Yala National Park Safari Guide

Yala National Park

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When it comes to safaris, most people’s minds jump straight to Africa. After all, who doesn’t want to spend their days searching for the “Big 5” in Botswana, Kenya, or Tanzania? Our safari in South Africa last fall was one of the most amazing experiences of our lives. 

But many people don’t realize that safari experiences are available outside Africa as well. With its diverse wildlife, Sri Lanka makes a good—significantly cheaper—alternative to a traditional African safari.

Several Sri Lankan national parks offer unique wildlife experiences, but we decided to visit Yala National Park, one of Sri Lanka’s most popular safari destinations and the park best known for leopard sightings.

Yala National Park

Ready to jump in a jeep and search for elephants? Here is everything you need to know before your safari in Yala National Park.

Our Safari in Yala National Park

As is typical of safaris, our day started much too early with a 4:00am wake-up call. Since animals are most active around dawn, game drives begin before sunrise. Exhausted, we rolled out of bed and freshened up a bit before heading downstairs to the lobby. At this point, I wasn’t sure if seeing a leopard riding a unicycle would be noteworthy enough to warrant being out of bed at that time.

Despite the ungodly hour, the hotel staff was perky and handed us a bagged breakfast to take with us on our excursion. And though we appreciated the gesture, neither of us found the food terribly appealing. Of course, in all fairness, I find very little appealing at 4:30 in the morning.

Our safari driver was waiting for us with the jeep just outside our hotel lobby, and we were en route to Yala National Park by 5:00am. We both dozed during the 30-minute drive to the park’s entrance.

We arrived at the park gates just as the sun was beginning to peak over the horizon, and we quickly learned just how popular Yala National Park is!

Yala National Park

Despite our early start, we were at the back of a line of safari jeeps that seemed to stretch for a mile. It looked like a Best Buy on Black Friday. We sat in the jeep traffic jam for quite a while as we waited for the park to open. During that time, we made another attempt at eating our bagged breakfast.

Once we finally made it inside the park, we were overwhelmed by the lovely surroundings. We had expected to see exotic wildlife, but I was blown away by the beautiful landscape.

Either side of the dirt road was covered in lush vegetation and the rising sun glinted off the lake.

Yala National Park

The jeep congestion slowly dispersed as the various safari groups spread out into the park. Before long, we enjoyed several wildlife sightings, mostly small animals: a peacock, a wild boar, a buffalo, a crocodile.

What we most wanted to see, however, were the big attractions: elephants and leopards.

Within the first 30 minutes of our drive, we saw about half a dozen jeeps congregated on the side of the road. A couple in one of the jeeps said they’d just spotted a leopard. Sadly, it was long gone by the time we arrived.

Our driver stopped our jeep whenever we asked, but his English seemed fairly limited, so we weren’t able to communicate much beyond the basics.

Yala National Park

As in South Africa, the number of birds we saw amazed me. My favorite was the green bee-eater.

Midmorning, all the jeeps stopped for a breakfast break and to use the restrooms. Since Sam and I had already eaten everything we could stomach, we stretched our legs, used the facilities, and were ready to resume the safari.

Yala National Park

Shortly after our break, we witnessed the most exciting animal sighting of the day: a majestic Asian elephant! Though we’d seen one from a distance earlier in the morning, this one was only a stone’s throw from our jeep.

Not long after spotting the elephant, it was time to head back to the hotel to take a much-needed nap! Sadly, we never saw a notoriously elusive leopard.

Yala National Park

Things to Know Before A Safari Yala National Park

The key to an enjoyable safari experience is having realistic expectations. Here are some things you need to know before your safari in Yala National Park:

  • Choose a group or private safari. When booking your safari, you will need to decide between a group or private game drive. The benefit of a private drive is that you have unobstructed views of the animals and are free to go at your own pace. But private safaris are also typically more expensive. For solo travelers, a group safari might be a better fit.
  • You don’t need to dress like Crocodile Dundee. Though wearing head to toe khaki and safari boots might seem essential (and look pretty cool on your Instagram story), the reality is that the color of your clothing is not hugely important (though I would avoid wearing a neon jumpsuit). Instead, dress in loose, lightweight layers that you can shed as the day heats up.
  • The weather can be chilly. The safari starts in the wee hours of the morning and may involve a 30-minute or longer drive in an open jeep. We recommend taking a light jacket or shawl to wear until the sun comes up.
  • Track your animal sightings. At times, animal sightings will come fast and furious. We suggest keeping a list of each animal you see—either in a physical notebook or electronically—to keep as a record of your experience. Our safari is a bit of a blur in my mind, so I’m glad I kept a list on my phone of every animal we spotted.
  • Animal sightings are not guaranteed. On safari, you are viewing animals on their own turf. Though Yala National Park is home to many species of animals, you might not see all of them on a single drive. We were pretty bummed that we weren’t able to catch a glimpse of a leopard on our game drive.
  • Bathrooms are scarce. Once inside the park, bathroom options are limited. We suggest using the bathroom at the front gate to avoid an unpleasant situation later in the day. Facilities were also available during our midmorning breakfast stop.
  • No restaurants inside park. Snacks are not available inside the park, so be sure to take anything you might want with you. We weren’t a fan of the bagged breakfast, so we wished we’d taken some additional snacks.
  • Guide might not speak much English. Our driver was nice, but his English was limited. He helped us identify the various animal species we saw, but he wasn’t able to give us much information beyond the species’ name.
  • Roads are bumpy and dirty. Sam and I both felt as though we needed an appointment with a chiropractor after spending a few hours bouncing around on the uneven dirt roads in Yala National Park. Be prepared for a rough ride and to get a bit grimy.
  • Tell your driver when you want to stop. If you notice something your driver misses or you would like to stay longer at an animal sighting, be sure to say something. Your driver’s goal is to help you have a good experience!

Yala National Park

What to Take on a Yala National Park Safari

  • Day bag. We like to take a small backpack with us on excursions to hold our essentials for the day.
  • Light jacket. Though Sri Lanka is generally a blazing inferno, the weather can be a bit chilly early in the morning. We recommend taking a light jacket on an early morning safari.
  • Sunscreen. Once the sun comes out, the temperature rises in a hurry. Be sure to wear strong sunscreen to protect your skin. Melanoma is likely not the souvenir you had in mind.
  • Sunhat. Wearing a sunhat during extended periods in the heat is always recommended. The Sri Lankan sun is intense.
  • Zoom lens. Since we packed super light for our month-long trip to Sri Lanka, Sam hadn’t bothered to take a zoom lens. But we know the pictures would have turned out much better if he’d had one! Sam used this one in South Africa.
  • Backup batteries. The last thing you want is for your camera to die right before you spot a leopard. Be sure to pack a spare battery just in case.
  • Snacks. Since we weren’t too keen on the bagged breakfast the hotel put together, we wished we packed a few of our own snacks to tide us over until we returned to the hotel for lunch.
  • Water bottle. Staying hydrated is crucial. Be sure to take a water bottle along with you on any excursion. 

Yala National Park

What Does a Safari in Yala National Park Cost?

The price will vary depending on which company you use and whether you choose to do a private or group safari. We paid 4,500 rupees per person for a private morning safari. We paid an additional 6,920 rupees to enter Yala National Park.

Booking a Safari in Yala National Park

Countless tour companies offer safaris in Yala National Park, so you have plenty of options. Typically, the easiest way to arrange a game drive is through your hotel. Most companies will include transfer to the park from your hotel. 

Where to Stay Near Yala National Park

The main city near Yala National Park is Tissamaharama. Though the city itself doesn’t have a lot of attractions, it makes a convenient base for travelers who are planning to go on a safari in Yala National Park.

We stayed at The Rain Tree Hotel in Tissamaharama. The rooms are comfortable, it has a decent pool, and the staff is friendly and accommodating. But the hotel’s biggest draw—besides its proximity to Yala National Park—is its lookout tower, which offers prime viewing for Tissamaharama’s amazing nightly spectacle. Every evening around sunset, thousands of bats fly overhead as they travel into the nearby villages in search of food. As creepy as it sounds, the experience is truly breathtaking (even for wimps like me!). We watched in amazement every night of our stay. In our opinion, the bats are reason enough to visit Tissamaharama even if you skipped the safari!

Note: We found restaurant options to be severely limited in Tissamaharama, so we recommend choosing a hotel that has a decent restaurant. We ended up eating most meals at our hotel.

Any safari tips to add?


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Yala National Park Safari Guide

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