Ultimate backpacking guide for Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, also known as “The Pearl of the Indian Ocean”, can give you as much for one as for three weeks. I am going to tell you about the 12-day route and the way I experienced Sri Lanka. Where I made new friends from all over the world, with whom I still maintain contact today, and the wonderful local people who will accompany you throughout this journey. All this with a daily budget of € 40, without being out of anything, surfing, diving and seeing elephants in the wild.

Sri Lanka, like most of its South-East Asian neighbors, is a very safe country. You can walk anywhere at all hours and move safely by public transport. In my case I went alone and I did not lack friends in any of the stops I made in all the cities.

Everything you need to know for your trip to Sri Lanka:

  1. Best time of year to visit Sri Lanka
  2. 12-day itinerary Backpacking Sri Lanka
    1. Day 1: Sigiriya and Dambulla
    2. Day 2: Anuradhapura
    3. Day 3: Kandy
    4. Day 4: The magic train to Ella and Maskeliya
    5. Day 5: Adam’s Peak
    6. Day 6: Ella
    7. Day 7: Udawalawe National Park
    8. Day 8: Surf in Weligama and Galle
    9. Day 9: Diving and Surf in Mirissa
    10. Day 10: Hikkaduwa
    11. Days 11 and 12: Xmas in Colombo
  3. Daily budget for backpacking Sri Lanka
  4. Where to stay in Sri Lanka
  5. What to do in Sri Lanka if you have more time

Official exchange rate 1EUR = 225 LKR

Best time of year to visit Sri Lanka

Unlike many countries in South-East Asia, it will be difficult for you to find a good time for 100% of your route due to the way in which the monsoons affect the country:

  • West, south-west and southern highlands: The rainy season runs from April to September.
  • East: The rainy season runs from November to March
  • North: It is quite dry

So, with the above information, we note that there is never a good time to go as it can always rain. Most of the highlights are in the western half of the island, therefore October-March is a good time. I went in December and it only rained in Ella (a very humid area).

12-day itinerary Backpacking Sri Lanka

Day 1: Sigiriya and Dambulla

The plane arrives at 04:00 am, everything is closed and public transport does not work, so if you find yourself in them, try to make time as necessary. I opted to go to the Negombo bus station, where for two hours I was chatting with the station guard while I watched as the station began to fill up. From there I made the following Negombo-Kurunegala-Dambulla route to my hostel.

Dambulla was my base for two days to see the region. The first day I dedicated it to Sigiriya. We could say that it is the obligatory stop in Sri Lanka. With its 370m high, it is the fourth largest rock in the world, contrary to what many may tell you, it is not necessary to climb to the top to enjoy it. Sigiriya, itself, is very crowded and you will find long lines to climb to its top (up to 2h in some cases). You will find the ruins of an ancient fortress. Its entrance is 5,500 LKR (€ 25) and you can get to it or from Dambulla with TukTuk for 1,500 LKR.

If you want to enjoy its views and save money, then you should go to a small mountain that is next to it, Pidurangala. From it you can enjoy the views of Sigiriya at the low price of 500LKR, it is worth thinking about if you are traveling on a tight budget.

Sigiriya Rock from Pidurangala

My recommendation, if you go as a backpacker, is to spend the night and spend the afternoon in Dambulla. Dambulla itself is not very attractive, but it is worth heading north of the city, strolling through the market and the main street in the direction of the Golden Temple of Dambulla 1,500 LKR. A series of temples carved into the mountain.

At night, we chilled out -with the hostel manager and some friends we met- until late playing Carrom (I still don’t understand the rules today, but I was pretty good at it) and drinking arrack, a typical drink of the country.

Day 2: Anuradhapura

From Dambulla, you will have two options when choosing which temple complex you want to visit: Anuradhapura or Polonaruwa. If you have time, you can dedicate a day to each one. In my case, I opted for Anuradhapura 5,000 LKR. You will be able to see the Bodhi tree, where it is said that Buddha attained enlightenment.

My recommendation is that you go by bus, you will see how crazy they are driving and if you sit near the front row, you will feel the danger like in an F1. You will find several options, although it is not that you will be able to choose, you will simply find it, bus with A / C or without A / C, its cost is between 120-220. The drive from Dambulla to Anuradhapura takes a couple of hours. Once you have arrived in Anuradhapura, I recommend that you rent a bicycle (for 900 LKR) and get lost pedaling between one temple and another, putting on and taking off your shoes every time you enter a sacred area. Until you get to the Bodhi tree. If you can, stop for a Cheese / Banana Roti at a street stall.

Day 3: Kandy

The next day it’s early morning to go to Kandy. The journey from Dambulla to Kandy is a real hell of almost 4 hours, although on the map it seems that it is next to it. It doesn’t matter which option you choose because the road is the same. You will see that you are in Kandy because, for the first time, you are going to experience the madness of the traffic of the chaotic city.

Kandy revolves around its lake. You can go around it with a nice one-hour walk. If you are interested in Buddhism, you must visit the Temple of the Buddha’s tooth (yes, you read that correctly, a tooth), a temple that houses the Buddha’s relic. In Kandy I met my friend Yoshi, who I met in Dambulla, and we were walking through the center and trekking for about 4 hours through the tea plantations and mountains around Kandy.

Day 4: The magic of the Train to Ella and Maskeliya

The magic begins, the train arrives to Ella. You must go to the Kandy train station to take the train to Ella, in our case we will stop in Hatton to get to Maskeliya, it will be our base to climb Adam’s Peak the next day.

The night before, at the hostel, I met two French girls who would be my companions for the next three days. Coincidentally they were also going to Adam’s Peak and we decided to improvise on the fly and go together.

Tip 1: You get to the platform, leaving the lobby you must stand on the left side of the platform, it is the one with the best views in the direction of Her. If this is the first train you take in Sri Lanka, prepare for the fight. The locals are not going to move for you to go up, so throw your backpacks inside, find a place to leave them and little by little make a hole near the doors. The locals are more friendly than some posturetis, if you talk to them and take pictures together, they will leave you space so you can enjoy the views hanging from the train doors.

Tip 2: If you go with a lot of time, you can still book the train in one of the first classes, but under my point, it loses the essence of Sri Lanka. Sitting on the ground, the smells, the vendors passing between wagons selling candy, peanuts, and all kinds of food. Do not worry, the tickets do not run out and you leave five or six trains a day, this journey costs 150 LKR.

Once in Hatton you must go up to Maskeliya (30min from the door of Adam’s Peak), the host of our homestay was super nice and organized an excursion with him and his daughter to some waterfalls and tea plantations, and we even had the Opportunity to play cricket and volleyball with a group of Tamil children.

Day 5: Adam’s Peak

It’s 2:00 am, the alarm goes off … How are those legs? You have ahead, nothing more and nothing less, than 5,500 steps or what is the same to climb 343 floors. Are you ready???

We head to the highest point of the island, Adam’s Peak (200 LKR), bundle up because it’s cold and humid, I recommend that you bring a raincoat. From here (depending on how fit you are) a climb of between 2:00 and 3:30 awaits you. Most locals will tell you that you are closer to 3:30 than 2 hours. If, on the other hand, you are relatively fit and have a good rhythm, you will reach the top, having at least an hour to wait until the sun rises, in which to wait under a blanket of clouds.

When you have reached the top, you will see that everyone takes off their shoes and goes to a bell that must be hit as many times as you have climbed, one in most cases for tourists. You will be surprised how many times the local elders hit the bell. Something that seemed very sad to me and I do not agree at all is the carriers, they carry groups of rich Thais on a kind of stretcher and four boys raise and lower them to the top so that they do not have to tire.

You will realize that it will be eight in the morning and you will have everything done, I recommend that you do not do much more throughout the day. In our case, we dedicate ourselves to enjoying 6 hours of views in the direction of Ella, where we end up spending the night.

Day 6: Ella

The town of Ella is perhaps the most touristic place in the country and, consequently, the most expensive, despite that you will find options for all budgets. From Ella you will have different excursions: Little Adam’s Peak, Rawana Falls etc… But what you cannot miss is the bridge of the 9 Arches Bridge. You can walk towards it by the train track, from the town heading east, it will take you about 45min.

9 Arches Bridge

At the end of the day, we took a car with a boy from Belgium (who I met the day before) and headed towards Udawalawa. The town that is next to the gates of the National Park to start our safari the next morning. Read later about the homestay, by far the best and where I ate the best throughout the trip.

Day 7: Udawalawe National Park

At this point you will have the doubt that we all get when we consider the safari, which is the best, in which one will I see more animals … There are basically three options:

  • Yala: In the south-east of the island, elephants predominate, but you can get to see jaguars.
  • Udawalawe: The one that I did and I am going to explain to you, we saw elephants in abundance, some crocodiles, buffaloes and various birds. It is located in the south of the island.
  • Minneriya: Perhaps the least popular, but predominantly elephants. A good option if you focus your trip in the northern part of Sri Lanka.

We negotiate the price directly at the homestay we stayed in, the price includes Jeep, guide and entrance to the park for 7,000 LKR. There is no one who can promise to see more or less animals. All the Jeep are driving through the park and talking to each other on the radio. That was the price per person, in a Jeep for two. The experience must be said that it was spectacular, we had elephants in freedom inches from us and, it must be admitted that, we saw many, many specimens. They are wild animals and they looked very well cared for. The rangers ask you to be quiet, so as not to disturb them and they are very respectful.

In the afternoon take the bus to Mirissa, changing at Embiliplityyia and Matara (for 190 LKR). If you are tired of the bus, you can take a taxi which costs around LKR 3,000.

Day 8: Surf in Weligama and visit to Galle

Weligama and Mirissa are the reference place in Sri Lanka for all those who want to start surfing or simply relax on the beach. Perfect for initiation for a reason, very long sandy beaches and waves of 1 to 1.5 meters high. Although at first it may seem like a lot, it is perfect to start with the sport. These conditions have led to the concentration of a multitude of schools along its beaches. They all have similar prices and services, although you will also find surf camp. In my case, I took a monitor for two hours, plus two hours of equipment rental, for only 2,500 LKR, a real bargain. I highly recommend you guys at Surf’n’lanka in Weligama.

In the afternoon, I took the bus in the same Mirissa towards Galle, an old fortification that was a Dutch colony. It is an hour away.

When night falls and people have already dined, you will see that everyone is concentrated in the same point on the beach, to find it you just have to follow the lights in the sky and the music. You will find a place on the beachfront with parties and people wanting to have fun until the wee hours of the morning.

Day 9: Diving and surf in Mirissa

My second day in Mirissa was a double session of salt and sand. In the morning we continue with surfing in Weligama and in the afternoon diving in Mirissa. There are different diving spots in Mirissa 8-9 in particular and the marine diversity without knowing much about it is quite varied.

Warning! In most certified diving schools they do not ask for a PADI certificate and you will be able to do the dive anyway. In my case, I did both dives with a boy who was learning Open Water and the experience was great, both because of the professionalism of the Sri Lanka Diving center instructors and the diving experience itself. I felt very safe at all times.

Surf’n’lanka Weligama

It is a good country to obtain the PADI Open Water certificate, since it will cost you half that in any country in South-East Asia and Europe, in my case two dives cost me 11,000 LKR.

Day 10: Hikkaduwa

There is little to say about Hikkaduwa, perhaps the only thing I would not repeat of my stay in Sri Lanka … They are all resorts, full of Russian tourists, very focused on mass tourism with little attraction in the city, I decided to spend the night, do two hours of surfing in the morning to continue my initiation and take a mid-morning train to Colombo.

Days 11 and 12: Xmas in Colombo

If it is your first stop in Colombo you are going to hallucinate with the city because, it has nothing to do with what you have seen so far. An Oceanfront full of skyscrapers, with offices and luxury hotels. This is because China is investing large resources in Sri Lanka to develop a Port Hub and a WTC in the capital, to compete with India.

The first afternoon in Colombo I spent visiting Gangaramaya Temple, Viharamahadevi Park and strolling through Galle Face Green. If you go there in the morning you will find absolutely nothing, but in the afternoon it is filled with families flying their kites, street food stalls and a pleasant atmosphere in front of the Indian Ocean.

At night I went back to the hostel to celebrate Christmas. It was the first Christmas I spent away from home and a German, a Maldivian, an American and a Japanese got together, and we were celebrating Christmas in the pool while a universal flood fell.

The next day, as I don’t sleep much, I went to visit the north of the city, although since it was Christmas, there were many places that were closed. Despite this, I was able to visit Pettah Market and Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque. You can see Colombo in one day, but since it was the end of my trip, I did it with much more calm and dedicating more time than strictly necessary.

Daily budget backpacking Sri Lanka

If you have been doing the math, you will see that the trip is very economical even doing everything, then I show you my costs by category that I had:

Daily budget backpacking Sri Lanka

As you can see, the cost of the trip will be marked by the leisure activities that you are going to do, tickets to monuments, parks etc … which usually cost around € 20-30. It depends on the budget you have, you can enjoy the whole country for a budget of between € 20-40 a day. Obviously, eating at streetfood stands costs about 1/3 of eating in a seated restaurant, and the accommodations are usually hostels (in most cases).

You can buy a SIM card when you arrive at the airport, the cheapest is Airtel and costs 900 LKR, about € 4 to change. The data lasted me 10 days. You can change at the same airport practically without commission or withdraw from any ATM for free with N26. If you don’t have an N26 register and earn 25€ of free credit.

Transportation is another point at which your budget can skyrocket. Taxis are going to cost you about ten times more than a bus, the disadvantage is that the latter usually does not have A / C, the good part is the wonderful local people that you will meet in them.

Tip: Do not withdraw money at source, the exchange houses in Sri Lanka have very good exchange rates, you can withdraw money at the Colombo airport without losing the change, or use the N26 card to withdraw cash with 1.3% commission from any ATM in the world.

Where to stay in Sri Lanka

I am only going to recommend the places that I liked and where I found a good atmosphere and people wanting to have a good time, I will also tell you places to avoid if applicable, nobody wants to fall into a tourist trap or somewhere that you die of boredom. Warning! If you are looking for luxury hotels or villas, skip to the next point.

  • BedBox // Dambulla: Perhaps one of the few accommodations in Dambulla, very well located, great staff, we were playing traditional board games until late. They also have private rooms.
  • Alleyway Hostel Kandy // Kandy: A friend I met in Dambulla followed me to Kandy and we stayed here, the great staff took us in the TukTuk downtown and we had dinner together at the hostel. There I met two girls who would accompany me to Ella.
  • Riverview Inn // Maskeliya: It is not a luxury nor is it cheap, but the family of this beautiful Homestay treated us as if we were his own family and gave us all the facilities. The owner had been a journalist for the Sri Lankan government’s foreign office and now he lived quietly running this homestay.
  • Nature Lovers Family House & Resort // Udawalawa: Perhaps the place where I ate the best in the whole trip and the one with the best conditioning. Ideal for families.
  • Boho Hostel Mirissa // Mirissa: Young and relaxed atmosphere, a bit far from the beach 10-15min on foot, but you will meet people and have a good time. That is, if in the rooms it looks like the north pole.
  • Island Hostels Colombo // Colombo: It is a very large hostel in the financial center of Colombo. The bunks are like capsules with your own curtain and your privacy, impeccably clean and with a very good atmosphere.

What to do in Sri Lanka if you have more days

  • Jaffna, discovering the north: If you deviate north you will break with what you have seen to date in Sri Lanka. A culturally distinct region highly influenced by Tamil culture where you will hardly find tourists.
  • Windsurfing in Kalpitiya: If you are a lover of sailing sports this is your destination, the Puttalam Lagoon with very calm waters and good gusts of wind, offers the perfect conditions for lovers of this sport.
  • Beaches in Trincomalee: Heavenly beaches, depending on the time of year you should see if the east or west of the island is more convenient for you to relax on the beach. Trincomalee is gaining popularity in recent years
  • Surf in Arugam: this area is characterized by ideal conditions for surfers of the most advanced level.

Of course the rest of the temples like Polonnaruwa, the other two safaris and any other trekking.

I hope I have convinced you and helped you with some advice from this post.

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