Sri Lanka Wildlife Safari
12 days with Natural Habitat Adventures Rating:
Day 1: Colombo, Sri Lanka / Negombo
On arrival at the airport, north of the capital city of Colombo, you’re met and transferred to our hotel in Negombo, where your room is ready and waiting. The afternoon is free to relax before our welcome dinner this evening.
Day 2: Habarana—Sigiriya
Depart on a half-day's drive to Habarana. After checking in to our lodge, spend the afternoon at the ruins of Sigiriya, the 5th-century capital built by King Kashyapa I, and the first of several UNESCO World Heritage Sites on our journey. The dominant landmark is a massive granite outcrop often referred to as Lion Rock, which rises 600 feet above the surrounding jungle. The edifice features giant carved paws and a set of stone stairs permitting access for those who wish to climb to the top. The rock was turned into a fortress by the king, who constructed his royal palace on the summit overlooking lavish gardens below. The tract of ancient forest around Lion Rock now forms the Sigiriya Reserve, sheltering 10 of Sri Lanka’s 34 endemic bird species, along with small reptiles, primates and numerous butterflies and dragonflies.
Return to our hotel for an early dinner, then take a guided walk after dark with our Expedition Leader to look for the gray slender loris, a small nocturnal primate. Among the other animals active at night, we occasionally see fishing cat, Indian civet, golden palm civet and collared scops owl.
Day 3: Polonnaruwa Primate Watching / Hurulu Forest
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site is our focus this morning. On a guided tour of the ancient capital of Polonnaruwa, we learn the rich history of Sri Lanka’s second capital, renowned for its well-preserved 12th-century ruins and impressive stone culture, as well as some of Sri Lanka’s best primate viewing. Three species of monkey—toque macaque and canopy-dwelling purple-faced leaf monkey (both endemics), plus gray langur—are observed here. Polonnaruwa’s “temple troop of toque macaques” has been featured in numerous natural history documentaries and is a part of the world’s longest continuous study of primates, initiated in 1968. Most recently they were the focus of Disneynature’s 2015 film Monkey Kingdom. The monkeys here are habituated to the presence of humans, enabling us to observe their social interactions at close range. Whether play-fighting, feeding or grooming each other, their behavior offers endless entertainment.
After lunch at a local restaurant, we visit Hurulu Forest Reserve in search of small herds of Asian elephants that live among the tall grasses and jungle scrub. The reserve is also a sanctuary for many birds including Indian roller, Sri Lanka junglefowl, Indian peafowl, blue-tailed and green bee-eaters, and raptors such as changeable hawk eagle, crested serpent eagle and shikra.
Day 4: Kandy—Temple of the Sacred Tooth / Nuwara Eliya
In the morning, leave for Nuwara Eliya, a half-day's drive from Habarana. En route we stop to visit the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, which houses Sri Lanka's most important Buddhist relic, a tooth believed to have been the Buddha's own. The temple was built in the 16th century as part of the royal palace complex at Kandy, the last capital of the Sri Lankan kings. Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it remains the most revered location in Sri Lanka. Since ancient times, the relic has played an important role in local politics, since it is believed that whoever holds the sacred tooth holds the right to govern the country. Thousands of white-clad pilgrims visit the site daily, bearing lotus blossoms and frangipani with which to make sacred offerings known as puja.
We continue to Nuwara Eliya at the heart of Sri Lanka's premier tea-producing region. The town was founded in the 19th century by the British, and its enduring nickname, "Little England," harks back to the colonial heritage of Ceylon, when these subtropical highlands were the sanctuary of the British civil servants and plantation owners. The temperate climate of this hill country retreat was ideal for pastimes such as jackal and deer hunting, polo, golf and cricket, and it remains a popular travel destination for Sri Lankans today. The late afternoon is at leisure to relax and enjoy the peaceful setting and classic British ambience of our colonial-era hotel.
Day 5: Horton Plains National Park / Hakgala Gardens / Nuwara Eliya
Rising early for a pre-dawn start, we head out with a packed breakfast for Horton Plains National Park, part of the broader Central Highlands of Sri Lanka World Heritage Site. On a nature walk through the cloud forest and grasslands, look for a variety of wildlife including endemic rhino-horned and hump-nosed lizards, and colorful highland bird species including the Sri Lanka white-eye, Sri Lanka wood pigeon, dull-blue flycatcher and yellow-eared bulbul. With a bit of luck, we may encounter the elusive Sri Lanka whistling thrush and the old-world Sri Lanka bush warbler. Also, keep an eye out for sambar, Sri Lanka’s largest deer species, which often frequent the plains near the entrance of the park.
Next, we visit Hakgala Botanical Gardens. Originally created to grow cinchona (quinine), the gardens were established in 1884. The name comes from a legend that holds that Hanuman, the monkey god, was sent to the Himalayas to find a particular medicinal herb. He forgot which herb he was looking for and decided to bring a chunk of the Himalayas back in his jaw, hoping the herb was growing on it. The gardens grow atop a mountain called Hakgala, which means "jaw rock." Today, thousands of species of flora are planted here, including a wide variety of orchids and roses. The gardens lie adjacent to Hakgala Nature Reserve, and we'll look for wildlife such as the shaggy-coated bear monkey and highland avian endemics including Sri Lanka white-eye, Sri Lanka scimitar babbler and dull-blue flycatcher. This afternoon, we visit a nearby tea estate and factory to see how this essential commodity changed the landscape in the late 19th century.
Day 6: Yala National Park
On the morning of Day 6, we depart the central highlands on a scenic drive to the south coast. Our destination is Yala National Park, which protects more than 320,000 acres of habitat for a great diversity of native wildlife. While the park was originally a hunting ground for colonial elites under British rule, it was established as a wildlife sanctuary in 1900 and designated a national park in 1938. From on high, Yala appears to be a variegated mosaic of green hues, a gently rolling carpet of shrub jungle, riverine forest and open plains, dotted with the deep blue mirrors of lakes and waterholes and punctuated by rocky outcrops, while the Indian Ocean coastline forms its eastern boundary.
We spend three nights in comfortable private safari tents, our base for exploring this reserve that's home to 44 mammal species and more than 250 different bird species. On arrival, a late afternoon safari reveals our first animal sightings as we keep a lookout from custom Land Cruisers designed for exploring these wild environs. The vehicles are quiet, so as not to disturb wildlife, and our drivers are seasoned local naturalists who are experts at spotting a multitude of species. Leopards are the dominant predator here, and one sector of Yala National Park boasts one of the world's highest concentration of these large, elegant cats.
Days 7 & 8: On Safari in Yala
Over the next two days, we head out on early morning and late afternoon safaris in search of the many animals found throughout the park. Our visit occurs just after the monsoon season, when the forest has revived and is returning to its green lushness. Sightings may include Asian elephant, leopard, sloth bear, jackal, mugger crocodile, sambar, spotted deer, Asiatic buffalo, wild boar, gray langur, toque macaque and black-naped hare. Yala is also a superb birding location. Iridescent Indian peacocks and Sri Lanka junglefowl are plentiful, while white-bellied sea eagle, crested serpent eagle, gray-headed fishing eagle, brown fish owl and brahminy kite are among the raptors species most commonly spotted. A dazzling array of waders and waterbirds is also on display, including greater sand plover, Eurasian spoonbill and the endangered black-necked stork. Among the dry-zone species frequently observed are blue-faced malkohas, Malabar-pied hornbills, and chestnut, green and blue-tailed bee-eaters.
Day 9: Bundala National Park / Ahangama
Depart early this morning for Bundala National Park, with a packed breakfast en route. Bundala is one of Sri Lanka’s older parks, with an internationally recognized wetland. An interesting mosaic of salt pans, lagoon, seashore, grass flats and mixed dry evergreen scrub, it is the most arid landscape we visit. Since it lies at the end of the migratory flyway, many birds winter here. Other animals we may see include elephant, wild boar, spotted deer and land monitors. Continuing westward along Sri Lanka's south coast, we stop for lunch at an interesting local hotel before arriving at Ahangama late this afternoon. Our small family-owned hotel is just yards away from a delightful public beach with inviting swimming.
Day 10: Mirissa Whale Watching / Galle Fort
Early this morning, we set out for Mirissa harbor to go in search of blue whales—the largest animal on Earth—aboard a privately chartered vessel. Mirissa, located on the very southern tip of Sri Lanka, is the world's top location for blue whale watching, with sightings occurring most mornings from mid-November through early April. Blue whales reside year-round in these warm Indian Ocean waters, and on our half-day excursion we may encounter mothers and calves, and pairs of males and females. We're also likely to see pods of playful spinner dolphins, and occasionally sperm whales, sometimes in super pods of 20 or more individuals—a rare spectacle! Numerous other cetaceans make periodic appearances, too, including fin whale, Bryde’s whale, orca, Risso’s dolphin, bottlenose dolphin and striped dolphin.
Visit Galle Fort this afternoon, South Asia's best preserved fortress, where a stroll along the ramparts offers panoramic views. Constructed by the Portuguese in 1588, it fell to the Dutch in 1640 and was extensively fortified in ensuing decades, eventually coming under British control in 1796. Today, the fort bears architectural evidence of multiple colonial influences. Extensive reconstruction by government archaeologists has maintained the sprawling complex of buildings and streets in fine form. Once the main port of call for ships sailing between the East and Europe, today Galle Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We'll explore its narrow lanes bustling with jewelry shops, numerous cafes and luxurious villas restored to their colonial splendor. Important sights within the fort are the Anglican and Dutch Reformed churches, the Galle Lighthouse and the National Maritime Museum.
Day 11: Colombo / Depart
Rising early once more, we depart for Colombo to arrive in time for our farewell lunch at The Gallery restaurant, one of the most renowned dining establishments in the city. The building in which it is housed was once the office of Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’s leading architect during the last four decades of the 20th century. After lunch, we transfer to the Taj Samudra Hotel where day rooms await, with free time to relax prior to your departure. This grand 5-star hotel fronts Galle Face Green, Colombo's famous oceanfront park and promenade originally laid out by the Dutch as a means to give their cannons a strategic line of fire against the Portuguese. In the early 19th century it was used for horse racing, and later for cricket, golf, polo, football, tennis and rugby. A transfer is included Bandaranaike International Airport—about a one-hour drive—to meet outbound flights this evening.
All This Included
Lying in the Indian Ocean just off the southern tip of India, the compact island nation of Sri Lanka contains rich bounty for the nature traveler. Herds of Asian elephants and troops of monkeys roam its virgin rain forests in the tropical lowlands. Waterfalls plummet from cloud forest highlands that shelter hundreds of colorful bird species. Golden beaches ring the island, while offshore, great blue whales—the largest animal on Earth—swim alongside sea turtles in clear turquoise waters. A global biodiversity hotspot, Sri Lanka has many endemic flora and fauna to impress the traveler captivated by natural wonders that don’t exist anywhere else. Sri Lanka, earlier known as Ceylon, also has a diverse cultural heritage that dates back more than 2,000 years, with a vibrant Buddhist presence and lingering influences from Indian, Arab and European adventurers drawn here over the centuries.
Negombo: Jetwing Lagoon Negombo
Habarana: Cinnamon Lodge
Nuwara Eliya: Grand Hotel
Yala National Park: Kulu Safari Camp
Ahangama: Mosvold Villa
Colombo: Taj Samudra
Pre and Post Add-ons
Extra Day in Colombo - 2 Days / From $385
Discover Sri Lanka's storied capital on a privately guided tour that reveals the city's richly layered past, reflecting centuries of conquest and multicultural influence.
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