Sri Lanka claims to have established the world’s first-ever wildlife sanctuary – way back in the third-century BC – and still boasts a remarkable array of native wildlife. Much of it can be found in the country’s numerous national parks and reserves, featuring landscapes and habitats ranging from mountain cloudforest and tropical jungle through to mangrove lagoons and coral gardens. This wild Sri Lanka itinerary rounds up some of the best of island’s wild highlights combined into an approximately two-week tour.
Start at Kalpitiya up on the northwest side of the island where you’ll find some of Asia’s most spectacular dolphin-watching, with literally hundreds of spinner dolphins visible most mornings cavorting amongst the waves, plus the occasional whale. The cluster of gorgeous eco-resorts at Alankuda makes a brilliant base, and is virtually an attraction in its own right.
From here it’s a short drive to Wilpattu National Park. The largest protected area in the island, Wilpattu’s wildlife and ecology was badly damaged during the civil war but is now returning to something approaching its former glory, with plenty of wildlife (including one of the island’s largest leopard populations) but still precious few tourists.
If you’re visiting in August or September dry season it’s well worth detouring across to Minneriya National Park to witness “The Gathering”, as it’s popularly known. The largest gathering of wild elephants anywhere in Asia, this astonishing spectacle sees hundreds of thirsty pachyderms converge from all over the north of the island on Minneriya Tank in search of water and mates.
Otherwise, from Wilpattu head down to Kandy and organize a hike in the remarkable Knuckles Range (Trekking Expeditor and Sri Lanka Trekking are two recommended operators). One of Sri Lanka’s wildest and most spectacular upland landscapes, the Knuckles were awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status in 2010 on account of their exceptional biodiversity, including rare species of bird, lizard and monkey, and with dramatic upland scenery wreathed in twisted stands of dwarf cloudforest.
Next, take the train south from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya (or, alternately, Haputale) for a visit to Horton Plains National Park, another of the island’s spectacular stretches of hill country. Here you’ll find further endemic birds and other rare wildlife, pockets of dense cloudforest and views over the misty mountains. The park is also home to Sri Lanka’s most jaw-dropping view, at the aptly named World’s End, with sheer cliffs plunging from the hill country plateau to the southern plains, almost a kilometre below.
Descend from the hills and head for Yala National Park, the ultimate jewel in Sri Lanka’s wildlife crown – and if you only visit a single reserve in the island, this should be the one. If you ever wanted to see a leopard in the wild, this is very much the place to come: Yala has the highest concentration of these elusive felines anywhere on the planet, with sightings reasonably frequent, especially if you’re prepared to spend a couple of days here.
Leopards aside, Yala is home to pretty much all the major species found in the island, from majestic elephants, impassive crocs and shambling sloth bears through to flighty peacocks, rare fishing cats and querulous macaques. The scenery is stunning, too, stretching along a beautiful stretch of coastal plain complete with lakes, lagoons and dramatic rock outcrops from which to look out over the wildlife below.
Follow the coast west to Rekawa and stop for one of the nightly nature-watches as five different species of visiting turtle drag themselves up onto the beach to lay their eggs. Keen twitchers might also enjoy a visit to excellent but little-visited Kalametiya Bird Sanctuary close by.
Continue along the coast to Mirissa, one of Sri Lanka’s most enjoyable beach destinations and also the epicentre of the island’s burgeoning whale-watching scene, with these gargantuan creatures regularly spotted in the waters offshore from December through to April.
From here, it’s a short (albeit slow) journey inland to Sinharaja. The UNESCO-listed rainforest here is another of Sri Lanka’s natural jewels, protecting a remarkable pocket of extraordinarily biodiverse flora and fauna including some of the island’s rarest birds species, nestling clandestinely amongst the jungles dense thickets of twisted trees and lianas.
Colombo Sri Lanka in a Day … idyllic temples and bustling bazaars
Explore Sri Lanka’s Galle Fort … historic stronghold on the southwest coast
Romantic Sri Lanka … share the love on one of Asia’s most romantic islands
Sri Lanka Family Holidays … something for all ages and interests
Sri Lanka Grand Tour … see the very best in two weeks
Sri Lanka Hill Walk Around Ella … hike through hills and tea plantations
Sri Lanka Journey through History … explore three thousand years of Sinhalese Buddhist art and architecture
Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle … the heart of the island’s most ancient kingdom
Sri Lanka’s Historic Anuradhapura … mapping your way through the myriad ruins and monuments
Sri Lanka’s Kandy in a Day … explore the temples, museums and music of the cultural capital
Sri Lanka’s Polonnaruwa … touring the stunning ruins and shrines of a great medieval capital
Sri Lanka’s Ten Best Beaches … sand and sea, plus plenty of great places to stay