Arugam Bay Travel Guide: Intro to Sri Lanka’s Premier Surf Spot
Going down the east coast of Sri Lanka, you’ll inevitably hit a beach town known for its surf and laid back vibe. Enter: Arugam Bay. Positioned between the sprawling Indian Ocean on one side and a large lagoon on the other, between the cities of Pottuvil and Panama, this travel destination lends itself perfectly for a beach getaway, and that for at least a couple of days. Even though riding the waves is what A-Bay is known for, the gently curving beach here provides much more than just surfing opportunities. If you’re curious to know more and/or need help deciding whether to hit up this mini surfers’ paradise, continue on with our brief Arugam Bay travel guide for tips on what do to, where to stay, how to get in and out, and more.
Getting in and out of Arugam Bay
Being located directly on the coast, one would think that Arugam Bay must be easy to reach, no matter what. This is Sri Lanka, though, so public transit is not that straightforward, unfortunately. On the upside, there are several alternatives you can explore. We got in from the lovely beaches of Tricomalee, about 250 km up the coast, with a regular old bus. While this was fine (locals travel this way all the time) my personal temperature-related boundaries were tested during the 6-hour-long ride to Akkaraipatu, followed by an additional 1 hour on a second bus to Pottuvil. Sitting at the window on the sunny side in a 35+ degree heat on an old bus will do things to you that you never imagined. Also, Sri Lankan buses have incredibly crammed seats and just when you thought the bus was full, they get more people on board, so, inevitably, someone’s butt will be resting on your shoulder. But I digress. Getting into Pottuvil, you will be approached by tuk tuk drivers demanding 400 Rupees or more to drop you off literally 3 km down the road; we paid 250 after some negotiating, knowing that the tuk tuk drivers also knowingly deceive tourists by telling then that there are no public buses running through Arugam Bay. But there, in fact, are. It’s up to you if you want to insist on catching a bus or just suck it up and go. It seems to be that many bus and tuk tuk drivers are in cahoots to provide the same false information, so it might be a while before you find some other intel.
We found out, later on, that there’s a quite active ridesharing community where people can post a route and try to either find others to join them to split the costs between more people, or join a group that has already set up a shared taxi or a van. After our stay, we needed to travel from Arugam Bay to Ella and found our carpool group on the Sri Lanka Taxi Share website. In case you’re headed down this route, you should be able to get a van for 6 passengers (+ driver) for 9,000 to 10,000 Rupees for sure, after some negotiation. We’ve seen people post similar prices, though many drivers will start off with 13-15,000 as their first asking price. Don’t let that dissuade you.
If you’d like to leave by public bus, things might get tricky. The reason why we chose to travel from Arugam Bay to Ella via shared van was that a public bus ride would have been a 5+ hour ordeal, including switching 2-3 times. If you’re pressed for time, this is hardly a good solution. But, of course, doable. Traveling south towards Mirissa is also doable with 1 or 2 changes but would be a feat similar to our trip into A-Bay.
Arugam Bay Accommodation
Out of the beach destinations in Sri Lanka, A-Bay is probably the most frequented and one of the most experienced towns in the Sri Lanka tourism industry. It was hit badly by the 2004 tsunami, and not everyone and everything has still recovered. However, if you’re looking for more amenities, this beach town will offer more than its rival towns. In comparison with Trincomalee, Arguam Bay is noticeably more crowded – though not overwhelmingly so, for the most part. The busiest stretch of sand is near the southern end of the beach. Thanks to the proximity to many hostels and a bigger parking lot, you’ll see droves of western and local tourists enjoying being tossed around by the waves.
We chose to stay at the upper end of Panama road, where it’s a bit quieter. Staying at Villa Meera was a fine choice – even though we underestimated the heat and only took a fan room when we really should’ve splurged on aircon. It’s a smallish guesthouse with a couple or rooms in the front, and a few more towards the back, and the best part about it was the backyard with palm trees, hammocks and a handful of tables. It was super quiet, as the backyard gives to the river. Conveniently, there are outdoor showers and also a clothesline for you to hang your laundry. The kitchen can be used freely as well, in case you fancy cooking.
We paid around 12 Euro for a big double room with a clean and new bathroom and a fan, which was fine. Judging from previous research, a dozen or so of similarly priced Arugam Bay accommodation types dot the main road, in addition to slightly pricier, heading toward mid-range ones. Anything directly on the beach will cost a bit more, of course. Luckily, you will still be a 3-minute walk away from the beach even if you stay on the other, non-beachside, side of the road
Arugam Bay Food and Restaurants
High quantity and turnover of tourists, though not always great, does have one positive to it: lots of culinary choice. In general, you’ll find similar fare at most place, with some throwing in the odd millennial favorites like avo toast and shakshuka. We found that the prices for sit-down restaurants were better the further up the road you go, while the ‘touristy’ bottom end of the beach came through with a handful of local-run food trucks with tasty juices and cheap curries.
In terms of nightlife, we have heard that Arugam Bay can get a bit rowdy. However, we swerved all that since we stayed at the quieter end. Whatever the case may be, you will find your preference.
Arugam Bay Activities
Surfing is meant to be the main point of attraction that brings tourist to this bustling beach town – and I’ve gotten the impression that it truly is so. However, I’m not a surfer. That means I also can’t tell you how good Arugam Bay actually is for surfing, beyond having read some traveller reports that it’s eather a) totally awesome, man or b) not all that. I did get the feeling that there were more newbies (i.e. people trying out surfing for the first and probably last time) in the water than at Padang Padang beach in Bali, a sought-after surfers’ destination in Indonesia. So, maybe you should just go and give it a try yourself?
If you’re after some alternative Arugam Bay activities, let me give you my running order: laying at the beach, bobbin in the water and trying not to get smacked around by the waves too much, and eating. As the waves can be a bit rough, you’re not really looking at a beach where you can swim laps, really, and some parts of the beach are a bit steep and may only leave a bit of space to lay out when the bigger waves start coming in in the afternoon. If you’re more the loungey type, the further down along the main beach you go, the better. Many beachside restaurants will let you use their loungers without an issue. And, of course, you could also go explore the regional wildlife. Heading down towards Panama is meant to be the place for wild elephant viewings – but beware of them being too close to you, as they can get aggressive. The Pottuvil lagoon hosts some crocodiles and may offer the opportunity to view some elephants at sundown. Heading west from Pottuvil, you can drive through Lahugala national park in hopes of spotting some wildlife. We drove through there on our way to Ella and didn’t see anything, but you might get more lucky.
Arugam Bay Wrap-Up
Whether you surf or not, I’d say taking a few days’ break in this beach town is more than justified. Arugam Bay accommodation and food fits pretty much every budget, and the convenient layout means you’ll never have to walk too far to hit up the main beach. Experienced surfers, however, should venture out further with a rented scooter and check out spots like Whisky Point, Peanut Farm, or Elephant Rock. If there’s one thing that I aimed to do with this quick Arugam Bay travel guide, it’s to get the point across that it’s by no means an under the radar destination – it gets a lot of exposure, in fact! However, even if you’re not into crowds and hostel open mic nights (there are only so many Jason Mraz covers one can handle in a lifetime), it’s easy to avoid the hustle and bustle of hostels and beach parties, and you’ll have the added benefit or greater choice in dining and guesthouses than in Trincomalee, for instance. Hence, I’d recommend a visit no matter what you travel style is.