Sri Lanka: Wildlife & Cultural Treasures
11 days with Natural Habitat Adventures Rating:
Day 1: Colombo, Sri Lanka / Kandanegedara
Arrive at the airport, located north of Sri Lanka's capital of Colombo, where you’re met and transferred to a tranquil 50-acre estate in rural Kandanegedara. The afternoon is free to relax before our welcome dinner this evening. Absorb the serenity of rural Sri Lanka along the property's trails that weave among vibrant birdlife, a private rice paddy, and organic gardens where pepper, cashew, clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, lemongrass grow alongside coconut, jackfruit, soursop, tamarind, mango and guava.
Day 2: Sigiriya
Depart on a half-day drive to Sigiriya. Once we check 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 called 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 want to climb to the top. The rock was turned into a fortress by the king, who constructed his royal palace on the summit overlooking elaborate gardens below. The tract of ancient forest around Lion Rock now forms the Sigiriya Reserve, sheltering 10 of Sri Lanka’s 33 endemic bird species, along with small reptiles, primates and numerous butterflies and dragonflies.
Return to our hotel for an early dinner before a night walk with our Expedition Leader in search of the gray slender loris, a small nocturnal primate. Our lodge sits inside a private forest reserve that shelters this rare primate known for its protruding eyes and nimble limbs. Aided by the property's purposeful conservation program, we have the best possible chance to spot an elusive loris in its natural habitat. Among the other animals active at night, we occasionally see fishing cat, common palm civet, golden palm civet and collared scops owl.
Day 3: Polonnaruwa Primate Watching / Hurulu Forest
The day starts early with a packed breakfast as we set out to visit the ancient capital of Polonnaruwa, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Learn about 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. As we walk through the ancient site, we'll track and observe the wildlife with a local researcher from the Smithsonian Primate Research Center. Three species of monkey—toque macaque and canopy-dwelling purple-faced leaf monkey (both endemics), plus gray langur—are on view 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. They were recently the focus of Disneynature’s 2015 film Monkey Kingdom. The monkeys here are habituated to the presence of humans, allowing 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, 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
Depart for Nuwara Eliya, a half-day's drive from Habarana. En route, 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, as 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.
Continue to Nuwara Eliya at the heart of Sri Lanka's 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 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 enjoy the peaceful ambience of our setting overlooking Lake Gregory and petite Galway's Land National Park.
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 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 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 frequent the plains near the entrance of the park.
Next, we visit Hakgala Botanical Gardens, originally established in 1884 to grow cinchona (quinine). The name comes from a legend that says 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 flora species are planted here, including a wide variety of orchids and roses. The gardens lie adjacent to Hakgala Nature Reserve where we look for wildlife such as the shaggy-coated bear monkey, plus plentiful highland avian endemics like Sri Lanka white-eye, Sri Lanka scimitar babbler and dull-blue flycatcher. For those seeking a more challenging excursion, opt for an extended hike in the grasslands and cloud forests of Horton Plains National Park in lieu of a visit to the gardens. This afternoon, 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
This morning, we leave Sri Lanka's 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 as a variegated mosaic of green, a gently rolling carpet of shrub jungle, riverine forest and open plains, dotted with the deep blue lakes and waterholes and punctuated by rocky outcrops, with the Indian Ocean coastline forming 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. A late afternoon safari reveals our first animal sightings from custom Land Cruisers designed for exploring these wild environs. Our drivers are seasoned local naturalists who are experts at spotting a multitude of species. Leopards are the dominant predator here, and Yala National Park boasts one of the world's highest concentrations.
Days 7 & 8: On Safari in Yala National Park
Over the next two days, early morning and late afternoon game drives reveal many of the animals found throughout the park. Our visit occurs just after the monsoon season, when the forest is returning to a state of 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 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 we frequently observe are blue-faced malkohas, Malabar-pied hornbills, and chestnut, green and blue-tailed bee-eaters.
Day 9: Bundala National Park / Cinnamon Plantation / 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 on our itinerary. 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 to visit a cinnamon plantation, with lunch at the lodge before a tour of the estate. The south coast's gentle hills are especially suited to the growth of Cinnamonum zeylanicum, a variety of laurel that is the “true cinnamon” native almost exclusively to Sri Lanka, as opposed to the cheaper and inferior “cassia” which is often sold as cinnamon in North America. Cinnamon remains a major export of Sri Lanka, for use in both cooking and medicine, and it is still peeled in the time-honored way on the plantation. Arriving late this afternoon at Ahangama, our small family-owned hotel that sits just yards away from a delightful public beach inviting swimming in the warm, clear ocean.
Day 10: Mirissa Whale Watching / Galle Fort
Early this morning, we set out from Mirissa Harbor in search of blue whales—the largest animal on Earth—aboard a privately chartered vessel. Located on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, this 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 may also 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.
This afternoon, visit Galle Fort, South Asia's best preserved European fortress, which today is a vital and dynamic mix of residences and commerce. A stroll along the ramparts offers panoramic views of the Old Town. Constructed by the Portuguese in 1588, Galle Fort 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. Explore its narrow lanes, bustling with shops and cafes, and admire 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. Our visit to Galle Fort also offers the only shopping opportunity during our trip. This evening, savor regional flavors and historic ambiance as we dine at a local restaurant inside the fort.
Day 11: Colombo / Depart
Rising early once more, depart for Colombo to arrive in time for our farewell lunch at The Gallery restaurant, one of the city's most renowned dining establishments. It is housed in a building that was once the office of Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’s leading architect during the last half of the 20th century. After lunch, 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 to Bandaranaike International Airport—about a one-hour drive, depending on traffic—to meet outbound flights this evening.
All This Included
Lying in the Indian Ocean just off the southern tip of India, the compact island 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.
Kandanegedara: Horathapola Estate
Sigiriya: Jetwing Vil Uyana
Nuwara Eliya: Firsmead
Yala National Park: Kulu Safari Camp
Ahangama: Mosvold Villa
Colombo: Taj Samudra
Pre and Post Add-ons
Extra Day in Colombo
2 Days / From $395
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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