Also a part of the #HalfALocal Series about my adventures around Sri Lanka!
Habarana + Minneriya National Park + Sigiriya Rock
So after writing about my fave tour through the South of Sri Lanka, here’s my second fave tour through the north-central province of Sri Lanka. There’s a lot of culture and history in this part of the country, so there are many ways you could do this trip. There are many hotels to stay in and different routes you can take so I’m sure some people will have a different opinion than me. You can do this tour combining Polannaruwa + Dambulla as well. However, this is a 48 Hour Guide based on the way I have done this trip multiple times! In my opinion, Habarana is a very central point for all the activities you can do in this part of Sri Lanka.
DRIVE TO HABARANA (184KM from Colombo)
The drive from Colombo to Habarana usually takes about 4 to 5 hours depending on what time you leave Colombo. I recommend leaving in the early morning so that you can get to Habarana by lunchtime. Stopping for snacks and tea along the way is up to your discretion but usually, it’s a journey you can make in one go. If anyone knows of some secret spots along the way, I’d love to hear about them in the comments!
There are many beautiful hotels that you can stay at in this area, that all vary vastly in price depending on the kind of accommodation you would like. I recommend booking.com to search for a hotel in your price range – the cheapest hotels start at about 4500lkr (24usd) per night. When I travel with friends or family, I like to stay at either the Cinnamon Lodge (5 Star) or the Cinnamon Village (4star) hotels in Habarana. Believe me when I say though, I have never paid an exorbitant price to stay in either of these hotels.
(This works with almost any Cinnamon Hotel – as long as you are not fussed about when exactly you can make this trip).
Step 1. In this case, I recommend booking on the Cinnamon website rather than Booking.com.
Step 2. Choose the hotel you want to stay at (doesn’t have to be a hotel in Habarana – this works for all Cinnamon Hotels).
Step 3. Choose your dates (This is important – choose dates that are in the ‘off-season’ or at the very end of normal ‘seasons’ for cheaper rates – I usually find no difference in the quality of my stay. I also prefer to go to touristy places like Sigiriya or on safari during the offseason because it’s way less crowded).
Step 4. Pick a room option.
Step 5. Here’s the tip: The website will give you different options such as ‘30% off + free dinner or 40% off + free lunch). These are the options you should pick. Most of the time, when you make a booking at a hotel, your breakfast is included in the price by default. By choosing one of these options with Cinnamon, you get a discount off the original price plus the option of a free lunch or dinner within that price, which means that you would be saving money for your entire stay. Usually, meals at big hotels that are outside of buffet hours cost half a kidney so this option is the way to go!
Check out the screenshot below (Prices are up at the moment because of curfew but usually you will be able to get a room for about $60-$80 (15,000lkr) which I think is a fair price for hotels of this standard, especially if you split the price between two people). In this screenshot we see that a room without breakfast costs $121 (which is similar to the price you would be shown on a website like booking.com), however, for $6 more, you get breakfast and dinner added to your price (for two people!), effectively giving you a half-board stay at the hotel.
Of course, if you wish you could just book the bed and breakfast only option as well, and opt to visit local establishments in the area or other hotels in the vicinity (which will be expensive). I prefer to eat at the hotel however, as a very severe bout of food poisoning once from a very suspicious looking kotthu has put me off eating from unknown establishments in most parts of the country!
The above is not a foolproof method of getting a cheaper stay, however, if you play around with the dates for a bit I guarantee you that you will be able to find a price that suits you. My screenshot example isn’t great right now because all the website prices are wonky due to COVID-19 so I will update this post once I can get a better screenshot.
Tip 2: Jetwing Hotels have a similar deal on their website with their room rush deals but I’m not a fan of this because the website is a bit complicated and it always shows you the default price for 1 person instead of the standard 2 person room. It only shows you the actual (more expensive price) when you’re halfway through check out. – Sorry Jetwing, Cinnamon Hotels win this round!
Lunch at your hotel + Evening safari
Regardless of which hotel you choose to stay at, I recommend a quick lunch, nap or dip in the pool after your long ride there.
Now for one of my favourite parts – it’s safari time!
If you’re a local, you know that it will be cheaper to organise your safari tour outside of the hotel by driving towards the national parks – however, it’s up to you if you want to pay more for a jeep + guide from the hotel you are staying at. Regardless of which option you choose, your jeep will most probably come and pick you up at your hotel around 2:30-3PM.
Now you have the option to choose between visiting Minneriya National Park and Kaudulla National Park. Depending on the time of year and the weather conditions, your hotel or your safari driver will recommend which park to enter. Minneriya is about 10KM from Habarana and Kaudulla is about 25KM away.
Pros and Cons
Minneriya: Minneriya is the more popular park but also the more expensive (for foreigners especially). It is also the more crowded park. However, during the ‘Elephant Gathering’ which happens between August to September each year, you’ll be able to witness a gathering of almost 200 elephants. This part of the year is a dry season so the elephants all make their way to the Minneriya Water Tank.
Kaudulla: Personally, I prefer this park. It’s a bit quieter in terms of the number of jeeps in the park with you, and even though you may not see 200 elephants in one go, I guarantee you, you will see multiple large elephant herds scattered throughout the park. One of my favourite memories from Kaudulla was when my friends and I sat for an hour in one spot watching a herd of about 30 elephants and their babies make their way from the shade of the trees towards the water during sunset for a bath! So beautiful.
Tip: Your guide will know this but you have to be out of the parks by sunset/around 6:30PM so if you stick around for the beautiful sunsets, make sure you’re closer to the parks entrance or that the driver gets you back on time to avoid paying a fine.
Tip 2: Tip your driver or tracker if you were happy with the ride! The price you pay is up to your discretion but you should take into consideration how long the tour was and how many people were in the jeep.
Return to your hotel for dinner and sleep early cause you need to wake up early for your next adventure!
Breakfast at your hotel → go to Sigiriya/Pidurangala
Again, you have one of two options. The most common option is heading to Sigiriya Rock and climbing to the top. I recommend this if you’ve never done it before. However, as a foreigner, the prices here are exorbitant. I consider myself Sri Lankan but I have a foreign passport – due to this there’s usually a bit of an issue when I try to enter tourist-y places. In most cases, such as the National Parks or smaller tourist hotspots, I usually get away with paying local prices if I speak in Sinhalese and tell them I was born here. However, Sigiriya is one of the most popular sites in Sri Lanka and I have always had to pay the ‘foreign fee’ which is upwards of 4500lkr ~ $24 (compared to about 100lkr ~ $0.50 for locals). The Government departments that run the cultural and tourist sites justify these costs by saying that the payments are used for the upkeep of the locations and to pay staff. In my opinion though, as a country that thrives on backpackers and budget travellers, charging such a fee is just off-putting to the average tourist. That being said, I do think you should do Sigiriya at least once in your life.
If you want to avoid Sigiriya and the crowds, the second option that is becoming much more popular is Pidurangala Rock, which is 2KM away. The entrance to this is through a temple, and even though when I went last it was free, I have now heard that they do expect a small donation, especially from tourists. Climbing this rock takes about 20-30 minutes and it can be quite steep in some areas, but the climb is so worth it! At the top, you’ll be able to see Sigirya rock at a distance and also get a full 360degree view of the surrounding jungle and national parks. It’s a popular spot for sunrises!
Tip: As the entrance to this is through a temple, you’ll have to cover your shoulders and knees to be able to gain entrance. They will have scarves and sarongs for you there though.
For both these hikes it is recommended that you go either early morning or late afternoon, as the scorching sun will make your hike extremely uncomfortable at any other time of the day.
Usually by the time I get back to the hotel after this climb, I’m knackered and don’t want to do anything else so I’ll usually grab a book or a cocktail and hang out by the pool for the rest of the day.
If you’re staying at either of the Cinnamon Hotels, there’s plenty of activities you can do in the hotel such as getting a massage or borrowing one of their bikes to tour the property. Both hotels are home to 100’s of monkeys but if you’re staying at Cinnamon Lodge you’ll really get a full dose of monkey – they will be everywhere as soon as you open your front door! These monkeys are the same one that star in Disneys Monkey Kingdom, which was filmed in Sri Lanka. This monkey species, called Torque Macaque, are endemic to Sri Lanka.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this guide! If you have any questions, please ask away in the comments!