Sri Lanka’s Hill Country: Hiking, Cooking and Train Rides in Nuwara Eliya and Ella

After our brief stop in Sigiriya, we were heading back southwards to catch the famous Kandy to Ella train, known for being one of the most scenic train journeys in the world. If you do the whole journey in one go, it takes around 7 hours. This seemed far too long to spend on a train, so instead we decided to get off half way at Nuwara Eliya and spend a couple of days exploring the tea plantations, waterfalls and hiking trails of Sri Lanka’s hill country.

The spectacular train ride from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

Hiking to the End of the World

The highlight of our stay in Nuwara Eliya, and actually the highlight of our Sri Lanka trip so far, has to be hiking the 9km loop through Horton Plains National Park.

When our taxi driver, Siva, said he’d pick us up at 5am from Nuwara Eliya to get to Horton Plains, I thought he was joking. We’d already done one sunrise trip that week… another was really not necessary. Siva insisted however, saying that if we went any later, the clouds would most likely come down and ruin the view. We bowed to his wisdom and reluctantly set our alarms for 4.30am… again.

We reached the National Park just before 6am, when the sky was beginning to get light. We looked out the window dubiously as we waited for the ticket office to open – we were completed shrouded in clouds and couldn’t see anything more than spooky silhouettes of trees in the pre-dawn light. Siva must have seen the doubt on our sleepy faces, because he assured us that once we get into the park and over to the south side of the mountains, the weather miraculously clears and all would be well.

Ominous sign in Horton Plains!

On a side note, the tickets for the park are ridiculously expensive relative to the general cost of living in Sri Lanka. It cost us £30 between us to enter Horton Plains, plus £20 for the taxi to wait three hours to take us back to town. Putting that in perspective; a meal costs £2-3, a 4 hour train journey £1.25, staying at a guesthouse including breakfast £7 each. We are easily living off £25 a day each here, including plenty of booze, meals and accommodation, so we were very surprised to be paying so much to go for a walk.

One thing we were really impressed with was the park rangers’ commitment to banning plastic – they searched our backpacks and binned all plastic, transferring our breakfast from it’s plastic bag into a paper one, and requesting that we eat our yogurts on the spot, or pick them up after the hike. The whole park was spotlessly clean – we saw very few bits of rubbish, and those we did see, we picked up and took with us.

Anyway, turns out Siva knows his stuff – once he’d driven us to the starting point of the walk, the clouds had lifted and we could see for miles over the rolling plains and cloud forest around us. We were excited to get going. Siva pointed us in the right direction and settled down for a nap, saying he’d see us back at the car around 9.30am.

6am and we’re off! Following the track snaking through the open plains, heading for the cloud forest

There were only about twenty or so hikers there for the dawn start, and soon everyone spread out enough that we rarely saw them, except as brightly coloured blobs in the distance. There’s nothing better than feeling like you have the whole landscape to yourselves, like you’re the only ones there. It’s so peaceful. Much better than plodding along behind crowds of people. There are definite advantages to traveling in the off-season.

The walk is high above sea level, taking you along open plains, past meandering rivers and through moss covered cloud forests. It wasn’t particularly challenging – there were a few uphill sections but mostly it was a beautiful trail through changing landscapes, just difficult and varied enough to keep it interesting.

The path through the cloud forest, Horton Plains, Sri Lanka

The best bit of the hike, and the reason for the early start, is a sheer cliff with a viewpoint called World’s End. We reached it about an hour into the walk, when the sky was still clear enough to show us a landscape of mountains and jungle stretching endlessly ahead.

Standing at the end of the world

We sat alone on the cliffs of World’s End and ate our breakfast sandwiches, just the little chipmunks for company. The cheeky little guys would come right up to us in hope of dropped breadcrumbs. One bit my finger, little bugger.

We spent half an hour or so just sitting there, taking it all in and knowing that there was nowhere else in the world we needed to be, nothing to hurry back to. We could just enjoy.

Horton Plains, Sri Lanka

Ella – Backpackers’ Paradise

It’s off-season in Sri Lanka, and the Easter bombing are still discouraging tourists; you can see the whole tourism industry here is suffering. Bearing that in mind, we were surprised at the crowds of fellow backpackers flocking to Ella.

Ella is a little mountain town to the south of Nuwara Eliya, another beautiful train ride away. We’d heard it was the place to be, every backpacker’s favourite spot in Sri Lanka… gorgeous mountain views, yoga retreats, and plenty of cheap places to eat and drink.

On reflection, we shouldn’t have been so taken aback by the bustling town – if there’s one kind of tourist most likely to be unfazed by the perceived dangers of a destination, it’s your backpacker. Most backpackers, us included, take the pragmatic view that this kind of thing can happen anywhere, at any time. Nowhere is safe, so go enjoy. Besides, backpackers don’t tend to stay in the posh hotels anyway… who’s going to target a £4 a night hostel?

The countryside around Ella, Sri Lanka

As I mentioned, Ella is known for being a mountain yoga retreat, and some of the places there definitely have that too-cool-for-school hipster vibe. Think smoothie bowls and drinking out of mason jars. I’ve never seen such a concentration of travel pants in one place – you know the ones I mean, the black and white elephant print, ‘I’ve-been-backpacking’ trousers. I think we actually saw just as many men in them as women. One guy even had it as a shirt, although the elephants were pink. Now that’s next level.

I think Ella was so busy because people tend to stay there for quite a few days – you just kind of pass through everywhere else, then slow down when you get to Ella. We bumped into a few backpackers we met in Sigiriya, plus an Australian girl we met on the plane… and then she bumped into some people she met in Malaysia… it’s definitely the backpacking hub of Sri Lanka. There’s very few hotels, it’s mostly guesthouses and hostels.

Breakfast with a view at Saddle Cottage, Ella

We stayed in a homestay called Saddle Cottage. It had stunning views out of the valley towards Ella Rock and the hosts cooked up a breakfast feast each morning. The weird thing was, you couldn’t actually access the house by road… you had to walk along the train tracks to get there, just hopping off the track if a train came by. We were very glad we had our backpacks – can you imagine trying to drag a suitcase along train tracks?

Cooking at Matey Hut

Before going to Ella we’d been told a few times that we absolutely must eat at Matey Hut, and also sign up for their cooking class. As Matey Hut was easily the most recommended place to eat in Ella, we were expecting it to the quite big. In fact, it’s a humble little shack on the side of the road. There’s about five tables. It looks like it’s held up by sticks. We looked at it and wondered what the fuss was about. We got a table and ordered… then we found out. The food was delicious, easily some of the best we’ve had in Sri Lanka. I had black pepper chicken and Blakey got the devilled vegetables. It was all delicious. We signed up to the cooking class on the spot. By the time we finished our food, it was pouring with rain. There was a queue of people out in the rain waiting for tables. I’m not sure I’d be that dedicated to be honest, although it was good.

Blakey cooking pumpkin curry, Matey Hut, Ella

The cooking class costs £10 each and runs twice a day, eight people per class. Every day it’s fully booked. It’s run by a very talented lady who’d bad side you would not want to be on. She definitely ruled the kitchen.

We learned how to make coconut roti, pumpkin curry, mango curry, banana curry, okra curry, eggplant curry (there’s a theme here…) and a coconut treacle desert. There was coconut in absolutely everything we made. Even the bread. If you don’t like coconut, Sri Lanka is maybe not the best place for you. By the time we’d finished the class, there was a mound of food in front of us. I don’t think anyone managed to finish their portion, but it tasted so good. It wasn’t until we were tucking into our dinner that I realised that everything we made was actually vegan. Who knew vegan food could be so tasty?

Ella Rock and Nine Arch Bridge

Ella is an amazing place to just chill out and enjoy good food, drink and company, but it’s also got a few lovely walks.

The first, and biggest, we did was Ella Rock. We got out and about early on our first day in Ella and set off down the train tracks. We’d heard that the locals around Ella were notorious for giving hikers confusing directions to the Rock, hoping you’d get yourself a bit lost and have to pay them to guide you. There were even a few signs saying ‘Ella Rock this way’ when we knew full well it wasn’t the right way… luckily we read up on it so we knew to ignore the signs and the enterprising locals. If you google ‘directions to Ella Rock’ you’ll find a blog called Atlas and Boots with really clear directions and pictures. We just followed that.

Views from half way up Ella Rock… just the hardest bit left to do!

The hike itself isn’t particularly challenging until you get to the first viewpoint. Before that it’s a beautiful walk along the tracks and up through a tea plantation, following the track through grass taller than your head, climbing steadily until you hit a rocky forest with excellent views across the hills.

After that it got much steeper and we began to struggle in the heat. Probably the cocktails we’d drank the previous night didn’t help. However, we finally made it to the top, and the views were just incredible. It’s well worth the effort. Just make sure you do it in the morning though – by afternoon the rain comes in and you’ll get soaked.

Views from the top of Ella Rock, Sri Lanka

The next day we went for a flat walk, and one with no prospect of getting lost. We went to see nine arch bridge, which is a railway bridge over a valley with, you guessed it, nine arches. Everyone seems to go see it and wait around to watch a train go over to get that all important Instagram photo. It’s dead easy to get to – just walk along the train tracks from Ella Station until you get there. Easy.

Nine Arch Bridge, Ella, Sri Lanka

On the way back we had to jump off the tracks a few times for trains, but this sounds much more dramatic than it actually is. They don’t go much faster than walking pace. You probably have time to take a selfie on the tracks with the train behind you and still wouldn’t get run over. We saw girls doing yoga on the tracks (only for a picture though, the frauds)… people with cameras on tripods so they can get a stupid couple pose in the tunnel mouth… we watched it all with mild contempt and much amusement, marvelling at the lengths people go to for the ‘gram. Mental.

Our photos might not be extreme, but at least they’re genuine!

Worth the trip?

You’ve got to visit the mountains if you go to Sri Lanka. Yes, the beaches are wonderful, but if you love beautiful scenery and nice hikes then head up to the hill country. It’s so cheap, so beautiful, so varied, and the weather is much cooler. There’s tea plantations, waterfalls, mountains, forests and great food. What more can you want?

5 comments

    1. Hey Christy! The plastic ban is only in Horton Plains, and only single use. We had plastic water bottles and were allowed to keep them. you can definitely take plastic anywhere else in Sri Lanka. In fact there’s a lot of plastic rubbish scattered around, it surprised me a lot actually, especially in the other national parks.

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