Yala may be Sri Lanka’s definitive national park, but it isn’t southeast Sri Lanka’s only attraction. This rugged landscape of wild beaches, brackish lakes and rural farmland also encompasses 2 more excellent national parks as well as former royal capital Tissamaharama and Sithulpawwa, one of the country’s most spectacular Buddhist sites. What’s more, tourism here is much less developed than in other parts of the island, so it’s wonderfully peaceful and unspoilt.
Yala is home to the greatest diversity of wildlife in the country, and is particularly famed for its staggeringly high density of leopards (sighted year-round and with relative ease). You can also spot elephants, crocodiles, jackals, monkeys, wild boar, mongoose and deer, and sloth-bear sightings are common in May and June when the fruits of the palu tree ripen. Birds are prolific, too: highlights include the endemic Ceylon jungle fowl, the rare black-necked stork, and peacocks and bee-eaters posing amidst the thorny scrub.
If you’ve got a few days to spare, a detour to elephant-rich Uda Walawe or birders’ paradise Bundala. At Uda Walawe, 1.5 hours’ drive west, elephants are easily spotted bathing beside the lake while beautiful wetland Bundala, a similar distance south, is heaven for twitchers between October and March, when migrating shorebirds escape the European winter.
1. Picturesque Sithulpawwa, inside Yala, is a 2,000-years-old Buddhist temple with rock-top stupa (scared mound) and striking 360-degree jungle views.
2. Kirinda’s wild boulder-strewn coast is famed for the legend of Queen Viharamahadevi, a princess who, after being cast adrift to appease the gods for her father’s sins, washed up at Kirinda and went on to marry the king (pictured).
3. Tissamaharama, a provincial town, is home to stupas and a tree-fringed man-made lake. Seven sacred 10th-century rock reliefs stand at Buduruvagala, a Buddhist temple east of Buttala.
Allow time for a couple of game drives during your visit, to maximise your chances of success. We recommend rising early to catch the most opportunistic safari time of day; the wildlife is usually most activity active during the cooler hours around dawn and dusk. Although it’s hot during the day, mornings can be chilly so come prepared.
Lakes in the Yala region, including Palatupana, Yoda Wewa and Tissa Wewa, can be explored on foot. They offer plenty of wildlife sightings and make ideal side trips; our lodges can arrange guided tours.