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Mist-draped hills and golden beaches, ancient treasures
and jungles teeming with wildlife: it’s fitting that Sri
Lanka was known to early Arab traders as “Serendib,” a
name that gave rise to the English word “serendipity.”
On a trip specially crafted with the help of National
Geographic experts, fall under the spell of this
enchanting island nation during a journey from the
northern plains to the palm-fringed southern coast.
Uncover thousands of years of history at the rock fortress of Sigiriya and the cave monastery of Dambulla. Hike to rural villages, walk through emerald green tea plantations, and discover Buddhist temples shrouded by
forest. Explore four distinct national parks by 4x4 and on foot, encountering a dazzling array of species.
Explore five UNESCO World Heritage
sites including ancient Sigiriya, the
Golden Temple of Dambulla, and the
fortified town of Galle.
Track elephants, leopards, monkeys,
sloth bears, and more on a variety of
Visit a tea plantation in the hill town of
Nuwara Eliya and hike through the
emerald green terraced fields.
Join throngs of pilgrims in Kataragama
to experience the ritual of the evening
Itinerary - 12 Days
Day 1 — Colombo, Sri Lanka
Arrive in Colombo and transfer to our hotel overlooking the Indian Ocean. Get acquainted with Sri Lanka’s colorful capital on a tour of the historic Fort district, the city’s commercial hub. Explore the lively markets of the Pettah neighborhood, Gangaramaya Temple, and the Colombo National Museum. Then gather for a welcome dinner. Mount Lavinia Hotel (L,D)
Days 2 & 3 — Habarana/Sigiriya
Dotted with Buddhist temples and the ruins of once-great cities, the northern central plains formed the heart of ancient Sri Lankan civilization. Drive north to Habarana, located along an elephant migration route. Encounter these majestic creatures during a safari in Minneriya National Park and search for sambar deer, toque macaques, and purple-faced langurs. The next morning, embark on a hike through the countryside, passing through rice paddies and villages on the way to the rock-fortress of Sigiriya. This towering granite monolith is crowned by the ruins of a fifth-century royal city built by King Kassapa I. Climb steep staircases to the top of Lion Rock and explore the fortified palace at the summit. (Day 2: 3–4 hours driving; Day 3: 3–4 miles hiking, 3–4 hours) Cinnamon Lodge Habarana (B,L,D)
Days 4 & 5 — Dambulla/Kandy
Travel south into the central highlands, arriving at the Golden Temple of Dambulla. Venture into the temples and grottoes of this extraordinary rock sanctuary, which has drawn Buddhist pilgrims for more than 22 centuries. Continue to the former royal capital of Kandy, home to one of Sri Lanka’s most sacred sites: the Temple of the Tooth Relic, believed to house a tooth of the Buddha. Explore the temple complex the next morning, followed by a visit to the Peradeniya Royal Botanic Gardens. Cinnamon Citadel Kandy (B,L,D)
Days 6 & 7 — Nuwara Eliya/Horton Plains National Park
Drive into the heart of Sri Lanka’s tea country, winding among mountains carpeted with emerald green tea plantations and rushing waterfalls. Our destination is the colonial hill town of Nuwara Eliya, which became a popular 19th-century resort for British tea planters. Learn about the growing and harvesting of tea as we hike the terraced fields of a tea estate, and enjoy a tour and tasting at a tea processing center. The next day, trek the highland plateau of Horton Plains National Park, keeping an eye out for macaques and wild boar en route to the dramatic World’s End overlook. (Day 6: 1 mile hiking, 1 hour; Day 7: 3–4 hours hiking, 3–4 hours) Grand Hotel Golf Wing (B,L,D)
Day 8 — Udawalawe National Park
Continue south to Udawalawe National Park, the best place on the island to see large populations of Asian elephants in the wild. Set off on a game drive to spot elephants, monkeys, water buffaloes, monitor lizards, and crocodiles, as well as numerous bird species. Grand Udawalawe Safari Resort (B,L,D)
Day 9 — Kataragama
Drive east to Kataragama, an important religious site for Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. Explore temples and shrines nestled amid wooded parkland. The highlight of our visit is the evening puja, when throngs of pilgrims arrive to pay homage to the god Kataragama. Wander amid stalls selling traditional offerings and incense, and take in scenes of devotees performing the kavadi, or peacock dance. Mandara Rosen (B,L,D)
Day 10 — Yala National Park/Weligama
Spread across Sri Lanka’s southeast coast, Yala National Park encompasses a vast wilderness of grassy plains, scrub jungle, lakes, and wetlands. Set out in 4x4s to encounter one of the world’s highest concentration of leopards, along with sloth bears, spotted deer, and brilliantly plumed peacocks. Then drive to the island’s southern tip and unwind at our beachfront hotel on Weligama Bay. Weligama Bay Resort (B,L,D)
Day 11 — Galle/Ambalangoda
This morning we drive to Galle, stopping en route to see the stilted fishermen. For generations, villagers have perched on handmade structures of wood and twine to catch fish to feed their families. Next, we visit Galle Fort, built in the 1500s by the Portuguese and extensively restored after the 2004 tsunami. After lunch today, we will visit a local market and then drive to Ambalangoda, a town that crafts the ubiquitous “demon” masks. We’ll enjoy a cultural dance before returning to the hotel for our farewell dinner.
Jetwing Lighthouse (B,L,D)
Day 12 — Galle
For your last day in Sri Lanka, get off the beaten track on a lagoon and village cycling tour. This easy ride stays primarily on dirt and gravel tracks. Explore the flora of the lagoon and meet local people as we ride through neighboring villages. Return to the hotel for lunch then transfer to the airport for your departure flight. (7-8 miles biking, 2-3 hours) (B,L)
National Geographic Active Expeditions are unique, active itineraries for intrepid travelers that combine spectacular places, cultural interaction, and physical challenge. You'll explore fascinating, off-the-beaten-path places with top guides, and wherever possible, meet National Geographic experts in the field.