Getting around Sri Lanka is relatively easy as distances are quite short between places and there are multiple options available for your journey between towns. Our journey to the Hill Country started in Colombo, where we decided to board one of the trains heading inland.
Colombo to Kandy:
There is some mixed information available time to time about the possibility of reserving tickets for trains in Sri Lanka. There seem to be some options of reserving a ticket in advance by visiting some of the major stations (e.g. Colombo Fort) but we found out that this needs to be done well in advance. There is more information available at (http://www.railway.gov.lk/), however we decided to simply show up at the station a couple hours before planned departure to Kandy and hope for the best. Turned out that tickets were easy to get and even though it was a public holiday, we were able to get tickets to an earlier train than planned. So waiting time at the station was very short.
Trains in Sri Lanka have up to 3 classes. 2nd and 3rd class are not air-conditioned, but usually all windows and doors are open so airflow through the train is great. also when heading inland towards the hills, the air gets cooler quite quickly so don’t worry about not having air-con. Reserved 1st class air-conditioned service is offered only on some routes.
We got 2nd class tickets for the journey, which cost us 190 rupees each (around 1.1 Euro or $1.25 USD) . When the train arrived, chaos broke loose and it was a huge battle getting on the train as everyone wanted to get a seat. This we hear is normal at Colombo Fort station as passengers hope to secure a seat for the ride. We ended up being “too kind” and not getting a seat. We did however get space for our bags and being lucky enough to get a spot by the train door which turned out to be a jackpot. Great unobstructed views, great “air-con” and the possibility to take some great photos of the passing countryside.
The journey to Kandy took around 4 hours and offered a first glimpse of what was to come further into the hill country.
TIP: Get a seat/door on the right side of the train. This will give you much better views of the hills once the train starts climbing up the hills near Kandy.
Kandy to Nuwara Eliya:
After spending a few days in Kandy, we decided to continue the trip further into the Hill Country. Getting a train from Kandy onwards can be tricky (or at least that is what we were told) as many people continue direct from Colombo on the route and trains tend to be jam packed. So instead of taking the train, we opted for a bus service for the trip. Busses leave from Kandy bus terminal right next to the train station, so you might also try your luck getting a ticket for a train and if not head to the bus station. Busses leave once they are full but it shouldn’t take more than 30-45 minutes before one heads to Nuwara Eliya. Our bus was air-conditioned and had seats for around 25 people. The ticket cost 360 rupees each (2 Euro or $3.4 USD), but we also had to buy an extra ticket for our luggage as it took up one seat.
The bus ride took around 2 hours and the final stop of the journey is a Nuwara Eliya Bus Terminal right in the middle of the town.
TIP: If possible try and get a seat on the right side of the Bus. The road climbs quite steeply into Nuwara Eliya (Above 2000m above sea level) and you will have amazing views into the valleys, tea plantations and the occasional waterfalls on the hills. The left side too offers some good views, but generally the right side will offer you a better photo opportunity.
Nuwara Eliya to Horton Plains:
We will write a little more about Horton Plains in another post, but as a summary you want to get there early. The gates open at 6am and you should be there a little before to pay your National Park fee. Being there early will ensure the best chances to see wildlife and you will almost have the trails to your self for the first parts of the hike.
Getting to Horton Plains requires hiring a driver or a tuk-tuk to take you there. All guest houses and hotels in Nuwara Eliya should be able to arrange this for you and the cost for the driver is around 3500-4000 rupees (approx. 20 euro or $25 USD) for the trip there and back (The driver will wait for you at the entrance of the park). The journey takes around 45-60 minutes.
Horton Plains to Ella:
We planned our onward journey so that we would continue directly from Horton Plains to Ella. The hike at Horton Plains takes around 3 hours so if you start early, it is easy to catch a train onwards to Ella from Pattipola Station (around 15 minutes from the Horton Plains park entrance). Your driver will happily drop you off here as it is on the way back to Nuwara Eliya.
The station is very small and the only interesting this there is that it is the highest station in Sri Lanka (1891 metres). There is a small cafe next to the station where you can get some food if you need it. There should be a couple of trains from the station to Ella (around 10.30 am, 1.20pm and around 3pm) at least, but we had to wait around 4 hours there as one train was cancelled and the next was delayed. Ticket sales start around 20 minutes before the train arrives and tickets to ella cost 90 rupees (0.5 euro or $0.6 USD) each. Again, trains tend to be packed by the time they get to Pattipola so you will need to squeeze on and don’t expect to have a seat for the first hour or two so of the journey.
TIP: Best views on this stretch of the train ride tend to be on the left side for the first half of the trip and on the right once you get nearer to Ella.