Yala National Park | Your Complete Yala Safari Guide

If you’re thinking of including a safari in your Sri Lanka itinerary, you won’t go far wrong with a Yala safari.  It’s up there with Udawalawe National Park as one of the most popular Sri Lanka national parks.  Some would say that Yala is the best national park in Sri Lanka, but it really comes down to personal preference.

The two parks are very similar, especially in terms of the wildlife you may see. It depends on the route you’re going to take during your Sri Lanka holiday as to which one you choose. If you love safaris, maybe you’ll have time to squeeze in both!

The main difference between the two is that you may have a slightly higher chance of leopard spotting on a Yala National Park Safari, which has the highest density of leopard anywhere in the world. Despite this, sightings are still not guaranteed. Udawalawe, on the other hand, has a large population of elephant and sightings on an Udawalawe safari are all but guaranteed.

Yala National park leopard sighting

Yala National Park leopard sighting

During a trip to Sri Lanka in 2010 we chose to do a safari in Yala National Park. We had just finished a 4 months overland trip through Africa where we went on safari in Tanzania, the Okavango in Botswana, Etosha in Namibia and the Kruger in South Africa. You get the picture. We’d done a few safaris and were prepared to be underwhelmed with Yala.

We asked ‘how could it compare with the amazing safaris we’d just done?’. We booked it anyway because it was considered one of the highlights of Sri Lanka, and we’ve very glad we did. If you’re into wildlife, then Yala should definitely be included in your Sri Lanka itinerary. 

Where is Yala National Park?

Yala lies about 260km south east of Colombo (6 hours by car) and 190km east along the coast from Galle (4 hours 30 by car). There are 44 specials of mammal, including an estimated 25 leopards (as mentioned previously, the highest density of leopards in the world), 350 elephants and many many species of bird. It’s a mix of forest, open grasslands and lagoon areas and to the east, it borders the Indian ocean.

Yala National Park at sunrise

Yala National Park at sunrise

When is the best time to visit Yala National Park?

The best time of year to visit Yala is during the dry season between February and June. There is less foliage around and it’s easier to spot wildlife. The best safari times for optimal wildlife spotting are between 6 am – 9 am and 3 pm – 6 pm. Afternoon safaris in Yala are actually a bit quieter, and the leopards are also a bit more active towards late afternoon.

Accommodation in Yala

If you’re doing a morning safari in Yala, try to stay locally the night before to improve your safari experience. If you are staying further away and have to get up in the middle of the night to get to the park for when it opens, you (and no doubt the kids) will feel so tired and probably not appreciate the experience as much. There are plenty of accommodation options dotted around the edges of the park to suit every budget.

LuxuryWild coast tented lodge – all-inclusive luxury tented safari accommodation on the park borders and about as luxury as it gets (with pool).

LuxuryChena Huts by Uga Escapes – (one for the bucket list if you’re travelling without children!) – all-inclusive cabin with your own plunge pool because who doesn’t love looking at luxury accommodation??

Mid-rangeAvonil Resort Yala – simple but clean accommodation with a lovely swimming pool. A little way from Yala National Park.

BudgetLakeSide Cabana Tissamharama – rustic treehouse-style cabins with children’s playground

If you can’t see anything you like above, try a broader search on Booking.com which has the largest selection of Yala National Park accommodation 


How to choose a Yala National Park Jeep Safari

To find the best safari companies in Yala National Park, do your research online and speak to your accommodation. We arranged a half day morning jeep safari through our accommodation. If you’re booking the tour yourselves, try to make sure that they have plenty of good reviews. Not all Yala National Park safari companies are reputable.

The Cost of Half Day Safari in Yala National Park

(this is just a guide so that you know roughly what to be charged):

  • Private jeep  – around LKR 3500 (£15) for a half day
  • Park entrance fees are $15 / £11.50 per adult and $8 / £6 per child (under 6 are free)
  • LKR 250 (£1) jeep charge
  • 15% VAT on top of everything charged by the park (excluding jeep fee)

You can check here for the most up to date park entrance fees :

Yala National Park entrance gate

Yala National Park entrance gate

How long is the ideal Yala safari with kids?

You can choose between full-day Yala safaris or half-day Yala safaris. Half day safaris are probably enough if you have young children as they last about 3 hours. Any longer than this and we find that the kids start to get a bit tired, bored, restless or hungry! Our guide had no problem cutting ours a little short when the kids started getting hangry.  If you’re staying in Yala for a couple of days, you could do a morning and an afternoon safari to see the park at different times of day.

What do you take on a Yala safari?

The main thing to note is that there are no shops in Yala National Park which means that you need to take everything with you. If you choose to do a half-day safari in the morning, the chances are you will have left your accommodation before breakfast. Make sure you have enough snacks and water with you to see you through to mid/late-morning.

We had cereal bars, bananas, rotis and breadsticks. It’s a good idea to take a bag for waste as you can’t leave any litter in the national park. We always carry a refillable water bottle with us on our travels. We have both Chillys Bottle and CamelBak.
Here is a helpful guide on what to take on safari. The list is not exhaustive, so if you think of anything else, please let us know!

Our Yala National Park safari experience

We were picked up at 5.30am at our accommodation in a jeep and set off to the park to buy our tickets, and get in for as close to the 6am opening time as possible. Once you’re through the gates and away from the other jeeps jostling to be the first to get in, you will start spotting wildlife. It may be the ubiquitous peacock perched high in a tree, or it may be the elusive leopard. The beauty of a safari is the excitement of not knowing what you may see and looking carefully for any sign of movement for that first sighting.

In our experience, every time you go on safari you will have a unique experience. On this occasion, our unique experience was seeing a crocodile eating a leopard. It was a pretty unusual sighting and not one we have ever seen on any of our African safaris.  We were so mesmerised by the sighting that we didn’t get great pictures but you can kind of get the idea.

Crocodile eating a leopard in Yala National Park

Crocodile eating a leopard in Yala National Park

Unfortunately, we didn’t see a live leopard. We just missed out spotting a leopard because there were too many jeeps. This is one of the drawbacks to Yala being so popular. We did see a huge number of Asian elephants which, incidentally, are much less intimidating than their African relatives. We felt much more comfortable getting up close and personal with these elephants in Yala.

A docile Asian elephant enjoy its meal

A docile Asian elephant enjoy its meal

We also saw more crocodiles, monitor lizards, water buffalo, spotted deer, bee eaters, egrets on elephants and egrets on buffalo. Considering egrets are apparently a rare species, we did quite well on the egret front! Here are some of our wildlife spottings.

Crocodiles cooling down with their mouths open

Crocodiles cooling down with their mouths open

Egret hitching a ride on a buffalo

Egret hitching a ride on a buffalo

As it turns out, we were so wrong to think Yala would be underwhelming, or compare unfavourably to a ‘real’ African safari. We had a really memorable experience and a good thing to remember when travelling; always be open to new experiences. The many and unique wildlife sightings was enough to convince us that a Yala safari was just as good as an African safari.

Yala national park safari tip

When going on safari, it is worth being prepared. Once you are in the park, there are no shops and no toilet stops (or they may not be very easily accessed).

Happy spotting!

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