Here we are in a new country to us: Sri Lanka! Our first destination is the southern province, where we will stop at coastal cities of Galle, Mirissa and slightly on the inside Tissa, for Yala National Park.
We land at Colombo Bandaranaike Airport at 5am. A couple of hours to get through immigration, get our 30-day visa to Sri Lanka, change some money, and we are ready to proceed. Staying in Colombo is not in our plans, at least not now, maybe further on before leaving the country.
We find a sort of bus stand, more of a dusty courtyard, where we hop on the first of many buses we will use during next three weeks: colourful, cheap, crowded, hot, always with local loud music pumped on. We are soon delighted to skip the capital, saying it’s chaotic would be an euphemism. It takes over an hour to cover the 30 km from the airport to Colombo Fort train station.
We get dropped in the market area, a short walk from the railway station. The latter is even more busy than the outside streets: a very nice man helps us to get the tickets to Galle and find the platform too, communicating with us with gestures only (Edo still affirms he was deaf-mute).
So we find ourselves on the 8.30am train to the South coast, in decent second class seats: the coach is almost full, just a few tourists show up here and there. After leaving the messy city centre, the scenario from our window becomes brilliant: the railway runs along the coast, sometimes there’s only the beach to separate us from the majestic Indian Ocean.
A couple of hours later, we reach Galle (pronounced “Gol”). It’s one of the main coastal cities, once very important for commercial purposes, above all during the colonization era. Especially under Dutch administration, the core of the town was the Fort, which is still now the most beautiful and visited part of Galle.
A tuk-tuk takes us to our big guesthouse, Shalona Holiday Home, a little bit uptown. We get a warm welcome, a Sri Lankan little girl serves us orange juices, even though we can’t talk to her as she doesn’t speak any English.
Having dropped our heavy backpacks, we are now free to explore the surroundings: the first afternoon we walk around Galle Fort, with its beautiful walls, the lighthouse, and many colonial buildings.
The second day we go to the popular beach of Unawatuna: it’s located in a quiet bay a few km from Galle, we reach it by super cheap bus+a little walk. Time for our first swim in Sri Lanka! We would stay more, but pushed by curiosity we go searching for Jungle Beach.
After a long 3-km hike, we find it, secluded in a remote bay: it is nice as well, but less wide and spacious, there are 30ish people, locals and tourists. We wish we stayed at Unawatuna!
We come back at night for a simple dinner: chicken and fried rice, that costs us 500 rupees altogether (3$!).
The following day we leave Galle, heading east. A short bus ride away, we reach our next destination: Mirissa, famous for it’s wonderful beach. It’s a small touristic village, basically there’s a long beach on the coastline, accommodations and restaurants on the inside. The family who runs our Nuwan Guesthouse is super nice and gentle; it will be only 6$ a night for a quite big room, by far the best value for money we found in the whole country.
As soon as we leave our backpacks, we go for the beach: it is really amazing, wild, fascinating and romantic too. There’s nothing to do here, and nothing else we would do apart from enjoying this marvellous place.
We get offered whale watching excursions, but we read it’s not the best season now, so we decline. We prefer to try and go to see the stilt fishermen instead, at dawn the next morning. We rent a scooter from the sweet family, and before 6am we are already hitting the road, stilt fishermen work very early in the morning and we do not want to miss them.
We head to Weligama Bay, where they tell us there should be more. We find a poor spectacle, there are tens of stilts, but only 3 old fat men holding on to them who don’t even seem to be fishing! Immediately an impolite woman comes by shouting “money money for photo, they are my family!”. We are not paying for such a sad view, she becomes kind of aggressive, we go away disappointed. As usual whatever becomes touristic attracts jackals ready to take advantage of it.
Still we don’t give up, and Ambra’s hawk eye spots a sign that says Weligama Cape leading to a narrow street far from the main bay. After a couple of km, we reach the sea again, and find the real stilt fishermen! It’s a very nice view, there’s a mystical silence all around, about 12 young boys work hardly on their wooden stilts.
A few of them are sitting on the bank, they call us and we talk for a while, asking nothing but smiles in exchange. We were very lucky and so glad to find these guys!
We spend the rest of the day at Mirissa Beach, jumping and diving in the wavy sea. There’s also a wild rock island to climb, from where the view on the beach is rewarding.
We try rice and curry for dinner, here in Sri Lanka it’s different from what we expected, but still tasty.
Unfortunately we have to leave the day after, we loved Mirissa so much we could have stayed easily for a week!
We proceed on the South coast, eastbound, to reach Tissamaharama, aka Tissa, after a couple of hours by bus. The reason we came to Tissa is only one: Yala National Park. We checked many reviews online, prices vary from 30 to 80 USD, jeep renting with driver and entrance fees included, but there’s no guarantee you will see more or less animals, there’s no guarantee you’ll see the most wanted leopard.
We are in a similar situation as when we had to book the Halong Bay cruise in Vietnam, tons of reviews, big price gaps, experience not guaranteed to be awesome. Well, that time we were lucky, let’s see now. As soon as we step out of the bus, a young guy approaches asking if we want to do the safari.
He explains he has already 4 out of 6 seats booked on their jeep, so the price for us would be a discounted 4500 rupees each (30$), as long as we don’t say it to the others who paid more… Sounds good to us, we go with him to their guesthouse, check some brochures, pay a deposit of 1.000rs, and hope for the best.
After settling in our Nature Resort guesthouse, we finally find a bank that likes our Italian credit card (Commercial Bank), and are able to withdraw 150€ (24.000 rupees). A walk along the beautiful Tissa lake at sunset (everybody is showering in it with shampoo), and we go home to relax. A 5 am wake up call awaits us in the morning.
They pick us up, jeep looks ok, the driver speaks good English. When we enter Yala Park, about 1 hour from Tissa, it’s almost 7am. We are not going to be lucky this time though: September is at end of the dry season, the Park is striving of water, so badly that the main Block 1 is closed to public. We are diverted to Block 5, not promising any good.
The area is nice, very wild as expected, not crowded as it can be (we read of 70 up to 150-200 jeep in high season!), and our driver takes all the dirt roads he knows, stopping by here and there, pointing and explaining where and what to look. We see monkeys, crocodiles, elephants, mongooses, peacocks, buffaloes, eagles, ibis, jackals, dears, etc., but no sign of leopards so far.
Suddenly reports via radio say there has been a leopard spotting nearby. When we get there, it’s already gone, there are some 15-20 jeeps, and it’s not coming back now for sure. We keep on moving and exploring the area, the sun high in the sky is becoming hotter and hotter and animals hide in the shades. Talking with another driver, we are informed we missed the leopard again, crossing one of the main roads. Guess it wasn’t our lucky day.
We get dropped back to our guesthouse at noon. The owner suggests us the way to go to Ella, our next destination. We take a tuk-tuk, then a bus to Wellawaya, then another bus to Bandarawela, calling at Ella.