Ultimate Guide to Minneriya: A Safari Lovers’ Hot Spot

An amazing spot to watch nature and history combine.

The Minneriya National Park was declared a National Park in 1997, although it had been a wildlife reserve since the late 1930s. The heart of the National Park is the Minneriya reservoir, which supports the wildlife of the area with grass during most of the year. Because it’s located in the dry zone of Sri Lanka, this reservoir is essential. It was built by King Mahasen in the 3rd century A.D. Twenty-four different species of mammals live here, including deer, elephants, endangered species such as the Sri Lankan leopard and the sloth bear, and two species of endemic monkeys: the purple-faced Langur and the toque macaque.

This reservoir is also a paradise for birdwatchers! Over one hundred and sixty different species of birds make their home here. Some species include the lesser adjutant, the spot-billed pelican, the great white pelican, the ruddy turnstone, the grey heron and the painted stork. Many bird species endemic to Sri Lanka can also be found in the park including the Sri Lanka Junglefowl, Brown-capped Babbler, Black-crested Bulbul and the Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill.

Such an amazing park to visit!

Things to Do

1. Ancient Minneriya Reservoir

Most of the reservoirs in Sri Lanka were built during the mid-Anuradhapura Era, and the Minneriya Reservoir was built by King Mahasen with a dam of two kilometers! The  Mahaweli River is the source for this reservoir, through a canal at Elahera. Today, the Minneriya tank the main agricultural water resource in Anuradhapura, and it houses more than 20 billion gallons of water. Because all of this, the reservoir is both historically and economically important! A great spot to visit and explore.

Duration: More than three hours

Cost: Rs 4000 per person

Transportation from Colombo Airport: Via train 5 hours, via taxi or drive 3 hours

Opening Hours: 6 am to 6:30 pm

Location: Habarana-Polonnaruwa Road, Habarana 50150, Sri Lanka

How to get there from the city: 40 minute car ride from Habarana

Website: https://minneriya-national-park.ww.lk/

2. Elephant Viewpoint

Sri Lanka’s largest elephant gathering can be seen at Minneriya National Park.  During the dry season (July to September) water supplies reduce drastically in this region. To cope with this, the elephants congregate around the Minneriya reservoir where grasses are rich and fertile. This is one of the most remarkable scenes at Minneriya National Park, and is the only place in Sri Lanka where you can spot hundreds of elephants at the same place. Please make sure you are respectful towards the animals and that you do not bother them. Mother elephants can be very protective over the calves!

3. Jeep Safari

Jeep safaris are available at the entrance of the park. You can book your tour online, at your accommodation or at the park. It is very busy during daytime, so if you wish to have less jeeps around go early morning or late afternoon. Even though routes are designed to spot elephants, keep an eye out for sloth bears and leopards! Make sure to stay safe and do not bother animals. Hire a professional guide to learn more about the animals and the area as well.

Duration: More than three hours

Cost: Price depends on person, Jeep + 1 person $65 USD / 2 people $85 USD. Get a quote when booking.

Transportation from Colombo Airport: Via train 5 hours, via taxi or drive 3 hours

Opening Hours: 6 am to 6:30 pm

Location: Habarana-Polonnaruwa Road, Habarana 50150, Sri Lanka

How to get there from the city: 40 minute car ride from Habarana

Website: https://minneriya-national-park.ww.lk/

4. Hot Air Balloon Rides

Several companies at Minneriya offer a hot air balloon rides around the park. What a breathtaking way to see the elephant herds and beautiful Minneriya Reservoir! You can choose rides from Dambulla or Habarana, with hotel pick up options. These rides are offered in dr season, because it is unsafe to travel with a hot air balloon during monsoon season. Rides start at 6 am so make sure you are prepared for a wonderful sunrise!

Duration: 1-2 hours

Cost: Starting at $185 USD per person

Transportation from Colombo Airport: Via train 5 hours, via taxi or drive 3 hours

Opening Hours: 6 am to 9 am

Location: Habarana-Polonnaruwa Road, Habarana 50150, Sri Lanka (they will pick you up at your hotel)

How to get there from the city: 40 minute car ride from Habarana

Website: http://www.srilankaecotourism.com/hot_air_balloon_tour.htm

5. Birdwatching

Minneriya National Park’s faunal species include 160 types of birds, for example common wetland birds such as parrots, jungle fowls, peacocks and other aquatic birds. Migratory birds, four endemic birds, and eleven species of threatened birds have been recorded in Minneriya National Park. If you are a bird lover, this is an absolutely must see for you. Early mornings are the best time to visit, when there are less Jeeps, so the birds are not bothered. You can also hire a professional guide to show you around and tell you about the birds of Sri Lanka.

6. Observation Huts

Observation huts give an awesome, unique sight of the Hurulu Eco Park and Minneriya National Park. The ghostly image of Ritigala Mountain can be seen far away. During monsoon season, Minneriya become a wetland and is a whole new sight to behold from here! You can access the huts on your Jeep safari, so do not forget to mention to your driver if you wish to stop there! The huts are great to watch animals early morning when they are moving around in the less crowded park.

7. Kaudulla National Park

The park has 6656-hectare elephant corridor between Somawathie Chaitiya and Minneriya Park and can be seen through a Jeep safari. Two third of the park is under water during several months of the year, and tourists can ride a paddle boat on the lake while bird watching.  Kaudulla has been identified as an Important Bird Area. Historically Kaudulla was one of the 16 irrigation tanks built by King Mahasen. Following a period of abandonment it was reconstructed in 1959 and later declared as a national park. It now attracts and supports a variety of plant and animal life, including large mammals, fish and reptiles.

Duration: 2-3 hours

Cost: Rs 3200 per person 

Transportation from Colombo Airport: Via train 5 hours, via taxi or drive 3 hours

Opening Hours: 6 am to 6 pm

Location: Anuradhapura Road, Habarana 50150, Sri Lanka

How to get there from the city: 30 minute car ride from Habarana

Where to Sleep

There is no facility for visitors to stay within the park, but there is a huge availability of affordable and easily accessible hotels, lodges, and guesthouses in the surrounding cities. There are also high-end camping options provided by private operators, which in our opinion are bit expensive than they should be.

Cinnamon Lodge in Habarana and Aliya Resort in Sigiriya are two of our favorites. They are both eco-friendly and provide a fantastic service.

Cinnamon Lodge, Habarana

Cinnamon Lodge is a haven for pleasure seekers, nature lovers, escapists, and explorers. It’s a 5-star resort nestled right in the heart of Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle. Bordering a glassy lake in the savannahs of the north central province, Cinnamon Lodge relaxes the soul, refreshes the senses, and awakens the mind with heavy doses of nature’s serenity and age-old hospitality. This resort has an ethereal, peaceful ambiance. Monkeys hop through the grass with fear of humans, and chirping birds will create a soothing soundtrack to your stay.

Aliya Resort and Spa

The majestic Sri Lankan elephant is the teme of this luxury resort, which overlooks the splendid Sigiriya Rock Fortress and the Pidurangala Rock Temple. The hotel offers a range of accommodation from deluxe rooms to luxury tents and suites.

Where to Eat

Because there are no places in the park to eat, Habarana is a nearby stop with delicious cuisine. Near by Kaduruwela town (next to Polonnaruwa) also got several restaurants, but in our opinion places in Habarana offer better food and better dining experience.   

Following are few places we keep recommending:

Dewata Villas Village Restaurant, Habarana ($$)

This is a must visit experience in Habarana! The cordiality is matched by the superiority of the cuisine. You can also enjoy a cooking class offered by the owner, teaching a variety of authentic Sri Lankan curries.

Mihini, Habarana ($)

This small budget restaurant is famous for serving a variety of delicious Sri Lankan dishes at extremely reasonable prices.

Cinnamon Lodge Restaurant, Habarana ($$$)

The main restaurant of  Cinnamon Lodgeoffers you a great selection of Asian, Sri Lankan, and international dishes. The buffet (served for breakfast & dinner) is extensive and caters for most tastes. Service from staff is friendly and quick.

When to Go

The best time to go and visit Minneriya National Park depends on whether you like to travel in a moderately hot or in very hot months. The dry season is from May to October, when the air is still humid, but you do not have to worry about the monsoons, so you can enjoy outdoor activities. The hottest months are May, June and July with the average temperature of 35 Celsius.

It rains the most from November to April, if you are travelling in those months, do not forget your raincoat, and it is not practical to visit the national park due to flooding!

The wind is extremely calm, but make sure you are prepared if you go hiking, because the temperature could drop very fast high up, with cold humidity and even a little rain.

The most popular months to visit are July and August, also holidays like Christmas are very busy. If you are looking for a less busy travel, book outside these periods!

Dress code

Make sure to familiarize yourself with dress codes in Sri Lanka. Even if you are going on a tour please wear appropriate clothing, such as trousers which cover your knees and a light shirt which covers up your shoulders. Be respectful towards the locals and their religion.

Take off your hat when you enter a store or a restaurant, and beachwear is only acceptable near the beaches or swimming pools. Due to monsoon and dry seasons you might need to take a light jacket or a raincoat with you if you plan to be outside for a long period of time.

Getting In and Around

Minneriya National Park is in the North Central region of Sri Lanka. It is close to Dambulla, Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura, but you can also access it from many cities.

Colombo: Colombo is 190 km away from Minneriya National Park, on the west coast of the island. Take the daily express direct train to Habarana, then take a taxi or tuk tuk to the national park with a total trip time of 6 hours. Via taxi or a private car you can reach the national park in 3.5 hours.

Negombo: Negombo is 160 km away from the national park, just above Colombo. You can take an express daily train from Colombo or Gampaha to reach Habarana in 6 hours. Via taxi or car you can be at Minneriya National Park in 3 hours.

Kandy: Kandy is 100 km south of Minneriya National Park, in the heart of the island. Take the express train via Polgahawela to reach Habarana in 6 hours. Via taxi or a private car you can be at the national park in 2 hours.

Ella: Ella is 220 km away from Minneriya National Park in southern direction. You can take an express daily train via Polgahawela to arrive to Habarana in 13 hours. Via taxi or a private car you can reach Minneriya National Park in 4 hours.

Galle: Galle is 300 km away from the national park, on the south coast of Sri Lanka. Via express train travel to Colombo and take the daily train to Habarana to arrive there in 8 hours. Via the daily express bus travel to Dehiattakandiya then transfer to a local bus to reach Habarana or Minneriya National Park in  12 hours. Via taxi or a private car you can arrive to the national park in 5 hours.

Dambulla: Dambulla is only 30 km away from Minneriya National Park. You can take the frequent hourly bus to reach Habarana then travel to the national park in less than an hour. Via car or taxi you can be there in 20 minutes.

Sigiriya: Sigiriya is 20 km away from the national park. You can take a local bus to be there in 40 minutes, or hire a tuk tuk to reach Minneriya National Park in 15 minutes.

Budget

Sri Lanka is a stunning place with its beautiful history and rich culture. If you plan to go there prepare yourself because there are a few highly priced safaris, hotels and tours. Minneriya National Park is a very popular destination, due to the frequency of the tourists prices tend to be high.

However, you have the chance to find cheaper hotels and hostels ($10-$15), mid-range hotels ($20-$60) or you have the option to experience luxury to the fullest with amazing panorama, spas and excellent restaurants ($90-).  These prices allow both backpackers and luxury lovers to experience the beauty of Sri Lanka while not worrying about accommodation.

The entry fees are expensive ($35+ per person) and make sure to bring change for the washroom, which can be only paid with local currency. Jeep safaris and hot air balloon rides depends on the number of people and type of service so try to bargain and find the best deal for yourself.

The public transportation is the cheapest option to get around ($1- $4), but it’s not so comfy, as you have to stand most times. You can hire a driver who will take you anywhere for around  $50/day. Restaurants usually ask $20/meal, but you can grab food from buffets and stands, which won’t cost too much ($3-$5).

Conclusion

Like all of Sri Lanka, Minneriya is a mixture of a natural paradise with a historical landscape. This is just one more possible stop where you can get close to nature and still experience a deep sense of adventure! Go for a hot air balloon ride or a Jeep safari to view the hundreds—sometimes as many as three hundred!—elephants that flank to the reservoir during the monsoons. Observation huts in the park will give you a special view of the landscape, and birdwatchers will delight in the countless birds that sing in the trees. The nearby cities provide plenty of accommodation ranging from budget to world-class. And, as always, delicious Sri Lankan cuisine awaits! What are you waiting for? Head to Minneriya today!

Updated by Teddy