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Best safari in Sri Lanka – Udawalawe or Yala?

by Natalia
Elephant sighting on safari in Udawalawe, Sri Lanka

Last Updated on December 11, 2021 by Sam

One of the big questions for wildlife lovers travelling Sri Lanka is whether to go on safari in Yala National Park or Udawalawe National Park or both. Most people prioritise a visit to Yala National Park as it’s one of the best places in the world to see leopards in the wild, but as a result the park is very busy. Udawalawe National Park is known for its herds of wild elephants, and has the advantage of being much quieter than Yala. Having been on safari in both national parks we created this guide to help you decide which is the best national park for your safari in Sri Lanka – Udawalawe or Yala.

How to decide between Udawalawe or Yala?

Wildlife

Udawalawe

Udawalawe National Park is home to around 500 elephants, and sightings of these gentle giants are almost guaranteed inside the park. Often seen in large herds of up to 100 at a time, they’re pretty easy to find!

If seeing wild elephants is a priority for you then you should opt for Udawalawe over Yala. You’re still fairly likely to see elephants in Yala, but sightings aren’t as common as they do not stay in as large groups.

Although the elephants are the main attraction at Udawalawe, there are plenty more incredible animals inside the park including crocodiles, monkeys, buffalo and a good variety of birds. Leopards and sloth bears do live in the park but sightings are incredibly rare – so don’t expect to see them!

Elephants in Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka

Yala

Yala National Park is one of the best places in the world to see leopards in the wild. Sightings aren’t guaranteed, but the park is home to the highest density of leopards in the world which gives you a good chance! If seeing a leopard is your priority then Yala is definitely the best safari in Sri Lanka.

On top of that, the park is also home to the elusive sloth bear. Although both sloth bears and leopards are present in Udawalawe, they’re very rarely seen there. In contrast, with a bit of luck it’s possible to have sightings of a sloth bear and a leopard on one safari in Yala!

There are many other incredible species found in the national park, including elephants, deer, crocodiles, buffalo, monkeys and more. The park is also home to an abundance of birdlife including hornbills, kingfishers, eagles and hoopoes to name just a few!

Sri Lanka safari cost

The price of a safari in Sri Lanka at Yala or Udawalawe largely depends on how you book. Despite both parks technically having the same entrance fees, safaris in Yala usually cost considerably more.

There are often a number of fees required to enter the parks, including the entrance fee, a service charge, vehicle fee and VAT. Unfortunately the Department of Wildlife Conservation in Sri Lanka no longer list entrance fees for Yala or Udawalawe on their website.

Exact costs vary depending on your group size and how you decide to book your safari. Arranging your safari yourself can be complicated, so we recommend booking through your accommodation or a travel agent as it’s much easier.

If you do arrange your safari yourself it will end up being cheaper as you will only need to pay for the park fees and for jeep hire. Unfortunately this isn’t that easy to arrange, so the best option is to get quotes from your accommodation and travel agents and pick the best deal.

A buffalo sighting on safari in Sri Lanka - one of the animals that can be seen in Udawalawe or Yala

In general a safari in Udawalawe will cost less than a safari in Yala. For Yala National Park prices start from around $45 USD per person for a half day safari, and from around $60 USD per person for a full day safari.

At Udawalawe National Park prices start from around $28 USD per person for a 3 hour safari. Although it is possible to do full day safaris at Udawalawe, we recommend doing no more than a half day as this gives you plenty of time to see the elephants and other wildlife inside the park.

The prices listed above include the entrance fees to the national park, but not all operators include these as part of the price. It’s important to check whether these are included before booking, as otherwise you may end up having to pay more on the day!

It is possible to do private safaris in both Udawalawe and Yala, but these cost more than doing shared safaris. Unless you’re a big group then we wouldn’t recommend doing a private safari as it leads to the park being busier with jeeps, and it also costs more anyway!

You may see options for a luxury jeep safari in Sri Lanka at Yala or Udawalawe, but in reality the use of the word luxury changes very little. It’s likely you will end up in a similar jeep with no real extra luxury, so make sure to read what is included to see if you’re getting value for money by paying more for luxury!

Monkeys in Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka

Busyness

One of the key differences between the two national parks is that Yala is much busier than Udawalawe. When on safari in Yala you’ll see lots of jeeps throughout the day, and if there is a leopard or sloth bear sighting then it’s likely you’ll be amongst a group of at least 10 jeeps trying to get a good view.

In contrast, in Udawalawe it’s possible to be the only jeep in sight at times – even when you’re watching a herd of elephants. As a result, safaris in Udawalawe feel a bit more wild as you don’t see as many other people and jeeps whilst you’re there.

Leopard and sloth bear sightings are seen as a priority in Yala, so the guides communicate with each other via walkie-talkies. If there is a sighting then lots of jeeps rush to the spot so you can try and get a glimpse.

One thing we did notice is that in Yala the drivers don’t always give animals the space and respect they deserve. During our visit we had a sloth bear sighting where around 20 jeeps chased after it and overcrowded it. It’s understandable that guides want their visitors to see the amazing wildlife, but in our opinion not all drivers put the wellbeing of the animals first.

It’s personal preference as to whether the busyness of the park affects whether you want to visit. In our opinion going on safari when it’s quieter is a much more enjoyable experience, but then you have to consider that you won’t get to see leopards or sloth bears in Udawalawe. 

Best safari in Sri Lanka – Udawalawe or Yala?

The two key factors to consider when deciding whether to visit Udawalawe or Yala are whether you want to have a chance of seeing a leopard and whether the national parks being busy will bother you.

If your goal is to see a leopard or sloth bear then Yala National Park is undoubtedly the best option for your safari in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately even in Yala sightings of leopards and sloth bears aren’t guaranteed, but you have a reasonable chance of seeing at least one of them.

Alternatively, if you’re happy no matter what animals you see on safari in Sri Lanka then Udawalawe is the better option as you can enjoy the nature and wildlife without the crowds. Safaris at Yala feel a lot more hectic, whereas in Udawalawe you can go at a more leisurely pace as the park is far less busy.

Having visited both national parks ourselves it’s not really possible to say either Yala or Udawalawe is the better of the two. Seeing a wild leopard and sloth bear on safari in Yala was a truly special moment, but being one of the few people on safari in Udawalawe made it more enjoyable on the whole.

Ultimately it’s up to you what you want to prioritise. As both national parks are relatively close together it’s easy enough to add them both into a south Sri Lanka itinerary – that way you can judge for yourself which you prefer and hopefully see the best each park has to offer.

Best time to visit Udawalawe or Yala

Udawalawe

Udawalawe National Park is open to visitors all year round, so you can visit no matter what month(s) you’re travelling in Sri Lanka. There is a good chance of seeing elephants and other wildlife in the park regardless of when you visit.

Migratory birds visit Udawalawe National Park from November to April, which makes this a good time to visit for any bird lovers.

Blue-tailed bee-eater in Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka

Yala

Yala National Park usually closes during September and October, which is important to know before planning your trip. Aside from that it’s hard to say when exactly is best to visit as a lot of what you see is down to luck.

The dry season in Yala National Park runs from around February to September. During these months animals are more likely to be drinking from lagoons and watering holes in the park, which gives a better chance of sightings.

Migratory birds are found in Yala from October to April, which is something to consider for birdwatchers. For any avid birders we also recommend visiting the nearby Bundala National Park.

 Booking a safari in Udawalawe or Yala

Udawalawe

The easiest way to book a safari in Udawalawe is to either do so via your accommodation or using Get Your Guide. There are plenty of accommodation options in the town of Udawalawe, and pretty much all of them are able to arrange safaris for guests.

Prices will vary so it’s worth looking for a few different operators, but we found there are less companies offering safaris here in comparison to Yala. Booking a safari through your accommodation can be a bit hit and miss, so try to check reviews to see if previous guests recommend taking a safari with them.

Whoever you decide to book with, make sure to check out reviews on websites like Trip Advisor to help give you the best possible safari in Sri Lanka.

If you book through Get Your Guide you’re able to see reviews from other travellers who have booked the exact same tour. Safaris in Udawalawe on Get Your Guide start from around $25 USD per person depending on your group size, excluding entrance fees.

Click here to book an amazing Udawalawe safari through Get Your Guide!

If you don’t want to stay in the area but still want to visit then it’s possible to visit Udawalawe on a day trip from popular destinations like Ella and Mirissa. Day trips can be booked through Klook and Get Your Guide, so just visit their websites and find the best deal!

Elephants are easy to spot in Udawalawe

Yala

The nearest major town to Yala National Park is Tissamaharama, also known as just Tissa, which is the best place to stay when visiting the park. There are plenty of hotels and resorts in the area, which are perfectly located for you to go on safari. If you stay in Tissa then you’ll also have the chance to visit Bundala National Park, which is home to some amazing birdlife.

It’s best to arrange your safari in advance when visiting Yala to ensure you go with a good quality, reliable operator. We recommend using Trip Advisor to figure out which companies are best and then contacting them to get a quote for a price.

Companies will tell you the different safari packages they offer, including their half day and full day options. We recommend going for the full day as it gives you a better chance of a leopard and/or sloth bear sighting.

Crocodiles can be seen in Yala or Udawalawe National Park

For our safari in Yala National Park we went with Yala Kings. In our experience they provided a great service at a competitive price, and the guide had a great eye for spotting animals so we saw a great range of wildlife. They also worked hard to ensure we got a leopard sighting, which made it a great day overall!

Another option is to book your Sri Lanka safari tour through Get Your Guide. They offer safaris in Yala National Park and you can see the reviews in advance to ensure you’re paying for a good service. Safaris through Get Your Guide start from as little as $60 USD per person depending on your group size, including lunch and all entrance fees.

Click here to book an unforgettable safari in Yala National Park through Get Your Guide!

It’s also possible to visit Yala on a day trip from some of Sri Lanka’s other popular destinations. Just search through Klook and Get Your Guide as there are several tours available depending on where you’re coming from!

Where to stay in Yala or Udawalawe?

Yala

Koragaha Lodge

Located on the outskirts of Yala National Park, Koragaha Lodge is a brilliant accommodation option. The property’s swimming pool and quiet location make it the perfect place to relax when you aren’t on safari spotting leopards!

Rooms at the lodge are comfortable and air-conditioned, and meals can be pre-ordered to suit your schedule. Staff at the property are extremely helpful and can assist in arranging safaris at Yala National Park if necessary.

Prices start from $114 USD per night, and you can opt to include meals at the time of booking if you wish.

Click here to arrange a wonderful stay at the Koragaha Lodge on Booking.com!

Udawalawe

Kalu’s Hideaway

Kalu’s Hideaway is the perfect hotel for your safari in Sri Lanka, situated in a peaceful location near Udawalawe National Park. The hotel has a lovely swimming pool from which you can sometimes see a variety of interesting birdlife in the garden.

One of the best things about staying at Kalu’s Hideaway is the amazing staff, who will do anything they can to ensure you have a wonderful stay. Rooms at the property are comfortable and air-conditioned, and food is available on site too.

Prices start from $144 USD per night, which is good value for one of the best hotels in Udawalawe.

Click here to book a great stay at Kalu’s Hideaway on Booking.com!

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