Blessed by nature
he minute we arrived in Colombo, the capital, we decided to break through the chili barrier. While our mouths didn’t go to sleep, which is what happened on the way to the city of Kandy, our first incursion into local cuisine was enough to show us why the streets of Sri Lanka are scented with spice. Cinnamon, vanilla and, first and foremost, tea, are the true gems of this tear-shaped ‘resplendent island’ in the Indian Ocean. The fungal plague that wiped out its coffee plantations in the mid-19th century marked the commencement of tea production in Sri Lanka. The tea produced here is known the world over as Ceylon tea, the name with which the English baptised the island, in 1796.
The tea produced here is known the world over as Ceylon tea.
Tea has influenced the island’s topography. The indigenous elephants were used to deforest more than 200,000 hectares of land, to grow tea plants imported from China. The greatest concentration of plantations is on the hills in the centre of the island, in Nuwara Eliya, where the cool, humid climate is most favourable. The dwindling elephant population now resides in the numerous natural parks, such as Yala and Udawalawe. They live alongside monkeys, buffalo, snakes, deer, birds, leopards and even Komodo dragons. You can easily find these giant lizards bathing in the rivers that line the roads.
Travelling by rail is a great way to see the tea plantations, though it can take four hours to cover 100 km. The train lines are also used to move around on foot. We used the train several times, including to get to the coast. In Galle, Unawatuna, Welligama and Matara, to the south of the island, we found beaches where tourists surf, dive and charter boats to go whale watching. The fishermen cast their nets while mounted on stilts, at dawn and dusk. After helping them bring their nets in, we bought a freshly caught fish off them. We ate it on the spot, accompanied by rice and noodles, prepared by the fishermen themselves. Near Matara you can find Dondra Head Lighthouse. It is the southernmost point of the island and affords fine views of the area from the top. Another beach destination and home to a large number of resorts and sports facilities is Bentota, near Colombo. Arugam Bay, Triconmalee and Pigeon Island, in east Sri Lanka, are havens for surfers and lovers of underwater diving.
Five centuries of Buddhist tradition
The Sri Lankan population is a mixture of races and cultures, primarily of Tamil origin, coming from southeast India. 90% of its inhabitants are Buddhists. This is why there are hundreds of Buddhist temples scattered across the country, where offerings are left, and heartily enjoyed by the monkeys. One of the most curious is the Tissa dagoba, built 1,800 years ago, next to a lake. This was where they worshipped one of Buddha’s teeth, now lost. The influence of Buddhist beliefs is also apparent in the number of child monks and in the schools we came across.
Besides the train, the most common form of transport on the island, not only for short distances, is the tuk-tuk. These motorised tricycles bypass the bustling traffic in the capital, where car horns form part of the daily melody. But, before renting one, bartering is essential. This is also the case if you want to buy a juice drink made with papaya, mango or any of the other fragrant fruits to be found in the higgledy-piggledy markets, like Pettah, Colombo. At this market, only suitable for intrepid adventurers, the friendliness of the locals contrasts the frenetic rhythm of life in the capital.
Further to Colombo, the island’s colonial past – it was governed by the Portuguese, Dutch and English for several centuries – has left its mark on the architecture of cities such as Kandy, Dambulla and Polonnaruva. Western influence lives alongside Buddhist temples. One of the finest is the Golden Temple of Dambulla, a sacred complex erected inside caves, with 153 statues of the Buddha.
We chose to see Sigiriya from Pidurangala, the mountain opposite it.
Not far from there, we decided to visit the most spectacular of the island’s archaeological remains. The ruins of the former palace of Sigiriya, built in the 5th century, can be found at the foot and summit of a rock measuring 370 metres high, formed by hardened lava from a volcanic eruption. But we wanted to do it differently. We chose to see Sigiriya from Pidurangala, the mountain opposite it. The ascent is a mixture of climbing, avoiding loose rocks and waterfalls, and never-ending steps. Without doubt, seeing how Sigiriya shoots up from the jungle and seems to hide itself among the clouds was one of the most memorable sensations on the journey.
The warm, humid Sri Lankan climate allows tea plantations to produce black, green and the popular white variety of tea all year round. Most plantations are located in the mountains in the centre and to the south of the country, more than 1,000 metres above sea level. But there are also plantations that produce varieties of Indian tea on the coastal plains. The most popular Ceylon teas are Nuwara Eliya, Uva Highlands and Dimbula. Picking and manufacturing the tea by hand is a way of life for many families on the island.
Those not afraid of a climb can also visit another of the natural gems of Sri Lanka: Adam’s Peak, a cone-shaped mountain standing 2,200 metres high. The path has lighting to help with the climb, which takes place at night. Beyond an unparalleled view of the surrounding area, the reward for climbing thousands of steps for three hours is seeing the footprint in stone left, depending on your beliefs, by Adam, Shiva or Buddha. Witnessing the dawn from that height is an awesome sight. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the cliff at neighbouring Horton Plains National Park, known as ‘the end of the world’. Perhaps the legends are true and Adam really did set foot in this country. The view from this cloudy forest felt like paradise to us.