Petra Shepherd provides an overview of what to expect when hiking The Pekoe Trail in Sri Lanka.
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“You can’t buy happiness but you can buy tea … and that’s kind of the same thing,” says a postcard pinned to a corkboard above my desk. From early morning to late at night, the kettle stands ready to make a brew in the home of a travel writer such as me.
The Pekoe Trail is a new 22-day, 200-mile network of hiking trails through Sri Lankan tea country. Combining my two great loves, tea and walking, experiencing the trail was always going to be very much my thing.
Hiking in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka, the teardrop-shaped island in the Indian Ocean, is back on the map as a destination for international travellers. The country has stabilised following its recent political upheaval and there are no longer issues with food and fuel supplies.
I visited in February 2023 to experience several stages of the new Sri Lankan hiking trail, starting in Kandy, the island’s spiritual heart. The Pekoe Trail then crosses seven valleys, over the Eastern Hills and through some of Sri Lanka‘s most dramatic and challenging mountain terrain.
The Pekoe Trail
You can choose to follow the trail in any direction and it has a multitude of entry and exit points. Start by choosing whether you want to walk west to east or vice versa.
It has been purposely designed to connect important towns and villages, train stations and sites of interest so that walkers can enter and exit the trail at a variety of points.
People have been walking on these hills for millennia. Perhaps the first reference of a trail of significance in the hills of Sri Lanka relates to the Sri Pada pilgrimage. Yet the majority of the paths on The Pekoe Trail were developed by tea plantation companies, over the past two centuries.
Tea plantations in Sri Lanka
In 1824 a tea plant was brought by the British to Ceylon, as the island was called then, from China. It was planted in the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya, near Kandy, for non-commercial purposes.
As the tea industry grew, British planters developed and expanded the network of trails within their own estates. They also connected the various settlements in tea-growing country, creating a vast network of trails and paths.
The Pekoe Trail has been designed to connect many of the most interesting and important landmarks of the Sri Lankan Tea Country. The trail connects Adam’s Peak to the Addisham Bungalow as well as Lipton Seat to the Nine Arch Bridge. Promoting the best of the region, the trail offers a variety and interesting milestones that make each day’s hiking exciting and fun.
Highlights of The Pekoe Trail
The trail takes you to pilgrimage sites, past great lakes and spectacular waterfalls, up stunning peaks and deep into bird- and wildlife-rich rain forests.
The 22-day trail is broken up into 22 stages. Each stage or day covers an average of between eight to 16 kilometres (five to 10 miles). Typically, that means walking between four and six hours a day.
Things to do in Kandy
Kandy is Sri Lanka’s second-largest city. The highland capital has plenty going for it. In addition to the Royal Botanical Gardens, highlights include the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa) and the Ceylon Tea Museum at Hantane, three kilometres (two miles) from the city centre.
It was at the tea museum that I met my guide to start Stage One of the Pekoe Trail. The start was clearly signposted and features a map. There were also plenty of trail markers at strategic points along the way. The white arrows on a green background are not unlike the signage marking walking trails in Switzerland.
Useful walking apps
While I was in Sri Lanka, only stage one of the trail was signposted but plans exist to signpost the entire trail. Meanwhile, three apps prove useful: All Trails, Outdoor Active and Wikiloc have GPS instructions and are ideal for using during self-guided hikes along The Pekoe Trail.
However, I’m the sort of person, that gets confused with even the simplest Google map so I highly recommend having a guide.
Nature and wildlife in Sri Lanka
My guide, Sarath, was also a qualified ranger and able to expertly point out the numerous birds and wildlife that we spotted along the way. The birdlife that we saw included crimson-backed flamebacks (a species of woodpecker), yellow-fronted barbets, black-hooded orioles, Jerdon’s leafbirds and crested serpent eagles. The mammals included red muntjak and common palm civets.
We also encountered common green forest lizards and leeches. The latter are pesky little suckers and can be a nuisance but thankfully I was only bothered by a couple of them and they were easily flicked away.
As we hiked, the African tulip trees were in full bloom. The peak of Lizard Back Mountain (Katsu Konda) soared above us and the Knuckles Mountain Range shimmered in the distance.
Sarath and I chatted amiably while walking the easy path among the green tea bushes. Our conversation was occasionally interrupted as he identified the likes of leopard poo containing the fur of an animal kill. Under a kapok tree, Sarath opened up one of the fallen seed pods to reveal fibres that are used to stuff pillowcases.
We’d pick wild strawberries. Even sweeter, we stumbled across a walking ice cream seller who served us a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a cone.
The Pekoe Trail’s Stage One
Stage One is relatively easy and proves a good introduction to life on a Sri Lankan tea estate. We saw the muster sheds where workers gather at the end of the day along with the tea that they have picked. We observed sari-clad and betel-chewing Tamil tea pickers smiling shyly among the lush layers of verdant tea bushes hugging the slopes. Brightly coloured line houses would also become a familiar sight as we walked the various stages of the Pekoe Trail.
The highest point on Stage One is 1,008 metres (3,307 feet) above sea level, a total elevation gain of only 383 metres (1,257 feet). From the highest point, it’s downhill all the way to the village of Galaha. This area was used for backdrops during the making of the hit movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Steven Spielberg directed filming in Kandy and the surrounding Hantana area for several weeks.
A hiking trail for everyone
The idea of the trail is to be as inclusive as possible. It’s not aimed only at experienced hikers but at those who want a fun day out. Stage One fits the latter perfectly and is easily manageable from Kandy.
I completed Stage One of the trail by lunchtime but I’d set myself a challenge and after a traditional Sri Lankan rice and curry lunch I set out to do Stage Two in the afternoon.
This was an altogether different experience, the first section runs between Galaha and Deltota while the second is from Deltota to Loolecondera with lots of twists, turns and steep climbs through mountain terrain.
The Loolecondera Estate is an important milestone on The Pekoe Trail, you’ll be walking on the fertile soil that gave birth to the first tea plants in Sri Lanka.
Walking The Pekoe Trail
With 27 kilometres (almost 17 miles) of hiking completed in one day, I was pleased to rest my weary legs. I did that in the spoiling comfort of Villa Rosa, perched on a hillside above Kandy with a recently added infinity pool.
There had been no shortage of impressive views throughout the day but the panoramic view of the Mahaweli River from Villa Rosa has to be one of the finest of any hotel in Sri Lanka.
Amba Estate is an organic farm, guest house and social enterprise in the Uva Highlands of Sri Lanka, near the busy and popular hill country town of Ella. It’s ideally situated for Stages 15 and 16 of The Pekoe Trail.
Central uplands of Sri Lanka
Again, these two stages can be completed in one day and take in two of Ella’s most popular sites. One is the view from the top of Ella Rock, which you can experience while avoiding the hard slog climb. The other is the Nine Arch Bridge, which involved the unique experience of walking safely along a railway track. To get there, take the train from Kandy to Ella – it’s one of the great train journeys of the world.
My final stage of The Pekoe Trail was the moderately challenging Stage 13. It took me from Haputale, close to Lipton’s Seat, to Saint Catherine. I’m not a fan of Sir Thomas Lipton’s tea, so can’t help wondering why it is that so many hotel rooms around the world supply those little yellow bags of Lipton tea. However, the view from Lipton’s Seat was breathtakingly beautiful.
Walking several stages of The Pekoe Trail was a lovely way of discovering Sri Lanka’s fascinating tea country. With nature immersion being good for the soul, it was also a wonderful way to recharge and I for one can’t wait to return and complete more of the trail.
Maybe next time, I can set myself an even harder challenge and do three stages in one day.
Travel to Sri Lanka
See the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau website for information about the island and how to make the most of a visit.
Sri Lankan Airlines operates flights to Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport.
Find out more about Nature Trails and Cultural Tales in Sri Lanka via the Experience Travel Group website.
Map of Sri Lanka
The Google map below is centred on Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second city. Zoom out of the map to see more of the island:
Hotels in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has some gorgeous boutique hotels.
Search for accommodation in Sri Lanka via Booking.com:
Books about Sri Lanka
Keen to know more about Sri Lanka? You can buy the following books from Amazon by clicking on the links or cover photos:
DK Eyewitness guidebook to Sri Lanka:
About the author – Petra Shepherd
Petra Shepherd is a freelance travel writer with over 30 years’ experience in television. 19 of them were with Travel Channel International, the leading global travel broadcaster, where she was responsible for award-winning documentary-style travel programmes. Prior to that, Petra was a celebrity booker and has met a range of personalities, including Dame Edna Everage and Donald Trump.
She’s visited over 100 countries, has lived in Hong Kong and Italy, and is an advocate of solo travel. Petra particularly loves swimming, skiing and hiking, and frequently visits markets and local festivals while on the road.
She is a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers and Travel Writers UK.
See The Pekoe Trail page on Facebook for more information about the new multi-stage hiking trail in Sri Lanka.
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