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! See here for an excellent Udawalawe safari.
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 so elephant sightings on an Udawalawe safari are all but guaranteed.
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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.
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’re 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.
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.
Luxury accommodation in Yala
Wild coast tented lodge – all-inclusive luxury tented safari accommodation on the park borders and about as luxury as it gets (with pool).
Chena 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??
Jetwing Yala – this is an excellent chain hotel in Sri Lanka and you are right by the coast.
Cinnamon Wild – 5 minutes drive from Yala National Park, it has rooms with balconies and views of the jungle or the sea.
Mid-range accommodation in Yala
Avonil Resort Yala – simple but clean accommodation with a lovely swimming pool. A little way from Yala National Park.
Budget accommation in Yala
LakeSide Cabana Tissamharama – rustic treehouse-style cabins with children’s playground.
Yala Hotel Lion – an air conditioned tented safari camp (no pool).
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.
This Yala safari tour lasts around 5 hours and they pick up from your accommodation in the Yala area – or you can meet them at Yala National Park entrance.
If you are staying in the south, this full day Yala Safari departs from Galle, Mirissa or Unawatuna.
The Cost of Half Day Safari in Yala National Park
If you are organising your safari yourself, 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).
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.
Want to know what else there is to do in Sri Lanka for families? Make sure to read our recommendations for the best things to do in Sri Lanka with kids.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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