The Best National Parks for Safari in Sri Lanka
There are 26 National Parks in Sri Lanka, each with incredibly diverse wildlife. Going on a safari in one of those National Parks is a popular activity on a typical Sri Lanka Route. Elephants can be spotted in 15 different National Parks. People usually look forward to seeing them, as they are an integral part of the history, culture and religions in Sri Lanka. Here is a list of our preferred parks where except of elephants you can also see monkeys, crocodiles, wild pigs, deers and if you are lucky- have a glimpse on a leopard relaxing on a tree.
- Kaudulla National Park
- Minneriya National Park
- Udawalawe National Park
- Yala National Park
- Elephant Transit Home
Kaudulla National Park
Kaudulla National Park is one of best national parks to spot elephants on a Safari in Sri Lanka, as over 200 of them live there freely. The park can be visited year-round.
Safari in Kaudulla takes half day and can be done either in the morning or the afternoon. We recommend doing it in the afternoon for one good reason (even if it might be busier than in the morning). By the end of the day, elephants from all around the park make their way to the centrally located lake, to drink and refresh themselves after a hot day. It’s the best opportunity to spot those amazing creatures as they walk, play and wash themselves in the water.
We were very lucky that day and were amazed by what we experienced. Driving around the park, we heard at one point noises coming from the bushes. We asked our driver to stop the engine and wait. It took a while, but at last we spotted movement through the trees. Finally it happened, a big family of elephants walked right in front of our jeep making their way to the lake to refresh themselves after a long & hot day. We had tears in our eyes when we saw those animals walking freely in the nature (and so close to us).
Besides the elephants you can also spot monkeys, surprisingly loads of peacocks, deers, crocodiles and many beautiful birds.
When to visit?
The best time to visit Kaudulla National Park is from July to December, but the animals can be spotted year round and park is always open.
Cost and length
The safari lasts 4 to 5 hours and best option is to do it by a private jeep- just you and the driver. The trip costs about 12000 LKR (Sri Lanka Rupee) which is about 60 Euro for 2 people. It includes private jeep, driver/guide, pick up from around Habarana and entrance fee.
You can book this safari while in Sri Lanka via your hotel or hostel, there is no need to book it in advance. We booked with help of Kosala, our friendly taxi driver, that picked us up in Colombo Airport and drove us to Sigirya. We highly recommend him for both taxi service as well as for help with arranging the safari. He was one of the friendliest people we have ever met and we still remember the absolutely amazing papaya he has brought us from his garden.
You can contact Kosala via Facebook.
Minneriya National Park
Minneriya is a bigger brother to Kaudulla National Park. It’s more popular with tourists and has also a huge range of wild animals like elephants. As animals are free to walk between the parks, it’s a good idea to ask locals before going, in which park there are more elephants on that day.
For a full day of adventure visit the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa in the morning and then do an afternoon safari in either Kaudulla or Minneriya National Parks.
↬ Note : There is also a high chance you will see elephants crossing the road while driving in the area. Remain calm and do not raise your voice if that happens, let the animal continue its way.
Udawalawe National Park
Udawalawe National Park is one of the most popular safari parks in Sri Lanka. Spread over 300 sq km, the park lies in the dry zone and its landscape consists of jungle, grassland and abandoned teak plantation. Here you can see many birds, deers, buffalos, monkeys and of course, elephants- there are over 600 of them living in the park.
Safari in Udawalawe is similar as in other National Parks. You can ask directly at your hotel or hostel to book it for you. We actually booked it few days in advance as we met a wonderful french family while hiking Little Adam’s Peak in Ella, that told us about their amazing safari guide/driver in Udawalawe and gave us his number.
We can’t recommend Pancha Safari enough
Pancha had incredible knowledge of the animals (he memorized a whole book about animals in Udawalawe and knew names and descriptions to every single bird and animal) and was the best at spotting them.
When to visit?
Udawalawe can be visited year-round. The preferred dry season lasts from May to September, but you can spot animals and elephants any time during the year.
Cost and length
The cost of this safari is around 9000 LRK for 2 people (includes the private jeep, driver/guide, pick up from the hotel and entrance fee).
You can visit Udawalawe as a full day safari, or half day lasting 3 h (morning and the afternoon). We have opted for half day in the afternoon, which means that we got picked up in our hotel by Pancha at 14.30, entered the park at 15.00 and left by 18.00
How to get there?
Udawalawe is a good destination on the way from or to Ella. The most popular and convenient way is by car or taxi.
However we chose to go by bus, as its easy, fast and very cheap. We took a bus from Ella to Wellawaya around 9.00 in the morning. We then got into another bus directed to Udawalawa, that stops at Udawalawe National Park (it stops for about 10 min break in Thanamalwila, but then continues the road). The whole journey took about 3,5 hours and costed less than 1 euro each.
↬ Read : How to travel around Sri Lanka?
Where to stay in Udawalawe?
It’s a great idea to stay close to Udawalawe for a night. Like this you can do afternoon safari and the following morning visit Elephant Transit Home.
We highly recommend staying at a beautiful Kalus Hideway resort.
Elephant Transit Home
If you came to Sri Lanka wanting to visit an elephant orphanage, Elephant Transit Home is the only place you should consider visiting. Here orphaned elephants calves are taken in, nurtured, cared for back to health and raised until they are 4 or 5 years old, and then released back into the wild.
The elephants are free to roam around and are never chained – Elephant Transit Home ensures that human contact is kept to a minimum in order to maximize their chance of survival when they are returned to the wild. Visitors are kept at a distance and from a platform can witness young elephants being fed (the feeding times are scheduled at 9.00, 15.00 and 18.00). Make sure to arrive on time if you don’t want to miss this heartwarming experience.
Yala National Park
Yala is the most famous Sri Lanka ‘s National Park located on the southern coast, known for the variety of its wildlife that can be seen during a safari, as well as its beautiful coastline. However most people come here for it’s highlight: the Sri Lankan Leopard. Yala National Park has the highest density of leopards living in the wild, thus the highest chance of spotting one.
Your best chance to see a leopard is generally first thing in the morning and then again at dusk. Look up at the trees and deep into the bushes as they aren’t easy to spot. Apart from the leopards there are many elephants living inside the park and they can be seen bathing in the numerous lakes in the vicinity. You can also see deer, wild boar, wild buffaloes, sloth bear and mongoose.
You can book Yala safari tour directly at your hotel or hostel.
↬ TIP : It is crucial that you book a guide that has experience. Do insist while making the reservation that the guide must have experience- even if the company is well known. It depends on your guide what kind of safari experience you will have- learn from our mistake…
We booked via recommendation and even if the company had great opinions, our 19 year old guide simply didn’t know what he was doing.
Our young driver spoke no english thus the communication was a challenge. The problems started as soon as we arrived at the entrance gate… We waited for good 45 min, while the other cars drove off after 1/3 of that time. Right before entering the park we stopped on the side of the road for another 10 min because the driver was talking on the phone. All that wouldn’t count if we had an amazing safari experience…we didn’t ?
The driver just rushed us through the whole park. He didn’t try to spot the animals himself. He’d only listen to the other drivers on the radio and speed once he got information that there is an animal in sight. This meant that we were always one of countless jeeps waiting in a line to see it. We waited like this in a queue in the park for good 30 min to see a leopard on a tree. But there were 20-30 jeeps in front of us so we had no chance to spot the animal. Overall, we barely saw anything and were just tired of a fast and unpleasant drive. Not the experience you want from your safari in one of the most beautiful National Parks of Sri Lanka…
How to get there?
Getting to Yala is easy, no matter which part of Sri Lanka you are coming from. You can take a car or taxi from the south beach area or come directly from Ella.
We again opted for the bus as we got used to traveling like this, its fun and fast.
From Udawalawe we took a bus to Thanamalwila and then changed for a bus going to Tissamaharama. From there we took a tuk-tuk to our hotel. The bus ride took about 2 hours and costed less than 1 euro each.
Cost and length
You can visit Yala as a full day safari, or half day lasting 3 or 4 hours. We think that 3/4 hours is enough and recommend the morning safari as it has the highest chance of spotting the leopards.
The tour starts at 5.30 am with a pick up at your hotel. We think you could even insist on starting earlier to maximise the chance of arriving before the giant queue at the entrance gates.
You enter the park at 6.30am and leave at 10.30am.
The cost is similar to other safaris: about 9000 LRK for 2 people.
Where to stay?
Yala is a wonderful place to try glamping- a fancy camping option. It is however only for those traveling with big budget as one night in a place like this costs around 400 euro.
Alternatively you can base yourself in Tissamaharama. Find all available hotels on booking.com
We stayed in the wonderful Thaulle Resort and had fantastic time there.