As Sri Lanka’s most visited National Park, Yala is famed for its resident Leopard, Sloth Bear and Elephants. Bordering the Indian Ocean, the park is divided into several ‘blocks’ with Block 1 (also known as Ruhuna National Park to add a layer of confusion to proceedings) being by far the most popular for wildlife enthusiasts (in fact, not all of the blocks are actually open to visitors). With over 200 bird species and 44 mammal species the park is also a safari-lovers must-visit location in Sri Lanka; and at 378 square miles of land there’s plenty of it to see! So, after my recent visit to the park in search of the elusive Sloth Bear, how exactly did I rate the experience – read on to find out!
Take Photos Leave Footprints Ratings
Wildlife – 3.5*
If you’re an African safari aficionado or generally not a very patient person then I’m going to start with a warning that you’ll probably want to temper your enthusiasm before you head out on your first safari into Yala. Put simply, there just isn’t the diversity of mammals or the volume of wildlife you might expect to see on the plains of Africa.
That said, the wildlife Yala does have to offer is truly spectacular and the undoubted star of the show is the Sri Lankan Leopard. In fact, Yala’s primary claim to fame is that it sports one of the highest leopard densities anywhere on earth. In addition to leopard the park boasts 43 other species of mammal including Asian elephants (of which there are an estimated 350 individuals) and sloth bear. These three species are really the trifecta that everyone visits Yala to see – but I wouldn’t advise that you turn up with the expectation of guaranteed sightings; after all there are only an estimated 500 sloth bear left anywhere in the world, let alone just Yala and the leopard is notoriously elusive. If Sloth Bear is what you’re after then your best bet is to visit between May and June as the bear come out of hiding to climb Palu trees for their fruit. If you’re after leopard then I’ll tell you what my guide told me; if you do four safaris (which represents 16 hours of searching) then you have a 90% chance of a leopard sighting (that could include just a fleeting glance at one). In fairness, those odds are much better than pretty much any African safari.
Outside of Yala’s ‘Big 3’ you stand a decent chance of seeing Wild Water Buffalo, Spotted Deer, Sambur Deer, Ruddy Mongoose, Land Monitor Lizards, Mugger Crocodiles, Wild Boar, Black-Nape Hare, Toque Macaques and Grey Langurs. Beyond that, and particularly as you head into the world of nocturnal animals (Yala doesn’t permit night game drives), you’re going to be astonishingly lucky to see animals like Golden Jackals, Pangolins, Loris, Fishing Cats or Golden Palm Civets; although they are present in the park.
Finally, one of the advantages of Yala is that one side of the park is Indian ocean adjacent. Not only does this mean that you can take a refreshing dip between safaris but it also means that you stand a chance of spotting any of the five endangered species of turtle along the beachfront; Leatherback turtle, Green turtle, Loggerhead Sea Turtle, Hawksbill turtle, and Olive Ridley.
Make sure to take the Take Photos Leave Footprints Ultimate Sri Lankan Wildlife Checklist with you on your trip to Yala and you can read more about Sri Lanka’s wildlife HERE.
Scenery – 4.5*
Although I visited during the ‘dry’ season (I use that term loosely because it poured down every afternoon) the scenery was stunningly green and there appeared to be an abundance of waterholes – which probably explains why wildlife is fairly tough to spot in Yala. The park has a variety of ecosystems which include semi deciduous and monsoon forests, thorn thicket, marshland, marine wetlands, expansive grasslands, and oceanside beaches with dunes; pretty much all of which can be found in varying locations across Block 1 and 2. The diversity of landscapes makes the ride even more pleasurable – even on those stiflingly hot afternoons when wildlife sightings are few and far between. All of this is interspersed with what can be best described as rocky escarpments similar to those in the ‘Lion King’ (you know, the bit where Rafiki holds baby Simba aloft). Some of the smaller versions of these rocky outcrops are great places to spot leopard. If you manage that the photos would be perfect!
Accommodation – 4*
As you’d expect, a fairly substantial tourist industry has popped up in and around Yala to cater for the influx of tourists. The center of this industry is based in Tissamaharama; a decent sized town about 20km outside of the Palatupana Main Gate into Block 1 of the park. Here you’ll find everything from backpacker-type accommodation and camping all the way to luxury resorts. If you’re looking to splash out or want to stay away from the main town then there are a few high-end resorts (Jetwing Yala and Cinnamon Wild are two of the main ones) along the Indian Ocean coastline (meaning you’ll be even closer to the Main Gate for those early 5.30am starts). If you plan on entering through the Katagamuwa Gate (further north in Block 1) then you should look at the accommodation options in Kataragama; which is a pilgrimage town sacred to Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and indigenous Vedda people; meaning you can combine your safari with a bit of culture as well. If you’re determined to stay within the park itself then the options are far more restricted and the fact that you can’t do night drives in the park means that the advantage of doing so is fairly limited. That said, there are some park-run bungalows for rent that might be good options for larger groups.
Access – 3.5*
There are two main Gates to the Park at Palatupana and Katagamuwa which lead to Blocks 1 & 2; the most-visited sections of the park and the two areas most famed for the density of leopard sightings. The gates are in the South-East of the country about 250km from Colombo (the quickest route is a 5.5 hour drive) and are an easy drive from most other major tourist hubs around the country.
You have two main options for getting to Yala – car or air – and therein lies the reason I couldn’t give Yala anything more than 3.5* for its access rating. Unfortunately there aren’t any well documented, easy and reliable public transport options by bus or rail.
Your best bet is to either hire a car or a car and driver (Lotus cabs were recommended to me as reliable and decent value if you want to hire a car with driver). The drive from Colombo is on tarred road of good quality along portions of the southern coastline meaning that you could stop en route in other tourist destinations like Galle, Unawatuna or Mirissa (the latter being perfect for whale watching) if you don’t fancy the bum-numbing journey in one go.
If your budget extends beyond driving the distance then you could opt to fly in to Mattala International Airport or Weerawila Domestic Airport by either plane or, at the super fancy end of the scale, helicopter. If that sounds tempting then check out the options available from Cinnamon Air, Sri Lankan Airlines or Fly Sri Lanka.
Safari ‘X’ Factor – 3.5*
If you read my website with any level of regularity then you’ll know that 95% of my safari reviews are on African safaris. It seems almost unfair to compare Yala to an African Safari as I’d be comparing apples to oranges. Yala doesn’t have the same density or diversity of wildlife and the whole ‘feel’ of the experience is different. Most notably, it doesn’t have the same ‘romanticized’ feel of an African Safari and that’s most often on what I derive my ‘X-factor’ rating. To be more rational Yala’s biggest positive is the density of leopard. For any big cat aficionado Yala trumps an African safari on this one count. However, that positive brings with it some negatives. The density of Leopard is mostly down to it being the park’s apex predator which means that other predators are noticeably absent. The high numbers of leopard also bring with them a high number of visitors. On most African Safaris (ok, perhaps not Ngorogoro) you can escape the crowds and at least indulge in moments of solitude. Not so easy in Yala. I went during the low season and found myself in a queue of 40 vehicles to enter the park at 6am. My driver also had to battle his way around dozens of vehicles to secure prime spots at sightings of leopard and sloth bear. Moments of solitude are there, you just have to work hard to find them!
In summary, if you’re in Sri Lanka then Yala is a wildlife highlight that you shouldn’t miss. Its unique endemic species are worth the visit alone. Just make sure you go with realistic expectations!
Best Time to Visit: If guidebooks are to be believed then the best time to visit Yala is from February to June; the dry season. As I mentioned above, if you’re particularly keen on spotting Sloth Bear then the latter end of that range is better (May/June) as the sloth bear are busy searching for Palu fruit. Bear in mind (no pun intended) that I went in May and saw one Sloth Bear in 16 hours of safari and apparently I was incredibly lucky! Finally, you should always double check the Yala website (see below) before you book as the park does close once a year although it’s usually in September for a month.
More Information: If you’re looking for more information; including the latest park fees, opening hours, in-park accommodation and planning details then check out the Yala National Park website: https://www.yalasrilanka.lk/. Also make sure to check out the shop at the Palatupana main gate where you can pick up wildlife guides and maps as well as light provisions.
Guides and Safari Vehicle Drivers: Trackers and drivers (with vehicles) can easily be arranged at all hotels and lodges in Tissamaharama and Kataragama. If you’re on a budget then try and team up with others as the costs quickly rack up for a day’s safari. You’ll have the option of ‘luxury’ and ‘super-luxury’ vehicles neither of which truly lives up to their names. My advice, particularly if you enjoy photography, is to opt for the ‘super luxury’ option. Just remember that tips are expected and you should try and set aside about USD 20 per couple.