Yala or Udawalawe for your Safari in Sri Lanka?

Yala or Udawalawe for your Safari in Sri Lanka?

A safari is usually associated with the savannahs and national parks of East Africa. But Sri Lanka has many national parks with a variety of wildlife to rival the safaris of Kenya and Tanzania.

Spotting Bambi on our Sri Lankan safari

Spotting Bambi on our Sri Lankan safaris at Yala and Udawalawe National Parks

The most popular national parks for a safari in Sri Lanka are Yala National Park in the south east, Wilpattu in the north west and Udawalawe in the south.

Map of Sri Lanka's popular national parks

Map of Sri Lanka’s popular national parks

We wanted to do a safari in Sri Lanka but at first found it very hard to pick the best national park. We eventually booked a 3 days safari, which included visits to both Yala and Udawalawe. We decided to share our experience of visiting these two parks to help you decide where to go.

YALA AND UDAWALAWE NATIONAL PARKS

Crowded Yala National park

Yala National Park was one of the first national parks of Sri Lanka, opened in 1938 and the most popular. It covers an area of 979 square km (378 square miles) and has a large variety of birds and 44 different types of mammals. It is one of the most famous places in the word to spot leopards in the wild.

Elephant Rock at Yala National Park

Deer by the beautiful Elephant Rock of Yala National Park

Yala’s popularity however is its downfall in our opinion as it got too crowded. It is not uncommon to see hundreds of Jeeps queuing in the park to see the animals.

Small Udawalawe

Udawalawe on the other hand is smaller, a third of the size of Yala, covering 308 square km / 119 square miles and far less busy. Nonetheless, given its smaller size, it has a greater density of animal to size ratio, particularly elephants.

Family of elephants close up at Udawalawe

Getting close to this cute family of elephants at Udawalawe National Park

COSTS OF VISITING YALA OR UDAWALAWE

If you wish to visit the parks independently, you will need to pay for your entry fees, as well as hiring a safari Jeep before hand or once you arrive at the park. In both cases, a “tracker guide” will be assigned to you,who expects a tip at then end (whether he does a good job or not).

Entry fees for Yala National Park

The park entry ticket in Yala National Park for foreigners is $15 for one day or $30 for two days. On top of that, hiring a Jeep in Yala for half a day will cost you around 4000-4,500 Sri Lankan Rupees (£20-22 / $30-34).

If you want a luxury Jeep with levelled seats, you can pay up to 6,500 rupees ($45).

Entry fees for Udawalawe National Park

In Udawalawe, the park entry fees are the same: $15 for one day or $30 for two days. However, hiring a jeep for half a day should be a bit cheaper, around 3,500 rupees ($24 / £16).

A safari Jeep will fit around 4-8 people (depending on the size of the vehicle), so when you share the cost between the number of people, it is not so expensive.

Water buffaloes at Udawalawe

Water buffaloes bathing at Udawalawe National Park

ANIMALS OF YALA AND UDAWALAWE

Yala is famous for its variety of animals and Udawalawe for its elephants. Both have leopards but Yala is more popular and crowded. With hindsight we found it much easier and more enjoyable spotting animals at Udawalawe then Yala.

This peacock and elephant posed for us

Admiring this peacock and elephant who posed for us

#1 THE JEEPS (!)

Well ok, the jeeps were not really one of our favourites and neither are they animals.

But at Yala, this is the most common site you will see. As the most visited national park, this is its major downside: many many many jeeps everywhere.

This was not the case at Udawalawe at all, which is far less touristy.

Spot the jeep(!)

Spot the jeep(!) one of the annoyances of a safari at Yala

#2 LEOPARDS

Ahhhh the leopards! The main reason why most people do a safari in Sri Lanka.

Leopard spotting is the big game at the parks. Unfortunately, leopards are very hard to spot because they are solitary and elusive mammals, hunting at night and sleeping during the day. We got very lucky though in both parks, particularly when we saw leopards playing at Udawalawe.

Yala is famous for having the highest density of leopards in the world (around 20-40) and at one point we were very lucky to see this young leopard taking a rest on a tree branch.

A young leopard resting on a tree branch

We spotted this young leopard resting on a tree branch at Yala

At Udawalawe we spent an entire afternoon almost alone watching a leopard family playing.

Leopards playing at Udawalawe

Leopards playing at Udawalawe National Park

At Yala however, we had to fight with a whole bunch of other jeeps racing from all ends of the park for space to see the above young leopard sleeping peacefully in the tree. When you zoom out of the above photo, you get a taster of the jeep Disneyland feeling of Yala:

#3 ELEPHANTS

We love elephants. They seem so peaceful and just want to munch as much food as possible. Yet threaten them or their young, and these 3000kg bad boys will simply flatten you!

Male elephant with tusks at Yala

Spotting a male elephant with tusks at Yala National Park

Udawalawe is well known for its elephants because they are attracted to the Udawalawe reservoir. Yala has many waterholes and rock pools capable of containing water year-round, hence an important source of water for elephants.

Beautiful pond at Yala National Park

Water sources at both parks are capable of sustaining a large herd of elephants, hence their appeal to elephants

There are around 250 elephants at Udawalawe compared to around 300-350 at Yala. But as a smaller park, you have better chances of seeing the elephants close up at Udawalawe compared to Yala.

Happy elephant munching away at Udawalawe

We enjoyed watching this happy elephant munching away at Udawalawe National Park

#4 PEACOCKS

Both parks are a heaven for bird watchers, particularly for peacocks.

The proud peacock on display

The proud peacock on display and getting in the way of the jeeps!

You won’t get bored of peacocks at either park. They’re everywhere and they don’t just erect their feathers to court the peahens either – they’ll do it to anyone who’ll stop to notice:

The peacocks made us smile as they seem quite useless animals. They prefer to crawl on the ground rather then fly away. And if they do fly, it’s only up a few metres in a tree to sit for hours making their “pia-ow” sound all day long.

Yet the peacocks and their distinctive sound adds to the beautiful and peaceful atmosphere of both parks.

Peacock in the tree at Udawalawe

Peacock in the tree overlooking the peaceful scenery of Udawalawe National Park

SO WHO WINS: YALA OR UDAWALAWE?

We loved our safari experiences at both Yala and Udawalawe. The scenery at both, along with the wildlife we saw made them particularly memorable.

Water buffaloes bathing at Udawalawe

Water buffaloes bathing at Udawalawe National Park

However, we preferred our safari at Udawalawe. Yala is too touristy and the large number of jeeps everywhere makes it feel crowded at times. Udawalawe is smaller and not as busy, so you are not competing with jeeps for space to spot and admire the animals.

Udawalawe has less dense vegetation then Yala, which makes it is better for spotting the animals. And, even though Udawalawe is a third of the size of Yala, the percentage of animals to space is far higher, increasing your chances of seeing more animals.

Elephant at Yala munching through the dense vegetation

The dense vegetation at Yala may be bad for animal spotting but great for grazing elephants

So for us, Udawalawe wins.

WHICH TOUR COMPANY FOR YOUR SAFARI

Most people (like us) will prefer let someone else arrange the safari for them. But whichever park you decide to visit, we cannot recommend enough the importance of going with a good and experienced company.

When it comes to organising your safari, you have several options. You can go on a private tour for half a day or a full day safari, and spend a night in one of the lodges near the parks. Or you can treat yourself to an overnight or two nights luxury safari experience.

#1 Luxury Safari experience

MAHOORA TENTED SAFARI CAMP UDAWALAWE   Book online

  • Luxury Camping experience with All-inclusive options.
  • We recommend a 2 nights stay at least to fully enjoy Udawalawe (which is what we did).
  • Prices start from $356 / £247 per person All-inclusive.

LEOPARD TRAILS YALA   Book online

  • These guys specialise in spotting leopards in Yala National Park and they do not disappoint.
  • The camping is of high standards, their staff is very knowledgeable and helpful.
  • Prices start from $730 / £504 per person All-inclusive.
Macaque with her baby

Macaque with her baby at Yala National Park

#2 Half or full day private tours

FULL DAY SAFARI IN YALA   Book online

  • 12 hour Safari in Yala National Park with a very early start (5.30am).
  • They pick you up from the hotel and drop you off.
  • Up to 6 people per booking.

FULL DAY SAFARI IN UDAWALAWE   Book online

  • Private tour in a safari Jeep in Udawalawe with an experienced guide.
  • Can take up to 5 people per booking.
Tree with stalk at Udawalawe

Tree with stalk at Udawalawe National Park

#3 Where to stay near Udawalawe

GRAND UDAWALAWE SAFARI RESORT   Book online

  • Great pool, big rooms, delicous buffer dinner and breakfast.
  • They can organise a safari and arrange a visit to the elephant orphanage nearby.
  • Prices start from $110 / £76 a night with breakfast included.

MANSALA SAFARI RESORT   Book online

  • Great budget option, very comfortable with excellent breakfast and dinner.
  • The friendly owner will arrange a safari to Udawalawe at a very good price.
  • Prices start from $22 / £15 a night.
Two cute birds by our car window at Yala

“Do you like my new hairstyle” asks one bird to the other…

#4 Where to stay near Yala National Park

CINNAMON WILD YALA HOTEL   Book online

  • Located beside a crocodile and buffalo filled lake in the jungle, you feel close to nature but with the all the luxuries of a 5 star hotel.
  • They will also arrange a day safari for you.
  • Prices start from $205 / £141 a night with breakfast.

BLUE TURTLE HOTEL   Book online

  • Close to Yala, it has a big garden, a swimming pool and a delicious buffet dinner.
  • Prices start from $71 / £49 a night with breakfast.

RIVER SIDE CABANAS YALA HOTEL   Book online

  • Unique place to stay close to Yala, with tree house overlooking the river.
  • Great budget option. Prices start from $26 / £18 for a double bed with breakfast.

Our safari in Sri Lanka’s national parks were one of our most memorable experiences in our travels and well worth every penny.

Watch our travel video diary of our adventures through Sri Lanka as we ate our way through this tropical island, took some beautiful train journeys and enjoyed excellent safaris and spotting blue whales at Mirissa.

Sri Lanka travel recommendations

Transportation: First, there is no need to stress about getting taxis around the capital. Uber is heavily used in Colombo airport as well as Colombo city and if you've never used it before, we give you your 1st ride for free using this link. To go to Kandy, Nuwara Elya or Ella, just take the train: the landscapes are stunning, tickets are cheap and it is an amazing adventure.

Travel insurance: Whether you go on a safari in Yala National Park, scuba diving in Unawatuna, hiking in Ella or just lay on the beach all day long in Negombo, you need travel insurance. We use World Nomads because they offer considerable coverage especially for adventure travellers. They also make it easy to make a claim as it’s all done online.

Flights: Flying domestically in Sri Lanka doesn't make much sense, you're better off taking the train. For international flights, flying to Sri Lanka can be expensive, Google flights can help you find cheap fares and Momondo is our favourite website to book airfares. In addition, flights from Sri Lanka to India and The Maldives are cheap so don't miss out on the opportunity.

Hotels: Sri Lanka has a huge diversity of accommodation options. Make sure you check out our Sri Lanka content for hotel recommendations first. Tripadvisor is also a good place to start researching places to stay and activities to do. Going to the hotel in person and negotiating the price face to face will most of the time result in cheaper prices compared to what you would get online. But if like us, you're a bit of a control freak and like planning ahead, we recommend using Booking.com to find the best deals and book your accommodation online.

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34 Comments

  1. Shawn Blair

    Nice, love the leopards and peacocks!

    Reply
    • Stefan Arestis

      Thanks Shawn 🙂

      Reply
  2. Carlos

    Looks amazing guys! We are so looking forward to our time in Sri Lanka and doing something like this. Hopefully we will get to see the leopards too!

    Reply
    • Stefan Arestis

      Thanks for your comment Carlos. You will LOVE Sri Lanka 🙂

      Reply
  3. Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)

    I guess whether you find Yala super touristy depends on the time of year and also your perspective—we visited in April and although we did encounter the occasional jeep every now and then, for the most part we were off on our own. I am very jealous that you got to see a leopard during your visit though: we saw tons of other wildlife (including a lot of elephants), but no leopards. It rained a bit during our visit, so I suspect they were all hiding from the bad weather…

    Reply
    • Stefan Arestis

      Thanks for your comment Steph 🙂
      We did get lucky because we were there in what was supposed to be peak time weather (early December) but monsoon was late in 2014 and it was raining very heavily pretty much every day we were in Sri Lanka- except during our safari lol!!

      Reply
  4. Maria

    Hello!

    I really find your blog very informative since I am planning on going to Yala National Park. However on second thoughts, I might be opting on going to Udawalawe instead. 🙂

    I will be travelling all by myself. Any suggestions?

    Reply
    • Stefan Arestis

      Sri Lanka is fine for women I think. Obviously I cannot personally comment (!) especially as we’re a duo and not travelling solo. But we saw more female solo travellers in Sri Lanka than any at all in India. You will love it though. An awesome country with the best (in our opinion) food in Asia 🙂

      Reply
  5. Okki Asetyana

    Wow, who would have liked Safari in the wild. and it looks like it is the main attraction of Sri Lanka. I like it very much. and see the outdoors with all existing habitat makes us like being a major figure in the world. Sri Lanka is an exotic, it’s true. thanks for the share.

    Reply
    • Stefan Arestis

      Yes the safari was amazing! You should try it 🙂

      Reply
  6. Kim | The Wanderlist

    So glad I found this post!

    I’ll be visiting Sri Lanka in three weeks and was spoiled for choice by the amount of safaris available there.

    Still, I want to see leopards AND eleplants! fingers crossed.

    Reply
    • Stefan Arestis

      Thanks Kim. Elephants you will see many, leopards is more out of luck and becomes a bit of a fun game to try to spot them when you’re out there. Great fun though.

      Reply
  7. Dave Wetherall

    Thanks for an informative blog guys. I’m off to Sri Lanka in a couple of weeks for a fortnight solo travelling. Some great ideas here – I’m sure I’ll do some of the train journeys you enjoyed, and I’ll also check out Master Campers as sounds like you and others have had a great time with them.

    Reply
    • Stefan Arestis

      You will love it Dave! Those train journeys especially were one of our favourite things we’ve done in our Asia trip.

      Reply
  8. Lisa

    Hi Guys,
    Thanks for the great info. After reading your blog among others, plus the great reviews on trip advisor, I’m really thinking about adding this to my Sri Lanka itinerary. Only one thing might put the brakes on that…
    Would you mind telling me what you paid for the package? Did you stay one night or two?
    Thanks very much again for the useful info.
    Lisa x

    Reply
    • Stefan Arestis

      Thanks Lisa. Our safari was our splurge for us paying a few hundred dollars each a night each for 2 nights and it included everything (safari, posh camping and great food). I would contact them directly instead of going via a tour company.

      Reply
  9. imadreamer2015

    very nice write up and gorgeous pics. i hope ur article does not make udu walawe popular like yala and get it crowded as well 😛

    Reply
    • Stefan Arestis

      Ha ha ha thanks 🙂

      Reply
  10. Natascha (Westwards)

    Thanks for the insights. We are going to Sri Lanka in January and are trying to figure out the best itinerary. Your report helped.

    Reply
    • Stefan Arestis

      So pleased – thanks for your comment Natascha 🙂

      Reply
    • George

      Hi Natascha, as I can see from your post, you visited Sri Lanka in January last year. I’m finalising my itineray for the coming trip which starts just in a week time, January 18th. How was your overal impression visiting SL in January? Would you be so kind to share your best and worst exsperience from your last year trip? Jast very briefly. DO-s and DON’T DO-s. I’m escaping to SL for a week with my wife and wold like experience a full beauty of it. Thank you in advance. / THANKS to Stefan for a very helpful and interestig post about SL safari.

      Reply
      • Stefan Arestis

        Our pleasure 🙂

        Reply
  11. Erin

    Hi,

    Just curious why you didn’t choose Wilpattu? I am debating between all three at this point though your article has made me lean more towards Udawalawe than Yala of those two. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Stefan Arestis

      It was because we wanted to maximise our chances of seeing leopards and the if you get lucky you see them at Udawalawe quite close up and interacting more.

      Reply
  12. Krystian

    Nice pictures! I have had exactly the same experience with YALA. Too crowdy! I enjoyed Minneriya (close to Sigiriya) and Bundala close to Yala.

    Reply
    • Stefan Arestis

      Thanks 🙂

      Reply
  13. Thanasis

    Reading your articles was exciting. It felt like camping in one of the many Kenyan parks.
    Would love to be in Srilanka sounds like alot of fun! Great articles.

    Reply
    • Stefan Arestis

      Thanks Thanasis

      Reply
  14. traveller

    what lens did you use to take video/photo of the sleeping leopard??

    Reply
    • Stefan Arestis

      Just a Panasonic Lumix TZ60 🙂

      Reply
  15. ZuZka

    Thank you for the article. Just deciding whether to do Yala or Udawalawe and this was a huge help! 🙂

    Zuzka

    Reply
    • Stefan Arestis

      Awesome! And which one did you decide in the end?

      Reply
  16. sweta

    Thanks guys for the wonderful article. I was so confused between yala and uw and your blog has just helped me decide. Also, thanks for all the information- cost hotels animals. -great!!!

    Reply
    • Stefan Arestis

      Our pleasure and thanks for reading 🙂

      Reply

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