Sri Lanka possesses an extremely high degree of biodiversity and is considered one of the top biodiversity hotspots in the world. This is precisely why you shouldn’t skip going on a wildlife safari at one of the many national parks to try to catch a glimpse of an elusive spotted leopard or see elephants, bears, deer, monkeys, mongoose, wild boar, water buffalo, peacocks and many other beautiful species in their natural habitat.
There is no better place to observe an animal than in the wild, and I would highly recommend visiting the national parks in Yala, Udawalawe or Minneriya and Kaudulla over visiting one of the self-proclaimed elephant “orphanages” in Sri Lanka. Read more on elephant conservation challenges in Sri Lanka on National Geographic.
Why should I visit Yala National Park?
Yala National Park is the most visited and second largest national park in Sri Lanka. It is located in the south of Sri Lanka and is a popular destination for those hoping to spot a spotted leopard as it boasts one of the highest leopard densities in the world. That being said, there’s no guarantee – it is the wild, after all! I have been on 5 or 6 separate drives and have yet to spot a leopard.
Yala is also often criticized for the sheer volume of jeeps roaming around the park every day. It is not an “intimate” wildlife safari experience as you can see from the photo above. If you prefer a quieter safari drive in Sri Lanka you may want to consider one of the other national parks: Udawalawe, Gal Oya, Wilpattu or Minneriya and Kaudulla.
When should I visit Yala National Park?
Yala is in a hot, semi-arid environment and temperatures range from 26-30 degrees Celsius. Yala gets most of its rainfall from September to December and the park generally closes for the month of September and the first half of October. The specific dates tend to shift each year so stay tuned to the official website. (Unofficially, I heard from our guide that the park will not close for a month in 2019 due to lower visitor numbers.)
If you are visiting southern Sri Lanka during this time and want to go on a wildlife safari, don’t fret! Udawalawe National Park is still open when Yala is shut. Click here to read my destination guide to visiting Udawalawe National Park!
How do I get to Yala National Park?
I’ve been to Yala several times, and have spotted elephants, deer, monkeys, crocodiles, peacocks and more, but a grand total of zero leopards; that being said, I still recommend going on a wildlife safari in Sri Lanka. The best way to get to Yala is by car: I have previously booked a half day afternoon safari through Ajith Safari Tours and they organized hotel pick-up and drop-off at a reasonable price (US$70 for a 3 hour transfer each way) and had newer and cleaner jeeps than a lot of the other safari companies we bumped into in the park. You can also book a safari via your hotel at comparable prices.
You can either do a day trip to Yala or stay overnight. If you plan to do a day trip to Yala, your best bet is to stay in the Southern Province. The southern coast of Sri Lanka has beautiful stretches of beach and you have tons of options for places to stay. Shangri-La’s Hambantota Resort & Spa and Anantara Tangalle are excellent five star properties with amazing restaurants and service. If you’re looking for something more low key, check out Talalla Retreat, the perfect place for surf and yoga, or Zephyr Talalla, a beautiful boutique 4-bedroom beachfront villa serving up the best food & cocktails.
Southern Sri Lanka is one of the most beautiful places in the country. Click here for more ideas for what to do in Sri Lanka’s deep south!
If you plan to stay overnight, there are a number of boutique hotels and tented safari camps. I stayed at Jetwing Yala in October 2017 and loved the property. The rooms are spacious, the food is delicious (they have 2 restaurants and a beautiful cocktail bar), beach access as well an incredible pool. Wait for it – the pool has a swim-up bar! So you can lounge by the pool with cocktails after your morning safari. Click here to book your stay at Jetwing Yala!
For a more unique option, try Mahoora Tented Camps to go glamping in Yala. The campsite is just a 10-minute drive away from one of the main Yala National Park entrances, so you can be one of the first people to drive into the park when it opens at 6 AM in the morning. The rooms are spacious and well decorated, as well as extremely clean. The only minor issue is that the beds are a little short for anyone over 5 foot 6 inches tall. Bathrooms are attached to the tent and the tents are equipped with fans (but no A/C). The real highlight at Mahoora is their staff – each and every person is warm, helpful and always smiling. The food they lovingly prepare is tasty and fresh – dinner by the bonfire and under the starry sky is a treat! Click here to book your stay at Mahoora Tented Camps in Yala.
Looking for some other options in the Yala area? Click here for more accommodation options in Yala.
Which safari tour should I do and how much does it cost?
There are several Yala safari tour options: most people opt for a half day morning or evening tour, longer 7 hour morning or afternoon tours, or a full day tour from 6 am to 6 pm. If you’re hoping to spot a leopard, your best bet is to go on a morning tour. Per the official Yala National Park website: “Keep In mind that the best time to enter the park is when the park opens just after 6:00 am or after 4:00 pm when animals resurface after taking cover from the sun.”
A safari costs anywhere from about US$50 to $110 per person depending on which tour option you go with and how many people are on the tour, which is why you should aim to fill the jeep with 4-6 people so that each person pays a significantly lower price. If you are staying at a place like Mahoora Tented Camp in Yala you won’t need to worry about the safari costs as twice-daily drives are included in your room rate.
Tips are discretionary. We generally tip guides and spotters US$10 or 1500 LKR each.
What can I expect from a wildlife safari in Yala National Park?
Once you get to the park, you’ll be driven to the ticket office where your driver will need to queue up and pick up everyone’s tickets. The ticket office is often busy so you might find yourself sitting and waiting in the jeep for 15-30 minutes.
This is also where you will pick up your local spotter, who is tasked with keeping an eye out for all types of animals – birds, reptiles, mongoose, elephants and even crocodiles.
Our spotter was very skilled and on many occasions pointed out animals we had completely missed – an eagle perched high up on a tree, a baby elephant peeking out from behind the bushes, and even a massive crocodile laying motionless at the bottom of a lake.
The drive through the massive park can be bumpy and rough, and roads can be fairly narrow with trees and lots of vegetation on either side of the path – if you have been on safaris in areas with wide open plains like in South Africa then this may feel a little different. Because the paths are relatively narrow, there can also often be severe “traffic” in the park, especially if an animal has been spotted. There’s no doubt about it – Yala National Park is probably the most crowded and popular national park in Sri Lanka, which means it is not uncommon to spot dozens upon dozens of jeeps in the same area at any given time.
On our first safari, another safari company’s jeep got too close to a massive elephant with tusks and it was absolutely terrifying: the elephant inserted its tusks through the open sides of the jeep and pulled out a handbag and bottled water before proceeding to stomp on it excitedly. The young mother was hanging out of the other side of the jeep and holding onto her baby. Fortunately the elephant lost interest and the jeep drove off, relatively unscathed. This is an example of why it is extremely important to go with a company that abides by park regulations and keeps a safe distance away from the animals.
It’s worthwhile to take the time to read this from the official Yala National Park website:
“The rule of the thumb in visiting a national park is that you must simply blend in and try to be invisible. While you just can’t hide from them, there’s a lot you can do to make sure that the animals can simply ignore you. Each animal has its own personality and the slightest thing can destroy their peace. When you understand their habitat, lifestyle and behavior, you can become a good visitor. Just as much as an irritating and selfish neighbor can drive us wild, destroy our peace and turn us into angry human beings, the slightest thing can upset the equilibrium of animals and that may happen quite unwittingly on your part. This is why educating ourselves is to prepare ourselves for the journey. Avoid any kind of interaction, verbal or through gestures. Did you know even the noise of vehicles seem to affect the feeding habits and personality of elephants, for example? Animals sense who you really are. Be patient and respectful and they will roam freely. Predators can feel mostly under pressure because of photographers, which has huge impact on their hunting, feeding and reproductive habits. Be a spy and never force a photo op on them. Chasing an animal in your vehicle puts them under tremendous pressure and think of having to experience that visitor after visitor, day after day.”
Don’t encourage your driver to chase or corner wild animals! Click here for 15 things to avoid doing in Sri lanka!
What should I bring on the safari?
Yala is a paradise for wildlife photography. Bring a camera and zoom lens (300 mm and above) if you have one, or snap away with your phone. Just make sure you turn the flash off!
Bottled water and a snack. Remember to take all your trash with you.
You shouldn’t need sunscreen as most jeeps are covered at all times and you’re not allowed to step outside the vehicle while you’re in the park (except for a brief pit stop at the beach).
A hair tie or cap as the drive can get quite dusty. At the end of a 5 hour safari my hair felt like it had a desert-full of sand and dust in it.
To my fellow small bladder buddies, you should know that there aren’t really any opportunities for bathroom breaks. You have been warned.
Planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Don’t miss my two week itinerary for the Pearl of the Indian Ocean!
Have you been to Yala National Park or Sri Lanka? What did you think? Share your experience with me in the comments section below!
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Editor’s note: this article was first published in October 2016
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