Cycling in Sri Lanka offers a fantastic opportunity to discover the hidden treasures of this island nation’s tropical exterior. While you pedal along peaceful roads, you can observe tea plantations in line with wild jungles, historic temples nestled in gorgeous valleys, and colorful birds etched on garden walls; basically, every corner turn will show you something new and interesting. From postcard beaches to luscious mountains and cloud forests, a two-wheeling experience in Sri Lanka is absolutely magical!
Whichever cycling route in Sri Lanka you opt for, you are guaranteed to be persuaded to ride further in anticipation of what you will see at your next turn! Is it going to be a dreamy rice field, a sprawling tea plantation, one of the many tea stops, rural remote villages or nature preserving wildlife? Sri Lanka’s geographical and cultural treasures are astonishing and there is no better way to explore these than on two wheels. In this article, we will discuss some of the best cycling routes that will cover different landscapes in Sri Lanka.
Must-try cycling routes in Sri Lanka
Negombo to Dambulla (130 km)
Starting from the west coast, this route takes you all the way to central Sri Lanka. While A6 is the popular Colombo-Kurunegala highway that most vehicles take, on a cycling tour, you can choose the secondary road through Badalagama and Narammala. You will however encounter a constant flow of traffic and the second half has some hilly stretches. You can stop at Narammala for the night as there are some accommodation options available.
Another 30kms later you will reach Kurunegala, and from there it is another 60kms to Dambulla, where more accommodation is available along with sightseeing activities such as the Dambulla Cave Temples and the Sigiriya Rock. Sigiriya is a few kms ahead of Dambulla, and a little further up is Habarana which boast a few good stretches of cycling with elephants walking by to accompany you if you’re lucky!
Dambulla to Anuradhapura (70 km)
The A9 highway north to Anuradhapura is a quiet stretch and in very good condition. Anuradhapura is a popular historical destination in Sri Lanka, offering several accommodation options for tourists. A bicycle is without doubt the best way to make your way through the sprawling temple complexes as each historical ruin is about 3kms apart. The Tissa Wewa tank is a nice area to ride around as there is no traffic on this gravel road.
Sigirya to Polonnaruwa (55 km)
This stretch also takes you north to the A11 highway, which is rather busy. You will be passing Minneriya and Giritale, where you can find some accommodation as well as visit the Minneriya National Park. Once in Polonnaruwa (another ancient city), continue cycling to cover all major sites of historical attraction (15kms approximately). Signpostings around the town will help you find places without the help of a guide.
Polonnaruwa to Arugam Bay (the East Coast) (230 km)
Cross through the large and well-guarded Mahaweli bridge to enter a different Sri Lanka – fortified military camps, narrow and quiet roads, and mine fields that take you to the east of Sri Lanka. A variety of accommodation is available in Batticaloa, Passikudah and Arugam Bay as these are gradually increasing in popularity as gorgeous white-sand beach destinations in Sri Lanka.
Arugam Bay to Ella, via Monaragala and Badulla (170 km)
Enjoy the first 35kms of flat terrain with a chance of sighting elephants. Ampara and Monaragala (70 kms from Ampara) offers accommodation and the roads are mostly quiet. After the Ampara junction, it’s a slow climb towards Monaragala. The A22 highway then ascends steadily at 875m towards Passara. From the remaining 20kms to Badulla, 10 are uphill and 10 are downhill at an altitude of 670m.
You can choose to rest at Badulla and take a detour to the beautiful Dunhinda Falls the next morning.
From Badulla to Ella, the ride is fairly easy. The road goes along a valley and gradually climbs to Demodara at 930m. A short and steep climb will take you into Ella (1040m), offering a breathtaking view of the central highlands. Visit the Nine Arches Bridge, Little Adam’s Peak and Ravana Falls in Ella and don’t miss out on the stunning zip lining trail in the hills of Sri Lanka.
Ella to Nuwara Eliya (60 km)
The cycle routes to Nuwara Eliya from Ella require a south ride to Bandarawela (1400m) and a descending rural road to Welimada (1200m). Then it is only 18km to Nuwara Eliya but a very steep ride of 10km is involved as Nuwara Eliya is 2000m above sea level and is the coolest town in Sri Lanka. Being a popular tourist destination, Nuwara Eliya has plenty of accommodation options and a lot to explore! The Gregory Lake, Victoria Park, strawberry farms, Moon Plains National Park, St. Claire’s Waterfall, Lover’s Leap Waterfall and also Horton Plains National Park are must-visit places in Nuwara Eliya.
Nuwara Eliya to Kandy (75 km)
This stretch of cycling in Sri Lanka steadily descends all the way to 700m above sea level. The first 20km are a steep and narrow descend winding through tea plantations until you reach Ramboda Falls. The remaining stretch is on a well-developed wide, yet busy road to Kandy. Spare a day in Kandy to visit the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, the Kandy Lake and the evening cultural dance shows.
Kandy – Matale – Pinnawela (105 km)
Matale is a less popular destination but is just as beautiful and has reasonable places to stay. The spice gardens and the colorful Alu Vihara temple is worth a visit in Matale. From here, you can travel further south on rural, bumpy and hilly roads to reach Pinnawela, which is where the Elephant Orphanage is located. Spend some time with the elephants and rest for the night at one of the many budgeted accommodations in Pinnawela.
Things to know when planning a cycling tour in Sri Lanka
Weather & Seasons
Except for the most wet months of May, October and November, any time of the year is a good time to ride in Sri Lanka. the diverse collection of weather patterns allows for at least somewhere in the island to make for a good cycling route. Keep in mind that hot weather is the norm and is something you will have to be accustomed to for your cycling tour in Sri Lanka. All flat and coastal routes are going to be at least 28-32 Degrees Celsius during the day.
The central highlands such as Nuwara Eliya, Ella, Hatton and Adam’s Peak will see occasional rain all year round but is usually not a period of continuous rain. So, throughout a multiple day visit, you will see some dry periods to enjoy a ride and activities.
The dry zone areas of Sigiriya, Dambulla, Polonnaruwa, and Anuradhapura only see rain in October and November, while the rest of the year is quite dry. The hottest weather in these areas is seen in April and May. Kandy and lower hills in the area also share similar weather patterns.
The southern coast is subject to continuous rain in the monsoon period of September to November and in April, May. Other months are all bright and shiny; there could be sudden downpours but those don’t usually last for too long.
Anyone who has been on a normal vehicle-based holiday in Sri Lanka will most likely not recommend cycling tours due to busy highways and narrow roads, with careless drivers and high risks of accidents. However, there are several options of minor roads and trails that you can use to get across the country. There is a common understanding on these secondary roads that there are many pedestrians, kids, animals and cyclists, which means vehicles are extra cautious on these routes. Tuk tuks and three-wheelers are the most common vehicles seen on these roads, which travel very slowly.
In the dry zone, towards the central areas of Sri Lanka, pleasant and tarred roads make it a peaceful ride, with occasional sightings of wildlife such as Peafowl, Monkeys, Kingfisher, and Mongoose. The winding roads of the tea plantations can be challenging but also help make the ride more interesting. Tea pickers on the sides chattering softly while they pluck tea leaves and colonial-era buildings accompanied by lovely views are worth the challenge!
Overall, the cycle routes in Sri Lanka do involve riding up and down hill but the good news is that the gradients are quite comfortable; usually under 10% on average. A few extraordinarily steep sections in the hill country are present but do not last for long stretches.
There are routes that involve about 15-25 kms of climbs with very rare intervals of flat terrain. But again, the good news is that descents also last for just as long. And if you are on a well-equipped bicycle with good tires and hydraulic disc brakes, you can really enjoy these rides.
Blue Lanka Tours can plan a route for interested cyclers, making the most of your up, down and flat terrain preferences. These routes can also involve train rides and private vehicle transport to get you through difficult sustained climbing so you can enjoy the rest of your cycling tour.
Hotels & Accommodation
Sri Lanka has a variety of small-scale villas and bungalow properties most often located in the hill country areas as well as on the southern coast. These properties are usually staffed with a caretaker who will cook for the guests and maintain cleanliness. This kind of accommodation is rarely available elsewhere and is a must-try wherever available while on a cycling tour in Sri Lanka.
Other budgeted and high-end accommodation is available in other parts of the country where you can stop for a break and to explore tourist attractions in the area. Jetwing, Aitken Spence and Cinnamon are a few reputed chains of hotels that have properties in all parts of the country.
Sri Lanka boasts a unique cuisine and, although not as heavy as Indian food, it can be rather spicy. So don’t forget to mention your preferred spice level wherever you order food. Some noteworthy dishes are:
- Young Jackfruit curry
- Eggplant curry
- Beetroot curry
- Rice and curry meal (a portion of rice accompanied with a meat curry, dahl, 2 vegetable varieties and a green leaf option)
- Egg Hoppers (a bowl-shaped pancake with an egg fried in the bottom of it, accompanies with a coconut and onion salad, and dhal)
- Kottu Rotti (a mix of chopped rotti, sauteed vegetable, flavorful spices and your choice of meat)
If you have stopped over in a quiet area, it is best to depend on your hotel for meals as there will be few options on the road, specially at night. But in destinations such as Ella, Kandy and Hikkaduwa, it would be fun to explore the roadside food stalls.
Here are some tips to stay safe while cycling in Sri Lanka:
- Wear a helmet and bright, reflective clothing.
- Install a tail light reflector.
- Check your equipment regularly.
- Do not use headphones or earpieces as you cannot hear approaching vehicles.
- Learn the road signs.
- Limit your distractions and keep your eyes on the road.
- Use bike lanes wherever available.
- Know your fitness levels and speed capabilities so you can continue cycling for longer.
- Stay hydrated as the weather in Sri Lanka is hot and humid for the most part.