Ella – the tourist ‘capital’ of the Up Country

Ella is one of the top destinations in Sri Lanka and the star of the incredibly picturesque Tea Country. Arguably, there are other destinations in the Up Country which are more scenic and more pleasant. Ella caters mostly to the Western tourists, so it’s hard to find something for the backpacker’s budget. The attractions such as Ella Rock, Little Adam’s Peak or Nine Arch Bridge are worth stopping by. However, nothing can beat the views on the train line between Ella and Badulla.

A view from Ella Rock at Ella town, sprawling over green, rolling hills
Ella, as seen from Ella Rock

From Tangalle to Ella

We got to know we could take a 4 hours express bus from Tangalle to Ella for around 250 rupees. The bus we happened to board was ‘semi-luxurious ‘, though it was hard to tell the difference. Unwilling to pay double the amount, we got off at the nearest stop, in Ranna. Government buses to Kataragama or Tisssamaharama were pulling at the stop every 5 minutes. We boarded the bus to Tissa (the gateway to Yala National Park) which was empty and super fast. It was a scenic route, leading along Bundala National Park, lagoons and salt fields. In Tissa, we waited 40 minutes for a local bus to Thanamalvila where we immediately changed for a direct bus to Ella. There was a 30 minutes break at Wellawaya bus stand so altogether the bus journey was 6.5 hours long but it cost only 280 rupees. Conclusion? Make sure the bus you’re going to take isn’t semi-luxurious!

Ella on a budget

We chose bad timing for going to Ella. It was Sri Lankan’s Independence Day (4th Feb), so the usual crowds of foreign tourists got doubled with the local ones. Afraid we won’t find a free room, we booked the cheapest accommodation on Booking.com. It was a 2100 rupees, modest room one kilometre outside the centre. This was the most expensive room we paid for in Sri Lanka. The host told us she could put a price down but it was still too high for our liking.

The Ella Gap in the centre of the town was full of posh restaurants and fancy cafes and bars. The simplest food joint with one plastic table served rice and veg curry for… 300 rupeees. After a bit of bargaining, we lowered the price to 200, which was still overpriced for Sri Lankan standards.

In the evening, we went up towards the train station and kept on asking the prices of various foods at simple eateries and shops. All prices were at least double the normal! At the very end of Ella town we saw a rickety street stall with an elderly couple preparing hoppers for bus drivers. Fifty rupees for hoppers with dal sounded reasonable. We got five hoppers and a large plate of dal. When it came to paying, the seller asked us for 250 rupees. We looked at him in disbelief. How could it possibly be 250 if the price for one hopper was 10 rupees? I asked. He grudgingly agreed on 150 rupees.

In a word, if you don’t like paying more than necessary and don’t like touristic places, simply skip Ella. You can easily see all attractions in one day visiting by train or bus from a more peaceful place nearby, such as Haputale.

Note on the weather

After spending a few months on the coast, the mornings and evenings in the Up Country felt chilly. It was time to take out a fleece. The daytime temperatures were still pleasantly warm. You can expect some rain as well at time of the year (winter).

Author in a rainproof jacket standing on Little Adam's Peak. The mountain behind hidden in the mist.
Ella can get chilly and rainy in the wintertime

Ella’s attractions

Nine Arch Bridge

We started our explorations with Nine Arch Bridge which was a short walk from our accommodation. There was a well-marked pedestrian shortcut to the bridge a little bit below the turn to the Little Adam’s Peak. We walked in a single file with dozens of other people through a pine forest. After 15 minutes we saw the bridge.

A tall, stone railway viaduct full of tourists spanning over a deep, green ravine
Nine Arch Bridge

A pretty, tall railway viaduct was spanning over a deep ravine covered with tea gardens. Sadly, the bridge was swarming with tourists. The only way to take a good photo was to take very steep, narrow paths leading down between the tea shrubs. We were waiting patiently for a train to pass by, but it seemed the train was really late. As it was getting dark and cold, we gave up waiting for the train.

Author standing among tea shrubs undereath a railway viaduct called Nine Arch Bridge in Ella
Te gardens underneath the Nine Arch Bridge

Little Adam’s Peak

It was rainy next morning, so we went only to Little Adam’s Peak. At 8 am, when we started the walk, many people were going down but few coming up. The road was well marked and led picturesquely through the tea gardens. At first, it was concrete but in the last section, it became a proper, steep hiking path, requiring even a bit of scrambling.

Sayak on the path through a tea garden in Ella
Tea gardens on the way to Little Adam’s Peak

The views were great and a little bit of mist was only adding the scene more character. After climbing the first peak, we noticed the path led steeply up and down to the second and the third one.

View at the tea gardens and rocky mountains covered with greenery on the way to Little Adam's Peak in Ella
On the way to Little Adam’s Peak

We reached only till the second peak when the rain drove us back. We had a good view at the Ravana Falls in the distance. By the time we came back home our trousers and jackets were dripping wet.

Mist-covered mountains and Little Adam's Peak in Ella
The view from the second to the third peak on Little Adam’s Peak

Ella Rock

We visited Ella Rock from Haputale, a quieter town where we stayed for a couple of days. Unlike the visit to Little Adam’s Peak, it was a glorious, hot, sunny day. We took a bus from Haputale to Bandarawela and changed to a bus to Kital Ella. From the bus stop, it was a short walk down to Kital Ella train station.

Most of the people climbing Ella Rock walk for around 1 hour along the rail tracks from Ella to Kital Ella to the start of the hiking route. We didn’t need to do it- the hiking route was just a few minutes walk from the station. There was no shade on the rail tracks, so we were quite happy we didn’t need to walk that way.

A forest of miniature trees on the way to Ella Rock
The shortcut to Ella Rock was empty

After the station, there was a sharp curve to the left and slighltly backwards. Just after that, we crossed a bridge and saw many signs showing the path to Ella Rock. We used Maps.me app to get on top of Ella Rock. There is really no need to take a guide- with quite high volume of people even if you don’t have Maps.me you can simply follow others.

We followed the shortcut sign which was compatible with one of the routes on Maps.me. It was a good choice since it was not only the fastest but also the most empty of the paths. The main ‘highway’ up the top was unpleasantly congested. Instead, we walked through some shrubs and woods until meeting the ‘highway’ for the last very steep section up.

The crowded Ella Rock was a bit of a disappointment. We could see only a sharp-ended verdant green mountain right in front, Ella town to the left and some other green hills around.

Author admires a view at sharp, green covered mountains from Ella Rock
On Ella Rock

Maps. me showed a path to the right of the Ella Rock towards another viewpoint. Luckily, most of the people had no idea about it. After a very short walk along the ridge through a lovely eucalyptus forest, we reached a better viewpoint than Ella Rock. We could see the plains below, as well as Ravana falls to the right.

Author sitting at the rocky outcrop with expansive views over a green valley near Ella Rock in Sri Lanka
The second viewpoint after Ella Rock

Maps.me was showing a tempting path to the top of Ravana falls but we heard from a local guide it’s easy to lose the track. Instead, we took a long way down, passing by lots of view points and finishing at the Ravana Cave.

Ravana Cave

As most of the people walk up and down from Kital Ella station, the path we chose, was once again empty. After crossing some shrubs, we passed by a tea plantation and came out into the open space. At times, the path was narrow and overgrown, but easy enough to follow. Eventually, a small path reached a concrete way leading up to Ravana Cave and Ravana Temple.

Expansive views at rugged peaks in the background and green hills over which Ella town spreads
Views at Ella from a path leading to Ravana Cave

Steep stairs led to the Ravana Cave. The cave relates to Indian epic Ramayana: supposedly it was used by King Ravana to hide the abducted Princess Sita. As the entrance fee was 150 LKR and there wasn’t anything in particular to see, we didn’t bother climbing up. We did have a look at a place marded as Ravana Temple, which inexplicably was a Buddhist cave temple, with a painted ceiling and a reclining Buddha inside. Neither Google maps nor Maps.me showed the shortcut to the main road. However, it is possible to go straight down to the road using steps and some narrow paths between the houses. From there, we caught a local bus to Ella.

A cave with sculpures of Buddha and painted ceiling
The Ravana Temple looked more like the Buddha Cave to me

The Ravana Falls, are fully visible from the road if you arrive from Wellawala direction. The 25 metres high waterfall would be very picturesque if not for the proximity of the road and dozens of people swarming at the little pool at the bottom of it. I’d advise to let it pass or visit at a very early hour. There are plenty better waterfalls in Up Country such as Diyaluma Falls (for swimming) or St. Claire Falls (just for admiring).

25 meters Ravana Falls cascading down the rocks and a crowd of tourists standing right across one of its cascades.
Ravana Falls are always full of people

Train from Ella

We took the famous Ella-Badulla train route in instalments. To start with, we covered only a short distance between Ella and Haputale, then we moved on from Haputale to Nanu Oya and, finally we covered the last bit between Nanu Oya and Kandy. I’ll cover this journey in a separate post.


How to get to Ella?

From the coast:
A direct bus no. 31 goes from Matara or Tangalle (destination Bandarawela). It’s 4h from Tangalle. You could also get to Ella by local buses from Tissa, changing at Thanamalvila.

From Kandy:
If you’re coming from Kandy, make sure you take a train, the route is absolutely beautiful. It’s a long, 7 hours journey so you might consider stopping at Nanu Oya (for Nuwara Eliya) first (4h).

Keep in mind Ella is very spread out and the centre with the bus stand and the train station is many kilometers away from all the attractions.

Prices in Ella [in Sri Lankan rupees as of February 2019]:

2100 double room with bathroom near Little Adam’s Peak
300 official price for buffet lunch at the cheapest eatery at Ella Gap (negotiable to 200)
250 bus Tangalle to Ella
150 entrance to Ravana Cave
37 bus Haputale to Bandarawela and Bandarawela to Kittel Ella
35 train from Ella to Haputale (3rd class)
14 bus Ravana Caves to Ella Gap

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