Minneriya, Udawalawe or Yala: where to go on safari

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

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 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.

Pea cock in Udawalawe Park. You will without doubt see or hear a peacock in the national parks in Sri Lanka

Where to go on a Sri Lanka safari

1. 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 in the national parks in Sri Lanka
Elephants in Udawalawe national park in Sri Lanka

Logistics Udawalawe National Park

Base town: Udawalawe or Ambilipitiya.

Logistics: 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)

Time to visit: November to 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 in Sri Lanka

2. 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 the 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
Monitor lizard in Yala National Park in Sri Lanka

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

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 Golden Park (I met the owner on the road when he gave me a free ride from the park back to Tissamaharama. He convinced me to stay in his place which was lovely. Clean, good wifi and even AC. Do negotiate about the price and you can get a very good deal here.)

Time to visit: November to March

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

3. 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 in 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 in Sri Lanka

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

Time to visit: August for the gathering, 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

Elephant in Minneriya national park in Sri Lanka

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 do 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.

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.

Yala

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 November and March. The best time to visit Minneriya is in August to see the biggest elephant gathering in Asia.

Sustainable Sri Lanka safari’s

Safari’s in Sri Lanka are not well regulated. As a result not all tour operators 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.

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.

It is also up to you to make sure you leave no garbage behind you in the park. Bring all your trash with you and encourage others to do so too.

Last updated: June 2020

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!



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