I tried Sri Lanka’s brand new highland walking trail – here’s why you should follow me

“Just here?” The tuk tuk driver seems doubtful.

Why did these two foreigners leave his vehicle at the corner of a steep, single-track road near the rusting, rattling structure of an abandoned tea factory?

We pay the agreed price to transport us from Ohiya station over a mostly broken, bumpy road and wave goodbye to him. He sputters away and clearly thinks we’re crazy.

But we are, according to the map we downloaded, exactly where we want to be: at the starting point of stage 12 of the Pekoe Trail. And there’s no one else here.

After a week of being on the treadmill of Sri Lanka’s tourist hotspots, we had hopped out and left, setting up camp in the small, scruffy hilltop town of Haputale with the tantalizing prospect of being part of the first long-distance hiking trail of Sri Lanka.

Haputale, the small town where Kate stayed before starting the Pekoe route

Haputale, the small town where Kate stayed before starting the Pekoe route – Alamy

The Pekoe Trail started as the hobby of Miguel Cuñat, a Spanish-born resident of Sri Lanka for more than twenty years. Between creating luxury itineraries and guiding wealthy clients to the more exclusive parts of the island, he loved nothing more than escaping to the cooler highlands and finding places to hike.

In the highlands of Sri Lanka at the end of the 19th century, enterprising Englishmen with names like Taylor and Lipton took over from the beleaguered coffee farmers who had lost everything to the coffee disease and started growing tea instead. Tea remains the crop that still dominates this region: low, densely planted shrubs, transforming the steep, rugged landscapes into a rolling sea of ​​pillowy green.

Cuñat realized that the plantations formed a network of already established routes, connecting the harvested crops with roads and railways. What if they could be connected together, creating one long trail? The area is already famous for the dramatically beautiful train journey that connects Kandy to Ella and the ‘little England’ of Nuwara Eliya, but instead of watching this enchanting landscape slip serenely past a train window, people would jump at the chance to see it on a train to experience a slower, more immersive way if they could?

It was an idea that, if dwelt on for too long, would probably never have progressed. The obstacles were many. Several landowners, both government and private, had to agree to an official path running through their land.

The rains in Sri Lanka between May and September and again in December are often heavy enough to cause landslides that wash away large areas of the hills, always causing a furious growth spurt in the already green vegetation. Who would be responsible for the constant maintenance the route would require?

And even if the estate owners allowed the use of the tracks that ran through their plantations, there were still large areas that needed to be explored and possibly cleared to fulfill Miguel’s vision of connecting one end of the highlands with the other. to connect.

But the idea had taken hold, and with the often tireless help of many local guides and expert machete owners, the trail began to emerge little by little. It wound its way from the slopes south of Kandy, through Indiana Jones country (The Temple of Doom features scenes filmed against the dramatic backdrop of the earliest part of the path), following dirt paths that pass through small communities and connect bustling market towns, bus routes and train stations.

The route offers breathtaking views over peaks and valleysThe route offers breathtaking views over peaks and valleys

The trail offers breathtaking views of peaks and valleys – Alamy

It climbed to breathtaking viewpoints, through forests, past shrines and temples, village cricket fields, paddy fields, vegetable gardens and farms. And as the 200-mile route unfolded, Miguel realized that what was being created was more than a walk. It was a means of providing opportunity and economic benefit to people bypassed by tourism.

We follow our map back up the road, flanked by vibrant peaks of purple flowers, stone walls and sweeping blue-green vistas of peaks and valleys. We pass the figures of tea pickers, with bags hanging on the backs of their foreheads, with quick fingers and sharp eyes, moving methodically among the waist-high bushes.

A narrow path leads us off the road into deeper countryside and from here we enter the fragrant, rustling shade of a eucalyptus plantation.

We follow the contours of the hill around the ruins of an abandoned village and duck into the shade of tight, lofty pines, planted like the eucalyptus, to fuel the tea factories. A scramble over fallen logs brings us to the edge of the plantation and below us bends the railway line we took earlier.

A series of honking whistles announce the train’s impending arrival and we wait for it to come into view, puffing sweetly beneath us as the rust-red carriages round the bend of the hill and move away.

Railway lines serve as footpaths in rural Sri LankaRailway lines serve as footpaths in rural Sri Lanka

Railway lines serve as footpaths in rural Sri Lanka – Ludo Graham

Soon after, we find ourselves on that same track, giggling as we struggle to adjust our pace to the distance between the sleepers, feeling like naughty children doing what we’ve been firmly told never to do. But railway lines serve as footpaths throughout rural Sri Lanka, which is why trains willingly announce their approach so far in advance.

We walk with the locals from the station along the tracks towards their houses. A cheerful group of men clearing vegetation along the line with long-handled sickles assure us that it is fine to walk through the tunnel ahead. As a few of them happily nibble roti while squatting in the middle of the lane, we take their word for it.

The last part of the walk follows paths through tea plantations. Hills tamed and terraced and so uniformly green that it was like watching an installation by the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who famously wrapped landscapes and monumental buildings in fabric. We walk together with women who come from the fields to the weigh stations with bulging bags on their backs.

Writer Kate with workers on the tea plantationWriter Kate with workers on the tea plantation

Writer Kate with tea plantation workers – Ludo Graham

At just over 21.5 km, this part of the route is one of the longest. “I wanted to make it possible for people to complete each section in one morning, before it really gets hot,” Miguel explains. “And also to have time to do other things in the day, not just have to walk. But of course it is also possible to walk more than one piece per day, if you want.”

The next day we walk from our guest house to the forest on the outskirts of Haputale, climbing steadily via sweeping panoramas, soaring eagles and troops of macaques to the tea workers’ village of St. Catherine, announced by a hand-painted sign that reads “The best view comes after the toughest climb”. We add an extra climb by going to Lipton’s Seat, where the Glaswegian, whose name is to this day synonymous with tea, would survey his empire.

The statue of Sir Thomas Lipton at Lipton's Seat, an observation point in the highlands of Sri LankaThe statue of Sir Thomas Lipton at Lipton's Seat, an observation point in the highlands of Sri Lanka

The statue of Sir Thomas Lipton at Lipton’s Seat, an observation point in the highlands of Sri Lanka – alamy

A tuk tuk bumps us back along the long road to Haputale. Sri Lanka’s ubiquitous three-wheelers make it very easy for hikers of the Pekoe Trail to stay in one place for a few days and walk some sections, without having to lug luggage or move their accommodation every day. Trains and tuk-tuks and the helpful guidance of our guesthouse owner allowed us to walk sections 12-15 – two short sections that we joined together – from Haputale. Section 15 takes us, via the iconic Ella Rock, to Ella, our new base, while our luggage travels by tuk tuk and awaits us there.

Miguel’s hopes that the trail will bring opportunity and prosperity to the communities along the trail are beginning to materialize even in these very early days. And it comes at a crucial time for Sri Lanka. Beneath the thin patina of warm smiles and welcome drinks is a country struggling to rise from its knees.

Tourism, which had been growing steadily until 2018, collapsed after the Easter Day 2019 terrorist attacks, and the pandemic that followed reduced numbers even further. The EU and USAID have recognized the potential of the Pekoe Trail and, as part of a tourism resilience programme, have helped finance the administrative process for making the route official, as well as training guides and start-up companies, such as host families. Sections 1 and 2 are signposted and officially opened, but signposted or not, the trail exists and is a testament to the brave and beautiful vision of one man, his love for his adopted country and its people.

It is hoped that the beauty of the Pekoe route will help revive tourism in Sri LankaThere is hope that the beauty of the Pekoe route will help revive tourism in Sri Lanka

There is hope that the beauty of the Pekoe trail will help revive tourism in Sri Lanka – Alamy

We walked 9 of the 22 sections of the trail. Everyone had their own character, their own charms and challenges. We had days of blistering sunshine, followed by days of gusty winds and low cloud and drizzle, which was like being in the Brecon Beacons (with added leeches). We saw barking deer hiding in the shade, heard shy hellos from children and subsisted on coconuts, egg roti and stumpy sweet bananas.

The walk was an ever-changing mosaic of color, sound and beauty. This is Sri Lanka as you see it on foot – off the beaten track, but on a trail of wonders.


Kate Humble traveled as a guest of Wild Frontiers, which offers a 15-day itinerary including walking sections of the Pekoe Trail from £2,559 per person, including transfers, some meals and accommodation, but excluding international flights.

The best time to walk the Pekoe Trail is between January and April and September to November. The terrain is varied and good walking shoes or boots are recommended. Hikers should bring sunscreen, insect repellent, water and a hat. A light waterproof jacket may be advisable as the weather can be changeable. In some parts of the trail the vegetation may be overgrown and you may encounter leeches, especially if the trail is wet.

The signage of the route is a work in progress. At the time of writing, only the first two sections were signposted. Trail routes are available on the Wikiloc app, but approved guides are also listed on the Pekoe Trail website, as well as practical information and accommodation suggestions.

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