Lonely Planet Sri Lanka (Travel Guide) (2015)
NEGOMBO VIA THE WETLANDS
Head north through the sprawling suburbs of Colombo to the untamed wetland wilderness of Muthurajawela, an area of unspoilt nature close to the ever-expanding capital, before continuing on to the lively beach resort of Negombo.
DISTANCE: 40km (25 miles)
TIME: A leisurely day
POINTS TO NOTE: This is a good route with which to begin or end a visit to Sri Lanka, offering a rare insight into the island’s lagoon and mangrove-fringed coastline as well as the chance to enjoy the party atmosphere of Negombo - one of the island’s liveliest beach resorts, and just a twenty-minute drive from the airport.
One of the largest towns along the west coast, Negombo rose to prominence during the colonial era thanks to its abundant supplies of wild cinnamon. The centre of the town preserves a few reminders of the Dutch period, including the remains of an old fort (converted by the British into a prison and still used as such), a ramshackle old rest house, and the Dutch canal, which arrows due north from Negombo to Puttalam, over 100km (62 miles) away.
Brightly coloured post boxes in Negombo
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
Leave Colombo by 6am at the latest if you want to take the first boat tour of the day and see marsh bird life at its best at the Muthurajawela Wetlands . The first boat leaves daily at 7am, with trips continuing throughout the day until 4pm. Whenever you arrive, it’s a good idea to call in advance to ensure that there’s a boat available.
Driving out of Colombo on the A3 (the main road to the airport), it seems incredible that an ecological haven could be found anywhere near the highway’s cacophony of traffic, factory yards and container terminals. To reach the wetlands, turns of the A3 at the busy suburb of Ja-Ela , heading left down Bopitiya Road (signposted to the Villa Palma hotel) for 3km (2 miles) to reach the reserve.
Arriving at the Muthurajawela Wetlands 1 [map] (Bopitiya, Pamunugama; daily 7am-4pm; charge) you’ll see the compound of thatched huts housing the visitor centre where young and knowledgeable guides offer visitors a talk on the ecology of the reserve before loading them into open boats for the trip itself.
The saltwater wetlands and lagoons are home to abundant bird life as well as to toque macaque monkeys, water monitors and the occasional crocodile. The boat putters down the Hamilton Canal before reaching the southern end of the Negombo Lagoon , a breezy expanse of water running around patches of tangled mangrove swamp with egrets, herons and kingfishers perched in the branches.
One of Sri Lanka’s most attractive commodities, in the eyes of the Dutch, was the plentiful cinnamon that grew wild in the island’s jungles. Cinnamon was in huge demand in Europe, where it was valued for its distinctive flavour and as an aid to digestion. Cinnamon found in the Negombo area was regarded as the sweetest, and hence the most highly prized. Cinnamon was so valuable that it was made a capital offence to damage plants or to trade it illegally. However, Arab traders were more familiar than Dutch naval patrols with the Negombo coast, so smuggling cinnamon was as lucrative for them as it was when sold legally by the Dutch.
Fishing boats in Negombo port
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
Return to the A3 and head north past the turn-off to the Colombo International Airport. Continue down a wide dual carriageway and after 5km (3 miles), turn west at the sign saying 1.85km to Beach Road in Negombo 2 [map] . The railway line is on one side and shops are on the other as you head into the busy town.
Bounding the south side of the old town centre, the Negombo Lagoon is the source of some of the island’s most highly prized seafood, especially its large and juicy prawns. Daily fish auctions are held early in the morning (around 7am) in the busy fish markets in the town centre and at Duwa, both of which are worth a visit at any time of the morning for the sight of crowds of locals haggling animatedly over huge piles of tuna, seer, mullet, crabs and other forms of marine bounty.
St Mary’s Church
In the middle of town stands the stately pink landmark of St Mary’s Church , one of the many large Roman Catholic churches that dot Negombo and the coast north from Colombo. Portuguese missionaries were particularly active in the area, converting many of the local Karava fishermen. Their devotion to Roman Catholicism can still be seen, not only in the churches, but also in the dozens of beautiful little wayside shrines along the main roads around town.
A detour towards the sea runs past the harbour, the main fish-market and St Mary’s College, before emerging into Lewis Place, dotted with innumerable guesthouses and travellers’ cafes. Continue along Lewis Place to Poruthota Road, Ettukala , north of the town, for the main beach and hotel area.
Negombo Beach is very popular with local families
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
After leaving your vehicle in Poruthota Road (or one of the side roads leading inland), it’s a pleasant stroll along this main street. The beach is blocked off from the road by the hotels lining the shore, so you might have to walk through a hotel lobby to reach it. This is a working beach, the preserve of fishermen mending their nets, making reed baskets or working on their vessels in preparation for the night’s fishing.
This part of town is one of the liveliest on the island, particularly at night: a slightly edgy place with a distinct party atmosphere thanks to its above-average number of bars and the crowds of sun-crazed holiday-makers passing through the place and resident expats - a far cry from the sleepier resorts further south. After dark, the strip of bars and restaurants on both sides of Poruthota Road fill up with crowds of western tourists. This road also has one of the island’s best selections of places to eat including Bijou , see 1 [map] and Lords , see 2 [map] .
Food and drink
44 Porutota Road [map] ; tel: 031 531 9577; daily 9am-11pm (although sometimes closed in low season); $$$
Classy and cosy little Swiss-owned establishment with a skillfully prepared selection of Swiss-Italian dishes plus excellent seafood.
80B Poruthota Road [map] ; tel: 077-723 4721; www.lordsrestaurant.net ; daily 11am-10pm; $$$
Attractive modern café-cum-restaurant serving up tasty and beautifully presented cuisine from around the world, although Asian flavours predominate - anything from Thai curries and chicken tikka masala through to mushroom curry.