Sure, it’s known as the most touristy place in central Sri Lanka, but it’s easy enough to distance yourself from the masses…
Ella is well-known for being the centre of tea country, which is interesting, because there are plenty of other better tea centres nearby (have you heard of Haputale?!). However, before we go on ahead and pour cold water over this entire town and its booming tourism business, there are many points to love about Ella. For starters, there’s a damn good hike. There’s also damn good food. And that’s probably… about all we loved.
*READ MORE: How to hike Ella Rock, and not get ripped off
* Haputale: Sri Lanka (and Asia’s) best-kept secret
*Thotalagala – a 5-star bungalow in the middle of tea country
*Udawalawe: Tips for a safari on the cheap
What to do in Ella
Hike Ella Rock
This hike really pissed us off. Not because it’s terrible or anything, but just because no-one could quite tell us how to do it or how to get to the top.
So, from our experience of getting hopelessly lost as the trail inexplicably runs out, being found and ‘helped’ by a ‘local’, who then extorted us for money, before finally finding the top some time later, here’s a brief explanation of how to do it. We’ll forgive you after that admission, for not taking our word as gospel (though we really think we’ve got it now).
1. Set off from Ella Railway Station along the tracks, and apparently ignore all signs saying not to walk along the tracks.
After entering the station, turn left on the platform and just carry on beside/ along the tracks. You’ll see plenty of signs warning you not to be there, and also plenty of people who are there. Don’t worry – as long as you’re with it enough to jump out of a way of an oncoming locomotive, you’ll be fine. Even more so as these trains are ancient, and you’ll hear the horn sound at least a dozen times, 10 minutes or so before it even gets to you.
2. Remember all movie stills from Stand By Me and attempt to recreate them.
Or, if you’re like us, remember to actually have watched the movie before you start the hike. Otherwise, people will continuously make references to a movie you’ve never seen, that you thought was only a song, and you’ll be the dumb one on the hike. Yes, that was me.
3. Continue along the tracks for about 40 minutes or so, until after you pass Kithalella railway station.
Ignore the online advice that told you to turn off before the railway station and career through the bushes before you inevitably get lost. There is a way through there, and we found it somehow on the way back, but we couldn’t tell you confidently how to do it.
Also: ignore all the ‘locals’ who tell you you’re going the wrong way. They will seemingly swoop out of nowhere as you’re beginning to show signs of doubt at which direction you should be headed, offer to lead you to the path, and affectionately tell you stories about how a tourist got bitten by a snake in these parts last week and might not have survived. He’ll helpfully take you on a strange, round-about way to almost the top, where you’ll stop him and ask why he just hairpinned you through some paddocks when you could’ve just walked straight up. He’ll then extort you for money, and you’ll find the path without any guidance needed whatsoever. In fact, it was within stumbling-upon distance the whole time. You’ll then go back the way you came and start again, spitting tacks.
Don’t get us wrong, we’re all for a bit of local entrepreneurship, and power to them for trying, but not at our expense.
4. After a few minutes, you’ll see a wee blue arrow pointing in the direction of Ella Rock, on a rock. Follow that and cross the footbridge.
5. There will be a fork in the road after the footbridge. Both paths lead to the top, we’re told, but apparently the right one is longer and is more likely to have you happen upon a tout who you will believe when he tells you you’re lost. So of course we took the right one.
6. Just keep going. You’ll wander through a tea plantation and some long grass, which is a pretty confusing change of scenery, but as long as you keep on this path you’ll be fine. It opens out after a while into some woodland, and there will be plenty of people around to make sure you’re going in the right way. Just don’t ask the locals. It’s a horrid thing to advise, but you really don’t know who to trust around here.
7. Yay, you made it! Several hundred rupee down because you’re an idiot and paid the tout, but you made it nonetheless. Now enjoy the view, pose for some photos and hope you brought your sunblock.
8. The way back down is seemingly easier, but we also recommend stopping near the footbridge, where you can clamber down to a tiny waterfall where the locals will be having a makeshift shower. Join them.
Explore the town
It’s about as remarkable as any tourist-driven south-east Asian mountain town, but there are some decent restaurants, cool souvenir shops and buzzing bars.
The tea shops are particularly good – just go dip a shovel into some huge. steel vats and take home as much as you want. You’ll pay by weight.
What to eat and drink
And not only because it’s got the best name of any restaurants in the whole country. Matey Hut is where everyone acts like exactly that – your mate. While we’d forgive you for thinking you’d got the wrong place when you arrive – due to its scruffy exterior, seating barely enough for six or so people at any given time, and all-round shabbiness – we must implore you to pull up a rickety stool, and grab a menu. This shack is best-known for its mango curry – and for good reason. I’d never known mango to lend itself to curry, but by god it does. And a full, steaming hot plate will only ping you 300 rupees ($2.50 NZD, 1.60 euro). The egg kottu is another unexpected culinary delight for the same price. Not bad for a place that looks from the outside like it would only house firewood.
Chill is the name and chill be the game. This treehut-style bar and restaurant is the most lax place we happened upon in Sri Lanka. A hipster’s dream, the upper-floor of this open restaurant is pretty much just an open space with low tables, and beanbags ready for you to sink into after a hard day walking up Ella Rock. The beer is more expensive than elsewhere, but at 3 euro, you can’t really complain (especially when you’ve been living in the UAE the past five months). There’s also decent wi-fi; an anomaly in Sri Lanka.
How to get the train from Ella to Kandy
Well, actually on this point we can tell you absolutely zilch. This is the famous train ride around here and we were hell-bent on getting a ticket when we arrived the day before our prospective leave date. However, we were told every time the next day was sold out – a trend that repeated itself every day for three weeks. Apparently the Sri Lankans book up these seats pretty damn fast, especially over a weekend.
So, in short: book this train at least three weeks in advance. It costs you the same whether you want to go to the neighbouring town, or all the way to Colombo, too.