The red carpet awaits
The red carpet awaits

Ella is just about at the end of the line. It’s a small village in the middle of tea country almost at the end of Sri Lanka’s hill country train line. It is very popular among tourists and has a good variety of accommodations, restaurants and activities but without being too developed. It just has a nice laid-back feel about it.

Drongo
Drongo

After all of our dashing around the country we decided to camp out in Ella for a full four days at the end of our time in Sri Lanka. It was the perfect place to unwind for a few days, catch up on postcards and generally enjoy Sri Lanka at its best.

On our first full day we rose early and completed the Little Adam’s Peak hike. It’s not much of a hike, two hours round trip, but the final push to the summit is a steep slog up some makeshift concrete steps. The views from the top are magnificent. In one direction you can see all the way to the ocean (provided it is clear enough!) and in the other direction its mountains and tea plantations.

The vista from Little Adam's Peak
The vista from Little Adam’s Peak

Following the advice of a friend, we booked the Sun Top Inn for a long stop in Ella. The family that run Sun Top were very kind and the food was excellent. One of our favorite things about Sun Top was the breakfast that was included with the room. There was a choice between western and Sri Lankan and we always went with the latter. Hoppers, roti, coconut rice, string hoppers, fresh fruit, you name it – they would make it.

String hoppers for breakfast
String hoppers for breakfast

Since we were going on short hikes just about every day of our stay in Ella, we fell into a routine of rising early, going for a walk, then returning for a late breakfast/brunch. This way we avoided the heat and landed a massive tide-us-over-til-dinner brunch each day. Did I mention the food was excellent?

Dogs make much better time than I do on the tracks
Dogs make much better time than I do on the tracks

On day two we climbed Ella Rock, a much more substantial hike than the day prior. Starting off at 6:30 we had to walk a few kilometers down the railroad tracks then hunted for the trailhead. Eventually I asked a local man and after some pointing he took off at fast pace across the fields and rice patties. Amy and I did our best to keep up with him in hopes that he would show us the real trail. In the end, he took us all the way to the top of Ella Rock without saying a word. Once again, great views from the top.

The man who led us to the top of Ella Rock
The man who led us to the top of Ella Rock

He led us back down the mountain along a different trail that wound its way through a maze of 10ft high grass. It would have required some trial and error to make it through this part on our own! We stopped at Rawana Falls which is apparently much more impressive during the wet season but it was nice enough. After that he took us to the tracks, tipped him a few bucks and then made it back to town to gorge ourselves on brunch.

Day three was another walk along the railroad tracks. This time we headed the opposite direction of Ella Rock to a village called Demodara. The plan was the walk there in time to catch the morning trail back to Ella. Along the way we crossed the Demodara Nine Arches Bridge which is a pretty famous engineering feat in Sri Lanka.

Demodara Nine Arch Bridge (also featured on the 50 rupee note)
Demodara Nine Arch Bridge (also featured on the 50 rupee note)

Another highlight of the walk is train tracks just beyond Demodara. Because of the steep descent through the mountains, the tracks actually trace out a circular path around the valley and then tunnel back under themselves on the way to Badulla. I wanted to see this part of the track but we were running late. Just as we rounded the corner and could see Demodara station, the train was blowing its horn and pulling out. We took off running and soon one of the engineers was waving us up into the locomotive. They stopped the train, we hopped in the locomotive and off we went.

Both the engineers were real nice guys and they answered all the questions we had about the trains. The particular locomotive we were in was a diesel-electric from Germany that was about 30 years old and, aside from the two passenger carriages at the end, the main cargo was fuel. When we got to the Nine Arches bridge they even slowed the train so that we could get some more pictures. Quite a fun experience in the real first class on a Sri Lankan train!

Day four was another visit to a tea factory. The owner of Sun Top gave us a lift to the Halpewaththa Tea Factory and we took a short thirty minute tour. Unfortunately, we struck out again as the day prior was a holiday so the factory wasn’t running. They wouldn’t let us take photos in the factory and the best part of the excursion was the walk back to Ella. We took a shortcut that led us through small farms and tea plantations.

We layed low on the last day. I spotted a number giant squirrels and birds from Sun Top as I filled out some postcards. In the afternoon we made one last trip to the local bakery to get the short eats when they were still oven-hot. The sugary breads were my favorite whereas Amy preferred the curry rolls which were decidedly of the burn-your-face-off variety. Late in the day I went into town to visit the post office and get a haircut. More on the haircut adventure in the next post.

Hill Country Part 2 (Ella)
One of the region's many tea factories
One of the region’s many tea factories
The vista from Little Adam's Peak
The vista from Little Adam’s Peak
Some welcome shade at the top of Little Adam's Peak
Some welcome shade at the top of Little Adam’s Peak
Sri Lankan breakfast: coconut rice, roti and a variety of curries
Sri Lankan breakfast: coconut rice, roti and a variety of curries
Afternoon snack of short eats
Afternoon snack of short eats
Ella Rock just after sunrise
Ella Rock just after sunrise
Dogs make much better time than I do on the tracks
Dogs make much better time than I do on the tracks
The man who led us to the top of Ella Rock
The man who led us to the top of Ella Rock
Drongo
Drongo
The view from our room.
The view from our room.
Hoppers with curry for breakfast
Hoppers with curry for breakfast
Small palm squirrels, like this one, make an incredibly shrill chirp.
Small palm squirrels, like this one, make an incredibly shrill chirp.
Giant Squirrel (Ratufa macroura)
Giant Squirrel (Ratufa macroura)
Demodara Nine Arch Bridge (also featured on the 50 rupee note)
Demodara Nine Arch Bridge (also featured on the 50 rupee note)
169.75 miles from Colombo, in the hill country
169.75 miles from Colombo, in the hill country
The engineer slowed the train so that we could get a better photo.
The engineer slowed the train so that we could get a better photo.
A big plate of kottu roti after the hike
A big plate of kottu roti after the hike
String hoppers for breakfast
String hoppers for breakfast
Another visit to a tea factory where photos aren't allowed inside - sorry!
Another visit to a tea factory where photos aren’t allowed inside – sorry!
Wood for the leaf drying ovens
Wood for the leaf drying ovens
Tea pluckers
Tea pluckers
A huge spread of curries tonight - out favorite was the garlic curry with whole cloves
A huge spread of curries tonight – out favorite was the garlic curry with whole cloves

The view on the hike to Single Tree Hill
The view on the hike to Single Tree Hill

With our big train adventure behind us, Amy and I were keen to relax a bit in the hill country. Hot weather was one of the bigger annoyances we faced over the past few weeks and we left that behind on the crazy train ride the day before. Generally speaking, the weather is much cooler in the hill country as compared to the flat lands of the north.

Nuwara Eliya, one of the larger cities in the Hill Country was our first stop. The town has a decidedly British flair about it and the centerpiece is probably Victoria Park which runs right down the center of town. We were particularly entertained by the signs that were scattered around the park.

There are a variety of hikes that start from Nuwara Eliya and we opted to hike to the top of Single Tree Hill after visiting Victoria Park. A small dirt road leads from the valley up through tea plantations all the way to the summit.

The only photo we were allowed to take during the tea factory tour.
The only photo we were allowed to take during the tea factory tour.

In the afternoon we jumped on a local bus that took us to the Pedro Tea Plantation. We had hoped to see the tea factory in operation but it was closed for some major overhauls. We still took the tour but none of the machines were operating and on top of that we still weren’t allowed to take photos. In the final stockroom we saw floor-to-ceiling stacks of 55kg (121 lbs) bags of tea. I bet I won’t drink one of those in my lifespan!

Later that evening we had one if our best meals of our entire visit to Sri Lanka. We walked into town and ended up in a decidedly local “hotel” (they use the term to describe restaurants, not places to sleep).  The place was packed so we shared a table with some locals. One guy at our table didn’t seem to speak English, the other did and told us he was a local tour guide for Arab tourists. He was chowing down on some string hoppers, a local dish we hadn’t yet sampled, so we decided to go with the same.

String hoppers are noodle-like things that reminded me of spaghetti. They come in small little piles and you are meant to mix them with curry. The curries are already on the table in big buckets so you just scoop them out as desired. The fun part is eating these things without utensils. Using your right hand you mix, scoop and attempt to place a bite in your mouth without making a huge mess. Locals are very proficient at this but I am decidedly a beginner. Eventually, I made it through all my hoppers and even managed to do so without burning my face off on a spicy curry. The meal was excellent as was the price – dinner for two, including drinks for $2.30.  Unfortunately we forgot to document the experience with photos – too bad because I’m sure we were quite the sight.

A very typical (chaotic) bus station in Sri Lanka
A very typical (chaotic) bus station in Sri Lanka

The next day we completed another rough-and-tumble bus ride from Nuwara Eliya to Haputale. Haputale is a much smaller town and while the vistas are great (it is perched on a ridge) the food options were pretty limited. We ended up eating at the guesthouse restaurant both nights – more rice and curry, of course.

Another nice vista near Haputale
Another nice vista near Haputale

A walk along the train tracks from the nearby village of Idalgashinna back to Haputale is one of the recommended activities so we caught the morning train made the 5km walk back to town. The views of the surrounding tea plantations were spectacular.

Spectacular view to the south from our hotel in Haputale
Spectacular view to the south from our hotel in Haputale

Late in the day we just relaxed at the guesthouse and enjoyed the nice views from our room. Haputale was nice but there wasn’t much to keep us there for more than a day so early on day 2 we headed for Ella.

The fog rolls in to Haputale most evenings.
The fog rolls in to Haputale most evenings.
Hill Country Part 1
A visit to the post office, one of my favorite errands abroad.
A visit to the post office, one of my favorite errands abroad.
Quality signs in park as well!
Quality signs in park as well!
Victoria Park
Victoria Park
People playing in Victoria Park
People playing in Victoria Park
Tea, tea and more tea
Tea, tea and more tea
The view on the hike to Single Tree Hill
The view on the hike to Single Tree Hill
Masala dosai is finger-lickin good
Masala dosai is finger-lickin good
The only photo we were allowed to take during the tea factory tour.
The only photo we were allowed to take during the tea factory tour.
Splashing out on afternoon tea and coffee at one of the fancy colonial hotels
Splashing out on afternoon tea and coffee at one of the fancy colonial hotels
A very typical (chaotic) bus station in Sri Lanka
A very typical (chaotic) bus station in Sri Lanka
Haputale sits on a ridge which yields good views north and south
Haputale sits on a ridge which yields good views north and south
The people of Haputale remind you to always eat your carrots!
The people of Haputale remind you to always eat your carrots!
Spectacular view to the south from our hotel in Haputale
Spectacular view to the south from our hotel in Haputale
Hike from Idalgashinna to Haputale
Hike from Idalgashinna to Haputale
Another nice vista near Haputale
Another nice vista near Haputale
The fog rolls in to Haputale most evenings.
The fog rolls in to Haputale most evenings.
The crescent moon marking the end of Ramadan
The crescent moon marking the end of Ramadan

The first of our train adventures in Sri Lanka was from Polonnaruwa to Trincomalee on the northeast coast. We certainly could have made the trip by bus but I had heard great things about train travel in Sri Lanka.  I was determined to give the trains a try but doing so certainly required some effort.

There are a variety of Sri Lankan train schedules online and in the guidebooks but we determined that there is only one reliable way to figure the system out. You have to go to the station where you want to depart on the day before travel and ask the station master if there will be a train. If you talk to anyone else, or use any website for schedule information and you are almost guaranteed to be disappointed!

We set off from our guesthouse at 8AM by tuktuk to make the 20 minute drive over to Polonnaruwa’s new town where the train station is located. We were to catch the 9:24am train for Colombo, ride it for about an hour and then switch to a Trincomalee-bound train at Galoya Junction for another two hours on the rails. Simple.

Most Sri Lankan trains have 2nd and 3rd class seats and a few feature 1st class. The station master in Polonnaruwa told us that the Trinco trip was only available in 3rd class that day. Seemed OK to us as the total trip including the connection time was only about 5 hours. Total fare was 95 rupees ($0.90) per person, a steal!

3rd class
3rd class

While we waited in the station I had a good look around. The train system in Sri Lanka was built during the British colonial days and it remains much the same today. Taking a train trip in Sri Lanka is a bit like going to a museum and seeing all the old equipment that is still in use today was excellent.

Equipment used to make sure there is only one train on a track at a time.  Important stuff.
Equipment used to make sure there is only one train on a track at a time. Important stuff.
Carnegie Steel USA
Carnegie Steel USA

The I-beams (discarded train track?) that was supporting the station roof was stamped “Carnegie Steel USA.” I found it pretty shocking to think that at one point in time the best way to get steel in rural Sri Lanka was to order it in from Pittsburgh! Roles are a bit reversed these days.

Once we arrived at Galoya junction we had about an hour to kill. The train to Trinco was already there but we had to wait for a northbound train from Colombo that had connecting passengers. I noticed that our train had one second class car tacked on the end so I asked about an upgrade.

Ticket counter
Ticket counter

A long conversion ensued in Sinhala between the two ticket clerks and the station master. Fare tables were consulted, distance charts were used, calculations were performed and double-checked. Finally, an excess fare form was pulled from a special binder and completed in carbon-copy triplicate. All the complexity stemmed from the fact that they were prorating our 2nd class fare based on the distance we had already traveled in 3rd class. We gladly would have paid for a completely new ticket but it seemed like they enjoyed the challenge. We happily ponied up the 55 rupee ($0.50) fare difference for the 2nd class ticket.

Exploring the station itself was good fun. There were monkeys sitting on the tracks waiting for handouts and a number of stray dogs milling about. The slender station building had all sorts of interesting rooms with signs labeling their purpose: “Carriage Examiner,” “Station Master’s Office,” “2nd Class Gents Waiting Room,” etc. I don’t know about other travelers but I get a great deal of enjoyment out of very orderly things like this when traveling in an otherwise chaotic locale.

Our train had about a half dozen cars in total and was pulled by a single diesel locomotive. I was pleased to find a plaque on the side of the locomotive that informed me that its name was “Alberta” and that it was a donation from the Canadian government. It performed well and got us to Trinco more or less on time.

We thoroughly enjoyed our first Sri Lankan train trip and aside from the fans not working in our 2nd class car, the ride was flawless. For me, it was infinitely more comfortable than the bumpy and cramped bus rides of days past and getting to experience a colonial relic of days past was icing on the cake.

Train to Trinco
Ticket counter
Ticket counter
Carnegie Steel USA
Carnegie Steel USA
3rd class
3rd class
2nd class
2nd class
Equipment used to make sure there is only one train on a track at a time.  Important stuff.
Equipment used to make sure there is only one train on a track at a time. Important stuff.
Paint reads: Flood Level Dec 1957
Paint reads: Flood Level Dec 1957

Driving out on to the Salar at dawn.
Driving out on to the Salar at dawn.

We woke up at some crazy hour again on the fourth day of the tour so that we could see the sunrise over the Salar de Uyuni.  You can read all about the Salar over at Wikipedia but the basic idea is that it is huge plane of salt (4000 mi²) that is incredibly flat (less than 1m elevation difference across its entire area).  During the wet season the Salar is flooded with a few inches of water.  This was the case when we visited and I have to say that driving out on a mirror-like plane of water at dawn was pretty cool.

We first drove to a salt hotel out on the Salar where we could mill about and take in the sunrise.  It was cold, below freezing without a doubt.  While we were waiting for the cook to prepare breakfast, we enjoyed watching the sunrise and started to take some crazy photos the Salar is known for.  The lack of recognizable objects (trees, cars, etc) in the photos allows you to play all sorts of fun perspective tricks with the camera.

After breakfast, we drove further out on the Salar to get away from other tour groups.  Our guide then helped us take all sorts of fun photos.  Some of the more ambitious backpackers had brought props all the way from home for the occasion but we had to make do with what was on hand.  Fortunately, the guide had some good ideas!  Be sure to check out the gallery below for many more.

A bunch of gringos out making fools of themselves in the middle of the salt flats.
A bunch of gringos out making fools of themselves in the middle of the salt flats.

Two hours into our ”fotos locas” shoot, we packed up and headed for a couple of other sights around the flats.  We stopped in one area where salt miners were working away to harvest salt and in another area where some of the Salar’s trapped brine bubbles to the surface (the Ojos del Salar).  Finally the tour wrapped up with a quick visit to Uyuni’s train cemetery where dozens of turn-of-the-century steam trains have found their final resting place.

All in all, we really enjoyed our time on the four day tour of Bolivia’s southwest.  Our traveling companions were great, the guide was excellent, the driving was responsible, and the food was delicious.  At only $160 per person it was an absolute bargain and we would strongly recommend Tupiza Tours to others!  Next up on the blog, the cities of Potosí and Sucre.

Slowing sinking into the desert.
Slowing sinking into the desert.
Southwest Circuit Day 4
Driving out on to the Salar at dawn.
Driving out on to the Salar at dawn.
A salt condor!
A salt condor!
A duel
A duel
Amy having some mate
Amy having some mate
A Pez dispenser
A Pez dispenser
The vegetarian eats the omnivores
The vegetarian eats the omnivores
The evolution of man.
The evolution of man.
A bunch of gringos out making fools of themselves in the middle of the salt flats.
A bunch of gringos out making fools of themselves in the middle of the salt flats.
Our guide was quite skilled at creating fotos locas.
Our guide was quite skilled at creating fotos locas.
Ojos del Salar
Ojos del Salar
Salt mining (for human consumption)
Salt mining (for human consumption)
Some of the Salar is flooded at this time of year.
Some of the Salar is flooded at this time of year.
The last stop was the train graveyard near Uyuni
The last stop was the train graveyard near Uyuni
Slowing sinking into the desert.
Slowing sinking into the desert.
Our final meal on the tour.
Our final meal on the tour.


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