Sri Lanka, a gem on the Indian Ocean was a long time dream destination for Quan. Jesse was less convinced as it was a far departure from our usual off the beaten track itineraries like the Pamir Highway, the Gobi Desert, and the untamed Wild section of the Great Wall of China.
Happily, we found that we were both charmed by the verdant landscape of rolling tea plantations, the delicious local cuisine, and the surprisingly intimate access to the abundant wildlife that call Sri Lanka home.
Here is our 9 day Itinerary, Sri Lanka on speed, stuffed full of hidden gems on quiet hilltops, epic safari rides, and the iconic must do/ must see list of Sri Lanka landmarks. We’ve also put together our “redo itinerary” how we would plan our trip knowing what we know now.
Logistics for Transportation
There is endless public transportation options to bring you to every point of the country: public buses, a train system built by the British to transport tea across the country, and cheap tuk tuks for shorter distances. While cheap and abundant, these forms of transportation also require time which we were short on given our bucket list. As we only had 9 days and 8 nights we opted for private transportation. After much research we decided to work with Ceylon Escapes who have the best reviews on Trip Advisor. We were very happy with our pick and were able to negotiate a discounted rate of $55 USD / day which included the car, gas, and a driver who also acted as a guide. In the US, $55 USD would only get us a car rental! Not included in this cost is the tip for the driver. We were also given unlimited mileage on our trip. Our research showed that average rental cost is about $60 per day with additional costs for extra mileage.
Hiring a car and driver is the best way to see a lot of the country and reach remote areas. We’ve had friends who had bad experiences with their driver in Sri Lanka. Here are some tips for traveling with a private driver in Sri Lanka:
- Know your itinerary and confirm that cost estimates cover the mileage required for your plans
- Confirm any additional costs including gas, parking, mileage, and driver accommodations. Most places provide accommodations for the driver but some do not. Have a clear understanding with the company if you will be responsible for the extra cost should this occur.
- Research and book your own accommodation. We found Trip Advisor very useful and found some great gems for our stay.
- Take and appreciate advice from your driver, but be clear on what YOU want for YOUR TRIP. Your driver will always have recommendations for a special tea plantation/ ayurveda oil farm / safari / whale watching tour that you HAVE to try. The reality of tourism is that these recommendations are often linked to kick backs. We have heard from other friends who spent hours visiting these types of places at the request of their driver and ended up wishing they had said “No” more often. We received very valuable ideas from our driver for diversions that we added to our itinerary, but we’re very firm and unapologetic at turning down suggestions he made that did not suit our interests.
Monsoon Season Travel
We traveled to Sri Lanka in November, during the monsoon season, we knew rains would be likely but also looked forward to visiting some of the iconic sites during a time when relatively few tourists come. We are fans of shoulder season travel as it’s generally lower prices and less crowds!
Here is our original itinerary which includes mountain hikes, tea plantations, safaris, the iconic train ride to Ella, and some time at the beach (a risky move during monsoon season).
9 Day Sri Lanka Monsoon Season Itinerary
Day One: Arrival to Colombo & Transfer to Sigiriya
Day Two: Visit Lion Rock, Drive to Kandy
Day Three: Kandy – Udawattakele Nature Walk, Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Drive to Adam’s Peak
Day Four: Summit Adam’s Peak, Drive to Nuwara Eliya, Train to Ella
Day Five: Ella & Little Adam’s Peak, Drive to Udawale
Day Six: Udawale Safari
Day Seven: Yala Safari & Drive to Mirissa
Day Eight: Mirissa
Day Nine: Morning in Mirissa, Transport to Airport
Below we will summarize each day, but first we’d like to share our “Do-over” itinerary. Based on our own experience and interests we would cut Kandy, Adam’s Peak, and potentially Mirissa (during monsoon season) and add more time to Sigiriya, Ella, and the National Parks because we found these places to be the least crowded and gave us the most access to nature (which is our wheelhouse).
9 Day Sri Lanka “Do-Over” Itinerary
Day One: Arrival & Transfer to Sigiriya
Day Two: Visit Lion Rock first thing in the morning and then spend the rest of the day in Sigiriya. This town looked perfect for long bike rides and lazy days reading on a balcony overlooking a lush forest of palm trees. We were told elephants are abundant here and sitings are not unusual. We wished we stayed longer.
Day Three: Drive to Nuwara Eliya visiting Temples & tea plantations along the way
Day Four: Train to Ella from Nuwara Eliya
Day Five: Ella: Hike Ella Rock, Little Adam’s Peak. Relax in a hammock and watch wild life in the jungle
Day Six: Udawale Safari
Day Seven: Yala Safari
Day Eight: Colombo – the beaches in Sri Lanka are not to be missed, but is a risky gamble during monsoon season. In retrospect we should’ve spent our last two days exploring Colombo
Day Nine: Colombo, Transport to Airport
If you happen to have more time in Sri Lanka here is a great two week itinerary from our friends at Passport Therapy.