Best Safari in Sri Lanka: Yala versus Udawalawe

Sebastien Chaneac

When we visited Sri Lanka, we did a safari at both Yala and Udawalawe, which are the most popular national parks in the country. The reason why we decided to explore both parks is because we just couldn't choose between one or the other. Online research led us to believe that Yala is the best park for a safari in Sri Lanka, especially for spotting leopards. However, we also found a few forums where people raved about their experiences at Udawalawe, which included spotting leopards.

Therefore, based on our experiences visiting both parks, we've put together our comparison of Yala and Udawalawe National Parks side by side, to answer a simple question: which is the best safari in Sri Lanka?

And the answer might surprise you!


Just a word before we start! Since we published this article, we've had many readers asking us who we organised our safari with. We visited Udawalawe and Yala on a 3 nights safari with Master Campers, which we contacted after reading the excellent reviews they had on TripAdvisor. We highly recommend these guys. They're passionate about the wildlife and take great care of their customers. And because we care about our readers, we've negociated for you a 10% discount on your next safari with Master Campers:

GET A 10% DISCOUNT ON YOUR SAFARI NOW WITH MASTER CAMPERS

Yala vs. Udawalawe: a few facts!

  • Yala National Park is the most visited park in Sri Lanka and also one of the biggest in terms of size. It was the first national park created in Sri Lanka in 1938 along with Wilpattu. It covers an area of 979 square km (378 square miles) and is divided in 5 blocks. Only blocks 1 and 5 are open to tourists, with number 1 being the most popular for sightings (and the most crowded by jeeps). The other blocks cannot be accessed by the public because they are used for research and documentaries.
  • Udawalawe National Park on the other hand is smaller, a third of the size of Yala, covering 308 square km (119 square miles). Nonetheless, given its smaller size, Udawalawe has a greater density of animal to size ratio, particularly with Sri Lankan elephants. Being a less popular safari destination than Udawalawe, it is also quieter, which makes it a more enjoyable safari experience in our opinion.
The best safari in the world is in Sri Lanka
A safari in Sri Lanka can sometimes get very busy, especially in Yala

Yala vs. Udawalawe: best time to visit

  • Yala National Park: can be visited all year round except in September and October, when the park is closed for maintenance. All animals can be seen throughout the year with your best chances to spot wildlife at Yala during the dry season, which runs from February to September when the water levels are low, and the animals gather around the lagoons to drink.
  • Udawalawe National Park: does not have an “ideal” time to visit as animals at Udawalawe can be spotted at any time of the year, including leopards. The park has the biggest concentration of Asian elephants in Sri Lanka, so your probabilities to see them are very high. Udawalawe is always open for safaris even during the dry season in September / October. This is when the water levels are at the lowest and when most of the mating occurs for the Asian elephant. If you want to spot baby elephants, come from October to January during the rainy season when most births are occurring.
Elephant mum resting with her baby safari in sri lanka Udawalawe
Mummy elephant with her baby in Udawalawe national park

Yala vs. Udawalawe: the landscapes

Both Yala and Udawalawe have stunning landscapes, so whichever park you decide to visit for your safari, you will find the landscapes very enjoyable and unique.

  • Yala National Park: has a huge variety of landscapes from forests, grasslands, lagoons to sandy beaches. Block 1 which is the most visited part at Yala is mainly covered by forest and grasslands. You will also see loads of waterholes where wild water buffaloes like to bath. There are also a large number of metamorphic rocks scattered around Yala with Elephant Rock one of the most popular and Instagrammable.
  • Udawalawe National Park: is equally amazing as Yala, with a multitude of landscapes such as marshes (wetlands), scrublands, forests, mountainous areas and open grasslands. We found grasslands to be more abundant at Udawalawe than Yala, which gave us more opportunities to spot wildlife and make our safari more enjoyable. At the centre of the park lies the Udawalawe Reservoir, a vast body of water which is the perfect backdrop for photos.
Landscapes of Udawalawe are stunning which makes one of the best safaris in the world
Udawalawe reservoir is timming with life with stunning landscapes all around

Which has the most leopards?

  • Yala National Park: has a higher density of Leopards compared to Udawalawe and is well known for being one of the best places in the world to spot leopards in the wild. The most popular area at Yala open to tourists is block 1, which has an estimated 25-30 leopards. However, leopard-spotting cannot be guaranteed at Yala and you should only go with the mindset that among all the amazing wildlife you will see, spotting the leopards is more like the icing on the cake. Alas, even if you see them, you will quickly be put off by the sheer number of jeeps queueing (almost climbing on top of each other) to get a good look at these elusive animals. Continue reading below about the crowds at Yala for more insight.
  • Udawalawe National Park: has fewer leopards, it's a fact. The population is around 10-12, so the chances of spotting them are quite rare. We were extremely lucky to be able to watch two cute young leopards playing with their mother for about 45 minutes at Udawalawe National Park. It was just us and them, and no other jeeps! We were told this particular family of leopards at Udawalawe had grown used to the jeeps so were not shy to make an appearance for us. However, this experience is probably more the exception than the rule. Nonetheless, there is so much wildlife to see at Udawalawe, that we would have found the experience amazing even without spotting the leopards.
leopards in yala national park are abundant in numbers
A leopard resting at Yala National Park

Yala or Udawalawe: the wildlife

  • Yala National Park: is famous for its population of leopards, but sightings are not so frequent, so make sure you don't plan your safari just on this. Yala boasts a high biodiversity including 44 species of mammals, 215 kinds of birds and many reptiles. During our safari at Yala, we spotted the beautiful red-spotted deers, a dozen of crocodiles, serpents, water buffaloes and many birds. And, we were fortunate enough to spot 2 leopards resting on a tree branch.
  • Udawalawe National Park: is well known for its Sri Lankan elephant population because they are attracted to the Udawalawe reservoir, an important source of water for them. There are around 500-700 elephants at Udawalawe, so your chances of spotting this beautiful creature on a safari are close to 100%! Udawalawe is also famous for its rich diversity of species, which includes 33 reptiles, 184 birds, 43 mammals and 135 species of butterflies. Udawalawe also has some leopards (as explained above). During our safari at Udawalawe, we saw lots of spotted deer, water buffalos, crocodiles, wild boars, and peacocks.
Spotting Bambi on our Sri Lankan safari
Spotting Bambi on our Sri Lankan safaris at Yala and Udawalawe National Parks

Yala or Udawalawe: the crowds

This is probably the most decisive argument when deciding whether to go to Udawalawe or Yala National Park. 

  • Yala National Park: its popularity is also its downfall. Yes, your chances to spot leopards are higher than anywhere else in the world but in our opinion, Yala gets so crowded, that it completely ruins the experience. It is not uncommon to see hundreds of jeeps queuing in the park to see the animals. All the drivers communicate with each other via walkie-talkies, so if a leopard is spotted, within minutes you'll see a colossal migration of jeeps gathering to see spot the animal. Trying to feel the connection with nature in this context is quite a challenge! Make sure you have a good pair of binoculars to hand so that you can clearly see the leopard(s).
  • Udawalawe National Park: is far less crowded than Yala, which completely changes the experience, making Udawalawe a more satisfying safari. When we were there, we barely saw more than one or two jeeps. Whenever we spotted animals, we were by ourselves and felt so immersed and captivated by the moment. At one point, a small group of elephants with 2 babies crossed the path just in front of our jeep. They were so close, we could almost touch them. They stayed there for around 20 minutes, just eating and socialising with each other. This was one of the most magical moments of our safari at Udawalawe.

Yala or Udawalawe: which is best?

Udawalawe is in our opinion the best safari in Sri Lanka because it provides a truly gratifying experience. You can get very close to animals, particularly the elephants, and you're never bothered by other jeeps and tourists. Whilst your chances of spotting leopards at Udawalawe are less than at Yala, there is nonetheless a healthy leopard population in Udawalawe that sightings do happen, for example when we saw the two cubs playing. You're also almost guaranteed to spot Sri Lankan elephants as well as red-spotted deers, wild water buffalo, sloth bears, crocodiles, monkeys and many different species of birds.

If you have children, Udawalawe is a more child-friendly safari because they get to see the animals close up, especially the elephants. When your only goal is to spot leopards, you will have to wait and be patient, which can get tedious and boring for children. And even if you do manage to spot leopards, they might be quite far away, so binoculars are a necessity.

Can I visit both Yala and Udawalawe in one safari?

Yes, you sure can!

If seeing leopards is a must for you, and you feel Yala will increase your chances of spotting them, there is the possibility of organising a safari that combines both Yala and Udawalawe National Parks. We organised our safari with the excellent Master Campers, which we highly recommend. Their safari camp is based near Udawalawe Park so you can dedicate the first day to seeing Udawalawe and the second to Yala.

COMBINE YALA AND UDAWALAWE IN ONE SAFARI AND GET A 10% DISCOUNT

Where to stay

Whichever park you decide to visit, we cannot recommend enough the importance of going with a reputable and experienced company. You should consider 2 nights as the minimum in order to maximise your animal sightings and to get the most out of your safari. In our opinion, the best option is to stay 2 nights in a luxury safari camp, or if your budget does not allow for this, stay in a hotel nearby and book full-day tours from there.

In Udawalawe, we stayed 2 nights in a luxury camp safari with Master Campers. It was the best decision we've ever made! From the moment they picked us up, till they dropped us off in Colombo, we were treated like royalty and had the most amazing time with our guide Roy. Their all-inclusive package starts from $325 per person and includes a luxury tent with private bathroom, lunch, 5 course dinners, soft drinks, wine, transportation to/from the parks, a driver and an awesome guide. We negotiated an exclusive 10% discount with Master Campers for our readers. Click below to check prices and availability for your safari in Udawalawe:

Master Campers also offers the possibility to combine Yala National Park and Udawalawe in one safari. This is a great option if you're unsure about which park to visit and want to maximise your chances of spotting leopards. Note that this is only possible if you stay at least 2 nights in their luxury camp. On the 1st day, you can do all your excursions at Udawalawe, and on the 2nd, you visit Yala.

Near Udawalawe: Grand Udawalawe Safari Resort

Located within a 10-minute drive from Udawalawe National Park and the Elephant Transit home (an orphanage for Sri Lankan elephants). This is the best hotel close to Udawalawe, with an outdoor swimming pool, spacious rooms with views of the surrounding nature. The in-house restaurant serves delectable local and international dishes. The hotel is set in a quiet environment and the staff are extremely friendly.

Near Yala National Park: Cinnamon Wild Yala Hotel

The location is right in the middle of Yala National Park with a view of the reservoir where you can see water buffaloes chilling and crocodiles resting. The rooms are luxurious jungle chalets and there is a beautiful pool with native trees for shade. The buffet breakfast and dinner are fantastic. The chef is full of charisma and the staff are very friendly. Make sure you take a full board offer to enjoy the place to its fullest. The absolute icing on the cake is the rooftop bar where you can enjoy sunset cocktails with a view of the beach, the jungle and the tropical storm in the distance.

Near Udawalawe: Mansala Safari Resort

Charming lodge located 10 minutes away from Udawalawe. The rooms are basic, but comfortable with a private bathroom. The hospitality is what makes Mansala Safari Resort so special. The owner often cooks for its guests and offers day safaris at a very good price. Prices for a room with a double bed start from $22/£15 a night.

Near Yala: River Side Cabana Hotel

Have you ever stayed in a tree house? If not, now is your chance! River Side Cabana Hotel is a very unique lodge close to Yala National Park, with a beautiful tree house overlooking the river. The rooms are spacious and each have a fan and private bathroom. Hammocks are dotted around the property to chill in, and in the morning you can watch the monkeys playing in the trees. This is a great budget option for solo travellers and couples. Prices start from $15/£12 for a room with double bed and breakfast.

Travel advice for LGTBQ community

Advice for LGBTQ travellers to Sri Lanka

It is illegal to be gay in Sri Lanka! Sadly the country has retained its archaic Colonia anti-gay laws. Whilst it's not really enforced, it is used more by corrupt policemen to harass and elicit bribes from LGBTQ locals. However, as an LGBTQ foreigner, you are treated differently to locals. The police want to avoid any problems with the Embassy and therefore leave us alone. Also, you'll have no problem getting a double bed in any of the large chain hotel brands who are accustomed to dealing with LGBTQ travellers. Having said that, even the smaller guesthouses we stayed at across the country were fine about hosting a gay couple.

Due to the awful anti-gay laws, there is no official gay scene in Sri Lanka. Everything is underground. Places like Negombo are well known to be popular destinations for LGBTQ travellers, with hotels like Dickman and Binnacle catering to gay travellers. The safari company we tried in this article, Master Campers, is very gay friendly; their staff welcomed us with open arms. For more, read our interview with Kaluu from Colombo about what it's like growing up gay in Sri Lanka.

Visiting the parks independently

We strongly recommend booking a private tour with an English speaking guide to maximise your safari experience. The cost is not that much higher when you share this between 2 or 3 people. If you wish to visit the parks independently, you will need to pay for the National Park entry fees yourself. In addition, you will need to hire a safari jeep when you arrive at the park. At this point a driver (with very limited English) is assigned to you, who expects a tip at the end whether he does a good job or not.

Udawalawe National Park entry fee is $15/£11.50 for one day or $30/£23 for two days. Hiring a jeep should cost around $24/£16 for half a day and $45/£30 for the full day. This does not include a guide, only a driver with very limited English. A safari jeep will fit around 4-8 people (depending on the size of the vehicle), so when you share the cost, it's not that expensive.

Udawalawe private tour

A private tour to Udawalawe is cheaper than Yala with prices starting at$33 person for half a day. This includes hotel pickup and drop-off within 5km of the park entrance gate, a private safari jeep and an English speaking guide.

Yala National park entry fee for foreigners is $15/£11.50 for one day or $30/£23 for two days. Add to that the cost of hiring a jeep for half a day which is around $30-34/£20-22. For a full day, the cost is around $55-$60/£40-£45. If you want a luxury jeep with levelled seats, you can pay up to $100.

Yala private tour

A half day tour of Yala National Park starts at $40 per person. This includes hotel pickup and drop-off, a private safari jeep and an English speaking guide.

How to get there?

If you decide to stay in a safari camp like we recommended above, transport will be arranged for you. If you stay in one of the lodges, you will need to organise your own transportation. There are several options to get from anywhere in Sri Lanka to Yala and Udawalawe.

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Happy travels are safe travels

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Sebastien Chaneac

Sebastien is the co-founder, editor and author of nomadicboys.com. He is a tech geek, a total travel nerd and a food enthusiast. He spends the majority of his time planning Nomadic Boys' travels meticulously right down to the minute details. Sebastien has travelled to over 80 countries with his partner in crime and the love of his life, Stefan. He regularly shares his expertise of what it’s like travelling as a gay couple both on Nomadic Boys and on prominent publications ranging from Pink News, Matador, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian and many more. Originally from France, Sebastien moved to London in the early 2000s where he pursued a career as a computer programmer for Thompson Reuters and Bloomberg. He subsequently left it all to explore his passion for travelling around the world with Stefan to hand, and thus Nomadic Boys was born. Find out more about Nomadic Boys.

57 thoughts on “Best Safari in Sri Lanka: Yala versus Udawalawe”

  1. Hello I am solo female traveler heading to Sri Lanka in April and want to do the Udawale safari. Do you have a link to arrange? I don;t mind going in the jeep with other people as more cost effective but if solo is only option will take it. would like a driver who speaks some English

  2. Hey guys,
    We took your reccomadation and are at Udawalawe as I write this. Master Campers have already exceeded our expectations and we are half way through our 3-day adventure with them.
    Absolutely magical.
    Thank you, keep up the great work.
    Caron and Peter

  3. Hi guys…. such a nice article …I’m glad I found it.
    One question …. Can the private tour what you’re providing in the link here …. can pick us up from Ella and drop us to a different location (let’s say either tangalle or weligama?
    and the charges?

    Thanks so much!

    • Hi Al – they should be able to, I recall we did something similar. Best thing is to complete the form and Uditha from Master Campers will get back to you straightaway with answers to your questions 🙂

  4. Thank you for all the wonderful and valuable information. Will definitely consider Sri Lanka to be our family destination.

  5. Thanks for the post, very useful information. I have understood yours spent 3 days in safaris but it’s not clear to me how you divided the parks. Did you do 2 days un Udawalawe and 1 in Yala? Where did you guys slept in Yala?

    Thanks in advance!

    • Hi Pedro, we stayed with Master Campers near both parks and they took us to both. We highly recommend them, and you can get a discount if you apply via the form in this article 🙂

      • Thanks Stefan! So you slept in the camp at the entrance of Ulawalawe and from there you travelled to both parks, right? Just to make sure it is feasible to travel from there to Yala too cos I have checked and it seems it´s a little far…Thanks!

  6. We were there at the end of September. Large parts of Yala were shut due to the breeding season, but we went in at the Kataragama gate. We weren’t lucky enough to see leopards, but that might have tipped Jane over the edge!

  7. Amazing post…! really loved it…The pictures are stunning …Seems like you guys had a great time there…hoping to visit there soon to witness these beautiful creatures.

  8. I’ve been in Sri Lanka for three months now and as soon as I read the title of this post, I thought, “Udawalawe for sure!” I had such a marvelous experience there, it was one of my highlights of this entire trip. It’s so under-visited compared to Yala that if you go early in the morning you can have the entire park to yourself, like I did. Nothing compares to sitting alone in your jeep (minus the driver/guide in the enclosed cab, of course) watching a herd of elephants without a single other tourist around.

    You’re so lucky that you got to see leopards in both places! I haven’t been able to see a single leopard yet and as my trip is almost over I think I’ve most likely missed my chance. I guess I’ll just have to come back and try again!

    I know it has been quite a while since the other lady asked about solo female travel in Sri Lanka, but for anyone else reading with the same question: Yes, it’s safe! I’ve been solo on this entire trip and haven’t had a single issue. I’ve taken buses and trains all over the country (even as far north as rarely-visited Jaffna) and no one has bothered me. I *do* get a lot of stares from the local men because I don’t blend in with the locals at all- too much blonde hair and too many tattoos- but they’re generally not aggressive at all, just extremely curious and a bit overly flirtatious.

  9. 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!!!

  10. 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.

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

  12. 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!

    • 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.

    • 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.

  13. 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 😛

  14. 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

    • 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

    • 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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?

    • 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 🙂

  19. 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…

    • 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!!

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