The excited chatter in the bus dropped to a silence interspersed by the sound of camera shutters, as those of us standing in the front gaped in awe at the majestic creature that stood before us, illuminated in the dark forest outside the windshield, only by the headlights of the bus. Then, it began to walk in our direction confidently, its massive gray trunk swaying from side to side.
A lump formed in my throat and I lowered my phone camera. Surely, it would stop or turn around and disappear back into the thicket of trees by the road?
Our driver wasn’t waiting to find out; he promptly switched off the lights, and drove at an angle heading towards the other end of the road as the elephant watched us get away with large, observant eyes.
We were on safari in Yala National Park in Sri Lanka and these were exactly the kind of experiences I’d come seeking on my second trip to Sri Lanka. (Don’t forget to watch the video in this post).
Whether you’ve never been on safari or like me, simply love the idea of seeing the world’s most wild and beautiful animals in their natural habitats, then a Sri Lanka safari should be on your bucketlist (plus it’s so affordable). Considering how well developed facilities are for tourists, it isn’t surprising that wildlife tours are one of the biggest draws of tourism in Sri Lanka.
Thanks to its unique island ecosystem, not only is the country blessed with incredible and diverse landscapes, but also Sri Lanka’s national parks are home to abundant plant, animal and birdlife. On safari in Sri Lanka, you can expect to see leopards, elephants, water buffaloes, crocodiles, wild boars and diverse species of birds. If you’re lucky, you can also spot the blue whale, the world’s biggest mammal, on whale-watching tours in the country- another one of the world’s unique experiences that Sri Lankan tourism offers.
Why You Should Visit Yala National Park for a Sri Lanka Safari
Spread over 130,000 hectares, Yala National Park in south eastern Sri Lanka, with its forests, grasslands, lagoons, dry scrubs and dramatic coastline along the Indian Ocean, was declared a national park in 1938. Home to over 210 species of birds, not only is it paradise for birdwatchers, but with resident elephants, sambal, jackals, spotted deer, peacocks, crocodiles, sloth bears, mongooses, wild pigs, and leopards, it’s also a must visit for wildlife lovers.
If you’ve always wanted to see leopards in the wild, a Yala National Park Safari is highly recommended because the park has the highest concentration of the Sri Lankan leopard among national parks in Sri Lanka, and according to some sources, even in Asia. For many, this is the reason that a Yala National Park Safari seems like the best safari in Sri Lanka.
Yala National Park is also home to the ancient rock temple of Sithulpawwa, that was an important pilgrimage center over 2000 years ago and is believed to have once been home to 12,000 monks, suggesting that this now wild terrain was once home to a civilization.
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What To Expect on a Yala National Park Safari
Only some parts of Yala National Park are open to tourism. During our Yala National Park Safari in late October, we drove from Block 1 to Block 5 (where tourists are allowed) and continued on to visit the neighboring Lunugamvehera National Park that serves as a corridor for the migration of elephants between Yala National Park and Udawalawe National Park. Lunugamvehera National Park can be visited round the year, making it a good choice for a safari in Sri Lanka when other national parks might be closed.
In fact, while our jeep didn’t spot any elephants inside Lunugamvehera National Park, we did see them on our way there and back, just casually hanging around by the side of the road!
It took us an entire day to experience a Yala National Park Safari, and the safari jeeps were spacious and comfortable. Our guide Vidu was friendly and knowledgeable, pointing out the different species of birds we spotted such as the Kingfisher, Grey Heron, Spoonbill, Pelican, and Green Bee-eater, among others. We also saw several peacocks, spotted deer, crocodiles, water buffaloes, langurs, squirrels, mongooses and sambal.
While it wasn’t overly crowded during our visit, you can expect many other safari jeeps during the peak season from June to September. Yala National Park remains the top spot for leopard sightings in Sri Lanka and is the most visited national park in the country.
Watch The Video
Is this the best safari in Sri Lanka?
The Yala National Park Safari seems like the most popular safari in Sri Lanka. It does have a well-developed tourism infrastructure. But for me to be able to honestly answer if I think this is the best safari in Sri Lanka, I’d have to go back and experience at least 2-3 other safaris in Sri Lanka such as Udawalawe National Park Safari and Bundala National Park. (Wink wink, Universe, are you listening?)
Things To Know Before You Go on a Yala National Park Safari
- Expect hot and humid weather on a Yala National Park safari. Obviously, safari jeeps don’t have air-conditioning. Dress in light, breezy and comfortable clothing that you can move around in.
- You won’t be rolling in the mud or anything like that. In fact, you’ll spend most of your time on safari in the safari jeep. But expect muddy water splashing onto you from trees and dusty conditions.
- Wear lots of sunscreen and insect repellent to prevent mosquito bites. Bring a hat to protect your head against the sun.
- Carry wipes and enough drinking water to last you for a few hours at least. You’re not allowed to eat everywhere- only at designated spots. Don’t bring strong smelling food within the park, and definitely don’t bring a picnic. Snacks that are properly packed are okay.
- Feeding the animals is prohibited. Don’t be that stupid tourist.
- Listen to the instructions of your guide and driver. Keep your body within the vehicle (including your arms and head and such) unless they permit you to do otherwise.
- Be mindful of your noise levels. You don’t want to startle and scare away the wildlife in their own home.
- Understand that leopard or elephant sightings can never be guaranteed. This is a national park within a wildlife sanctuary. That means animals roam here of their own free will so if you’re lucky, you’re likely to have a few sightings. But even if you don’t see a leopard, you’ll still see other animals such as spotted deer, jackals, crocodiles, and other species.
- Be humane- don’t ask your driver to chase the wildlife you spot just so you can get that perfect photograph or video footage. Think about what you’re doing and how lucky you are to be where you are.
- Hold on to your trash and take it back with you.
- Smoking is prohibited within the park.
- Flash photography is prohibited.
Where To Stay For a Yala National Park Safari
On this trip with Cinnamon Hotels & Resorts, I had the chance to stay at Cinnamon Wild Yala, a rustic but luxurious safari lodge bordering the Yala National Park, that was perhaps my favorite of all the Cinnamon hotels I stayed at. The hotel also arranged our safari experience.
The spacious and luxurious villa-style rooms stand around the property that blends in perfectly with the neighboring national park. Peacocks, langurs, elephants, buffaloes, deer, mongooses, and perhaps even leopards roam freely around the area, especially after dark or very early in the morning.
Guests aren’t permitted to saunter off on their own after dark- they must request an escort every time they want to go from their room to the reception or one of the restaurants.
I have to admit- following around a flashlight-yielding security guard in pitch darkness with nothing but the sounds of the forest, just adds to the awe-inspiring factor, especially if this is your first Asian safari experience.
Additionally, it also helps when your jeep safari is organized by a local luxury hotel who knows what they’re doing and provides a guide along with the park’s tracker guide. We got most of our information from Vidu, the guide provided by Cinnamon Wild Yala.
Accommodation at Cinnamon Wild Yala
The air-conditioned villa-style jungle chalets are modern, luxurious and spacious, but have a warm, rustic flair that you’d expect in a safari resort, with touches such as mellow lighting, wood fittings and high ceilings. If you like to start your day early, then your terrace is a great place to enjoy a cup of tea and watch peacocks or buffaloes go about their business early in the morning.
Chalets come with complimentary tea and coffee making facilities, free Wi-Fi, safety lockers, and cable TV. Rain showers in the bathrooms offer much needed relaxation after a day of activities.
Each night, I’d hear the animals, that I’d assumed were either monkeys, peacocks, or deer, going about their nightly walks around the resort. Later, I learnt that buffaloes and elephants hung around the resort’s swimming pool at night! To say that it was thrilling, even though I was safely behind my locked door, would be an understatement.
Dining at Cinnamon Wild Yala
Tuskers, the main restaurant at Cinnamon Wild Yala offers a lavish buffet of Sri Lankan dishes as well as international cuisine with grilled meats, pasta, pizza, and a wide choice of salads, appetizers, and desserts.
For light meals, you can dine in the heart of the jungle at Pug Marks. The resort’s rooftop bar offers panoramic views over the area.
The resort also arranges destination dining experiences for guests where they can enjoy breakfast or dinner in the wilderness. We were treated to a grand barbeque feast at Pug Marks with grilled fresh fish, prawns and meat, as well as a buffet spread of dishes.
Other Activities at Cinnamon Wild Yala
The hotel’s swimming pool is great to relax in after you’ve had a hot, sweaty wander around the property, or if you simply want to have a relaxing start to your day. Azmaara Spa offers a range of soothing and rejuvenating treatment for guests looking to unwind.
If you want to get a bit of physical exercise in and learn about the flora and fauna of the park, then the Guided Nature Walk is an excellent way to do that. We went on a Nature Walk with a Cinnamon naturalist the morning before our safari.
Water buffaloes glanced at us curiously, their heads peeking out from the cool water of the lake on the property. We saw the tiny creatures of the park, such as the red velvet bug, and spotted fresh leopard and wild boar prints. Fishermen sat outside their makeshift huts on the cliffs overlooking Yala Beach. Our walk ended with a few minutes of watching the mighty waves of the Indian Ocean crash onto the wild coastline, carefully crafted by the wind and sea.
If you have a few days, the resort also offers other nature and wilderness experiences.
How To Get To Yala National Park
The best way to reach Yala National Park is by road. You can hire a car and driver at very affordable rates in Sri Lanka. Here are the driving distances and times from major cities and towns nearby:
- From Ella: 90-110 kms 2-3 hours (depending on which gate you enter Yala National Park from)
- From Hambantota: 43 kms 1 hour
- From Colombo: 243 kms 6 hours
You’ll probably want to get to the area an evening before, so that you can head to the park, hire your safari jeep and driver early the next day and make good use of the day to get the most out of your Yala National Park Safari.
I visited Cinnamon Wild Yala and Yala National Park as a guest of Cinnamon Hotels & Resorts and Sri Lankan Airlines. All opinions, as always, are honest and independent.
Is a Sri Lanka safari tour on your bucket list or have you experienced a safari in Sri Lanka before? Tell me all about it in the comments below.
Traveling to Sri Lanka? Apply online for your e-visa. Also, here are 9 amazing things to do in south Sri Lanka, what it’s like to visit the Hill Country, hike World’s End and take the famous train to Ella.