Sri Lanka is a tantalising blend of culture, wildlife and beach and her main attractions are spread across the island. The national parks all provide a fantastic opportunity to see diverse wildlife, much of which is endemic and rare. Yala is the most infamous, thanks to its wild elephants and high density of leopards, creating some thrilling safaris, but many more are growing in popularity. The cultural triangle is located in Sri Lanka’s heart and combines some fascinating sites from the ruins of Polonnaruwa to the rock fortress of Sigiriya. Then there are the coastal regions and their endless beaches, from the whale watching retreat of Mirissa to the rugged and unexplored East Coast. Discover more in our list of attractions below and we can design an itinerary to incorporate your wishlist.
Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle contains five of Sri Lanka’s seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites and offers a fascinating insight into the rich historical and cultural heritage of the country, in locations within delightfully close proximity. Geographically the triangle is framed by the three corners of Anuradhapura in the northwest, Kandy in the south and Polonnaruwa to the east. Here you will find ancient Buddhist monuments and temples that date back as far as 2,200 years, mystical rock fortresses and royal palaces that are all aching to be explored.
The southern corner of the triangle, Kandy, is set along the Mahaweli River and is the second largest of Sri Lanka’s cities. Enviably laid-back, Kandy throngs with cultural activities and is a great place to soak up the local atmosphere. A key pilgrimage spot in Kandy and place of Buddhist worship is the Temple of the Tooth, is a serene place where you can join other followers queuing to catch a glimpse of the revered tooth inside an ornate casket. Visitors in July should try and coincide with the Kandy Perahera, a 10-day Buddhist festival and pageant of lively street processions and celebrations.
The largest of Sri Lanka’s national parks at 1,085 square kilometres, Wilpattu National Park (Land of Lakes) is now enjoying a renaissance following the declaration of peace in the country; opening its doors to visitors again after 16 years of closure, with a new visitor centre established in 2003. Before visitor numbers fully return to Wilpattu (it was at one point the most visited of all Sri Lanka’s parks), it remains a relatively uncrowded and unhurried park filled with a network of ‘Villu’ reservoirs, dense scrub jungle and grass-covered clearings.
Animals you stand a good chance of spotting include elephant, spotted dear, sloth bear, barking deer, mongoose, water buffalo and possibly leopard. The rivers are home to crocodile and freshwater terrapins, and the network of Villus makes it an area with huge birdlife diversity. Endemic species such as woodshrike, peacocks, brown-capped babbler, Sri Lankan jungle fowl and black-capped bulbul can be seen, but there is also a great variety of owls, storks, cuckoos and terns, amongst others.
With an impressive concentration of animals across its open savannah plains, of which the most noted is its large and stable elephant population, Udawalawe is one of Sri Lanka’s more understated national parks. It was established in 1972 with the intention of safeguarding a reservoir, the waters of which are vital to the farming communities of the arid south-eastern zone. Spread across 199 miles square, the park now protects these waters at its centre. As well as the open Horton Plains, there are some areas of dense jungle and teak woodland which attract a variety of other fauna. Leopards have been spotted in the park, although these are rare sightings, but spotted deer, endemic toque monkeys, sloth bears, grey langur, sambar, jackal, crocodiles, monitor lizards and water buffalo are all regularly seen. Birdlife is just as prolific, and you stand a good chance of sighting a large number of the 100 species during the migrant season from October to March. These include wood sandpiper, common sandpiper, woodpeckers, kingfishers, sea eagles, egrets, wagtails, terns and storks.