Weather & Seasons
Any time of year is a good time to ride in Sri Lanka, except maybe November when it gets very very wet in most places. The island has such a diverse collection of weather patterns that there is somewhere to ride most of the year.
You will need to enjoy riding in hot weather unless you spend all your time in the mountains. Anywhere on the coast and on the flat interior is always going to be the high twenties at least during the day.
The mountains in the middle, meaning Nuwara Eliya, Ella, Hatton, Adam’s Peak are all subject to rain throughout the year, but generally more sporadic than sustained, so you can generally expect some rainy periods and some dry periods throughout a multi-day stay in these areas.
In the central dry zone that is home to Sigiriya, Dambulla, Polonnaruwa, and Anuradhapura, the only really wet periods are October and November, the rest of the year is quite dry. April and May are the hottest months with average highs of 30/86 degrees. Kandy, the second largest city shares this weather pattern, as do the lower hills in that vicinity.
Galle and the beaches to either side of it (Hambantota, Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna, and Mirissa), share a similar weather pattern where the average highs throughout the year only vary by a couple of degrees Celsius (28/82 to 30/86). This area is subject to sustained rain through September to November and again in April and May. All through the year, you can expect a strong but short downpour once the pressure builds up.
|Month||Optimal Cycling Areas|
|January||Dry zone, Central Mountains, East Coast, Southwest Coast|
|February||Dry zone, Central Mountains, East Coast, Galle/Southwest|
|March||Mountains, Galle/Southwest, Southeast|
|June||Dry zone, Mountains, Galle/Southwest|
|July||Dry zone, Mountains, Galle/Southwest|
|August||Dry zone, Mountains, Galle/Southwest|
|September||Dry zone, Mountains, Galle/Southwest|
|October||East, Northeast Coast|
|November||Wet all year round|
|December||Dry zone (closer to Kandy), Mountains, Galle/Southwest|
Roads & Traffic Conditions
Anyone who has been on a general, vehicle-based tour of Sri Lanka will likely be quite shocked when you tell them that you plan to ride a bike there. It is true that most of the main highways are very busy and that the drivers are not at the highly courteous end of the spectrum on these roads.
Once you get off those highways though, there is a vast network of secondary and minor roads, trails, and paths that criss-cross the country. Sri Lanka is the land of tea and tea needs to be transported and for that to happen it needs lots of roads. The legacy of the colonial tea masters means that road infrastructure is widespread and rail is a viable and heavily used conveyance.
These minor roads are quite narrow, lightly used and not sufficiently smooth for vehicles to travel at any pace. Also, there is an understanding that on these narrow roads, there are many pedestrians, kids, animals and people riding bikes, so the vehicles that drive there are cautious and considerate. In fact, the most common vehicle you will encounter is a tuk-tuk or three-wheeler, motorized rickshaw and these generally travel slowly.
In the dry, central area around Sigiriya and Dambulla, there are some very pleasant, hard-packed dirt roads where you can ride along in peace and often site wildlife such as Peafowl, Monkeys, Kingfisher, and Mongoose.
Through the tea plantations you can enjoy the views and the winding road helps to keep it interesting, There are usually Tea Pickers working off in the plantations on the side of the road with a soft chatter coming from these green crops. You’ll see lovely views out over the hills and often typical, colonial-era buildings, usually part of the plantation properties.
The tea country, which is lovely to cycle through, has one very important element and that is elevation. The only truly flat areas in Sri Lanka are the areas close to the coast and the central dry area around Sigiriya. Cycling anywhere else in Sri Lanka is going to involve riding both up and down hills and probably quite a lot of them.
The good news is that the roads were mostly built during a time when vehicles were a lot less powerful than they are now, so the gradient on the roads is generally one that allows a rider to find a comfortable rhythm and stick to it. There are some extraordinarily steep sections, but these are few and where they do exist, do not last for too long. Other than that, the gradient is usually well under 10% average on a sustained climb.
Climbs can last for 15-25 km. at a time with some respite at intervals where the road flattens momentarily. The extra good news is that descents can last for just as long and if you are on a well-equipped bike with hydraulic disc brakes and good tires, you can enjoy these thoroughly. Of course, the more cautious riders will find that the descents are not so steep as to take you out of your comfort zone.
A skilled and experienced tour operator can plan a route for you that will be able to make the most of your preferences for ups, downs, and flats and that may involve using a train or a vehicle to get you through some of the more sustained climbing so that you can enjoy the rest of the riding.
Hotels & Accommodation
Sri Lanka is quite well known for the small-scale villas and tea plantation bungalow properties. These are typically located in the tea growing areas close to mainstay attractions like Nuwara Eliya, Kandy and Hatton as well as the areas just outside Galle on both the coast and the hinterland.
Where these properties exist, they are generally staffed by a caretaker with additional staff brought in to cook for guests when they arrive. Some of these properties are a really special experience and whilst not cheap are something that you can’t experience elsewhere and so are a highly recommended form of accommodation. The challenge on a bike tour, of course, is the placement/location of the property, so whilst we can usually work one or two of these types of properties into a tour, the town based hotels are more the norm.
The cheaper end of the town-based hotels are still often in the early stages of developing the experience among the ownership and staff in running hotels, so the best sleep quality, service, and comfort can be found in the well established, usually 4-5 star properties.
One of our favorites is the Jetwing chain of properties. This local chain has a focus on sustainable building and operating practices and has built some really beautiful properties. There are lots of others and the greatest challenge in planning a bike tour for us is in ensuring availability in these better properties, so as much advance planning as is possible, is advised.
Sri Lanka has a unique cuisine. The tendency, at first sight, is to compare it to Indian cuisine and while you will see some similarities (dahl, for instance), Sri Lankan food tends to be a little lighter. The food found at roadside curry shops for locals can be very spicey, but in the places that cater to both well-off Sri Lankans and foreigners and have a higher level of hygiene usually allow you to add your own chili to a dish.
Some special dishes that we’ve enjoyed over the years are:
- Stewed, young jackfruit curry
- Eggplant cooked in various delicious ways
- Beetroot curry
- Egg Hoppers (a sort of rice pancake made into a bowl with an egg fried in the bottom of it and then fried onions and other items added to it)
Good to note that sometimes in the evenings it can be hard to locate food outside the hotels as most of the local population eat at home. This means that meals are often planned in the hotels and come in the form of a buffet. Usually, a buffet has a lineup of Sri Lankan curries, rice, flat breads and salads, then also has a “western” section. The food is always good, but sometimes you may feel like you are missing the local experience. For this reason, when you are in the more heavily populated areas, it is worth seeking out some more adventurous, local cuisine.
During the days, while riding we often need to settle for a simple meal, either rice and curry without a whole lot of variety or samosas which are delicious, but do become a little monotonous after a while. Thankfully, the range of fruit available through the country is plentiful, so often what we lack in variety at lunch is made up for by the fruit through the rest of the day.