The Best Sri Lanka Safari: Minneriya, Udawalawe or Yala

This post is a travel guide about the best Sri Lanka safari destinations and whether you should choose to visit Minneriya, Udawalawe or Yala National Park for your Sri Lanka safari.

A safari in Sri Lanka is a unique wildlife-watching experience. The most popular safari destinations in Sri Lanka are Yala and Udawalawe National Parks, but there are also several other parks and reserves that offer safari experiences, such as Minneriya, Wilpattu, and Kaudulla.

They are among the best places to go on a Sri Lanka safari and each national park in Sri Lanka has its own unique features. Whether you should visit Minneriya, Udawalawe or Yala depends on what you are looking for.

Why go on a Sri Lanka safari?

If you think about going on a safari, you probably think about Africa. Sri Lanka is more famous for its beaches and tea plantations, not so much for its wildlife. Therefore most people are surprised to hear that there are some incredible national parks in Sri Lanka that make it a great budget safari destination.

I love wildlife and I did read about Sri Lanka’s incredible nature. It was one of the reasons why I choose to go to, but even I did not expect to see the variety and amount of wildlife I ended up seeing in Minneriya, Udawalawe and Yala.

Sri Lanka is, for example, the best place to spot leopards in the world and seeing one was definetly the highlight of my trip. Then you have the Asian elephant, deers, langur monkeys, pea cocks and a large variety of bird species, including my favourite Great Hornbill.

Compared to Africa, going on a safari in Sri Lanka, is relatively cheap and therefore I was able to include all three major parks: Minneriya, Udawalawe and Yala. However, if you don’t have time to visit all three, I hope this guide will help you to choose whether to visit Minneriya, Udawalawe or Yala for your Sri Lanka safari.

What is a Sri Lanka safari like?

A typical safari in Sri Lanka includes a guided tour of the park in a specially-designed vehicle, such as a jeep or a land rover. The tour is led by a local guide who is knowledgeable about the park’s wildlife and the best places to spot them.

Most tour operators offer early morning safari’s or late afternoon safaris that last between 2 to 3 hours. This is when animals are the most active and you have the best chance to see them. Some safaris offer full-day tours, which include lunch and a break in between the morning and evening safari.

Pea cock in Udawalawe Park. You will without doubt see or hear a peacock on your Sri Lanka safari
Pea cocks are common to see and hear on a sri Lanka safari

Where to go on a Sri Lanka safari

Udawalawe National Park

We had to get up early for our safari in Udawalawe National Park. It was still dark and cold when we were on our way to the entrance. However, once we entered Udawalawe, the sun was rising and all the birds came to life. The scenery was beautiful and soon we also saw our first female elephant.

The elephant slowly walked towards us and stood still in front of our jeep, quietly watching us. After 10 minutes our driver decided to move on, but as soon as we started our jeep the elephant got angry. We could do nothing else, but wait till the elephant moved.

The elephant did not move, instead another male elephant came to show his interest in her. Slowly touching her with his trunk they stood together for quite a while. The female clearly enjoyed all this attention, both from the male elephant and from us. When the male finally left, it seemed she made some goodbye picture poses for us, before leaving in the direction of the male elephant.

It was in fact Valentine’s day today and it wasn’t the last courtship ritual we saw on our safari. We also encountered a peacock displaying its beautiful feathers trying to impress a female peacock. Later we encountered another group of elephant with baby’s, but nothing could beat the early morning tender courtship experience.

At Erica’s travels you can read more about her experience in Uda Walawe National Park.

Elephants in Udawalawe. You will almost certainly see the Asian elephant on your Sri Lanka safari
Elephants in Uda Walawe national park
Elephants in Udawalawe national park on a Sri Lanka safari
A last pose before dissapearing in the jungle again

Logistics Udawalawe National Park

Base town: Udawalawe or Embilipitiya.

Logistics: Udawalawe is located about 200 km southeast of Colombo and is easily accessible by car or bus. It’s also closer to the popular southern beach towns of Mirissa and Unawatuna. I took a bus from Ella to Wellawaya and got out at Thanmalwila junction. From there you can either take a tuk tuk or another bus to Embilipitiya (90 minutes)

Accomodation: You can stay in the Max Safari Villa or the Green View Safari resort

Time to visit: During the dry season from May to October and in February/March

Wildlife peak times: early morning (5-8 AM) or late afternoon (5-7 PM)

Animals spotted: Elephants, peacock, hornbills, eagles, wild buffalo, wild foxes, monitor lizard, deer

Pro’s and cons: in this nationmal park you will have a good chance of seeing a variety of wildlife. It is also relatively quiet and you will not encounter a lot of other jeeps.

Entrance fees: 3300 per person, 250 rupees per vehicle.

bird in Udawalawe national park on a Sri Lanka safari
You will see plenty of birds on a Sri Lanka safari

Yala National Park

And all of a sudden there it was. A leopard crossed the road right in front of our jeep. It looked at us and disappeared in the bushes again.

I couldn’t believe that I saw a leopard at that moment. We had just entered Yala National Park and we were still waiting in a long line of jeeps on a dirt road when this leopard showed up.

Before the leopard, I was slightly discouraged about our safari. We woke up at 3 am to reach as early as possible at the entrance of the park. Once we arrived, there must have been at least 100 jeeps waiting in line. For more than half an hour we were waiting in the dark, before we could finally proceed, just as the sun started to rise.

We were very lucky with the leopard crossing the road only a meter in front of us. It was the only leopard we saw, but we did see many other animals after that.

deers in Yala National Park in Sri Lanka
Deers in Yala National Park
Monitor lizard in Yala National Park in Sri Lanka
The Asian water monitor in Yala National Park

Yala on the Southern Coast of Sri Lanka is the most touristic National parks in Sri Lanka and every day there is a high number of jeeps getting in. The jeeps dispersed throughout the park trying to avoid each other as much as possible, but at the same time informing each other about the whereabouts of the animals.

As soon as one jeep spotted some elephants, other jeeps followed. We joined a group that had surrounded a mother elephant with her child. The child was very curious and approached one of the jeeps. It went with his trunk inside, looking for food. When it didn’t find any, the elephant broke one of the side mirrors.

Not sure what to do with the mirror, the elephant threw it on the floor and started kicking around with it as if it was a football. It was a joy to see this elephant playing, but I am sure the jeep owner was less pleased.

I also had mixed feelings about this situation. Even tough the elephants didn’t seem to mind us coming so close to them, we were clearly disturbing their natural behaviours. I can see that if tourism is increasing further in Yala, this becomes even a bigger problem. In hindsight I wished I would have said something about this to our jeep driver

Bird in Yala National Park in Sri Lanka
Elephant in Yala National Park on a Sri Lanka safari

Logistics Yala National Park

Base town: Tissamaharama or Kirinda.

Logistics: There are frequent buses to Tissamaharama from Galle (5 hours), Ella (4 hours) or Tangalle (3 hours)

Accomodation: Tissamaharama Safari Inn

Time to visit: The dry season from May to August, the park closes for six weeks in September and the beginning of October

Wildlife peak times: early morning (5-8 AM) or late afternoon (5-7 PM)

Animals seen: Elephants, peacock, eagles, wild buffalo, mongoose, monitor lizard, deer, crocodile, langur monkeys, macaque monkeys

Pro’s and cons: This park is the best national park in Sri Lanka to spot leopards and bears. It also had the most beautiful scenery and the biggest variety in wildlife I saw, but it is also crowded. Expect to see more other jeeps than animals.

Entrance fees: 3300 per person, 250 rupees per vehicle.

Bird in Yala national park in Sri Lanka
The Asian Green Bea eater in Yala National Park

Minneriya National Park

Nothing feels like the excitement and thrill of seeing a wild elephant up close. Our jeep driver points out the dark back of an elephant behind the tall grass. He drives closer and soon we see it is not just one elephant, but a herd with several baby elephants. Minneriya National Park has one of the largest populations of elephants in Sri Lanka.

Every year around august they gather all together in Minneriya National Park. The rest of the year they actually wander around into neighbouring parks unaware about the manmade borders. They are wild elephants, but quite used to visitors in their habitat.

Due to conservation efforts the elephants are well protected and are not scared of people. With the jeeps you can get pretty close to them and the elephants will simply continue with whatever they are doing.

Elephants in Minneriya national park
Elephants on a Sri Lanka safari in Minneriya National Park

Logistics Minneriya National Park

Base town: Habarana, arrange safari’s through your hotel or independently by arranging your own jeep (slightly cheaper, expect 3000 rupees for a jeep).

Logistics: Habarana is 30 minutes from Dambulla by bus, or 5-6 hours from Colombo.

Accomodation: The nearest town is Habarana with a great number of resorts like the Priyavimana resort.

Time to visit: August for the gathering, The dry season from May to September

Wildlife peak times: late afternoon is when the elephants come out and are most active. During the day they are hiding in the shadow.

Animals seen: Elephants, peacock and birds

Pro’s and cons: This park is easily accessible if you visit the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka. The biggest draw are the elephants, but due to the high grass, chances of seeing other wildlife are rather small

Note: Be aware that there are actually 3 different national parks in this area. Minneriya, Kaudulla and Hurullu. There is just one herd of elephants tough and they do not know anything about park borders. The jeep drivers are quite aware of where the elephants are and will bring you to the right park. If for some reason you specifically want to visit Minneriya, because of other wildlife you want to see be clear about this.

Entrance fees:

Minneriya: 3300 per person, 250 rupees per vehicle.

Hurullu Eco park: 1000 per person, 750 per vehicle

Kaudulla: 1500 per person, 125 per vehicle

Hornbills on a Sri Lanka safari
The Great Hornbill

Minneriya, Udawalawe or Yala?

For those we do not have the time or money to visit all national parks in Sri Lanka I will try to make a recommendation whether to visit Minneriya, Uda Walawe or Yala for your Sri Lanka safari.

Minneriya National Park

If you have to skip one national park in Sri Lanka I would suggest Minneriya. Except when you happen to be there in August. Watching the largest elephant gathering in Asia is of course something you should not miss.

Minneriya is mostly about elephants tough. Because of the high grass it is hard to spot other wildlife and the scenery is less beautiful than in Udawalawe or Yala.

Udawalawe or Yala National Park

So the question remains whether to visit Udawalawe or Yala. Both parks offer a beautiful scenery almost resembling the African savannah and both offer a variety of wildlife to spot.

Yala is known for its high leopard density, as well as its large elephant and bear populations. Udawalawe, on the other hand, is known for its large herds of elephants and also provides a great opportunity to see water buffalo, crocodiles, and a variety of bird species.

In my opinion Yala is slightly more beautiful and there is a better chance to spot the leopard or a bear. But Yala is also very crowded, making the overall experience in Udawalawe more pleasant.

Elephant on a Sri Lanka safari in Udawalwe
Elephant on a Sri Lanka safari in Udawalawe National Park

Sri Lanka safari tips

When to go on a Sri Lanka safari?

For Udawalawe and Yala the best time to go on a Sri Lanka safari is in the dry season between May and October/November and the months of February and March. This is when the animals congregate around water sources and are easier to spot. During peak season the parks can get crowded, especially Yala.

The northeast monsoon from December to February can bring rain to Udawalawe and Yala National Park. The lush greenery makes it more difficult to spot wildlife, but the parks are more quiet. Another important thing to know is that Yala National Park closes for six weeks in September and the beginning of October.

Minneriya is in a different climate zone. The dry season in Minneriya runs from May to September when hundreds of elephants gather around the Minneriya Tank to drink and bathe, creating an unforgettable experience for visitors. August is considered the best month in Minneriya to see the biggest elephant gathering in Asia.

Sustainable Sri Lanka safari’s

Tourism is increasing in the National Parks of Sri Lanka. Although this is a welcome source if income, mass tourism also brings pollution and other problems. Traveling sustainably on a Sri Lanka safari is essential to minimize your environmental impact.

Safari’s in Sri Lanka are not well regulated at the moment. As a result, tour operators might not follow the proper guidelines. Think about having too many jeeps in the park, jeeps getting too close to the elephants, littering and going off the tracks to chase animals.

Choose a responsible Tour operator: It will be difficult to know if your tour operator is a sustainable choice. However, it is good to ask some questions beforehand. Also during the safari it is up to you to discuss any unethical behaviour from your guide. Let your driver know that you feel uncomfortable getting too close to the animals or chasing them down.

Support the local community: You can support the community by purchasing goods and services from local vendors. It is better to try Sri Lankan Cuisine that uses local ingredients rather than imported foreign foods. Sri Lankan food is vegetarian friendly and it is very easy to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Stay in small scale sustainable hotels: It is also better to stay in locally-owned guesthouses or homestays to support the local economy directly. These accommodations often have a more positive impact on the environment compared to large hotels.

You can try to look for guesthouses or homestays that prioritizes sustainable practices. That said, environmental awareness is still low. It’s up to you to use water sparsely, turn off lights and air conditioning when leaving your accommodation.

Leave no trace principle: I encourage you to take all your trash back with you when you go on a safari in Sri Lanka’s beautiful nature and dispose of it responsibly. In other words, leave no trace of your visit. Even better is when you bring something to pick up any of the trash that other people left behind.

To avoid single-use plastics, invest in reusable items. For example, you can bring your own water bottle with a filter. At last, use biodegradable and eco-friendly personal care products to minimize pollution of water sources.

Disclaimer: This post about the best national parks in Sri Lanka and whether to choose Minneriya, Udawalawe or Yala for your Sri Lanka safari contains affiliate links. If you buy any service through any of my links, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you. These earnings help me to keep Backpack Adventures alive! Thanks for your support!

14 thoughts on “The Best Sri Lanka Safari: Minneriya, Udawalawe or Yala”

  • Awesome! I didn’t know Sri Lanka had so much wildlife! I’d love seeing elephants in the wild one day. We did visit an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand, but that’s not the same as spotting them in the wild. So cool you saw a peacock spreading its feathers as well 😀 Pinned for when we make it to Sri Lanka one day. 😉

  • Thank you for this post! We love Sri Lanka and can’t wait to return! We had no clue you could go on safaris there, otherwise we definitely would’ve gone on our last trip! Great tips!

  • Really enjoyed reading about the mating rituals, especially the peacocks. We had a male peacock follow us in a park in Porto and open his tail, not sure if he was just showing off or trying to mate with us haha.
    I really like that you have mentioned the costs for those who plan on visiting soon.

  • Great post, my absolute favourite was Yala, so amazing seeing the leopards! However, I also loved Minneriya BUT we did see herds of elephants with their babies which was something I’d never seen before. I’d only seen solo elephants or groups of 2 – 4 before in India before!

  • How sweet that you saw courtship rituals of elephants and peacocks on Valentine’s Day! Love your photos, especially the close-ups of the birds and the mother and baby elephant. I’ve always wanted to do a photo safari like this – thank you for the pros and cons of the different parks.

  • Such a great post! Brought back fabulous memories as I have also been to the 3 amazing parks. Way too hard to choose a favourite. We also had a leopard cross right in front of the jeep in Yala. I will never forget that gorgeous muscular body. What a thrill. Just love Sri Lanka and everything it has to offer.

  • Very thorough and insightful tips! If you love Sri Lanka then you’re gonna love India! I am so happy that I found your blog; it’s fabulous! I’ll be sure to give your blog and read through and connect via social media.

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