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 an unexplored part of Sri Lanka. Until recently much of the north has been off limits and stricken by civil war. On our journey we head north up the west coast from Colombo via the colourful fishing village of Negombo where we will see the catch being landed on the beach and wander through the busy fish market.  For wildlife lovers we will safari in Wilpattu National Park one of the 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 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 and explore points of interest such as Jaffna Fort, Fort Hammenheil 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 Ancient Cities via the North East outpost of Mullaitivu where the war came to a bloody conclusion. Back in the heart of the country we visit important religious and archaeological sites such as Mihintale, Sigiriya and Pollonuwara before heading to the East coast and hopefully en route seeing more amazing wildlife and especially elephants at Minneriya which during the dry season can gather in huge numbers. The tour winds down by spending time on the beautiful east coast with its excellent beaches and we will explore the main harbour city of Trincomalee before we take the train back to Colombo where this unforgettable tour comes to an end.

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
  • Visit the isolated windswept island of Mannar
  • See wild ponies roaming Delft Island off the Jaffna peninsula
  • Important religious and archaeological sites such as Sigiriya and Anuradhapura
  • Mass elephant gatherings at Minneriya during the dry season
  • Travel to the beaches and islands of the east coast at Trincomalee

Tour Essentials

Accommodation: Mix of comfortable hotels
Included Meals: Daily breakfast (B), plus lunches (L) and dinners (D) as shown in the itinerary
Group Size: Maximum 12
Start Point: Negombo
End Point: Colombo
Transport: Bus or minibus, train and boat
Countries: 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 – Negombo

On arrival transfer to your hotel on the coast at Negombo just north of Colombo and closely situated to the airport. Overnight Hotel Paradise Beach Hotel or similar.  

Day 2 – Negombo – Wilpattu National Park – Driving time approximately 2.5 hours

For those who like to rise early it is possible to visit the busy fish market which is central to local life in Negombo. 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. We depart Negombo late morning 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. 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)

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 3 – Wilpattu National Park

Enjoy a morning safari at Wilpattu National Park. The rest of the day is at leisure. Overnight Big Game Park Wilpattu (non-air-conditioned tent) or similar (BLD)

Day 4 – Wilpattu – Anuradhapura – Mannar – Driving time today approximately 5 hours

Today we take the short journey to explore some of the main sites of the ancient city of Anuradhapura. We visit the sacred Bo Tree, which is the world's oldest tree on record, and has been guarded by monks for over 2000 years. We stop for a late picnic lunch in a beautiful setting where you will enjoy local food served on lotus leaves cooked by a local family. Later we travel back to the West coast and the 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 5 – Mannar Island – Jaffna – Driving time today approximately 4 hours

Early this morning we journey to the end of Mannar Island and the small village 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. After exploring Mannar Island we continue north to Jaffna. Overnight Jetwing Jaffna or similar (BLD)

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 6 – Island exploring

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. Our tour of the island will also take us to an abandoned Dutch fort and a 1000 year old temple. Although around 6000 people live on Delft Island this windswept island feels largely deserted. Enjoy lunch today with a local family where you can learn how to cook traditional Sri Lankan food.   We visit Nagadipa Island where we visit the Hindu and Buddhist temples. Later we return to Jaffna. Overnight Jetwing Jaffna or similar (BLD)

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 7 – Jaffna and the peninsular

We spend the day exploring Jaffna and the peninsular. Visits include the Public Library which holds deep symbolism to local Tamil people, Jaffna Fort, Point Pedro which was hit hard by the 2004 tsunami, the Kantarodai ruins and finishing with sunset at the fabulous Fort Hammenheil where we have to take a short 5 minute boat ride to the fort itself and where after taking a look at the cells and history of the place we will enjoy sunset drinks in a spectacular location on top of the fort before returning to Jaffna. Overnight Jetwing Jaffna Hotel or similar (BLD)

Please note that the visit to Fort Hammenheil is subject to Sri Lankan Navy approval and cannot be guaranteed in advance. Our local team will do their best to secure a visit.

Day 8 – Jaffna

Today is at leisure to explore Jaffa town and observe Tamil culture. You may wish to take a morning stroll in Jaffna market which is situated close to the hotel. There are other excursions which can also be booked locally at the hotel if you wish to keep busy. Overnight Jetwing Jaffna Hotel or similar (BLD)

Day 9 – Jaffna - Trincomalee via Mullataivu – Journey time approximately 4 hours

Today we leave Jaffna and head south on the A9 via the Elephant Pass where we will stop to view the war memorial. We continue south through Killinochi the former administrative centre of the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) where we see another remnant of the war, this time the destroyed water tank lying on the side of the A9. We then take a road to the east coast to the town of Mullataivu, significant as the place where the devastating civil war came to a bloody conclusion and the LTTE were defeated. We visit the harrowing war museum and then continue down the east coast to Trincomalee. Overnight Pigeon Island Resort or similar (BLD)


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.

Day 10 – Trincomalee

This morning we explore Trincomalee including the market, Koneswaram Temple which is also the site of the famous lovers leap and receive the blessings of a Hindu priest, the ‘Kanniya’ hot water springs and the Commonwealth war cemetery. We head back to the hotel around lunchtime and this afternoon you can choose between a snorkelling trip to nearby Pigeon Island (pay locally at the hotel) in the clear turquoise waters or a whale and dolphin watching trip off the coast (April – August). Or alternatively take some time to relax at the hotel or on the beach. The Blue Whale, the largest species on the planet can sometimes be seen off this coastline. Overnight Pigeon Island Resort or similar (BLD)

Day 11 – Trincomalee - Polonnaruwa – Sigiriya – Driving time today approximately 4 hours

This morning we explore the former medieval capital or Sri Lanka at Polonnaruwa with its well preserved sites of religious and archaeological importance before transferring to Sigiriya. Overnight Kassapa Lion Rock or similar (BLD)


Polonnaruwa is a UNESCO world heritage site and was the Capital of Sri Lanka from the 11th – 13th Centuries and contains splendid well preserved statues.  The medieval capital was fortified with inner and outer moats and inner and outer walls. The Parakrama Samudra is on the western side of the city. The Royal Palace, Audience Hall and other buildings in the inner city were enclosed by another tall wall.

Day 12 - Sigiriya Rock UNESCO and Minneriya National Park – Driving time today approximately 2 hours

This morning we arrive at Sigiriya Rock (UNESCO) early, in the still relative cool of the day. 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. Once we have descended we visit a local village and take part in cooking some traditional Sri Lankan dishes before eating the fruits of your labour! Later this afternoon we take a jeep safari in Minneriya National Park where sightings of dozens of elephants are common. Overnight Kassapa Lion Rock or similar (BLD)

Please note that the ascent of Sigiriya and visiting the frescoes should not be undertaken by people with joint problems, breathing difficulties, heart problems or vertigo. The top of the rock is exposed so wearing a hat is advisable. The lower sections of the site still hold a great deal of interest from a historical perspective and the museum is excellent.

Minneriya National Park

Minneriya was declared a National Park in 1997 but has been a wildlife sanctuary since the 1930’s. The park is important for a number of species of flora and fauna and is also known for a number of large water birds such as the painted stork. The park is situated in Sri Lanka’s dry zone and so the reservoir and the surrounding forests are an important habitat for a large herd of elephants. It is not uncommon to be able to see 100-200 individuals on a single visit to the park.

Day 13 – Colombo - Driving time today approximately 4 hours

After some leisure time this morning we shall take the journey back to Colombo (approx 4 hours). On arrival in Colombo we check in to the hotel. Overnight at Galle Face Hotel or similar. (B)


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 14 – Colombo

This morning is the chance for some leisure time before taking a city tour of Colombo. The largest city and former administrative capital of Sri Lanka, it is a busy and vibrant city with a mixture of modern life and remnants of a bygone colonial era. We will visit some of the historical, religious and commercial sites of Colombo including the bustling Fort and Pettah market for a real authentic flavour of Sri Lanka, the Galle face Green and a church where Dutch tombstones constitute the floor panels. This evening we will enjoy a farewell dinner at an excellent local restaurant. Overnight Galle Face Hotel or similar (BD)

Day 15 – Depart Colombo

Transfer to the airport 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)