Sri Lanka’s Got Soul with Unmapped Travel




Now everybody, you will all have your maps of Sri Lanka with you no?” George, our guide for the next 12 nights said with a cheeky grin. Our group stared back blankly, we had nothing with us – no paperwork, no books and definitely no maps.

George holds his hand up as if to give us a high-five. Breaking into a sly giggle “It’s right here, your map of Sri Lanka!” 

He traces the outline of his hand and holds up his own map “See, it’s the same shape!

This cheeky sense of humour was an indicator of what our Unmapped adventure would entail. As we clinked beers that evening, toasting to a fun and exciting trip, it was evident that we were all here for the same reason. To have fun, learn and explore the beautiful island nation of Sri Lanka.

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Discover the full itinerary here

Our starting point was Negombo, staying at the glorious Jetwing Beach. It was the perfect start to our trip, with beachfront views and a relaxed vibe. Our welcome dinner was freshly prepared by a local family nearby. It was a feast for the senses and a wonderful introduction to Sri Lankan cuisine.


The following day we were en-route to Sigiriya, a popular area in the north. The drive was a great time to get to know the others on the trip as we bonded over terrible 80’s music and ginger biscuits. By midday, we reached our home for the next three nights, the stunning Aliya Resort & Spa. The resort was sprawled out amongst rice paddies, with picturesque views of Sigiriya and Pidurangala Rock. We spent the afternoon around the HUGE pool, reserving out energy for this evening’s activity – hiking Pidurangala Rock at sunset.


Once we dragged ourselves away from the pool, it was time to lace up the hiking boots and tackle this giant rock. The climb up Pidurangala Rock is pretty much uphill from the starting point. In saying that, as long as you go your own pace, you’ll be fine. Once you reach the point just before the top, it’s a bit of a scramble and you’ll need to use your whole body to get up there. Definitely make sure you’re wearing proper footwear and don’t go up when it’s dark. We made it just as the sun was starting to descend and the landscape surrounding us glowed in the afternoon light. The views were absolutely STUNNING! We could see Sigiriya Rock protruding from the earth and the vast valleys below us. It was slightly overcast so the sunset wasn’t as colourful as hoped, but the views made it more than worth the sweaty climb.


The next morning we woke early to hike to the cliff-top ruins of Sigiriya. It was about a 30-minute drive from the Aliya to the entrance, giving us time to properly wake up and prepare for another big ascent. I have to say, I wasn’t expecting to be overwhelmed by the sheer size of Sigiriya but I absolutely was! It was simply unreal. Locals consider Sigiriya to be the Eighth Wonder of the World and as I stood in front of it, I could see why.


The climb to the top was a little more civilised than yesterdays scramble. With built-in steps, handrails and signs to be careful (a rarity in Sri Lanka!) it was a pretty easy climb. Along the way we were taken past Mirror Wall with its ancient inscriptions and poems, the famous lion’s claws carved out of the rock face before finally making it up the 1,200-something steps to the top.


The famous Lion’s feet

Well… I’m just going to put it out there – I thought the photos of Sigiriya were impressive but they are nothing compared to the real thing. The view went for miles, the intricate cliff-top ruins that were still very much intact and the sheer thought of the fact that this was once a palace made Sigiriya a highlight on this trip.


Just admiring the views..


We had a free day after our morning jaunt up the rock which we happily took advantage of. Lounging by the pool with a frosty beer, a massage or two and a feast for dinner, it was the perfect way to unwind after two hikes!


The next day’s agenda was pretty full-on but we were excited because it meant it was nearly time for ELEPHANTS! But first, we spent the morning biking through the ancient temple site of Polonnaruwa. This UNESCO site remains one of the most incredible archaeological relics in the country and it was truly interesting to see how well preserved the ruins are. Our bike ride was cut slightly short by a quick downpour of rain but thankfully our trusty driver Priya was ready and waiting to pick us up. We stopped for lunch at a local restaurant and had a smorgasbord of delicious, home-cooked dishes. My favourite is brinjul (eggplant) curry, so delicious!

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After lunch, it was a quick drive to Minneriya National Park for our safari! Reportedly known as the largest gathering of Asian elephants, this National Park covers approximately 89 square kilometres and is teeming with lush flora and healthy-looking fauna. Obviously, the biggest drawcard to Minneriya is elephants however we also spotted buffalo, plenty of different bird species, sambar deer, monkeys and even a sneaky crocodile!


Within minutes of driving into the park, we were greeted by a small herd of elephants chowing down on the long, green grass. Cue, a Jeep full of 30 to 40-something-year-old women squealing with delight. A few minutes more and we were surrounded by more than 20 plus elephants, happily grazing and going about their day. 


As we drove through the park towards the lake, it was apparently time for a drink. We stopped near the water with several other Jeeps and our driver told us to wait a minute. Literally, seconds later, a trail of elephants made their way towards the water giving us front row seats to the largest herd of elephants I’ve ever seen! 

We left the park elated, the mass of elephants we were just metres from had left us reeling with joy. I feel like I’m gushing but honestly, there is nothing better than close encounters with wildlife. Especially wildlife that you don’t often get a chance to see.

That evening was our final night at the beautiful Aliya Resort. It was sad to leave but what an amazing place to stay for 3 nights. Adding it to my ‘must-return’ list pronto!

The following morning we made our way to the hill country. I’m not gonna lie, I couldn’t wait for some cooler temperatures! It was a long drive to Kandy but the trip was broken up by a stop to a local spice garden. We learnt about the magic of ayurvedic medicine and how herbs and spices are vital to Sri Lankan life. We made it to Kandy by mid-afternoon and checked into OZO Kandy. This property overlooked the lake and was located within walking distance (or a short tuk-tuk ride) from the city centre.


Once we’d settled in, it was time to visit the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. The golden-roofed temple is one of Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist relics. It was buzzing with people when we arrived but thankfully we had George to guide us around and explain the importance of this temple. Spoiler alert: you don’t get to see the tooth but you do get to see the very impressive buildings that it’s housed in.


After the temple, it was time for a cultural performance. Kandy is famous for putting on these performances and after watching it, I could see why. It was a loud performance with fast dancing and singing but definitely the best cultural performance I’ve seen… And trust me, I’ve seen a few!

The next day after a leisurely breakfast, it was time to learn the art of tea! We drove out of the city to a tea plantation where we got the chance to pick tea, learn how it’s processed and graded before enjoying a fresh cuppa! It was intriguing to learn the different types of tea, why you should use brew loose leaf over tea bags and what tea is served better with milk. We all walked out with a bunch of locally grown tea to take home and show off!



We had free time after the tea plantation so we decided we’d have a wander around Kandy. It was a chaotic city that I wasn’t particularly drawn to however there was something compelling about Kandy that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I will however absolutely recommend having a meal at The Empire Cafe. Great food and lovely service!

That evening we were being treated to a cooking demonstration in a local home. It’s experiences like this that make group travel unbeatable, I can guarantee that if I was backpacking solo, I would never have the opportunity to step into someone’s home and learn how to make Sri Lankan dishes. 

It was fascinating to take a sticky-beak through their home. Whilst it was quite basic, it felt homely. As we gathered around the kitchen table to begin the demonstration, we were amazed at how little tools were needed to prepare a feast! There were no microwaves, food processors or peelers. Just a small gas stove-top and a couple of pots and pans. We learn how to make egg hoppers – a Sri Lankan favourite, coconut sambal, several different types of curry and a few sweet snacks. After everything was cooked and we’d laughed ourselves silly trying to cook egg hoppers it was time to EAT! For such simple ingredients, the food was full of flavour and absolutely delicious.


It was such a unique experience we got to share with this beautiful family. I left feeling a little warm and fuzzy and very, very full!

The following morning we had another early-ish start because we had one very iconic train to catch. The train ride Kandy to Nuwara Eliya is famous for being one of the world’s most scenic train rides and let me tell you, its fame is 100% deserved.


We arrived at the train station with plenty of time to spare (because trains in Sri Lanka can be very unpredictable!) Our train arrived just 10 minutes behind schedule and before we knew it, we were leaving Kandy and surrounded by lush greenery. It was so pleasant to sit and watch the world go by from our first-class cabin on the train. I have to say that the air-conditioning was very well received! When we were deep into the highlands, I ducked out to the second class and stood in the open doorway. With the breeze in my face and a sea of tea plantations in front of me, I could nearly go as far as saying train travel is my new favourite way of travelling!



We arrived into Nuwara Eliya by mid-afternoon. The weather had changed quite dramatically and all of a sudden we were reaching for jumpers and socks. After a quick lunch stop in Nuwara Eliya, it was time to drive to our accommodation for the next two nights. We were staying at the Melheim Resort & Spa in Haputale, deep in the highlands.

Set against the mountains, the Melheim was a cool change from the previous few days. The only downside was that it was a little too chilly to use their pool! We had some free time before dinner so went for a little wander around the area to stretch our legs. It was quite a rural and remote area which gave us an insight into what life is like for locals around here.


The following morning we’d arranged an early start so we could have plenty of time in Ella. It was about an hour drive between the Melheim and Ella, through winding foggy mountains. We arrived around 9am and made our way to the first activity for the day, hiking to Little Adams Peak. It’s not a strenuous hike by any means but the early morning mist made for a slippery ascent to the top. We made it up unscathed to glorious views of …. more fog.


Despite the dense, white fog blocking our view of the mountain, I knew it was a stunning view out there somewhere. I’d previously done this hike two years earlier and was blessed with a clear sky. It was totally worth it however because there were three of the cutest little puppies at the top.

After cooing over them for much longer than necessary we made our way down the slippery track and towards our next stop, the Nine Arch Bridge.

I’d also been to the bridge the last time I was here but it didn’t make the view any less spectacular. It was such a contrasting sight with the thick, lush jungle and the stone bridge snaking its way through. It was much busier this time around with everyone trying to get the perfect shot. We didn’t have to wait for long for a train to come through and it was hilarious to watch people scatter.. It’s insane to see the number of people that hang out the train while it’s going over the bridge – I am definitely not that much of a thrillseeker!


After the big event, we made our way to the starting point where Priya was waiting with the van. I tell you what, I was so glad he was there! It had been a big morning of hiking and my legs were pooped! The next hour or so was free time so we took advantage of Ella’s cafe scene. Our pick was the funky Cafe Chill. The three-story building had a Tulum/Bali vibe that was perfect for Instagram. We decided that since it was past midday and we’d spent the morning working up a sweat that we deserved an espresso martini! For about AUD$7, it was as good as one that you’d get back home! 

Once we’d finished our martinis (how boujee can you get!), we headed back to the van for our next activity, another cooking demonstration with a local family. This was was a little different from our first demonstration because everything was cooked by an open fire, not gas. It was amazing how quickly a range of different curries can be cooked. Within half an hour, our teacher had whipped up five different types of curries, plus sides! We devoured the meal and promptly rolled out the door and back to the Melheim!



The next morning we headed south to Udawalawe. It was a bit of a drive but thanks to some more daggy 80’s music and snacks, it went quickly. We knew we were close to Udawalawe when we stopped on the side of the road to look at elephants that were grazing freely (behind a fence of course!) 


Udawalawe is famous for its National Park which is home is hundreds of animals. Similar to Minneriya, the biggest drawcard is the elephants however there are so many other species to spot on safari as well. However, before we headed off on safari we had one very important stop to make – The Elephant Transit Home!

The transit home was created to take care of orphaned elephants. Unlike other orphanages, this is situated adjacent to the Udawalawe National Park where elephants can roam freely during the day. Feeding is an event that occurs every 3 hours and a there strong sense of love through the Transit Home. Even just seeing the feeders interact with the elephants, you could see how much they care about looking after these gorgeous creatures. There would be over 30 elephants, mostly babies or a few years old and they have been trained so well to filter slowly through the gate to the feeding station. It’s a noisy, messy affair with some naughty elephants pushing their way for more, or others screeching with happiness after their first drink. You can’t help but feel happy watching the elephants crazily drink and then huddle together to eat the grass laid out for them. For some of the really small babies, feeding time was just too intense and they needed a nap to recuperate!


We left the Transit Home reluctantly, wishing we could stay and watch the babies all day, but we had other elephant matters to attend to! It was straight into a Jeep for our next safari through the National Park.

Udawalawe is set up differently to Minneriya. Instead of open plains, it’s quite dense bushland, broken up by dirt roads worn down by Jeep tires. It was early afternoon, which I thought wouldn’t be the best time to spot wildlife, however, I was wrong as we drove for about 5 minutes before spotting our first ellies!


Instead of a mass gathering, the elephants tended to hang out in small groups and quite a few of them had brand new babies – turning our group into complete mush! It was an incredible experience as the elephants were quite blasé towards the Jeeps. At one point, I had one big girl walk right past my arm. I could have reached out to pat her but was not in the mood to be charged at!


We also spotted many peacocks, crocodiles, birdlife and monkeys. Our time on safari went so fast that it felt like we’d barely been in the park when it had actually been about 2 hours!


Once we got back to the entrance, George and Priya took us to our accommodation for the night. The Centuria Wild was mere minutes away from the park and had a strong Balinese influence. Some of us took advantage of the small spa onsite, while others relaxed after a big day of animals.

The following morning it was time to head to the coast. We were wrapping up the tour in Mirissa and could not wait for a bit of relaxation time at the beach! We reached Mirissa just in time for lunch which was perfect because we had another cooking demonstration. This time it was learning how to make seafood curries! Tucked away in a back lane towards the beach of Weligama, a local fisherman’s family welcomed us to their modest home to cook up a storm.

With crab and prawns in abundance, we were in for a feast. Soon rich, spicy smells drifted from the small outdoor kitchen we were huddled in. I’m still so surprised how quick and easy it is to whip up these amazing curries, especially with minimal ingredients and equipment that the Sri Lankans use.

Soon it was time to eat, and eat we did! The crab was sweet and tender, beautifully combined with the spice of the curry. The prawns were fiery but the fish curry mild, making it the perfect combination when spooned up with rice and greens.


We left the fisherman’s home with full tummies, ready to fall into a food coma. It was a short drive to our accommodation, the Lantern Boutique Mirissa. These new, beach-front villas were the perfect spot to have a couple of days to relax and unwind!

We made ourselves comfortable by the pool before heading out to the Doctors House in Madiha Beach for dinner and drinks. Mirissa has quite the nightlife scene so we enjoyed cocktails at the Aussie-run Doctor’s House before making our way to Zephyr, another great beachfront spot.


The following day was at our leisure so after a slow morning swimming and reading, we ventured out to find coffee. Getting around Mirissa was easy with a plethora of tuk-tuk drivers ready to take you wherever you wanted to go!

We spent the rest of the day by the pool, enjoying the sound of the waves crashing just metres from us. It was bliss! We had sunset drinks at the Doctors House again before deciding to try a little restaurant serving up plates and plates of Sri Lankan favourite, kottu roti. Essentially just chopped up roti mixed with cheese, meat or vegetables, it was reminiscent of a Pad Thai. And it was delicious!




It was an early start the next morning because we were making a stop in Galle before heading back to Colombo and wanted to get the most out of our time there. Galle Fort is a beautiful shopping area, surrounded by ancient walls of a Dutch heritage monument. With boutique shops, funky cafes and of course, the famous Galle Fort Lighthouse, it’s a must-visit in Sri Lanka.



We spent a couple of hours shopping and eating but before we knew it, it was time to make our way back to Colombo for our final night. The drive to Colombo was only a few hours and we soon left the cruisey coastal roads and were thrown into a chaotic mess that is the streets of Colombo. Our final night was at the Jetwing Colombo Seven, which was perfectly located so we were just a tuk-tuk ride away from everywhere in the city.

As it was the last afternoon and most of us had visited Colombo before the tour started, we took full advantage of the rooftop pool and on-site spa. It was a very leisurely way to spend the afternoon! That evening we had our final dinner with everyone before all heading off in different directions.

It was sad that the trip had come to an end. I’d made some great friends, eaten ALOT of delicious food and got an insight to Sri Lanka that I previously missed on my last trip. 

If you loved reading this and want to add Sri Lanka to your bucket list, check out Unmapped for more details. They actually now have two Sri Lankan itineraries with a bunch of different departure dates so there will be something to suit you!

Check them out here!

Sri Lanka’s Got Soul

Safari and Sail in Sri Lanka

J. x

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