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 over visiting one of the 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.
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. 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 shuts. 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 three times, once in 2015 and twice in 2017. We’ve spotted elephants, deer, monkeys, crocodiles, peacocks and more, but a grand total of zero leopards; that being said, I still cannot recommend the experience highly enough. The best way to get to Yala is by car: I previously booked a half day afternoon safari with 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 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 has beautiful stretches of beach and you have tons of options for places to stay. Shangri-La’s Hambantota Resort & Spa, Anantara Tangalle and Anantara Kalutara 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.
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!
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?
Ajith offers several options including half day morning or evening tours, longer 7 hour morning or afternoon tours or a full day tour from 5 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 $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.
Tips are discretionary. We tipped our guide and spotter $10 USD each as we had a great time.
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. Update October 2017: It appears that some safaris no longer offer a spotter – instead the driver will spot as well as drive.
The drive through the massive park can be bumpy and rough, and roads can be fairly narrow with trees and and lots of vegetation on either side of the path – if you have been on safaris in areas with wide open plains like in Africa then this may feel a little different. Because the paths are relatively narrow, there can also often be “traffic” in the park, especially if an animal has been spotted.
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.”
To my fellow small bladder buddies, you should know that there aren’t really any opportunities for bathroom breaks. You have been warned.
What should I bring on the safari?
Yala is a paradise for wildlife photography. Bring a camera and zoom lens if you have one, or snap away with your phone. Just make sure you turn the flash off!
Bottled water and a snack – peanut M&Ms are a great option. Just sayin’. 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.
Have you been to Yala National Park or Sri Lanka? What did you think? Share your experience with me in the comments section below!
Editor’s note: this article was first published in October 2016 and last updated in October 2017
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