How to Safari in Yala National Park on a Budget
When I think of the word safari, the word budget is not exactly the next that comes to mind. Safaris are a great opportunity to see a country’s most amazing wildlife without caging them up for display, but they can definitely cost you a couple car payments to do so. I had heard great things about Yala before arriving in Sri Lanka and even more so the more we traveled along the South coast. Most of these stories involved random run-ins with elephants, leopards and crocodiles, along with endless types of tropical birds and smaller animals best known for singing the chorus in the songs from the Lion King. At this point I desperately wanted to do the safari myself, but I wasn’t ready to make it the biggest expense of the trip. Something tells me that there’s a few others like myself out there, so let me assure you that it is totally possible! Our visit to Yala was obviously pricier than our other outings, but by the time we left we were both pretty surprised by what we had accomplished for the amount we spent.
Your expenses in Yala will be racked up by accommodation, meals, fees, and the jeep and guide itself. We did the entire experience for less than $70 CAD per person. Here is how:
Accommodation & Food
This is by far how we saved the most coin along the way. Safaris are offered starting at 6 AM and 3 PM so unless you want to be traveling to your next destination in the dark, you will likely be staying the night. Different tour companies and hotel representatives will pedal to you that an all-inclusive package is the best and easiest way to see the park and with all of your expenses tied up into one neat little package, it’s pretty tempting to take that at face-value. Generally, the closer the resort is to the park the more it’s going to cost you, with the few “glamping” resorts inside the park costing upwards of $900 per night. If you’re like me and gagged at that number, you will most likely be based in the town of Tissamaharama (affectionately known as Tissa), about 45 minutes away from the park. The town is still heavily filled with safari-oriented hotels but luckily for us, a few guesthouses are still in business. We stayed at the Whitehouse and not only was it the cheapest option around at $16 CAD per night, but the amazing owner took care of every detail of the safari and took any hassle out of the planning. When we left before dawn for our adventure, he was there waiting for us with a packed breakfast and when we came back he showered us in the most amazing fresh fruit right out of his garden. His lovely wife pumped us full of electrolytes after seeing our Barney coloured faces and prepared meals for us for extremely reasonable prices throughout our stay. The room is basic but very clean and came with air conditioning and we were honestly thrilled with what we got for our money. If you need a cheap place to stay in Tissa, this has to be the place!
Meals (Breakfast and fruit goodies were included): 2000 LKR
Room: 1850 LKR
Total: 3850 LKR
Whether you’re entering Thissa by train, bus, taxi or levitation, prepare to immediately be approached and offered a safari package. We almost accepted our first offer of 5000 per person which includes the steep park entrance fee, but decided to shop around. If you’re a solo traveler, this will likely be the best option for you, as these guys are gathering enough tourists to fill their entire 9-12 seat Jeep. Our owner offered us a ride with a driver he knew to be safe and good with the animals, as careless drivers have been known to scare them off. The only catch was that the jeep was private, raising the price. We were welcome to gather as many others as we liked for the ride, but after considering the price difference for the luxury of a private day, we decided to book it as is. After seeing some of the other jeeps riding around jam-packed with everyone elbowing to get the best elephant selfie, we were so glad that we chose to splurge a little! All jeeps are more or less the same model and level of comfort, so choose based on how many people you want along for the ride and the credibility of your driver.
Jeep and Driver: 4500 for the whole vehicle
Park Fees and Guide
The park fee is the one thing you won’t be able to bargain on, so be prepared to pay between 3000-3800 LKR per person (based on season and changing rates). We were under the impression that our driver would be guiding the safari or that it would be self-guided, with him occasionally throwing out the names of the animals were were passing but when we rolled into the park entrance to pay our fee, a man jumped into the van and started lecturing us on rare breeds of chicken. With nothing short of genius detective work, we deduced that this would be our guide for the ride. He volunteered with the park and was an excellent guide that always had an answer to our endless barrage of questions and was equally curious to learn about our wildlife back home in Canada (shoutout the the Canadian goose). We were told that a tip should be based off the price of the jeep, so we tipped 500 LKR which seemed to go over well! If you’re given the option, do not vouch to skip the guide just to save a couple of dollars, it absolutely enhances the experience!
Fee: 3600 per person
Total: 4100 LKR
Total for Two People
$69 CAD per person. That’s eight footlong sandwiches at Subway, 27 cups of coffee, and approximately 40 chicken nuggets. Fun fact, I budget my life through fast food equivalents.
I never thought I would be able to afford a safari on my tight budget, so I was blown away by what I received for my money! Don’t be afraid of splurging for this experience- it really is once in a lifetime and can be catered to match any traveller’s wallet density!