A meditative trek through Sri Lanka's central highlands

The newly opened Pekoe Trail takes hikers on a 300km journey through lush tea estates, tiny villages and towering forests

The second stage of the Pekoe Trail ends at Loolecondera in Galaha, Sri Lanka's first official tea estate.
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A distinctly Sri Lankan soundtrack echoes across the valley.

From one side, the chanting of monks from Kandy’s newest temple, Sandagiri Maha Seya, its gleaming white dome acting as a beacon amid the dense vegetation of the hills of Hanthana. On the other, the distorted notes of Beethoven’s Fur Elise, reduced to a jingle and adopted as the theme song of “choon paans” – jaunty tuk-tuks selling baked goods – in every corner of the country.

I am in Sri Lanka’s central highlands, amid the jagged mountains that encircle Kandy. These towering ranges were instrumental in protecting Sri Lanka’s last kingdom against colonial invaders for more than two centuries – until the British settled here in the early 1800s. In their wake, these new rulers brought tea, and historic plantations still blanket the hilltops around me.

Tea will be a constant companion on my two-day hike across this verdant area of Sri Lanka. I see wizened women, sacks strung across their backs, teasing young leaves from hardy plants. I follow barely-there tracks once used by the British to transport “Ceylon’s finest” to Colombo. I pass tea factories that have fallen into disrepair; the metal remains of ancient pulley systems; and the skeletons of 18th-century line houses, once inhabited by the communities working the plantations, now all but reclaimed by nature.

I am on the Pekoe Trail, a newly opened, 300km network of walking routes that snakes its way through Sri Lanka’s highlands. The name is a reference to a specific type of high-grade black tea made from young leaves, a speciality in these parts.

Base camp for me is W15 Hanthana, a former colonial home that has been artfully transformed into a boutique, ten-room hotel. A three-hour drive in a luxury van organised by Sri Lankan holiday specialist Experience Travel Group took me from the crowded streets of Colombo, past processions of white-clad Buddhist worshippers celebrating a full moon, along the winding, mountain-hugging roads around Kandy, to the secluded surrounds of the Hanthana tea estate.

A short walk down to the gates of the W15 deposits me and my guides directly on to the first portion of the trail, where a cannonball tree laden with palm-sized pink-tipped flowers serves as an auspicious starting point. Buddha is believed to have been born in the shade of such a tree, so the species is considered sacred in Sri Lanka.

Funded by the EU, with support from the US Agency for International Development, the Pekoe Trail was first mapped out by sustainability expert Miguel Cunat, who was inspired by the multi-day Camino de Santiago in his native Spain. The Sri Lankan trail has been divided into 22 stages, from Hanthana to Nuwara Eliya via Tawalantenna, the Bogawantalawa Valley, Haputale, Ella, Ettampitiya, Pussellawa and Kandapola, cutting across tea estates, national parks, forest trails and about 80 villages and small towns.

Only the first stage has been properly signposted, with QR codes that allow visitors to learn more about where they are. But my companion for the day, Experience Travel’s Thushni de Silva, is a far more expansive source. She points out African tulips, used by plantation owners as markers in an otherwise endless sea of green; eucalyptus trees that were brought in to make the landscape feel more familiar to its colonial settlers; and rubber plants, their roots strong enough to tunnel through the enormous boulders they live on.

Bee eaters and black rollers flit from tree to tree, while a crested serpent eagle draws languid circles in the sky. Leading the charge, Anuruddha, our quiet but constant guide, sees an elusive barking deer, and we veer off course to catch a glimpse of the famously shy mammal slinking off into the overgrowth.

The trail leads us around the blade-like edge of the rocky Urugala mountains, where parts of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were filmed, and into a Tamil village. A gaggle of young boys are playing cricket and packs of sleepy dogs – the hybrid strays affectionately referred to by locals as “rice hounds” – congregate in front of houses painted in vibrant hues of pink, yellow and blue.

This first stage of the trail is a gentle introduction to Sri Lanka’s tea country, following wide roads and paths, with minimal inclines. I embark on the second stage the following morning – and it is a wildly different proposition.

The story of tea in Sri Lanka actually begins with coffee, my guide for the day, Ramli, tells me when we meet, bright and early, on the streets of Galaha town. When the Dutch arrived in the country, coffee was their preferred commercial crop, and was promptly adopted by the British. But when a global blight in the 1860s destroyed crops, tea was deemed an investment-worthy alternative.

Pioneering this transition was a young Scotsman called James Taylor. Arriving in Sri Lanka in 1852 at the age of 17, he was billeted to the 7.6-hectare Loolecondera Estate in Galaha, which became the country’s first official tea estate – and is the final destination of my second day’s hike.

A rocky plateau surrounded by a ring of deep, lush green, perched high in the mountains, this ethereal end-point drifts in and out of view over the course of my 16km trek. It feels unreachable, almost unreal. And, draped in a fine mountain mist, drenched in green, dotted with otherworldly rock formations and blanketed in silence, it does prove to have almost mystical qualities once we do finally get there.

Our journey takes us past neatly tiered rice paddies and through tiny settlements engulfed in cotton, banana, jack fruit and pepper trees. Colourful Hindu and Buddhist temples serve up shocks of colour, while the sound of the azan drifts out of tiny towns. We take a detour to drink tea from a Thermos on the banks of a waterfall, before dipping our faces in its mineral-rich waters. In Deltota town, we stop at a market to buy fresh coconuts, which Anuruddha slices open with a machete to be drunk straight from source.

From here, a steep ascent takes us through a dense eucalyptus forest – trees tower up to 30 metres tall and filter dappled light on to the spongy, pine needle-covered forest floor. Anuruddha’s machete becomes a regular feature as he hacks a path for us through increasingly overgrown mountain passes. I find myself scrambling up crags on my hands and knees, rugged tea plants serving as a much-needed handhold. Nearby tea pickers stop and stare, perplexed, perhaps, at my gormless handling of their natural habitat.

Eventually, we are back on a proper path, which evens out to offer bird's-eye views of the surrounding peaks and valleys below. We cross over the official boundary between the Hanthana Estate and Taylor’s Loolecondera and, on a single mountain amid the plantations, there’s a sign of what these hilltops would have looked like before tea took over the Sri Lankan highlands.

Irregular overgrowth in a spectrum of greens is interspersed with wild orchids and heady blossoms of pink, red and yellow. There is a welcome wildness that has been muted elsewhere and, according to Ramli, that mountain alone is home to at least 30 plant species with proven medicinal properties.

You can only imagine Taylor staring out over these wilds all those years ago, lording over his domain. A stone throne that he erected at the edge of his estate looks out over Loolecondera and the surrounding hills, from the rolling tea plantations, to a stark, rocky promontory high above, where leopards are reported to still roam.

The Pekoe Trail offers an opportunity to sample Sri Lanka’s raw natural beauty, colonial history and rich culture at ground level. And it still feels like a secret – an intimate, meditative exploration of the country's inner heart.

Hours can pass without encountering another soul, and then some colourful character will appear around the corner – like an old man, miles from civilisation, who appears as if by magic, clutching a bag of Pedigree Chum. He’s headed to a nearby temple to feed the resident rice hounds, he tells us, before gathering up his sarong and continuing on his way, leaving us to tackle the Pekoe Trail in isolation once more.

Experience Travel Group offers an eight-day tour of Sri Lanka for $2,590 per person, including accommodation, a private chauffeur guide throughout, two scenic half-day hikes on the Pekoe Trail, with a private guide, and local immersive experiences. The trip includes a two-night stay at the W15 Hanthana Estate near Kandy; www.experiencetravelgroup.com/sri_lanka/holidays

Updated: April 23, 2023, 1:51 PM