About Sri Lanka
Anuradhapura: Kingdom of Anuradhapura is Sri Lanka’s third and longest serving capital as well as one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It is also one of the most sacred cities for Buddhists, and has been occupied for more than 2,000 years. Anuradhapura was the seat of power in Sri Lanka until constant invasions forced relocation to Polannaruwa further south. Anuradhapura is famous for the ruins of an ancient Sri Lankan civilization. It was the third capital of the Kingdom of Rajarata, following the kingdoms of Tambapanni and Upatissa Nuwara. It remains a pilgrimage site for many who still visit the sacred Bo Tree. The Sri Maha Bodhi, sacred fig tree, is said to have been brought to Sri Lanka by the daughter of the emperor Asoka, sometime around the third century BCE. According to legend, it was grown from a seed of the Bodh Gaya tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment. When the city was abandoned, a group of monks stayed behind to protect it, especially from elephants looking to feast on its leaves. The dagobas stand as majestic as they did during the reign of King Tissa.
Colombo: Due to its large harbor and strategic position along the East-West sea trade routes, Colombo was known to ancient traders 2,000 years ago. It became the capital when Sri Lanka was ceded to the British Empire in 1815. Today, this vibrant city is a blend of modern, colonial and ancient elements; and is the commercial capital and largest city of Sri Lanka. Galle Face Green is in the heart of the city along the Indian Ocean coast with the historic Galle Face Hotel on its southern edge. One of the city’s most important temples in Gangaramaya Temple. Its architecture shows an eclectic mix of Sri Lankan, Thai, Indian, and Chinese architecture. Viharamahadevi Park (formerly Victoria Park) is an urban park next to the National Museum of Colombo and the Town Hall. Other famous landmarks include the racecourse, planetarium, Nelum Pokuna Theatre, Lotus Tower, Pettah Floating Market and Old Dutch Hospital.
Delft Island: Delft Island is a small island lined with walls of coral, no cars, the ruins of a fort and amazing feral horses left by the Portuguese four centuries ago. The limestone and coral fort was built by the Portuguese, and later taken over by Dutch. The pillars and walls left preserved reveal that the fort was a two-story building. The ground floor has no windows, and it is said to have been used to store gunpowder and hold prisoners, while the second floor was built with windows for light and ventilation with large rooms. The entrance to the fort was through a passage next to the Old Dutch Hospital, which is well-preserved and showed the skills of the Portuguese, Dutch and the British. The hospital, too, is made from coral and limestone. Quindah Tower served as a navigational landmark. It is situated on the wind-battered, barren southeastern coast of Delft. The tower is believed to have been covered with a reflective surface which could be seen far out at sea. The island was known to the Portuguese as Ilha das Vacas (“Island of the Cows”), was renamed by the Dutch as Delft Island. The flat island is surrounded by shallow waters and beaches of coral chunks and sand. It is home to a small population of Tamil people, mostly living in quiet compounds close to the northern coast. The vegetation is of a semi-arid tropical type, with palmyra palms, dry shrubs and grasses that grow on the pale grey porous coralline soil. Papayas and bananas grow close to the local homes. Barren plains are populated with wild horses which were introduced by the Portuguese in the 1600s. These horses are forbidden by law to leave the island and the population is now in the lower hundreds.
Ella: Ella is a small town surrounded by the sea of greens tea plantations. Nuwara Eliya to Ella offers one of the most beautiful train rides. The comfortable climate here offers cool nights. In 1890, Lipton planted the first seeds of what now is Sri Lanka’s biggest export product, Lipton Tea. The area has a rich bio-diversity, and is dense with varieties of flora and fauna. Ella is surrounded by hills covered with cloud forests and tea plantations. The Ella Gap allows views across the southern plains of Sri Lanka. Ella railway station is the 75th station on the Main Line and is located 271.03 km/168.41 mi from Colombo. The station opened in July 1918. Little Adams Peak can easily be hiked in about an hour. The views of the valley and surrounding hills is stunning. Ella Rock is a more adventurous hike. About an hour drive out of Ella is the second highest waterfall in Sri Lanka. The area offers great hikes encompassing mountains, waterfalls such as Diyaluma Falls and Ravana Falls, and natural pools. Cooking classes are available at Ella Spice Garden. The market is open in Wednesday mornings and Passara Road (Ella Super) is lined with small stalls selling clothing, fresh vegetables, herbs, and fruits.
Gampaha: During reign of the Portuguese, the main route to the hill country ran through the Gampaha area. When the Dutch arrived, that became a center for collecting cinnamon. In 1815, Gampaha was a dense forest. After the British built the “Moragoda” Catholic Church in 1828, the population of the area eventually grew. In 1866, as part of the extension of a railway track between Colombo and Ambepussa, Henarathgoda Railway Station was completed, which continued to spur progress. In 1867, the first rubber tree of Sri Lanka was planted in Henarathgoda Botanical Garden. The town was planned in 1920, with a main street, a water tank, a public market, a hospital and an electrical generator.
Jaffna: Jaffna and northern Sri Lanka were cut off from the rest of the country and the world for some 30 years. Now the veil is finally rising, and Jaffna is eagerly waiting to welcome travelers again. Once controlled by the Tamil Tigers, this area suffered attacks from both the Sinhalese forces as well as the Tamils, leaving thousands of people displaced. Today, people get around by here by bicycle. It is home to many historical sites such as the popular Jaffna library, which burned down and was rebuilt, and the Jaffna Fort, rebuilt during the Dutch colonial period. The Supramaniyam Park, Old Park, coastal villages, the biggest church in Jaffna, Buddhist dagopa, statue of last king of Jaffna Kingdom, arc of last kingdom’s palace and minister house are all on display. Jaffna was made into a colonial port town during the Portuguese occupation of the Jaffna peninsula in 1619, but they lost it to the Dutch, who, in turn, lost it to the British more than a century and a half later. The majority of the city’s population are Sri Lankan Tamils with a significant number of Moors, Indian Tamils and other ethnic groups present in the city prior to the civil war. Most Sri Lankan Tamils are Hindus followed by Christians, Muslims and a small Buddhist minority. The city has several educational institutions established during the colonial and post-colonial period. Here, too, it is possible to dine with a family in their private home where there are opportunities to exchange ideas and gain a brief, authentic look into their way of life. The local Tamil guide is there to assist, translate and provide context. For the main course, guests have “Pittu” made from rice flour and coconut scrap, and served with crab curry, fried prawns, cuttlefish, mashed omelets mixed with dry fish, dhal curry with fish and plain gravy – a true Jaffna feast. Mangoes and jackfruits may be available during the season and at other times papaya and Jaffna’s special banana will be served.
Kaludiya Pokuna: One of the unknown treasures of Sri Lanka, this man made lake is surrounded by boulders and small archaeological sites 1,500 years old. Monks live on the upper slopes of the hill. Kaludiya Pokuna is rich in flora and fauna. The forest is surrounded by farmland and human settlements from the north, east and west but is undisturbed by hunting or timber extraction. The forest is composed of endemic and highly valuable trees and shrubs. Several primate species inhabit this forest, especially on tufted gray langur and purple-faced langur. The ecosystem also supports toque macaque, red slender loris, Asian elephants, spotted deer, sambar and wild boar as well as about 120 species of bird.
Kandy: Sri Lanka’s last kingdom, the Kingdom of Kandy, was destroyed three times by the invading Portuguese. Yet, remarkably, Kandy retains preserved houses, palaces and temples dating back nearly five centuries. The country’s 24 parks support wildlife including elephants, leopards, sloth bears and deer. Reptiles such as vipers and crocodiles are also present as well as more than 400 species of birds. Sinharaja Rainforest and Peak Wilderness Sanctuary offers exceptional bird watching. Kandy Mahanuwara is a major city in the Central Province. It was the last capital of the era of ancient kings of Sri Lanka. The city lies in the middle of hills in the Kandy plateau, which crosses an area of tropical plantations, which are mostly tea. Kandy is both an administrative and religious city and is also the capital of the Central Province. Kandy is the home of The Temple of the Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa), one of the most sacred places of worship in the Buddhist world. It was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1988. Kandy’s shops in central part of town sell antique jewelry and silver belts; and made-to-order batik wall hangings can be made at any of factories that adjoin the shops. Make sure to use a reliable shop and remember to bargain.
Puttalam & Wilpattu National Park: Puttalam is 130 km/81 mi. north of Colombo, almost midway between Anuradhapura and Puttalam. It has one of the largest lagoons ashore. The human history of the area seems to date from the arrival of Prince Vijaya, nearly 2,500 years ago, when his vessel washed ashore on north side of the lagoon. Today, Puttalam is known for energy production, salt, coconut production and fishing. Puttalam and Kalpitiya areas are primarily Muslims while other regions have more Hindus and Tamils. It is home to Wilpattu National Park, the largest and one of the oldest national parks in Sri Lanka. The park is known for leopards and supports Asian elephants, spotted deer, sloth bears, mongoose and gigantic crocodiles as well as striking flocks of peacocks, painted storks and Sri Lankan jungle fowl as well as owl, tern, eagle, whistling teal, spoonbill and black-headed ibis. The park features “Willus”, natural, sand-rimmed water basins or depressions that fill with rainwater. The park is 1,317 sq. km/131, 693 hectares. Nearly 60 lakes and tanks are found spread across the park. Visitor access is currently limited to approximately 25% of the park, the remainder of which is dense forest or scrub.
Ritigala: The mountain is site of an ancient Buddhist monastery of the same name. The ruins and rock inscriptions of the monastery originates in the first century BCE. It is 43 km/27 mi. from the ancient monastic city of Anuradhapura. Ritigala is some 600 m/2,000 ft. above the surrounding plains, and is the highest mountain in northern Sri Lanka. The significance of this topographical feature lies in the abrupt sheerness of the massif, its wooded slopes and wet microclimate at the summit. Ritigala Monastery feels like an undiscovered world away from the more famous sights in Sri Lanka. This archeological site bears a certain mysterious nature owing to the long meditational pathways that open into the thick jungle and large stone-lined reservoirs.
Sigiriya: Sigiriya is a fifth-century fortress with a water garden that displays futuristic elements of landscaping in tandem with some of the oldest recorded murals in the country. Sigiriya is an ancient rock fortress located in the northern Matale District near the town of Dambulla in the Central Province. The fortress is reached by a tough climb up 1,200 steps. On the way to the top are the famous Sigiriya frescoes of the buxom, wasp-waisted maidens bearing flowers. The smoothly glazed ‘Mirror Wall’ located a few steps away has sealed the expressions of ancient visitors, inspired by the vibrant frescoes. This massive column of rock nearly 200 m/660 ft. high. According to the ancient Sri Lankan chronicle the Culavamsa, this site was selected by King Kasyapa (477–495) for his new capital. About half way up the rock, on a small plateau, a gateway was built in the form of an enormous lion. The site was abandoned after the king’s death. It became a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century. Archaeological work at Sigiriya began on a small scale in the 1890s. The Cultural Triangle Project, launched by the Sri Lankan government, focused its attention on Sigiriya in 1982. Archaeological work began on the entire city for the first time under this project. There was a sculpted lion’s head above the legs and paws flanking the entrance, but the head collapsed years ago. The ruins of an upper palace are on the flat top of the rock and feature cisterns cut into the rock. Then, a mid-level terrace encompasses the Lion Gate and the mirror wall with its frescoes. On the lower level are palaces behind lavish lower gardens and moats and ramparts that protected the citadel. Sigiriya, a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site, is one of the most important urban planning sites of the first millennium.
Thirappane: At the very heart of the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka, Thirappane is a good place to explore culture, wildlife, people and historic places. From here, the ancient capital of Anuradhapura can be completed on a cycling tour. Minneriya National Park was declared a wildlife sanctuary to protect the catchment of Minneriya tank and the wildlife of the surrounding area. The tank is of historical importance, having been built by King Mahasen in third century. The park is a dry season feeding ground for the elephant population dwelling in forests of Matale, Polonnaruwa, and Trincomalee districts. Along with Kaudulla and Girithale, Minneriya forms one of the 70 Important Bird Areas of Sri Lanka. The wonders of Sigiriya, Dambulla, Polonnaruwa and other sites of archaeological and historical significance are close enough to explore.
Yala National Park: There are six national parks and three wildlife sanctuaries near Yala, including Yala National Park is second largest national park and most visited in the country. Bordering the Indian Ocean, the park consists of five blocks, two of which are open to the public, plus two adjoining parks. Lunugamvehera National Park in the dry semi-arid climatic region and rain is received mainly during the northeast monsoon season. Yala hosts a variety of ecosystems ranging from moist monsoon forests to freshwater and marine wetlands. It is one of the 70 Important Bird Areas in Sri Lanka. Yala harbors 215 bird species including six endemic species. Yala was designated as a wildlife sanctuary in 1900, and, along with Wilpattu was one of the first two national parks in Sri Lanka, having been designated in 1938. The park is best known for its variety of wild animals. Mammals include 44 species in the park such as Sri Lankan elephants and one of the highest leopard densities in the world. The Sri Lankan sloth bear, elephant and wild water buffalo are all threatened mammals that Yala harbors. Although water buffaloes are indigenous to Sri Lanka, most populations contain genes of the domestic stock or have descended from feral populations. Toque macaque, golden palm civet, red slender loris and fishing cat are among the other mammals seen here. The area around Yala has hosted several ancient civilizations. Two important pilgrim sites, Sithulpahuwa and Magul Vihara, are situated within the park.
Best Time to Go
Sri Lanka’s climate is affected by two separate monsoons. The main southwest (“yala”) monsoon means in the west and southwest coasts and hill country usually from April/June to September. The northeast (“maha”) monsoon comes to the east coast usually from November to March. Just to add to the complexity, there is also a period of unpredictable weather preceding the Maha monsoon in October and November during which heavy rainfall and thunderstorms can occur anywhere across the island. In practical terms, this means that the best time to visit the west and south coasts and hill country is from December to March, while the best weather on the east coast is from May to September. Temperatures are fairly constant year round, with coastal regions averaging temperatures of 25-30°C/77-86°F and the highlands 15-18°C/59-64°F on average with high across the island.
SPECIAL NOTE ABOUT ELEPHANTS: *Elephant-back safaris:
Please note that Big Five does not participate in any elephant-back safaris. The decision was made due to the abusive way some of animals are trained and treated. Based on our founding principles, our approach to animal welfare issues, and our sustainable principles, we agree with many others who are against any abusive methods of training or mistreatment. Please note that this decision does not reflect on those properties and parks who do things the right way.
Day 1: Colombo, Sri Lanka
Colombo is the commercial capital and largest city of Sri Lanka.
Day 2: Colombo / Puttalam
Puttalam is a large town in Puttalam District, North Western Province, Sri Lanka.
Day 3: Puttalam – Wilpattu – Puttalam
Wilpattu National Park is the largest and one of the oldest national parks in Sri Lanka, and is renowned for its leopard population.
Day 4: Puttalam / Anuradhapura / Kaludiya Pokuna / Thirappane
Thirappane sits in the heart of the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka, and a good place to explore culture, wildlife, people and historic places.
Day 5: Thirappane / Anuradhapura / Jaffna
After some years out of the spotlight, Jaffna is opening up to travelers again.
Day 6: Jaffna
Jaffna is intriguing and somewhat off the beaten path but a worthwhile place to discover Sri Lankan Tamil culture.
Day 7: Jaffna – Delft Island – Jaffna
Delft Island is small and lined with walls of coral and no cars, but it has the ruins of a fort and amazing feral horses left by the Portuguese.
Day 8: Jaffna / Ritigala / Sigiriya
Sigiriya is a fifth century fortress with a water garden that displays futuristic elements of landscaping in tandem with some of the oldest recorded murals in the country.
Day 9: Sigiriya
The best time to visit the fortress is early morning to avoid crowds. Take in the magnificent Rock Fortress of Sigiriya, also known as Lion Rock.
Day 10: Sigiriya / Kandy
Sri Lanka’s last kingdom, the Kingdom of Kandy, was destroyed three times by the invading Portuguese; however, Kandy still has preserved houses, palaces and temples dating back nearly five centuries.
Day 11: Kandy / Gampaha / Kotugoda
Kotugoda is home to a restored 200-year-old manor house built during the Dutch East Indies period. Its thick cooling walls, red-tiled roofs and ample gardens make it an ideal place to end an adventure.
Day 12: Kotugoda / Depart
Ella (3 days)
This small town is surrounded by forested hills and greens tea plantations with a variety of hiking opportunities.
Yala (3 days)
Six national parks and three wildlife sanctuaries near Yala make wildlife viewing and hiking tops on the menu of activities here.
$600-$800 per person per day. Land only, double occupancy.