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Sri Lanka is one of my favorite countries to date. The country has so much to offer visitors, including an abundance of incredible wildlife. Considered one of the top spots for biodiversity in the world, going on a safari is a must-do on your Sri Lanka Itinerary. This guide will help you plan an epic Udawalawe safari, one of the best parks for elephant safaris in Sri Lanka.
Why visit Udawalawe National Park
There is no better way to see an animal than in its national habitat. With the highest density of wild Asian elephants in the world, Sri Lanka provides an excellent opportunity to see these magnificent creatures. However, you still need to be careful when choosing where to go on an elephant safari in Sri Lanka, as there are parks and “orphanages” that engage in abusive and harmful practices. Pinawalla Elephant Orphanage is an example of this. Another tip is to avoid any places that engage in elephant riding.
Despite this, Sri Lanka has done a fantastic job of protecting its wildlife while still making it accessible to tourists through the country’s national park. Udawalawe National Park Safari is an excellent example of the countries efforts to protect wildlife. Established in 1972, it has become a sanctuary for wild elephants displaced by the construction of the Udawalawe Reservoir.
Udawalawe has become a critical habitat for Sri Lankan elephants and other wildlife. Covering over 309 square kilometers of wilderness, Udawalawe is the perfect place to go on an elephant safari in Sri Lanka. An Udawalawe safari will allow you to immerse yourself in the beauty of the country while getting up close and personal with wildlife in an ethical way.
Udawalawe Vs. Yala National Park
Yala National Park and Udawalawe National Park are two of the most popular parks in Sri Lanka for wildlife. Both have their pros and cons, so here is some information to help you decide on Udawalawe vs. Yala.
One big con of Yala is that it is closed off for six to eight weeks each year, usually starting at the beginning of September. This year’s closure happened to coincide with the month I was in Sri Lanka, so I only had the option to visit Udawalawe. I’m glad it worked out this way because I loved my Udawalawe safari.
Another benefit of an Udawalawe safari over Yala is that it’s much less busy. Yala National Park is the most visited national park in Sri Lanka and one of the most touristic places. You are going to be sharing the animals with a lot of other jeeps. While Udawalawe is the third most visited park in Sri Lanka, there are significantly fewer people here compared to Yala.
A safari at Udawalawe is also cheaper than Yala. Both parks have an entrance fee of $15 USD, but you must hire a jeep and guide, which is more expensive at Yala. The cost will depend on your ability to negotiate. On average, a jeep and guide cost $30-35 at Yala for a half-day safari and around $20-25 at Udawalawe.
In terms of wildlife, Udalawe is better for seeing elephants. It has the highest concentration of Sri Lanka elephants in the country and is about 1/3 the size of Yala, so your chances of seeing elephants are very high here. If you want to see a leopard, then you should visit Yala. The park has the highest concentration of leopards in the world, with over 40 roaming the park. Yala is world-famous for its leopard sightings, but if you don’t get the chance to visit, another place to see leopards in Sri Lanka is Wilpattu National Park.
They are both amazing national parks and if you have the time, you could visit both as they relatively close. You can even book a 1-day tour for Yala and Udawalawe National Park!
How to get to Udawalawe National Park
Most people stay at an eco-lodge or glamping option just outside the park in Udawalawe. However, it is possible to visit as a day trip from another place on the South Coast of Sri Lanka. The easiest way to get there is by car, but it is also possible to take local buses to the town of Udawalawe.
From Weligama: I arranged a day tour from Weligama while I was there on a surf camp, which meant we had to wake up at 5 am to for a three-hour drive to the park. On the flip side, I didn’t have to spend any money staying in the park. You could also take the bus here, but it would take much longer and several transfers (Weligama -> Mirissa -> Matara -> Embilipitiya -> Udawalawe).
From Colombo: Udawalawe national park is a five-hour drive from Colombo via public transit. There is a local bus that will take you there (#122, but always ask for most updated info), so if you get up bright and early from Colombo, you could make it for an afternoon safari. However, there would not be time to get back the same day, so you would have to stay nearby the park.
From Ella: To reach Udawalawe from Ella, you will have to take three busses (Ella -> Wellawaya -> Thanamalwila -> Udawalawe), so I would not recommend trying to fit in a safari on the same day as your travel. From Ella, you can take Sri Lanka train onwards to Nuwara Eliya or Kandy.
There are plenty of hotel options to stay near Udawale National Park, including some pretty awesome looking tented safari camps right in the park.
How dreamy, sleeping next to the elephants! There are also some cheap guesthouses to stay at for less than $20/a night. I loved staying at guesthouses in Sri Lanka, the locals are so friendly and truly make you feel at home.
Udawalawe National Park Entrance Fees + Safari Prices
The entrance fee to Udawalawe National Park is $15 USD per foreign adult or equivalent in Sri Lanka Rupees. For locals, the price is Rs. 60.00. Children are $8 USD.
You will need to book a jeep to take you on a safari through Udawalawe National Park. The price to rent a jeep is the same regardless of how many people you have in it, so it’s cost-effective to go with a larger group. We organized the tour in advance through the surf school and paid 5,500LKR/30 USD each (we were a total of six people). The price included our entry ticket into Udawalawe, transportation back and forth from Weligama, and a private jeep. Like most things in Sri Lanka, always try to negotiate the price.
You can book your Udawalawe safari online in advance. You can also show up at the park and negotiate a jeep/guide there, which should cost you between $20-25 USD for a half-day safari, or between $45-65 USD for a full day safari. Tips for the driver are discretionary. We all tipped our driver as he was so knowledgeable about the animals and excellent at spotting them.
Udawalawe Opening Hours and Safari Timings
Udawalawe National Park is open between 6 am – 6 pm. The best time to visit the park is early in the morning or late in the afternoon as the animals are most active during this time. They tend to hide from the sun mid-day.
If you stay near the park overnight, you can get up early for the first tours of the day, which will increase your chances of seeing wildlife. Plus, you’ll get to see a beautiful Sri Lanka sunrise. The timing of the safaris are usually 6-9 am and 3-6 pm.
Best time to visit Udawalawe National Park
Udawalawe National Park is open year-round, and whether you go in the wet or dry season, you will surely have a wonderful experience.
The dry season runs from May-September in this part of Sri Lanka. The dry season is a good time for safari because the lack of water means elephants will gather at the reservoirs, making them easy to spot. During the wet season, From October- April, the vegetation will be much lusher, and the chances to see baby elephants are significantly higher. Awww!
What to expect on a Udawalawe Safari
The safari jeeps are massive with open sides, so regardless of where you sit, you will have a good view of the surrounding scenery and wildlife. I was in the back of the jeep and still had amazing views. You aren’t allowed to get outside of the vehicles (for safety), but they are huge, so there’s lots of room to move around and take photos.
Once you get inside the park, the jeep will drive to the ticket office so you can pay the park entrance fee. If you booked a tour and paid this in advance, the driver will just get the tickets for everyone.
The jeep ride through the park is bumpy and rough, so don’t expect a comfy ride. Learn from my mistakes and don’t eat a big breakfast beforehand 😛 With the excitement of finding the elephants, you will hardly notice after a while.
A half-day Udawalawe National Park Safari lasts about three hours long. During that time we saw a ton of wildlife, including lots of elephants. As a bonus, many of the elephants came close to the jeep to say hello. It’s an incredible experience to see them just hanging out being happy elephants in their natural habitat.
I was hoping to see the baby elephants on my safari, but it wasn’t the right season. All of the elephants we spotted were lone soldiers. In total, we saw six different elephants. Aside from the elephants, we saw water buffalo, crocodiles, lizards, monkeys, and many types of birds, including eagles and peacocks.
At the end of the safari, we went to a watering hole where there were a ton of pelicans and water buffalo hanging out. It was such a beautiful and tranquil site to watch.
On top of all the incredible wildlife, the landscape of Udawalawe is beautiful. It was completely different than anywhere else I visited in Sri Lanka, it felt like we were on a safari in Africa. The mountain ranges of Ella provide a stunning backdrop to the park.
Our safari guide was great at spotting wildlife and knowledgeable about the animals, giving us facts here and there. The guides seemed to have concern for the animals and conserving them, which was great to see.
Elephant Transit Home
After visiting Udawalawe national park, you can continue your elephant safari at the Elephant Transit home inside the park. Recognized as one of the best wild animal rehabilitation centers in the world, the elephant transit home takes care of orphaned elephant calves with the goal to return them to the wild. The home was established by the Department of Wildlife Conservation in Sri Lanka.
The elephant transit home is another great example of Sri Lanka’s efforts to protect its wildlife. You can visit the transit home and watch the baby elephants be fed from a viewing platform, which is a great way to support elephant conservation in the country.
What to bring on an Elephant Safari in Sri Lanka
- Lightweight, neutral-colored clothing. The REI Sahara Line is perfect.
- A camera with a zoom lens. It’s difficult to get good shots with a phone. I used my Sony A7 with a 24-240mm lens. Plus extra batteries and an SD card.
- Cash for the park entrance fee ($15 USD) + jeep/guide (20-25 USD for half-day/45-65 for a full-day).
- A reusable water bottle with lots of extra water (it gets hot in the park)!
- Sunscreen, Sunglasses, and Sunhat. If you have long hair, an elastic to put it up. The wind blows everything around and makes it tangly!
- Snacks. There aren’t places to purchase snacks and water once you’re inside the park.
- Pair of binoculars for spotting wildlife, especially if you are a birder!
While visiting Sri Lanka, don’t miss the opportunity to see the incredible Sri Lankan elephants on an elephant safari. An Udawalawe safari is an excellent choice to do so. It’s a wonderful experience to see these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat and should definitely be on your Sri Lanka bucket list!
Wondering where to go after Udawalawe National Park? Explore the gorgeous mountain town of Ella, or head North to Kandy. If you’re thinking about a trip to Sri Lanka, check out my Sri Lanka Posts for all the inspiration you need.
Have you been on an Elephant safari before? How was it? I’d love to hear about your experience, let me know in the comments below!