Visit the Elephants at Udawalawe National Park in Sri Lanka

It was the best of travel, it was the worst of travel. If you can haggle your way into Udawalawe National Park, you’re in for an amazing safari experience!

But first you must haggle.

In order to tour the national park, you have to pay two fees: 1) a set entrance fee of 6,600 rupees ($44) that includes a tour guide to help spot the animals, and 2) a negotiated Jeep fee for the Jeep and the driver. The negotiated fee can run anywhere from 3,000 rupees to 18,000 rupees ($20-$120)… probably cheaper if you’re a local.

Reading online reviews, the best times for a safari are early morning or late afternoon, so we planned to head into the park at 3pm for a three-hour tour. We arrived at 1pm and were surrounded by empty Jeeps and a few men to start negotiating with. The opening offer? 6,000 rupees ($40). Not as bad as it could’ve been, but obviously more than we wanted to pay.

We also had an added element of difficulty. For 12,000 rupees ($80), we had hired a van driver to take us from Ella to the national park, wait for us to tour, then drive us the rest of the way to Mirissa on the coast. (Ella is quite touristy with higher prices than we found elsewhere, so the driver cost was a lot.) The difficulty was that he followed us around as we attempted to negotiate Jeep fees and talked with the Jeep drivers, asking for a commission and driving our price up!

We called him out on it, and he of course denied that was happening. In his words, the Jeep driver was a “good man” with a “good price.”

While we were waiting for the price to drop, a couple French tourists arrived. We compared notes, and they attempted to negotiate as well. It was overwhelming, so they decided to check into their hotel and negotiate later. Another option is to book a Jeep through the local hotels, so that’s what they probably ended up doing.

While we were chatting with the other tourists, our van driver decided he didn’t want to wait for us to tour. He wanted money for the trip thus far and was going home, leaving us stranded in Udawalawe.

Sigh.

We took our luggage out of his van and paid him 4,000 rupees, one-third of the cost for driving us one-half of the way. He wanted one-half of the pay, but we objected. He backed out of our deal, and that’s all he was getting.

The Jeep drivers had been lowering their price gradually. The latest was 4,000 rupees, and my husband said if they made it 3,500 rupees ($23), we’d have a deal. Just as our van driver was getting agitated, the Jeep driver’s offer hit 3,500. We loaded our luggage into the Jeep and waved to the van driver. Would he be there when we returned? We didn’t know, and we didn’t care.

We were off!

Udawalawe National Park is 119 square miles and about 40 miles from the southern coast of Sri Lanka. It’s known for having hundreds of elephants, and it did not disappoint. We saw elephants immediately, just relaxing and eating.

There’s a path that the Jeeps follow around, and the animals ignore us for the most part. Riding around felt like I was in the Discovery Channel. You’re surrounded by all this natural beauty and animals just doing their thing. It’s surreal that you’re in their space with no fences or glass walls.

We saw dozens of elephants. We even saw a baby elephant that our guide guessed was about a week old. He was so tiny, he didn’t even reach his mother’s knee. One elephant was so close to the Jeep, we could’ve reached out to touch her.

In addition to elephants, we saw water buffaloes bathing…

We saw male peacocks fighting. (And later we saw a male peacock shaking his tail feathers for an unimpressed female. hahah)

We even saw an eagle taking flight…

We also saw crocodiles, a mongoose, a lizard and so many different kinds of birds. There are leopards in Sri Lanka, but our guide said he’d never seen one in this park.

Some of the elephants looked a bit skinny with their spines poking out. I’m not sure if I’m used to overweight elephants in zoos, or if they have food issues locally. We did see them clearing a patch of land and reseeding it, so perhaps it’s something they’re working on.

It was an amazing experience, and if you’re in Sri Lanka, I highly recommend a safari through Udawalawe National Park. Just prepare yourself for the haggling. But that’s the thing about travel: sometimes the best experiences happen alongside the frustrating ones.

Oh, and our van driver? He was waiting for us after all, amiably asking about the animals we saw in the park. Our prior interaction left me feeling wary. But for him? It was totally normal.

Costs:
Driver from Ella to Udawalwe to Mirissa: 12,000 rupees ($80)
Park entrance fee: 6,600 rupees ($44)
Park Jeep fee: 3,500 rupees ($23)

Total cost for the park: 10,100 rupees ($67)
Total cost for the day: 22,100 rupees ($147)

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