If you want to see elephants in the wild, Udawalawe National Park in Sri Lanka is the perfect place to do so. We did an elephant safari in Udawalawe National Park and it was one of the best experiences of our Sri Lanka trip.
Seeing these magnificent animals in the wild is always an awe-inspiring experience. In this guide I’ve put together everything you need to know about doing an elephant safari at Udawalawe National Park.
Discover how to get to Udawalawe National Park, safari prices, what to expect, where to stay and more. So let’s dive in, and let’s start planning that elephant safari!
- 1 About Udawalawe National Park
- 2 Getting to Udawalawe National Park
- 3 Sri Lanka elephant safari prices
- 4 Organising & booking your Udawalawe safari
- 5 Our experience & what to expect at Udawalawe National Park
- 6 Where to stay for the best Sri Lanka elephant safari
- 7 What to pack for your elephant safari in Sri Lanka
About Udawalawe National Park
Udawalawe National Park is home to around 500 elephants, as well as other animal species such as boars, leopards (although these are very hard to see), crocodiles, deer and loads of different species of birds.
The national park was established in 1972 and covers an area of 30,000 hectares. It was created to provide a sanctuary for the wild animals displaced by the construction of the Udawalawe Reservoir and dam.
With so many elephants in a relatively small space, it’s the place everyone goes to if they want to be “guaranteed” to spot elephants.
Obviously you can never have 100% certainty when it comes to wild animals, but at Udawalawe it’s pretty much guaranteed that you will see elephants.
The best time to visit Udawalawe National Park for a safari is either at 7AM or 6PM. Early in the morning or at sunset is when the animals come out, during the day it’s too hot and they’ll be sheltering somewhere in the shade.
Getting to Udawalawe National Park
Udawalawe National Park is 165km from Colombo, in the southern regions of Sri Lanka. The easiest way to get there is either by hiring a car and driver or with an organised tour.
Most people travel to Udawalawe from either the hill town of Ella or the southern coast, such as Mirissa and Weligama. You can also get a bus from any of these towns, they might just take a little longer than a private car.
We hired a car with driver to take us from Ella to Udawalawe, wait for us while we did the safari and then drive on to Mirissa for 11,000 LKR.
The total travel time was around 4 hours (2 hours from Ella to Udawalawe and then 2 hours from Udawalawe to Mirissa).
Sri Lanka elephant safari prices
One thing to note about doing an elephant safari at Udawalawe National Park is that there are separate fees for the jeep rental and the park entrance.
Some organised tours might include both, but make sure that is the case before booking so you don’t get any surprises on the day!
We organised our Udawalawe safari through our hostel in Ella and ended up paying 11,000 LKR for a private safari for two. The breakdown was 3,000 LKR for the private jeep and 8,000 LKR of park entrance fees.
The jeep could sit 6-8 people. If we had more friends to split the car with the cost would have worked out a little cheaper.
However the bulk of the expense is the park entrance fee, which is fixed at 15 USD per foreign adult. Comparatively the private jeep rental was fairly cheap.
If you’re travelling solo however it would add up to be quite expensive, joining a group safari would be the easiest and cheapest option.
Organising & booking your Udawalawe safari
There are two main ways to arrange your elephant safari in Sri Lanka. You can arrange it with your accommodation once you arrive, or you can book online beforehand.
We personally found it very easy to arrange it directly in Ella, but if you prefer to have everything arranged before you arrive, here are some tours you can book that have good reviews online:
- Udawalawe National Park Safari Tour
- Udawalawe National Park Safari from Mirissa
- Elephant Safari in Udawalawe National Park from Bentota
Our experience & what to expect at Udawalawe National Park
We set off from Ella at 5AM and were pretty knackered. We slept in the car and arrived at Udawalawe around 6AM, to find loads of jeeps and cars already parked there waiting for the park to open.
We quickly found our driver and changed cars for the safari. We joined the queue of jeeps waiting for the park to open.
We were in awe to see our first elephant before even entering in the park! We were on the road to enter the park, waiting in the jeep when an elephant just strolled up and started munching on some leaves just off the side of the road.
It was a great start to our Sri Lankan elephant safari!
Once we drove through the gate we had to pay the park entrance fees. We queued with our driver and paid 8,000 LKR for two people. After a quick toilet stop, we were ready to hit the road!
We spent 2-3 hours inside Udawalawe National Park, driving around and searching for elephants. The driving can get quite bumpy but we had the whole jeep just for us two, which was very convenient.
Even if it was so early in the morning the sun got very hot, it was nice having the whole jeep to ourselves so we could seat hop and always be in the shade.
It was also great being able to move around and get closer to the elephants without having strangers in the way.
We saw so many elephants that I was in a constant state of wonder for the whole safari. We saw so many elephants, often in big groups and with baby elephants with them too.
Most of the time the elephants are just chilling on the side of the roads, munching away, unfazed by the presence of jeeps and people looking at them. They just get on with their business and ignore the jeeps.
One thing to note is that the jeep drivers are in constant walkie-talkie contact with each other. As soon as one driver spots elephants, all the other jeeps rush there to get a good spot close to the elephants.
This racing around the park chasing the elephants felt a bit weird at times. While the elephants are “wild” and free they’re obviously very used to seeing people.
Still, when compared to places that let you ride elephants or who keep them in chains, it’s still a much better and more ethical elephant encounter.
Besides elephants we also saw crocodiles, buffalos and pumbas, as well as lots of different types of birds. Once the safari was over we met up again with our driver outside the park and drove on to Mirissa.
Where to stay for the best Sri Lanka elephant safari
The best places to stay to visit Udawalawe National Park ultimately depend on how much time you have in Sri Lanka. We personally did our safari on the road from Ella to Mirissa.
This was the perfect arrangement for us since it fit our schedule, and it avoided us the long car journeys that you would have to if you visit Udawalawe as a day trip.
If you have more time to stay in Udawalawe that would be awesome as you might be able to do more than one elephant safari. I have listed below some great accommodation options, wherever you choose to stay before or after your safari.
If you have the time and are looking for a unique experience, you should definitely stay in a glamping or safari lodge in Udawalawe. One of my friends stayed at Athgira River Camping and said he had an incredible time.
We stayed in Ella the night before our safari and stayed at the Hangover Hostel. I personally loved it; it’s a sociable hostel with spacious rooms and lockers.
If you don’t want to stay in a hostel another great option in Ella is Mountain Heavens, they have an infinity pool overlooking the hills of Ella.
You can also visit Udawalawe on a day trip from Mirissa.
After our safari we actually drove on to Mirissa after and stayed at the Hangover Hostel there. The hostel is beachfront, has airconditioned rooms with big lockers and big communal spaces.
If you prefer having your own place another great option in Mirissa is Paradise Beach Club, located right on the beach and with a lovely pool.
What to pack for your elephant safari in Sri Lanka
Besides the usual clothing and items you would find on any packing list for Asia, I’ve listed below some essential you will definitely want to bring on your elephant safari in Udawalawe National Park.
Hat – it can get very hot during your safari! Make sure to have a hat to shield your head from the sun.
Sunscreen – same as above, even if you do the safari very early in the morning you the Sri Lankan sun is still strong. Don’t ruin your safari by getting sunburnt.
DSLR camera with a zoom lens – while the drivers often get quite close to the elephants, if you want to be able to capture beautiful photos of these magnificent animals you will want a proper DSLR camera with a zoom lens (make sure they’re compatible before buying a lens online!) That way you can snap photos of them up close, while being in the comfort of your jeep.
Water bottle– bring a reusable water bottle that you can fill up at the start of the safari, it gets very hot so you want to stay hydrated! I like the steel bottles because they keep your water cold.
Power bank – if you don’t have a DSLR don’t worry, you’ll still be able to capture great photos with your phone. However make sure to bring a power bank, you wouldn’t want your phone to die half way throughout the safari!
Final thoughts on doing a elephant safari in Udawalawe National Park in Sri Lanka
Doing an elephant safari in Udawalawe National Park was one of my favourite things to do in Sri Lanka. Seeing these magnificent animals in the wild was an awe-inspiring experience, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity.
I hope you find this guide useful in planning your visit to Udawalawe National Park and elephant safari in Sri Lanka. If you have any questions, just let me know in the comments below!
Looking for more Sri Lanka travel tips? Check out these guides:
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