Our guide to cheap backpacking in Sri Lanka: routes, the best time to visit, an itinerary, tips and tricks, how to get around and how to stay safe
Sri Lanka has had, to say the least, a few difficult years. However, even the current economic crisis and a contentious relationship between locals and the government cannot stop tourists from coming to the island for its beautiful beaches, beautiful weather, ancient history and delicious cuisine influenced by its many cultures. . Indeed, tourism is one of Sri Lanka’s most consistent sources of income: locals encourage visitors to contribute to the local economy, and many are always happy to do so.
The best time to visit
If you are looking to spend your time on the beach, December to April is when you should aim. The south and west of the country experience hot, dry days and nights, but the northern and eastern regions can experience monsoons.
Going earlier in the year, from September/October to April, is the overall best bet, with fewer tourists. It also means you can hike in the hills, with cooler but still mostly dry weather.
If you really want to avoid the crowds, May-August is the time. The north and east of the country, with their laid-back resorts and great surfing, are the places to be during this time.
No matter what time of year you go, however, something is going to happen. If it’s not a festival, it will be a week on the beach; if it’s not hiking season, it could be a full moon over a forest temple.
How much will my trip cost?
Hotel or hostel accommodation for one person will cost you around 3,500 Sri Lankan rupees, or just under US$10 per night. It normally drops very slightly if you are traveling as a couple, with 6,900 rupees ($19.20) for a double occupancy room.
Allow around $4-5 per day for food and $2 for local transportation. The two and a half hour train journey from Colombo to Kandy costs around 350 rupees (just under a dollar), the longer six and a half hour journey from Colombo to Jaffna in the north costs Rs.700, or $2.
Considering all this, an average week in Sri Lanka for two people should cost around Rs. 94,000, or just over $260. You can add to that by hiring a car and driver (about $50 a day, covering fuel, salary, road tolls, and insurance), and we’ll get to that a bit below.
A typical 14-day itinerary
There’s so much to see and do that you’ll need to decide your priorities before you go. However, we can say that there are a few touchpoints you should really note, such as wildlife, history, beaches, culture, and getting to know the locals.
So how about this for a two week vacation?…
Start with a few days around the Jaffna peninsula, sail to the surrounding islands and head a little south to explore Anuradhapura, one of the oldest cities in the world and the site of Buddhist temples dating back nearly two thousand year. Put on your hiking boots and climb the sacred mountain of Mihintale, or take a jeep safari in Wilpattu National Park, in search of elephants, buffaloes, leopards, monitor lizards and pythons.
The center of the island is simply known as Hill Country, so spend a few days exploring the forested mountains, where crashing waterfalls and tea plantations cover the hills. Visit one to meet locals, learn about the tea trade, and try local brews.
Finally, board the train via the beautiful mountain village of Ella and travel south to Galle, a town founded by Portuguese settlers, expanded and fortified by the Dutch, and surrounded by curving beaches and lagoons. calm and relaxing. That gives you a last day or two to relax and remember all the things you’ve done and seen…pretty nice, huh?
How to get around
In towns and villages, tuk-tuks are the easiest combination of efficiency and price. For longer distances, the lack of domestic flights means ground transport for most of the way, and buses, while cheap, are often slow or delayed. It’s part of the experience, though; nobody goes to Sri Lanka for a sleek and smart transport system!
That said, since 2009, an effort has been made to modernize the country’s infrastructure. New modern highways are being built, and locomotives and rolling stock are being upgraded, meaning journeys between destinations can be breathtaking. Indeed, the spectacular nine hours between Kandy and Ella is on our list of the most beautiful train journeys in the world.
If that’s not really your thing, you can also hire a chauffeur-driven car for individual trips, one-day rentals or more, say ten days. If you are with the same driver for longer, you will get to know each other, with the driver acting as a guide for interesting places to visit and local things to eat, see and do. Even if you fancy spending a few days in the same place, the system is usually flexible enough that you can simply agree on a date to resume your trip between yourselves. This way, you can agree fixed dates and prices that will satisfy all parties.
As noted above, the car and driver option will add a big expense to your trip: around $50 per day, plus hotel accommodation (although some hotels offer free stays for drivers if they are with tourists). Try one of the trusted websites like Sri Lanka Car and Driver Hire to read reviews from previous customers and find a driver, vehicle and price that’s right for you.
General travel advice
Recently, there have been a number of protests in cities like Colombo and Kandy as the country faces an economic crisis. Calls for change amid food, fuel and medicine shortages, as well as power cuts in some areas, have prompted citizens to take to the streets in protest. Reports of the use of tear gas by police and peaceful protesters have prompted some governments, including the UK and the US, to dissuade their citizens from travelling.
Nevertheless, locals still encourage tourists to come, noting that tourism is a reliable source of income for the country. Reports vary, but with the protests mostly focused on major cities, many travelers reported nothing out of the ordinary as they made their way to the mountains, temples and beaches.
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