Best Time to Visit Sri Lanka

In terms of climate, Sri Lanka has a more complicated cycle with two monsoons approaching the country from opposite directions at different times of the year, however overall it is almost always a good time to visit at least half of the country. Nearly all of the National Parks are open year-round, and those that close only do so for a short time.  Average daytime temperatures are in the mid-twenties (centigrade) and rarely get above thirty-five, the humidity can at times make it seem hotter. To cool down one simply heads for the hills or the coast. Rain is brought to the South and West coast regions and the central highlands between May and July by the southwest monsoon. The dry season here is from December to March. The North and East of the island are affected by the northeast monsoon from October to January, the dry season is from May to September. However even in the ‘dry’ season some rain can be expected, and sunny days are experienced during the monsoons.  And with four major religions it is not surprising that there are no less than 25 public holidays throughout the year, there is always something to see!

January – The north eastern monsoon is normally petering out by early-January meaning less rainfall in Yala, Uda Walawe, Kumana, Wilpattu and Minneriya and better access to the network of unsealed tracks inside the National Parks. This is a great time to go trekking in ‘tea country’, and early risers will be rewarded with the best mountain views between mid-January and early April, and still amongst the prime months to enjoy the beaches and watersports around the south western coasts (Dec to Mar). On the full moon (Poya) day, the Duruthu Perahera is held annually just outside Colombo, with drummers, dancers and an elephant procession, second only to the Kandy Esala Perahera in July/ August.

February – An excellent month, comfortably between the two monsoon systems, meaning you can be on safari at a great time for leopards, elephants and birds at Yala and Wilpattu, enjoy a whale and dolphin watching trip from Mirissa or Kalpitiya, go trekking in Sinharaja Rainforest or the Knuckles Mountain Range and explore the cultural triangle in comfort. After all that, it is still a good time to enjoy relaxation on the south and west coasts, including snorkelling and a chance to observe the overlapping nesting seasons of olive ridley (Nov-Mar) and green sea turtles (Feb-Apr); the hawksbill, leatherback and loggerheads are seen in the water but not their nest sites are much scarcer. Independence Day is celebrated nationally on the 4th.

March – Like February, March is a good month to be able to combine all of the best of Sri Lankan wildlife (terrestrial and marine), cultural citadels, and the south west coast. It also remains a good time for hill walking above Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, or enjoying a panoramic viewpoint with your sundowners. For the more adventurous, the pilgrimage route to Adams Peak/ Samanalakande is best scheduled as a night-time ascent to experience the sunrise (Dec-May), or a more leisurely guided birding walk in the forests of Sinharaja (best Jan-Mar and Aug/ Sep). Don’t forget, as in all other months throughout the island, in Sri Lanka you can also expect a little rainfall between sunny spells!

April – April can be the most balanced time climatically, enjoying lots of sunshine before the arrival of the south west (Yala) monsoon that brings rain the south west coast and central highlands (May to July). In mid-April Sinhala Avurudu (Sinhala and Tamil New Year) is celebrated by both Hindus, and Buddhists and the exact time is governed by the lunar calendar according to sighting of the new moon. The festivities vary locally, from lighting of oil lamps, seeking blessings, drum playing, and of course offering and eating sweet treats. This is also traditionally the time to look and listen out for the Asian Koel (a type of cuckoo), the New Year coincides with their mating season.

May – Vesak is celebrated across the island for the birth, death and enlightenment anniversary of the Buddha on the full moon in May, being as important as Christmas for the unenlightened! This is the start of the true dry season at Yala, Wilpattu, Uda Walawe, Minneriya and Kaudulla, so a good time to look for a variety of mammals. A highlight can be sloth bears feeding on berries from the Sri Lankan Palu and Weera trees and even becoming tipsy as the fallen berries ferment (fruits May to July), the fruits are also enjoyed by bats, civets, monkeys and birds.

June – While the south-west monsoon is bringing rain to the central highlands and south-western coast (May to July), this is time to switch to the eastern coast for your R&R; you can try snorkelling, surfing or just relaxing near Arugam Bay and Passekudah, and even whale and dolphin spotting trips (Apr-Sep) from ‘Trinco’. Before any influx of summer package holiday makers, this is one of our favourite times to look for leopards, sloth bears, elephants and crocodiles at Yala and Wilpattu, plus the cultural cities are at their best in this dry spell (May-Sep) and to stretch your legs; the Knuckles Range sees less rain than the central highlands. The southern and western coasts don’t need to be avoided, there will be still be dry days between showers, just use the swimming pool rather than the ocean for your laps.

July – Across the island average temperatures fluctuate around 30deg.C, cooler in the hills and warmer in the cultural triangle. It remains a peak time for leopard sightings at Yala and Wilpattu and for larger herds of wild elephants at Uda Walawe, Minneriya and Kaudulla. Again, for any beach stays the east coast is at it’s best, from Arugam Bay up to Trincomalee. As July progresses the south west monsoon gradually recedes, with more clear sunny days enjoyed on the south-western coasts, though intermittent showers can still be expected here through August too.

August – The Esala Poya is celebrated across the island around the full moon in late July or early August, most notably with the Kandy Esala Perahera, a 10 day festival with decorated elephant processions, dancing and drummers. Also near Yala, the Kataragama festival sees an influx of pilgrims and devotees from all faiths, with two-weeks of chanting, drumming, decorated shrines, and some performing various acts of penance (not for the faint-hearted). The dry-spell means it’s a great time to look for predators picking out their prey near the dwindling waterholes at Yala and Wilpattu, and for the gathering of elephant herds at Kaudulla and Minneriya.

September – Yala sees the peak of dry and arid conditions and typically closes for 4 weeks to allow the wildlife to roam more freely in search of water and limit the supply needed by human visitors. However it is still a good time to visit the east coast beaches, also Wilpattu and the ancient citadels north of Kandy like Sigiriya, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. It is perhaps the best time for ‘the gathering’, when more than 300 elephants from different herds come together near the Minneriya reservoir to drink and graze on the green shoots that appear as the ‘tank’ recedes (July to October).

October – This can be the most unpredictable month in terms of climate. We eventually see the start of the north-east (Maha) monsoon, bringing much needed rain to the north and eastern areas. But there can still be some storms as the south-west monsoon finally departs. You can expect generally lower temperatures and higher winds everywhere, so swimming from the beaches is not recommended. Adventure seekers can consider kitesurfing at Kalpitiya, or rafting on the Kelani River. October sees the first incomers of the many migratory bird species, for wildlife lovers we would suggest heading to Wilpattu, Uda Walawe and Bundala.

November – With a potential final sting in the tail of the outgoing southwest monsoon at the same time as the northeast monsoon is becoming established. November can be one of the wettest months; particularly in the hills, the cultural triangle and along the east coast. ‘Normally’ the second half of the month sees better conditions than the earlier weeks, and increasingly stable sunny conditions beginning from the southwest coast. Head towards Induruwa, Hikkaduwa and Tangalle for the chance to see Olive Ridley turtles coming ashore, Kalpitiya for dolphins from the lagoon and combine Uda Walawe and Bundala for the abundance of resident and migratory birds (plus the wonderful elephants!). The Deepavali (Diwali) ‘festival of lights’ falls between late October and mid-November, with homes lit with oil lamps, fireworks and sweet-treats, a lot like Christmas/ Halloween and bonfire night combined over three days.

December – Although we feel it’s not yet one the best months for wildlife, one very major highlight is the start of the prime season for whale watching (Nov-Apr) from Mirissa, with more stable sea conditions and clear sunny skies it’s a great time to enjoy the south and west coasts both for humans and blue whales. Rain is still to be expected in Yala, Uda Walawe and Wilpattu, but not everyday and often only for a short downpour before the sun bursts through again, any mammal sightings will feature a particularly lush green backdrop, and the spectacular birdlife is now at its best. It remains cooler in the hills, even seeing a crisp morning frost, and although the rain may not have ended mountain views are generally clearing as the month progresses.

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