From Yala in the southeast to Wilpattu in the northwest: In countless corners of Sri Lanka, animals and plants thrive in protected areas. We present seven of the most stunning national parks which are worth a visit.
1. Pigeon Island
One of two marine national parks in Sri Lanka: The colourful coral reefs of the island are among the most beautiful in the country. Pigeon Island is located about one kilometre from the coastal town of Niaveli in the north-east of the country. In the immediate vicinity, there is a 200 metres long coral reef.
What makes the marine reserve so unique?
Pigeon Island is a real paradise for diving and snorkelling. It is one of the country’s two marine reserves and one of the best-preserved coral reefs in Sri Lanka. In addition to fish in all colours and shapes, you can also find squids, reef sharks, and sea turtles. The latter is rather shy. However, if you spot one, keep a distance. In the deeper waters off the east coast of Sri Lanka, blue whales and sperm whales can be observed almost all year round.
Keep in mind that there are no accommodations on Pigeon Island, which is why you can only make a day trip to the marine reserve. After diving or snorkeling, you can relax at one of the two stalls located on the larger part of the island. There is also a small hiking trail to a beautiful viewing platform from where you can see the mainland.
When is the best time to travel to Pigeon Island?
The best time to visit Pigeon Island is from April to September. In general, it is not recommended to visit the reef on weekends or public holidays, as it gets very crowded.
2. Yala National Park
The Yala National Park at the south-east coast is the home of Sri Lanka’s Big Five: elephants, leopards, and lip bears in the jungle and the marshland. In the beach bays, you can spot blue whales and sperm whales. And when you look into the air, you will be surprised by the variety of bird species which ranges from brightly coloured bee-eaters to rare storks and red-faced malkohas.
Information: www.yalasrilanka.lk, day ticket 64 € (jeep with up to 6 people). The park is divided into five blocks, of which only two are accessible: Yala-West, the larger and more famous part (park entrance at Palatupana). Yala East, quieter and smaller (park entrance at Kumana).
3. Wilpattu National Park
Countless waterholes, ponds, and lakes: The 1317 square kilometre of Wilpattu National Park in the northwest is a paradise for water birds. Herons, spoonbills, the rare Sunda marabou and the fairy-like pheasant leaf chickens flutter over the wetlands, while hundreds of Axishirsche and water buffalos graze at the edge. Make sure to watch out for bears. Nowhere else do you have such a good chance of spotting these rare animals.
Park entrance in Hunuwilagama, Phone: 011-219 93 23
4. Gal-Oya National Park
The largest lake in inland Sri Lanka, the Senanayake Samudra, is rarely visited by tourists but is a fantastic place to escape the hustle and bustle of the tourist centres. Here you can do a boat safari and watch elephants taking a bath. A highlight of the visit: The Veddas, the indigenous people of Sri Lanka, who have found a retreat in Gal Oya. The village chief shows guests the jungle on hikes.
Ampara Town, Phone: 063-224 20 02
5. Minneriya National Park
Elephants cavort in many national parks of Sri Lanka. But nowhere else do you have the chance to see so many at once as in Minneriya – a 90 square kilometre protected area northeast of Dambulla. During the dry season between June and September, up to 300 animals crowd the water reservoir, which was already built in the third century.
Rambawilla, Maradankadawala-Habarana-Thirukkondaiadimadu Highway, Phone: 077-494 07 60
6. Sinharaja Forest Reserve
For many the star among Sri Lanka’s protected areas: The island’s last extensive lowland rainforest is a unique refuge for flora and fauna. Sinharaja is home to 44 mammals, 147 birds, 71 reptiles, 33 amphibians, and 19 fish species. Not to forget the 65 butterfly species with such exotic representatives as the black and white Ceylon Rose. Many of these animals can only be found in Sri Lanka, same as the almost 60 percent of all tree species in the 110 square kilometre protected area in the southwest of the island. That’s why UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Forest in 1988.
Sinharaja Forest Reserve, access via the entrance in Kudawa, Phone: 045-222 21 71, www.tinyurl.com/sinharaja-forest
7. Horton Plains National Park
Massive waterfalls like the Baker’s Falls, dense mountain forests and lonely vantage points: The varied nature reserve lies between Nuwara Eliya and Haputale on a high plateau at an altitude of more than 2000 metres. It has been a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site since 2010. The fact that this landscape still exists today is also due to the hunting passions of the English colonial rulers. They recreated elephants and leopards and protected the original vegetation.
Nuwara Eliya, Horton Plains National Park, Phone: 052-353 90 42