Spending time with mountain gorillas in the wild in Africa is a bucket-list experience for many people, and one of the most moving wildlife encounters you can have. Unlike with, say, lions or elephants, with gorillas you get a real sense of connection – after all, they are some of our closest relatives.
Uganda – the Pearl of Africa – and Rwanda – the land of a thousand hills both provide unforgettable primate experiences. To help you plan your dream gorilla encounter, we’ve compiled everything you need to know about these two destinations.
How do I get to Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park?
Rwanda is a much smaller country than Uganda and has an excellent road network — the journey from the capital Kigali to Volcanoes National Park where the gorillas live is an easy two to three-hour drive on paved roads.
Tip: Upon arrival at Kigali Airport, hop in a private helicopter for a scenic 30-minute flight over picturesque landscapes and land directly at your property.
How do I get to Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park?
Uganda’s roads, in contrast, can leave something to be desired and distances are longer; roughly 9-10 hours from Entebbe Airport on both paved and dirt roads. Alternatively, you can fly on a 2-hour scheduled charter flight from Entebbe to Kisoro or Kihihi airstrips. Both airports are located about an hour from Bwindi’s lodges.
Tip: Cut down your drive time by flying into Kigali Airport and driving across the Rwanda/Uganda border. Depending where you stay in Bwindi, it can take between 4-6 hours. (Please note: This option requires a $100 East Africa visa.)
Where should I stay in Rwanda?
Rwanda has an advantage in terms of luxury style accommodations. Our top picks include Wilderness Safaris’ Bisate Lodge, Governor’s Sabyinyo Lodge, Virunga Lodge, and the two newest properties: Singita Kwitonda and One & Only Gorilla’s Nest.
Tip: These lodges are between 30-45 minutes from park headquarters, meaning you will need an earlier wakeup call that morning and an extra-strong cup of coffee.
Where should I stay in Uganda?
Uganda’s properties are clean and well-appointed, but not overly luxurious. Our top picks are located only five minutes from park headquarters. In Buhoma, northern Bwindi, our favorite choice is Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp. In Nkuringo, southern Bwindi, Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge is our top pick.
Tip: If staying in Buhoma, arrive at headquarters early to enjoy performances from the Ride 4 Woman project – their energetic song and dance is an exciting way to kick off the day ahead. It’s also worth noting that Buhoma has a charming village nearby, complete with bars, shops packed with local crafts and food vendors, bringing you closer to the Ugandan people and their culture.
How much does a gorilla trek cost in Rwanda and Uganda?
This is the one area where there is a very clear difference between the two countries. A gorilla trekking permit costs $600 per person in Uganda (Uganda gorilla permits to increase $100 in July 2020), whereas the Rwandan authorities charge $1,500 USD per person. The majority of revenue goes towards maintaining the park and conserving the wildlife. Around 10% goes toward projects that benefit the local communities.
Tip: From November to May, Rwanda offers a 30% discount ($450) on one gorilla permit if visiting other Rwanda National Parks (Akagera National Park, Nyungwe National Park) for three days or more.
What is the trek like in Rwanda?
The treks in Rwanda are generally shorter and less difficult; however, Volcanoes National Park is at a higher elevation.
Tip: Rwanda is a little more open and therefore it is easier to get a good view.
What is the trek like in Uganda?
The gorillas cover large territories in Uganda and tracking time can vary greatly from day to day; anywhere from one hour to nine hours. Since Bwindi is significantly older than Volcanoes, there is greater diversity in flora and fauna. The thicker brush makes for more artistic photos.
Tip: Be sure to communicate your fitness level to your tour operator so they can recommend the best trek based on endurance.
Does Uganda or Rwanda have more permits?
It’s important to note that both countries only allow 8 people per gorilla trekking group, and each group is allowed one hour with the gorilla family each day.
Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park is home to 10 mountain gorilla groups and 80 permits.
Half of the world’s 700 mountain gorillas are found in Uganda, more than any other country. Bwindi National Park has 88 permits for 11 gorilla groups and Mgahinga National Park has 8 permits for one gorilla group.
Tip: For the more adventurous, the Nkuringo group in the southern part of Bwindi is among the most physically challenging treks and one of the most rewarding as the group is comprised of 19 members.
What is the minimum age?
Travelers must be over 15 years of age to obtain a gorilla trekking permit in both Rwanda and Uganda.
Tip: If traveling with children younger than 15 years old, don’t fret! Most accommodations offer child-friendly activities to keep your little ones busy while you are out trekking.
After gorillas, what else can I do in Rwanda?
While gorilla trekking is undoubtedly the highlight in these two central African nations, both Rwanda and Uganda offer a wealth of other experiences.
While staying in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, make time for a golden monkey trek. Afterwards, head to Wilderness Safaris’ Magashi Camp in Akagera for a Big 5 experience where lions and rhinos were recently re-introduced. Round out your trip with a stay at One & Only Nyungwe House for the ultimate relaxation experience on a working tea plantation.
Tip: Start (not end) your trip with a visit to the Genocide Museum that offers insights into the 1994 genocide – you will begin your trip with a deep impression of how far the process of rebirth and reconciliation has advanced since then.
What else can I do in Uganda?
Uganda is perhaps a more well-rounded safari destination, with many other national parks including Kibale for its chimps and clear blue crater lakes, Murchison Falls to ride along the Victoria Nile and spot the rare Shoebill stork, and Ishaha to track the iconic tree-climbing lions.
Tip: Although both countries offer chimpanzee trekking, the experience is much better in Uganda. Chimps are more habituated here, making them easier to spot.
When should I visit Rwanda and Uganda?
The same answer applies to both countries. Rainy season is from March-May and again in November. The dry season, from December to February and June to September, is preferable because the terrain is less slippery and muddy.
Tip: With growing numbers of travelers going to see gorillas each year, we recommend obtaining a gorilla permit 12 months in advance to secure a spot in your preferred region.
What should I pack?
- You won’t regret taking the walking stick that is offered. It’s extremely helpful when finding your footing on narrow pathways and slippery downhills.
- Garden gloves to push away tree branches and for gripping tree roots – you will be happy to have clean hands when taking photos.
- Long socks and gaiters to prevent cuts and scratches and protect from army ants.
- It often rains heavily, so a light raincoat is highly recommended.
- Water-resistant pants to protect you from the stinging nettle plants and sliding downhill on the seat of your pants
- Sturdy walking boots with good ankle support and tread to grip the wet, uneven terrain
- A lightweight, foldable backpack is necessary for carrying all your essentials.
- Want to increase your chances of getting assigned to the easiest trek or the gorilla family with the most babies? Travel with an established tour operator who will advocate for your preferred gorilla group.
- Support the community (and your back) by hiring a porter. Porters are locals who carry your backpack full of camera equipment, food, and water jugs. And should you need an extra hand, they’re there to help.
- Tipping can be confusing, so we put together a quick guide to help you prepare:
- Porters start at $15 per person and it’s customary to give an additional $5 tip – a $20 bill is sufficient.
- $15 per person to be given to main tracker before you descend the mountain and they will share with other trackers
- $15 per person to be given to main guide at end of trek and they will share other guides
I can’t decide between gorilla trekking in Uganda or Rwanda!
Gorilla trekking is a very regulated activity with only a limited number of permits issued daily, so if you leave the decision until very late, the choice could be made for you. For quality accommodations and a polished gorilla-trekking experience, Rwanda wins. For the cost-conscious who are looking for a greater diversity beyond gorilla trekking and outdoor adventure, Uganda is the ticket. For more in-depth advice on where to go to see gorillas, contact us today.