Kalpitiya: a dolphin- watching and kite-surfing paradise

Kalpitiya is a tiny, sleepy town on the western coast of Sri Lanka, located just a few hours drive from Negombo airport. It is situated at the end of a narrow peninsula, wedged between saline Puttalam Lagoon and the ocean. Its unique location makes it a top-class kite-surfing destination and a perfect spot for dolphin and whale safaris. Kalpitiya itself is a good few kilometres away from the coast, lying at the lagoon. It has some Dutch-era monuments, remnants of the days it was far more significant. Although not a great beach destination, Kalpitiya has surprisingly much to offer.

A woman with her daughter enter their hut weaved from palm leaves in Kalpitiya

Why to visit Kalpitiya?

We were confused about how to spend the last four days in Sri Lanka. Eventually, we decided to take it easy and spend three days at the coast, in Kalpitiya. Most of all, we wanted to see the dolphins. I was also hoping for birdwatching in Puttalam Lagoon and simply enjoying the sea once more.

A donkey walking alone on an empty tarmac along a palm-leaf fence in Kalpitiya, Sri Lanka
There are plenty of half wild donkeys roaming around in Kalpitiya

It turned out Kalpitiya isn’t great for enjoying the beach. However, if you’d like to spend some quiet time in the Sri Lankan countryside, it’s a great place to go. You could watch the donkeys roaming the empty streets and admire splendid sunsets. If you are willing to spend more money, plenty of activities such as diving and kite-surfing will keep you busy. 

Kalpitiya on a budget

Kalpitiya is a very affordable destination in terms of accommodation and food. However, the lack of public transport between Kalpitiya and the coast makes it rather inconvenient, especially long-term. Kalpitiya town lies at the Puttalam Lagoon. Kudawa beach is 5.5km away. Uncharacteristically for Sri Lanka, there is no public transport getting there. You might catch a shared truck to Kudawa, which still leaves over a kilometre walk. The buses ply only the main road along the lagoon. It’s 3.5km to the beach at the shortest distance across the land stretch between the main road and the sea.

The author kneels meditating on a porch of a simple accommodation in Sri Lanka
A moment for meditation on the verandah of our basic but comfy room in Kalpitiya

We stayed just outside Kalpitiya in a very cheap but decent accommodation. The only downside was no wi-fi. The guesthouse was just 400 meters from the bus station and a short walk from the lagoon. Kalpitiya has a few budget eateries, but the only shop is rather rudimentary.

A close-up of a man placing filling into dough rolls at a budget eatery in Sri Lanka
Rotis made right in front of the customers at a budget eatery in Kalpitiya

Kalpitiya attractions

Kalpitya surprised us for being very low key. There were hardly any tourists or tourist infrastructure. On the way between Puttalam and Kalpitiya, we passed by saltaries, plenty of coconut plantations and semi-arid zones. Many of the houses were just huts weaved from the dry palm leaves. Palm leaves made also good fences. We saw a couple of donkeys roaming around- apparently- half-wild ones, brought centuries ago from the Middle East by the Arab traders.

A yellow tower of a temple looms in between of coconut palm trees across a salty lagoon in Kalpitiya
Shallow lagoons on the Puttalam-Kalpitiya road

Dutch-era monuments

We spent our first day exploring Kalpitiya town. We started with the Dutch Reformed Church ( St Peter’s Kerk), built in 1706It is a smaller version of a similar church in Matara. Take a moment to look at its austere interior with tombstones on the floor. Outside you can see the original belfry and a couple of Dutch tombs. 

A 17th century Dutch church with white columns and a tiled roof with a few stone tombs on a graveyards
Dutch Church in Kalpitiya

The Dutch Fort, now used by the navy, dominates the townscape. It is the oldest structure in town, completed in 1676. It could be visited for free with a navy guide after leaving passports as a deposit. Although we didn’t have them with us, we were still let in. Inside, you can see the ruins of a fake church, built by the Dutch to conceal the military purpose of the building from the king of Kandy. There is also a skeleton of a whale within the grounds. The guide would surely tell you about the secret tunnels connecting the fortress to the Reformed Church and the sea. 

Roofless ruins of a church within the Dutch fortress in Kalpitiya
Ruins of a fake church inside the Dutch Fort

In the afternoon, we went for a short walk to the lagoon to see the sunset. We weren’t disappointed. The large, orange sun disappeared within minutes behind a peninsula covered with coconut palms. Unfortunately, I couldn’t spot any wading birds in the lagoon.

An outline of coconut palms and a fisherman on a boat against the orange sky and a setting sun in Puttalam Lagoon, Kalpitiya
Picture-perfect sunset at the Puttalam Lagoon

Kudawa and Kandakuliya Beach

The next day it was thankfully cloudy in the morning. It allowed us to walk 5.5 km through the desolate, arid landscape (unfortunately, full of garbage) without much discomfort. After getting just a few glimpses of the lagoon and seeing some mangroves, we finally reached the sea. It was surprisingly calm, especially comparing with the rough sea on the south coast.

Mangroves growing on the salty waters of lagoon in Kalpitiya
Mangroves between the sea and the lagoon

We wanted to walk along a narrow strip of sand dividing the sea and the lagoon. However, it turned out that it was impossible to see water on both sides simultaneously. Low dunes were obscuring the view.

Turquoise waters of the sea at Kudawa beach
Kudawa beach

The beach was empty and looked rather dirty. The main Kudawa beach, closest to Kudawa village, was used mainly by the fishermen and was full of dead fish (discarded from the nets). A small cove seemed safe to swim, but there was nowhere to spread our towels. We kept on walking to check what lies further on. Four wave-breakers situated perpendicularly to the shore created four small swimming pools. Yet, the problem was finding any spot in the shadow. The only available palms had some ashes and burned garbage underneath.

A Sri Lankan fisherman immersed waist-deep in water shouts as he throws in the air a net
Fishing in the lagoon

We walked past all the wave breakers to Kandakuliya beach recommended on Trip Advisor. It was a place where a narrow peninsula was surrounded from three sides by water, one being an open lagoon. A few Sri Lankans were bathing in the sea and we saw quite a few guesthouses in the palm grove on the other side of the mini lagoon. Yet, it was an exposed spot with no shred of shadow. We were too tired to go back or search any further, so I used my creativity. I saw one dead tree with branches sticking out in various directions and used one of our towels as an umbrella It provided enough shadow for us to sit comfortably underneath.

The author lies down under a make-shift shade on the beach in Kalpitiya
Make shift umbrella

The water in the lagoon was very shallow and full of crabs and snails. The open sea was very calm, secured from one side by another peninsula and shallow for a very long distance. It would be perfect for families with children, provided they have their umbrella. Altogether, it was the most pleasant stretch of the beach. The only annoying thing about it was that all the fishermen boats had to pass by through a narrow channel at the tip of the peninsula to get to the open sea. Apart from the fishermen and kite-surfers far in the sea, we were alone.

A long, empty stretch of sandy beach lined with coconut palms
Deserted stretch of Kudawa beach

We waited until 4 pm to make our way back and this time tried to walk to the Kurinchanpitiya bus stop as we had to get more water. The road led through villages, but there still wasn’t enough shade. It took us 1 hour 10 minutes to walk to Kudawa beach in the morning and 50 minutes to get to the bus stop in the afternoon. Thankfully, we didn’t need to wait long. The bus fare was 14 rupees.

Dolphin watching in Kalpitiya

We were waiting anxiously and impatiently for the news from our guesthouse owner, who was trying to find a few more people to share the cost of a dolphin watching trip. His boat hire was cheaper than the competitors (10 000 LKR), but as foreigners, we had to buy also a special permit for $10.

The following morning, we finally got a green light: a Sri Lankan family was willing to join us for the dolphin tour bringing the total cost for each of us to $23.50. There was no free pick up, so we followed the advice of the owner’s son to catch a shared truck to Kudawa. We managed to wave down one carrying a group of tourists from Colombo, but they kindly made space for us. We paid just 40 LKR each and got dropped off at Kandakuliya village, just a one-kilometre walk from Kudawa beach, where the trip was starting.

We set off at around 9.40 am, which was late- most of the tours start around 7 am. Although it wasn’t our preferred time of departure, it was actually good for us. We were the only tourist boat within sight for the entire duration of the trip, even though there are a dozen or more in operation in Kalpitiya. It made it much more dolphin-friendly for sure.

A small pod of dolphins seen in the distance in Kalpitiya
A whole pod of dolphins approaching

The sea was calm, so there was no question of getting sea-sick. It took our guesthouse owner and an ex-navy – also involved in dolphin and snorkelling tours as well as diving- almost one hour to spot the pod of dolphins. There weren’t hundreds or thousands of them as we were hoping for, but we didn’t complain. Our previous experience with dolphins was limited to seeing them from land in Fort William in Scotland and spotting a few from a large boat on a whale-watching trip in Mirissa. Neither of those sightings could compare to the unforgettable experience we had in Kalpitiya.

A spinner dolphin spinning in the air high above water off Sri Lankan coast
Spinner dolphins, as the name suggests, can spin in the air

At first, we saw dolphins in the distance, maybe 50 or 80 of them. Soon, the boat reduced the speed almost to a standstill. I was allowed to sit on the prow to have a better look. The dolphins, being quite friendly and curious creatures, swam in front and alongside our boat. The water was clear enough to see them very well under the water. We could hear them breathing out. If I wanted, I could reach out my arm and touch them. Those were spinner dolphins, famous for their ability to spin in the air around their axis. We saw quite a few of them doing those acrobatics, others simply jumping over water.

Three dolphins swim along the boat in Kalpitiya, Sri Lanka
Dolphins are curious and enjoy following the boat, at least for some time

Later, we moved closer to two fishermen boats. Their presence meant there were fish around, so dolphins must have been busy with fishing. We saw them from a distance, all swimming in a row, taking sudden turns and making water turbulent. No doubt they were hunting. We must have spent at least 40 minutes watching the dolphins until the boatmen asked if we had enough. I could have stayed longer but didn’t want to disturb them any further, so we turned back. The entire trip took just above two hours.

Two dolphins peak their heads and dorsal fins out of the water during dolphin watching trip in Kalpitiya
It’s not even zoomed in. The dolphins really are that close to the boat

As we were already on the beach, I had another swim. Then, we started a long walk back in the midday sun. We were lucky, though. I saw a car coming out of a resort and waved it down. It turned out to be a Uber driver from Negombo, coming back after dropping his customer. He was happy to give us a lift to Kalpitiya in his air-conditioned car.

The author soaks in the view of the lagoon in Kalpitiya at sunset
Admiring the sunset at Puttalam lagoon

We didn’t have much more to do for the rest of the day. In the evening, we saw one more lovely sunset over the lagoon and had a walk through a village. We were very happy that we swapped the ruins of Anuradhapura for the dolphin watching as it was no doubt one of the highlights of our stay in Asia. Please bear in mind that the best season for dolphin watching is from November to March/April.

Other (more expensive) things to do in Kalpitiya

Kalpitiya has the largest coral reef in Sri Lanka (Bar Reef), though sadly it is mostly bleached. Unfortunately, to snorkel there, you need to hire a boat as it’s a few kilometres away from the shore. Just with dolphin watching, you share a boat with six people, and buy the Wild Life Ticket ($10). In the season, especially in March and April, you could also see sperm whales off the coast. 

A kite surfer on the water in Kalpitiya
Kalpitiya is a top-class kite-surfing destination


If you have a high budget, there are a couple of diving school in Kalpitiya. You could also learn or practice kite-surfing here. Mind, it’s not a cheap sport! The best time for kite-surfing is from May to October or in the winter season from November/December to February.

From Kalpitiya to Negombo

From the bus station, we took a bus to Palavi junction. We could have taken a direct bus to Negombo but thought it would be nicer to take a train from Palavi. We had our lunch there and waited for a while for a ‘mixed train’ at a tiny station. It arrived 20 minutes late and, as expected, was empty. The first half of the journey was enjoyable. At some point, everybody left the train. One passenger told us that we have to get off and change the train. The second train was a small suburbian kind, with two rows of hard, plastic chairs facing each other. The train stopped many times, so the journey turned out to be a long and tiring one.

Sayak sits alone in a compartnment of a third class train from Palavi to Negombo
Completely empty train from Palavi to Negombo

We arrived in Negombo around 5.30 pm. It was too late to visit Negombo beach. We checked in a nearby guesthouse and enquired about the bus to the airport at the nearby bus stop. Our guesthouse owner was hoping we would use his 600 rupee tuk-tuk service to get to the airport. He lied, saying the buses start running at 7 am and it takes one hour to the Negombo airport. Even taking a taxi with a Pick me’ app would be cheaper: 400-450 rupees. The bus no.240 runs from 6 am, every 15 minutes, and the journey takes just 35 minutes. The ticket price? 30 rupees. The only downside is that the bus terminates 1.2 km from the airport.

After long 2.5 months, it was time to say goodbye to Sri Lanka. We were heading to Chennai, in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

PRACTICALITES

How to get to Kalpitiya?
Kalpitiya isn’t a straightforward destination. Wherever you travel from, you would need to pass by Puttalam or Palavi.
There is a train station in Palavi so you could arrive there by train from Colombo (4h) or Negombo (3h). This journey involves a train change. You can’t miss it- you just follow the crowd when everybody leaves the train.
The second option is a bus. It’s 4.5h on a direct bus from Colombo, 3h from Negombo and 2h from Anuradhapura to Puttalam. In Puttalam (or in Palavi) you can change for the bus to Kalpitiya.
Keep in mind Kalpitiya town is quite far away from Kudawa beach. The closest you can get by public transport is taking a shared jeep (whenever it fills up) from Palavi-Kalpitiya road to Kudawa. You could also walk from the beach to the main road and catch any bus passing by.

Prices [in Sri Lankan rupees as of February 2019]

$10 wildlife ticket for foreigners (for any dolphin/whale watching or snorkelling trip)
10 000 cheapest boat hire for 6 people
1440 accommodation in Negombo (near the bus station)
1080 accommodation in Kalpitiya (town)
160 buffet lunch at a cheap eatery in Kalpitiya town
168 SEMI LUXURIOUS bus Anuradhapura – Puttalam
115 3rd class train Palavi to Negombo
80 shared van Kalpitiya town to the beach
76 bus Kalpitiya to Palavi
30 bus Negombo bus station to the airport
30 sweet bun

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