Before it became Sri Lanka, this island next to India was officially called Ceylon. Most however call it the jewel of the Indian Ocean and for you it should simply be your next travel destination.
Because Sri Lanka is worth all efforts spent to get there and it jumped right into my Top 5 List of favorite countries.
Most travelers first land in Negombo, the main airport of the country just an hour north of Colombo. The famous and most beautiful beaches lie in the south. For hiking, tea plantations and more culture head in land towards Ella and Kandy. That is also where nature parks offer amazing Safaris. The north of the country, the Tamil part, is relatively off the beaten track. So make this your destination for a less touristy experience. On this trip we will however venture south to Hikkaduwa, then to Ella and Kandy and back to Colombo. The perfect Singhalese circle.
Make sure to get a local sim card at the airport to be able to connect everywhere. Very useful when being lost and in need of a quick update of the sights in your area. A 30-day package with some minutes and 3GB cost us 8 USD. Next take a Taxi or your pre-arranged pick up to Colombo downtown, it shouldn’t cost more than 2500 Rupees, that’s 13 Euros.
We had booked a small room on airbnb for 15Euros close to the Colombo City Center, a nice mall next to a small lake. Try your first amazing Kottu in this mall. It is the Singhalese version of fried rice but instead of rice they cut up rotis and fry it. Stroll through this old neighborhood and visit the big Gangaramaya Temple. We were amazed how much there is to see once you go inside. Unfortunately we just missed the Perehere festival that takes place every year in November. Still dreaming of the delicious meal we had the bed was comfortable enough to send us quickly into a deep sleep. But boy, were we in for a surprise. The food we had on this trip just kept getting better and better. Colombo doesn’t have the best reputation as a fun place to be and we didn’t want to take the time to find that out for ourselves. It was time to move on.
The first real highlight waiting for us was Hikkaduwa, a famous surfer beach in the south. Apparently, Tony Wheeler, the founder of the Lonely Planet, called it his favorite beach in the 1970’s. So we woke with great excitement and headed to the train station. Buying tickets in Sri Lanka is real easy. Just bring enough cash and know where you are going. Only during public holidays should you book in advance. The ticket cost us 1 Euro each for a 2 hour ride.
There are three fantastic things about riding the train in Sri Lanka. First, the open doors where you can stand and lean outside while taking great photos. Remember to jump back in time before a sign or a tree rips your head off. Then there are the locals who keep smiling at all the tourists taking pictures and will also teach you easy Singhalese if you ask them. And last but not least, the many vendors crying out what they offer and then stopping right in front of your nose with fresh fruits, drinks and home made snacks. We especially liked Wade, a cornflower cake filled with bean porridge. When a bit spicy it is the perfect snack.
Another great thing that happened to us on the train was meeting Ranjit. He approached us with a big smile and asked where we were from. Surprisingly many people I met in Sri Lanka had at some point worked in Germany. Also Ranjit and so we conversed a bit in German and told him of our further plans for this trip. As usual we hadn’t arranged our next accomodation, so meeting this friendly local was a blessing. Together with his wife Pushpa he runs a very small but cozy homestay in Hikkaduwa, just 10 minutes from the beach. We were a bit sceptical at first. Of course you shouldn’t trust every stranger you meet on the street but then again I had great experiences with such encounters in the past.
We had nothing to lose by checking out the place. So in the tuktuk we went riding to his house straight from the train station. Basic but very friendly best describes what we found after a short ride. You walk through a lush garden first before entering the house where Pushpa already awaits you with fresh Ceylon Tea. Our room was clean and spacious and the price unbeatable for just 1500 Rupees. What a great decision it was to stay.
But first it was time to explore Hikkaduwa. There are several fun things to do and usually just a cheap tuktuk ride away. The biggest attraction is definitely the beach. You will find comfortable lounge chairs, hammocks, vendors selling fresh coconuts, other snacks and souvenirs. The sand feels very fine under your feet too. Once in the water it is like entering a warm bath with waves perfect for surfing. Especially beginners will have lots of fun here, boards and lessons can be arranged on the beach. Our highlight however were the big green turtles which came all the way to the shoreline to feed on seaweed. They seemed completely comfortable among humans, even eating out of our hands. A group of around 10 turtles usually hangs out at the corner just behind the luxurious Hikka Tranz by Cinnamon resort.
Only 15 minutes away from Hikkaduwa there is a turtle hatchery where you can help bringing the baby turtles into the sea. Travel agencies will also try to sell tours to the spice gardens and tea plantations to you. Those ones I would avoid as there will be a much better chance to see both later in Ella and Kandy.
But do not miss out on the chance to see Blue Whales. Book your tour with any of the agencies along the main road as it will be the same package with all of them. We paid 30 $ each to have a taxi bring us to Mirissa, 1 hour south of Hikkaduwa. You will leave at 6am to catch the big boat 2 hours later. Most travelers will arrive at the pier and by 8 am up to 6 boats filled with close to 80 people each leave to go on whale safari. We found it definitely an amazing experience but you should know this before: The whales come up for around 20 seconds to take deep breaths before they dive down. Then they stay there for another 10 minutes until it is time to surface again. Racing across the water will be 5 or 6 big boats and it is difficult to truly get a good shot of those huge animals. But to see them actually with your own eyes is magnificent no matter what.
Just beware of fake offers where the guides will take you on a little fishing boat, drive out for 20 minutes until there is no one else around. Then they try to rob you. Only board the big boats that are obviously safari boats with many other travelers on them. Also on the way back ask your taxi driver to stop at the famous coconut swing, see my photo above. That was pretty cool to do!
Back at our home stay, here comes the amazing thing about it: Pushpa is an incredible cook. She offered to prepare a traditional meal with only local ingredients for us. Most actually came from her own garden and we really tasted the freshness. She wanted to know ahead of time when we would be ready for dinner as she planned to cook for a whole crazy 3 hours.
So happy we waited. That meal was one of the best I have eaten in my entire life. No doubt about it. We washed our hands and dove right in, no cutlery needed. Just local style. It was mouth watering. The rice was not only rice, it was perfectly cooked in coconut milk with cinnamon. Then there was grilled chicken and 5 different side dishes, mostly curries. Each one better than the other. Most of the leaves and plants I had never seen before but all blended perfectly with the rice, the sauce, the chicken to a little taste of heaven. And what a fun it was to use our hands, mashing around and feeling the food with all senses.
Obviously, we had ordered dinner a la Pushpa also for the next day, this time with fish. We recorded it, too, to try later at home. This 7 star meal cost us only 4 $ each but the experience was priceless and we left the old couple a nice tip after our stay.
Sri Lanka quickly climbed the ladder of my favorite countries and we hadn’t even seen all yet.
Going to Ella
The next day we took in total 2 buses and a tuktuk to make our way to Ella. In Hikkaduwa, you have to catch the bus to Matara first, just along the main road. The first trip takes roughly 3 hours and costs 150 rupees. From Matara the next bus will take you to Wellawaya for again less than 200 rupees. In Matara you can also take a taxi all the way to Ella for around 30$, from Hikkaduwa it would be 50$.
We did it the long way so in Wellawaya it was time for a tuktuk. We found a friendly guy who drove us for 1500 rupees and also stopped at a gorgeous waterfall along the way for some picture taking and fresh mangoes.
Ella is a small town with one main road along which most hotels and restaurants lie. At an altitude of 1100m it feels much fresher than down by the sea, but we welcomed this change in climate. It does however get hot enough under the sun at noon.
The highlights of Ella are mostly spread out in the surrounding hills. We decided to hike up to Ella Rock and then later see the Nine Arches Bridge.
10 hours later and dog tired we were back in our hotel and waiting for another delicious home cooked meal. That one turned out to be my second favorite meal in Sri Lanka, so just stay in local home stays and avoid the big hotels for the best food experiences. In Ella we stayed in the Rustle Hill Home Stay, you can book it here
To reach this grand vista spot you should wake up early. We only left at 10 am so most of the hike was done in the midday heat. Whenever you go, just bring enough water and some snacks but don’t overload as there are plenty of vendors selling all kinds of things on the way.
First you should go to the train station in Ella and once on the tracks, turn left. A short cut can be found behind the Matey Hut, Tripadvisor’s Number 1 restaurant in Ella. Again, you will see the railway tracks and should turn left. Follow it to Kita Ella train station and then a bit further. It will be around 2 km before you see a little path making a sharp left turn away from the tracks. Locals and fellow backpackers will let you know exactly where it is.
Follow this path through some bushy vegetation, tea plantations and past local houses. Ask everybody you meet if you’re still on the right path to avoid venturing into private gardens and hefty detours. Above the tea plantations the vegetation clears a bit and opens into a beautiful forest. You have already some nice views from here but suddenly the hike gets quite challenging. We took a few breaks and saw colorful lizards. Anyways, the peak is the goal and that is where we reached after a total of 2 hours. The view is breathtaking, the experience getting only better with a freshly made mango juice in our hands. You are in Sri Lanka so of course local ladies were up there and selling them for 1$ each. Enjoy the view also towards the other side where a big Buddha statue is sleeping.
It was time to go down again. The big lunch at the Matey Hut was well deserved and perfect in taste. Since we had just one full day in Ella, we left the curry and continued on.
The Nine Arches Bridge
Back on the tracks head to the right. After less than 2km there comes a tunnel which leads you straight onto the bridge. It is truly an impressive sight and we spent a full hour walking around, trying to catch monkeys and shooting photos. Back to the hotel by tuktuk for 500 rupees seemed fair enough and our legs thanked us. You can also take a tuktuk from Ella to the bridge but walking on the railway tracks is just really a cool experience.
Our day in Ella was perfect all around. Great hike, great views and last but not least great meals again.
Ella to Kandy
As strange as it sounds, one of the main highlights of Ella is actually leaving this town. And just because the train ride to Ella is considered one of the most scenic ones in the world. We bought our ticket, cheap as usual for 300 Rupees, on the day we left and had no problems. There were however many other travelers on the train but you will find a good seat without any issues as both sides offer great views.
In Kandy we spent a few days and had a great time. It is definitely one of the highlights in Sri Lanka and made me write a whole article just about that city and the Top 10 Things to Do there.
From Kandy it was only another bus ride of 3 hours back to Negombo where we spent the last night before our flight left again. This trip was without a doubt one of the best I’ve had so pack your bags and head to Sri Lanka!
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