INTENSE COLOR, RICH CULTURAL HERITAGE, SPECTACULAR SAFARI PARKS ... & WHALES
The island of Sri Lanka is blessed with glorious geography & landscapes, captivating wildlife and a fascinating, although sometimes difficult, history. Geographically, Sri Lanka was once part of the Eurasian land mass and its emergence as an island came about after the last Ice Age when sea levels rose, separating what is now Sri Lanka from India. Its former connection to the Asian continent explains the presence of large mammals, such as elephants & leopards … as well as large reptiles, such as crocodiles..
ANCIENT CITIES, INTRIGUING HISTORY, GREAT BEACHES, SAFARIS & WHALES
Stunning beaches have long drawn tourists to Sri Lanka while, in more recent years, visitors have become increasingly aware that Sri Lanka is stellar safari destination. When you view the opportunities to also include in your itinerary the sprawling ruins of ancient cities, the vibrantly beautiful temples, the delights of hiking pristine trails in quiet mountain regions, plus river rafting & surfing … you have something for nearly everyone.
For a sampling of Sri Lankan culture (music, dance, art) you’ll want to visit the former capitol city of Kandy, situated on a lake in the rolling hills of the central highlands. For nature lovers & hikers, a visit to Ella, a quaint little town situated in the mountains in the midst of splendid hiking territory & smashing views is highly recommended. It’s a dream destination. The iconic train journey from Kandy to Ella (or the reverse) is breathtaking and is a “must-do” on extended itineraries. Tea lovers & nature lovers alike will want to visit the nearby Nuwara Eliya area with its awesome mountains, crashing waterfalls & tea planations galore.
On the southwest coast lies the 17th century walled city of Galle, built by the Dutch, which harbors historical mosques & churches, boutiques & restaurants. Outside the walls lie beaches which are serious “eye-candy”. Near to Galle (at Koggala) you can still catch a glimpse of those iconic stilt fisherman who perch on wooden “stilts” in the ocean, fishing with twine. Yala National Park and several other safari parks are within reach from here.
Oh yes ! And then, there are those magical whales & dolphins in the surrounding seas … sperm whales, blue whales, Bryde’s whales, spinner dolphins …. at least 13 species of cetaceans in all. For whale watching (and occasional swim with whales opportunities) your base will be either the little northeast coastal town of Trincomalee or Mirissa in the south. The choice depends entirely on the season & monsoons.
STIRRING WILDLIFE PARKS
Sri Lanka's safari parks may not have the same breadth of wildlife as African safari parks ... but, they are far less frequented and you'll frequently find that you & your "jeep-mates" have the animals that you encounter all to yourselves.
The parks are teeming with large mammals (leopards, sloth bears, elephants, water buffalo, jackal, monkeys, wild boar, spotted deer amongst the species) .... with a wide variety of reptiles (including marsh and mugger crocodiles, monitor lizards, snakes, geckos & turtles) .... and at least 490 species of resident or migratory birds (many of them large & wildly colorful).
Safaris are conducted in safe & stable open vehicles. The best safari companies will take an absolute maximum of 8 people per jeep plus guide and driver … while many take only 4. Your guide will be a highly experienced & knowledgeable wildlife expert who will fill your head with stories & facts about the flora & fauna surrounding you and will be adept at scouting out "the natives" hiding in the jungle.
BLUE WHALES, SPERM WHALES, BRYDE'S WHALES ... AND MORE
Fancy adding a bit of whale time to your Sri Lanka safari ? The island’s river-fed oceans can be a great place for whale watching and occasionally you may get the opportunity to swim with them.
The most prevalent species here is the pygmy blue whale … but don’t be fooled by the name … as they range up to 78 feet in length and weigh up to 140 tons ! In spite of their immense size, they’re the ocean’s equivalent of Olympic sprinters. They will suddenly dive into the deep, leaving you in their dust (or poo ... personal experience speaking) wondering what just happened !
The “blues” are not the only show in town. Scientists tell us that up to 13 species of cetaceans share this marine space. You can expect to see shortfin pilot whales, false orcas, spinner dolphins (lots), bottle nose dolphins, Brydes whales, sperm whales and more. If you’re lucky enough to come across a sperm whale group hanging out in their pod, you may find that you have longer & closer encounters, as they often they allow swimmers to approach without darting away.
* We’ll be happy to help you to find an operator, but if you’re doing it on your own, please be aware that this “industry” is quite unregulated in Sri Lanka and you’ll want to make certain that you have chosen an ethical operator who has the whales’ best interest & your personal safety at heart. First & foremost, find out if the operator has a government PERMIT. Also, is there an expert guide on board? How many are allowed in the boat ? How close will the boat get to the whales and, if there is in-water time, how is it handled ? Please protect our whales !
SAFARIS, CULTURE, & WHALES IN THE NORTH
Wilpattu National Park : (Willu-pattu; Land of Lakes) is one of the finest safari choices. Its unique ecosystem is concentrated with “Villus” or sand-rimmed lakes which are filled by rainwater offering habitat to water birds and fresh water to 31 species of mammals. Between fifty and sixty lakes are found within the boundaries of the park, in both dense forest and scrubland, providing habitat for elephants, leopards, water buffalo, the sloth bear, monitor lizards, crocodiles and all manner of small mammals such as the mongoose … and, of course, monkeys. Known also for its copper-red soil which creates strong contrast to the forest greens & the colors of the wildlife, the park is a photographer’s dream. As you’ll be one of few tourists roaming the park, it’s a pristine and ideal safari experience.
Minneriya National Park : This spectacular site exists, to a great extent, thanks to Sri Lanka’s King Mahasena who, in the 3rd century AD, designed & oversaw the construction of sixteen large reservoirs and two irrigation canals, changing the landscape and lifestyle of Sri Lanka forever. The presence of multiple wildlife parks and, indeed to much agriculture & civilization, is due to his ingenuity and foresight. The large Minneriya Reservoir is the main source of year-round water in Minneriya Park and therefore also responsible for the abundance & diversity of life. The park encompasses diverse ecosystems offering dramatically changing landscape. Minneriya is best-known, however, for its yearly gathering of Asian Elephants when 200 to 400 elephants of all ages (some reports say up to 700) come together during the dry season to munch the lush grass and cool off in the lakes. The park is home to more than 20 mammal species and to significant bird life.
Kaudulla : Nearby to Minneriya is Kaudulla National Park, a sanctuary for birds, and one of the areas to greatly benefit from King Mahasena’s water system. Although visitors tend to come to view awesome numbers of birds circling overhead & filling the treetops, Kaudulla also offers a number of large mammals : elephants, sloth bears, Sri Lankan leopards, deer, monkeys and wild boar.
Sigiriya Rock : This UNESCO-listed ancient rock fortress is perhaps the most recognized of Sri Lanka's landmarks. It rises dramatically out of an deep, green forest & red earth and was built in 495 AD, serving as a palace & natural fortress for King Kasyapa. The grounds are spectacular but you'll want to climb to the top of the rock to explore the ruins and marvel at the breathtaking views.
Anuradhapura : The vast Dagoba stupa, which contains lovely carvings, dates back to the 1st century and stood, initially, at 100m high (one of the biggest structures of the ancient world, along with the Egyptian pyramids). You'll also want to visit Mihintale Peak in Anuradhapura which is reputed to be the spot where Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka. This pilgrimage site is endowed with beautiful ruins and two remarkable stupas at the summit.
Cave Temples, Dambulla : Also a World Heritage Site, the Dambulla Cave Temple complex, developed in the 1st century BC, is considered to be the biggest (and best-preserved) cave-monastery. The colors on the statues are astonishingly fresh and unspoiled, highlighted by the natural light which seeps into the caves. There are five separate shrines which house more than150 striking Buddha statues and murals.
Polonnaruwa : In the North Central Province lies one of the most admired sets of ancient buildings in Sri Lanka. The area known as the Quadrangle would have been the religious heart of the city and the detail of what remains here is intricate and stunning. A bit out of the center, you'll find the Gal Vihara, or Stone Shrine, with its four stunning Buddha statues all carved from the same granite slab. Kiri Vihara Dagoba (the name means "milk white") was constructed in the 6th century and was found in the jungle after being buried 700 years. To archaeologists' delight, the original white lime plaster was in nearly perfect condition.
Trincomalee : This coastal town, located on the northeast coast, is the base for much of the whale watching in Sri Lanka. These are all day trips and easy to add on to your culture & safari itinerary ! Trincomalee also offers a couple of lovely Hindu temples (particularly the colorful Koneswaram Kovil, dedicated to Shiva, located within the walls of Fort Frederick). The beaches are beautiful and easily accessible. The whalel season here runs from June to September.
SAFARIS, BEACHES, HIKING & WHALES IN THE SOUTH
Kandy & Temple of the Tooth : Located in hte central highlands, the sleepy little town of Kandy, known as Sri Lanka's cultural center, is more south than north geographically. It is replete with temples, gardens, music & dance but the highlight for most visitors is the Royal Palace, which houses the golden-roofed Temple of the Tooth, safe harbor for the most important relic in Sri Lanka; the Buddha’s tooth. The relic is secreted away in a tightly guarded gold box and is not on view, however, the palace complex is magnificent and should not be missed.
Yala National Park : Situated in the southeast of Sri Lanka, Yala offers visitors roughly 32 species of mammals, 125 species of birds and plenty of reptiles and is considered Sri Lanka’s premier wildlife park. The topography and habitats are diverse and range from beaches to jungles … with lakes, rivers, scrub land & grassland in between. You’ll find a large population of elephants as well as one of the world’s highest densities of leopards (which are habitually elusive but spotted by a good percentage of the park’s visitors). Several ancient civilizations once flourished in the Yala region and the pilgrimage sites of Sithulpahuwa and Magul Vihara, located within the park boundaries, still bring in worshipers.
Kumana National Park : Located on the southeast coast of Sri Lanka, Kuman is a paradise for bird watchers, as it attracts flocks of migratory birds that stop for food & rest in Sri Lanka each year. The lagoons and wetlands of this park offer a bit of safe haven and plenty of sustenance. Upwards of 250 bird species have been recorded in the area. The park is home to a variety of predatory animals, however, so the birds are always on high alert. You can see elephants and wild boar from time to time and can visit a lovely Hindu temple (Kataragama) which is just nearby.
Mirissa : Mirissa is all about the ocean and the beaches, which are beautiful … and tourism, which makes the place busier than many spots in Sri Lanka. It’s a great place to hang out for 2 or 3 days, particularly if you take yourself off to one of the quieter beaches. In addition, there’s decent surfing here and, of course, from November to April, you can have the added excitement of whale watching. For a touch of history & culture, take a day trip to Galle Fort.
Galle Fort & Old Town Galle : Yet another UNESCO-listed site is the fort at Galle along Sri Lanka's southwest coast. Galle was a walled city founded by Portuguese colonists in the 16th century. The charming look of the colonial town delights visitors with its cobbled alleys and combination of Portuguese, Dutch and British architecture.....