Sri Lanka - Northern Explorer

Sri Lanka - Northern Explorer

Style: TravellerCultural discovery away from the crowds
Duration: 15 days
Type: GroupTravel with a small group of other travellers


Join us on this small group tour to a largely unexplored part of Sri Lanka. Until recently much of the north of this wonderful country has been off limits and stricken by civil war. On our journey, we head to a working rural coconut plantation where we get a taste for village life.  For wildlife lovers we will safari in Wilpattu National Park, intentionally to travel to one of the quieter and lesser visited parks in Sri Lanka, where we hope to spot wildlife such as Sloth Bear, Leopard and Elephants. The next stop is the sun-baked island of Mannar – again few tourists venture here as it is one of the most isolated areas of the country where wild donkeys roam and the landscape is dotted with Baobab trees. We then head on to the Jaffna Peninsula which was until only a few years ago the scene of a fierce civil war between government forces and the LTTE (Tamil Tigers). War damage here is still very much in evidence but we will see how the area is recovering with a Tamil guide and explore points of interest such as Jaffna Fort and the Public Library. We also visit fascinating Delft Island where wild ponies run free. Heading back south we cross the strategically important Elephant Pass and journey towards the East Coast with its excellent beaches and we will explore the main harbour city of Trincomalee. Back in the heart of the country we visit the incredible Sigiriya Rock Fortress; from the summit the views are unparalleled. We hope to see more wildlife and especially elephants at Hurulu Eco Park with the dry season being a particularly good time to see them in numbers. Finally we explore Colombo with a local to soak up the atmosphere of the crazy streets, sample some local Kottu Roti and wander through Pettah Market. Sri Lanka has history, culture, scenery and great wildlife in abundance. Check out the North before the inevitable arrival of mass tourism blunts its authentic charm.

Tour Rating

Fitness ●●●○○ | Off the Beaten Track ●●●●○ | Culture ●●●●○ | History ●●●●○ | Wildlife ●●●●○

Tour Pace


Tour Highlights

  • Explore the little visited Jaffna peninsula in the far North
  • Excellent wildlife spotting opportunities in off the beaten track Wilpattu National Park
  • Experience the isolated and little visited windswept island of Mannar
  • See wild ponies roaming Delft Island off the Jaffna peninsula
  • Get off the beaten track In Jaffna with a Tamil guide  
  • Marvel at the panorama from the summit of Sigiriya Rock
  • The possibility to see elephant gatherings during the dry season
  • Authentic village visits to observe rural traditions and customs
  • Spend time on the laid back east coast at Trincomalee

Tour Essentials

Accommodation: Mix of comfortable hotels and a permanent safari tented property at Wilpattu
Included Meals: Daily breakfast (B), plus lunches (L) and dinners (D) as shown in the itinerary
Group Size: Maximum 12
Start Point: Negombo (Colombo airport)
End Point: Negombo (Colombo airport)
Transport: Bus or minibus and local ferry
Countries: Sri Lanka
Optional Excursions: So many! The hill country - Southern beaches - Yala National Park - please contact us if you would like to extend your stat in Sri Lanka

Tour Itinerary Notes

While our intention is to adhere to the day-by-day itinerary as printed below, a degree of flexibility is built in. Overnight stops may vary from those suggested and on occasions alternative accommodation, of a similar standard to that named below, will be used.

Tour Guide

Our guides are a key strength, chosen for their knowledge of and passion for the areas in which they work. All of our guides are carefully hand-picked, and are not just passing through these countries, but are usually locally born. Unlike some companies it should be noted we do not send a guide or tour leader from Undiscovered Destinations in the UK as we have every confidence in our locally appointed representative who is responsible for operating the tour on our behalf. Where possible you will have the same guide throughout your trip but on occasions it may be necessary to change the guide at one or more points during the tour.

Day 1 – Arrive in Sri Lanka - Transfer to Thalahena Negombo (approximately 40 minutes)

On arrival transfer to your hotel where the rest of the day will be at leisure. Kindly note that for early arrivals early check is not guaranteed. Overnight Villa Hundira or similar.  

Day 2 – Thalahena Negombo - Dunagaha – Driving time approximately 45 minutes

Enjoy a morning boat trip on the Negombo lagoon where we can observe many coastal birds and enjoy the vibrant colours of the Negombo fishing fleet. During the cruise enjoy some fresh tropical fruits. Later after a relaxed breakfast proceed towards Dunagaha for a taste of village life. We will be staying in the middle of a functioning coconut estate. The afternoon is at leisure for you to stroll around the lush gardens and explore the different types of spices found around the estate. Your hosts will join you to explain the different varieties. Overnight Ambarella Lodge or similar (BD)

Day 3 – Dunagaha

Today after breakfast, it’s time to explore the local villages by Tuk Tuk with a local guide.  Although English is spoken by the village guide, sometimes communication can be a little hard but a smile goes a long way and your visit is helping local villages to make a living.  Visit a pineapple farm and a family making wonderful textiles using wooden looms and also a small brick factory. After exploring the villages, head to a local house for a cooking lesion followed by a delicious lunch. Later we return to the lodge and the rest of the day is at leisure for you to relax before we start our journey North tomorrow. Overnight Ambarella Lodge or similar (BLD)

Day 4 – Dunagaha – Wilpattu National Park (Approximate driving time 3.5 hours)

We depart after a relaxing breakfast and journey north to Wilpattu National Park. Compared to parks in the south of the country, Wilpattu receives relatively few visitors which ensures a more enjoyable and less hectic safari experience and hopefully less impact on the biodiversity of the park.  After lunch on the outskirts of the park we take an afternoon safari in this wilderness area where if we are lucky we may be able to spot Leopard, Elephant, Sloth Bear and many other species as well as many different bird species. Overnight Big Game Park Wilpattu (non-air-conditioned tent) or similar (BLD)

Kindly note that Wilpattu is more dense and more off the beaten track than most Sri Lankan parks. Wildlife is very much around but sightings cannot be guaranteed.

Wilpattu National Park

Wilpattu is approximately 1,908 in extent. It has a dense jungle cover, which makes it a very exciting park as animals have to be tracked. There are numerous delightful little lakes - known as villus - and the leopard and sloth bear can sometimes be spotted drinking at these. A large variety of birds are also found in this park.

Day 5 – Wilpattu National Park – Anuradhapura (UNESCO) – Mannar Island – (Approximate driving time today is 4 hours)

Early this morning enjoy a further safari in the wilderness of Wilpattu National Park. After the safari we return to camp for breakfast before continuing to Anuradhapura, the first ancient kingdom of the Sri Lankan kings. We will by no means be exploring the whole site but we will visit the sacred Bo Tree, which is the world's oldest tree on record, and has been guarded by monks for over 2000 years. Lunch will be taken in a landmark colonial building which has played host to many dignitaries including the Queen. Later we travel back to the West coast and a forgotten gem, isolated Mannar Island. On arrival in the town of Mannar we will explore the town and the ruined fort and its ramparts which afford good views of the town and the causeway that connects Mannar Island to the mainland. Overnight Palmyrah House or similar (BLD)


For over 1000 years Sinhalese Kings with occasional South Indian interlopers ruled from the great city of Anuradhapura. It is the most extensive and important of the Sri Lankan ancient cities and today you’ll get to see it extensively. Anuradhapura was found in the 4th century BC and is famous for its Dagabas (Temples), Reservoirs, and beautifully landscaped gardens, the ruins of which still remain to this day.

Mannar and Mannar Island

Isolated Mannar is known for its baobab trees and for its fort, built by the Portuguese in 1560 and taken by the Dutch in 1658 and rebuilt; its ramparts and bastions are intact, though the interior is largely destroyed. Formerly the town was renowned as a centre of the pearl fishing industry. The modern town is dominated by its Hindu temples, mosques and churches. The Catholic Church has a diocese headquartered in the town. By rail the town is connected to the rest of Sri Lanka by the Mannar Line. Mannar Island is a sun-baked and windswept island and is one of the poorest and least fertile areas of Sri Lanka and was hit hard during the civil war. Despite its slightly shabby appearance, Mannar Island has an interesting and off the beaten track feel to it where wild donkeys roam a landscape of ancient baobab trees.

Day 6 – Mannar Island

This morning, after an early breakfast we visit the fish market in Mannar. Fishing is the main stream of income on the island and a visit to the fish market gives a great insight into island life. Mannar is renowned as being the source of the best dried fish in the country. Our exploration of fascinating Mannar Island continues with a visit to the ancient Hindu temple - Thiruketheeswaram Temple. Continue to Doric Bungalow, once a grand building and the house of the first British Governor of Ceylon in 1801. Overlooking the Indian Ocean, it is considered as one of the first buildings in the country built to a classical architectural plan. Also visit the ruins of the Dutch Fort in Arippu which in its heyday was at the core of the lucrative pearl fisheries. If time allows we can walk on the beach and observe enormous mounds of shells left over from the past. Later this afternoon we drive to the very tip of Mannar Island to the outpost of Talaimannar. Ferries once departed to India from here but now the village has a slightly eerie feel to it and it is a base for the Sri Lankan Navy. From the railway station you can walk the recently restored railway line right to the sea where the lighthouse marks the end of Mannar Island. Overnight Palmyrah House (BLD)

Day 7 – Mannar – Jaffna – (Driving time today approximately 3.5 hours)

This morning we travel to the far North to the city of Jaffna, just now starting to open up after the civil war and is a stark contrast to the much more touristic south of Sri Lanka. On arrival we check in the hotel after some rest, lunch will be arranged at a local Jaffna home and this is a great opportunity to exchange cultural values and a glimpse into the lives of an ordinary family. Our local Tamil guide will be with you to assist with translation. A special ‘kool’ or traditional soup will be served first followed by ‘Pittu’ made from coconut and rice flour usually served with crab curry, fried prawns, dhal curry and other local delights in a real Jaffna feast. After a nice break to allow us to relax after the meal, we explore Jaffna city by bicycle, visiting the fort, the library, Subramanium Park and other notable sites. Later we return to our hotel where you can relax and enjoy a swim. Overnight Jetwing Jaffna or similar (BLD)

Note – If you do not wish to cycle please let us know and Tuk Tuk’s will be arranged instead.

Jaffna Peninsular

Located 246 miles from Colombo, the Jaffna peninsula has an area of 380 square miles. Jaffna was an important city for both the Portuguese and Dutch. The recently restored Jaffna Fort has been fought over for centuries. It was completed in 1632 and covers 55 acres in extent. The Dutch Church inside the Fort dates to 1706. During the civil war, government forces used the fort as an encampment and it was the scene of a 107 day siege where the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) forced the retreat of government troops. There are ruins of Portuguese churches at Myliddi and Chankanai and a ruined Dutch church at Atchuveli. Fort Hammenheil can be found at the entrance to the Kayts Harbour and is located on an island. Jaffna is full of Hindu Kovils. The Nallur Kandasamy Kovil and Vallipuram Kovil at Point Pedro are considered two important Kovils. All over Jaffna peninsular the evidence of the recent war is all too commonplace with ruined homes, bombed churches and other buildings riddled with bullet and shrapnel damage. Since 2009 the area has returned to stability and slowly many of those that left the carnage have started to return.

Day 8 – Jaffna and the peninsular

We start this morning with a visit to Nallur temple. A traditional shalv /Veddi will be provided to wear when you enter the temple. The history and importance of this place will be explained and the basic principles of worshipping at a Hindu temple will be demonstrated. We will delve into Jaffna’s culture, similarities and differences of South Indian culture, the scars of war, and the effects of migration and exile has had in the region. Later we explore other areas in and around Jaffna such as Karainagar, Casuarina Beach, Kayts Jetty, Hanuman temple, Kantharodai Buddhist miniature pagodas and more if time allows. Lunch will be provided at a village home with dishes such as fried cuttlefish, Jaffna prawn curry, toasted crab, fish masala, mashed brinjal, drumstick curry, fish gravy to enjoy. The meals tend to be served on banana leaf in the tradition of a true Jaffna style lunch.  The rest of the afternoon is free to relax at leisure and idle at quiet Casuarina beach or at the hotel pool. Of course if you wish you can wander some more in Jaffna itself.

Day 9 – Island exploring – Delft Island

Off limits for years due to the civil war the islands off the Jaffna peninsula are rewarding places to cruise to and visit. Today we will visit the island of Delft where wild ponies roam the landscape and the coastline is blessed with beautiful waters and white sand beaches. During the 1 hour crossing by local ferry, the Tamil guide will explain some of the difficulties and challenges of living on such remote islands. Although around 6000 people live on Delft Island this windswept island feels largely deserted. Our tour of the island will take us to the abandoned Dutch fort and a 1000 year old temple and a huge Baobab tree. We also visit the Pigeon Hole, the Dutch Tower, and the ruins of stables used in colonial times by the British and Portuguese to breed horses.  Enjoy a local lunch today with an island family where you can learn how to cook traditional Sri Lankan food.   The eerie rustic charm of Delft can hardly be put into words, and a trip to this isolated outpost that gazes out towards India is a real privilege. Later we return to Jaffna by ferry. Overnight Jetwing Jaffna or similar (BLD)

Note – On sunny days it can be fiercely hot on Delft Island. Please dress accordingly and ensure you are protected from the sun and wear a hat.

Delft and Nagadipa Islands

Delft Island was first named by the Dutchman Rijckloff van Goens, who was governor of Zeeland in the 1660’s. Delft is a flat island surrounded by shallow waters and beaches of coral chunks and sand. The Buddhist Vihara at Nagadipa (Nainativu) Island is a place sanctified by the visit of the Buddha and the dagoba (Buddhist stupa) is an old one. The large number of dagobas in the Kantharodai site dates from the 2nd to 10th Centuries AD. At Keeramalai is a freshwater bathing pond on the beach and it is said to possess therapeutic properties.

Day 10 – Jaffna – Trincomalee - Nilaveli – (Approximate overall journey time 4.5 hours today)  

Today we leave Jaffna and head south on the A9 via the Elephant Pass where we will stop to view the war memorial, a sobering reminder of the not so long ended devastating civil war.  This afternoon we explore ‘Trinco’, the main city on the East coast. The city is making a slow recovery after the civil war and also the terrible Tsunami. Enjoy a walk in the central areas of the city and head to Ruben’s place, a renowned spice merchant whose curry mix is famous in town. Continuing on, we take a stroll in the market and visit Koneswaram Temple which is also the site of the famous lovers leap with stunning views out to the ocean. If time allows we can also stop to visit the Commonwealth war cemetery. The day concludes by driving to idyllic Nilaveli Beach, our base for the next 2 nights. Overnight Pigeon Island Beach Resort or similar (BD)


Trincomalee situated on the east coast is a charming town with a natural deep water harbour. Its strategic significance has meant it has been fought over through the centuries and was also badly impacted during the more recent civil war. There are fine views of the town from Kandasamy Kovil and pilgrims from across the country come to visit this ancient place of worship. Swami Rock also known as lovers leap is one of the best places in the world to spot the Blue whale, the largest organism on the planet. Sightings are most common between February and November when the sea is quite calm.


The beach at Nilaveli is fantastic. As the sun rises over the ocean, if you are an early bird, make sure you rise early for a stunning view out over the shimmering expanse of the Indian Ocean. The beach is long and relatively straight so ideal for leisure walks and along the way, you might see fishermen going about their daily routines. Compared to the busy beaches in the South and West of Sri Lanka, Nilaveli has a laid back and rather untouched feel to it.

Day 11 – Nilaveli at leisure with option whale watching

Optional: Early this morning, set out in search of marine mammals. If you are lucky, you might be able to observe the thrilling acrobatics of spinner dolphins and possibly even witness the largest animal on the planet: the Blue Whale. The East Coast is renowned as an excellent location to observe whales although of course sightings can never be guaranteed and the trip is subject to cancellation if weather conditions are not suitable. Price is on request – please let us know at the time of booking if you wish to take this excursion.

For those that do not wish to take the optional excursion then you day is at leisure to stroll in time to the waves crashing in on the excellent palm fringed beach or perhaps sit by the pool with a good book and recharge before the final leg of our tour starts tomorrow. Overnight Pigeon Island Beach Resort or similar (BD)

Please note – Snorkelling trips can also be arranged on request to Pigeon Island – contact us if you are interested.

Day 12 – Nilaveli – Habarana – Ritigala – Sigiriya (approximate overall driving time is 5 hours today)

We leave the East Coast behind and continue towards Sigiriya. We take a break from our drive to stop for authentic rice and curry lunch.  Continue to Ritigala Archaeological Monastery, an ancient Buddhist Monastic complex dating back to the 1st century BC and located on the eastern side of the lush slopes of Ritigala Mountain. We explore this peaceful forest haven and get a feel for the history before continuing to our overnight stay. Overnight Kassapa Lions Rock or similar (BLD)


Ritigala has most definitely an undiscovered feel to it and bears a certain mysterious nature owing to the long meditational pathways that open into the thick jungle and large stone-lined reservoirs. It is a world away from the more famous historical tourist sites in the country and retains a wonderfully peaceful aura. Make sure you take time to explore in depth and walk all the way to the higher parts of the complex for a rounded appreciation of the site. Take time to sit down and connect with nature in the sacred ancient meditation grounds.

Day 13 - Sigiriya Rock UNESCO and Hurulu Eco Park – Driving time today approximately 1 hours

This morning we arrive at Sigiriya Rock (UNESCO) early, in the still relative cool of the day and this also beats the main throng of tourist crowds. We explore some of the interesting features in the lower sections of the site such as the Royal Gardens and the water gardens. We then visit the remarkably preserved frescoes situated about half way up the rock before the final staircase climb to the top of the rock where the reward is breathtaking views for miles in every direction. After descending we take a well-earned rest and stop by a local restaurant in Habarana to enjoy yet another lunch that captures the true essence of village cuisine. Lakmal, the proprietor of the establishment takes great pride in satisfying guests with his coconut sambol to be enjoyed with rice and bread. After lunch we continue to Hurulu and set out on a jeep safari hoping to see wild elephants. After the safari we head back to the hotel. Overnight Kassapa Lion Rock (BLD)

Hurulu Eco Park

Elephants in Sri Lanka tend to constantly transfer from one park to another depending on the time of the year and of course according to the availability of food and water. The most popular parks are the two neighbouring national parks of Minneriya and Kaudulla which also contain lakes where elephants often gather in large herds. However these parks have become desperately overcrowded with jeeps getting dangerously close to herds to get the best views, which is why we are breaking away from the crowds and enjoying the relatively little visited Hurulu Eco Park where there is more forest cover and hence it may be harder to see elephants but we strongly feel that the experience is worthwhile, as long as expectations are realistic and importantly we feel that it is necessary to minimise the impact on these magnificent wild animals.

Day 14 – Colombo - Driving time today approximately 4 hours

After breakfast we drive to Colombo. After checking in to the hotel and some brief rest we meet Rashan who will show us around his city. We visit a street food joint at the Galle Face green where you can have a taste of Kottu Rotti, an everyday Sri Lankan meal not to be missed and best enjoyed on the street. Later we visit the evening market at Pettah where you will get to see local vendors from all over Sri Lanka and this is a great place to try some seasonal fruit. We take a walk through the crazy streets of Slave Island, a great place to observe locals going about their daily lives. Return to your hotel for a farewell dinner at the Verandah Restaurant at the Galle Face Hotel. After dinner enjoy a final drink at the Travellers Bar just a stones throw from the rollers breaking on the beach. A fitting way to end the adventure! Overnight Galle Face Hotel (BD)

Note – Extra nights can be booked on request and subject to availability at the Galle Face Hotel


The largest city and former administrative capital of Sri Lanka, it is a busy and vibrant city with a mixture of modern life and still the remnants of a bygone colonial era. Due to its large harbour and its strategic position along the East-West sea trade routes, ancient traders came ashore over 2,000 years ago. However it was only made the capital of the island when Sri Lanka was ceded to the British Empire in 1815.

Day 15 – Depart Colombo

Transfer to the airport at an appropriate time for your onward flight (B)

Tour inclusions/exclusions

Arrival and departure transfers
All accommodation
Services of English speaking guide / tour leader
Meals as listed (B – Breakfast, L – Lunch, D – Dinner)
Entrance fees for sites listed as part of the itinerary

International flights
Travel Insurance
Items of a personal nature
Tips (Discretionary)