City Wars: Ella or Haputale?

Ella or Haputale? It may not exactly compare with Rome vs Paris, but more and more travellers are finding themselves debating between these two great Sri Lankan hill towns. Ella has long been Sri Lanka’s lone non-beach backpacker mainstay and is a standard entry on every Sri Lanka bucket list. However, its ever increasing popularity is leading more people to opt for the far less touristy Haputale (HA-poo-ta-la) instead. The following comparison may be (will be) extremely subjective but can still help you make a decision for your next Sri Lankan visit.

Ella

Ella’s popularity is undeniable, with so many things to do, plus terrific hiking and the closest thing to a backpacker vibe outside the surfing beaches. As often happens, however, its popularity is becoming a problem, and at times it can be hard to tell you are actually in Sri Lanka with waves of foreign faces lining the town’s 2-3 streets as far as the eye can see. The thing is, there are so many great beaches that all the tourists are spread out across 20 or more locations. But before they finish off their trip by lazing around on the sand, drinking beer, surfing and sweating like a British dart champion, they all converge in pretty little Ella. We did it backwards, starting on the beach and eventually making our way up into the hills after sufficiently decompressing from our time trekking in the Himalayas.

One of the main benefits of this popularity – especially for people like us who are fine with occasional rice and curry and rotti and dhal, etc. but don’t really love it like some do – is that Ella has probably the best variety and quality of international food anywhere in the country. Unlike the Trip Advisor reviewers who sound sheepish about actually enjoying any meal that isn’t traditionally Sri Lankan, I have no problem admitting that I was seriously pumped that during our time in Ella I was able to have a great pizza (MozzarElla), an excellent burger (Café Chill), and an even better burrito (Café UFO). Believe me, just by default you are going to eat a lot of local Sri Lankan food. It is the main choice almost everywhere, is often terrific and always decent. But, for us, Ella’s bevy of western choices was a welcome change.

Demodara Nine Arch Bridge

This iconic and picturesque train bridge is Ella’s signature attraction, has become an Instagram sensation, and is especially popular when one of the classic old trains is crossing. We actually visited twice, the first time during peak late morning hours. There was a wildly diverse group of people, from guided groups to Sri Lankan school kids to European women struggling down the steep, muddy trails in party dresses and absurd high heels. You can either take a tuk-tuk to one of the various short approach trails, or you can walk to/from the bridge along the tracks themselves. We then decided to head out again the next day just after sunrise to simultaneously see the train and avoid the crowds, which was a much different – and preferable – experience.

Our first time there, I was all eager and energetic and decided to scramble all the way down the steep slope of the adjacent tea field, in the spirit of exploration and in search of different angles. Unfortunately, the views from below paled in comparison to those more easily reached above, and I suspect that is where I picked up my parasitic little hitchhiker, the pretty disgusting and grossly engorged leech I only discovered on my hip later in the shower, continuing his slow but relentless journey down into places where he was far less welcome. It had been a long time since we had to deal with leeches and, I admit, I didn’t handle it at all the way you’re supposed to. No patient salt treatment or meticulous removal using a match, nope, just a panicky scraping and pulling that left me bleeding for the next couple hours (a problem when low on underwear as it is) and itching for the next week. The next day, Laynni found one on her ankle and, despite the error of my ways, we dealt with it in similar fashion, and with similar results.

Along with their famous bridge, Ella features 3 more main attractions:

Little Adam’s Peak

The original Adam’s Peak (or Sri Pada), near the city of Nuwara Eliya, is a very sacred peak featuring a large rock that is, supposedly, the 2-metre footprint of Adam from when he was expelled from Eden. However, Buddhists believe it is actually the footprint of Buddha. Hindus, well, they’re pretty sure that shape matches up with Shiva’s trainers. I’m not sure what the Muslims think, but I’m guessing it has something to do with Mohammed. Regardless of which one you believe, or even if you suspect it is simply a weird rock with a great view, it has become an important pilgrimage site, with thousands tackling the several-hour climb every December. We did not climb this peak.

Little Adam’s Peak, on the other hand, is very close to Ella and only takes about 45 minutes to walk to from town, or a mere 15 minutes of climbing from the closest point you can reach by tuk-tuk. It is called this because its shape, apparently, looks a lot like its more famous relation and – I’m guessing – because a long time ago some clever tourism official decided to capitalize on this well-known name. Regardless, it is a nice, short hike, a bit tiring and hot later in the morning but not overly difficult, and there are amazing views from the top. At least there are if you aren’t completely clouded in when you arrive, like we were the first time. However, we returned the next day in bright sun, all’s well that ends well.

Ella Rock

This picturesque peak looms over the town from everywhere around Ella and the hike to the summit offers great scenery from an occasionally challenging trail. It starts with about half an hour walking along the train tracks then veers off past Ravana Falls and through farms and tea fields. The last 20 minutes is a bit of a rugged clamber up a rocky trail (streaming with water when we were there) and some slippery, muddy trails. I wouldn’t classify it as “difficult”, but you definitely want to wear proper shoes and take your time, especially if it has rained recently. It is possible to turn it into a partial loop and return past the Ravana Falls viewpoint. From our guesthouse just a few minutes along the tracks from town, the whole trip took about 3 hours including 15-20 minutes at the top.

Ravana Falls

Even if you don’t feel like going all the way to the top of Ella Rock it is worth hiking the half an hour or so past Ravana Falls to a terrific viewpoint of the valley, tracks and falls.

Final note about Ella:

We have never seen so many people using train tracks as a main walking thoroughfare. It seems like every attraction around Ella is reached via the tracks and at any given time there are dozens of other people using them to get around. They can be awfully handy when there is mud everywhere, like during our visit, but the spacing of the ties seems just a touch shorter than a normal footstep, making walking on them awkward after a while, and in some spots the spacing is pretty erratic. Don’t be looking around or letting your mind wander, that’s all I’m saying.

Haputale

The classic highland train between Ella and historic Kandy is an incredibly scenic journey and one of the biggest attractions in all of Sri Lanka. We did it in two stages, first riding the rails from Ella to lesser-known Haputale, just an hour away. Haputale is sometimes referred to as “Little Ella” because of its similarly impressive highland scenery and even cooler highland weather. Since it actually has about 10,000 more people than Ella the “little” part seems a bit off, although it certainly fits if you are strictly counting tourists, as Haputale only gets a fraction of those that flock to see its more famous neighbour.

Interestingly, while no one in Ella ever mentioned Haputale, everyone in the Haputale tourist industry seems very obsessed with how they compare to Ella (like Canada and the U.S., or New Zealand and Australia, or the Arctic and Antarctica). Even our tuk-tuk driver did his loyal best to get us to say we liked Haputale better. Clearly, they see all the foreign cash flowing into Ella and don’t understand why the difference is so great when they boast very similar highlights.

Our time in Haputale got off to a rocky start when we arrived to learn – through a fair bit of disbelief, trial and error – that the hotel we had reserved through Booking.com no longer existed, and apparently had been shut down for over 2 months. Of course, when the tuk-tuk driver told us this and tried to take us elsewhere we were extremely skeptical, as this is a classic taxi scam the world over. As it turns out, though, he was right, so we ended up doing a little scrambling before lucking out at a great place just a couple kilometres out of town. Normally, our hotel choices are all about location (well, location and decent showers) but the incredible views from Leisure Mount View Holiday Inn more than made up for the minor commute and clumsily crowded name. Overall, there seem to be a lot of accommodation options in Haputale in every price range, so there really isn’t much to choose between the two towns in this regard.

When it comes to food, however, Ella has a significant advantage. There just doesn’t seem to be that many restaurants in Haputale, and really only one place that seems geared toward tourists (the unfortunately named Lettuce and Cabbage with its fantastic chicken schnitzel). This may be perfectly acceptable if you are sticking to your guns when it comes to rice and curry and other traditional Sri Lankan fare (we had an awesome traditional buffet at our hotel and could highly recommend the noodles, curries and ice cream at Golden Hill Tea Centre), but if you’d like a bit of variety, Ella is definitely the better choice.

As for attractions:

Lipton’s Seat

This is by far the most popular tourist excursion in the area. On a clear day you can see as far as the ocean from this outstanding viewpoint located up at the very top of a huge tea plantation. On a cloudy, rainy, overall shitty day like the one we had, you will certainly not see the ocean, but the lush, photogenic tea fields are still a genuine pleasure to explore. We took a 1,000 rupee ($US5.50), 45-minute tuk-tuk trip to the top, then meandered 7 kilometres down on foot along and through the fields, getting great photos, watching the hardy tea pickers in action and following school kids on shortcuts through the fields (from a carefully non-stalker distance, of course). It was amazing. Then we took a bus back to Haputale from the Dambathenne Tea Factory which cost less than 50 cents for the two of us.

Tea Fields

It should be mentioned that there are tea fields everywhere around Haputale. Every time the skies cleared at all we ventured out into the fields surrounding our hotel and really enjoyed just wandering along the small rural roads and exploring the paths through the fields. No matter where you end up staying, there are fun field wanders to be had nearby.

Unfortunately, since it rained nearly the whole time we were there we did not get to the other “main” attractions of the area, but here is what we know about them:

Idalgashinna Railway Station

One of the most popular things to do in Haputale is take a very short train journey to the very next stop, Idalgashinna, then walk back along the tracks enjoying the extraordinary scenery along the way.

St. Benedict’s Monastery in Adisham

This is a popular day trip from town by tuk-tuk, although it is also possible to walk. Some people get a ride to here and then hike to Idalgashinna and walk back along the tracks, conveniently combining the two.

Diyaluma Falls

These impressive falls are anywhere from 3rd to 5th highest in Sri Lanka depending on how you classify some of the others. They take about 1.5 hours to reach from Haputale. A tuk-tuk will take you there, wait a couple hours, and bring you back for roughly 3,500 rupees ($US18). You can apparently climb all the way to the top and swim in several different spots. It sounds pretty cool (although we suspected less so in the pouring rain, so passed on it). Because it is so far away and almost as easily reached from Ella, I am reluctant to even include it here. However, since everyone in Haputale seems to promote it as their own special thing I thought it should be mentioned.

Bambarakanda Falls

The tallest waterfall in Sri Lanka at 263 metres, you’d think this would be the bigger attraction. However, when we asked about it we were generally discouraged in favour of Diyaluma since you can’t climb or swim at Bambarakanda and many of the views are obscured by trees.

Accommodation in the Sri Lankan Highlands

Village View Guesthouse

 This super-friendly place is just up a hill out of town and the directions actually include the phrase “walk along the tracks until…”. The train passes by just below the hotel and the ability to watch it going by should outweigh the occasional noise issue for most. Breakfast was tremendous and the views were superb. From our balcony we had clear views of Ella Rock, Ravana Falls, Little Adam’s Peak and the valley all the way down to the plains.

Leisure Mount View Holiday Inn

Nice, modern and with a slightly upmarket feel, the insane views more than make up for the short commute from town (less than $US1) and slightly higher price tag (we paid $US30 including breakfast with a slight last-minute discount). Their traditional Sri Lankan meals were outstanding (the portions almost comically large), the service and wifi were both great, and you can walk directly from the hotel into a vast maze of photogenic tea fields. Connoisseurs of steaming hot showers may be slightly disappointed but everything else was top-notch. We were even offered a room with a mysteriously swinging bed, but opted for a more conservative – and stationary – option.

We liked our first tuk-tuk driver enough to take his number and use his services throughout our stay. Anpas (+94 77 987 2233) is an extremely friendly, knowledgeable and, most importantly, reliable guy who we would highly recommend. We just messaged him through WhatsApp any time we wanted a ride and he would show up (even waiting outside our hotel at 5:55 am to take us to Lipton’s Seat at 6 am). I make no promises as to the spelling of his name, however.

If you aren’t using these yet, you can get a $C25 credit to set up an account with Booking.com or a $C45 credit to sign up with AirBnB.

Conclusion

In reality, these places are so different I wouldn’t necessarily call it an either/or decision. Ella’s backpacker scene, great restaurants and convenient attractions are well worth a few days of your time. Meanwhile, Haputale features widespread amazing scenery but its specific destinations require more transportation. For those who would rather avoid the tourist crowds, however, Haputale offers a much more authentic Sri Lankan experience. It truly feels like you are off the beaten tourist trail.

However, while they like to point out that they have “6 things to see and Ella only has 4”, that math is questionable since half of “their” attractions are just as easily visited from Ella. Also, I think their 6 includes a bird sanctuary that most people agree is fine, except it doesn’t have many birds. So, I replaced it with the tea fields as a whole which, for us, were the main highlight anyway.

One local in Haputale suggested his city was preferable because “you only see white faces in Ella”,  which is mostly true (assuming you lump the Far Asians and Caucasians together), you just have to decide how much you care about that sort of thing. Ella is extremely touristy and, some may say, overrun. However, regardless of how many tourists are around, it still has 4 excellent scenic attractions that are all within easy walking distance of town, none of which require an entrance fee. That is pretty unusual, and hard to beat. So, in conclusion, if at all possible, I would recommend visiting both. However, if time constraints require you to choose one or the other, I would go with Ella. As usual, the most popular places got that way for a reason.

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Other useful articles you may want to check out:

How to Travel on a Budget

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Roam: The 9 Greatest Trips on Earth

Burning Travel Questions

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Slow Travel – Settling in for the Long Haul

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