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

Writer Kate Humble on the Pekoe Trail in Sri Lanka
Writer Kate Humble on the Pekoe Trail in Sri Lanka - Ludo Graham

“Just here?” The tuktuk driver seems doubtful.

Why were these two foreigners abandoning his vehicle on the corner of a steep, single-track road by the rusting, rattling hulk of a derelict tea factory?

We pay the agreed price to convey us from Ohiya station down a largely broken, bumpy road and wave him goodbye. He sputters off, clearly thinking we’re mad.

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

After a week of finding ourselves on the conveyor belt of Sri Lanka’s tourist hotspots, we had stepped off and away, pitching up in the small, scruffy hilltop town of Haputale with the beguiling prospect of walking some of Sri Lanka’s first long distance hiking trail.

Haputale, the small town where Kate stayed before beginning the Pekoe trail
Haputale, the small town where Kate stayed before beginning the Pekoe trail - Alamy

The Pekoe Trail started as the hobby of Miguel Cuñat, a Spanish-born resident of Sri Lanka for over two decades. In between putting together high-end itineraries and guiding wealthy clients to the more exclusive parts of the island, he loved nothing more than escaping to the cooler uplands and seeking out places to hike.

Sri Lanka’s highlands are where, in the late 19th century, entrepreneurial Englishman with names like Taylor and Lipton took over from the beleaguered coffee farmers who had lost everything to coffee blight and started growing tea instead. Tea remains the crop that dominates this region still: low, tightly planted bushes, transforming the steep, rugged landscapes into a rolling sea of pillowy green.

The plantations, Cuñat realised, provided a network of already established routes, connecting the harvested crop with roads and railways. What if they could be linked together, creating one long trail? The area is already famed for the dramatically beautiful railway journey that links Kandy with Ella and the “little England” of Nuwara Eliya, but rather than watching this beguiling landscape slip serenely past a train window, would people take the chance to experience it in a slower, more immersive way if they could?

It was an idea which, if dwelt upon too long, would probably never have gone any further. The obstacles were many. Multiple landowners, both government and private, needed to agree for an official trail to cut through their land.

Sri Lanka’s rains between May and September and again in December, are often heavy enough to cause landslides that wash away large swathes of hillside, and always trigger a furious growth spurt in the already verdant vegetation. Who would be responsible for the constant maintenance the route would demand?

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 fulfil Miguel’s vision of linking one end of the highlands with the other.

But the idea had taken hold, and with the often tireless help of many local guides and expert machete-wielders, the trail started to emerge, bit by bit. It wove 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 trail), following sandy tracks running through small communities, linking bustling market towns, bus routes and railway stations.

The trail offers breathtaking views over peaks and valleys
The trail offers breathtaking views over peaks and valleys - Alamy

It climbed to breath-taking viewpoints, cut through forests, past shrines and temples, village cricket pitches, rice paddies, vegetable gardens and farms. And as the 185 mile (300km) route unfurled, Miguel realised that what was being created was more than a walk. It was a means to bring opportunity and economic benefit to people bypassed by tourism.

We follow our map back up the road, flanked by vivid spikes of purple flowers, stone walls and wide blue-green views over peaks and valleys. We pass the figures of tea pickers, sacks hanging down their backs from their foreheads, swift-fingered and sharp-eyed, moving methodically between the waist-high bushes.

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

We follow the contour of the hill around the ruins of an abandoned village, plunge into the shadows cast by tight-knit lofty pines, planted, like the eucalyptus, to fuel the tea factories. A scramble over fallen trunks brings us to the plantation edge and below us curves the railway line we took earlier.

A series of hooting whistles announces the imminent arrival of the train and we wait to see it come into view, chuffing sweetly beneath us, its rust red carriages sweeping around the curve of the hillside and away.

Railway tracks double as footpaths in rural Sri Lanka
Railway tracks double as footpaths in rural Sri Lanka - Ludo Graham

Soon afterwards we are on that same railway track, giggling as we struggle to match our stride with the distance between sleepers, feeling like naughty children doing what we have firmly been told never to do. But railway tracks double as footpaths all over rural Sri Lanka, which is why trains obligingly make their approach known so far in advance.

We join locals walking from the station along the tracks towards their homes. A cheerful group of men clearing vegetation along the line with long-handled sickles assure us it is fine to walk through the tunnel ahead. As a couple of them are unconcernedly munching roti whilst squatting in the middle of the track, we take their word for it.

The latter part of the walk follows paths through tea estates. Hillsides tamed and terraced and so uniformly green, it was like looking at an installation by the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who famously wrapped landscapes and landmark buildings in fabric. We walk alongside women emerging from the fields with bulging sacks on their backs to the weighing stations.

Writer Kate with tea plantation workers
Writer Kate with tea plantation workers - Ludo Graham

At just over 13 miles (21.5 km) this section of the trail is one of the longest. “I wanted to make it possible for people to complete each section in a morning, before it gets really hot,” explained Miguel. “And also to have time to do other things in a day, not just have to walk. But of course it is possible to walk more than one section in a day, if you want to.”

The following day we walk from our guesthouse to the forest on the edge of Haputale, and climb steadily via wide panoramas, soaring eagles and troops of macaques, to the tea-workers’ village of St Catherine, heralded by a hand-painted sign declaring “The Best View Comes After the Hardest Climb”. We add an extra climb by heading on to Lipton’s Seat where the Glaswegian, whose name is synonymous with tea to this day, would sit and survey his empire.

The statue of Sir Thomas Lipton at Lipton's Seat, an observation point in the Sri Lankan highlands
The statue of Sir Thomas Lipton at Lipton's Seat, an observation point in the Sri Lankan highlands - alamy

A Tuktuk bumps us back down the long road to Haputale. Sri Lanka’s ubiquitous three-wheelers make it very easy for walkers of the Pekoe Trail to base themselves in one place for a few days to walk a number of sections, without the need to carry luggage or move accommodation every day. Trains and Tuktuks and the helpful guidance of the owner of our guesthouse allow us to walk sections 12-15 – two short sections which we joined together – from Haputale. Section 15 brings us, via the iconic Ella Rock down into Ella, our new base, whilst our luggage travels by Tuktuk and meets us there.

Miguel’s hope that the trail could open up opportunity and bring prosperity to communities along it is, even in these very early days, starting to be realised. 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 raise itself off its knees.

Tourism, which built steadily until 2018, crashed following the terrorist attacks on Easter Day 2019, and the pandemic which followed reduced numbers even further. The EU and USAID have recognised the potential of the Pekoe Trail and, as part of a tourism resilience programme, have helped fund the administrative process of making the trail official, training for guides and business start-ups such as homestays. Sections 1 and 2 are waymarked and officially open, but waymarked or not, the trail exists, testimony to one man’s brave and beautiful vision, his love of his adopted country and its people.

There are hopes that the beauty of the Pekoe trail will help regenerate tourism in Sri Lanka
There are hopes that the beauty of the Pekoe trail will help regenerate tourism in Sri Lanka - Alamy

We walked 9 of the trail’s 22 sections. Each one had its own character, its own charms and challenges. We had days of blistering sunshine, followed by days of gusting winds and low cloud and drizzle that was not unlike being in the Brecon Beacons (with added leeches). We saw barking deer skulking in the shadows, heard shy hellos from children and sustained ourselves on coconuts, egg roti and stumpy sweet bananas.

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


Kate Humble travelled 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 hiking shoes or boots are recommended. Walkers should carry sunscreen, insect repellent, water and a hat. A light waterproof jacket might be advisable, as the weather can be changeable. Vegetation can be overgrown in some sections of the trail and you may encounter leeches, particularly when the trail is wet.

Waymarking of the trail is a work in progress. At the time of writing only the first two sections had been waymarked. 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 suggestions for accommodation.