Udawalawe is Sri Lanka’s Greatest Safari and should be on your Travel List

Image of elephant trunk and feet

The Beginnings of a Safari Addiction

Sri Lanka is known for its safari parks rivaling those in Africa. People come from all over to see Asian elephants and an occasional leopard.
Popular safari parks include Yala and Udawalawe in the south, Wilpattu in the north-west, and Kaudulla and Minneriya in the north-east.

But with so many wildlife parks, how do you know which one to choose? 

Why did we decide to visit Udawalawe? 

Sigiriya became our home base for three weeks when we volunteered at the Jungle Vista Backpackers and Resort. It was a great hostel because it had excellent Sri Lankan food and they ran daily elephant safaris.

Since it was at our fingertips we decided to visit Kaudulla National Park. It is located in the east of Sri Lanka and is known for spotting herds of elephants [see my blog post here about Kaudulla].

Luckily, it delivered. We spotted a ton of adult and baby elephants, a few even had tusks. After budgeting we decided we didn’t need to do another one, but Udawalawa kept coming up in conversation.

Eventually we realized we should have another go at Sri Lanka’s safaris. After spending a few nights in Ella, we took a 3 hour tuk-tuk to Udawalawe. On the tuk-tuk ride we passed the Udawalawe Elephant Transit Home (ETH)  and spotted three elephants!

Immediately we knew this one night stay was the right choice. The elephants were playful and massive.

Image of Elephant in Udawalawe

Image of elephant trunk grabbing a banana

Image of Elephant in the water

We departed at 5:30am the next morning for our safari.

Udawalawe was a completely different experience than Kaudulla. It was much more intimate and had more wildlife diversity. I don’t want to knock Kaudulla because it’s great for spotting elephants in the masses, but Udawalawe was incomparable because of its intimacy and closeness to the elephants.

The Trip

Our driver picked us up at 5:30 am from our hotel, the Eagle Safari Family Bungalow, and we immediately went to buy park entrance tickets. You could tell it was a mad dash to enter because there was a line of jeeps outside. Luckily, our guide slipped to the front of the line. We were one of the first few jeeps to enter the park.

Image of Safari Jeeps

The sun was beginning to show its light during our prompt 6:05am entrance. Our eyes were peeled and our driver spotted an elephant within minutes! It was a mother crossing the dirt road with two babies.

Compared to the open plains of Kaudulla National Park, Udalwalawe had lush flora everywhere. We drove through grazing elephants on both sides of the jeep. It was also incredible that so many elephants were walking across the jeep’s dirt road, making it easy to spot them.

The guides were well equip to share the views. We would get close, watch them for a few minutes, not too short, but not too long, then let another jeep come close.

The national park didn’t feel packed at all. I think the tall trees and greenery hid the other jeeps. Plus the park didn’t feel crammed because the jeeps took different routes.

Image of Udawalawe landscape

Udawalawe Wildlife Diversity

Obviously we were there for the elephants, but were impressed with so much more than just big game. Even though my boyfriend was getting sick of me raging about “birding,” Udawalawe had magnificent birdwatching.  We spotted colorful native Sri Lankan birds, bald eagles, and tons of peacocks.

We also spotted a heard of water buffalo and nearly 15 crocodiles in the lake (no I won’t go swimming). If we squinted or looked through my camera lens we saw deer far in the distance. They had antlers which was cool, but they weren’t close enough to really see. Another bonus was spotting a few jackal down the road.

Image of peacocks
Three female peacocks in a tree
Image of bald eagle
Bald eagle
Image of elephant family
An elephant family protecting their baby
Image of Udawalawe colorful bird
The green bee eater of Sri Lanka

Image of two birds

Planning your trip

  • Getting there
  • Costs
  • What to bring

GETTING THERE FROM ELLA:

Tuk-tuk: approximately 5,000-6,000slr for 3hr drive
Private car: costs vary, we saw a group of 6-8 people get in a van and each person paid 750slr
Bus: cheapest option is two busses. The first bus is from Ella to Wellawaya (45min-1hr+) then change grab a bus to Udawalawe (1hr-1.30hr) total time is 2-3hrs

COSTS:

We paid 5,500slr to our hostel for the entire trip. Safari drivers do wait outside the park entrance, so if you are looking for a cheaper option, you could pay them directly (eliminating a hotel commission).

WHAT TO BRING:

  1. Raincoat or jacket (our day poured but was still awesome!)
  2. Camera and extra batteries
  3. Water bottle (careful of drinking too much, there’s no bathroom on the safari…)
  4. Don’t feed the animals, but we did bring a small bag of peanuts for ourselves
  5. Tip for driver

My personal recap

Honestly, we had an absolute blast on this trip. It rained on and off for a quarter of the ride, but it didn’t affect the tour. I would way rather be getting rained on watching elephants graze only 10 feet from us than sitting in a hostel or hotel doing nothing.

It was also fun four wheeling through the mud. Our driver was incredible and clearly experienced. Other drivers weren’t so experienced…, we had three incidents where our driver had to bail out other drivers. Still fun!

Image of Udawalawe safari jeep

Image of our Safari guide
Our safari guide, Pathum!

I highly recommend visiting Udawalawe National Park while traveling in Sri Lanka. We saw a great deal of animal diversity and we got so close without feeling intrusive. 

please let me know what your experiences are if you went to Udawalawe or another safari park in Sri Lanka in the comments below. I would love to hear some stories!

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My adventures and ramblings through Europe, Australia, and now back the United States. I generally write from daily inspirations or from random thoughts.

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