogger.

Galle feels like the cherry on a delicious cake – much like that I eat to celebrate the birthday of my friend, Diana, who’s traveling with me. And we do so at a special location, one that not even in my wildest dreams I would have ever hoped for.

Galle, Sri Lanka

The beautiful lighthouse that is the symbol of Galle

A Beautiful Colonial Town

Galle has always been an important town in the history of Ceylon. Right by the sea, in a strategic position, for a long period of time it is a famous commercial port for the exchange of spices and precious stones. Such important geographic location doesn’t go unnoticed, and from the 16th century the Portuguese first, then the Dutch and eventually the British control it, leaving their mark on the landscape.

Galle Fort is the visible mark left by the Dutch colonizers. Even the name, Galle, is thought to be due to the effort of the first invaders (the Portuguese) who, having arrived there at the end of the 16th century, heard the singing of a rooster and immediately made a connection with the Portuguese name of the animal, “galo.” Singhalese people, however, claim the origins of name of the city which, according to them, derives from the word “gala” – which means “rock.”

Galle, Sri Lanka

A group of kids seek refuge from the heat in Galle

The best way to discover Galle and fully immerse oneself in its colonial atmosphere is by walking though the narrow alleys of the Old Town. It is packed with beautiful, crumbling buildings whose internal gardens are an explosion of colorful bouganvillea and jasmine flowers. Nowadays, many of these buildings have been refurbished and host beautiful boutiques, restaurants, small hotels and art galleries.

It’s an enticing city, completely different from the other ones I visit in Sri Lanka. It’s quite a nice change, actually. Up until now I have been impressed by Sri Lanka’s natural beauty, but the cities have somewhat disappointed me. The Old Town of Galle, on the other hand, is impressive, and well deserves to be enlisted among the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

I conclude my wanderings with a walk along the walls that dominate the Indian Ocean, and stumble upon the Clock Tower and the Lighthouse which overlook the beach – where I spot a bunch of kids having fun jumping from the rocks. Finally, I seem to find the perfect spot to admire an incredible sunset. Come to think of it, this is the one and only sunset I get to see in Sri Lanka, since it’s been raining almost every day since I have arrived.

Galle, Sri Lanka

Finally, a gorgeous sunset in Galle

Villa Sepalika: A little Piece Of Heaven In Galle

Flipping through my Lonely Planet while on the bus, I come across a short section that mentions the existance of gorgeous villas for rent near Galle. I am intrigued, and decide to read more.

According to the author, in recent years a number of luxury villas have been built around Galle, and these are available for rent, inclusive of a butler and a chef. They are the kind of places where one may spend two or three days, hanging between a beautifully furnished room, a gorgeous living room, a lush garden and a lovely pool. In other words the perfect place to conclude a glorious but tiring journey.

I mention this to Diana and Matteo, her friend who has meantime joined our wanderings, and we all agree that we may want to celebrate Diana’s birthday in style and moments later we manage to find a whole villa to ourselves.

Villa Sepalika

The gorgeous living room at Villa Sepalika

This is quite a change for us, considering that most of the time we think of ourselves as backpackers (though I am a rather unsuccessful backpacker). But the beauty of traveling in a country like Sri Lanka is that we don’t need to break the bank in order to treat ourselves to a special place.

That’s how we end up spending two incredible days at Villa Sepalika, a gorgeous villa at the outskirts of Galle, completely built following the colonial style.

The minute we enter the marvelous garden, we realize that we are in for a real treat. It is simply lush. The pool is larger than what it appears like in the pictures. The garden so big that we could easily play football in it, if we had a full team.

Villa Sepalika

A cozy sofa to relax with friends

I drop my backpack to take a look at the 3 bedrooms. Each of them is carefully furnished, and furbished in a different color. Each has its own huge bathroom. I pick the purple room. Then I start wandering through the rest of the villa. The kitchen is cozy and so perfectly equipped that, were it not for the fact that there are a butler and a chef, I would dare to cook my own meals.

The dining room table is huge; there’s a whole library (have I ever mentioned that I am a book worm?) and a beautiful living room with the coziest of couches.

Villa Sepalika

Even I feel tempted to cook in such a nice kitchen

But we are in Sri Lanka: it’s so warm here that we spend the evening in the huge patio, enjoying the hammock, moving from one couch to the other, drinking our cocktails and eating the delicious guacamole Matteo prepares, then moving to the table to celebrate Diana’s birthday with a mouthwatering dinner.

It’s only the morning after, in the full light, that I get the full picture of how lucky I got this time. I spend the rest of the morning relaxing between the pool, the garden and the patio, reading a book, listening to music and enjoying the company of my friends.

Villa Sepalika

Enjoying the fabulous pool at Villa Sepalika

I couldn’t have asked for a better way to conclude my trip to Sri Lanka.

Have you ever been to Galle? Did you know that you can enjoy a wonderful villa at a real steal there?

For a complete guide about Sri Lanka, check my post 9 Fantastic Places To Visit In Sri Lanka.

Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of Villa Sepalika during my time in Galle. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. 

Sri Lanka: Ancient Cities, Holy Places and Wild Nature

Sri Lanka: Ancient Cities, Holy Places and Wild Nature

This is the story of a trip that starts in Negombo, once a fishing village and nowadays a small city, at around 40 km from Colombo. Traveling with my friend Diana, I crossed some of the ancient cities of the country until we finally reached Back of Beyond, an enchanted place completely immersed in the lush nature of Sri Lanka.

This is the story of a country that many consider an appendix of India, and that I came to realize has little to do with India. It is the story of a legendary country where the image of Buddha has always had an important role in the life of its people.

Last, but not least, this is the story of the first week of my trip across a country and a people which couldn’t be further from my life, both geographically and culturally.

“Like many,” some would say.

Yes, like many – but also much more than others.

Dambulla, Sri Lanka

The view from the Rock Temple in Dambulla reveals how lush Sri Lanka is

First Impressions

I only spend one night in Negombo – just enough time to rest after 24 hours of traveling. Aside from the fish market, which swipes me away with its pungent, penetrating smell, it doesn’t seem too interesting to me. I am still in limbo, adapting to a place that is so far from what I am used to. Like always, I tip toe my way to the country, and spend some time in its lobby, slowly savoring its exotic smell.

Sri Lanka is often called the teardrop of India but the difference between the two couldn’t be more striking. I don’t see the garbage and the poverty that shocked me when I arrived to Varanasi, less than a year ago.

Someone – I don’t remember who! – told me that traveling by public transportation in Sri Lanka is pure madness. Before getting here, I had contacted the tourism board which had offered me and Diana a private car with a driver – something which would have made the trip a lot easier and way more comfortable. But we decided to refuse the offer in the end. Part of the beauty of traveling is getting to know the local culture, and public transportation is the best way to fully get the local way of life and to observe the local people. Sure, it is slow and uncomfortable, but the time “wasted” on those slow, crazy buses is repaid by the incredible people I meet along the way.

Anuradhapura Sri Lanka

A Buddhist monk protects himself from the heat in Anuradhapura

Diana and I leave early in the morning, set to go to Anuradhapura. We have yet to understand the bus system. After a short ride to Kurunegala on a small AC bus, we wait in what appears a never ending line to get on a bus to Anuradhapura. I have traveled across Central America on the crazy chicken buses. I should be used to this – but trust me, between the heat, the manic driving of the conductor who God only knows how he got a driving licence, the terrible road conditions, the amount of people literally sitting on top of each other and the idea that I will be stuck there for something like 5 hours to drive a mere 130 km makes me regret refusing the offer of a private car with a driver.

It is just a momentary thing though: once I come to terms with the fact that it takes about 1 hour to drive 30 km, I start actually enjoying those bus rides. And in fact, public transportation in Sri Lanka is, though slow, very reliable and the entire country is well connected.

At a first glance, people in Sri Lanka are very friendly and the first impression of the country is extremely positive.  A group of women sees me struggling to get on the bus, with my backpack, and saves a seat for me, pointing to sit next to them. They are all wearing white skirts and shirts. I learn that this is the color they wear to go to the temple. They are keen to talk, sharing whichever little English they speak. They smile, they pose for a selfie. They ask to see photos of my country.

Pidurangala, Sri Lanka

Enjoying the view of Sigiryia from Pidurangala

A trip between the ancient cities and the holy places of Sri Lanka

Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, is famous for the ruins. It takes me and Diana about 5 hours to visit the site. We rent bikes which we are told are brand new, but on a second glance they are rusty and at least 10 years old. The atmosphere of the site is magic; but the site, in all honesty, is nothing special – or at least, I don’t think it is worth a $25 USD entrance fee. The city isn’t pretty either, though we enjoy the atmosphere.

Anurhadapura, Sri Lanka

Women offering prayers in Anuradhapura

After two nights in Anuradhapura, we are ready to move on. We decide to head to Dambulla, to visit the Royal Rock Temple, one of the religious icons of Sri Lanka. We drop our backpacks in a shop for 100 Sri Lankan Rupees and set to explore. We hike up a steep hill to get to a series of caves which are used as temples and where there are various Buddha statues.

I can sense the holiness of the place through the fervor of the prayers of the locals, but once again I regret paying the $10 USD fee to get inside. I don’t think the place is worth the price. I suppose it is too late now anyways.

After picking up our backpacks, we head to Sigiriya, who everyone says to be splendid. To be fair, the sight of it from a distance is truly astounding. The rock fortress sits proudly in the middle of luxurious vegetation. It used to be a royal palace and military fortress during Kassapa reign in the 5th century AC, though recent studies believe that it used to be a theravada and mahayana Buddhist monastery of the 3rd century. The view from the top is incredible.

Sigiryia, Sri Lanka

The incredible view from Sigiryia

But that’s about it – once again, the actual site isn’t worth the $30 USD entrance fee. The ridiculous fees for sites that are worth about a fifth of the required price leaves me wandering what, in proportion, should be the adequate fee for places like Petra and Machu Picchu.

For those who are unwilling to pay an extortionate fee just for a beautiful view, the good news is that the nearby Pidurangala, another rock fortress, only costs 500 Sri Lankan Rupees ($3 USD), it is significantly less touristy (Diana and I were the only ones on top for a good while) and the views from there are simply spectacular.

After battling with the heat and a sometime difficult path (tip! wear shoes and carry lots of water), we made it to the top to be rewarded with the most impressive view of Sigiriya and the lush nature around it. We didn’t stay along for sunset (we were exhausted after a day of exploration) but rumor has it that it is one of the best sunset views of the country.

Back of Beyond Sri Lanka

The lush garden at Back of Beyond

Back of Beyond, the marvel in the Sri Lankan jungle

What does a “hotel” (the inverted commas are appropriate in this case, because Back of Beyond is so much more than just a place to stay) have to do with a post on ancient cities or holy places in Sri Lanka? Nothing, apparently. Yet it deserves a special mention. Located at a stone’s throw from Sigiriya, and completely immersed in the jungle, Back of Beyond is the perfect place to unite a love of nature at its best, and an interest in culture and history which can be found nearby.

It may well be that green is my favorite color and that Sri Lanka is by far the greenest country I have ever seen, but Back of Beyond to me is love at first sight. There are just 7 rooms in the property, 3 of which are tree houses. Had anyone told me when I was a child that one day I’d sleep in a treehouse cabin, I would have told them that they were mad. I guess dreams come true, because that’s exactly what I did at Back of Beyond.

Back of Beyond Sri Lanka

My bed in the treehouse at Back of Beyond

The view from the tree house opened up to show the lush of the vegetation. We spend the late afternoon hours reading books, soaking in the light breeze, and listening to the sound of nature. We are warned not to leave any of our properties around, and to store any food we may have carried with us in safe boxes, unless we want to share it with the animals. With this in mind, we go to bed, hanging our dirty clothes on the rack before falling asleep.

When we wake up, we do realize what the staff meant: Diana’s cotton pants and top have literally been chewed, most likely by a squirrel. She shrugs it off, wondering how come the squirrel didn’t pick to chew on her older clothes. I guess my hiking pants were too filthy even for a starving squirrel.

After a scrumptious breakfast, we pack our backpacks to move to the boulder cottage. The style of the room is very similar to that of the tree house, but here the bathroom is completely built around a boulder. I shower in the company of a small frog, who stares at me, probably thinking I have invaded her place.

Back of Beyond Sri Lanka

Back of Beyond is completely immersed in nature

In fact, at Back of Beyond nature rules. All the rooms are built in full respect of nature. The management struggles to involve the local community in projects of re-forestation, and strives to educate the locals not to hunt and poach animals, and to respect the ones that live in the area – including the elephants of which unfortunately we only see a large footprint. But I guess it is ok, as long as I know they are respected and free. 

It is comforting to know that places like this exist, where tourism is used in a responsible manner to protect the environment and to promote the respect of animals. It is even more comforting to find out that more and more places like Back of Beyond exist in Sri Lanka.

For a comprehensive guide to Sri Lanka, read my post The Nicest Touristy And Not So Touristy Places To Visit In Sri Lanka. 

Have you visited any of the holy cities in Sri Lanka? Did you enjoy them?

Legal disclaimer: I was a guest of Back of Beyond during my visit to Sri Lanka. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.

Five fantastic hotels in South East Asia

Five fantastic hotels in South East Asia

South East Asia is packed with great hotels

South East Asia is packed with great hotels

I love traveling so much that I do whatever possible to stretch my budget so that I can travel longer, including picking budget hostels. Yet, I appreciate the comfort of a good hotel and I admit that every now and then I check myself into one, just for the sake of some quality sleep and pampering. Besides, good hotels don’t necessarily have to cost a fortune. In fact, when it comes to South East Asia, it is actually quite easy to find real gems at a splurge.

During my multiple trips across South East Asia I stayed at some incredible hotels. Here’s my favorite five.

places to visit in Bali

Taking in the gorgeous view from my balcony at Ubud Dedari Villas

Ubud Dedari Villas, Beduli (Bali, Indonesia)

When I finally arrived at Ubud Dedari Villas I was exhausted. It was the end of a very tiring trip across Indonesia, with an itinerary packed of activities. I fell in love with this hotel so much that I hardly got out of it during my stay.

All rooms at Ubud Dedari Villas are huge and beautifully furnished, and have either a balcony or a patio that overlooks a gorgeous garden with a lovely infinity pool and the lush forest right in front of it.

What I enjoyed the most about Ubud Dedari Villas is the location: at 15 minutes drive from Ubud (and there is a free shuttle for guests), the place is incredibly quiet, and there is no noise at all other than that of the creek running through the forest and the cicadas.

The Phoenix Hotel Yogyakarta - MGallery Collection

The Phoenix is pretty much hotel perfection – photo courtesy of LAYang (flickr)

The Phoenix, Yogyakarta (Indonesia)

The Phoenix has to be one of the best hotels I have ever stayed at, not only in South East Asia but in the world. It is set in a beautiful colonial building, and although all rooms are furnished in a traditional way, they have all the modern comforts.

There is a beautiful swimming pool, a spa and a fitness center, and the buffet breakfast is delicious.

What I loved the most about The Phoenix are the little touches here and there that made me feel truly pampered. Every night, someone from the staff would prepare my bed and leave a different sweet on my pillow.

Direct access to a gorgeous beach and a stunning sunset at Chivapuri Beach Resort

Direct access to a gorgeous beach and a stunning sunset at Chivapuri Beach Resort

Chivapuri Beach Resort, Koh Chang (Thailand)

Koh Chang is the second largest island in Thailand, and there are many hotels and resorts from which to pick. I got there at the very end of my trip across South East Asia and I knew I would need somewhere quiet to relax for a few days. Chivapuri Beach Resort was perfect. The large and comfortable rooms are a guarantee of quality sleep.

The resort is located at the southern tip of the island, on Klong Koi beach (right off Bang Bao). It is beautifully hidden in the nature, and has direct access to a lovely, clean beach. There is a restaurant and a bar, both at the beach.

What I loved the most about Chivapuri Beach Resort is the care of its personnel, always kind, polite and ready to help.

Rose Royal Boutique Hotel is the perfect base to go explore Angkor Wat

Rose Royal Boutique Hotel is the perfect base to go explore Angkor Wat

Rose Royal Boutique Hotel, Siem Reap (Cambodia)

The Rose Royal Boutique Hotel was an incredible find, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anybody visiting Siem Reap. It is tucked away in a tiny street, which means there is no traffic noise at all. Yet, it is literally a 2 minutes walk from all the mayhem of the night market and Pub Street.

Rooms are spacious and very comfortable, there is a fantastic pool which is great to cool off after a day of exploring Angkor Wat and the bar makes delicious (and slightly addictive) cocktails. There is a wide selection for breakfast.

The personnel is very kind and helpful and all speak fluent English. They are always available to provide information, organize transportation and guided tours. I truly enjoyed my stay there!

This is literally at a 2 minutes walk from The Corner Homestay

This is literally at a 2 minutes walk from The Corner Homestay

The Corner Homestay, Hoi An (Vietnam)

The Corner Homestay isn’t a simple hotel. This is a family run business, located in a beautiful house tucked away in a small and quiet alley in Hoi An, Vietnam. Location is simply perfect: it feels like a local neighborhood, but it is a 2 minutes walk from the historic centre and the night market.

Rooms are nice, spacious and spotless, and have all the modern comforts. Breakfast is delicious and filling. The lovely personnel helps guest arrange activities, transportation, scooter and bike rentals, and even laundry.

What I liked the most about The Corner Homestay was the feeling of being with a local family, yet having all of the privacy and comfort I needed.

South East Asia is packed with good hotels that can be easily booked online at a real steal. Sure enough, there is no point in roughing it up when it is possible to be comfortable at a reasonable price.

Do you have any favorite hotels around South East Asia? Let us know in the comments below!

Costa Rica attractions: Puerto Viejo, the extreme laidback side of the country

Costa Rica attractions: Puerto Viejo, the extreme laidback side of the country

Puerto Viejo is the perfect place to be a beach bum or to practice one’s surfing abilities in the pristine Caribbean waters of Costa Rica. It has some of the best beaches in Costa Rica. The lush nature around town, its dusty streets, artesania shops, good bars and seafood restaurants and its relaxed rastafarian community (be prepared to listen to reggae music all day long, see the typical colours of rastafarians all around town and being served by a waitress who will laughingly admit to having smoked marjiuana) make this place charming and therefore one of Costa Rica attractions. The good news is that there are plenty of cheap accommodation, eating options and activities not to blow anyone’s travel budget.

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

Waves and wildlife are among Costa Rica attractions

Things to do in Costa Rica:

Surf and snorkel

Salsa Brava is thought to have the best waves of the country and is among the best beaches of Costa Rica for surfing. The coral reef almost emerges from the waters, so make sure to catch that wave unless willing to crash on the reef: in other words, it is only good for experts. Playa Cocles, about 2 km east of Puerto Viejo, has great but less dangerous waves, usually in the first hours of day. To catch the best ones, go between December and March. Not a surfer but willing to give it a try? Enroll in one of the surf camps.

Playa Negra is a great beach for swimming and body board. Snorkelling is best enjoyed in the areas between Cahuita and Manzanillo – for better visibility go when there are no waves. For scuba diving, there are over 20 good sites in the area where it is possible admire various species of fish. For information, the best option is Reef Runner Divers – it is even possible dive with a temporary permission for those who do not have a patent.

Puerto Viejo

Sand, coral reef and forest in one of the best beaches in Costa Rica

Hike and bike

Puerto Viejo is a great starting point for other things to do in Costa Rica, such as a hike in the rain forest, kayaking, walking. And then go back to town to enjoy a delicious rondon soup (a traditional fish soup with vegetables and spices typical of the area). There are organised tours of the parks, but it is easy to hike around (and for free) independently in the Parque Nacional Cahuita and in the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Gandoca-Manzanillo where toucans and sloths can be spotted. South-east of town the jungle meets the sea, contoured by palm trees and inhabited by toucans, sloths and monkeys: it all gives this a special aura. Carry lunch and plenty of water.

Be lazy

For those who want to be extra lazy, the best option is to just walk around, browse the artesania shops, enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and mingle with the local artists.

Puerto Viejo biking

Biking around? One of the many things to do in Costa Rica

Where to stay and eat:

Backpackers looking for cheap accommodation in Puerto Viejo will find Hostel Pagalù a great quality option: comfortable beds (dorms are 12 US dollars), rooms and bathrooms are spotless, there is a cozy common area with books, wifi and computers, a well equipped kitchen to prepare meals. No reservations are accepted but those lucky enough to find a bed, will never be kicked out unless they decide to leave!

There are good supermarkets to buy and prepare meals. Those too lazy to cook who would rather eat out shoudl go to Soda Mirna, in the main street, as it is the best budget option with its set meals and large portions. Bread and Chocolate is perfect for a very filling breakfast, and everything is organic and prepared from scratch, not to mention delicious.

Various bars have live music at night.

Getting to Puerto Viejo and away:

It is possible to get here by catching a bus from the Gran Terminal de Caribe in San Jose. From Tortuguero, catch a bus from Cariari to Guapiles and then hop on another bus to Puerto Viejo.

To reach Panama get a direct bus to Sixaola (they leave several times a day) and then cross the border in Guabito.

For more things to do in Costa Rica click here.