Either if you have just arrived or you have been following the ride for a while, I have to confess traveling as I do is everything but a relaxing vacation.
Not that I am complaining, don’t get me wrong. I love what I do indeed! But just to have an idea, in the last two months I have been to 6 different countries, took uncountable planes, buses, trains, taxis and tuk-tuks (even got to sail for 5 days!), tasted the most delicious traditional foods ever, got to enjoy tons of awesome experiences, stayed in some of those countries best hotels, broke 2 major electronic devices and a tooth!, felt sick twice, got stolen a phone, met great people wherever I went and had heaps of fun overall… but truly ZERO free days.
Sleep-deprived on many occasions I found somehow very difficult to manage that work-life balance everybody is talking about these days and I can say I reached a state of chronic fatigue where I keep doing things by inertia and I can’t help it but feel exhausted at the end of the day. Everyday.
But hey, rant over! I am here to unveil how last week I finally got to slow down and healed myself a bit, even when I kept myself pretty busy with a few activities, safaris, and excursions those days too, at an otherworldly peace retreat in Sri Lanka.
EXPERIENCING YALA NATIONAL PARK WILDLIFE
This is one of the most innovative experiences I have seen in a while. A safari in complete darkness! Of course, I needed to try it.
Basically, using infrared goggles, torches, and cameras, you get immersed in an experience that could resemble those in the movies where the images are light greenish. Really. It is that cool.
The jeep, without lights of course, slowly meanders around the grounds nearby the entrance of the park and you get to see everything that is happening right in front of you, and you wouldn’t otherwise if it wasn’t for the special gear.
Gayan, the naturalist that was coming along, spotted an elephant barely 2 meters away from the vehicle, behind some bushes. We stopped the car and patiently waited till the big guy started moving to look for his lush dinner. I was astonished, I couldn’t believe that was taking place right there and we were spectators!
For this one, you don’t really need to take your camera, unless it can really shoot in the dark. The images I took were pictures of the screen that was showing, in the rear part of the vehicle, what was being recorded on camera.
Dinner in the dark
The middle of the jungle is the perfect background for an exclusive and serene dinner al fresco.
Imagine having your own Chef for the night cooking right in front of you whatever you pick. Seafood, fish, meat, veggies, you name it! Nice wine, dessert, coffee, and candle lights completed the experience. If only I was with my beloved one…
I have to say this might seem a tough one for an afternoon or evening person, which happens to be my case. It took me a while to wake up and head to the early breakfast at 5.15 AM. But I knew that snoozing would only result in a huge regret later.
Once at the outdoor restaurant, everybody going on a safari could enjoy some fresh coffee and pastries before the team of naturalists took us to our respective vehicles. At the time the sun was rising, we were crossing Yala National Park’s main entrance and, believe me, I was very awake and beyond excited about what was ahead of us!.
During almost three hours, we spotted wild water buffalos, land monitors, deer, mungus, sloth bears, three million butterflies, crocodiles and, wait for it, my first leopard in the wild! My pictures, taken with a Nikon D5100 and a Sigma 17-70mm lens don’t really do justice to the latter one but have a look at what Vimukthi Weeratunga, the Wildlife Biologist coming along, captured with his super Canon 500mm lens. A stunning leopard on a rock saluting the rising sun!
Since it was early November, there were not many safari jeeps around and the whole experience was just perfect but I heard it can get crowded in Summer.
Because, once you are in the area, you don’t want to miss what is happening when the sun goes down. Different light and fauna, I learned very interesting facts like elephants are easier to spot in the afternoon when the temperatures decrease.
So there I went once again. Already a pro anticipating turns and bumps as well as maintaining a decent balance while standing on the jeep holding my camera, spotting wildlife, and getting the settings ready for some unforeseen action, I got to see six leopards – Yala has one of the densest leopard populations in the world – and a good bunch of elephants too.
If I was to choose one of both safaris, I would go for this one indeed. The light only gets better, jeep density decreases, you don’t have to wake up at insane hours and there is so much happening around! Plus, sunsets at Yala are just beautiful!
Coastal Nature Walk
From the beginning, when I checked in the hotel, arrived at my room, and hear the waves, I was drawn to the beach that lies right beneath the hotel.
Given the fact that you can’t visit it at dusk or night – all those gorgeous sunset pictures you think you could be taking can get you in trouble if an elephant comes your way! – the best alternative possible is to explore it at sunrise! And that is exactly what this experience was about.
Although Sampath, the naturalist had probably some very interesting facts to tell me about the wildlife that populates the area, since it was a private tour I got to ask him about what I am really passionate about. And he really did a great job there!
From the explosive wave formations – you can’t really have a swim on the beach because of the overall rough conditions which, however, make it picture-perfect…
… to the fishermen village, tsunami consequences – as many other Sri Lanka beaches this area was badly hit by the big SE Asia tsunami in 2004, when the country lost 65K people – or sand dunes fauna.
Perfect light and stunning landscapes.
Visit a chana plantation
At dark, and after shooting the sunset in a nearby spot overlooking a lake with its reddish reflections and all, we arrived at a local family’s home to get to know this traditional way of living.
After socializing over tea, we explored the property with a torch and found a sweet spot to play with night photography, light painting, and long exposure shots. My kind of fun!
A scenic sunset at Yala Buddhist Temples
Being Buddhism the national religion in Sri Lanka, it is common to see its stupas, temples, and monasteries spread around.
What is not that usual is actually being able to visit those in very special places like a National Park. Not one or two but up to three complexes gather near the borders of the park and are actually covered in this tour. Or hike, because you will have to climb up in the last two ones to take everything the place offers, breathtaking views and endless serenity.
Best closing ever to your days at Yala National Park.
On the way back, we spotted two leopards crossing the road. It was already pretty dark but you can’t miss big guys like them! Amazing.
YALA NATIONAL PARK FACT SHEET
WHERE IS YALA NATIONAL PARK
Located on the South East coast of Sri Lanka, this Natural Reserve could seem a bit out of the way, when it is actually just a few hours away from one of the most popular destinations in the country, Galle. A getaway from Tissamaharama, the biggest town near the park entrance, only the last 20 minutes of the ride are through a dirt road which is being fixed at the moment.
HOW TO GET TO YALA NATIONAL PARK
If you are planning to arrive via public transport, trains stop at Matara and buses at Tissamaharama. From there, you might want to arrange your own private transportation with your hotel. I wouldn’t recommend a tuk-tuk, even when it would be the cheapest way, because the conditions of the road leading to the park entrance are not the greatest.
WHEN TO VISIT YALA NATIONAL PARK
Yala is an all year round destination and wildlife safaris run every day. Many tourists, when visiting the island, make a quick one or two nights stop at Yala National Park when actually three or four nights are needed at least if you want to really absorb what the place has to offer.
WHAT TO PACK FOR YOUR VISIT TO THE PARK
- Your better camera equipment! I really wish I had a bigger lens every time we spotted a leopard or elephant, to be honest. I guess I will need to come back. I know this blog’s photographer, who didn’t get to come with me this time, will approve.
- Although mosquitos can’t be found in many areas at all, in some places you can still get bitten so a DEET mosquito spray would definitely come in handy!
- Long-sleeved clothes to respectfully visit the temples within the area. A scarf or sarong would work too.
- Comfortable shoe wear. Of course, you can’t leave the vehicle in the middle of your safari, but there are so many possibilities in terms of exploring the surroundings that you definitely don’t want to miss because you have left your appropriate trekking sandals or shoes at home.
- Whatever else you might need once there. There are little shops around but for very specific products like medicines you will have to make your way to the nearest town.
WHERE TO STAY AT YALA NATIONAL PARK
Cinnamon Wild Yala is an excellent hotel just 2 km away from the park premises and your best bet in terms of accommodation.
With an excellent choice of rooms, restaurants, and facilities – try the shoulders massage at the spa and the pool at sunset! – as well as all the amenities you can expect from a property of its kind, its stunning jungle location between a lake and the beach, make it a destination itself.
It is not rare to be woken up at sunrise by the monkeys playing nearby your room, finding deer that come to the poolside for water during the daytime, or how witnessing how elephants have dinner meters away from your cabin at dusk.
And that is one of the reasons you will be always escorted at night to your room so there is nothing to fear!
YALA NATIONAL PARK WILDLIFE SAFARIS
I would highly recommend contacting the guys at Nature Trails for both wildlife safaris and other experiences in Yala. A renowned team of naturalists and conservationists that have studied, researched, designed, developed, and curated every activity minding the environment and local communities of the area, they do know what they are doing. And that will make your experience in Yala National Park an unforgettable one. On top of that, you will be helping the researches to go on! Isn’t it awesome to know you are contributing to preserving Yala leopards?
Of course, there are many other companies offering wildlife safaris out there, but you get what you pay for!
I came to Sri Lanka to take part in a travel bloggers’ conference called TBCAsia, the first of its kind in Asia, along with 50 international bloggers. Managed by the PTBA, Professional Travel Bloggers Association of which I am a member as well as Cinnamon Hotels and Sri Lankan Airlines, this invitation was an excellent opportunity I could just not let go of. In any case, all the opinions here are my own.