Discovering Sri Lanka’s Hill Country by Train

Nomad Cassie Wilkins explores Sri Lanka’s Hill Country during a train trip from Kandy to Haputale.

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Photo © Cassie Wilkins

An old diesel train chugs along the 19th-century railway line between Haputale and Kandy, carving its way through the scenic tea plantations of Sri Lanka’s Hill Country.

One of the world’s most beautiful train trips, the seven hour-journey passes through tea estates dotted with workers in brightly colored saris, pine forests, waterfalls, mountains, and gorges. The railway, built by the British in 1864 to transport tea and coffee from the Hill Country to the capital, Colombo, is now one of the best ways to explore the villages, towns, and national parks along the way.

Haputale

My journey through Sri Lanka’s Hill Country starts in Haputale, a small town surrounded by cloud forests and home to labyrinths of tea plantations that cover the hills. A little shabby at first glance, Haputale’s charming town center has a distinctly local vibe. My partner and I are staying just outside town in a local family-run hotel that offers incredible views over the train tracks. The place is pretty rundown, but the price cannot be beaten, and with hot showers and plenty of blankets to offset the chilly nights, it’s a good base to explore the area.

At a local restaurant, we drink sugary tea and dig into the Sri Lankan staple of rice and curry, served with sambal. As we eat, the friendly owner asks us where we live, about life in England, and offers some great insights on Haputale and the surrounding area. He brings out a bottle of arrack (a local spirit distilled from coconut), which we use to toast our new friendship, before heading back to the hotel. Most places in Haputale close up around 8pm, which is perfect for us as we have an early start for our trip out to Horton Plains National Park.

Views from the train going from Ella to Kandy. Photo credit: Getty Images/John Crux Photography

Horton Plains

Known for its cloud forests and highland plateau, Horton Plains National Park is about an hour’s drive from Haputale. At more than 6,900ft (2,100m), the park is known for its sheer cliff drops, incredible nature, and sweeping grasslands. We’re here to hike to World’s End, a stunning escarpment where the hills part and the cliffs drop more than 4,000ft (1,200m) to the cloud forests below. On the four-hour, 5.6mi (9km) walk through the park, we stop to look at 66ft (20m) Baker’s Falls before finally catching our breath at World’s End. The view from the top is an exhilarating reward, offering a spectacular panorama.

Lipton’s Seat

Curious to see if it’s possible to beat yesterday’s views, we head to Lipton’s Seat. We rise early and hop on the local bus to Dambatenne to begin the 4.3mi (7km) hike. The relatively easy walk takes us through mazes of tea plantations up to the famous lookout. Offering one of the best views in the country, this is said to have been Scottish tea baron Sir Thomas Lipton’s favorite spot for surveying his vast tea empire. We’ve been advised to start hiking early in the morning to get the best views, and as we near the top, the clouds are already starting to roll in, obscuring the views over the green plantations. Once we reach the top, we toast our efforts with a cup of his famous brew.

The view from Lipton's Seat. Photo credit: Cassie Wilkins

Ella

We’ve heard the nearby town of Ella is popular with walkers, so we take an hour-long train ride from Haputale, which crosses the Nine Arches Bridge, known as the Bridge in the Sky. One of the best examples of colonial engineering, the 300-ft-long (91m) construction was built by British and Ceylonese engineers in 1921 and is made entirely without steel.

It’s raining when we arrive, but undeterred by the weather (we are British, after all) we take the well-established path that winds its way through misty tea plantations to the 3,740ft (1,141m) Little Adam’s Peak. The easiest hike in Ella, it’s not to be confused with Adam’s Peak, the 7,358ft (2,243m) mountain in the center of Sri Lanka.

Walk Along the Train Tracks

Our new friend, the restaurant owner, told us that a great way to explore the Hill Country is to take the train to a stop further along the line, before hopping off and walking back along the track. As alarming as it sounds, walking along the train tracks is relatively safe (and legal). Only a few trains run each day, and if a train does pass, the train drivers aren’t shy about using their horns and there are plenty of safe places to wait while it passes by.

On the hour-long walk from Diyatalawa to Hapatule, we pass school kids in crisp white uniforms, women in vibrant saris, and businessmen walking along the tracks as part of their daily commute. 

Adisham Monastery

Built in 1931, in the Tudor-revival style, Adisham Monastery (St Benedict’s Monastery) is tucked away in the misty hills of Adisham, 2.5mi (4km) from Haputale. Home to Benedictine monks, it’s open to visitors on weekends, offering a fascinating glimpse into the Hill Country’s colonial ties. Feeling lazy after all our long walks, we hire a Tuk Tuk for the afternoon and explore the English-style orchards and rose gardens.

Adisham Monastery in Sri Lanka. Photo credit: Getty Images/Dammika Heenpellay

Diyaluma Falls

The next day we head to Diyaluma Falls by local bus, making a quick detour to check out the views at the Beragala Gap. About a 10-minute drive, or a 40-minute walk from Haputale, Beragala Gap sits on top of a 4,694ft (1,431m) mountain ridge and on this perfectly clear day, offer views more than 62mi (100km) across the southern plains, to the Dondra Head Lighthouse – Sri Lanka’s southernmost point.

Diyaluma Falls are Sri Lanka’s second-highest, with multiple cascading pools. Along the way, the bus stops at small villages to pick up workers carrying baskets full of tea leaves while two old ladies sit at the back gossiping. We’re dropped at the village at the bottom of the falls, where families are picnicking and kids are screaming in joy as they jump off the rocks into the water. We head straight for the top instead – another recommendation from a local – and we’re in luck – it’s the end of rainy season, but these falls are still in full flow.

regret my choice of footwear (flip-flops) as we hike the steep walk to the top. We pass a quiet village, where we stop to ask for directions, and a local man directs us through a garden, from where we scramble up a steep hill and finally spot the top of the falls. Sitting on the edge, we watch the water cascading down to refreshing pools where we spend the afternoon cooling off. The afternoon flies by and, before we know it, darkness is setting in. We have to race down the hill to catch the last bus back.

The view from the top of Diyaluma Waterfall. Photo credit: Cassie Wilkins

Nuwara Eliya

Leaving Haputale on our train ride back to Kandy, we hop off the train at Nanu Oya, for a night in nearby Nuwara Eliya, known as Little England for its temperate climate, colonial architecture, golf courses, and manicured gardens.

The town’s colonial architecture includes a red-brick Post Office, with a striking clock tower, built in the Tudor-revival style by the British in 1894. In Victoria Park, we walk beneath oak trees and beside lily ponds, and check out the museum and miniature railway. In season (from spring to summer, roughly March–September), you can pick your own fruit in the local strawberry fields.

Kandy

On our final day, we board the train back to Kandy. After the tranquility of the Hill Country, the noise of Sri Lanka’s second-largest city is something of a culture shock. It’s nice to be back in civilization, but soon we find ourselves longing for the peace of the cloud forests and vibrant green tea plantations, interrupted only by the chugging of a train making its way through the hills.

Views over Kandy, Sri Lanka. Photo credit: Getty Images/Moatassem Ziad / EyeEm

Trip Notes

How to Get There and Away

You can take a train to Haputale from Colombo, although you might need to change in Peradeniya Junction or Kandy on some routes – check the schedule before you buy a ticket. Stop at Hatton to visit Dalhousie, the jumping-off point to Adam’s Peak. There’s a night carriage on the mail train, but you’ll miss the best views by going overnight.

If you want to continue your journey around Sri Lanka by heading north or south, you’ll need to take local buses. You can get back to Colombo on the train from Matale (on the south coast) or Jaffna (at the northern tip of Sri Lanka).

When to Go

The best time to visit the Hill Country is from December to March when rainfall is minimal. The southwest monsoon brings heavy rain from April to September, and while traveling during the intra monsoon you should expect thunderstorms and rain across the whole country.

The temperature is pretty consistent year-round, ranging between 55 ºF-70ºF (14ºC-21ºC), although at night it can drop below freezing, so pack warm layers just in case.

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