Sri Lanka: An epic itinerary to a unique place

I must preface our recap by mentioning that 8 years ago, Sri Lanka ended a devastating civil war that lasted for almost 3 decades. Sri Lanka is making great strides to build their way back to the South Asian hub of previous generations, and is now welcoming more and more international tourists per year to this beautiful and unique island nation. Though the country has a manageable tourism infrastructure, a very great sense of ruggedness, adventure and traveler.

We encountered by far the most challenging parts of our year long journey around the world (India not included), some of which resulted in absolutely amazing experiences and others pushing us beyond our limits. We visited pristine beaches, surfed at sunset, hiked through stunning landscapes, met some of the most amazing people (both locals and fellow travelers), and saw elephants, peacocks and other animals walking around in their natural habitat. Inversely, we experienced the pains unreliable reviews on booking sites leading to booking overpriced accommodation in half finished homes, LonelyPlanet tips leading to dead ends, and a Hunger Games-esque fight for the privilege to sit on the ground next to the toilet on a train that will be 5 hours late and will definitely breakdown halfway through your journey. In many countries, the culture can only be viewed by going to “traditional fire dancing shows”, or some other pre-packaged experience.

Sri Lanka, more often than not, you find yourself packed into the same hot, overcrowded public buses and staying in the guest houses of locals. Overall, Sri Lanka brought us to towering highs and painful lows, but that’s what made Sri Lanka unique and that will be our lasting impression of this still somewhat hidden gem. In retrospect, I have come to love Sri Lanka even more so, mainly because of the challenges and rewards presented.

Outdoor Gear for Your Trip

When To Visit Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka travel is dictated by two distinct monsoon seasons. The Southern and Western Coast is hit by consistent rain from May to September and the North and East from December between October and January. January to May is high season in the country.

So that you can maximize your time, her are breakdowns of what cities to visits and afterwards recommended itineraries for both monsoons. We spent almost a month there, which I strongly recommend if you have the time. This can be broken down into a shorter, two week stay if you are indeed stuck for time.

Getting Around Sri Lanka

Getting around Sri Lanka can consist of bus, train or private car travel. The train needs to be booked in advance (1 month in most cases) or you will be relegated to the general admission section which is essentially a commuting hour free for all for a seat that will likely result with you sitting on the floor.

As an alternative, they have a very effective shared taxi program which is much more enjoyable and effective than public transport. The cost will be marginally more than public transport and will make your trip so much better. You can either list your expected itinerary and request others to join, or hop in with another traveler who has listed their trip. Check it out here.

Book Accommodation in Sri Lanka here.

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Where To Go In Sri Lanka

Colombo: As the only international airport in Sri Lanka you will need to come through here. An up and coming city, there’s nothing to do, so spend a day here at most on either end of you trip. On the way in order to get settled before setting off, and on the way back to recover in a nice hotel and head to the airport.

Sigiriya: A rock palace / fortress for a dynasty of the past, Sigiriya is one of the coolest places in Sri Lanka, and the surrounding area is worth checking out for a couple days. To reach Sigiriya you can take the bus from Colombo to Dambulla and from there hire a tuk tuk or take a local bus to Sigiriya. There is a small town near Sigiriya worth crashing in for a night or two. Aside from Sigiriya there are elephant safaris, bike rental and number of other cool activities to keep you busy.

Central Highlands: One of the most picturesque parts of Sri Lanka, you can take hop through the area on a scenic train ride. By scenic, I mean you need to get a ticket over 1 month in advance or you will be relegated to the General Admission cars and likely will end up seated on the floor after a fight for your life to even get on the train. If you’re backpacking, like us, and don’t have a timeline, then be prepared to fight onto the train. It really ain’t that bad….if you’re used to the morning commute in NYC, then it’s a bit like this.

You can reach the highlands from Kandy, the largest city in the area and by far the least spectactular. If you can skip Kandy, do it, or only spend a night on transit. Nothing to see here. Trains and from Dambulla or Colombo get you to Kandy.

Whence in the highlands, I recommend two towns – Ella and Hatton. Ella is the main tourist area in the spot, and with that comes comfortable amenities like coffee shops, guesthouses, hostels, and restaurants. From Ella you can tour Hatton National Park famous for it’s World’s End hike, and get a beautiful view from Little Adam’s Peak. If you’re adventurous, Hatton provides you close access to the real Adam’s Peak (big bro is much better), and moderately challenging hike that is one of the most gritty and popular in Sri Lanka. You’re also close to Sri Lanka’s best whitewater rafting spots.

Needless to say, we didn’t go to either of these places, having been talked in Nuwara Eliya (“picturesque” lake that has nothing but a few jet skis to rent and swan paddle boats – you’re better off checking out the pond in Central Park) and Haputale. We were sold Haputale being the “more off the beaten path” version of Ella and Hatton. It felt more like landing in a retired coal mining town in the middle of Appalachia. The amenities here are very lacking, and the “hiking” trails are nomadic bushwacking journeys into the middle of the woods without any trail signs.

Aragum Bay: By far my favorite spot in Sri Lanka, Aragum is part surfer’s paradise, part backpacking mecca filled with faux vegan and granola trappings and part hot spot for local Sri Lankans on vacation. This mix provides the comforts of home mixed with an authentic feel. We stayed in The Folly a really amazing beach bungalow right on the beach in the heart of the town. The staff there is really cool, the vibe amazing, and waking up 300 meters from crashing ocean is epic. Aragum Bay is complicated to reach by bus. I strongly recommend hopping a shared taxi from either Ella or Trincomalee.

Trincomalee: One of the flash points for the civil war, this beach side town is still building it’s way back up. If you’re looking for relaxation and beautiful beaches this is a wonderful spot. It’s one of the only coastal spots with no surf, so you’re coming for the snorkeling and SUP. Pigeon Island is the snorkeling hot spot here. All of the snorkeling companies will try to sell you on a more expensive, more secluded place to snorkel. Listen to them and go with it. Pigeon Island is a factory, with boat after boat of “snorkelers” descending on a small, semi littered coral reef. It’s sad. Pony up the extra cash and enjoy yourself.

Mirissa and Galle: We came during the SW Monsoon so we avoided Mirissa and Galle. Speaking with friends who visited here, they are both wonderful places to check out during their Dry Season. From the sounds of it, they’re slightly larger versions of Aragum Bay, with great surf, great food and great nightlife.

Based on the info above, here are two distinct itineraries based on the monsoons.

SW Monsoon (3 weeks)

Colombo (1 night)
Sigiriya (2 nights)
Trincomalee (4 nights)
Aragum Bay (5 nights)
Ella (4 nights)
Hatton (3 nights)
Kandy (2 nights)
Colombo (1 night)

NE Monsoon

Colombo (1 night)
Sigiriya (2 nights)
Kandy (2 nights)
Hatton (3 nights)
Ella (4 nights)
Yala National Park (1 night)
Mirissa (4 nights)
Galle (4 nights)
Colombo (1 night)

If you would like help booking a trip to Sri Lanka, shoot me an e-mail at mike@fearlessleaderstravel.com

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