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Wilpattu National Park Safari Travel Guide: The Wild Side Of Sri Lanka (2024)

Wilpattu National Park is hands down my favourite national park in Sri Lanka.

If you’re looking for an unspoiled and intimate safari experience in one of Sri Lanka’s most pristine wildernesses, you should definitely consider coming here.

Spanning more than 1,300 square kilometres (500 sq mi), Wilpattu is the largest national park in Sri Lanka and one of the oldest.

It’s an incredibly beautiful place, with diverse landscapes and habitats including dry evergreen forests, marshes, wetlands, scrub jungles, mangroves, grasslands, and saltwater lagoons.

It was closed for most of Sri Lanka’s brutal 26-year civil war and witnessed periods of intense fighting. However, it’s been fully open since 2010.

Despite containing one of the highest concentrations of leopards in the world, this incredible place remains relatively off-the-beaten-path. Most tourists still don’t come here. That’s what makes it so great.

🤩 This is the best full-day safari tour of Wilpattu National Park

Why Visit Wilpattu National Park?

The best thing about Wilpattu is its quietness. Despite being larger than the famous Yala National Park, Wilpattu receives a tiny fraction of the number of visitors.

I’ve been on safaris in both Yala and Wilpattu, and Wilpattu was so much better in virtually every way.

Yala is so popular that it often feels overcrowded. It’s common to see more than 10 jeeps all jostling to see one animal. This clearly isn’t ideal, either for the animals or the people trying to see them.

When I went on a full-day jeep safari in Wilpattu, I saw fewer than 10 other jeeps all day. Most of the time, it feels like you have the entire park to yourself.

It’s an amazing place – peaceful and totally unspoiled.

Wilpattu is home to an incredible range of wildlife, including Sri Lankan leopards, sloth bears, Asian elephants, crocodiles, jackals, buffalo, deer, eagles, hornbills, and giant clouds of butterflies.

The main downside to Wilpattu is that you’re less likely to spot quite as many animals here compared with Yala. The animals here are shyer, more spread out, and can be harder to spot.

Although this is largely because of the lack of interaction with humans, so it’s actually quite a good thing.

That said, I saw all of the above animals and many more on my Wilpattu safari trip. It was a really unforgettable experience and I’ve been raving about this park ever since.

It’s also much cheaper to go on safari here than in places like Tsavo National Park in Kenya.


Where Is Wilpattu National Park?

Wilpattu National Park is located in the northwest of Sri Lanka, about 40 kilometres west of the ancient city of Anuradhapura and 180 kilometres north of Colombo.

The main park spans both the North Central and North Western Provinces and occupies a vast area of more than 130,000 hectares (321,000 acres).

In Sinhala, Wilpattu translates roughly as “Land of the Lakes” due to the roughly 60 naturally-formed lakes that are dotted around the park.

These “Willus” (or “Villus“) collect rainwater and help to sustain the park’s vibrant ecosystems. They are vital sources of fresh water for the wildlife of Wilpattu, which also makes them ideal places to spot animals drinking and bathing.

Wilpattu has historical and cultural significance for the Sinhala people too.

Their ancestors first arrived on the island of Sri Lanka in the year 543 BC. The place they first landed was at Kudiramalai Point, on the park’s wild western coast.

Today, turtles continue to lay their eggs on this stunning beach.


Wilpattu National Park: Key Information

Opening times: 6 am–6 pm, Monday–Sunday

Park entrance fees:

  • 1 person – 15,000 LKR (approx. $46 USD)
  • 2 people – 25,000 LKR ($77, or $38.50 per person)
  • 3 people – 35,000 LKR ($108, or $36 per person)
  • 4 people – 45,000 LKR ($138, or $34.50 per person)

I paid my entrance fee in cash at the park entrance. They don’t currently accept card payments, and there isn’t a working ATM at the gate, so you’ll need to bring enough cash with you.

You can only pay in Sri Lankan Rupees, they don’t accept USD.

It is (theoretically) possible to pay your park entry fee online in advance, using the Department of Wildlife Conservation’s website.

However, I’ve never personally done this, and have heard that it doesn’t always work.

I think it’s safer to bring cash and pay at the entrance.

Driver & guide: it’s compulsory to hire a driver and guide. See the below section for more info on how to book a Wilpattu safari tour.


How to Get to Wilpattu National Park

There are various ways to get to Wilpattu. Despite its remoteness, it’s actually not that difficult to reach.

The closest major city to Wilpattu is Anuradhapura, which is only a 45 drive away from the park’s main entrance (Hunuwilagama entrance). (It’s also only 1 hour from Puttalam, and 2 hours 15 mins from Sigiriya.)

1. How to Get to Wilpattu National Park from Anuradhapura

Anuradhapura itself is easily reachable from many different places around the country. It has a train station, and direct busses from various towns and cities, including Colombo, Trincomalee, Kandy, Dambulla, and Jaffna.

To get to Wilpattu National Park from Anuradhapura, you can take a tuk-tuk. This should cost roughly 2,000 LKR ($6 USD) – agree on the price in advance.

🤩 Alternatively, this excellent full-day Wilpattu National Park safari includes pickup & dropoff in Anuradhapura

2. How to Get to Wilpattu National Park from Colombo

You can take a train from Colombo to Anuradhapura, and then a tuk-tuk to Wilpattu.

However, the cheapest way to get to Wilpattu from Colombo (or Negombo) is to take a bus straight to Nochchiyagama, which is only a 20-minute drive from the park entrance.

It’s the bus that goes from Colombo to Anuradhapura. Just tell the driver that you want to get off at Nochchiyagama.

This bus should take 4.5 hours and cost around 500 LKR ($1.50). From Nochchiyagama, you can take a taxi or a tuk-tuk to the park entrance, or wherever you’re staying.

If you want to spend the night in Nochchiyagama (and don’t want to spend too much money), I recommend Hotel Tree Garden.

This place doesn’t have any reviews on Booking.com yet, but I’ve personally stayed here and it’s super.

(I just showed up and asked to stay, which is why I wasn’t able to leave a nice review on Booking… otherwise, I would’ve done!)

Simple, but spotlessly clean, with comfortable beds, AC, and the family who own and run it are really lovely.

Also, if you do stay here, get the breakfast! It’s enormous, and one of the tastiest I had during my 4 months in Sri Lanka.


3. Taxis and Private Transfers to Wilpattu National Park

If you have limited time, and/or don’t mind spending more money, you could always book a taxi or a private transfer to get to Wilpattu.

This will cost significantly more than using public transport but is much more convenient (and comfortable). You can also usually ask the driver to make stops along the way if you want to get out and stretch your legs, use the bathroom, etc.

If you want to take a private transfer/taxi to Wilpattu, the best way to book this is through 12Go Asia. I’ve used this all over Asia – it’s competitively priced and usually works very smoothly.

🤩 Or, you could book this Wilpattu National Park safari tour, which includes pickup & dropoff in Negombo


Best Time to Visit Wilpattu National Park

Wilpattu is a year-round destination and a great place to explore at any time.

However, the best time to visit Wilpattu National Park is from May until early October. This is the dry season in northwestern Sri Lanka, which creates perfect conditions for spotting animals.

During these months, the animals tend to gather around the park’s many natural lakes and other watering holes making them easier to spot.

Additionally, given the lack of rainfall during these months, the vegetation is less dense making it easier to see animals from further away.

May–July is the best time to see Sri Lankan sloth bears in Wilpattu. These are the months when the park’s palu trees produce their fruit, which is the bears’ favourite food.

If you visit during the wet season (late October–February), you should be prepared for some heavy rain. Some of the park’s roads and tracks can become impassable, which can restrict the areas that you’re able to visit.

That said, these are the best months to visit Wilpattu for birdwatching. Many species of migratory birds flock here from all over Europe and Northern Asia to escape the cold winter, including pintails, plovers, sandpipers, and terns.

Spot the big cat – leopards are so well camouflaged, they’re easy to miss!

Common Wildlife Sightings in Wilpattu

Wilpattu has an amazingly diverse range of landscapes and ecosystems. It’s an ideal habitat for a huge range of wildlife, including some of Sri Lanka’s most iconic animals.


Wilpattu is one of the best places in the country (and the world) to spot a leopard, second only to Yala (which is infinitely more crowded, as mentioned above).

I saw the above one in the late afternoon, close to one of the large natural lakes in the centre of the park. It stayed with us for several minutes, seemingly unbothered by our presence.

And (unlike at Yala) there was no huge crowd of jeeps crowding it out. It was an amazing experience.

Of course, leopard sightings aren’t guaranteed. They’re wild animals and are often quite shy and elusive.

Sloth bears

Wilpattu is also a great place to spot sloth bears, although sightings of these rare and unusual creatures are even less guaranteed than those of leopards.

I saw one loping through the forest about halfway into the park. Even though it was at a distance, I was still thrilled as this was (and still is) the only time I’d ever seen one.


Wilpattu does have elephants, and I saw one near the end of my Wilpattu safari trip. However, they aren’t seen as often here as in some of the other national parks in the country, and they tend to be more solitary.

The best national parks for safari in Sri Lanka if you want to see large herds of elephants are Minneriya, Udawalawe, and Gal Oya.


Other mammals

Roughly 41 species of mammal live in Wilpattu. Other species that are commonly spotted here include:

  • water buffalo
  • spotted deer
  • sambar deer
  • wild boars
  • mongooses
  • tufted gray langur monkeys
  • jackals


The most common reptiles seen on safari in Wilpattu include:

  • mugger crocodiles
  • tortoises
  • freshwater turtles
  • monitor lizards
  • Indian pythons
  • cobras


There are over 100 species of bird that can be found in Wilpattu. Here are some of the ones that I saw, and are commonly sighted there:

  • jungle fowl (the national bird of Sri Lanka)
  • peacocks
  • parakeets
  • cormorants
  • red-backed woodpeckers
  • ibises
  • hornbills
  • spoonbills
  • painted storks
  • white-bellied sea eagles
  • serpent eagles
  • bee-eaters
  • kingfishers

How to Book a Wilpattu Safari Tour

There are a few different ways to book Wilpattu safari tours.

You can make your own way to the main national park entrance gate (here). Then, try to organise something on the spot with one of the jeep guys that often hang around near the entrance (and/or ask another group if you can join them).

Or, you can book a tour in advance.

The advantage of doing things yourself is that you might be able to save a bit of money.

You’ll probably be able to negotiate a cheaper price at the park gates, partly because you’d be able to offer someone cash on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Partly also because you wouldn’t be needing transport to/from the park itself.

However, this is a risky strategy. There’s no guarantee that there will be a jeep and a driver available, or that you’ll find another group that’s willing to let you tag along and split the cost.

You run the risk of getting to the entrance of the park, but not being able to actually go inside. This would be frustrating and a massive waste of time and effort.

And, even if there is a jeep and driver available, you have no idea whether they are any good. And you might need to haggle to get a decent price.


The better option – and the one that I’d recommend – is to book your Wilpattu safari trip in advance.

If you’re on a tight budget, you can always try asking at your guesthouse/hotel whether they can put you in touch with someone locally who can take you.

This can often work out cheaper than booking through a company. However, it’s also much more uncertain. I’d only advise doing this if you have a flexible itinerary, as it’s not always possible to set everything up last minute.

For most travellers, the best thing to do is to book your Wilpattu safari in advance through a reputable company like Viator or Get Your Guide.

This way, you can guarantee that somebody will be able to take you on the safari, and you don’t need to negotiate with anyone. Many tours also include transport to/from the national park.

It also gives you extra peace of mind. If there are any issues, you can sort them out through the company, rather than having to deal with a random jeep guy.

But of course, it’s up to you.

If you do want to book your Wilpattu safari tour in advance, here are two good options:

Wilpattu safari jeeps can typically accommodate up to 6 people in the back. However, having more than 4 people would be a bit cramped.

Some Wilpattu safari tours include park entry permits, others you need to pay separately. Always check in advance.

Full-day safari tours in Wilpattu, booked in advance, can cost anything from $150–200 USD per person. The exact price depends on the operator, the size of your party, and whether you need transport to/from the park.

🤩 …Or, for the ultimate safari experience, check out this epic 2-night camping safari in Wilpattu


Where to Stay Near Wilpattu National Park

There are several great places to stay near Wilpattu National Park, from budget guesthouses and homestays to high-end safari lodges.

Here are some of the most highly-rated places.

Budget: Big Game – Wilpattu by Eco Team (next to Wilpattu) OR Hotel Tree Garden (in Nochchiyagama)

Mid-range: Leopard Cross

Luxury/high-end: Mahoora Safari Camp OR Leopard Trails Wilpattu

Other Places to Visit Near Wilpattu

There are various other things to see and places to visit near Wilpattu. The most obvious being Anuradhapura.



The ancient city of Anuradhapura is only a 45-minute drive away from Wilpattu.

Anuradhapura was the capital of Sri Lanka from 377 BC until the 11th century AD. It’s full of historical monasteries and important monuments, and is home to several of the most holy sites in the country for Sri Lankan Buddhists.

It’s an amazing place and I’d definitely recommend spending at least a couple of days here if you can.

I’ve written a detailed guide to the main places to visit in Anuradhapura, here.


Yapahuwa Rock Fortress

Yapahuwa Rock Fortress is another one of Sri Lanka’s most significant and striking historical sites.

Built into, and on top of, a giant granite boulder, it’s similar in many ways to the better-known Lion’s Rock in Sigiriya. It was built in 1272 as a royal palace and briefly served as the capital of medieval Sri Lanka (for 11 years).

Sigiriya is definitely more impressive, but Yapahuwa is just as atmospheric. When I visited, I only saw a handful of other people there (all locals).

This is largely because you need your own transport to get here. As far as I’m aware, it’s not possible to reach by public transport. (I drove myself there in my rented tuk-tuk.)

With its strategic location and three layers of fortifications, Yapahuwa used to be an important military stronghold.

It’s believed to have once housed the sacred Tooth Relic (i.e. the tooth of Buddha himself). This is one of Buddhism’s most important religious objects and today is housed in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.


The most striking feature of this ancient fortress is its steep ornamental staircase. It’s decorated with statues of lions, pillars, and intricate carvings.

At the top of the stairs, follow the trail uphill and to the left. You’ll climb for another 10-15 minutes until you reach the summit of the rock. It’s fairly steep in places, but not too bad. (I did it in flip-flops.)

At the very top, you’ll find the ruined remains of a stupa, a Bodhi tree enclosure, and an ornamental pool. From here, you can enjoy some really fantastic views of the surrounding area.


A thunderstorm blew in while I was on top, so I took shelter in a cave hidden just below the summit and waited for it to pass.

In the cave, I found the remains of a shrine and several little “rooms” and compartments, some of which had what looked like ancient inscriptions etched into the walls.


Sheltering here, while the rain pounded and thunder crashed overhead, was an amazing experience. The atmosphere was indescribable.

I wondered how many other people throughout history had sought shelter in this very spot — perhaps even making it their home.

It was incredibly powerful and moving. As I sat there, all I could do was look around at my surroundings and take it all in.

It’s one of those moments that’s etched vividly into my memory.

When the storm finally passed, I emerged from the cave and was greeted by a double rainbow. What a place!


I’m not sure whether you’re supposed to stay up there after dark… but it was cool!


FAQs: Going on Safari in Wilpattu National Park

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about Wilpattu safari tours.

Is Wilpattu National Park worth visiting?

Yes, Wilpattu National Park is definitely worth visiting! This amazing nature reserve is home to a huge range of animals, including some of Sri Lanka’s most iconic species.

It’s one of the best places in the world to see leopards and sloth bears in the wild and is also extremely picturesque and peaceful.

Which is better, Wilpattu or Yala?

Personally, I think Wilpattu is better than Yala. I’ve been on safari trips in both, and the Wilpattu one was much better.

In Yala, you’re more likely to spot a larger range of animals. However, it’s also incredibly popular and tends to get quite overcrowded.

Wilpattu receives a tiny fraction of the number of visitors. When you do spot animals, your jeep is often the only one in sight, meaning you get a much more intimate, natural experience.

Which season is best for Wilpattu National Park?

You can visit Wilpattu at any time of the year. However, the best time to visit is from May until early October, during the dry season, when animals are commonly spotted around the park’s many watering holes.

Are there elephants in Wilpattu National Park?

Yes, there are elephants in Wilpattu National Park. I saw one there.

However, you’re less likely to see elephants here than in other national parks in Sri Lanka, such as Minneriya, Udawalawe, and Gal Oya.

How many leopards are there in Wilpattu National Park?

Nobody knows exactly how many leopards there are in Wilpattu National Park. However, experts estimate that there are approximately 350 leopards in Wilpattu.

How many days do you need to explore Wilpattu?

I recommend taking at least one full-day safari trip in Wilpattu.

Depending on what time you arrive in the area, you could also do an afternoon game drive (i.e. a half-day safari) on the day you arrive, then a full-day trip the next day.

Of course, the more time you spend there, the greater your chances of spotting a larger range of animals. If you can spend two (or three) days in the park, that’s even better.


🤩 This is the best 1-day safari tour of Wilpattu National Park


Final Thoughts

I hope this post has been useful and has helped to convince you to visit Wilpattu!

It’s my favourite national park in Sri Lanka and is definitely worth the extra effort it takes to get there.

And if you were planning to spend any time in the central, western, or northern parts of the country, it’s actually not that difficult to reach.

If you’re on the fence, I’d say go for it. I had one of the best safari experiences of my life here, and I hope you do too. 🙂


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  • I’m Alex Tiffany.  Former corporate city robot; lifelong travel addict.


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