Though most people have only heard of Yala or Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka is actually home to a total of 22 national parks across the island. Wilpattu National Park (sometimes also spelled “Wilpatthu”), located approximately 4 hours north of Colombo, is far less crowded than its counterparts in the south despite being Sri Lanka’s largest national park at 132,000 hectares (or 1320 square kilometres) and 50% bigger than Yala (Ruhuna).
The park was closed for more than 20 years due to the civil war, and is slowly re-emerging on people’s travel radars since it opened to visitors nearly a decade ago. It is known for offering a less-crowded and calmer safari experience to that of Yala, so I knew that I had to check it out for myself; after all, Sri Lanka is one of the few remaining places where you can see hundreds of wild Asian elephants roam free, and according to some surveys, Wilpattu’s leopard population density is similar to that of Yala (minus the hordes of jeeps).
Here’s what you need to know about visiting Wilpattu National Park in Sri Lanka!
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How do I get to Wilpattu National Park?
Wilpattu is located approximately 4 hours by car from Colombo, 2 hours from Kalpitiya. or an hour from Anuradhapura. The most convenient way to travel around Sri Lanka, especially if you are short on time and/or have lots of luggage, is by private car.
If you are planning on going on a safari through Wilpattu National Park I recommend staying in Anuradhapura or Kalpitiya, though there are also a handful of highly-rated hotels within the park and around the park’s boundaries. Wondering where to stay in Wilpattu National Park? Click here to check current rates at highly-rated hotels in and around the park!
When is the best time to visit Wilpattu National Park?
Most companies recommend that you visit Wilpattu from February to October – March and April typically brings inter monsoon rains followed by a drought from May to September. During this time, the thorny bushes and shrubby areas recede slightly and the chances of spotting wildlife through the dense jungle are higher.
In terms of visitor numbers you can expect far fewer jeeps than Yala or Udawalawe, or a similar number of jeeps as Minneriya or Kaudulla National Parks in Central Sri Lanka. Though you may drive past another group here and there during your time in the park (visitor access is currently limited to about a quarter of the entire park), the only other time you’ll see larger groups of visitors is at the one rest location where you are allowed to step out of the vehicle for a snack or toilet break.
If you are planning a trip to Wilpattu National Park you need to mentally prepare yourself for an early wake-up time: the park opens at 6 AM and you will want to be one of the first people there – you can do a half-day safari from 6 AM to about 9:30, 10 AM or 3 PM to 6 PM, or a full-day safari from 6 AM to 4 or 4 PM.
Planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Click here for 12 things you should know before visiting the Pearl of the Indian Ocean!
What animals can you see in Wilpattu National Park?
The wildlife population in Wilpattu National Park is varied, and you can potentially spot leopards, sloth bears, deer, buffalo, peacocks, monkeys, eagles, crocodiles and so on. Though we did not spot an elusive leopard or rare sloth bear during our full-day safari, we did see most of the other animals including a stunning copper-eyed owl and an endangered star tortoise!
Because of the sheer size of the park and dense jungle, you are unlikely to see large herds of elephants (I recommend heading to Minneriya/Kaudulla/Udawalawe or the Elephant Transit Home if your main priority is to spot wild elephants) and you may spend more time driving down narrow dirt tracks in search of animals.
You should also be mindful of the fact that the wildlife in Wilpattu may not be as accustomed to seeing people and safari jeeps, and therefore may be more apprehensive and shy if they hear you approaching.
Don’t encourage your driver to chase or corner wild animals! Click here for 15 things to avoid doing in Sri lanka.
Is it worth visiting Wilpattu?
Anyone who is visiting Sri Lanka for its incredible wildlife needs to adopt the right mindset from the get-go, and understand the landscape and terrain of its national parks. If you go to any one of the national parks in Sri Lanka expecting for there to be leopards lying in the middle of the road and hundreds of elephants then more often than not you are bound to be disappointed.
However, if you go in with the mindset that a safari in Sri Lanka is an experience in and of itself, and that wildlife is wild (and therefore predictable), then you are in for a real treat. Even though we did not spot a leopard or bear in Wilpattu the anticipation and trying to spot animals in their natural habitat was half the fun – I encourage you to enjoy the process and remember that being able to travel to another country and see animals in the wild is a true privilege. To make the most of your Wilpattu safari I also recommend booking a full-day safari to maximise your time in the park, or set aside at least 2-3 days so that you can go on multiple safari drives within the park.
Still wondering if you should visit Wilpattu? Not only is the safari experience extremely memorable, you may be helping to distribute the tourism load more evenly across the national parks, as Yala is already overloaded with jeeps year-round. The animals may not be used to a sudden influx of jeeps, so the government and Department of Wildlife Conservation has some work to do to ensure that any growth in visitor numbers to Wilpattu is manageable and that drivers and guests are educated on how to be responsible visitors. In the long term, it can only be good for the wildlife, visitors and tourism industry to balance the load across the various parks – this could encourage a more sustainable way of appreciating Sri Lanka’s wildlife for future generations.
You can check Wilpattu entry fees here, and get a better sense of safari costs here, here and here. In general, the cost per person decreases if you have a larger group (up to 6) – be prepared to spend anywhere from US$140 to 180+ for a full-day safari or US$100 to 120 for a half-day safari for 2 people. The rates vary because most companies charge separate for the jeep, may charge extra for an additional spotter, entrance tickets to the park, tax, hotel pick-up/drop-off and so on. Some hotels may also offer all-inclusive rates that cover twice-daily safari drives. Ready to plan a trip to Wilpattu? Click here to check current rates at highly-rated hotels in and around the park!
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