The Truth about Udawalawe National Park – Safaris and More!
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As one of the most popular tourist destinations in Sri Lanka, you’re probably thinking about visiting Udawalawe National Park. Well, here is what you NEED to know before you go and join a safari! I even honestly answer the question “is an Udawalawe National Park safari worth it?”…and a few others that are probably on your mind so that you know exactly what to expect!
Seeing elephants is one of the best things to do in Sri Lanka. And for me, seeing some at an elephant orphanage wasn’t going to cut it – I wanted to see WILD elephants!
With limited time (and money) like many travelers, I had to decide where I was going to have my elephant safari experience in Sri Lanka.
Based on what I heard from others, I decided Udawalawe National Park would be my best chance to see elephants in the wild!
After going on a safari in Udawalawe National Park for myself, I discovered that it wasn’t exactly what all of the rumors and blogs say. In fact, there are a few things you should know about going on a safari in Udawalawe National Park before you go!
So without further ado, here is my honest TRUTH about visiting Udawalawe National Park including what to expect from a safari and more!
What to Expect from a Safari in Udawalwe National Park
You WILL See Elephants in Udawalawe National Park
If you came to see elephants, then you’re in the right place!
On a safari in Udawalawe National Park, you will undoubtedly see elephants. In fact, chances are that you will see many of them – babies too!
The reason for this?
Udawalawe National Park is one of Sri Lanka’s smaller national parks at only 308.2 km². It is estimated that within this space over 500 elephants live. It’s simple really, a smaller space with a higher density of elephants increases your chances of seeing them!
On my safari through Udawalawe National Park we saw tons of elephants! Within minutes of entering the park, I saw a group of about 7 elephants. Then, throughout the safari, we saw many more including a mother with two babies (one was very small) as well as large male elephants crossing the road only meters from our jeep!
Any time of year it is pretty much guaranteed that you will see elephants on an Udawalawe safari – this is a great reason to visit!
Udawalawe National Park attracts lots of tourists
The downside to the “elephant guarantee” in Udawalawe National Park is that there will be lots of other people there too. Tourists come from all over the world to Udawalawe to jump in a jeep and see wild elephants for themselves!
As you drive into the park there are tons of jeeps everywhere you look. If your guide spots an elephant, or any animal for that matter, chances are the other guides will have too. This creates a traffic jam around the elephants.
Basically, don’t expect a peaceful jeep safari in Udawalawe National Park with just your group and driver. There will likely almost always be another jeep (or 10) nearby fighting for the prime spot to watch the animals.
The safari jeep drivers are competitive
The jeep drivers/guides all want you to tip them, so they work hard to find you as many animals as possible.
That sounds great, doesn’t it?
Well, it isn’t actually.
The drivers all race each other around the park trying to find the animals first to get their group the closest spot. They are all speeding around and getting as close to the animals as possible to box other drivers out. It is all very intense, to be honest, and feels hectic.
This race to get to the animals first is one aspect of the safari in Udawalawe National Park that I didn’t like.
The Elephants are very tame
The other thing you should be aware of is that while these elephants are free in the wild, they are almost tame. The elephants in Udawalawe National Park have become so accustomed to hundreds of jeeps and people around them every day that they don’t react the same as how a regular “wild” elephant would.
The elephants in Udawalawe just go about their business no matter how close the jeeps get or how many of them there are. Eventually, if they get sick of being bothered, they will walk off, but for the most part, they seemed unfazed.
While this was good for observing elephants, I couldn’t help but think about how “normal” this way of life has become for the elephants who call Udawalawe National Park home. A real wild elephant would likely walk away immediately from people or cars, or even get aggressive/curious and approach the people (thus becoming potentially dangerous.)
So, don’t think you’ll be observing elephants in the wild how they would normally act on this safari, these guys are just too used to seeing people and safari jeeps!
Fun fact: Did you know 300 people die every year on average from elephant conflicts?! Yes, these guys may seem like gentle giants but in the wild, they can be unpredictable and somewhat dangerous.
Seeing elephants in Udawalawe National Park is AMAZING!
Despite all the chaos and touristic-ness of it all, you can’t deny how amazing elephants are. When I was on the safari in Udawalawe, I was in awe the entire time at these incredible animals. Observing them from afar or getting right close up, they are incredible!
Seeing elephants on a safari like in Udawalawe National Park is a once in a lifetime experience, and one I’ll always remember.
You’ll see lots of other animals in Udawalawe National Park too (not just elephants!)
But enough about elephants…a safari in Sri Lanka isn’t supposed to be ONLY about elephants, right?
When I went on the safari in Udawalawe National Park I also saw water buffalo, monkeys, crocodiles, lizards, a variety of birds, and insects.
I was actually pleasantly surprised by how many other animals we saw on the safari. People had told me that I would ONLY see elephants in Udawalawe, and this wasn’t the case at all.
No leopard though. In fact, you won’t see leopards in Udawalawe National Park. You’ll need to go to Yala National Park or Wilpattu National Park for that.
This is one sacrifice you need to make if you choose to do a safari in Udawalawe National Park. No chance of seeing leopards, but a 100% chance of seeing elephants!
Things to Know About Visiting Udawalawe National Park
How much does a safari in Udawalawe cost?
You need to know how much it costs to properly answer the question “is it worth it” – right?
Well, I asked, and asked, AND asked when I was in Udawalawe town to try and figure out how the prices work because it is all very confusing.
We were getting told it would cost us 11,000 rupees for the two of us to join four other people in one jeep (so a full jeep) or it would be 4,000 plus entrance fees for us to get our own jeep…what does this even mean?!
After much research I finally found the answers to break down how the prices work for going on a safari in Udawalawe National Park.
First of all, the entrance fees to national parks in Sri Lanka are confusing. There is a fee paid per person, then a fee paid per vehicle, a service fee, and then a tax added on top of all of that.
So basically, if you go in a larger group your overall total entrance cost is cheaper because you all split the entrance fee for the vehicle, the service fee, and your guides entrance fee between everybody. Whereas if you go in your own jeep, you must cover the total entrance fees for everything on your own.
Here are the prices for a Udawalawe National Park safari broken down:
- Entrance Fee per person (foreigner) – $15 USD. Yes, it’s officially in USD, so depending on the exchange rate, the entrance fee (which must be paid in LKR) changes.
- Entrance Fee for a local (your driver) – 60 LKR
- Service Charge – $8 USD per group (again the exchange rate fluctuates the price in LKR.)
- Jeep fee – 250 LKR
- VAT (tax ) – 15% of the total
- Jeep and driver rental fee – 4,500 to 5,500 LKR for a half-day safari depending on the company and booking commissions.
What this means is that although it seems like it isn’t much more for your own private jeep, it actually is.
I think they make it this confusing for a reason as they get to charge tourists more since nobody can work out the entrance fees.
The cheapest we could find a safari was 5,500 LKR each on a full (6 person) jeep. We estimate getting our own jeep between the two of us would’ve cost us around the 14,000 LKR mark.
It was a bit of a hassle organizing our safari once we arrived in Udawalalwe town. In fact, we got really lucky that four people had already booked and we could easily just join them. If you don’t want the hassle, I recommend booking your safari online in advance as it saves you time, stress, and potentially money too!
What to Wear on an Udawalawe Safari
One thing you need to know before jumping in your safari jeep is that you will get dirty! I think this is true for any safari anywhere. Unfortunately for me, I wore a nice cream-colored top on our safari in Udawalawe National Park – and that was a mistake!
The jeeps have open sides which means you’re exposed to the elements whether that be rain, dust, mud, or anything really! Wear clothing you are okay with getting a little bit dirty.
Also be sure to bring a rain jacket just in case, a waterproof bag for your photo or camera if it does rain, sunscreen, and sunglasses. You’re outside for a couple of hours so be prepared for all weather and conditions.
Getting to Udawalawe National Park
If you plan on spending a night or two in Udawalalwe you can either take the public bus, hire a private driver, or drive yourself in a tuk-tuk (that’s what we did!) There are plenty of hotels and guesthouses around so this is a good option for those with time.
Staying the Night in Udawalawe vs. a Day Trip
One thing I learned was that on the border of Udawalawe National Park is actually a small town with tons of accommodation to choose from!
I recommend actually going to spend a night or two at Udawalawe town. Not only is it a nice little getaway from the cities, but this way you can choose to do the safari whenever the weather forecast is looking the most favorable.
We stayed two nights in Udawalawe and it was perfect. We arrived late one afternoon in town, checked into our guesthouse, and then were able to organize a safari for the next morning. We left for our safari at 5:30 am and returned to our guesthouse around 11 am where they had breakfast waiting for us.
That afternoon we visited the Elephant Transit Home (read below for more information on this wonderful place) and then got a good night’s sleep before hitting the road again. We weren’t too rushed and actually had time to enjoy everything.
If you don’t want the hassle of organizing a safari when you arrive in Udawalawe then book online in advance! This particular safari is really good value and with a reputable tour operator!
Where to Stay in Udawalawe
For budget travelers:
River Edge Holiday Resort – This small family-run guesthouse offers budget travelers a comfortable room with a fan, breakfast included, wi-fi, and a private bathroom all for $11 USD a night!
A to Family Guesthouse – Another cute family-run guesthouse. These guys really treat their guests special and go above and beyond for them (and they have the reviews to prove it!) Only $13 USD gets you a private room with breakfast included, wi-fi, an ensuite, and a balcony!
Those with a mid-range budget:
Green View Safari Resort – This small hotel offers guests incredible service and private cottages with everything you would need. For less than $50 USD a night, you have your own cottage with air conditioning, wi-fi, breakfast included, and a TV! This is where we stayed!
Ele Camp Udawalawe – These guys are perfect for families or groups as their large rooms sleep up to four people for only $85 USD! Breakfast is included in the room rate and served at the onsite outdoor restaurant (right next to the pool!)
If you’re looking for a bit of luxury:
Grand Udawalawe Safari Resort – This place in paradise in the jungle! They have a massive pool, beautiful rooms, and gardens that will remind you that you’re on holidays! With an onsite restaurant and bar as well as a kiddie pool it is the perfect vacation getaway for families or couples.
Jungle Paradise – These guys offer luxury at a reasonable price! They have a gorgeous onsite pool and restaurant and offer large rooms with balconies for relaxing. The staff here are also very friendly!
The Elephant Orphanage in Udawalawe
One of the main reasons you should spend more time in Udawalawe is to visit the elephant orphanage. The elephant orphanage is just on the outskirts of the national park border near some shops and restaurants in town. It is called the Elephant Transit Home.
Here you will find dozens of baby elephants who were orphaned by their mothers!
Every day at 9 am, 12 pm, 3 pm, and 6 pm they feed the baby elephants and you can watch! This is a really humane way to see baby elephants as you are in a viewing deck from afar. No touching the elephants, no getting close and no interacting so the elephants have as little human contact as possible and will grow up to be able to integrate back into the wild.
To visit costs 500 LKR per person and this fee helps support the orphanage.
I honestly really enjoyed visiting the elephant orphanage and would highly recommend it to anyone.
Is Udawalawe National Park the best places for a safari in Sri Lanka?
In all honesty, probably not. I would say going to a less touristic place like Minneriya National Park or Kaudulla would be better.
Some people think Yala National Park is much better, but I have heard a lot of mixed reviews on this so there is really no right or wrong answer.
If you’re really coming to Sri Lanka for the wildlife then I recommend going on more than one safari anyway, so Udawalawe might as well be one of them!
Is a trip to Udawalawe National Park Worth it?
Worth every penny in my opinion. I loved seeing the elephants and other wildlife. Although it wasn’t perfect, it was enjoyable, affordable, and a great safari experience.
If I were you, I would go!
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May 5, 2020