“Is that them over there?” I squinted my eyes hard under the bright sun and pointed at the grey dots in the distance. The excitement was building within our group as our jeep dashed towards what looked like a herd of some large animals. We got closer and closer, and our visions became clearer. One of us gasped. Finally (but actually it was easy), we found them. Elephants. I couldn’t believe it. There they were, at least 20 of them on first sight, just hanging about on the grass, swinging their trunks, plucking at the ground, and looking ridiculously adorable. At that moment, my heart exploded with joy and love for these magnificent creatures.
Before we went on our Minneriya National Park Safari, I had told myself to not hold any expectations. Seeing elephants in the wild had always been a huge dream of mine and I was afraid of being disappointed. But our guide assured us that Minneriya is one of the best Sri Lanka Wildlife Parks and we will not leave with regrets. Well, our guide was absolutely right. This was hands down my favorite memory from Sri Lanka. If you get the chance to visit this beautiful island, you definitely cannot miss doing a safari in one of the national parks. And from little ol’ me who’s still weepy every time I rewatch videos from our safari, I highly recommend Minneriya.
*My trip in Sri Lanka was generously hosted by the Sri Lanka tourism board. However, all opinions expressed in this article are my own. This post may contain affiliate links, which means, at no extra cost to you, I may earn a commission if you make a purchase. Thanks for supporting!
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Why go on a Sri Lanka Safari
Did you know that Sri Lanka is has 14 national parks? Home to 92 species of mammals, 242 kinds of butterflies and 107 kinds of fishes, this little island is abundantly filled with wildlife. It is one of the best destinations to go for safaris outside of Africa. The Big Four ((leopards, elephants, sloth bears, and blue whales) are increasingly drawing tourists from around the world.
Elephants are especially significant animals in Sri Lanka. The country is estimated to have the highest density of elephants in Asia. These beautiful Sri Lankan elephants are very sociable and intelligent.
The sad thing is that the elephant population in Sri Lanka has been on a decline over the last three generations, causing them to be listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The primary cause is due to habitat loss.
On top of that, elephants are unfortunately often utilized by humans for purposes such as tourism. Many places still offer elephant rides as a business. Even some orphanage are disguised as sanctuaries but really meant to attract naive tourists.
If you care for the wellbeing of elephants, please do not support places that chain them up. Elephants are wild animals. The only way acceptable way for us to interact with them is from afar, letting them roam free. With so many national parks in Sri Lanka, there are endless opportunities to see elephants. The parks have done a wonderful job of protecting wildlife while making them accessible. So say no to captivity, go on a safari!
Minneriya National Park
Minneriya is a special park because of an event called “The Gathering”. Once a year during the dry season, hundreds of elephants make a trip to a large reservoir for water. They come from far and wide, in herds up to 300 in peak time, making this the largest meeting of Asian elephants in the world.
Imagine observing these huge gorgeous mammals in their natural environment, drinking water, bathing, snacking on the grass, playing with their young ones. It really is a sight to behold.
Even when it’s not the season for “The Gathering”, there are tons of elephants roaming around in the park. The Minneriya tank, a great man-made reservoir provides a reliable tasty water source for the elephants. As well, the tall and dense trees around the tank give plenty of shade on hot days. It’s no wonder the creatures keep lingering around here.
Minneriya National Park is also a habitat for many other animals. On a safari tour here, you can potentially see wild buffalos, deer, grey langers, purple-faced leaf monkeys, peacocks, eagles, and if luck is really on your side, leopards.
Conveniently located within the cultural triangle in the central north province, Minneriya National Park is a can’t miss place to visit. Combine the itinerary with a stop in ancient Dambulla Cave Temple, Sigiriya Rock, and Polonnaruwa, and you will have an unforgettable journey.
Read my blog post Top 10 Beautiful Places to Visit in Sri Lanka for more inspirations when building your itinerary.
Minneriya National Park Safari Best Time to Visit
If you want to witness the elephant gathering, it takes place during the dry season from July to September. A thing to note is that next to Minneriya is another park called Kaudulla National Park. The parks are attached by a jungle, through which the elephants travel between the two parks. Make sure to ask your guide in which park are you more likely to see the gathering during your time of visit.
Because the elephants are more active during the late afternoon when the sun is setting and the temperature is cooling down, it’s best to visit the park between 3 PM to 6 PM. Most safari tours are three hours so it works out well.
Wondering what to do in the morning? Several tour companies combine a safari experience with a local village tour. We visited a nearby village where we got to learn about life in the Sri Lankan countryside. Our guide showed us how villagers grow crops in the fields. Also, we had lunch in a traditional home where the gracious host gave us a cooking demonstration. It was an easy yet educational morning before our big safari moment.
How to get to Minneriya National Park
Minneriya National Park is 180 kilometers from Colombo, the country’s capital. The best way to get here is by car, which takes about five and a half hours drive. See rental car options in Sri Lanka here. Otherwise, you can join a tour (more suggestions in the next section).
How much does it cost to do a Minneriya National Park Safari?
For one foreign adult, the park entry fee into Minneriya is 15 USD or its equivalent in Sri Lanka rupees. There are additional charges such as vehicle fees, service fees, overnight fees, etc. Check the Department of Wildlife Conservation Website here for a full listing of entrance fee for Minneriya and other national parks.
If you make your own way to the park, you still have to arrange a jeep once you are there. Instead, I recommend booking a jeep safari tour ahead of time that includes a pick up from your accommodation. Your hotel or a travel agency in the area can definitely assist you in booking a tour. As well, here are some great options on Get Your Guide:
Where to stay near Minneriya National Park
There are two wonderful locations to stay near Minneriya National Park:
About only 10 minutes drive away from Minneriya, this is the best place to be before your Sri Lanka safari. We stayed in Sorowwa Resort & Spa and it was very lovely. There was a nice outdoor pool on site and the breakfast buffet was delicious. My favorite part was that I came back to my room at the end of the day and found an elephant made of towels on my bed! I am a sucker for cute gestures like this. Check availability and prices here
Here are more highly rated hotels in Habarana:
Budget: Le Grand Meaulnes is one of the best sellers in Habarana. The rooms come with modern interiors, wooden furnishings and floor-to-ceiling windows. The open-air restaurant serves a fine selection of local, Western and Chinese dishes. Check availability and prices here
Luxury: One can always count on the Cinnamon Hotel Group to do luxury. The Cinnamon Lodge Habarana offers guests a relaxing getaway amidst green forests. There is even a butterfly garden where you can take a fairytale-esque walk. Unwind at the onsite spa, work up a sweat on the tennis court, or eat to your heart’s content at the buffet. Check availability and prices here
Sigiriya is also a good location to stay for venturing to Minneriya. This little town is 30 minutes away by car. Of course, it is where you can see and climb the famous Sigiriya Rock, AKA the Lion Rock. We loved Hotel Sigiriya, a gorgeous property with a big tropical garden, lots of wildlife and an outdoor pool. The friendly staff put on quite a show for us when we arrived as guests. They welcomed us in true Sri Lankan fashion with flower necklaces, a candle lighting ceremony, and dancers and drummers. Check availability and prices here
Here are more highly rated hotels in Sigiriya:
Budget: Run by a local family, Sigiriya Rock Side Home Stay is a charming little accommodation 800m away from Sigiriya rock. All rooms have a lovely view of the garden. Guests always rave about the host’s warm hospitality. Check availability and prices here
Mid-range: EKHO Sigiriya is a quality hotel with helpful staff and comfortable rooms. The location is excellent with lots of stores nearby. You may also see an elephant or two wandering about outside. 😉 Check availability and prices here
What to pack for a Sri Lanka Safari
Be prepared for a thrilling adventure! Here are some items you must pack for your Sri Lanka Safari:
- Zoom lens: Even though you can get quite up close with the animals at times, mostly the wildlife will be in the distance. Make sure you can capture them with a good zoom lens. I used Canon EF 75-300MM for my photos.
- Binoculars: For bird watching, it really helps to have binoculars. We saw some eagles but we could not get a clear view since they were so far above us in the trees. A lesson for next time. Check out this best seller pair from Amazon.
- Sunscreen: The sun could be quite harsh on the grassland. Being in a jeep with an open roof, there is really no shade for you. Remember to lather up some sunscreen for your skin.
- Sunglasses: Again, the sun could be so bright that it’s hard to open your eyes. Protect those peepers so you can actually see the animals.
- Hair tie: It is super windy sitting in a fast safari jeep. Tie up your hair so it’s not all up in your face. And forget about a hat. It will fly away from you faster than you can say “elephant!”.
- Safari outfit: Last but not least, for those of us who care about fashion, nothing says safari chic like a khaki outfit. Otherwise, any light clothing in natural colors is good for a safari game drive. Here are some inspirations for you.
What other Sri Lanka wildlife parks should you visit
Besides Minneriya, there are so many wonderful national parks worthy of visiting in Sri Lanka. Here are the top picks.
Kaudulla National Park
Located right next to Minneriya National Park, the accessibility to seeing elephants here is just as great as Minneriya. The park also has 435 species of birds and 26 species of fishes.
Best time to visit: August to March
Wasgamuwa National Park
Wasgamuwa National Park is situated in the Matale and Polonnaruwa Districts. The elephants love to hang out here on the grassy plains. You can also see purple-faced langurs, mugger crocodile, and various birds.
Best time to visit: June to September
Bundala National Park
For bird watching enthusiasts, there is no better place to go than Bundala. The wetland and lagoons here host winter getaways for migratory water birds from all over the world. Large flocks of flamingos are especially stunning sights.
Best time to visit: Anytime
Udawalawe National Park
Udawalawe National Park near the Sabaragamuwa and Uva Provinces is open year round and offers 99% chance of seeing elephants. Other animals you can find include water buffalos, deers, wild boars.
Best time to visit: Anytime
Knuckles Mountain Range
If you want to do combine some hiking with animal spotting, check out Knuckles Mountain Range, one of the underrated destinations in Sri Lanka. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has forests, caves, waterfalls, and lots of wild birds.
Best time to visit: December to May
Yala National Park
Yala is perhaps Sri Lanka’s most popular national park, as it is where guests have the highest chance of spotting leopards. In fact, this park has one of the highest leopard densities in the world. The downside is that the park can be quite crowded and it is closed for 6-8 weeks each year.
Best time to visit: November to July
Wilpattu National Park
A much quieter park than Yala, Wilpattu is the second best place for leopard spotting. However, the dense forests here makes animals harder to be seen. You better keep your eyes peeled!
Best time to visit: January to March
Plan your Sri Lanka trip in 4 easy steps
- Book A Flight: Find the cheapest flights on Skyscanner, my go-to search engine.
- Find A Hotel: Score affordable accommodation on Booking.com. Receive $16 off your first booking with my link here.
- Buy insurance: You never know what may happen on the road. Protect your trip & gears with World Nomad, the best travel insurance company ever. Get a quote here.
- Read up on the best advice: Lonely Planet: Sri Lanka Travel Guide
For more Sri Lanka travel inspiration, make sure to check out my Sri Lanka Instagram Story Highlights.
Sri Lanka 2 Weeks Itinerary
I created a sample 2 weeks Itinerary that covers the major beautiful places to visit in Sri Lanka, just for you! Enter your email below to get the PDF download in your inbox. By signing up, you will also receive the TBB newsletter where I share monthly travel tips, new itineraries, and exclusive goodies like free printables. Looking for someone else to plan your trip for you? Check out these awesome Sri Lanka itineraries created by G Adventures, my favorite tour company who is all about responsible travel.
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