It takes about 3-4 hours to get from Digana to Nuwara Eliya. The drive is quite scenic, as you climb higher and higher up the mountain range and you can feel the temperature drop with every mile you go. It is quite refreshing to be honest, after spending a week in the wet heat of the lower parts and getting rained on to face even more humidity afterwards. If you’re not feeling well when going up and down winding roads, you might want to be prepared, that is all you’re going to see and feel.
On the way up to the highest point of Sri Lanka (Nuwara Eliya is at an altitude of 1,868 m (6,128 ft)), you pass most of the tea plantations along the way. It is hard to say or choose which one is the right to pick or stop, but we stopped at the Glenloch Plantation to get a quick tour inside the factory and outside to look at and understand the different tea leaves. You’ll get to try a few different types of tea afterwards and (of course) can walk out through the gift shop to buy tea, souvenirs and other little things. So if you want to bring back tea from Sri Lanka, leave some space in your bags.
It was cold in Nuwara Eliya. Well, coming from a very cold Winter in Europe, probably not that cold, but if you had 30°+ for a week, you feel like your toes will freeze off any minute. It was still good to get out and stretch your legs. We went on a short walk through town, across the fruit and veggie market and the generally busy downtown area.
One of the biggest sights in Nuwara Eliya is the old post office. It’s one of the oldest in Sri Lanka and was built in 1894 by the British. While the inside is not the prettiest I liked the exterior quite a bit. A good spot to take a picture of it is actually across the street (don’t get killed crossing the busy street), as there’s a little overpath with stairs. Dodge the stores and people trying to sell you stuff and take a pic.
We spent the evening in a style, dining at the Grand Hotel. While our backpacker group was vastly underdressed, we still got good service and lovely food. We were able to get two tables at the less fancy restaurant and I have to say that my cocktail and Japanese fish burger were fantastic. It is a bit pricey if you’re on a budget though. The evening ended in the hotel bar, more cocktails and good conversations were included.
Leaving Nuwara Eliya, we hopped on a train to go to Ella. The train actually comes up from Kandy and is considered one of the most scenic train rides in the world. Well, I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it was very very nice. If you’re interested, there’s quite a few videos on Youtube, I’ve picked one for you.
If you’re open to it, you can also engage with the locals on the train. Everybody was so friendly and lots of smiles were exchanged. While I’m also grinning like a crazy person anyway, I made quite a few short term friends and had a few conversations.
One of my favorite interactions was with little Izaan. He was riding the train with his mum and was already checking all the weird looking tourists out from his seat 4 rows ahead. While the only trick with kids I really know is Peek-a-boo (100% success rate), Izaan was looking for more. He walked by a few times and at some point I pulled out a few toy cars, which I got as my secret Santa gift a few days earlier. I gave him a couple and while he seemed somewhere between completely happy and totally scared, he soon started playing with them and we became immediate friends for life. Or maybe just the train ride!
One of the things I like to do when taking pictures of people is give back something as well. One thing I always take with me is a Fujifilm Instax printer. You can’t imagine how happy it makes some people to get a printed photo of their kids or themselves. Unfortunately I didn’t have that on me in this moment, so I did the next best thing and got his mums e-mail address. She was very happy when I sent a few pics across after getting back home.
One of the main things all the tourists do on this ride is hanging out of the train and have somebody take pictures. Yes, I’m guilty as well, even though I was not as brave as others to completely hang outside and risk getting hit by a pole, tree or quickly approaching tunnel!
For photographers, taking pictures is not so easy. We had a pretty cloudy day and it was quite dark inside the cabin, so high ISO is necessary, because you need a very fast shutter speed in order to get a sharp photo. Even then you have quite a few that you’ll miss. Good opportunities come along when the train stops, as there’s often other trains slowy passing or stopping right next to you.
If you go to Sri Lanka, you shouldn’t miss out on the train ride, that’s for sure. Be nice, kind and ask before taking pictures of people and you’ll have the most amazing conversations and also a few nice photos to take home with.
The train ride for us and most tourists ends in Ella. The small town is only about 1000 meters above sea level and it was quite a bit warmer compared to Nuwara Eliya. I’m personally a bit torn about the place. After having mostly very peaceful stops along the road, Ella turned out to be THE party town. Bar after bar after bar and quite a different vibe, which reminded me a lot about Thailand or some places in Cambodia. Not in a good way. Places where you only see locals because they work there are not really my cup of tea. But to each his own and we did actually also have some fun.
Stopping at Ella is necessary though, as you want to visit some of the main attractions of Sri Lanka. One being Ella Rock, but there’s also little Adams Peak and the Nine Arch Bridge. It is also home to the most spiciest food I’ve ever had in my life, mango curry at Matey Hut. Be careful when they ask you how spicy you like your stuff.
After burning my mouth with chili, we went through a few bars, none as cool as Cafe One Love, which is located in a half finished concrete building. The mango mojito was mega awesome and I’d like to have one right now, just thinking about it. We spent quite some time there and listened to good house music while having a chat. Total recommendation!
One word of warning though. This is a terrible idea if you stay out until 2 in the morning and then plan to hike up Ella Rock at 8 am. Terrible idea! We still did it and I paid a bit of a price, as I wasn’t just unfit in general, but also mega-hung over.
There’s a few ways to walk up to Ella Rock, which we found out AFTER we climbed up a very steep path that actually made me stop quite a few times. Sweaty, a bit dehydrated, but in the end super happy, I did make it up and was rewarded with a stunning view and a few very nice pictures to take home. The two pictures above where taken on the way up and are actually from the same spot on a little bridge. Stunning landscape!
The walk back to Ella could get quite hot, so bring plenty of water as there weren’t too many places selling some (you still find a bar or somebody with a cooler though). We walked along the train tracks (about 45 min walk) and if you’re lucky, there will be trains passing by. There’s also a couple of spots with a great view along the way.
Back after a long morning, we were hungry and went to the Ak Ristoro restaurant. You wouldn’t expect an Italian restaurant in Sri Lanka, but this was superb food. I had a spaghetti carbonara, nice fruit juice and a great cappuccino to finish it off. It will give you your strength back!
The afternoon was based around another hike, this time a short one to the Nine Arch Bridge. Perfectly placed in a little valley, the bridge has become one of the top (Instagram) spots in Ella. Check the train schedule to figure out when a train is supposed to be there, but bring time as they’re mostly late. We were lucky and saw a train approaching, but you wonder how much nicer it might have looked back in the day when steam engines were running and would give you that perfect moment.
Out of steam and energy, I returned to the hotel while parts of my group went on a third hike to little Adams Peak. Sorry, no pictures from there!
Part 5 – New years eve in Yala NP and a finish at the southern coast will be coming up shortly.