Sri Lanka has terrific outdoor appeal. The nation's coastline boasts wonderful beaches, which make a perfect base for surfing, diving and snorkelling and other water-based activities. Inland, wildlife-watching is a huge draw, and there are some outstanding national parks to view elephants and an array of other animals.
Beaches & Water-Based Activities
Sri Lanka is blessed with astonishing beaches, from ocean-washed surfing strongholds to sheltered sandy coves. Water-based activities include scuba diving and whale-watching, but if horizontal lounging is more your thing, you've come to the right place too.
When to Go
Sri Lanka is pretty much a year-round beach destination. When it’s raining in the East it’s normally sunny in the West and vice versa.
- The main tourist season coincides with the northeast monsoon, which runs from December to March. At this time the beaches on the west and south coasts are bathed in sunshine and the tourist industry for this part of the country is in full swing. The east coast, by contrast, is often wet and many hotels are closed.
- Between May and September, when the stronger southwest monsoon hits the island and the southwest coast is drenched, head straight for the east coast, which sits in the rain shadow of the highlands and will be sunny and idyllic.
- Don’t take the seasons as gospel: even during the height of the southwest monsoon it can often be sunny in the morning on the west-coast beaches before afternoon thunderstorms roll in.
- The north of the island is generally much drier so you could come here any time and get your beach towel out.
For many people the beach is Sri Lanka. You'll encounter ravishing stretches of sand around much of this island nation's sparkling shoreline.
- The west coast is the most developed beach area and is where the majority of the package-tour resorts can be found, but don’t let that put you off because some of the beaches here are up there with the best in the country.
- With its stunning beaches, good selection of accommodation and activities that range from diving to sunning to surfing, it’s no surprise that the south coast of the island is the most popular area with beach-bound independent travellers. However, heavy development is bringing more package tourists.
- For years war and unrest had kept the east-coast beaches largely off the radar of all but the most adventurous, but with peace a coastline littered with absolutely corking beaches is now starting to open up. New hotels are springing up fast but the East is still much less developed than the West or South.
- Finally, there’s the far north, where a beach to yourself isn’t just a possibility but more of a given. However, tourist development up here remains minimal and locals aren't used to foreign beach worshippers.
Every year drownings occur off Sri Lanka’s beaches. If you aren’t an experienced swimmer or surfer, it’s easy to underestimate the dangers – or be totally unaware of them. (Don't worry though, as not all of Sri Lanka's beaches are surf battered: Unawatuna, Passekudah and Uppuveli are some of the calmest, safest swimming beaches and are perfect for less confident swimmers and children.) There are few full-time lifesaving patrols, so there’s usually no one to jump in and rescue you. A few common-sense rules should be observed:
- Don’t swim out of your depth. If you are a poor swimmer, always stay in the shallows.
- Don’t stay in the water when you feel tired.
- Never go swimming under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
- Supervise children at all times.
- Watch out for rips. Water brought onto the beach by waves is sucked back to sea and this current can be strong enough to drag you out with it. Rips in rough surf can sometimes be seen as calm patches in the disturbed water. It’s best to check with someone reliable before venturing into the water.
- If you do get caught in a rip, swim across the current towards the breaking waves. The currents are usually less where the waves are actually breaking and the surf will push you shoreward. Never try and swim against the current. If it’s too strong for you to swim across it, keep afloat and raise a hand so that someone on shore can see that you are in distress. A rip eventually weakens; the important thing is not to panic.
- Exercise caution when there is surf.
- Beware of coral; coming into contact with coral can be painful for the swimmer and fatal for the coral. Always check with someone reliable if you suspect the area you’re about to swim in may have coral.
- Never dive head-first into the water. Hazards may be lurking under the surface or the water may not be as deep as it looks. It pays to be cautious.
By and large Sri Lankans are an easygoing and accepting lot and on the south and west coasts they are also very used to foreign tourists and their skimpy beachwear. For much of the East and North, though, the situation is a little different: women in bathing suits, even modest one-piece numbers, can attract a lot of unwelcome attention. Even in the now very popular east-coast beach resorts such as Arugam Bay and the beaches north of Trincomalee the attention can be excessive (and there have been sexual assaults). On these beaches and especially in more remote locations, women will not want to travel alone and should consider wearing a T-shirt and shorts into the water.
Even in the more trodden beaches in the South and West it's worth remembering that the vast majority of Sri Lankans remain very conservative. Topless sunbathing is a no-no anywhere. Few local women would dare wear a bikini, so although nobody is likely to say anything to you about wearing one on a tourist beach you might risk offence, and possibly worse, if you were to leave the beach and venture off around the village or town in skimpy clothing.
Most resort hotels have pools where you can sunbathe freely without fear of offence or hassle.
Best Beaches For…
- Diving & Snorkelling
Pigeon Island off Nilaveli beach offers crystal waters, shallow reefs, colourful fish, and diving and snorkelling that’s great for a beginner or the experienced.
Whales can be seen all along the Sri Lankan coast but Mirissa is the best base for seeing the blue whales that surge past Dondra Head.
Jaffna's islands offer a stunning array of white-sand bays and remote coves, perfect for beach-hopping on a scooter or bicycle.
Bentota beach has an unrivalled collection of sublime boutique hotels. When you’re done with pampering, the beach itself ain’t bad.
We almost want to keep this one to ourselves, but seeing as you asked nicely…Talalla beach is utterly empty and utterly divine – for the moment.
Talk about opening a can of worms, but in the interest of sun-lounger debates across Sri Lanka here’s our pick of the nation’s finest stretches of sand.
A near-perfect crescent of white sand, fringed by forest and almost completely untouched by development.
This horseshoe-shaped mini-cove in the South has it all: surf breaks, sheltered swimming, azure water and a relaxed, utterly tropical vibe.
Tranquil tropical coves and endless sweeps of white sand mean Tangalla has something for everyone.
Idyllic south-coast beach with something of a party scene and the best whale-watching base.
Stunning Uppuveli is the beach of choice for many independent travellers on the east coast.
- Arugam Bay
One of the best surf spots in the country and the most developed east-coast beach resort.
A near-empty swath of golden sand backed by boutique hotels.
Sri Lanka has consistent surf year-round, but the quality of waves is far lower than the nearby Maldives and Indonesia. You visit Sri Lanka more for the culture, climate and ease of travelling than for the chance to get barrelled.
On the east coast, surf's up from April to October. On the west and south coasts, the best surfing is from November to April, with the start and end of this season more consistent than January and February (when, bizarrely, most surfers choose to visit). On the flip side, however, the swells at this time can be less clean and easterly winds can badly affect some spots.
Sri Lanka is a superb place to learn how to surf or for intermediate surfers to get their first reef-break experiences. Many of the spots are very close to shore and surf access couldn’t be easier, which makes Sri Lanka an ideal destination for a surfer with a nonsurfing partner. Boards can be hired (expect to pay Rs 1200 to 1500 per day) and lessons are available at most beach towns; courses start at around Rs 2500.
Best Places for Surfing
- Midigama The best spot along the south coast, with a mellow left point, a nearby consistent beach break and a short and sharp right reef, which offers about the only frequently hollow wave in Sri Lanka.
- Arugam Bay Sri Lanka’s best-known wave is at Arugam Bay on the east coast. Surf’s up at this long right point from April to October.
- Weligama On the south coast, Weligama seems custom-made for learning to surf and a number of surf schools and camps have recently sprung up there.
- Hikkaduwa The reefs here on the west coast are a long-time favourite, although more for the ease of living than for the quality of the waves.
White-water Rafting, Kayaking & Boating
You don’t have to be a beach babe to enjoy Sri Lankan water sports. High up in the hills, rivers tumble down mountains to produce some memorable rafting conditions.
Currently the best-known white-water rafting area is near Kitulgala, where you can set out on gentle river meanders (around US$30 per person) or, for experienced rafters, exciting descents of Class IV to V rapids. However, new dams under construction will likely curtail the white-water fun here in the next few years.
Action Lanka is the biggest player in Sri Lankan rafting and organises expeditions from its Colombo base; rates start at US$65.
Kayaking is possible at many spots along the coast, including the lagoons around Tangalla. Boat or catamaran trips for sightseeing, birdwatching and fishing are offered around Negombo, Bentota and from east-coast and south-coast beach resorts.
Windsurfing & Kitesurfing
Sri Lanka isn’t renowned for its windsurfing or kitesurfing but that doesn’t mean there’s no action. Negombo has a well-run kitesurfing school that runs courses (three days for €359) and trips down the coast. Further north, the Kalpitiya area has gained a reputation as one of the best kitesurfing areas in South Asia and there are plenty of board-hire places and kitesurfing schools, such as Sri Lanka Kite.
Further south, Bentota is an emerging windsurfing centre with two established operators: Sunshine Water Sports Center and Diyakawa Water Sports. It’s a good place for learners and lessons are possible; windsurfing courses cost around US$150.
Whale-watching & Dolphin-watching
Sri Lanka is a world-class whale-watching location. The big attraction is big indeed – blue whales, the largest of all creatures. Mirissa is the best place from which to organise a whale-watching trip. On the east coast, Uppuveli and Nilaveli offer quieter but less-reliable whale-watching. In the northwest the Kalpitiya area is another possible base; here large pods of dolphins are encountered, along with (less reliably) sperm whales and Bryde's whales.
In all these places local boat tours are available. One excellent nationwide tour operator is Eco Team Sri Lanka, which offers whale-watching (and dolphin-watching) tours on both the south and west coasts.
The season for whales (and dolphins) off the south coast and Kalpitiya is from December to April, while on the east coast it runs from May to October.
Diving & Snorkelling
There are plenty of opportunities to live like a fish in Sri Lanka. However, marine conditions are not ideal for diving as limited visibility and big waves make diving or snorkelling challenging.
Dive schools can be found all along the coast (except the far north). In Sri Lanka it's more about the fish than the reefs, but there are a few exceptions including some wrecks. Offshore waters include the full dose of tropical Indian Ocean fish species including such pretty little numbers as angel fish, butterfly fish, surgeon fish and scorpion fish. Higher up the scale come black- and white-tip reef sharks, though you'll be lucky to encounter these.
Along the west coast, the best time to dive and snorkel is generally from November to April. On the east coast, the seas are calmest from April to September. But at none of these times can underwater visibility be described as breathtaking.
Diving shops can be found in the major west-coast resorts. They hire and sell gear, including snorkelling equipment. PADI courses cost around US$325 to US$390 and are also available with the following respected dive schools:
Safety Guidelines for Diving
Before embarking on a scuba-diving trip, carefully consider the following points to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience:
- Possess a current diving certification card from a recognised scuba-diving instructional agency.
- Be sure you are healthy and feel comfortable diving.
- Obtain reliable information about physical and environmental conditions at the dive site (eg from a reputable local dive operation).
- Dive only at sites within your realm of experience; if available, engage the services of a competent, professionally trained dive instructor or dive master.
Best Dive Spots
- Great Basses reefs Several kilometres off the coast near Kirinda, these remote reefs are ranked by divers as about the best in the country. Eagle rays and white-tip reef sharks are the big fish to see here. But take note – conditions are tricky and the reefs are for expert divers only.
- Bar Reef These offshore reefs in the northwest of the country offer pristine reef systems, masses of fish, and dolphins and whales to boot, but again it’s experienced divers only.
- Pigeon Island Accessible for beginners but still rewarding for experts, the beautiful, colour-splashed reefs off this pinprick of an island put a smile on everyone’s face. Around 300 species of fish and other marine life have been recorded here. Also a great snorkelling spot.
- Unawatuna It’s all about wreck diving here – one boat was even sunk exclusively for the purpose of improving the diving. Several dive schools, lots of facilities and good for all levels of experience.
- Batticaloa Calm waters for exploring the wreck of HMS Hermes, a WWII British naval ship.
- Negombo Looking at the rather brown waters here you might not expect it to be a very good dive area, but that brown water hides reefs bustling with fish just offshore.
Please consider the following tips when diving and help preserve the ecology and beauty of reefs:
- Never use anchors on the reef and take care not to ground boats on coral.
- Avoid touching or standing on living marine organisms or dragging equipment across the reef. Polyps can be damaged by even the gentlest contact. If you must hold on to the reef, only touch exposed rock or dead coral.
- Be conscious of your fins. Even without contact, the surge from fin strokes near the reef can damage delicate organisms. Take care not to kick up clouds of sand, which can smother organisms.
- Practise and maintain proper buoyancy control. Major damage can be done by divers descending too fast and colliding with the reef.
- Take great care in underwater caves. Spend as little time within them as possible as your air bubbles may be caught within the roof and thereby leave organisms high and dry. Take turns to inspect the interior of a small cave.
- Resist the temptation to collect or buy corals or shells or to loot marine archaeological sites (mainly shipwrecks).
- Ensure that you take home all your rubbish and any litter you may find as well. Plastics in particular are a serious threat to marine life.
- Do not feed fish.
- Minimise your disturbance of marine animals.
Wildlife & National Parks
Sri Lanka is one of the finest wildlife-watching countries in Asia; many of its national parks are relatively accessible and the variety of habitats and the diversity of wildlife is exceptional. Even a visitor with only the most casual interest can’t help but be overawed by the sight of great herds of elephants, enormous whales, elusive leopards, schools of dolphins, thousands of colourful birds and rainbow-coloured tropical fish.
The Sri Lankan tourism industry hasn’t been slow to cotton on to the country’s wildlife-watching potential, and an impressive array of national parks, protected zones and safari options exist that allow anyone, from dedicated naturalist to interested lay person, to get out there with a pair of binoculars and make the most of the Sri Lankan wilderness.
Best Wildlife Experiences
- West, South & East
The West is best for marine life, but Wilpattu National Park has large mammals and birders will like Muthurajawela Marsh. The south coast is home to several species of whales, dolphins and turtles, while Yala National Park is one of the best places in Asia to see leopards. In the East are quiet national parks and bird species that prefer drier climates.
- The Hill Country
The hills have rainforests, moorlands and savanna parks with everything from elephants to endemic high-country birds.
- The Ancient Cities
Numerous national parks filled with big-ticket mammals and great dry country birding. Even the region's ruined cities provide ideal habitat for many creatures.
For its size, Sri Lanka boasts an incredible diversity of animalia: 125 mammal species, 245 butterflies, 463 birds, 96 snakes and more than 320 species of tropical fish. Given the fragility of the environment in which they live, it should come as no surprise that quite a few are vulnerable.
Sri Lanka’s mammals include some of the most easily observable of the country’s animal species, as well as some of the most invisible. Hard to spot are the solitary and mostly nocturnal leopard, Sri Lanka’s top predator; the scavenging golden jackal; the shaggy sloth bear; the civet (a catlike hunter related to the weasel); the mongoose; and the shy, armour-plated Indian pangolin, with overlapping scales made from modified hair.
Very audible but not always visible are troops of tree-bound cackling primates, like common langurs, also known as Hanuman or grey langurs; endemic purple-faced langurs; hairy bear monkeys; and toque macaques, notable for their distinctive thatch of middle-parted hair. The slow movements of the slender loris belie its ability to snatch its prey with a lightning-quick lunge.
More often crossed, albeit at different times of the day, are the majestic Asian elephant; the omnivorous and tusked wild boar of Sri Lanka; and cervine creatures like the big, maned sambar and smaller white-spotted Axis deer. The bushy-tailed, five-striped palm squirrel is commonly seen scurrying around gardens and town parks. These are often also the locations of the large trees in which Indian flying foxes (large fruit-eating bats) camp by the hundreds.
Mammals don’t just hide out in the forests and savannas. The biggest of all mammals are to be found in the waters off Sri Lanka. Blue whales, sperm whales, fin whales and Bryde's whales swim along migration corridors off the coast here. The seas off Mirissa and around neighbouring Dondra Head are perhaps the best place in the world to see blue whales. Various dolphins are usually encountered on whale-watching trips, including megapods of spinner dolphins.
Best Places for Elephants
- Uda Walawe National Park With around 500 elephants present year-round, this park offers the most reliable elephant-spotting in the country.
- Minneriya National Park Each August hundreds of elephants home in on this park in an elephant spectacle known as ‘the gathering’.
- Kaudulla National Park Over 250 elephants call this park home.
- Bundala National Park Consistent elephant sightings in a beautiful watery setting.
- Yala National Park Lots of elephants but can be surprisingly hard to see.
A tropical climate, long isolation from the Asian mainland and a diversity of habitats have helped endow Sri Lanka with an astonishing abundance of birdlife. Some 463 species have been recorded, 26 of which are unique to Sri Lanka; others are found only in Sri Lanka and adjacent South India. Of the 200 migrant species, most of which are in residence from August to April, the waders (sandpipers, plovers etc) are the long-distance champions, making the journey from their breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra.
Birders may wish to contact the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (http://fogsl.cmb.ac.lk), the national affiliate of Birdlife International.
Tips for Birdwatchers
- Visit a variety of habitats – rainforest, urban parks and bodies of water in the dry zone – to see the full diversity of birdlife in Sri Lanka.
- February to March is the best time for birdwatching. You miss the monsoons, and the migrant birds are still visiting.
- Waterbirds are active for most of the day.
- Although morning is always the best time to go birdwatching, in the evening you will see noisy flocks of birds preparing to roost.
- Consider taking a tour with a specialist if you’re keen to see the endemic species and achieve a healthy birdwatching tally, particularly if time is short.
Best Places For Birds
- Sinharaja Forest Reserve A slab of rainforest with around 160 bird species.
- Knuckles Range Little-known montane forests filled with hill-country and forest birds.
- Bundala National Park This wetland park is the classic Sri Lankan birdwatching destination.
- Kumana National Park Superb low-country birdwatching with around 150 species present.
- Muthurajawela Marsh Excellent wetland birding close to Colombo.
- Pottuvil Lagoon Numerous waders and waterbirds in this little-visited east-coast wetland.
Planning Your Safari
Where to Go
Where to go depends entirely on what you want to see and what kind of safari you want to take. For example Yala National Park in the far southeast is the most popular overall park and is fantastic for leopards, but it’s also very busy and can become something of a circus with minibuses chasing each other around in search of cats. If you want your leopard-spotting quieter (and less certain), try Wilpattu National Park.
National Parks & Reserves
More than 2000 years ago, enlightened royalty declared certain land areas off limits to any human activity. Almost every province in the ancient kingdom of Kandy had such udawattakelle (sanctuaries). All animals and plants in these reserves were left undisturbed.
Today’s system of parks and reserves is mostly an amalgamation of traditionally protected areas, reserves established by the British, and newly designated areas set aside for things like elephant corridors. There are more than 100 of these areas under government guard, covering approximately 8% of the island. They are divided into three types: strict nature reserves (no visitors allowed), national parks (visits under fixed conditions) and nature reserves (human habitation permitted). Sri Lanka also has two marine sanctuaries – the Bar Reef (west of Kalpitiya peninsula) and Hikkaduwa National Park – as well as dozens of protected island and coastal zones.
Major National Parks & Reserves
Bundala National Park
62.2 sq km
coastal lagoon, migratory birds, elephants
Best Time to Visit
Gal Oya National Park
629.4 sq km
grasslands, evergreen forest, deer, Senanayake Samudra (tank), elephants, sloth bears, leopards, water buffaloes
Best Time to Visit
Horton Plains National Park
31.6 sq km
Unesco World Heritage Site, montane forests, marshy grasslands, World’s End precipice, sambars
Best Time to Visit
Kaudulla National Park
66.6 sq km
Kaudulla Tank, evergreen forest, scrub jungle, grassy plains, elephants, leopards, sambars, fishing cats, sloth bears
Best Time to Visit
175 sq km
Unesco World Heritage Site, traditional villages, hiking trails, caves, waterfalls, montane pygmy forest, evergreen forest, riverine forest, grasslands, scrub, paddy fields, over 30 mammal species
Best Time to Visit
Kumana National Park
356.6 sq km
grasslands, jungle, lagoons, mangrove swamp, waterfowl
Best Time to Visit
Lunugamvehera National Park
235 sq km
grasslands, reservoir, elephants
Best Time to Visit
Minneriya National Park
88.9 sq km
Minneriya Tank, toque macaques, sambars, elephants, waterfowl
Best Time to Visit
Sinharaja Forest Reserve
189 sq km
Unesco World Heritage Site, sambars, rainforest, leopards, purple-faced langurs, barking deer, 147 recorded bird species
Best Time to Visit
Sri Pada Peak Wilderness Reserve
224 sq km
Unesco World Heritage Site, Adam’s Peak, hiking trails
Best Time to Visit
Uda Walawe National Park
308.2 sq km
grasslands, thorn scrub, elephants, spotted deer, water buffaloes, wild boar
Best Time to Visit
Wasgomuwa National Park
393.2 sq km
evergreen forest, hilly ridges, grassy plains, elephants, leopards, sloth bears
Best Time to Visit
Wilpattu National Park
1317 sq km
dry woodland, scrub, saltgrass, leopards, sloth bears, deer, crocodiles
Best Time to Visit
Yala National Park
141 sq km
tropical thorn forest, lagoons, leopards, elephants, sloth bears, water buffaloes, lesser flamingos
Best Time to Visit
Off the Beaten Track
A full 82% of Sri Lanka’s land is controlled by the state in some form or another, and is therefore subject to a raft of legislation to combat destructive activity and protect sensitive areas like the scores of natural forests. There are 63 sanctuaries in the country, a long list of forest reserves and countless wetlands both with and without official titles.
Given the overcrowding at some of the better-known natural areas, new attention has been directed to other deserving national parks, such as Lunugamvehera (which serves as a link between Yala and Uda Walawe National Parks, allowing elephants to pass freely between the two) as an alternative to Yala, and Wasgomuwa instead of Gal Oya or Minneriya.
Sri Lanka is a signatory to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, which currently recognises six zones in the country. These include Bundala National Park and the 915-hectare Madu Ganga Estuary near Balapitiya, 80km south of Colombo on the A2, site of one of the last pristine mangrove forests in Sri Lanka. There's also the Anawilundawa Wetland Sanctuary, just west of the A3 about 100km north of Colombo, a cluster of ancient, human-made, freshwater reservoirs that are now a safe haven for awesome wetland biodiversity.
For further listings of out-of-the-way green escapes, contact the government conservation departments or consult LOCALternative Sri Lanka (www.localternative.com).
Field Guides & Wildlife Books
There are plenty of good field guides out there. These are some of our favourites:
- A Photographic Guide to Mammals of Sri Lanka (Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne) This well-known Sri Lankan naturalist has also published extensively on the country’s birds and butterflies, among other things.
- A Selection of the Birds of Sri Lanka (John and Judy Banks) A slim, well-illustrated tome that’s perfect for amateur birdwatchers.
- A Field Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka (John Harrison) A pricier hardback with colour illustrations; one of the best field guides available.
- The Nature of Sri Lanka (L Nadaraja) With stunning photographs, this is a collection of essays about Sri Lanka by eminent writers and conservationists.
When to Go
Sri Lanka is a year-round wildlife-watching destination but generally the best times correspond with the main November-to-April tourist season. At this time of year all the big parks are open and the dry conditions mean that animals start to gather around water holes, making them easier to spot (this is especially so between February and early April). If you come in the May-to-October southwest monsoon season, head to the parks around the Ancient Cities and in the east of the island.
How to Book
For all the major national parks and other protected areas, organising a safari couldn’t be easier. Groups of safari jeep drivers can normally be found in the nearest town or gathered outside the gates, and hotels can also organise safaris. It’s normally just a case of turning up the evening before and discussing a price and your needs. Entry fees to all parks are paid directly at entrance gates.
At extremely busy parks such as Yala it pays to plan ahead. One good local operator based in nearby Tissamaharama is Ajith Safari Jeep Tours.