If you visit only one wildlife destination in Sri Lanka, then Yala National Park is without question the place to go, home to pretty much the full range of Sri Lankan wildlife, backdropped with stunning scenery.
Leopards are the stand-out attraction here. There are more of these elusive felines per square kilometre in Yala than anywhere else on the planet, with around fifty leopards living in the section of the park open to visitors. Sightings of these predominantly nocturnal animals are by no means guaranteed, of course, although the odds of spotting one are reasonable, especially if you spend a full day in the park, allowing you to reach quieter and less touristed areas.
Other rare inhabitants of Yala include the park’s sloth bears, improbably cute and fluffy creatures which look like they were designed by Disney, and nocturnal fishing cats, named for their habit of scooping fish out of water with their paws – although sightings of these are extremely few and far between.
Whether or not you get to ogle a leopard, there are plenty of other much more easily spotted animals on display. Significant numbers of wild elephants can usually be found here (easiest to find during the May–Aug dry season, when they congregate around the park’s lakes and water holes) along with other large mammals including sambar and spotted deer, buffaloes, wild boar and jackals. Resident monkeys include elegant long-tailed langurs and feisty macaques (the island’s two most common species). Crocodiles are common as well, while smaller animals include mongooses and rabbits. Birdwatching is another major draw, with around 130 species recorded in the park, including large numbers of migrants.
The park’s superb dry-zone scenery is also stunning, dotted with huge rocky outcrops and studded with dozens of small lagoons. There are also a couple of low-key historical sights around the park, including the remains of the ancient monastery at Situlpahuwa, once home, it’s claimed, to as many as ten thousand monks.
Most visitors stay in the attractive lakeside town of Tissamaharama (“Tissa”), a short drive from the park, although none of its numerous accommodation options is wildly inspiring. There are also a few places to stay closer to the park (including the Chaaya Wild Yala and Jetwing Yala hotels, and the luxurious – and very expensive – Leopard Trails safari camp) and in the coastal town of Kirinda including the swanky modern Nikara Yala.
Jeep tours of the park can be easily arranged in Tissa, either through your hotel or with a local tour operator – currently around $35 for the entire vehicle (seating around six people) for half a day. Entrance to the park costs $15 plus myriad fees and taxes – generally working out at around $30 per person. The entrance fee includes the services of a guide, although not all of them speak much English – the better jeep drivers double as expert wildlife-spotters and can sometimes be a lot more helpful than the official park guides provided.