Why Sri Lanka Is One of the World’s Best Destinations for Safari

Yala National Park is a popular safari spot
Yala National Park is a popular safari spot | © Chris Bull / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Alex Jordan
Travel Expert2 September 2021

Sri Lanka has become one the most desired safari destinations in the world thanks to its abundance of national parks, diverse wildlife – including elephants and leopards – and sustainable approach to conservation.

Sri Lanka, a tear-shaped island in the Indian Ocean, boasts some of the highest rates of biological endemism in the world – meaning that 16 percent of its fauna and 23 percent of its flora are unique to the country.

It has an abundance of birdlife – more than 400 species – and has its very own ‘big five’: elephants, leopards, sloth bears, blue whales and sperm whales. It is also one of the few places where people can combine whale watching with land safari in the same day.

There are 26 state-owned national parks covering an area of 5,734sqkm (2,214sqmi), much of which is protected by the Sri Lankan Department of Wildlife Conservation. Culture Trip travels across Sri Lanka in search of the best safari.

A safari Jeep in Minneriya National Park | © Timali Loku Eddipulige / Alamy Stock Photo

Yala National Park

A six-hour drive southeast of Colombo, this is the country’s premier national park, sitting along a long stretch of coastline. Yala National Park is packed with wildlife and is the best place for spotting Sri Lankan leopards – the park hosts around 30 to 40 within its 130,000ha (321,236 acres). Sloth bears are frequently seen here, too.

Leopard in Yala National Park | © CORREIA Patrice / Alamy Stock Photo

Minneriya National Park

Minneriya is only a short drive from the majestic Sigiriya rock fortress, arguably the most popular tourist attraction in the country. Over 8,800ha (21,745 acres) are home to hundreds of Sri Lankan elephants that like to congregate around an old reservoir. The seasonal gathering of elephants takes place during September and October on the bed of the Minneriya Lake, which dries up during those months and is replaced with lush grassland.

Mother and baby Asian elephants at Minneriya National Park | © wanderluster / Alamy Stock Photo

Udawalawe National Park

Less crowded with safari Jeeps than Yala, Udawalawe is known as the best place in all of Asia for observing elephants in the wild, with around 400 of them calling it home. It also hosts the Elephant Transit, where abandoned or orphaned elephant calves are cared for and treated before being released back into the wild. Elephant sightings are almost guaranteed here, but keep an eye out for the endangered rusty-spotted cats as well.

You’re almost guaranteed to see an elephant in Udawalawe National Park | © blickwinkel / Alamy Stock Photo

Land, on-foot, boat and even sky safari options

While Jeep safaris remain the most popular way to get around, a walking safari – accompanied by a tracker and ranger – is another great way to get up close with the animals, and at a much slower pace. There are trails for different levels of difficulty, and tours are available from morning to late at night, so you can see more nocturnal creatures that hide during the day.

A Jeep safari is just one way to see Sri Lanka’s ‘big five’ | © NJphoto / Alamy Stock Photo

Another way to see wildlife in Sri Lanka is from a hot-air balloon. However, these are weather dependent and most tours only operate between December and March.

You can even view Sri Lanka from a hot-air balloon | © Cedric Angeles / Alamy Stock Photo

Gal Oya National Park is also worth considering. This lesser-known gem offers boat safaris and the opportunity to see the crocodiles that call Senanayake Samudraya, Sri Lanka’s largest reservoir, home. Here, it’s also possible to join the Veddas on a nature walk; the tribe is reputed to be descended from the indigenous population of the island. The tribespeople continue to follow their traditional way of farming and hunting with bows and arrows, and only a few hundred are left.

Asian elephant in Gal Oya National Park | © ThePhotographerSL/Shutterstock

Experience safari all year around

There are two monsoon seasons in Sri Lanka. The southwestern monsoon occurs between May and September, while the northeastern rainy season occurs between October and January. With national parks scattered all over the island, there are excellent safari options throughout the year.

The best time to visit Yala in the southeast is between March and October when water levels are low and the animals approach the lakes to drink. The majestic Sinharaja Forest Reserve, on the other hand, is most accessible from August to September and from January to early April.

Elephant rock in Yala National Park | © Solarysys / Alamy Stock Photo
Sinharaja Forest Reserve, Ratnapura | © Dorling Kindersley ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Stunning accommodation options in ideal locations

Wildlife enthusiasts might want to consider staying inside the national parks and being at the heart of the action. Sri Lanka boasts some of the most indulgent safari camps, lodges and hotels in the world.

Jetwing Yala, Kiranda

Jetwing Yala hotel Sri Lanka
Jetwing Yala hotel | Courtesy of Jetwing Yala / On The Go Tours

Jetwing Yala hotel, located on the borders of Yala National Park, is ideal for its proximity to the game drives and access to the beach. Rooms are beautifully decorated and visitors can benefit from a large outdoor pool, modern gym and a number of onsite restaurants.

Grand Udawalawe Safari Resort, Udawalawa

Grand Udawalawe Safari Resort Sri Lanka
Grand Udawalawe Safari Resort, Udawalawe National Park | Courtesy of Grand Udawalawe Safari Resort / On the Go Tours

The Grand Udawalawe Safari Resort is an absolute must for those planning a safari at the Udawalawe National Park. Located just a few minutes’ drive away, the resort features spacious rooms, an outdoor pool, delicious food and an extensive breakfast menu. It’s also not far from the Ath Athuru Sevana elephant orphanage.

EKHO Sigiriya, Central Province

Stay just 900 yards away from the famous Sigiriya Rock at the EKHO Sigiriya and request a room with views of the mountain or garden. Although the Minneriya National Park is a 25-minute drive away, visitors can enjoy the proximity to the area’s top attractions and experience safari at the same time.

Tents and lodges

If a hotel stay doesn’t seem like the right fit, then treetop camps or lodges within or near the national parks are sure to excite. Take up residence at the Leopard Nest, a treehouse located inside Yala National Park, or book a tented safari camp.

Mutu Village, just a 15-minute drive from Minneriya National Park, is another great option and is highly rated for a two-person trip, while Makulu Safari Camping in Udawalawe offers the perfect glamping experience in the heart of the jungle.

These recommendations were updated on September 2, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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