Tour guide to Ratnapura Sri Lanka !
Best known for its gem mining industry and agriculture, Ratnapura also produces tea and rubber.
Ratnapura was founded nearly 2000 years ago by travelling Buddhist monks from Bodh Gaya, India. Today, it has a population of 52,000 composed of Buddhists, Hindus, Christians as well as Muslims.
Historically, Ratnapura has been mentioned in Buddhist scriptures many times – it was the city that sheltered Gautama Buddha and his monks. It is said that it was from here that Solomon’s beautiful gift of ruby to the Queen of Sheba was mined. A noted visitor to Ratnapura was Blessed Joseph Vaz known to Christians as the Apostle of Ceylon.
Located south of the iconic Adam’s Peak, Ratnapura, meaning ‘City of Gems’, is one of south Sri Lanka’s important cities. The weather here is characteristically different from the hilly regions of the country as it is humid and wet all year round. Temperatures are also significantly warmer with a maximum of 35°C. Although, the monsoon is said to last from May to September, it rains almost all year round.
Even though mining activities have been carried out for so many years, the surrounding scenery remains beautiful. You can trek up towards hill country or indulge in some bird watching at the nearby reserves.
Of course, the most compelling reason to visit Ratnapura is related to its gem trade – it was so in ancient times and it is still the case today. Three of the world’s biggest and famous sapphires have been mined in Ratnapura. The mines here also yield garnets, rubies, spinel and zircon. Not only can you buy quality stones at a fraction of the price here, you can also understand the process of mining by visiting a mine and have the unique pleasure of selecting the precious stone that catches your eye. This is an unparalleled experience.
How to get to Ratnapura,Sri Lanka and how to move around
Ratnapura is reachable only by road
The town is well connected to Colombo, only a hundred kilometres away. Haputale, Ella, Badulla, Galle and Kandy are also easily reachable from here. Please note that due to traffic congestion in Colombo and the state of the roads, it can take you up to three hours sometimes by car and almost four hours by bus (for under Rs.100).
For Kandy, situated further north, there are regular direct buses.
Top tourist attractions in Ratnapura
Gem Museum & Art Gallery
One of the best places to buy jewels is at the Ratnapura Gem Bureau, Museum and Laboratory, run by the government. If you buy from here, you can be assured of getting a good price for a quality gem. If you buy stones from other shops, you can request the Gem Bureau to validate its authenticity by issuing a certificate. This may take some time, so be prepared to wait.
Maha Saman Devalaya
4 km to the west of Ratnapura, the Maha Saman Devalaya is as beautiful temple erected on a Kandyan design with simplicity and clarity as guiding principles. It is built in honour of Saman or Sumana, a deity that is worshipped only in Sri Lanka. Saman is said to have been a very wise and virtuous person who was is believed to have also been a close friend of Lord Buddha when he visited Sri Lanka. Saman is said to be the guardian deity of the Sri Pada mountain (Adam’s Peak).
Despite centuries of Hinduism influence in Sri Lanka, this building remained untouched until the arrival of the Portuguese when it suffered deterioration and destruction. The temple with its whitewashed buildings that you see today is a reconstruction of the earlier one. The Dalada Perahara ceremony takes place here every year.
You can visit this temple at any time – it costs around Rs.80 to get there by tuk-tuk. Many of them are available near the temple, so you can avoid waiting charges and catch another for the return trip. Entry is free, but do not forget to make a donation to the temple.
The National Museum on the Ratnapura-Colombo Road is worth a short visit. Opened in 1988, it focusses on the history of the Sabaragamuwa province. The building itself is an architectural artefact called Ehelepola Walauwa. Aside from local historical artefacts, it holds prehistoric excavations, a natural history section, geology specimens and a zoological collection. You can see completely fossilized rhinos and elephants here.
Open from Wednesday to Saturday.
Entry fee: Rs.50
Gnanasiha Tapowana Vihara
The Gnanasiha Tapowana Vihara is a Buddhist monastery. It is a quiet and peaceful spot for those who wish to do some meditation. Located on top of a hill surrounded by nature, there is a full-size replica of the Avukana Buddha statue here. It is much cooler here and quite secluded. You can reach this spot after a quick walk through the Pompakelle Forest Park.
Peter & Paul Church
Catholicism was introduced to Ratnapura when the Portuguese colonisation began. This Catholic church, locally called the Peter & Paul Catholic Church, was built on the remains of a dismantled Buddhist temple. Today, it stands in a different location on Main Street in the city centre. It was built in honour of Blessed Joseph Vaz, the apostle of Ceylon. In 1995, it was consecrated as the cathedral of the Sabaragamuwa diocese.
Regular church services.
A choice of applealing places around Ratnapura
The Diva Guhawe is a Buddhist religious structure. It is believed that during their visit to Sri Lanka, Lord Buddha and his 500 disciple monks took shelter in this cave. After this stay, they are said to have proceeded to Adam’s Peak. Diva Guhawe is situated on Erathna Road in Sudagala, some 10 km from Ratnapura.
From Sudagala, it is a 500m hike to the entrance of the cave.
Nearby, you can see another cave that is partially underwater. If you are of the adventurous type, you can swim up to it and explore its features.
Ratnapura offers a great opportunity to visit waterfalls
This could be a great activity for nature enthusiasts of all ages. The 78 km long route starts near Ehelihagoa and ends at Balangoda. On the way, you can spot no less than 10 waterfalls: Bisodola Falls, Dodan Falls, Bopath Falls, Katugas Falls, Rajana falls, Hathbili Falls, Leeniyan Kelina Falls, Pulun Falls, Uran Vetuna Falls and finally Ellepola Falls.
Make sure you wear proper clothing and footwear.
Always remember to cover your camera when you are not taking any photos.
Forest reserves and natural parks in Ratnapura
Sinharaja Forest reserve
The Sinharaja Reserve is one of the last untouched rain forests in Sri Lanka, and is a UNESCO Heritage Site. The name translates to Lion King. There are many endemic species of butterflies, birds, reptiles and amphibians in the forest as well as mammals such as civets, mongooses, deer and monkeys. But the Sri Lankan lion is nowhere to be seen. There are medicinal herbs and other plants useful to man growing in the outskirts of the forest, where tribals are allowed to gather items for survival. If you wade in the water here, be aware that leeches are out there everywhere.
The best time to visit Sinharaja is between December and April.
For more information: www.sinharaja.4t.com
Udawalawe National Park
Udawalawe is a typical African savannah ecosystem, 12km from Ratnapura.
You can hire a 4x4 or a jeep to visit the reserve. The foliage here is not too dense, and it is easy to spot birds, Sambar deer and water buffaloes.
Very large herds of elephants in a tranquil setting (the park is less crowded than the more famous ones) offer a remarkable experience, especially if you are taken around by a good guide. A good way to experience life in the park is to stay overnight in one of the bungalows and let yourself overwhelmed by the spectacular views you can enjoy from the comfort of your deck.
A day’s trip will cost you Rs.3500.
What your children can do in Ratnapura
Elephant Transit Home
The Elephant Transit Home is a hospital for elephants. It is situated some 5 km from the main Udawalawe reserve. So the best way to visit this place is to combine it with a visit to Udawalawe National Park.
The main objective of this facility is the rehabilitation of orphaned baby elephants that are ultimately reintroduced into their natural habitat. The elephants are kept in a part of the Udawalawe National Park to maintain familiarity with their habitat. During their stay, they have access to both food and medical care. Elephant calves are looked after until they are 5 years old, when they are released into the wild. While at the centre, contact with humans is deliberately reduced to the minimum.
The orphans can only really be seen at feeding times, which are 9 am, noon, 3 pm and 6 pm. At these times the calves can be watched from a viewing platform for about twenty minutes. They spend the rest of the time in the National Park, out of view of people, in preparation for their return to the wild. To erase any residual human smell and help ensure their acceptance among their wild cousins, the elephants are given a bath in diluted elephant dung before being released. The elephants are fitted with radio collars to help wildlife officials monitor their movements, behaviour and progress.
The sight of young and adolescent elephants messing around is a definite hit with both young and old!
Entry fee: Rs.500.
Take photographs of the scenic Balutota Pass
If you are heading southwards from Ratnapura, you have the choice of taking the winding route through Rakwana. Here the A17 highway gets incredibly scenic through the Balutota pass. The 10 hairpin bends on road will slow down your pace but if you have children who are photo enthusiasts, a good way to keep them occupied is to halt at a few places (not close to a curve!) to enjoy the landscape and record them for your travel album.
Great things to do in Ratnapura
Visit a gem pit
Of course, Ratnapura is all about the gem trade. A visit to this city would be incomplete without seeing where all the precious stones come from. In the outskirts of the city, there are many gem mines. Although you cannot directly make an appointment to see them, you can request your guesthouse to make an appointment on your behalf.
Once you reach the mines, generally about 5 km away from the city, you can witness the different stages of mining: digging, high-pressure drilling and unearthing of raw precious stones.
Miners will try to sell you these stones. If you know how to differentiate the good ones from the not-so-good ones, you may go ahead. Otherwise, it is best to just purchase from government-approved outlets because you can never be sure of the quality at other places. It is the same for the many gems that are sold in the city centre in baskets. The best way to avoid being swindled is to stick to safer outlets where the quality of the gems can be verified.
From the city centre, a tuk-tuk ride to and fro will cost you around Rs.300 including waiting time.
Rock climbing in Avissawella
For the adventurous, you can go to Avissawella to test your muscle power and attempt some rock climbing. Avissawella offers a natural rock climbing location complete with climbing safety bolts. Here, there are three bolted rock faces to test your mettle and fifteen different routes of varying difficulty.