Yala National Park, sitting 260km south east of Colombo, is a wildlife wonderland. The concentrated number of wildlife here allows a unique experience for visitors to get close to it’s most famous residents – including elephants, leopards, crocodiles, sloth bears and spotted deer.
Our base for the our 3 days at Yala National Park would be the town of Katagarama, a small town named after the diety protector of Sri Lanka.
We had pre-booked four safari’s for our visit to Yala National Park – two morning and two evening trips, the best times of the day to see animals in their natural habitat. The best times of the year are February to July when water levels are their lowest, prompting the animals to come out into the open.
We were picked up from our hotel by a local driver and guide at 5am for the 45 minute drive to Yala National Park. We were lucky to have the Safari Jeep to ourselves and a pick of the best seats. I would recommend packing a light jacket, hat and sunscreen, as the early start can be a bit chilly in and on the way to the Park, but then very warm once the sun comes up.
The early start was worth it – our guide was a great spotter and spotted the elusive Leopard (no pun intended) right next to our Jeep only an hour in. He was right next to our car lazily sleeping in a tree before taking a walk down the tree and across the road in front of us – we couldn’t believe our luck. Leopard’s are best spotted in June and July and rare – we were so fortunate to see one so close!
Our luck only got better as the morning went on – we ended up spotting 3 more Leopards, including many more animals – Asian Elephants, Land Monitors, Crocodiles, Spotted Deer, monkeys and a tonne of birds. It was incredible to spot and see so many different animals in the one place. The one animal we missed was the elusive Sri Lankan Sloth Bear. We were even fortunate enough to see a Leopard crossing the road right in from of our Jeep!
Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a limit on the number of jeeps allowed in the park at any one time so be prepared to be stuck in traffic, especially if there is a leopard sighting.
Make sure to tip the driver – ours was pretty good and his number one priority was making sure we go to see as many animals as possible.
For dinner we went looking for the highly rated Yala Peace Cottage Restaurant, some 20 mins from town. Unless you are staying at Yala Peace Cottage, the place can be hard to find and the road is not great. The friendly owner and good food easily made up for this. I recommend getting there early for the spectacular sunset view that the restaurant boasts. I recommend trying the Seafood Platter.
The next morning we decided to treat ourselves to a sleep in so no morning safari. This turned out to be a good idea as the morning was raining and animal spotting’s were few.
Instead we visited the ancient stupa ‘Kiri Vehera’. Before entering, we purchased ‘pooja’, a fruit offering to the Gods in return for a blessing after giving our fruit – we were keen on asking for a long and happy marriage!
The streets surrounding the area are lined with stalls selling fruit, lotus buds and garlands to take to the temples, so not hard to miss on your way into the temple complex.
First, we entered the Maha Devale main complex to give our fruit offering along with many other locals making offerings. An avenue behind Maha Devale leads to the ‘Kiri Vihera’ a dagoba that dates back to 1st century BC. It supposedly holds the hair relic of Buddha and is popular with locals and pilgrims. Flower offerings are made before a quiet prayer facing the dagga – your back should not be facing the dagga.
For our last evening safari we went to a different part of the Park. Divided into 5 blocks, the park has a protected area of nearly 130,000 hectares of land consisting of light forests, scrubs, grasslands, tanks and lagoons. Two blocks are currently opened to the public. On our way we encountered an Elephant in the middle of the road, waiting for humans to give him food. It was sad and a bit scary (trucks were flying along the road and he didn’t seem to in a hurry to move!) that he is now dependant and encouraged by humans for food. Best not to stop to encourage him.
Yala National Park is a unique experience and was definitely a highlight of our Sri Lanka visit. I think in the coming years the ‘secret will be out’ on Yala and the tourist numbers will swell. I hope the locals continue to try and preserve this fragile habitat in a sustainable fashion. If you’re visiting Sri Lanka, I would definitely recommend a visit to Yala National Park – you won’t be disappointed!