Ahh the choice between Yala or Udawalawe, a decision I wish no one had to make. We have been to both safaris and we are here to, hopefully, make that decision easy for you!
Shehan Full Day Yala Safari
In our opinion, Yala is the best option between Yala or Udawalawe and we have been on this Shehan full-day tour twice! That’s how good it is. Both times were unforgettable. Click here to see prices and availability and watch the video below for more information!
Yala Or Udawalawe – A Quick Breakdown
I have gone into a lot more detail below, including some pro tips and tricks to maximise your Sri Lanka safari experience, but if you don’t have too much time to decide between Yala or Udawalawe then take a look at my pros and cons below.
Pros & Cons Of Udawalawe Safari
Udawalawe is a cheaper and shorter safari that guarantees you see an elephant during your experience (make sure that your safari has this guarantee). If elephants are all you care about then the choice between Yala or Udawalawe is easy, you will see more elephants at Udawalawe than Yala by at least 10 times. Your elephant experience will also be closer and more intimate, as you can see from our video below!
However, Udawalawe has very little to offer other than elephants. The other incredible animals that you can see in Sri Lanka will almost certainly not be spotted on this safari. If you’re interested in leopards, sloth bears, or saltwater crocodiles then Yala is the obvious choice. If you want all the information about Udawalawe safaris then check out my comprehensive article here!
Pros & Cons Of Yala Safari
For me, personally, the choice between Yala or Udawalawe is an easy one, Yala every time. Both times we have been to Yala, we have seen elephants. I admit that we didn’t see many but I am not only interested in the elephants which is why Yala is the better choice.
The safari park is huge and is a much better ‘safari’ experience. You will go down narrow paths and cross difficult terrain. You will be on constant lookout for hard-to-spot and rare animals. You will scour the lands with hope deep in your heart that maybe you will be the lucky group to get a once-in-a-lifetime viewing.
You don’t get any of these feelings at Udawlawe because you already know what you will be seeing and how many you will see before you book the trip. So, if you want a chance to see everything that Sri Lanka has to offer then go with Yala.
If you pressed me for disadvantages for Yala then I would say that the 12-hour experience (the one you should definitely be choosing) is not suitable for children or anyone with back issues. There will be extended periods without toilet breaks and the heat and distance can make it difficult for more vulnerable people.
Do not let this deter you if you are not in these categories! We have been on two 12-hour Yala safaris and we have not had any problems at all. They have both been some of the most memorable experiences of our lives.
Read More: The Best Elephant Safaris In Sri Lanka
For most people, this is going to be the most important part of deciding between Yala or Udawalawe. Udawalawe is much cheaper than Yala, especially if you choose the tours that I have recommended (tours with the * are my recommended options and tours that I have, personally, been on). All of these prices are per person.
|Private Half Day
|Private Full Day
If your decision between Yala or Udawalawe is solely based on price then it is an easy decision to make. You can see that Udawalawe is going to cost you a third of the price, if not less.
However, that is not the entire picture. The half-day Yala safari is actually pretty reasonable, considering you have a good chance of seeing a much more varied amount of animals. That’s what it looks like anyway…
In reality, I do not advise getting the half-day Yala experience. I go more in-depth on this below but you will be ferried around at 100 miles an hour, surrounded by many other jeeps and it will feel like a roller coaster ride of insanity that will probably culminate in MANY jeeps surrounding one scared animal whilst jostling for position. Then you’ll leave the park. I don’t think that’s the optimal Yala experience so if you are choosing a half-day tour between Yala or Udawalawe, then the choice is Udawalawe.
We have never paid for the private tour at Yala, we have booked with Shehan Safari both times for their full-day experience. Although your experience may differ, we have never shared the Jeep with anyone. Do I think spending more than twice the amount for guaranteed privacy? No, I don’t, but that’s up to you.
What Can You Expect To See?
Sri Lankan Leopard
Yala – A Decent Chance
Udawalawe – Almost No Chance
These majestic creatures are almost always at the very top of everyone’s wishlist for spotting. They are endemic to Sri Lanka and are one of the rarest big cats in the world because of this. We had an amazing Leopard experience the first time we went to Yala, unfortunately, no sightings on the second time BUT we were very close to multiple sightings. Just goes to show how difficult it is! If you want to see leopards then the choice between Yala or Udawalawe is simple.
Yala – Good chance of seeing small groups
Udawalwe – Almost certain to see large herds
Our second elephant experience at Yala was much nicer, with a family washing and playing by a watering hole. Our experience at Udawalawe was amazing, with so many elephants all around us.
Sri Lankan Sloth Bear
Yala – Small chance
Udawalawe – Next to no chance
The rarest animal in Yala. Our driver said sightings are around once a month but we did manage to see one on our second trip. You will not see this in Udawalawe and your chance in Yala is pretty darn small. Do not let the sloth bear be part of your decision between Yala or Udawalawe.
Yala – Almost certain
Udawalawe – Almost certain
The national bird of Sri Lanka and an animal that is very common in Sri Lanka. Try to get a picture of the male’s famous feather show!
Yala – Almost certain
Udawalawe – Almost certain
These are everywhere in both national parks and if you don’t see one then you have had your eyes closed. They are so much bigger than I ever realised.
Read More: The Definitive 7-Day Sri Lanka Itinerary
Yala – Almost certain
Udawalawe – Almost certain
As you drive around you may come across a pack of these playful monkeys. If you see one, you’ll probably see 50!
Yala – Almost certain
Udawalawe – Good chance
There will be very large herds of spotted deer throughout the parks. Remember, these are the main sources of food for the Sri Lankan leopard so if you can hear warning cries then a leopard is nearby!
Yala – Almost Certain
Udawalawe – Good chance depending on the time of year
I am always in awe of these incredible beasts/ You don’t realise how big they are until you are up close with one and after that, you don’t want to be up close ever again…
As you already know, Yala is my choice between Yala or Udawalawe. However, your experience will change significantly depending on the tour option you choose. There will be quite a few options available to you but let’s narrow these down to three main choices.
- 4 Hour
- 7 Hour
- Full Day – Around 14 hours
These times are all assuming that you are staying nearby in Tissamaharama.
If you have already decided that you will be going on a Yala safari, read through all of my recommended Yala safaris in more detail here.
The four-hour tour will pick you up from your accommodation, race you over to the safari, spend roughly two hours inside the park, and then race you back. I use terms like ‘race’ as that is what it will feel like. The vast majority of people going to Yala are getting the 4 & 7-hour tours so you will always be in a massive group of jeeps (upwards of 50-60 vehicles), and there will be a lot of dust from the speed of the driving and if you do see any animals they will be encroached on and surrounded by hundreds of people.
The 7-hour tour is essentially the same but some of the vehicles leave early (the 4-hour tour vehicles) so it calms down a little but you will still be in large groups for the majority of the safari. This is because all of the tour operators are on the phone with each other and the park rangers telling them of the locations of the animals.
This is good because it increases your chance of seeing something but when everyone knows, you have to expect to be in large convoys at all times.
The full-day option is MUCH more calm. At the beginning of the day, you will still experience the hoards of people and vehicles like the shorter tours but, as the day goes on, these vehicles will rapidly disappear. You will be able to roam much more of the park in search of more and more animals without ever hardly seeing another person.
I am, perhaps, overselling a little because there is a reason why people only go in the morning. All of the animals in Sri Lanka go to sleep after 10 am because the heat gets too much and you don’t see a massive amount during the middle of the day. So you may be wondering, what is the point of spending the extra money to see only a little more? The experience.
The first time we went to Yala, the driver drove into the park for about 10 minutes, following the convoy. He then stopped because he thought he heard something in the distance (a deer warning call). All of the other vehicles drove past us at speed on their way to confirmed sightings, and we just sat there.
I got a little restless after 25 minutes of this but the driver said, don’t worry about all those other vehicles, they don’t have time to be patient. And sure enough, we got a once-in-a-lifetime leopard viewing as it emerged from the trees next to our jeep, walked past us, and crossed the road.
This may not be your experience but you will have a much calmer more relaxing time driving through the park on the full-day tour than the shorter rushed versions.
You’ll be picked up from your hotel and driven over to the entrance where tickets will be bought. The main advantage of Udawalawe is there will be no queue and there will be no hoard of people jostling for position.
You will drive around the park looking for a herd of elephants and you will then spend a significant amount of time watching these elephants approach your vehicle and play together in the herd. We saw one other vehicle the entire time we were there.
The only option for Udawalawe is half-day 3-4 hour tours. If you see a ‘full day’ tour then it probably means that they are including the travel time from your accommodation. Some people get picked up from Galle which is a huge portion of that time. The time in the park is always in the 3-4 hour range.
If you are into elephants then this is an absolutely incredible experience. Seeing them in the wild and being able to be so close (the drivers are very respectful) is a joy to witness.
The driver will not look for other animals whilst you are on the safari but if you come across anything else they may stop for you to have a look. do not be fooled, Udawalawe is about the elephants, nothing more.
Time To Visit Yala Or Udawalawe
Time Of Day
The best time to see animals is at sunrise and sunset. There are tours available for only early morning or sunrise but I recommend the full-day tour.
Elephants aren’t affected by the ‘sleeping in the middle of the day’ rule so it doesn’t matter when you go. The tours available will probably be in the morning and this is the time I recommend going.
Time Of Year
May – June is reported to be the best time of the year to visit Yala National Park. this is because there are fewer tourists and the sightings are good.
June – August gets busy due to the summer holidays but you will still be able to see the animals.
Outside of this time, the rains get a bit more frequent but sightings are still good.
The only time of year you cannot go is between September – October 15th as the park is closed during this time
Udawalawe is open all year round and you will able to see elephants all year round. It is suggested that the best time of year is between December – March but this is due to the temperature being the most pleasant for you to enjoy.
These four tours all come with our personal recommendation. Click through to see availability and price now! We, of course, only truly recommend the full-day Shehan tour but if your heart is set on a shorter half-day experience then we still recommend Shehan as we have been with them 3 times and have always been very happy.
There is only really one option for Udawalawe, a 3-4 hour because there is no need to go for the few full-day tours out there. Have a look at our recommended tours below!
Where To Stay
Yala – Tissamaharama
There are a few places you can stay for a Yala safari but Tissamaharama is the best of the bunch. It is close enough to be included as a pickup for all of the tours online with no additional fee and it is the cheapest area around Yala with some very nice accommodation. See below for our recommendations for Tissamaharama accommodation.
This is an easy one! Just stay in Udawalawe town. This will ensure no additional fee for pickup and there are some pretty good deals and nice accommodations close to the park entrance. See our 4 recommended options below!
Tips For Enjoying A Safari In Sri Lanka
You will probably have binoculars included for you on your safari. Make sure they offer this before you book! It makes a big difference to the overall enjoyment of the experience. Even if you don’t see anything through them, trying to catch glimpses through the binoculars makes it feel like you’re an explorer!
If you don’t have a
If you have an interchangeable lens
If you have a small point-and-shoot
Clothing & Footwear
I would try to wear full body coverings, so a long-sleeved shirt and long trousers for both of the safaris. If you have parked the Jeep near some animals and you may be parked up for a long period then the sun might be directly on top of you and there is no avoiding it in some instances. This is a one-way ticket to bad sunburn, even with the best sun cream.
You don’t need special
Food & Drink
Your tour should provide snacks and water for you throughout the trip but there is no harm in bringing some extra water with you for the ride. Snack-wise, I wouldn’t worry about it because the longer tours have very tasty lunch stops and the shorter tours are not very long.
If you are going for a long backpacking adventure, or you go through plastic water bottles way too quickly, then you need to check out this stainless steel water bottle by ThermoFlask. It will take the beating of months/years on the road and keep your drinks ice cold or toasty warm, wherever you may be.
Examples Of Suitable Clothing & What To Bring
A decent pair of polarised sunglasses is difficult to get at a decent price, especially if you want them to look good. These from WOWSUN have lots of different styles (male/female) and colours to choose from and they are very affordable. Click through to see all of your options.
We have been using Anker portable chargers for years and highly recommend their easy design and reasonable size. This super cool 10,000mAh battery pack has magnetic wireless charging capability to help minimise wires and hassle even further. This makes it extremely versatile and helpful for those long periods away from a socket. A must-buy for any backpacking traveller.
We all know what sunscreen is and we all know how important it is but why go with Sun Bum? They are cruelty-free and are compliant with the Hawaii 104 Reef Act meaning that you will be helping decrease the amount of damage sunscreens have to the environment that you are swimming in. If that hasn't convinced you then click through to find out even more.
Frequently Asked Questions
Should I Choose Yala Or Udawalawe?
In my opinion, the choice between Yala or Udawalawe is simple. Yala Safari is better than Udawalawe. You can see everything you can at Udawalawe at Yala plus more.
Which Is Better, Yala Or Udawalawe?
Yala is better all around but it is more expensive and if you are only interested in Elephants then Udawalawe is the better option.
Which Is Cheaper, Yala Or Udawalawe?
Udawalawe is the cheaper option by a decent amount however there is less to see. Try not to let price be the only deciding factor between Yala or Udawalawe.
Can I See Leopards At Yala Or Udawalawe?
You can see leopards at both but it is almost guaranteed that you will not see a leopard at Udawalawe. Yala you have a fair chance of seeing one.
So that is my entire guide to choosing between Yala or Udawalawe. Let me know in the comments if this has been helpful, if you have any questions, or if you have any suggestions to make this guide even better! Happy exploring!