Discover a Resplendent Island Rich with Native Wildlife & Cultural Treasures
Day 1: Colombo, Sri Lanka / Negombo
On arrival at the airport, north of the capital city of Colombo, you’re met and transferred to our hotel in Negombo, where your room is ready and waiting. The afternoon is free to relax before our welcome dinner this evening.
Day 2: Habarana—Hurulu Forest Reserve
Depart on a half-day's
drive to Habarana, where we spend the afternoon exploring Hurulu Forest Reserve in search of small herds of Asian elephants that live amid the tall grasses and jungle scrub. The reserve is also a sanctuary for many birds, including Indian roller, Sri Lanka junglefowl, Indian peafowl, blue-tailed and green bee-eaters, and raptors such as changeable hawk eagle, crested serpent eagle
and shikra. After dark, take a guided walk with our Expedition Leader to look for the grey slender loris, a small nocturnal primate, along with other animals active at night, like fishing
cat, Indian civet, golden palm civet and collared scops owl.
Day 3: Sigiriya / Polonnaruwa Primate Watching / Habarana
Two UNESCO World Heritage Sites are our focus today. We begin with a visit to the ruins of Sigiriya, the 5th-century capital built by King Kashyapa I. The dominant landmark is a massive granite outcrop often referred to as Lion Rock, which rises 600 feet above the surrounding jungle. The edifice features giant carved paws and a set of stone stairs permitting access for those who wish to climb to the top. The rock was turned into a fortress by the king, who constructed his royal palace on the summit overlooking lavish gardens below. The tract of ancient forest around Lion Rock now forms the Sigiriya Reserve, sheltering 10 of Sri Lanka’s 34 endemic bird species, along with small reptiles, primates and numerous butterflies and dragonflies.
On a guided tour this afternoon of the ancient capital of Polonnaruwa, we learn the rich history of Sri Lanka’s second capital, renowned for its well-preserved 12th-century ruins and impressive stone culture, as well as some of Sri Lanka’s best primate viewing. Three species of monkey—toque macaque and canopy-dwelling purple-faced leaf monkey (both endemics), plus grey langur—are observed here. Polonnaruwa’s “temple troop of toque macaques” has been featured in numerous natural history documentaries and is a part of the world’s longest continuous study of primates, initiated in 1968. Most recently they were the focus of Disneynature’s 2015 film Monkey Kingdom
. The monkeys here are habituated to the presence of humans, enabling us to observe their social interactions at close range. Whether play-fighting, feeding or grooming each other, their behavior offers endless entertainment.
Day 4: Kandy—Temple of the Sacred Tooth / Nuwara Eliya
In the morning, leave for Nuwara Eliya, a half-day's
drive from Habarana. En route we stop to visit the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, which houses Sri Lanka's most important Buddhist relic, a tooth believed to have been the Buddha's own. The temple was built in the 16th century as part of the royal palace complex at Kandy, the last capital of the Sri Lankan kings. Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it remains the most revered location in Sri Lanka. Since ancient times, the relic has played an important role in local politics, since it is believed that whoever holds the sacred tooth holds the right to govern the country. Thousands of white-clad pilgrims visit the site daily, bearing lotus blossoms and frangipani with which to make sacred offerings known as puja.
We continue to Nuwara Eliya at the heart of Sri Lanka's prime tea-producing region. The town was founded in the 19th century by the British, and its enduring nickname, "Little England," harks back to the colonial heritage of Ceylon, when these subtropical highlands were the sanctuary of the British civil servants and plantation owners. The temperate climate of this hill country retreat was ideal for pastimes such as jackal and deer hunting, polo, golf
and cricket, and it remains a popular travel destination for Sri Lankans today. The late afternoon is at leisure to relax and enjoy our hotel's peaceful setting. This evening, we learn about local amphibians on a guided walk.
Day 5: Horton Plains National Park / Hakgala Gardens / Nuwara Eliya
Rising early for a pre-dawn start, we head out with a packed breakfast for Horton Plains National Park, part of the broader Central Highlands of Sri Lanka World Heritage Site. On a nature walk through the cloud forest and grasslands, look for a variety of wildlife including endemic rhino-horned and hump-nosed lizards, and colorful highland bird species including the Sri Lanka white-eye, Sri Lanka wood pigeon, dull-blue flycatcher and yellow-eared bulbul. With a bit of luck, we may also encounter the elusive Sri Lanka whistling thrush and the old-world Sri Lanka bush warbler. Also, keep an eye out for sambar, Sri Lanka’s largest deer species, which are often spotted on the plains near the entrance of the park.
Later today we visit Hakgala Botanical Gardens. Originally created to grow cinchona (quinine), the gardens were established in 1884. The name comes from a legend that holds that Hanuman, the monkey god, was sent to the Himalayas to find a particular medicinal herb. He forgot which herb he was looking for and decided to bring a chunk of the Himalayas back in his jaw, hoping the herb was growing on it. The gardens grow atop a mountain called Hakgala, which means "jaw rock." Today thousands of species of flora are planted here, including a wide variety of orchids and roses. The gardens lie adjacent to Hakgala Nature Reserve, and we'll look for wildlife such as the shaggy-coated bear monkey and highland avian endemics including Sri Lanka white-eye, Sri Lanka scimitar babbler
and dull-blue flycatcher.
Day 6: Yala National Park
On the morning of Day 6, we depart the central highlands on a scenic drive to the south coast. Our destination is Yala National Park, which protects more than 320,000 acres of habitat for a great diversity of native wildlife. While the park was originally a hunting ground for colonial elites under British rule, it was established as a wildlife sanctuary in 1900 and designated a national park in 1938. From on high, Yala appears to be a variegated mosaic of green hues, a gently rolling carpet of shrub jungle, riverine forest and open plains, dotted with the deep blue mirrors of lakes and waterholes and punctuated by rocky outcrops, while the Indian Ocean coastline forms its eastern boundary.
We spend three nights in comfortable private safari tents, our base for exploring this reserve that's home to 44 mammal species and more than 250 different bird species. On arrival, a late afternoon safari reveals our first animal sightings as we keep a lookout from custom Land Cruisers designed for exploring these wild environs. The vehicles are quiet, so as not to disturb wildlife, and our drivers are seasoned local naturalists who are experts at spotting a multitude of species. Leopards are the star attraction here, and one sector of Yala National Park boasts one of the world's highest concentration of these large, elegant cats.
Days 7 & 8: On Safari in Yala
Over the next two days
we head out on early morning and late afternoon safaris in search of leopards and many other animals found throughout the park. We visit just after the monsoon season, when the forest has revived and is returning to its green lushness. Sightings may include Asian elephant, sloth bear, jackal, mugger crocodile, sambar, spotted deer, Asiatic buffalo, wild boar, grey langur, toque macaque and black-naped
Yala is also a superb birding location. Iridescent Indian peacocks and Sri Lanka junglefowl are plentiful, while white-bellied sea eagles, crested serpent eagles, grey-headed fishing eagle, brown fish owl and brahminy
kites are among the raptors species most commonly spotted. A dazzling array of waders and waterbirds is also on display, including greater sand plover, Eurasian spoonbill
and the endangered black-necked stork. Among the dry-zone species frequently observed are blue-faced malkohas, Malabar-pied hornbills, and chestnut, green and blue-tailed bee-eaters.
Day 9: South Coast / Ahangama
We drive this morning to Hambantota to visit Mirijjavila Botanical Gardens. Sprawling over 300 acres, Mirijjavila is the largest of Sri Lanka's five botanical gardens, developed specifically to conserve dry and arid zone plants of Sri Lanka. Prior to 2006, the terrain was comprised of thorny shrubs and abandoned agricultural lands. After several years of elaborate cultivation, Mirijjavila opened to the public in 2013, fulfilling its objectives for landscape improvement, botany and floriculture education, the promotion of medicinal herbs, and ecotourism development. After our tour of the gardens, we continue to Ahangama, arriving in time for lunch at our hotel. The rest of the afternoon is at leisure by the beach.
Day 10: Mirissa Whale Watching / Galle Fort
Early this morning, we set out with a packed breakfast for Mirissa harbor to go in search of blue whales—the largest animal on Earth—aboard a privately chartered vessel. Mirissa
, located on the very southern tip of Sri Lanka, is the world's top location for blue whale watching, with sightings occurring most mornings from mid-November through early April. Blue whales reside year-round in these warm Indian Ocean waters, and on our half-day excursion we may encounter mothers and calves, and pairs of males and females. We're also likely to see pods of playful spinner dolphins, and occasionally sperm whales, sometimes in super pods of 20 or more individuals—a rare spectacle! Numerous other cetaceans make periodic appearances, too, including fin whale, Bryde’s whale, orca, Risso’s dolphin, bottlenose dolphin and striped dolphin.
After lunch, visit Galle Fort, South Asia's best preserved
fortress, where a stroll along the ramparts offers panoramic views. Constructed by the Portuguese in 1588, it fell to the Dutch in 1640 and was extensively fortified in ensuing decades, eventually coming under British control in 1796. Today, the fort bears architectural evidence of multiple colonial influences. Extensive reconstruction by government archaeologists has maintained the sprawling complex of buildings and streets in fine form. Once the main port of call for ships sailing between the East and Europe, today Galle Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We'll explore its narrow lanes bustling with jewelry shops, numerous cafes and luxurious villas restored to their colonial splendor. Important sights within the fort are the Anglican and Dutch Reformed churches, the Galle Lighthouse and the National Maritime Museum.
Day 11: Whale Watching / Colombo
Another early morning of whale watching is in store as we once again board a privately chartered vessel in search of blue whales and other marine mammals. Once back on shore, we depart for Colombo, a three-hour drive. If time permits this afternoon, explore the highlights of Sri Lanka's attractive capital, with its captivating mix of 19th- and 20th-century colonial buildings and more recent modern architecture. We'll visit the Ganga Rama Temple, Viharamahadevi Park, Independence Square and the Galle Face Green, Colombo's famous oceanfront park and promenade laid out originally by the Dutch as a means to enable their cannons a strategic line of fire against the Portuguese. In the early 19th century it was used for horse racing, and later for cricket, golf, polo, football, tennis and rugby. This evening, say goodbye to your traveling companions at a farewell dinner.
Day 12: Colombo / Depart
After breakfast at our hotel, a transfer is included to Bandaranaike International Airport, approximately a one-hour drive.