We stared at the cornflower blue train with some trepidation. We were about to embark on what is widely dubbed "the most beautiful train journey in the world"; the Kandy-to-Ella journey that takes you high into Sri Lanka's hill country, sailing past tea plantations, forests, waterfalls and rustic villages. So why the nervousness?
Having booked our tickets only two days before, the only passage we could get was in third class - the cheapest option available and a world away from the comfortable air conditioned first class carriage that had carried us from Colombo to Kandy just a few days earlier. Third class seemed incredibly busy, with local people hanging out the windows and the doors, and the chatter often reaching deafening volumes. As much as we strive for authentic experiences when travelling, would six hours sat so firmly out of our comfort zone ruin what was supposed to be a beautiful and tranquil journey?
We climbed the steps to board the train and were immediately plunged into a chaotic scene, as people tried to squash past our huge backpacks which were blocking the narrow aisle, with no free seats immediately apparent. Then an old Sri Lankan man, sat with his family, waved us over. "Here! Here!" he enthused, directing us to the wooden seat opposite.
It would become slowly apparent that the third class option would not in fact ruin the journey, but dramatically enhance it, transforming it into a sensational adventure among the dreamy Sri Lankan countryside.
The train chugged through unimaginable scenery; the picturesque terraces of the tea plantations soaring up to the skyline as waterfalls tumbled over golden rocks and plunged deep into the verdant valleys. We took it in turns to sit by the window so we could capture the best views. Every so often we'd spy a colonial building among the plantations, at which points our friendly travelling companion would jump up excitedly and - using charades - urge us to take pictures.
Whenever we stopped at one of the quaint yellow stations along the track, the compartments would fill with the scent of Sri Lankan spices as food vendors boarded the train and sold us deliciously greasy treats, which were served wrapped in the pages of old maths textbooks. We shared them with the family we were sat with, who in turn, looked on with much amusement whenever the snacks we'd bitten into became too spicy for our uneducated Western palates.
Sri Lanka is unequivocally, unimaginably green, with every possible surface covered in lush vegetation - and yet it is impossible to become bored by the view. It certainly was the most beautiful train journey I'd ever been on.
When it regrettably came to an end, we parted ways with our friends, who treated us to the famed Sri Lankan "head wobble". This inimitable gesture is broadly a sign of agreement or friendship, accompanied by a wide smile, and can definitely take you aback when you first see it.
Trekking in Ella
We had finally arrived in Ella - the predicted highlight of our time in Sri Lanka - and we were ready to trek.
Ella boasts a rather unique mix of cultures. As a tiny village nestled high up in the nation's tranquil tea country, it retains a peaceful and bohemian vibe, with plenty of hammocks and yoga opportunities. Due to this ethereal quality, however, it is very popular among visitors, and a number of Western bars and restaurants, and expensive resorts, have sprung up. This made it much easier to access beer, wine and (of course) pizza, than our other destinations, which were all relatively dry.
The two most famous treks in Ella are Ella Rock - a half-day hike up a steep rock - and Little Adam's Peak, a gentler and more well-trodden ramble. You'll have no trouble finding a guide to take you up either, but we decided to navigate for ourselves, which turned out to be both rewarding, and simpler than we'd anticipated.
On our first day in Ella, we woke up to a stunning view, mist dancing atop the mountain vista and the sun shining on the valley. We enjoyed a vast breakfast of omelette, toast and fruit before pulling on our walking boots and googling how to get to the top of Ella Rock!
We were a little nervous about tackling this 4-5 hour trek on our own, especially as so many of the instructions online differed slightly, with many noting previous markings on rocks intended to guide the way had worn off with time.
The first part of our journey took us back to Ella Station where, against every instinct, we were to hop off the platform, turn left, and follow the tracks for half an hour or so, to a turning left somewhere between waymarkers 166 ½ and 166 ¼. The walk along the tracks was exhilarating - and not just because it felt like we definitely shouldn't be doing it! As we stepped carefully along the wooden tracks, we spotted a couple of cows grazing at the sides of the tracks and passed local people, who seemed to use the tracks as a walkway with no fear of trains.
We found the left turn, and passed a small waterfall where we took another left turn and clambered up some rocks to find ourselves on a pleasant stroll through a peaceful tea plantation. From there, we followed the path through tall grass up to a rustic cafe - and that's where the trek began in earnest.
Through a fairytale forest of sky-scraping trees lay a fantastic viewpoint where you could see hints of the famous Ella Gap and look out to Little Adam's Peak, as Ella Rock rose sharply to our right. Then it was time for the steep climb through the trees and rocks of the forest, all the way up to the summit. This was a relatively difficult climb in the heat, and in some places we had to cling to trees and roots to steady ourselves. Being 5"3 I had to do some of the climbing on my hands and knees where there were large rocks: it's safe to say we were covered in mud and leaves by the time we reached the top.
At the top there were a group of Sri Lankan teenagers posing for pictures with the immense view. As we waited for them, the evening mist started to come in, meaning that by the time a man on a motorbike (somehow) had come to pick them up and it was our turn, the view was unfortunately completely obscured. This is one of the reasons it's best to do this trek in the morning - and not sleep in as we did!
Two friendly stray dogs that had been hanging around at the top of the rock led us all the way back to Ella - a journey which took around two hours - waiting for us at every turn and leading us back along the railway tracks.
That night we were pretty worn out, so we ordered two portions of "kottu roti" from the takeaway opposite. This is a Sri Lankan fast food favourite which has chopped up roti mixed with vegetables and spices, and is a must-try for anyone visiting the country.
And after a night of sound sleep, interrupted only by a cockroach landing on my face and causing me to throw the laptop next to me across the room in panic, we were ready for another trek!
Little Adam's Peak
The trail to Little Adam's Peak - named after the bigger Adam's Peak in central Sri Lanka - started outside our hotel. We followed the road, past a man touting a snake and a costumed monkey to tourists, past groups of local women clad in colourful, glittering dresses, and past a high-end yoga retreat in the hills, to reach the base of the mountain.
From there it was a simple walk up various sets of stairs to the top - no real climbing was required.
The panorama at the top was incredible. A circular platform allows for a 360 degree view of the surrounds, and we stood there for a while, drinking in the imposing Ella Rock, the famed Ella Gap, and the other, smaller peaks nearby.
From the platform, you can go to the iconic viewpoint of Little Adam's Peak: a rock that precariously juts out from the side of the mountain. Sri Lanka is amazing for landscapes and scenery, but the one from this rock is absolutely up there with the view from the top of Sigiriya Rock.
There are a number of other small peaks you can scale from the top of Adam's Peak, and if you have any energy left, it's worth the effort. However, if this is your plan, make sure you wear walking boots! I learned the hard way that trainers wouldn't suffice when I skidded down the side of one of these mountains, cutting myself on rocks in the process.
After our trekking expeditions, we decided it was time for our reward: beer. There are a number of bars and restaurants in Ella village, which is quite unique in Sri Lanka, where the approach to drinking is somewhat different. You can also take cooking classes, and wander down the road for another view of the Ella Gap, where all the mountains align for a stunning sunset view.
We visited the local post office, dating from colonial days, which looked like it had been transported there directly from pages of an old book, and bought some postcards to send home. When we asked around, the locals all pointed us to the same place: Cafe Chill. We whiled away the rest of the day drinking Sri Lankan lion beer, eating curry and playing cards; generally unwinding from hectic Kandy and our outdoor activities in Ella.
If we'd have known however, that this would be one of our last drinks for a while due to the Buddhist festival of Vesak, however, we might have made more of it.
Was Ella everything we expected?
Ella was absolutely incredible, and even more beautiful than I could have anticipated. In fact, I wish we had spent longer there.
The opportunities for walking allow you to immerse yourself in the stunning scenery, and the quiet atmosphere made for a welcome contrast with the big cities of Colombo and Kandy. Everywhere you look is just breathtaking, from the peaks of the surrounding mountains, to the lush vegetation at the side of the roads. It had enough restaurants, bars and amenities to make us feel comfortable, and tuk-tuks were easy to come by, but it also felt totally different to anywhere else I've ever been.
In many ways, it was one of the more touristy places we visited in Sri Lanka, but it also feels very safe and retains its peaceful atmosphere; the special Ella magic is very much intact. We left Ella for Mirissa on a packed bus, happy, refreshed, and determined to return one day.