Comprising 830 miles of coastline for water sports, national parks scattered throughout the country, and a guarantee to spot wildlife, Sri Lanka is an adrenaline junkie’s dream destination. Book a land or boat safari, mountain bike through local villages, glamp (or camp) in tea country, and throw on a wet suit for one of the many water sports opportunities.
And when you need to give your blood pressure a break, the country is also home to several must-see cultural and historical sights like Buddhist temples (including the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy) and eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Since both adventure and culture are integral for a true taste of Sri Lanka, consider booking a tour that offers both. REI recently launched Discover Sri Lanka (with dates through 2020), a guided trip that combines cultural activities with adventure—think climbing 1,200 steps to the top of an UNESCO World Heritage Site or hiking through tea country. (For slightly less adventurous but more family-friendly or food-centric experiences, Intrepid offers a few tour options.)
Sri Lanka is the perfect destination for thrill-seeking travelers. Find out the best things to do on an adventure trip to this tear-drop shaped island in Southeast Asia.
Climb to the Top of Sigiriya
Probably the country’s most iconic and recognizable landmark, Sigiriya (translating to “Lion’s Rock” in Sinhalese), is a 5th-century fort and palace. Along the 1,217 steps to the top of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, you’ll learn about the previous inhabitants of the rock, walk between a pair of giant, carved lion’s paws (great spot for a photo opp), pass by monks’ ancient paintings on the rock, and ultimately, reach the top where you’ll be rewarded with sprawling views of the valley below. Plan to make a visit to Sigiriya your first stop in the morning, as close to the park’s opening time as possible (7 a.m.)—not only will you beat the heat, but you’ll also beat the crowds. Even by 9 a.m., the park is pretty packed, and the single-file staircase to the top becomes a clogged funnel of people shuffling to the summit. Early risers will get gorgeous sunrise views and people-free photos.
Go on Safari
Going on safari is a given if you’re looking for adventure in Sri Lanka, but the tough part is deciding when and what type of safari to choose. One of the most popular spots is Yala National Park in the southern part of the country. Here, you’ll spot crocodiles, several species of birds, elephants, and—if you’re lucky—one of the evasive leopards. (Be sure to look up in the tree branches as well for these guys.) For a different experience, book a boat safari in Gal Oya National Park. Just as it sounds, this safari takes you on the water to cruise around in small boats that hold about 10 people. You’ll spot various bird species and also elephants on the rocks and islands around you. If you’re short on time, or just want to make sure you secure your elephant sighting before your return flight, head to Minneriya National Park. Up until 1997 when it was converted to a national park, this was an elephant sanctuary, and it’s considered one of the best places in Sri Lanka (and in the world) to spot large herds of elephants. It’s possible to spot groups of 20 or more at once, so get your cameras ready!
Glamp in an Eco Lodge
Adventure and luxury don’t have to be mutually exclusive. If sleeping on the ground isn’t your scene, take advantage of one of the country’s many options for glamping. You’ll get the same experience of being immersed in nature with wildlife right outside your tent, but with the hotel-like amenities. Consider glamping in the beautiful rolling hills of tea country at Madukelle Tea & Eco Lodge. Stay in one of 19 lodges perched on the hillside, offering breathtaking views of the mountains in the distance and valley below. Hang out on the porch of your tent to soak up the scenery, or get the same views while you relax poolside. If you’re up for venturing away from the luxury, you’ll find a few hiking trail options nearby that can be done with the lodge’s local guide, who can teach you about the animals and plants you’ll see.
For more of a jungle atmosphere, book a stay at Gal Oya Lodge, located just outside Gal Oya National Park. The lodge’s cabins are located a short walking distance away from the main house, so you’ll get a mini nature walk every time you head to your room. The isolation of these cabins allows you to hear the sounds of wildlife—peacocks, birds, geckos—from the comfort and safety of your room.
Go Whale Watching
Blue whales are endangered, so they’re typically pretty rare to spot; however, Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the Southern Hemisphere (and the world) to spot them. The most popular place to go whale watching to search for the elusive blue whale (or one of the many other whale species in the area) is in Mirissa, a town on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. There, November to April are prime whale watching season before monsoon season occurs in May through September and the waters become too rough. If spotting a blue whale is on your Sri Lanka bucket list, be sure to book a tour with a responsible tour company (one option is Raja and the Whales) that follows regulations for approaching whales and limiting the impact made on their environment.
Hike in the Knuckles Mountains
This mountain range (also known as the Dumbara mountain range) in central Sri Lanka gets its name from its appearance that looks like a clenched fist, and it’s home to several great hiking trails, especially due to its beautiful flora and fauna. You can hike to gorgeous caves and waterfalls, as well as spectacular viewpoints like Mini World’s End, but you’ll need a guide to assist you along the trails—lack of marked or mapped trails and unpredictable weather can make a solo visit dangerous. Since Kandy is a close and common starting point for many hikers, you can find local guides there, and many hotels can assist with that.
Bike Through the Country’s Best Sights
Sri Lanka’s varied terrain offers a variety of bicycling options—you can pedal alongside rice fields and local villages, you can test your endurance biking through the rolling hills of tea country, or you can ride a route that takes you through some of the country’s top historical and cultural highlights. For the latter, consider cycling the route of the Cultural Triangle, which winds through Buddhist temples, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, ancient cities, and more. The three corners are Kandy (a large city surrounded by tea plantations and home of the sacred Temple of the Tooth); Anuradhapura (the first ancient capital, dating back to 380 B.C. known for its well-preserved ruins); and Polonnaruwa (the second capital city after Anuradhapura that’s known for amazing archeological structures and for being the location of Disney’s Monkey Kingdom). Sigiriya is also on this route. Cycling around the Cultural Triangle to add some adventure to the sights you should visit on a trip.
Sri Lanka has several great surfing spots, most of which span the country from the southwest to the southeast, and choosing the best area mostly depends on when you’re visiting due to the country’s distinct wet (monsoon) and dry seasons. On the east coast, head to Arugam Bay from May to October during the region’s dry season. The southern and southwestern coasts are experiencing dry season from November to March, so during those times, you can visit the popular surf areas of Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna, or Midigama. Head further up the western side of the island for one of the most popular kite-surfing destinations, the Kalpitiya peninsula, where you can kite-surf in the calmer lagoon or cross to the other side of the peninsula to test your skills in the waves of the Indian Ocean.