Introduction

Tissa (Tissamaharama) is the closest major town to Yala National Park, which was the intended destination. Tissa is approximately 30 – 40 minutes away from Yala.

Most visitors to Yala stay near the park, in Tissa. There are several hotels. The rule of thumb with pricing for these hotels is that the closer in location to Yala, the pricier the rooms. This is regardless of luxury. Most hotels in the area seem to be cash only even with advance reservations, so be aware of that.

There are some safari operators that have all-inclusive luxury tents and provide game drives, but these are difficult to reserve due to space, and their unreliability in keeping the reservation (ours cancelled 36 hours before our arrival to Yala).

Because our tour operator/tent provider cancelled without explanation at around 36 hours before the start of our stay, we had to seek a room the day before we were set to go to Yala. We were lucky that there were a couple of rooms available at the hotel that we ended up staying at – Traveller’s Home – and that they were inexpensive (this is a cash-only hotel) and had an in-house safari tour so that we could go to Yala the next morning.
There’s not anything different to say about transportation into and around Tissa that differs from the Transportation section in the Sri Lanka page.
Most of the restaurants in Tissa are about the same in food type and price. Expect to pay the equivalent of USD 10 per person per meal. If you need vegetarian options, go for Indochinese fried rice or noodle dishes, which are available at most of the restaurants. If you’re doing a morning game drive, ask your hotel to pack a lunch for you for the morning. You may not feel hungry at 4:30 or 5 in the morning, but you may feel hungry later on and there’s no stopping for food while on the game drive (not that you’ll have any options).
Credit card acceptance is very poor. Be aware that ATMs are also limited in their acceptance of foreign ATM cards, and the ones that do may not give more than $100 or $200 of cash per day.
Tissa is towards the south, so the weather is warm and rather humid all year. However, May to September is rainy season, with July and August (and possibly June) being monsoon season. Even in the winter, there can be brief storms lasting for no more than an hour, but this is uncommon.
There are a lot of insects around Tissa, so make sure to use the mosquito nets in your hotel rooms and any other insect repelling tools the hotel has. I didn’t need mosquito repellent though (and I usually do).

Also, don’t drink too much liquids the night before your safari and the day of. The only bathroom opportunity is at the end of the tour, when you go to the beach in Yala.

Sites

Cost: USD 30, including jeep.

Hours: Opens at 6AM, tour operators do pickups from hotels between 4:30 and 5AM for morning safaris. Likely closes at 6PM.

Time to spend: Varies on operator and whether AM or PM safari. My morning safari was about 8 hours.

Description:

Yala National Park is known for having the highest concentration of leopards in Sri Lanka. In spite of this, it’s still rare to spot a leopard (no pun intended), as are tusked elephants and sloth bears. That being said, I was able to see a single leopard from about 15 meters (50 ft.) away, trying to hide itself on a rock behind leaves and branches. I also saw plenty of other animals: peacocks, mongooses, water buffaloes, crocodiles, Sambar deer, elephants, a few species of indigenous birds.

What I found remarkable about Yala is its proximity to the ocean. Towards the end of the morning tour, all the jeeps stopped at the beach next to the forested area. However, the proximity to the ocean was an issue a few years ago, when a tsunami hit the park.

Tour operators have a morning game drive (approximately 5AM – 11AM/12PM, though the park opens at 6AM sharp), and some also do an evening drive (approximately 3PM – 6PM). There’s a debate as to whether it’s better to go in the morning or afternoon. Conventional wisdom says that animals, big cats in particular, don’t like going out in the middle of day because it’s too hot. On the other hand, they might want to come out for water when it gets hotter. Regardless, it’s not common to see leopards in the morning or evening, according to my game driver, who does this nearly every day, all year-round.

Verdict: Worth it – Don’t miss.

Yala Safari Tips

If you have to choose, I think it’s better to go in the morning – more bang for buck, not just because of the amount of time that you spend inside the park compared to the afternoon folks, but also because of all the animals that do come out in the morning, such as the peacock. The peacocks were almost entirely gone around 10:30 or 11AM, presumably to escape the heat. I was also fortunate to see a family of elephants who were eating and traveling as a pack. It was quite a site when the matriarch politely asked the safari jeeps who were blocking the pack's path to give way (with her trunk), and then cross the road.

Be aware that if you do the morning drive, you will probably be asked to be ready to board at 4:30 or 5AM.
Make sure to get a packed lunch and water from your hotel. There’s nothing to eat there. Also, I’d make sure to use the bathroom before going, since you won’t get the chance until you’re taken to the beach, close to when the tours end.
The bathroom facilities at the end of the tour don’t have toilet paper or soap. It’s best to grab the extra roll from your hotel room, and carry hand sanitizer.
There are hundreds of tour operators. My game driver mentioned that there are typically about 400 jeeps going into the park (not sure whether he said per morning or per day). The hours vary by jeep, but typically all of the operators are in the park at 6AM, when the park opens. Mine stayed until about 12PM.

Additionally, the seating inside the jeep varies by operator. Some have a 2 x 3 configuration (2 seats, 3 rows), with entry and exit from the back, while others have 2 x 2 and a long seat in the back with entry and exit from a ladder on the side. I even saw one jeep have the dreaded 3 x 3. I didn’t think about this when I signed up for the tour (due to some unforeseen circumstances, explained in these two reviews), but it may be worth checking out before you sign up, though most of the jeeps don’t fill up to capacity. I lucked out in that I got a jeep with a 2 x 3 configuration, and it was just my family (3 of us), and one other tourist.
My advice for safari photography is to at least get a point and shoot with an excellent zoom instead of using a cell phone camera. For one thing, cell phone cameras don’t do well with zooms, and that’s with a relatively still subject and you taking the picture in a more comfortable position than from inside a jeep. If you want to, you can use a DSLR, but make sure you get a good zoom lens. And, if you get a heavy ultra-zoom lens (something over 2kgs, or approximately 4.4lbs), use a bean bag so that your shots don’t come out blurry. This is, of course, assuming that the jeep’s engine has been turned off.

Gallery

 

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