Sri Lanka transportation – a guide to how to travel the island

Traveling to Sri Lanka? Landing in Colombo can be overwhelming but doesn’t have to be.  Travel in Sri Lanka can be stress free if you know how to get around.  Whether you are headed for your next big surf trip or just to soak up the beach sun, study our ultimate Sri Lanka transportation guide to best enjoy this Indian Ocean island paradise.

Sri Lanka transportation – a guide to how to travel the island

Train:

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The Sri Lanka train system is old-school and can range from dreamy rides through the mountains with a whole car to yourself, to being packed in like sweaty sardines, unable to sit for hours.  The most iconic ride is between Ella and Kandy, which takes you through incredible mountain and tea plantations views and Horton Plains National Park.  It is perhaps the most beautiful train ride in the world.  You can start east of Ella if you want to ride over the Nine Arch Bridge, or just hike there from Ella town to get your picture.  Trains are separated into first, second, and third classes.  First class tickets can be bought online and you get a guaranteed seat.  Second and third class are similar and you can purchase them at the ticket office no more than 15 minutes before the train arrives.  You might get a seat, you might not.  Once on a packed train we sat in the doorway with our legs out the side of the train the whole journey.  Despite sore butts from sitting on the floor the whole way, it was a great way to enjoy the scenery!

Bus:sri lanka bus transportation

Local buses go everywhere in Sri Lanka.  If you are traveling for a long time and/or on a budget, this is your best bet.  Find the blue signs along the road which signify stopping points; they are every few hundred meters.  Be prepared to jump on while the bus is still moving!  The ticket sellers will sometimes try to over-charge you.  Once inside hold on for dear life, as the drivers are notoriously psychotic and get paid by the trip, not by the hour.  Bus fare in Sri Lanka are around 20 LKR (Sri Lankan Rupees) for a short trip or near 200 LKR from Colombo to the south coast (~5hrs).  For busing to/from Colombo, check out the special section in the bottom of the page.  Throw your backpacks in front by the driver or in the storage space in the rear, depending on how helpful/hurried the ticket guys are at the moment.  Buses are by far the most popular form of Sri Lanka transportation with the locals, so ride them at least once for the experience.

Tuk tuk:

Tuk Tuk sri lanka

These three-wheeled motorized rickshaws are a Sri Lankan transportation staple and you will find them all over the island.  They are fun to zoom around in, but the drivers are pushy and you always have to ask the price up front and negotiate; just please don’t be a dick because the price is 50 LKR higher than you’d like.  A good tourist’s tuk tuk fare is 75 LKR per kilometer, but expect to pay more late at night.  They have room for three people but will sometimes let you take more (for a tip) and generally have room for your luggage.  Check out the Tuk Tuk Safari that we did, which featured the nicest tuk tuk we’ve ever seen!  In Colombo there is a great app called Pick Me that you can use to summon your tuk tuk rides.

Motorbike:

motorbike sri lanka transportation

Buses and tuk tuks get old fast, and sometimes you just want t stop and get a coconut (or an ice cream).  Renting a motorbike is a nice change of pace and lets you explore more remote and off-the-beaten-path destinations.  Prices range from 800-1200 LKR per day.  In our opinion, this is the most fun type of Sri Lanka transportation.  Technically you need an international drivers license, along with your home country’s ID, and a special permit only obtainable in Colombo.  Most tourists who rent motorbikes do not have all or any of these documents, so just expect to pay a fine if you are stopped by the police.  Watch out for police roadblocks in every town.  We generally see them coming and hide behind the car in front of us.  The police aren’t trying to work too hard, and won’t chase you.

Taxi:

Taxis are useful in Colombo, or if you are on a quick trip/higher budget.  A trip from Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport to the south can cost between 7,000 and 12,000 LKR so be sure to do some negotiating.  If you have a hotel reserved, have them arrange a taxi for you, as they will get a better price and your ride will be waiting on your arrival.  If you need a ride to/from specific places, post sometime on one of the Sri Lanka traveler Facebook groups and many taxis will message you with deals.  Uber is a good option, but only works in Colombo.  Taxis don’t normally have signs in Sri Lanka, because they are usually are just some dude with a Prius.

Getting to/from Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport:

Keep in mind that Sri Lanka only has one international airport, located in Colombo.  Most travelers choose to skip Colombo or leave it until the end of their trip, after getting more comfortable with the country.  Leaving the airport is one of the most expensive parts of travel in Sri Lanka.  There are several options to get you where you need to be:

Bus – When walking out the main exit during daytime hours, you will see a blue bus directly in front of the exit.  This takes you to the main bus station (150 LKR – 1hr) near the Colombo Fort and train station.  This main bus station is for local buses which depart to all parts of the island for a very cheap price.  However, if you’re headed to the south we’d recommend taking the highway bus to Matara (500 LKR – 2hrs) which is air conditioned and gets you there in half the time of the local bus. These nicer buses leave from a different bus station called Maharagama in south Colombo.  They depart every 15 min or so when full.  There are also highway buses directly to Galle, although they leave less often than the Matara buses. To get to Maharagama either take a bus from the local bus station, or taxi/Uber straight from the airport (45 min, recommended).

Taxi – If you are only in Sri Lanka for a short time and your first stop is outside Colombo, we recommend just taking a taxi straight from the airport to your destination.  Set it up with your hotel in advance to save money and have someone waiting for you.  Keep in mind that if you are arriving late at night or early in the morning, taxi or Uber might be your only option for getting anywhere.

Tuk tuk – if you are spending the night in nearby Negombo, you can take a tuk tuk to your destination.  The tuk tuks are not allowed into the airport pickup area but you just need to walk across the street to flag one down.

Sri Lanka transportation is easy, however sometimes it can be crowded and hot.  We call it “character building” as my favorite athlete Alex Honnold would say.  Just keep your cool and everything will be fine!  What’s to worry, if all else fails while traveling Sri Lanka, you’ve still got your Chevrolegs and your thumb!

Don’t want to worry about anything while traveling in Sri Lanka?  Check out our upcoming Sri Lanka Surf & Yoga retreat through Bigger Life Adventures!  We take care of everything so you can focus on the fun!

Enjoy this post about Sri Lanka transportation options?  Check out our archives for other guides and helpful advice for travelers all over the world!  And don’t forget to follow us on Instagram and subscribe to our Youtube Channel!

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Panamá Financial Summary

Hola chicos!!!!  I just realized that although I wrote this awhile ago, I never posted it!  Better late than never though!  Here are the stats for Panamá!

Days in Panamá: 10

Money Spent: $286.88

That means we spent $28.66 per day, or roughly $14.33 per person per day.  So we were just barely under our target budget of $15 per person per day.  I’m very proud of us forfinallybeing on budget again after going over in the last few countries.  Rock on!!!!

A side note: I didn’t count our passage on Fritz the Cat here, as I consider that to be between countries and it was so expensive it would totally throw the whole skew off.

As you can see, our spending only fell into a few categories in Panamá.  Despite how small the country is, buses are not cheap in Panamá.  They seem to run about $2+ per hour of travel.

Food is also more expensive than in South America.  The cheapest meal we ever had was a $1.50 plate of rice and beans in Las Tablas.  In Panamá City and Bocas del Toro, you can expect to pay at least $3.50 for a decent plate of Panamanian food.  We did have hostels with kitchens most of the time so we tried to buy groceries and cook a lot to keep costs down.

We didn’t pay for a single place to stay in Panamá!  That’s right, our Lodging cost was absolutely ZERO!  Yeah hostel reviews and Couchsurfing!

FYI, Panamá’s currency is the US dollar, although instead of just calling them “dolares”, they are also called “Balboas.”

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A Remote Border Crossing at La Balza – Backpacking Ecuador

This is the end of a bus marathon and details backpacking into Ecuador at one of their most remote borders, La Balza.

After an overnight bus from Lima to Chiclayo, we waited around for a few hours and got on the 1:30pm bus to Jaen.  The whole point of our taking this maddening route was so we could pass through Vilcabamba, Ecuador and check out this so-called “valley of longevity” where all the people supposedly live to be like 300 years old.  But anyhow, we arrived in Jaen just after dark, a dirty and dusty town full of mototaxis.   We jumped in one and told him to take us to the place where the buses leave for San Ignacio, the town closest to the border where we planned to spend the night.  After negotiating a price, we zoomed down the dirt road,   pulled a U-turn and and said, “Here is a good hotel!”  Though our Spanish is not great, we swear that we use understandable words!  Sometimes people don’t even listen to what we are saying and just try to guess what we want.  This seemed to happen a lot in northern Perú both times we were there.  Maybe they just play their music way too loud!

So we re-explained ourselves and finally were dropped off where we wanted to be; a spot with shared taxis to take us the next two hours for 20 Soles each.  For the first hour the road was perfect, paved and smooth.  Then the farther away from nowhere we got, the bigger the pot holes became and eventually the road became a one-lane bumpy mess.  Nevertheless, it was a nice ride, with a cool breeze blowing through the windows and lightning flashing in the distance.  It was getting late when we got into San Ignacio, so we crossed the street to a dumpy-looking lodging and got a cheap room from an unfriendly receptionist and settled in to wake up early for the border crossing.

In the morning we asked about three different people and finally got a mototaxi to drop us off at the shared taxis to the border.  17 Soles each and five people in the cab, we headed down one of the worst roads yet.  The night before there had been hard rains and the road was a muddy mess with landslides and road crews slaving away with shovels.  I would have called the road “impassable” or “passable only with 4×4”, but our driver was a pro mudder and we only got stuck a couple of times.  After two hours or so we were dropped off in the tiny village of La Balza at a bridge labeled “International Boundary” and we hauled our gear through more mud and over to the immigration office.  It was hard to tell if the guy there was the border agent or not, but he stamped our passports and we walked across the bridge into Ecuador.  On the other side was a uniformed official chit-chatting with the locals.  He led us into his office and had us fill out the standard entrance form.  Both of these “border agents” seemed pretty surprised to have any work to do, leading us to wonder how many people ever cross the border at La Balza.

Our passports were soon stamped and, super hungry, we walked next door to the only place serving food.  While we were eating, the border agent came over and rejoined his local friends.  There were many local-looking people walking back and forth across the border; some he would yell at to come to his office, some just crossed; it was a very laid-back mess of confusion.  Really, all you would have to do to get across this border illegally is run really fast.  A very different experience than the United States border with our walls and hundreds of people in line.  At noon we got on an old old bus with open sides and benches running from side to side.  Really it was more like a truck pulling a trailer full of wooden benches.  The speaker system rocked and it was almost like a party bus.  For over an hour we bounced along with our heads almost hitting the ceiling on the worst potholes.  This ride strangely brought smiles to both of our faces.  The benefit of our open-sided vehicle was that at least we knew that we could jump out easily if we ever started careening out of control.  Once in the nearest town of Zumba, we were able to get right on a bus to Vilcabamaba and arrived, again, just after dark.  We were sore, tired, and grumpy, but a huge section of the continent had been conquered.  Now for a few days of slightly slower travel then one more hard stretch to the Caribbean coast!

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The Three-Day Bus Marathon

After spending a couple days in Trinidad, we decided that the whole jungle adventure sounded a lot better than it actually turned out to be.  After spending over a week to get away from it all, we found ourselves again at the bus station looking for the fastest way back to civilization.  We wanted to get straight back to La Paz from where it’s a quick jump back to Perú and new and exciting things.  This turned out to be harder than expected.  There are three roads in and out of Trinidad.  One heads north to the Brazilian border, a journey of unknown hours that drops you off in the middle of the jungle.  The second is the road to La Paz.  This road is about a two days’ journey and at the time of our inquiries was passable only by 4×4 since it is destroyed every rainy season.  The third highway is the main way in, but involves backtracking all the way to Santa Cruz, an overnight trip, and then taking another overnighter to La Paz from there.  After some research, the 3rd option, though boring and backtracking, turned out to be the shorter, cheaper, and easier adventure.  So we decided to come back later that night and try to pick up a cheap ticket for the next day.

We had noticed the hundreds of motorcycles in the center of Trinidad, blocking up the main square, and sure enough when we got to the bus station the news was bad.  “No hay bus a Santa Cruz.” “Mañana?” we asked.  “No sé.” The Bolivians were again taking up their favorite hobby which is protesting things by blocking the main roads with rocks and angry mobs.  We had encountered these protests before while en route from Coroico to La Paz.  Our van left us off at the edge of the blockage and we had to walk 4km through lines of boulders placed every block or so.  The protesters were angry about that cost of minivan rides or something, but we were super annoyed because we had never had to walk that far with all of our stuff before.  On the La Paz side of the blockade, the police were showing up armed with huge bottles of pepper spray and the protestors were starting to get loud.  We jumped into the first taxi we found and were happy to be out of that mess.

So, after a night of not knowing how long we would have to endure Trinidad, we walked back to the bus station and were happy to hear that we would be able to take a bus to Santa Cruz (50 Bs each) that night.  So we stashed our big backs and took the cameras, journals, and books to the park where we sat all day waiting for our night bus.  These days sitting around are sometimes nice times to catch up on writing, but after a few hours we are usually pretty bored.  Usually we end up getting ice cream, and sometimes a beer helps to pass the time.  Our bus left at 7pm so we arrived at the terminal the usual 30 minutes before, and the bus left the usual one hour late.  We were tired and the seats reclined, so as soon as we were on the smooth road, we feel right asleep.

At 5:30am we woke in Santa Cruz, feeling some deja vu.  The Santa Cruz bus terminal is the hub that we have spent the most time in this entire trip and we hate it.  But they do sell good cheesy bread which made a nice breakfast.  We were able to get right on a bus to Cochabamba (50 Bs each) after waiting less than an hour and fell right back to sleep.  When I woke we were still in the jungle, but the mountains were visible on the horizon which brought some hope that we might actually make it.  But this bus was super-slow!  We had hoped to make it to La Paz in a perfect 24 hours after leaving Trini, but found ourselves only in Cochabamba at the 24 hour mark.  The thought occurred that we could get a hostel and sleep for a night, but then we found a cheap ticket for a 10pm to La Paz (35 Bs each) putting us in the capital bright and early.  So we bought it and wandered across the street from the terminal to indulge in some of the best street food we have found in South America.  Good, cheap food always helps to cheer us up.

We woke at dawn with the lights of La Paz shinning below us. It was COLD, 0 degrees C read the sign, 5:30 am.  By now we were pretty much braindead as we sat in the terminal, feet going numb.  Eventually we decided that the best and cheapest route was to take the 8:30am bus to Copacabana (25 Bs each), which we did, where we ate a quick lunch then bought a ticket all the way to Arequipa (100 Bs each) on a bus that changed in Puno.  The ticket vendor proclaimed that it was eight hours to Arequipa putting us at our final destination at 9pm.  We had the fastest border crossing ever and but due to slow going and some more protests on the road, we didn’t find ourselves in Puno (where we had to change buses) until 4:30pm.  Getting into the second biggest city in Perú (Arequipa) at midnight didn’t sound like the best of plans, so we decided to end the marathon, switch our onward ticket, sleep in a bed, then continue at 8am.

So finally, the next day, we completed our trek to Arequipa at around 3pm.  That puts the total at 58 hours riding on a bus or waiting in bus terminals (after subtracting time spent in Puno).  This was the biggest bus marathon we have had or (hopefully) will ever have this entire trip.  Was it worth it?  Yes, because we are back in Perú which seems like a first world country after so long in Bolivia.  Yes, we enjoyed the fact that Bolivia is so underdeveloped, but after the extreme conditions of our time in the jungle, it was starting to get to us.  After such a crazy bus marathon, a few days rest in a beautiful and modern city were exactly what we needed.

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My Travel Quirks

1.  I always wear the same outfit on bus days, like it’s a uniform or something.  It’s because I seem to always get dirty and sweaty from carrying my pack or bus griminess in general, so I wear my work clothes that I don’t care about.  Since I hate doing laundry, my philosophy is that it’s better to have one never-going-to-look-clean outfit then to have many kind-of-dirty ones.

2.  We hate carrying a guidebook around so we hand-copy maps, addresses, and info into a little pocket-sized notebook we carry before going out on adventures.

3.  I seem to lose things more while living out of a backpack than I do while living at home.  I’ve now lost six consecutive crochet hooks needed to maintain my dreadlocks.  Thank God they’re cheap.

4.  I think I can feel myself getting “old” on this trip.  No!  I used to never be able to sleep on buses; now I nod off without even trying to.  I recently fell asleep on top of my backpack on top of a concrete sidewalk.  Way to be an old lady/bum.

5. My two biggest travel pet peeves are BUS CURTAINS and TOILETS WITHOUT SEATS.  Honestly, bus curtains just flap in your face endlessly when the windows are open and block the view. I´ll sleep when it´s dark; I want to see out the window when it´s light!  And if you´re going to build a western toilet, spend the extra $5 and put a seat on it!  If you´re not going to do that, just build a hole in the ground.  Squatting is easier than hovering!

I´m sure there are more of these but that´s all I can think of for now.  Anyone else do or think weird things like this?

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Quito Chaos

Quito, the capitol of Ecuador, didn’t exactly get on our good side right away.  What happened was a typical episode of traveling-into-an-unfamiliar-huge-city hassles.  We got off the bus from Otavalo and grabbed our backpacks.  We wandered over to look at a wall of maps in the rapidly-emptying bus lot.  While we found maps detailing the routes of all, say, six different bus systems in Quito, somehow none of these maps seemed to indicate WHERE WE ACTUALLY WERE AT THE MOMENT.  We knew we were somewhere in the northern part of the city since we hadn’t driven through much of Quito before stopping, but we were clueless as far as how to get to the Old Town.  (Thanks, but no thanks to Lonely Planet also, for having next to no details on this.)  Eventually we asked someone and he waved vaguely over at a waiting area for a couple local buses.  We headed over there, determined to figure it out and not take a taxi since we were still around 20km from the city center and it would have been expensive.  At least we have enough sense to always ask several different people for directions, and luckily caught ourselves right before we got on the wrong bus!  We lugged our packs into the aisle, getting in everyone’s way, and settled in for a ride to the centro.  But no, this bus was not actually going to the city center, only to the Trole station, where we had to get on one of Quito’s new dedicated-lane cable-car type buses.  The Trole station had about six different options and we had to ask someone again.  Once on the correct Trole, I grabbed a seat and Zach settled in a standing spot in the corner.  This turned out to be a grave error, as the Trole stopped practically every block and every time more and more people crammed into the bus until it was packed tighter than a mosh pit at a rock concert.  Again, I had to ask someone to find out where to get off, as we had no idea.  The actual prospects of getting off though, seemed slim.  I was crammed into a seat I wished I hadn’t taken, with about 20 people glued together in the aisle between me and the door.  Zach was slightly closer, but also faced a hard elbow-throwing battle to get out.  There was no way I could even stand up and start making my way to the exit in advance.  My plan was basically just to push as hard as I could with my huge backpack, scream “¡Perdón!  ¡Pérdon por favor!” over and over again, and hope I made it.  And it worked!  But barely!  In the mad crush for the exit door at our stop Zach recalls making it, then looking back to see me still far away and fighting as the doors started closing.  Honestly, I don’t know how I got out of there alive and with all my stuff, but after I did I was cursing Quito and swearing to never ride the Trole again.  Thinking the hard part was over as we had made it to the right neighborhood, we tried to hail several taxis to get to our intended hostel.  Surprise, surprise, not a single driver recognized the address.  We wandered up and down the narrow streets receiving vague directions from shopkeepers like “Walk uphill two blocks and then ask someone up there.”  Finally, finally, after asking about 5 different people and wandering on foot for half an hour, we stumbled upon the correct street ourselves.  Who needs you, taxis?  Huh?

The lessons in all of this?  I’m not sure.  Probably number one would be:  Take a taxi if you can afford it!  This whole crazy mess kind of left us wondering if it would have been worth it.  Also, we always try to arrive at our destinations before dark, as it’s much less stressful and safer to find your way around public transportation in the busier daylight hours.  We definitely, definitely would have taken a taxi if it had been dark outside.

Up next…find out if Quito can reverse our initially bad impression!

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