If you’re looking for crazy rooftop dance parties, thousands of backpackers gathering together at tourist attractions and a Big Mac while you’re traveling…stay away from Sri Lanka. This island nation just off of India’s coast is stunning, lush and in the throes of a huge development upswing, following a bloody civil war that ended in 2009. It still feels authentic, untouched, and often difficult to navigate. Unlike many Asian countries to its east, Sri Lanka doesn’t have a great backpacking infrastructure–there are few hostels (although that’s changing), meaning you can’t expect to show up in every city and meet other travelers.

Highlights

Elephant Safari in Minneriya National Park – for those who dream of going on safari but can’t quite stomach the price tag, make sure to go on this two/three hour safari. You’ll hop in an open air jeep to tour around this national park. Although you might see some other animals, like water buffalo or bison, you’ll be able to get up close and personal to the hundreds of elephants that are roaming around.

Pidurangala Rock – Most travel sites talk about Sigiriya, a rock that once housed an ancient city fortress. Sigiriya is impressive, and boasts some of the oldest examples of gardens and urban planning–but it’s also super crowded. Head to the nearby Pidurangala rock, which involves more hiking/scrambling and has a fraction of the visitors. You’ll have much of the rock to yourself, with a perfect view of the famous Sigiriya in the distance.

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Lowlights 

Travel Time – Everything in Sri Lanka goes at your grandma-cooking-her-special-soup pace…slow, but worth the wait. Only certain trains offers pre-purchasable, first class tickets. Others can’t be purchased online, and must be purchased on site at the train station, but they sell out days in advance, meaning that you might need to spend an extra few days just waiting to get out. Those who are poor in time and rich in cash, feel free to donate to this website, and also use a private driver to speed things up. That said, some of the most stunning parts of Sri Lanka are viewed by train. So just slow down.

Communication – People in Sri Lanka are generally friendly, welcoming, and have huge miles. Most aren’t great at English, though, even in the tourism industry.

Eat

Kottu – This simple dish made from chopped roti (flat breads) are usually mixed with egg, cheese, meat and spices.

Smoothies – Try the smoothies. The jury is still out on “to eat the smoothie made with tap water” or “to NOT eat the smoothie made with tap water,” but we all drank up and are still alive and well.

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Know Before You Go 

Backpackers – If you are looking for fellow travelers, think about starting your journey in Kandy, one of the more touristed cities, and stay at the Kandy City Hostel.

Timing 

You can see the majority of the island in three weeks.

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