We went from sea to summit with two small backpacks and surfboards in hand. After a couple fantastic trips to Arugam Bay, my friends Kelly and Lina, and I took a trip to the beautiful hill country. Our time in Ella hiking and swimming in waterfalls was one of the highlights of my travels in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is a gem of an island in the indian Ocean that has more recently become a popular tourist destination due to the end of the civil war in 2009. Now a peaceful country Sri Lanka has a lot to offer visitors. The island has a vibrant culture, beautiful beaches, incredible wildlife, eight UNESCO World Heritages Sites, and spectacular biodiverse landscapes.
In my three months in Sri Lanka, I traveled around bottom half of the tear-drop shaped island from Colombo to Galle to Ahangama to Mirissa to Arugam Bay to Ella. Colombo is still developing its character and of all the cities in the world to visit, I wouldn’t list it as one of those must see places (if you do spend some time there, there’s only a short list of the few things worth doing). It’s not the cities, it’s the small beach towns and highland landscapes that give Sri Lanka its charm. Some of those towns are more touristy than others.
Arugam Bay, known for its surf culture, is the most touristy place I visited. There are many other towns that have an authentic Sri Lankan culture that caters first and foremost to locals — Ahangama, where I spent most of my time, is one of those places. Ella is also one of those small towns that retains much of its local charm. Most of the accommodation is local bed and breakfasts instead of big hotels.
Ella is a town brimming with beautiful nature and the weather, although still humid, is several degrees cooler than costal towns. It’s most famous for being the second to last stop on the train ride from Colombo east through the lush, green hills and mountains. If you’re looking for a place to retreat and enjoy a slower pace of life, and spend time in a quiet, meditative setting, the hills of Ella are the place to go.
TRANSPORT & ACCOMODATION
From Arugam Bay the most comfortable way to travel is by taxi. The three of us split a non air-conditioned, open-window taxi with our friends Alex & Brad for a total of 1000 rupees each. Some friends have also taken the bus or a tuk tuk which can be quite an experience.
Our first night in Ella, the girls and I stayed at a B&B tucked away in a cute little corner of the village. The next day we moved to a B&B with a gorgeous view of the misty clouds hanging over the mountain valley. That was an entirely different experience, although it was a little pricier, it was totally worth it. There are a number of places to stay for varying budgets. If possible try to stay somewhere where you have a good view of the green valley. I’d recommend the place we stayed, Floating2Ella or Ella Mountain View, where several friends stayed came back raving about the food and views. We went to check if there was availability, and even though the B&B was fully booked, the owner’s sister invited us in for tea.
HIKING & NATURE
There are two famous hikes in Ella with fantastic views, one is Ella Rock, the other is Little Adam’s Peak.
On our first morning in Ella, Kelly and I set out to hike Ella Rock, a mountain top/cliff overlooking the hills. The final ascent of the hike is steep making Ella Rock a more strenuous hike than Little Adam’s Peak. No pain no gain, right? :) The trek takes a couple hours, and if you don’t get lost, the majority of the hike is quite easy.
We started heading south on the railroad tracks somewhat unsure of how we’d find our way since there are no trail markers. I Googled how to hike Ella Rock and we followed the advice of the http://nomadicboys.com/trekking-to-ella-rock/. Once we made our way to the tea plantations, we followed a couple with a local guide. That’s where we made our mistake. We were led off track. So, Kelly and I backtracked only to run into Brad and Alex who had carpooled with us from Arugam. The four of us decided we’d find our way without a guide, but an older local man with a machete insisted on hiking with us, and you don’t mess with an armed farmer.
After a short while, we told the farmer again that we didn’t need a guide, and although he had said “I show you path, no money,” he walked a few steps down the mountain, turned around and said “present? me poor farmer.” We gave him a little money and the four of us continued up to the peak and enjoyed an incredible view.
HOW GET TO ELLA ROCK'S PEAK
- Head south along the the railway tracks (watch out for trains!)
- Walk over a big railroad bridge
- Pass the Buddhist statues and the Kithaella Train Station
- So far the hike is easy. Where to turn isn’t so clear.
- Keep walking until you see a little path off to the left that overlooks a creek and a farming field. This left is just before kilometer marker 166 1/3.
- Cross the small bridge over the creek and immediately take a left up the hill. There should be a path through low bushes that leads you all the way up the mountain.
- You’ll eventually reach a forest of rubber trees before you reach the top.
- Hiking down is much easier and straight forward than the hike up.
That morning Kelly and I wondered if we’d find our way to the top, and we did! We even made it down the mountain with a whole gang of new friends.
The next day we hiked Adam’s Peak which is a much less complicated trek. When we made it back to town, we jumped in a tuk tuk to the Rawana Waterfall. We went swimming under the icy cold 25m (82 ft) cascade with big smiles on our faces. When we came back the town was filled with people watching a Buddhist Perahera parade. There was music, elephants, and locals in brightly colored costumes dancing down the street. We were saddened to see the elephants wearing extremely heavy chains to control and restrain their movement, but it was quite the experience to be at the right place at the right time to see one of the biggest Buddhist festivals in Sri Lanka.
After hiking the two peaks, spending time at the waterfall, and seeing the festival, the only hike I felt we missed was walking to the Nine Arches bridge.
THE TRAIN RIDE
From Ella we took the famous scenic train ride to Colombo (and continued on that same day from Colombo to Ahangama). First class has an observation deck where you have a great view (if you sit in the first row), but the entire car is sealed and air conditioned. Who needs air condition in the mountains? Half the fun is hanging out of the train car.
Friends and the website Seat61 recommended we buy 2nd Class Reserved tickets, but due to the local festivities, the tickets were sold out, so we opted for 3rd Class Reserved (this gives you reserved seats and is not the same as regular 3rd Class which is packed). It was entirely worth it!
Waiting for the train with our backpacks on and warm coconut roti (somewhat like pancakes) in hand, we noticed all the other tourists were on the other side of the platform. We started to wonder what we were in for the next nine hours. For most of the ride, Kelly and I had the entire train car to ourselves, plenty of space for the surfboard bag, and open windows where we could feel the breeze, smell the jungle air, and stick our heads out of the train as it chugged through the lush, misty mountains. The closer we got to Kandy and Colombo, the more people jumped on, but for less than half the cost of First Class we had an amazing time!