Kumana National Park Safari, Is It Worth Visiting?

Considering a trip to Kumana National Park, but not sure it’s worth the journey? Welcome to our guide to one of the most underrated safaris in Sri lanka with all the hidden details behind this unkempt beauty. Is it worth a trip? We’ll let you decide.

Our guide stepped on the brakes, the tires sliding and skidding on the loose ground as he kept his head fixated on the thick trees and bushes to the right. He didn’t say anything, he just kept staring and we felt obliged to keep quiet and join him, expecting to see another Spotted Deer, a Buffalo or something pop its head out. But after a few moments the wheels began turning again and we carried on up the road, wondering what we might have missed.   

A few hundred meters further, we came across another jeep with wide smiles on all of the passengers’ faces. “Did you spot it?”. The guys showed us the screen of their telescopic camera and two giant yellow eyes stared back. We’d just missed a Leopard, and a beautiful one at that. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see it that day. After 5 safari’s all over Sri Lanka we’re still waiting for that first glimpse, but so far this is the closest we’ve come.

Two guest staring into the forests from their jeep in Kumana National Park

When we were back in Arugam Bay sipping on a beer on the beach, we reflected on the little adventure we’d just been on. We’d been umming and ahhing the days before whether we should bother, but as we joked about the Monkeys chasing the Giant Grizzled Squirrel, the Boars playing in the early sunlight and the magicalness of almost having the entire park to ourselves, we knew it had been worth it.

Why visit Kumana National Park

You’ll see loads of wild animals in and around the Arugam Bay. But, if you’re a real wildlife lover or you’re staying for a while, it’s worth visiting Kumana National Park. 

This park is actually connected to Yala National Park and used to go by the same name, so it’s a great place to go on safari where you’ll get the chance to see many Buffalo, Elephants, Crocodiles, Boar, Birds and if you’re lucky some Sloth Bears or the elusive Leopard. But unlike Yala, you won’t have to deal with crowds, it’s one of the quietest parks in Sri Lanka.

An elephant with tusks near some trees in Kumana National Park

Avoid the crowds

Kumana National Park is located on the east coast of Sri Lanka just north of Yala National Park and south of Panama town, the only tourists that come to this part of Sri Lanka are the surfers and beach goers that tend to head to Arugam Bay. With limited access to get to the park and with the local towns being off the busier traveller routes, Kumana is one of the quietest parks in Sri Lanka.

Even in the peak surf season, there will only be 10-20 vehicles in the park and it will feel like you are the only people on safari. We went in early July and only saw 4-5 other vehicles the entire morning. It was a refreshing change to the same amount of jeeps we saw around the groups of elephants when we visited Yala. If you’re looking to avoid the crowds and still spot some wildlife, this is the park for you.

A view of an empty dirt track and pink skies whilst looking out the front of a jeep

Into the wild

Kumana National Park has a diverse landscape of extensive wetland areas like mangrove swamps, floodplains and big salty lakes where it’s possible to spot many Buffalo cooling off from the sun, Elephants having a drink, and some hungry Crocodiles. The park also has large sections of dryland forests, pockets of open grassland and rocky outcrops where many Leopards lurk in the shadows.

Connecting all these areas of the park are narrow and unkept dirt tracks where the jeeps really bounce around and you will need to dodge the occasional tree branch. With hardly any other vehicles around it has a feeling of heading into the wilderness, of going on an adventure. 

I think the animals feel it too with the deer often scampering away from your jeep like you’re after them and many eagles circling overhead. If you really want to see animals in their natural habitat with limited human interference, this is the park to find them.

Perfect for birdwatchers

Kumana National Park is arguably the best park in Sri Lanka to spot wild and exotic birds. Deep in the depths of the park is the Kumana Villu, a 200 hectare swamp lake that is the nesting grounds for Pelicans, Painted Storks, Spoonbills and Heron. Every April to July tonnes of birds migrate here so it’s the perfect time to get the binoculars out and catch a glimpse of some rarest birds in the world. If you’re into birdwatching, Kumana National Park should definitely be on your list.

What animals can you see

Some of the most majestic animals in the world call Kumana home and there’s an opportunity to see some of Sri Lanka’s big four (Asian Elephant, Water Buffalo, Leopards and Sloth Bears). Like all national parks in Sri Lanka, it’s not about what you can see, but what you are more likely to see.

Almost guaranteed to see

  • Water Buffalo – there’s so many lakes and swamps in Kumana National Park you are guaranteed to see Buffalo and normally up close as well.
  • Wild Boar – right at the park entrance you’ll find loads of Boars playing in the morning sun and cooling down in the various mud holes around the park.
  • Spotted Deer – Kumana has the most Deer out of any national park we’ve seen, no wonder there are so many Leopards here!
  • Crocodiles – it’s hard to get really close to these in Kumana but you will see them at almost all of the lakes, look closely at the banks to spot them. 
  • Monkeys – there are various types of monkeys all around the park with Grey Langurs and Toque Macaques being very common especially near the entrance in the early morning.
  • Eagles – there are a lot of eagles in the area both flying high and in the trees nearby, it’s a great place to get a good close up of them.

Good chance to see

  • Elephants – While not as densely populated as some other national parks, Kumana is home to a population of Elephants, quite a few with tusks as well!
  • Grizzled Giant Squirrel – this is one of the few places we’ve seen these amazing, Pokémon-like Squirrels; if you see one, you’re in for a treat!
  • Pelicans, Storks and Spoonbills – if you come between April and July you’ve got a great chance to see many different birds.

If you’re lucky

  • Leopard – Kumana is one of the best places to find Leopards with over 60 active in the park, and many often being seen on the rocks near the watering holes. You will still need to get lucky though, these animals are shy so you’ll need some good eyes to spot them, or a good guide.
  • Sloth Bear – if you’re really really lucky you might come across a Sloth Bear, these are extremely rare in all of Sri Lanka so don’t hold your breath.

Like all Safari’s, what you see on the day is complete luck, some days you can tick every animal off on the list, others you might not come across anything special. If you’re looking to just spot as many animals as possible, potentially Yala or Udawalawe are better options for you to visit. Kumana National Park definitely has less wildlife than these bigger parks but it’s the perfect place for having a peaceful adventure.

What to expect

The morning started early, our alarm waking us to the darkness with just enough time for a stiff homemade coffee to counter the few beers we had the night before. All good safaris start early, but after the fun we’d had the last few days we were not ready for this one, having to run around to grab some sun cream, the last of our water and the camera, luckily remembering to pick up the spare batteries on the way out. 

Our driver, Lesitha, was waiting at the gate to our accommodation, engine running and ready to roll. We had a quick laugh and off we went.

Top tip: It’s best to grab everything you need the night before but don’t worry if you forgot the snacks and water, there’s one shop open in the morning!

He drove us through the farmlands and over the bridges to the south of the town. We’d been this way many times before to surf at Elephant Rock or Peanut Farm, but it was nice to see it under darkness. The fields alight with little flames lit by the local farmers guarding their fields from inside their seemingly abandoned shelters we’d seen in the daylight. 

As we got closer to the park, the roads became rough and the jeep was bouncing around the dirt tracks with dust flying everywhere and a few giggles from us in the back, our tiredness seemingly being shaken out of us. And thankfully so, the sunrise was a sight to remember, a golden glow piercing through the clouds and bouncing off the lake with Buffalo and Little Egret silhouettes, or Ingrids as we like to call them.

Orange and yellow reflections of sunrise on the way to Kumana National Park

At the park entrance, we were greeted by the animal kingdom’s version of kids on Christmas morning. There were Monkeys swinging from the telephone lines, chasing Giant Squirrels and grasping onto their newborns as they tried to steal a few snacks out of our backpacks. Boars were charging at each other, bumping and playing in the morning sunlight, maybe doing something a little cheekier as well. All whilst the Muma and Papa Buffalo avoided the chaos and opted for a quick dip. If you’re trying to save your camera’s batteries or your driver wants to move on quickly, don’t, this was one of our favourite parts of the safari.

Top tip: Make sure to use the bathroom at the entrance. There are no other toilets in the park and the bouncing isn’t fun on the ol’ bladder!

The park is still a really raw untamed wilderness, the roads are rough and scared from the rains of season gone by and you’ll bounce around the wide grasslands to head deeper into the park, often with Spotted Deer skipping away as they hear the sound of the jeep. These grasslands are connected with thick sections of forest and bushes where many animals hide to keep out of sight. 

This is the kind of park where you need to keep your eyes peeled, constantly looking for movement or a few yellow and black spots hidden within the undergrowth. But don’t worry if you’re not the best spotter, the guides have done this their entire life and are amazing at it. It’s like they have 6 sets of eyes, one for the road, one for the trees to the left and another for the bushes on the right. He would point out Peacocks, Lizards, Eagles, anything that our untrained eyes would miss. We’re still convinced he glimpsed a Leopard, but I suppose we didn’t see it so we’ll never know. 

A girl looks at Buffalo and Spotted Deer drinking at a lake from inside a jeep in Kumana National Park

The safari meanders through big open plains, over narrow rickety bridges and past crocodile filled lagoons until it makes its natural progression to a giant floodplain lake in the middle of the park. Here we stopped for a quick cool coconut to watch some of the rare birds soaring high whilst the Buffalo and Deer sipped on the murky water banks, clearly keeping an eye out for some hidden jaws beneath the surface. It was like a scene from the Lion King, the central watering hole where all the animals come for a drink. 

As the sun was getting high, so was the temperature and the wildlife was becoming harder and harder to find. Dusk and dawn is often the best time to find wildlife before they look for shade under the midday sun and it seemed this safari was coming to its natural conclusion. On the way back we stopped at the Kumana Villu, a giant green swamp lake full of birds with a great viewpoint. If you’re an avid birdwatcher this is the perfect place to see storks and pelicans soaring high and swooping down to catch some fish.  

The trip overall took about 6 hours and we were back for lunchtime to grab our favourite pitas from East Falafel. As we sat in the shade smothering them with spicy chilli sauce and looking back through our photos, smiles were breaking through our dusty faces. And with enough time to go for a surf and enjoy the rest of the day, we knew the safari had been worth it.

Two Spotted Deer with giant antlers staring at the camera in Kumana National Park

Things to know before visiting Kumana National Park

Do you need a guide

You cannot enter the park without a guide, you’ll need to rent a jeep and a driver. It’s worth it though, the guides have spent their entire life spotting animals and with Kumana’s terrain and thick forests, they’re really helpful.

There’s a couple of options to find a jeep and a guide:

  • Turn up and negotiate –  You can turn up at the park before sunrise or early afternoon and negotiate with a driver at the gate. We suggest avoiding this approach, you’ll only make a tiny saving (maybe $5) and risk having no drivers available.
  • Organise in Arugam Bay – If you’re not sure you want to visit Kumana National Park then waiting and organising a trip via your hotel or on the street is the best bet. Just be prepared to negotiate, the starting price is normally $70 per person and you’ll need to knock them down to $50ish.
  • Pre-book online – if you want to make life easy and get the best price without any negotiation you can pre-book online. The driver will message you on whatsapp a few days before to organise your pickup, it’s a very easy experience. 

Best place to book: $100 per vehicle, bargain. Book now

A jeep driving on dirt roads in Kumana National Park

Best time of day to visit

As the sun comes out and the heat picks up, all of the animals will disappear to find some shade and rest. To see the wildlife you need to come at sunrise or sunset when the animals are most active.

The morning safari starts around 5.30 am and is our favourite time to visit, the animals are more playful in the cooler temperatures. The entrance was amazing with Monkeys invading the roads and Boars play fighting in the soft morning light. If you’re ok with early mornings this is our recommended time to visit.

The locals often suggest an afternoon safari, not because of the animals, I think the laid back culture of Arugam Bay means they like to skip the early mornings. The afternoon safaris start at 3pm and there’s an equally good chance to see some great wildlife as the day becomes later, so it’s up to you whether you want a playful morning or a laidback evening.

Just make sure you get some good sleep if you go for the early safari, it’s not the most comfortable nap spot.

Two people sleeping in a jeep at Kumana National Park

Best time of year to visit

Although Kumana National Park has something to offer all year-round, it’s best to avoid the monsoon season between October to April when the park is often flooded and the weather is wet and windy. There are much better parks to explore at these times, like Udawalawe and Yala National Park.

The best time of year to visit Kumana is during the dry season and normally combined with a surf trip or a visit to Arugam Bay. If you’re looking to combine some surf with some specific animals, the best times to visit are:   

  • Birdwatching – April to July is the best when migratory birds flock to the park, with the most consistent surf in July.
  • Leopard Spotting – Dry season, between June and September, provides the best opportunity to spot Leopards. 
  • General Wildlife – The dry season is best, the later the better when most of the lakes dry up and the animals have to come out to find water. July and August are typically the best months.

Where is Kumana National Park

Kumana National Park is on the east coast of Sri Lanka just north of Yala National Park. The park is relatively isolated and difficult to get to from other traveller hotspots, typically taking 3-4 hours from Ella and 6 hours+ from the south coast. We only suggest visiting Kumana if you’re planning to visit Arugam Bay, if not, we suggest trying some of the more popular parks in the central or southern parts of Sri Lanka.

The park is situated 35km south of the Arugam Bay and takes about 45 mins to drive to from the town. All the jeep drivers and safaris offer pickup and return so it’s really easy to get to.

A man watching two Buffalo in Kumana National Park

How much does a safari cost

The cost will all depend on what you want out of your safari, whether you want a full or half day, how many people are going, whether you want a private or shared tour and if you include park entrance or pay on the door. We think it’s best to just keep it easy and book a simple all inclusive half or full day tour:

  • Half day – typically $100 or $50 person for two people, for extra people you can negotiate or use are link below, it’s the cheapest offer in town.
  • Full day – typically $160 or $80 per person.

Best deal: Only $100 per vehicle, get four of you together and it’s only $25 per person! Book now

Full day or half day

This really depends on how badly you want to find a Leopard. You will see similar wildlife on both safaris, you just have more chances to see the really rare animals if you go for a full day. So if a Leopard or a Sloth Bear is a must see, it might be worth booking a full day tour where you’ll stop for lunch, have rice and curry in the park and get a double opportunity to catch the big cat.

If you’re like us and you just wanted to see some wildlife or change up the pace of your trip, the half day is the best. It’s just the right amount of time where you can go for a surf or have some lunch before, or have a chill and a beer afterwards depending on whether you pick the morning or afternoon safari. If you’re only in Arugam Bay for a few days this is the option we recommend.

An Eagle taking off any flying with Buffalo and a lake in in the background in Kumana National Park

What to bring with you

Kumana National Park isn’t that far away from Arugam Bay so you won’t need to bring much with you. It’s best to pack light and make the trip easy. If you’re like me and Beth though you’re bound to forget something, here’s the essentials to help you remember:

  • Water – there are no shops in the park or nearby, bring a few bottles with you just in case.
  • Sun Cream – although the jeeps are sheltered, the midday sun is very strong in east Sri Lanka, bring some cream to be safe.
  • Bugs spray – the safari’s start and end at dusk and dawn, the perfect time for mosquitos to come out, bring some insect repellent to avoid getting bitten.
  • Wet wipes – you can expect your face, arms and hands to get quite dusty, if you don’t like the feeling then bring some wet wipes.
  • Camera! – without a doubt the most important thing to bring, make sure to charge any spare batteries if you have them, we almost went through two.

Best place to book: Viator

A girl leaning out of a jeep in Kumana National Park

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