Sri Lanka is never a country we imagined ourselves visiting, but somehow we found ourselves making plans to go to a place we knew nothing about. When we got there we found a beautiful country that truly caters to backpackers and tourists. From street food to beautiful temples to daily hiking trails, we were blown away by what the country had to offer us, especially when backpacking through Sri Lanka.
If you’re keen to visit Sri Lanka but have no idea where to begin planning, we’ve got you covered. There is a designated backpackers loop in Sri Lanka between the months of November and April. When you follow it, you’re guaranteed to see familiar faces throughout the country who you might end up travelling with. Some people do the loop backwards for the novelty, but we would recommend taking the regular route so that you’ll get all the hiking and traveling out of the way and end with a couple of relaxing beach days.
The first stop is Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka and the easiest place to fly in and out. Colombo has layers to it – the closer you get to the center the more it feels like a city, but it’s also a beach town. We chose to stay on the beach side and travel into the city. One of our favorite stops in the city was Gangaramaya Temple, which floats on a lake in the middle of the city, bringing a bit of peace to the crazy city life. Colombo is also a great place to sample every type of Sri Lankan cuisine and then do a bit of shopping at malls and markets throughout the city. Colombo will also introduce you to TukTuks, one of the most efficient ways to get around the city.
After we spent a couple days in Colombo and got our bearings, we took a train to the center of the country and stopped in Kandy. As a helpful tip, don’t be tempted to buy a first class ticket. Save a few dollars by taking second class, where you’ll have a beautiful view as you travel through the country. This was one of our favorite cities and we were able to see several sites, like the Rock Cave Temples and the Big Buddha that overlooks the city.
From Kandy, you can also take a day trip to Sigiriya, an underrated spot when backpacking through Sri Lanka. It’s an ancient rock fortress that a king of Sri Lanka built long ago to protect his palace. There is the option to climb to the top of the fortress, but we opted to climb Pidurangala Rock. This overlooks the fortress, (was significantly cheaper!) and we were able to see everything from the top. The hike is a fairly quick one (about 30 minutes) and the view is well worth it. Along the way you’ll pass through Dambulla, where we recommend to stop and check out the Buddhist cave temples, built thousands of years ago for the people in the city to come and pray. It’s also a small hike up some stairs, but the history and view is stunning.
Once we had our fill of Kandy we made our way to Ella, a chill tourist town that houses hikes like Little Adam’s Peak and Ella’s Rock. We spent two days in the city, then spent a few days in the mountains sleeping in tents. This was also the first city where we found a decent cup of coffee, as tea is more popular here. While you’re in Ella, you have the option to take a tour of a tea factory, which is quite informative and interesting. At the end, you’ll even be able to try the black teas they export. We recommend taking a train from Kandy to Ella. It’s about a 6-7 hour ride through the lush and beautiful greenery of Sri Lanka. Most people spend their entire trip sitting at the doors looking out to the neverending hills.
The last big stop for us was Mirissa, a beach town in the southwest. You can only get from Ella to Mirissa by bus, so be prepared for a bumpy ride. Our time was mostly filled with summer rain and thunderstorms, but when the sun came out it was glorious. Mirissa’s beaches are lined with restaurants, surfboard rentals and plenty of sunbeds, that encourage some much-needed laziness. If you’re keen to learn how to surf, head to the next town over, Weligama, where the beaches are full of surf schools. While some might start their backpacking journey here, we recommend this be your last stop. After backpacking through Sri Lanka, you can just relax here without having to worry about the rest of your travels.
After Mirissa, there are plenty of smaller cities on the west coast to continue your journey. Some chose to go up the west coast to Unawatuna. Others chose to stop at the Dutch villages in Galle or spend the day diving in Hikkaduwa. All of these cities will lead you back up to Colombo for your flight out or to your next destination.
Sri Lanka is a pretty small country and it’s quite easy to make your way around. From cultural history to adventure and relaxation, there’s a little bit of everything here for everyone. It’s also quite affordable and you’ll always come across familiar faces who are taking the same route. All of these reasons make backpacking through Sri Lanka one of the most ideal and worthwhile trips.
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