This is probably going to sound like something off a tourism webpage, but we’re going to say it anyway: we live on an island that is made for holidaying.
It is one of the greatest perks of living in Sri Lanka. A quick Google search will churn out a diverse multitude of exclusive internet-recommended holidays you could have right here on our very own tiny 62,710 km² area of land. Luxury resorts? We’ve got them. Safaris? Check. Golden beaches? We’ve got plenty. Amazing world heritage sites? Check again. Disney World? Well, we don’t have one of those, but who needs it?
However, hidden in the midst of all these classy vacation destinations and five-star holiday options lies a certain rarely-explored, low-budget, little-thought-of means of experiencing Sri Lanka’s rich culture and incredible natural heritage ‒ hiking.
Yes, you read that right. Beaches may hog all the limelight over here, but with their magical mountain trails, sweeping tea estates, breathtaking views, otherworldly forests, countless streams, and forgotten little villages tucked snugly into misty valleys, Sri Lanka’s highlands are perfect treasure troves of natural wonder just waiting to be discovered. These lonely hiking trails offer backpackers and trekkers countless opportunities to step off the grid and immerse themselves in both the nature and culture of Sri Lanka. In fact, hiking is possibly one of the best ways to explore this little pearl of an island ‒ and you might want to keep that in mind the next time someone tells you to ‘go take a hike’!
Unfortunately, with most of the local population having evolved into desk-bound, sedentary beings who can hardly tackle a staircase, leave alone a mountain trail, very few Sri Lankans are known to express any interest in backpacking. However, according to Amran Athas from Hiking Sri Lanka, this seems to be gradually changing. “I have seen a boom in adventure loving folk in recent times,” he says.
Hiking Sri Lanka was started two years ago by adventure junkies and outdoorsmen Amran Athas and Pasindu Amarasinghe, in an attempt to share their passion for the outdoors and inspire Sri Lankan youth to take up hiking and trekking. “Pasindu and I were hiking buddies in the office. We used to travel a lot,” explains Amran, talking about how their venture began. “Once in a while some friends would join us. After a while, we realised how happy they were when we took them on cheap backpacking trips.” With this realisation came the knowledge that they could actually take their love for the outdoors a step further by following their passion and starting a business at the same time.
Now two years on and still going pretty strong, Hiking Sri Lanka continues to promote trekking and hiking among the younger generations in the country.
Here, Hiking Sri Lanka co-founder Amran Athas helps us take a look at Sri Lanka’s hiking scene and give it its much deserved moment in the limelight:
What Makes Sri Lanka Such A Great Place For Hikes?
From tea plantations, scrub jungle, and misty waterfalls, to streams, shrines, and little mountain villages… there is simply no end to the number of things the diverse terrain of Sri Lanka’s hill-country has to offer. Amran, who has gone on hikes in countries like the United States, insists that Sri Lanka is “one of the best countries in the world” for hiking. “Hikers are obsessive about the montane and submontane forests here because there is something magical about it,” he says. “You feel like you are walking in the forests of The Lord of the Rings in New Zealand!”
While its breathtaking beauty is certainly an incentive to grab your walking shoes and head to the hills, one of the best things about backpacking in Sri Lanka is the fact that the hiking spots are pretty accessible. According to Amran, if you want to go hiking in a country like the USA, you will have to travel hundreds of kilometres before you can reach a suitable location for it. In Sri Lanka however, it’s simply a matter of a three or four hour journey for a complete change of scenery! “Who has time these days to travel very far for a hike?” asks Amran. “Over here, all you have to do is hop onto the night mail train, have a nap, and at dawn you would be in the hills!”
Hiking Hotspots In Sri Lanka
The best places for backpacking are in the central highlands, though some of the surrounding lowland areas make pretty good hiking spots too. If we were to list all the great hiking spots in Sri Lanka, we’ll probably be typing for quite a while, so here are five of the many popular locations which have much to offer backpackers.
Horton Plains National Park
With its almost ethereal beauty, mist-wreathed views, and amazing biodiversity, the Horton Plains National Park is any hiker’s heaven. At 2,100m above sea level, this is the only National Park in the country which allows visitors to walk through it via designated trails. Its most amazing feature is the 880m sheer drop at the famous World’s End ‒ as well as the multitude of killer views waiting for you at every corner.
Belihuloya is another popular spot for hikes and treks. Being situated in an area that links Sri Lanka’s wet and dry zones makes it a place of rich biodiversity, so wildlife enthusiasts will have plenty to see. There are also quite a number of water bodies traversing the area, which can allow backpackers to take refreshing (and safe) dips now and then en route.
Knuckles Mountain Range
Amran recommends Knuckles as one of the best places for backpacking, though he does say that its trails will work better for those people with a little bit of experience. With its otherworldly cloud forests, misty waterfalls, secluded mountain villages, and amazing diversity of flora and fauna, this range of mountains has much to offer trekkers, hikers, and biodiversity enthusiasts.
Hanthana Mountain Range
With its seven beautiful mountain peaks rising above Kandy city, the Hanthana mountain range has always been a favourite among adventure enthusiasts and trekkers in Sri Lanka. While some of the peaks offer pretty rough climbing (Katusukonda Peak is said to be the most difficult to scale), the mountain range also offers many trails which beginners can tackle, too.
Kirigalpoththa And Thotupola Mountains
For folks who are new to hiking, Amran recommends Kirigalpoththa and Thotupola, both of which arise from the Horton Plains plateau. Kirigalpoththa is the second highest peak in the country, and Thotupola happens to be the third, but that shouldn’t really be a deterrent. “The difficulty of the hike isn’t really directly proportional to the height, so these are pretty good starts,” he assures.
5 Reasons Why You Should Take Up Hiking
What is the best thing about hiking in Sri Lanka? According to Amran, there is no one best thing ‒ simply everything about it is good!
“The main problem with us is we are not sure if we would be able to hike,” says Amran, speaking about why many Sri Lankans don’t take up this activity. “We need to break free from this and try. How would you know your potential without trying?”
In an attempt to break this mentality, Hiking Sri Lanka once carried out a project where an obese friend of theirs volunteered to hike with them for 19 km ‒ and succeeded. Amran advises people to move out of their comfort zones and try to get to know what they are capable of. “You don’t need even any gear when beginning,” he explains. “Just a pair of shoes, a small daypack/backpack and a weekend would do.”
In a nutshell, anyone can hike; and you don’t have to have a physique like Usain Bolt or the resilience of a marathon runner for it either. Here are a few reasons why you might want to head for the hills the next time you have a day off from work:
You get to commune with nature
What with the never-ending humdrum chaos of our daily lives, it is sometimes good to step out of the rat-race for a while and immerse yourself in nature. Plus, with Sri Lanka’s rich bio-diversity, there is no end to the amazing flora and fauna you can encounter while on the trail.“You get to see a lot of endemic species in the wild,” says Amran. “Who wouldn’t want to see something that is available in just one place in the whole wide world?”
Walk, walk, and walk some more
Walking may be one of the easiest forms of physical activity, but it is also one of the best ‒ and you get plenty of it on a hike! In fact, this simple exercise has been proven to reduce risk of cardiovascular diseases, lower blood pressure, increase muscle endurance, reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, manage weight, and even prevent depression.
The scenery is to die for
Our hill country is beautiful; need we say more? No matter how gruelling the trek is, no matter how sore you are at the end of the trek, the views and vistas that await you are always worth it.
Give yourself a great outdoor workout!
Hiking usually involves more than just walking; you often have to clamber over rocks, trudge up and down slopes, and on the more strenuous hikes you might even have to do a spot of climbing ‒ quite a workout in fact! This makes it a great way to get a lot of exercise without the hassle of a gym or the monotony of the boring old treadmill at home. “You don’t have to be inside a boring building working out,” says Amran. “You get to walk with nature, seeing and feeling different things, while you do one of the best exercises!”
You get to meet like-minded enthusiasts, right there on the trail
The trails may be lonely, but according to Amran, you do tend to meet a lot of like-minded backpackers out there. “So you would definitely get along, share experiences, have some laughs, and then add them on Facebook,” he laughs. “Then the next time, you hike together.”
What Challenges Can Hikers Face On The Trails?
According to Amran, snakes, leeches, wild animals, crossing streams during flash floods and losing one’s bearings are a few of the challenges newbie hikers ‒ and sometimes seasoned ones ‒ can face. Strangely, leeches seem to make it to the top of the list!
“The little blood suckers are almost anywhere in the central hill country below 1,900 m altitudes,” he says. “Actually, this is another reason why many Sri Lankans don’t hike. The first question they ask is, “Are there any leeches?” even before asking how hard the hike is!” Amran laughs.
Encounters with venomous snakes are not common, but are quite possible on certain trails. “This is one big challenge because when bitten, you need to rush the victim to the nearest hospital at once,” explains Amran. “When you are deep in the jungle, sometimes this is the worst nightmare. So I would suggest using a good snake gaiter which could be ordered from eBay for cheap.”
He went on to say that while wild animal attacks are very rare, it helps to learn a bit about their behaviour so that you don’t panic in the event of encountering a boar or a wild cat.
Finally, there is every inexperienced hiker’s worst nightmare ‒ getting lost. “Beginners tend to get stranded in the forests especially when the mist falls in and when they can’t figure out the trail,” Amran says. “Learning to read the map and navigation system is definitely an advantage on the trails.”
So instead of spending your next holiday mooching around on the beach or piling on the pounds in some fancy resort, why not opt for an invigorating hike in our scenic highlands? Some time spent in the hills away from the shackles of civilisation is bound to do you good and help you reconnect with yourself. If you are new to it, there are plenty of hiking tour operators in the country who would be pleased to offer advice and aid. “Contact any of us,” urges Amran. “We would like to help, even if you don’t use our services.”
If you have been on any great hikes in Sri Lanka, do let us know about them in the comments section below!