The sun is setting, casting an orange glow prettier than any Instagram filter on Yala National Park, and the 4X4 is jostling along a dirt road. Captaining it is a guide with ultra-keen senses — the kind that can zero in on a camouflaged crocodile. Or point out in a tree the crimson-fronted barbets, tiny, leafy green-colored birds with rainbow swirls near their necks that look as though they’re the muses of New York Fashion Week designs. But it’s not just impeccable vision and binoculars that’s helping our guide stalk a leopard at dusk. It’s intuition, and the engagement of other senses, listening for monkeys to howl and set off an alarm system in the trees that a predator is nearby. We’re on the cusp of a climactic safari moment. Just like that, our small group spots the leopard, with his cocky saunter, making his calculated commute into the forest. The leaves begin to rustle and the monkeys, based on their calls, let us know they spot him, too.
Africa, no doubt, is a known safari destination, and REI Adventures also offers safari-centric trips to Tanzania and Botswana. But don’t sleep on Sri Lanka, an island in the Indian Ocean that’s bidding for some attention, too — proving that it’s an adventurer’s playground and host to some remarkable safaris.
REI’s 12-day “Discover Sri Lanka: Temples, Tea Trails, and Safari” trip includes dusk and dawn safari trips in Yala, home to leopards, elephants, water buffalo, and more. But competing as a highlight on the itinerary, especially for elephant lovers, is an early morning safari by boat in Gal Oya National Park. Watch elephants dunk themselves in the water, and enjoy a serene picnic brunch on a rock overlooking the water. You’ll spend two nights at Gal Oya Eco Lodge, a luxe, off-the-grid retreat, during this portion of the trip. Take a shower in your private outdoor bathroom under the moonlight and listen to the jungle’s orchestra.
The REI itinerary also includes biking through a jungle and diverse hiking routes. For example, one will wind you through verdant tea plantations and another engages the quads as you ascend to the top of Sigiriya, or Lion’s Rock, an ancient fortress built for kings.
Toward the end of the trip, you’ll stay at a beachfront hotel in Galle. Carve out a couple of hours to take a tuk-tuk ride to Dream Cabana on Dalawella Beach. Five rupees (less than a dollar) will get you a few whee-inducing rope swings from a palm tree. The money generated from the scenic swing goes toward a sea turtle rescue.
Almost all your meals will be included in the trip, and you’ll have a chance every day to sample local cuisine, which ranges from spicy curries to egg hoppers, a crepe-like bowl with a soft-boiled egg in the middle. Sip coconut water from a coconut and shake some chili powder on your pineapple. The REI itinerary includes a trip to a local market, where your group picks out vegetables and fish with a local, who will then give you a hands-on cooking lesson.
During this trip, you’ll sample different types of lodging, from a traditional hotel in the bustling city of Kandy to cottages on a spice plantation. But one that will blow you away is the Madulkelle Tea and Eco Lodge. A tuk tuk twists and turns up a mountain, delivering you to a misty resort with an infinity pool. You’ll get locks for your glamping-style tents to keep mischievous monkeys out — convincing you that, really, the whole trip is a safari of sorts.
Brittany Anas is a freelance writer who specializes in health, fitness, and travel writing. She also contributes to Men’s Journal, Women’s Health, Trip Savvy, Simplemost, Orbitz, and Eat This, Not That! She spent a decade working at daily newspapers, including The Denver Post and the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, and she is a former federal background investigator. In her free time, Brittany enjoys hiking with her gremlin-pot belly pig mix that the rescue described as a “Boston Terrier” and coaching youth basketball. She also works with domestic abuse survivors, helping them regain financial stability through career coaching. Follower her on Twitter and Instagram.