YALA NATIONAL PARK
Yala National Park is one of the largest and most popular parks in Sri Lanka. It owes its fame to the fact that it has one of the most numerous leopard populations per square kilometer in the world. The reserve borders the Indian Ocean on its southern and eastern sides, and is home to over 250 species of birds and mammals. The park is less than a four-hour drive from the national capital, Colombo. The reserve can only be traveled by off-road vehicle (in the form of a so-called safari), and for a surcharge, you can hire a guide to tell you about this wonderful place in English.
Yala National Park was established on March 1, 1938, and is probably the most popular and visited national park in Sri Lanka. The park is divided into five blocks covering some 979 square kilometers. These stretch from the inland jungle to the beaches on the Indian Ocean. The 37-kilometer coastline that forms the park’s southern border is the nesting place for five species of turtles. The constantly changing dunes can reach heights of up to 25 meters. Yala consists mainly of metamorphic rocks with reddish-brown and gray soil that covers most of the area. The vast terrain consists of shrublands, riverine forests, moist, dry monsoon forests, thorn forests, and sweet and brackish wetlands. The park is located in a dry and semi-dry region with rainfall occurring mainly during the monsoon season falling in October-December. This is when the local vegetation begins to “revive” and take on color. The Yala Reserve is one of the best places in the world to observe leopards. Between 40 and 70 individuals live here (data depending on the source).
Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in the world the population every day has a contact with wild animals. Often can to see elephants crossing the road or sneaking into a hotel lobby. There are more than 20 national parks on the island, but what sets Yale Park feature from others is the wide variety of animals. The variety of birds, mammals, and reptiles is unparalleled on the island.
During the safari, we travel in a specially adapted jeep. The rear of the vehicle, where we sit, is raised and only partially enclosed, which provides a better view. In addition, those sitting in the front can undraw the windshield, which provides the opportunity to take nicer photos. During the trip, you must not leave the car. Many animals are in the distance and are difficult to see with the naked eye, so it’s a good idea to carry binoculars. Jeeps are allowed to enter Yala National Park twice a day; at 6 in the morning and at 2 in the afternoon. According to rangers, there is no ideal time frame for observing animals, but it is worth bearing in mind that in the morning it is the birds that are more active while in the evening it is the mammals. At noon, due to high temperatures, animals hide deep into the jungle from the sun. The Yala tour lasts about 4 hours or a full day, depending on which option one chooses. A guide in the park is not required, but drivers usually speak little or no English. The guide is very useful for spotting animals, selecting the best route and explaining how the circle of life in the reserve works. This will give you a better understanding of the behavior of the local animals and allow you to ask questions about the park.
The park has three ticket offices and four entrance gates. The busiest and southernmost gate is Palatupana, which stands on the southwestern border of Block I, about 20 kilometers from Tissamaharama. Less popular, but also well-known, Katagamuwa Gate stands 12 km east of Kataragama on the northwestern edge of Block I. No public transportation operates to either gate. If you don’t have private transportation, you’ll have to buy a trip to the park from one of the local hotels or tour operators based in Tissamaharama. Tickets can be purchased at both gates. The Galge ticket office, which opened in 2016, is located on the east side of Buttala Road, on the border of Blocks III and IV, 18 km north of Kataragama. It serves two separate gates on opposite sides of the main road. The eastern gate offers direct access to Block III and Block IV. Whereas the western, offers access to Block V, as well as indirect access (through Block V) to the more easterly Lunugamwehera National Park. Any bus that runs between Kataragama and Buttala can drop you off at the Galge ticket office, and you can usually pick up a jeep on-site, although just as well (and inexpensively) it can do in Kataragama.
Yala National Park is located in the southeastern part of Sri Lanka, about 290 kilometers from the capital, Colombo. The reserve is located along the southeast coast and borders the waters of the Indian Ocean. Some of Sri Lanka’s best surfing, swimming, and diving conditions occur here. Less than 13 kilometers offshore are the two coral reefs of Great Basses and Little Basses, as well as the two lighthouses of Maha Ravana, and Kuda Ravana.
Maha Ravana Lighthouse got its name from the caves found in the local area on the seabed. The reef area was above the surface of the water and was “attached” to the rest of the island, and the caves served as a hideout for the ancient king, Ravana. After the sea level rose, these areas were flooded. Now there are lighthouses on top of both Great Basses and Little Basses reefs. There are three shipwrecks around the lighthouse on Great Basses. Both reefs abound with a large variety of fish and coral. Both sites can be reached from the town of Kirinda, from near the Jetwing Yala Hotel.
And what is the history of shipwrecks? The entire southeastern coast of Sri Lanka was once located on the shipping route to China and India. Navigation in the local waters was difficult and ships often stranded on the local reefs. The three wrecks located near the Maha Ravana lighthouse are of Indian, British and Portuguese origin. Diving there, you can find many interesting things – from British shells or beer bottles, to pieces of old ship decorations, and coins. It is worth mentioning that in the Indian ship that belonged to Moghul emperor Aurangzeb, there were probably only silver rupees that the ruler wanted to pay for the marble from which the Taj Mahal was built in the early 17th century. Arthur C Clarke (British novelist and science fiction writer) searched for this vessel and found it in 1961, extracting a significant portion of the valuables.
WHAT ARE “BLOCKS”?
Blocks are differently “areas.” Some of them have their names. Block 1, also known as “Ruhuna National Park,” is the most visited. It has 146 square kilometers and there most tourists go. Due to its popularity, many of the animals in Block 1 are more accustomed to cars, making them less frightened and not run away. In that is easier to spot, including elephants and leopards here. A full-day drive around Block 1 also gives you time to explore the relatively untouched area around the Menik River. Almost all safaris take place in Block 1, which is characterized by a high density of wildlife and an abundant scattering of natural watering holes and artificial reservoirs that were built by the ancient Ruhuna kings. In the area of Block 1, it is possible to obtain previous permission to cross the Menik River by bridge to the little-visited Block 2, which has a 35-kilometer coastline and is dotted with streams, lagoons and restored water reservoirs. Blocks 3 and 5 are quieter and there is less traffic, which gives the impression of a more “private safari”. However, the animals are more wary of humans. Block 5’s area is only 26 square kilometers, but it’s where you’ll find some of the most multiple clusters of waterfowl on the island. Block 5 borders the even less-visited Lunugamwehera National Park, a 245-kilometer area of dense forests centered around the eponymous tank where nearly 185 species of birds live. To the east, Yale Park borders Kumana National Park, which was once known as “Yala East” and can be accessed from the town of Arugum Bay. Kumana has many wetland tracts, which attract many migrating birds between April and July. Blocks 3 and 4 are covered with dense vegetation, which can make that we won’t see animals.
ANIMALS AND PLANTS
In a park can meet a many various of animals, especially birds and mammals. Here live the famous leopards, elephants (about 250 – 350 individuals data depending on the source), Asian buffalo, the chital, varanus, Sambar deer, crocodiles, peccaries, sloth bear and numerous species of monkeys. It is also an excellent place for bird watching. Among the trees, you can spot magnificent, colorful peacocks, parrots, eagles, herons, birds of the trogon (genus), or pelicans.
Some of the more popular local trees are the tamarind and the tamanu tree.
PRICE LIST AND OPENING HOURS
Currently, (2023) tourists have 5 tour options to choose from (names in parentheses are the names of gates on-premises park):
Block 1 (Palatupana) – Half day from 5:00 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. or from 3:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. – 45 USD
Block 1 (Palatupana) – Full day from 5:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. – 75 USD
Block 1 (Katagamuwa) – Half day from 5:00 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. or from 3:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. – 50 USD
Block 1 (Katagamuwa) – Full day from 5:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. – 85 USD
Blocks 4 and 5 (Galge) – All day from 5:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. – 50 USD
Blocks 4 and 5 (Galge) – All day from 5:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. – 80 USD
Regarding the above prices, one must bear in mind:
* The price quoted is for the fee per person when renting a full jeep, i.e., 6 people. The fewer people in the group, the higher the price will be.
* The rates quoted are for Mahindra/Tata off-road vehicles.
* An additional surcharge of 10 USD will be added for a Toyota or Mitsubishi brand car.
* The duration of the safari may vary depending on weather conditions.
* The above-mentioned rates do not include park entrance tickets, which must be purchased at the gate. Ticket price for an adult is about 15 USD, children over 6 years old about 8 USD, and under 6 years old admission is free.
* The above-mentioned rates include pickup from hotels within the city of Tissamaharama.
* No refunds are available after booking.
It is best to buy tickets a few weeks before you plan to visit Yala Park. This will give us the assurance that when we arrive in Sri Lanka, we will also visit this place. Because of the large number of tourists, it is virtually impossible to buy a ticket to the reserve overnight. You can do it through the official website, which you can find here. Booking depends on filling out and sending a form, selecting the block which we want to visit and determining whether we choose a full-day tour or a half-day tour. We will then be contacted by the person responsible for reservations at Yala and receive a pro forma invoice. After online payment, our tour is confirmed.
The park additionally offers a free transportation service from the Tissamaharama area to the reserve. It is also possible to be picked up from other nearby towns, but in this case, one should to inquire about the pricing of such transportation via the official website or email firstname.lastname@example.org
The opening hours of the Yala National Park are 6:00 am – 6:00 pm.
WHERE TO STAY?
Below is a list of several recommended accommodations near Yala Park:
Janaka Safari Homestay – offers accommodation in tree houses, which is certainly an interesting attraction for tourists.
Leopard Nest – Glamping in Yala – one of the most expensive and luxurious hotels near the reserve.
Cinnamon Wild – a resort located near the jungle, whereby at night certainly can to experience the sounds of wildlife. Virtually every room has a balcony and a view of the jungle or ocean.
Wild coast tented lodge – luxury accommodations with a pool on the park’s border.
Chena Huts by Uga Escapes – an all-inclusive hotel with own pool.
Jetwing Yala – this is an excellent group hotel in Sri Lanka and is located near the coast.
Avonil Resort Yala – a reasonably inexpensive lodging with a pool and a little distance from Yala National Park.
LakeSide Cabana Tissamharama – wooden lodges with a playground for children.
Yala Hotel Lion – air-conditioned cheap hotel.
WHAT TO TAKE WITH YOU
There are no stores or restaurants in Yala National Park, so be sure to take provisions and plenty of water with you. Be sure to take a garbage bag, which you can then put in your backpack.
Of course, remember to take binoculars with you, as well as a camera 😊.
If you want to avoid getting burned, you need to pack sunscreen in your backpack. It will also be a good idea to take repellent (insect repellent) with you.
TEMPLES IN THE PARK
In the northwestern part of Block 1, is the ancient Situlpawwa Buddhist monastery, which was founded in the 2nd century BC by Kavan Tissa. Legend says that it housed more than 10,000 Arahant monks in its heyday, when it was surrounded by productive agricultural land irrigated by a system of local reservoirs. They were created during the Ruhuna Kingdom in the 1st century BC, and their names are Buttuwa, Gonagala, Bambawa and Banduwewa.
The site is visited in early June every year by pilgrims, of which the number is in the tens of thousands. They come for an annual festival organized by Sri Lankan Buddhists to celebrate the arrival of Buddhism on the island in the 3rd century BC, and the name of the festival is Poson or Poson Poya. The complex consists of more than a hundred caves surrounded by jungle and topped by dagobas (A dagoba is a type of Buddhist, less commonly Jain, originated in India. Due to its architecture, it is extremely resistant to earthquakes. In Sri Lanka this type of building is called dagoba, in Thailand – chedi, in Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet – chorten, in Mongolia – suburgan).
The complex was increasingly neglected over time, and the monastery and surrounding grounds were abandoned around 1300 AD after a prolonged and devastating drought, which caused the starvation deaths of hundreds of monks. For lovers of ancient paintings, in one of the caves preserves a few paintings from the Anuradhapura era. The monastery is located less than 5 km from Katagamuwa Gate. Although the temple is surrounded by a national park, you don’t have to pay an entrance fee to see it.
Another former monastery within the reserve is Magul Maha Viharaya.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT YALA NATIONAL PARK
If we care to observe the local mammals, the best time is between February and June, when the dry season falls on this time. Then the animals have to go out of the jungle more often into water reservoirs, which are largely dried up anyway. This gives you a chance to spot the animals in more open, unplanned areas. The best period for leopard sightings is from February to April. Keep in mind, that this is the period when there are the most tourists, so be prepared for quite a crowd of people.
On the other hand, if you want to avoid the crowds of tourists and want to observe migratory birds, the best time for this is between November and January.
In September, Yala National Park is closed due to maintenance work. However, most rain falls during the monsoon, which lasts from October to late December.
HOW TO REACH THERE
There are 4 international airports in Sri Lanka: Colombo Airport, which services the largest number of passenger airlines from other countries, Jaffna, Batticaloa and Mattala. The closest to the park of them all is Mattala Airport, but nothing stands in the way to trying to get from any other state-run airport to the Weerawila Airport, which services small planes and helicopters. The distance between Weerawila and Tissamaharama is 10 kilometers, and you can reach there by bus.
There are fine bus services between Ella – Tissamaharama where the ticket costs about 70 cents per person and the trip takes less than 3 hours. And between Mirissa – Matara – Tissamaharama where the ticket price is about 1 euro per person and the trip takes less than 4 hours (prices for 2023). It is best to ask the driver whether he is going to Tissamaharama or Yala National Park, or write on a piece of paper and show him. After arriving at the Tissamaharama Bus Stand, it is worth looking for a tuk tuk to take you to your hotel. Going from Ella village, you can also get off at the bus station at Pannegamuwa Junction.
You can also use private transportation, which can be arranged for us by &BEYOND in Sri Lanka (Address: Postal & Physical Address: No. 303/3A, R A De Mel Mawatha Colombo 03, phone: +94 778 327 144)
When arriving at the island, it is necessary to obtain a visa. This can be done through the Electronic Travel Authorization via www.eta.gov.lk. Those who arrive at the airport without a visa will be able to obtain it at the airport, But it entails higher costs and a one- or two-hour waiting time for visa collection.
While in the park, let’s not shout or leave the vehicle.
We do not dress in bright colors. Instead, we choose earth tones or greens.
When going on a full-day safari, let’s make sure we have charged batteries for our camera.
Afternoon safaris in Yala are a bit calmer than the morning trips (fewer tourists) and leopards, as well as other wildlife, are more active at this time (due to lower temperatures).
Official website of Yala National Park
Site where you can make reservations.
Safari tours to Yala National Park
Other hotels near Yala reserve
About 40 minutes into the Indian Ocean from Kirinda Beach, you can see dolphins and humpback whales.
The cost of a boat trip to Great Basses Reef is about SLR 12,000, that’s approximately US$36 (2018 price).
Shipwrecks are located at a depth of only 15–20 meters, and on sunny days you can even see them without diving.
Companies such as National Geographic and the BBC have often come to this place to film leopard life in the local jungle.
Very occasionally in the park, you may encounter members of the Vedda tribe. This is a people who number it is about 400 and live in the southeastern part of the island. The population subsists on foraging, hunting and cultivation of the land. The community has been under protection since 1900.
Sri Lanka is certainly an island that is one of a kind. There is no lack of attractions for lovers of nature, history, culture, or architecture. The place that combines all these features is undoubtedly Yala National Park. Here you can observe animals such as leopards, elephants and sloth bears, admire ancient temples and learn about the history of the largest and most popular park on the entire island. Staying overnight in one of the hotels in Tissamaharama, we will not only have close contact with nature, but also with the local culture and customs of the Sri Lanka residents.
Author Patty Ho, source flickr.
Author Byrdyak, source commons.wikimedia.org.
Author Rohit Varma, source Unsplash.