Our trip around Sri Lanka was short but sweet. This is a wonderful island that, although it is relatively small, it has it all: spectacular wild beaches, beautiful mountain landscapes, a very varied wildlife that makes safaris a must-do, and very friendly locals who welcome visitors with open arms.
We were in Sri Lanka only for two weeks, but we would have liked to stay longer! In this article, we are going to tell you all about our itinerary and how we traveled around Sri Lanka. Traveling around Sri Lanka is relatively easy. There are trains along the coast and in the interior of the island, which makes life easier. When there are no trains, there are several options for buses and taxis. There is also a very popular option among travelers to rent a tuk-tuk to tour the island independently. We considered this idea because it seemed very fun and practical, but in the end, we decided against it, because one of the things I enjoy the most when I travel is interacting with the locals in public transport and I did not want to miss the experience of using trains and buses there, so we decided to use public transport and it was the perfect decision for us.
Backpacking itinerary to travel around Sri Lanka by train and buses
This is our backpacking itinerary for our 2 weeks in Sri Lanka:
Arrival in Colombo
We arrived at the Colombo airport, which is actually located in Katunayake, and since I have a Colombian passport, I had to make a stop at the health office to show my card with the yellow fever vaccine. We bought a SIM card right there at the airport and took a taxi to our hotel in Katunayake. Taxis outside the airport charged us half of what those inside the airport asked for. Since our time was limited, we didn’t feel like spending a lot of time in a big city. We just stayed in a hotel near the airport so we could catch a train to go straight to Galle the next day.
From Colombo to Galle
Our goal was to take the train to Galle from its origin in Maradana, and not from Colombo Fort, in order to try to find free seats, because the journey is long. From Katunayake train station we took a train that took us to Maradana in 1 hour and in Maradana we took the train to Galle (Matara bound) that took 4 hours. The trip was quite an adventure. When the train arrives everybody goes mad and rushes to find free seats. You need to be prepared for the stampede! We were lucky and managed to find a seat, the train goes along the coast and the ride is beautiful. It definitely is worth taking this train.
Galle is a very beautiful city, with a very strong European colonial style. It is small and easy to get around on foot. Although it is a very nice city, it also seemed a bit artificial to me. I recommend leaving the area inside the walls and going to see the more local neighborhoods where you can really see what life is like in Sri Lanka.
Since Galle is on the coast, there are many beaches to visit around the city. One of the most popular ones is Dalawella. Here you can see turtles swimming in the ocean (don’t touch) and hopefully some stilt fishermen around sunset. To get there we went to the main Galle-Matara road and took a tuktuk (always settle the price before getting on). It is only 8 km to the beach.
From Galle to Hikkaduwa
Following the path along the coast (actually going back up north a bit), our next stop was Hikkaduwa. As the train travels along the coast, we chose it instead of the bus. We went to Galle Train Station and took our train to Hikkaduwa which took only half an hour. We traveled in 3rd class and it was quite good.
The beaches in Hikkaduwa are very beautiful, but I do not recommend going to Turtle Beach. This the place where all the tourists go to see turtles, but who unfortunately don’t respect them. As soon as one approaches the shore everybody comes en masse to bother it, touch it, harass it. Something definitely negative for the poor turtle.
From Hikkaduwa to Dikwella
Going down the coast we reached Dikwella, a place that became our little paradise in Sri Lanka. Getting here took a bit of time and effort but was well worth it. To get from Hikkaduwa to Dikwella, we first took the coastal train to Matara. In Matara we had a long walk from the train station to the bus station and there we found our bus to Dikwella which took us there in just over an hour.
In Dikwella you can visit many beaches that can be reached on foot. A walk along the main street of the town also makes for a very interesting experience.
From Dikwella to Udawalawa
This was one of the (many) tricky connections of the trip. There is no direct way to get from Dikwella to Udawalawe, so we had to break the journey into three parts.
1 . Bus from Dikwella to Tangalle
2. From Tangalle we changed to a bus to Embilipiptiya
3. From Embilipiptiya we took the bus to Udawalawe, which dropped us off at a place called Ret Junction, this is the closest a bus can leave us. From there we take a tuktuk to our hotel.
We went to Udawalawa for the Safari in the Udawalawe National Park. There are 3 options in Sri Lanka to go on a Safari and see elephants. In addition to Udawalawe, there is Minneriya, who also seems cool, but it was a bit off our way. And Pinnawala who was a resounding NO NO!. This Pinnawala place, known as an “elephant orphanage”, is actually a place where elephants are tied up and abused terribly, all to earn money from tourists. Please DO NOT visit or support these types of places that only encourage animal abuse!
The safari in the Udawalawe National Park was a beautiful experience. We saw a lot of elephants in the wild, as well as buffalo, peacocks, eagles, etc. There’s a lot of variety of wildlife in this park. We arranged the safari directly with our guest house “Pearl White Villa”, they had a Jeep and the permits and we spent the whole morning with them in the park.
From Udawalawa to Ella
When our Safari adventure was over, it was time to continue the trip. Our next stop was Ella and getting there from Udawalawa was a mini-adventure. It’s only 100 km, but it took us about 5 hours. First, we had to go to Ret Junction and wait for a bus going in the direction of Wellawaya. We had to ask several buses until the right one picked us up. It took 3 hours to get to Wellawaya and from there we searched for another bus to take us to Ella. It was a long day but we were happy to eventually be in Ella.
Ella is actually a small town. The most interesting activities are in the surroundings and many excursions and hiking can be done independently. From the center of Ella you can walk to Adam’s Peak or to the Nine Arches bridge, no problem.
Trips by Train from Ella
While in Ella we decided to travel around the tea fields area by train and reach different towns. The Ella – Haputale section is popular for its beautiful landscapes (it is the line that goes to Kandy). Taking a walk around Haputale can also be very entertaining, it is bigger than Ella and it has more local life. It is fun to spend a few hours there.
Taking the train in the other direction we reached Badulla, the end of the line, and this little town was super fun. It is not touristy at all and therein lies its charm. Highly recommended too.
From Ella to Kandy
We bought the train ticket from Ella to Kandy 2 days in advance because we had heard rumors that they run out quickly and we didn’t want to stand the whole trip, it is a 7-hour ride. We took the first train in the morning. We arrived at 6 am and the station was already full. It is a very popular route. I recommend bringing food because the journey is long and there are few options to buy from the vendors who come up from time to time.
The train ride was very beautiful, the views are beautiful on both sides of the train, it does not matter much if you choose the right or left side, in the end the ride is so long that each side has its own opportunities to marvel at the views.
Kandy is the largest city we visited in Sri Lanka and that makes it a bit chaotic, but fun. Although the center itself is not very big and you can visit all the temples, the lake and the points of interest for travelers all on foot. Don’t forget to take a walk in the more local neighborhoods to see the real-life of people.
From Kandy to Sigiriya
To go from Kandy to Sigiriya we had to go to the Kandy Bus Station (Kandy Goods Shed) and take a bus to Dambulla. This stretch is very popular among travelers and there is the option of taking a bus with AC, at the bus station you have to ask any helper for the AC bus to Dambulla (it’s a van). There is also the option of taking a normal bus, which although it is more fun, it will be more exhausting because the trip is more than 3 hours and it’s very hot.
At the Dambulla bus station we found the bus going to Sigiriya. These buses are very common and easy to find, so we didn’t have any problems. Arriving in Sigiriya, most of the hotels are relatively close, so you can get there by walking. Also walking along the main route, beyond the entrance to the complex, we were able to see the famous rock in all its splendor in the middle of the fields.
We were not planning to climb Sigiriya itself, we preferred to climb Pidurangala instead. Let’s say this is the “sister” rock in front of Sigiriya. Pidurangala has spectacular views of Sigiriya and also a much more reasonable price. The price to pay to climb Sigiriya is definitely insane (around 30 USD per person) while Pidurangala costs around 3 USD. We went up at dawn to avoid the heat and the crowds. The climb is difficult and, in some parts, very(!) difficult, but it is worth it for the views from above. When we got down, around 10 am there were already a lot of people and the heat was suffocating.
Besides going to the rocks, I recommend walking around the whole area of the rice fields and the lakes. It is a very beautiful area, and a good opportunity to see how the farmers of the area live. Plus, the locals are super friendly! So many times people would approach us to thank us for visiting their country and asked us how do we like it. How sweet!
From Sigiriya to Negombo
We reached the end of the trip and it was time to go back to the capital to catch our flight home. We didn’t need to go to Colombo, only close to the airport, but we couldn’t find a direct bus to Negombo so we had to do this instead:
- First, we had to take a bus to Dambulla,
- In Dambulla, we took a bus to Kurunegala,
- From Kurunegala another bus to Negombo
- In Negombo, we caught a bus to Katanuyake that dropped us off near our hotel, close to the airport.
End of this awesome trip that was Sri Lanka. The 2-week experience around beaches, mountains, tea fields, rice fields, seeing giant tortoises in the sea, and elephants roaming free was unforgettable. It takes a bit of patience because the roads are not well developed, and sometimes there are not efficient connections, but hey, it’s all part of the adventure! The music, the colors, and the people we crossed paths with gave us the best memories of this trip.
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See you on the next trip!