Hikkaduwa Sri Lanka is a beach city in Southwest part of the country, about two hours south of Columbo. It’s famous for beach resorts, giant sea turtles, scuba diving, moonstone mining, and being ground zero for the devastating 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. Every year, more tourists come to Hikkaduwa and the industry is thriving. There is plenty to do in Hikkaduwa. A lot of these activities are good, but be you should prepare yourself. Some Hikkaduwa attractions are meh and some are outright ugly. That’s why we bring you Hikkaduwa Sri Lanka – the good, the meh, and the ugly.
Good Activities in Hikkaduwa Sri Lanka
Visiting Hikkaduwa Sea Turtles
To be honest, sea turtles are what brought us to Hikkaduwa. (actually, the train did). We heard stories of turtle hatcheries and wild turtles visiting the beaches so we had to check it out for ourselves. We saw 2-day old turtles swimming at the hatchery and went down to the beach to find turtles grazing on seagrass. They were every bit as beautiful as we could hope for, so mission success!
Pro Tip: The best turtle watching is in front of the Hikka Tranz at dawn.
Staying at Beach Resorts in Hikkaduwa
Let’s be honest, Hikkaduwa isn’t Honolulu so you have to set your expectations correctly. We stayed at the Coral Sands Hotel with a balcony that opened to the ocean, an infinity pool we could watch the sunset from, and a really good breakfast buffet. (and Sunday dinner too!). The rooms were a little dated and the wi-fi was a little slow but for ~$70 a night, we got our money’s worth.
The Hikka Tranz by Cinnamon, down the street from the Coral Reef Hotel, was fancier with a nicer pool and group activities, but it was a little bit more expensive. We did some searching once we got to Hikkaduwa and learned something really interesting.
You could play a little game of price chicken and not book all your nights ahead of time. That way, if the really nice hotel down the street opens up deep discounts, you can move over. You can also decide that the uglies are just too ugly and move on down the coast to a new city once you work through the good activities in Hikkaduwa.
Pro-Tip: We found a massive price drop with online shopping once we got in country.
Exploring Hikkaduwa Coral Reefs
Sri Lanka is famous for its coral reefs and the Hikkaduwa Coral Reef is located just outside the Coral Sands Hotel. You can bring a mask and snorkel from home or rent gear for cheap on the beach. Either way, we saw more tropical fishes in knee-deep water on the reef then we saw during our scuba diving trip. This is such an cheap and easy activity anybody who can swim owes it to themselves to check it out if they’re ever in Hikkaduwa.
Pro-Tip: If you wait for the breakers to crash on the outer reef at low tide, the water is amazingly calm and clear.
Visiting the Ambalangoda Mask Workshop and Museum
Sri Lankan folklore has a whole host of Demons including the power and cruel Reeri Yakseya and the most power demon, Maha Sona. There are many other demons, each associate with a particular disorder. Victims who are believed to be cursed by demons can be cured through exorcism rituals. These rituals are long, elaborate. Dancers wearing masks of demons and dance to the beat of drums offering presents to the demons. If the demon is satisfied, he leaves the victim to continue with their life unaffected.
The Ambalangoda Mask Workshop and Museum portrays this rich cultural history that spans all of the indigenous tribes of Sri Lanka and the plethora of demons they have created. It’s fascinating and very visually stimulating. No photographs are permitted inside. We were able to photograph the artisan workshop they have on site and can highly recommend the gift shop for some beautiful, high-end souvenirs. If you have any interest in indigenous Sri Lankan culture, this would be a great activity for you.
Pro-Tip: Check out the Ambalangoda Mask Workshop and Museum for high end, unique, handcrafted souvenirs.
Shopping in Hikkaduwa
The Ambalangoda Mask Museum isn’t the only place to spend money or buy a mask. Masks are available at all of the tourist shops that line the main road. We have a little Coleman Concierge tradition of bringing home a trinket from each adventure. We went on a multi-day hunt for one specific turtle statue we found that was inlaid with shells. It was a great excuse to visit all the shops. About 80% of the merchandise was common and could be found in every shop, but a few items were really unique and special.
Shopping was also a great excuse to talk with the locals. We entered a gem shop and saw the owner playing solitaire. We immediately guessed he was a bit lonely and mathematically inclined. Both items were true. At first, we talked about how the town was changing with tourism but eventually, we started talking about his children and how he felt coming to America.
He visited several times but never appreciated our bland and fatty food. He also disliked how much time he was stuck inside watching TV while his kids worked their jobs. It’s a good reminder that home is where the heart is. On a side note, the kids in Sri Lanka private school take their chess seriously! His 6th-grade grandson kicked my ass pretty good at the grand game.
Pro-Tip: Make sure you talk to the shop owners and treat everybody with respect.
Enjoying the Expat Scene in Hikkaduwa
Usually, I am not huge on the expat scene because I am in a foreign country to meet foreign people. In Hikkaduwa, our two favorite restaurants happened to be expat joints. Salty Swamis had a great food, and perhaps even more importantly, great coffee. Chamis Place had kottu roti that was amazeballs.
Kottu roti is flaky flatbread stir-fried with eggs and spices. Almost like a Sri Lankan version of fried rice, but with cut up slivers of flatbread. It’s simple, savory and oh so yummy. There were a lot of places claiming the best roti but Chamis Place is our pick by far.
Pro Tip: Eat at Salty Swamis and Chamis Place, super yum.
Scuba Diving in Hikkaduwa
The reefs in Hikkaduwa claimed several ships and reasonable diving companies service local dive sites. We learned our lesson in Koh Tao and spent the little bit of extra money for Dive for You, which is on the grounds of the Hikka Tranz. They offered great equipment and excellent customer service.
The diving was good and definitely catered to experienced divers, unlike the turn and burn school we saw in Thailand. The diving was decent, but it wasn’t excellent. The vis was about 50’ and the sea life was present, but not abundant. In fact, a fishing boat set anchor at our dive site after we left. We did two wreck dives with reasonable hull integrity. My favorite part was clearly seeing the mast and rigging of an old sailing ship.
Pro Tip: Dive for You has 4.7 stars on Yelp and two thumbs up from us
River Tours Near Hikkaduwa
There were plenty of tour companies in Hikkaduwa and each of them offered some kind of a tour package. We love package deals so we signed up for one with many stops that included a river tour. We were excited from the start, boats are fun and we saw some interesting sites.
We started off going through a narrow tunnel cut through mangroves. Then we tooled around on the Maduganda River and saw scary animals including crocodiles, giant lizards, and a huge colony of vampire bats. We also saw life on the river with a couple of temples and fisherman working their nets. To finish off the day, took the river to the sea and watched the waves come crashing in. Between the boat ride and eye candy, the river tour got bumped into the good things to do in Hikkaduwa.
Pro Tip: Bring binoculars, there is a lot to see from a distance.
Hikkaduwa Tsunami Museum
On December 26, 2004, an earthquake struck the Indian Ocean. The resulting tsunami hit Sri Lanka. Within the next two weeks, the death toll had risen to 30,196 confirmed deaths, mostly in the southern and eastern coasts including Hikkaduwa. Just outside of Hikkaduwa the holiday train “Queen of the Sea” was engulfed by the wave, killing at least 1,700 passengers on that single train. A giant Buddha stands on that spot now, but it doesn’t tell the story the way the Hikkaduwa Tsunami Museum did.
30,000 deaths is a huge number. It’s roughly the amount of US Navy casualties in the Pacific Theater during all of WWII. Still, it doesn’t hit home until you start seeing pictures. The museum starts with pictures of the beach with all of the water receded and random tourists exploring the newly formed tide pools. You wonder how many of those people are statistics now. Then you see the water coming in and covering everything. Then you see bodies, lots of bodies. What hit me the hardest were the kids and the tourists. They were people here on vacation, just like me and they never came home. All of a sudden, a faceless statistic became real in my life.
Pro Tip: The Tsunami Museum is graphic. Plan accordingly.
The Meh Things to Do in Hikkaduwa Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka Surfing
I learned to surf in San Diego, so the rumors of big waves Sri Lanka lured me in. I was skeptical watching surfing lessons right off the beach. That beautiful reef did a great job keeping any sizable waves off the beach. It was great for snorkeling but iffy for surfing.
I rented a board at the beach and paddled out a bit. If the tides were right, you might catch some decent action on the reef, but it’s difficult to read and there are spots (and tides) where you would hit bottom. There were some options for catching standing waves on the reef break, but a lot of small boats head in and out of there so it just didn’t seem like a good idea.
Pro Tip: If you are under 150 pounds you could probably get up at the beach on a learn to surf lesson. If you’re heavier or know how to surf, head south to Galle or a break that’s hitting better.
Transportation to the Colombo Airport
The railroad from Colombo south is the best and fastest line in Sri Lanka. They rebuilt a modern line after the 2004 tsunami wiped the old tracks out. The problem is that it only runs north to downtown and then you have to catch taxi about 20 miles through thick traffic to the airport.
Alternatively, you can book a shuttle straight to the airport from Hikkaduwa on the expressway. This option bypasses the congestion of downtown but is more expensive. There really should be a better way from the airport to the main station.
Pro Tip: Shop around for airport transportations. Prices vary considerably.
Sri Lankan Food
We hit Hikkaduwa after a week of touring the interior and eating at all kinds of local places. The food options in Hikkaduwa felt more touristy. Not bad, but not a way to experience Sri Lanka culinary culture. Our big exception to this was the Sunday dinner at Coral Sands. There we dined on the grass just off the beach and their spread was off the hook. It wasn’t super cheap but it wasn’t bad either. The reviews say the buffet at the Hikka Tranz is great as well.
Pro Tip: Come hungry for the beach resorts’ dinner buffets.
Long Haul Day Trips Around Sri Lanka
As we stated earlier, there is no shortage of people selling tour packages in Hikkaduwa. Taking a safari to Yala National Park or a trip to Galle makes logistic sense if you really want to home base in Hikkaduwa, but the hotel prices seem to be less that way, so it might make more sense to city-hop down the coast.
We saw longer trips to Dambulla, Sigiriya, even Polonnaruwa that are a very long drive in and minimal time there during the hottest and busiest time of the day to enjoy the activity. The long distance definitely warrants a city move to really enjoy what the interior offers. If you have time, consider traveling Sri Lanka’s scenic train route from Colombo to Kandy to Ella. It’s supposed to be an amazing journey. For more advice and reccomendations to help you get around Sri Lanka, check out this guide to public transport.
Pro Tip: Plan your overnight stays to minimize the drive on day trips
Sri Lanka as a Discount Eastern Europe Destination
There were a lot of Russian tourists in Sri Lanka. Apparently, they have a few cheap routes entering the country and it’s a great way to escape the cold and catch some sun. Almost every guide could speak both English and Russian. Speaking with these guides, the requirement to learn Russian was relatively new so imagine the vacation routes are just getting going.
Being a child of the 80’s, it was kind of cool to hear Russian spoken and seen the Cyrillic alphabet. That wasn’t the issue at all. It’s just that these tourists were looking for budget warmth and sunshine while I spent a premium for exotic destinations and authentic experiences. It is hard for the industry to cater to both sets of clients.
Pro Tip: If you’re in Eastern Europe, consider booking for Sri Lanka
The Main Road in Hikkaduwa
Koh Tao was almost paradise, except for the busy road running through town. Hikkaduwa Sri Lanka is worse. All night long, you could hear the beep beep of buses playing chicken in the middle of the road as they swerved around tuk-tuks. The sidewalks were spotty at best so you were always looking over your shoulder to enter the fray. I wouldn’t say I felt my life was in danger, but I didn’t get a peaceful easy feeling.
Pro Tip: Walk the beach whenever possible. It’s faster and much more chill.
The Vibe in Hikkaduwa
The Sri Lankan people are warm and wonderful, don’t get me wrong. How can I explain this…. If I picked one word to describe Jamaica it would be the laid back reggae greeting Irie. For Costa Rica is the optimistic epitome, Pura Vida. For Sri Lanka, I would say the vibe is “duty”. Fabulous people, but a funny vibe for a beach holiday. All the signs that say no swimwear off the beach warning you of potential repercussions tells you something.
Pro Tip: Find the vibe at a club, not the beach.
The Ugly Side of Hikkaduwa Sri Lanka
Hikkaduwa Turtle Tourism
We came to Hikkaduwa for the turtles. A lot of people come for the turtles. So much so everybody is cashing in. There is a cottage industry of men, aka turtle whisperers, who work for tips enticing turtles to interact with tourists. There is also any number of turtle hatcheries.
In my dreams, a turtle hatchery is a secluded stretch of sand where generation after generation of turtles return to lay eggs in the secluded enclave. During the hatch, well-wishers stand vigil to keep predators at bay as the hatchlings waddle across the wet sand to their new ocean home. In reality, there are no wild turtles hatched in Sri Lanka anymore.
Instead, fishermen make good money finding freshly laid nests and sell these eggs to turtle hatcheries. This is much better than selling the eggs to restaurants for sure but something is missing. The hatcheries seem to be doing a good job incubating the eggs, raising babies for three days and releasing them into the wild. They even have a permanent home for injured turtles and mutant turtles. More than a kids cartoon, turtles have an abnormally high mutation rate.
Through these efforts, the turtle population in Sri Lanka is skyrocketing, but the magic is missing. Hatchlings don’t make that epic journey to the sea and the world just feels a little duller for it.
Pro Tip: Turtle hatcheries smell like fish. Be aware.
Sri Lankan Herb Gardens
We came to Sri Lanka to experience Ayurveda and have some great tips on how to find the best Ayurveda in Sri Lanka. Spoiler alert, it isn’t in a tourist trap in Hikkaduwa. What we saw and experienced in Hikkaduwa felt more like the Ayurvedic hustle.
We came to the herb garden as part of a package tour. It seemed innocuous enough to take a little garden tour. The botany lesson wasn’t half bad but I wasn’t buying the miraculous cures pepper and pineapples could bring. It seemed fishy that every common ailment is cured by simple topical ointments derived from Ayurveda and nobody in the west has figured it out yet.
That would have just been meh but it reached ugly with the hard sell of miracle cures from the unpriced store in back combined with guilt and indignation when you didn’t want to pay. This would have been a great time to start speaking Russian so he knew I wouldn’t be pushed around.
Pro Tip: If you don’t know Russian, at least learn the name of the cheapest hostel in town. They set prices based on which hotel you’re staying at.
Hikkaduwa’s Moonstone Mines
I was legitimately excited to visit the moonstone mines. I love geology and saw some of the amazing specimens coming from Sri Lanka at the Tucson gem show. What we got was a facade, to rouse and hustle.
We drove up into the hills around Hikkaduwa to what might have actually been a mine, but I don’t suspect that’s their primary income anymore. The owner, or maybe just a guide/salesman greeted us to show off the operation. We walked a little way to “the mine shaft” where we got to speak to the mining crew over a communication tube. Somebody somewhere as on the other end of the pipe speaking back to us, kind of like a setup you would find on an upscale piece of playground equipment.
Apparently, there were seven people in the mine that day but they must have been working slowly. There wasn’t a single person up top to receive the moonstone laden earth they were digging or put it through the sluice. In fact, no fresh tillings could be seen anywhere around the sluice.
The plot thickened as we returned to the front of the property. As we approached the workshop, we heard the lapistry machines fire up. What were they doing before? By the time we made visual contact, we could see several craftsmen working on jewelry. Then came the dreaded “which hotel are you staying at?” as we reached the saleroom.
Don’t get me wrong, there were some really beautiful pieces there, but instead of wholesale prices, we got the beach resort markup. Nothing was even close to reasonable. We did find some gorgeous stones in town from a reputable shop owner (from the chess game above) that we happily purchased, just not at the “moonstone mine”.
Pro Tip: Shop for gems in town, not at the tourist traps.
Parting thoughts on Hikkaduwa Sri Lanka
Knowing the good, the meh, and the ugly, would we still visit Hikkaduwa? Absolutely. Sri Lanka is full of amazing nature and history and your trip wouldn’t be complete without seeing the sea. If you like whale watching, they even have those tours too.
Just be aware of meh and ugly. Look for the good and plan the right amount of time to find your fun and move on down the road for more adventure. Unless you are way short on your vitamin sea, Hikkaduwa will be a couple day stop on an epic Sri Lanka journey.