Which National Park best to see in the cultural triangle and how much does it cost?
There are plenty of National Parks in the cultural triangle. The most famous one is Minneriya National Park between Habarana and Polonnaruwa. A bit less known is Kaudulla National Park and least known Hurulu Eco Park just north of Habarana.
Which National Park is the best to see elephants is a question that has to be answered by a local guide the time of your stay here in Sri Lanka. That sounds a bit odd, I know, but: None of the National Parks is actually fenced off. The elephants room around freely in the wilderness and it depends on their access to water where they go to. After heavy prolonged rain they usually find water everywhere and they will stay in the jungle. No need to go to any big lakes, as for example the Minneriya Lake. But if there wasn’t any proper rain for a month or two and the water holes and little lakes have dried up, then the elephants need to go to a lake. The area around the Minneriya Lake is declared National Park, so in dry season at around July, August usually the lake is full of elephants taking a bath in the lake. During the dry season it’s difficult to find elephants outside Minneriya National Park, also because Kaudulla Lake won’t have enough water to attract them. After heavy prolonged rain though the elephants don’t go to Minneriya National Park. At that time it might be that you spot none to only a handful in Minneriya NP. Elephants would retreat to Kaudulla or just linger in the wilderness. At that time of the year (usually January to March and May, June) you can spot elephants easily off the main road. Just catch a local guide in a tuktuk to show you the elephants, no need to pay for a national park, as you will see more elephants outside than inside. So that’s why you had to ask the local guides where the elephants are at the time of your visit. At some time it might be necessary to catch a jeep and go inside the national parks, at other times you might spot the mighty animals just off the road. And there is no fix rule like “It’s July, elephants are for sure in Minneriya National Park”, if it rained the last couple of weeks… It always depends on the current and most recent weather.
Oh yeah, and when it’s raining elephants withdraw into the shelter of the jungle. You won’t spot any, neither in the national parks nor outside. So don’t go on a safari on a rainy day… And usually you’ll see more elephants in the afternoon than morning. The safaris start about 3pm, elephants come out of the jungle towards the main roads (if you want to take a tuk tuk and spot them off the road) after 4pm.
How much does it cost?
The prices for the Minneriya and Kaudulla National Park can be found on the official government page of t.he Department of Wildlife Conservation: Pricelist of Department of Wildlife Conservation. Park Fees are subject to change without further notice. Usually on top of the park fee comes another Group Service Charge, which is currently Rs. 1500 (per group). Hurulu is not a National Park officially. That’s why it’s a lot cheaper. The admission fee is only Rs. 1.000 per person, but then there is a fee for the jeep and jeep admission fee as well.
Be also aware that in addition to that still comes the price of the jeep, which will be between Rs 4.000 to 6.000 usually (depending on demand). And maybe a tuktuk ride to the National Park as well (from Dambulla they charge about Rs. 2.000 for a return trip incl. waiting time). It’s recommended to catch a tuktuk, because there are less buses in the early evening and you might have to wait long for a next bus back. So in general if you are two people, you would be facing about 10.000-12.000 Rs. if you do a jeep safari inside the Minneriya National Park. If you are on a tight budget and still want to see elephants in the wilderness opt for a tuktuk tour to spot the elephants off the road. Tuktuk drivers from Dambulla charge about Rs. 2500 return. And they try to show you as many elephants as possible, not just the first and then turn around. They drive the roads up and down, but it still depends on luck if you only spot one or two or if you happen to bump into a big herd and see 30 or more of the wild beauties.