Gorilla Trekking is a surreal and unlike any other experience in Africa. Sharing time with the world’s remaining mountain gorillas in the wilds of Africa’s rain forests is utterly magical and this makes to everyone’s bucket list planning to visit Africa at one time.
Sitting or standing in silence on the cold ground of a rain forest for 60 minutes might be one of life’s greatest privileges every adventure traveler is dreaming of. There are only 1,000 mountain gorillas in existence in the whole world, and gorilla trekking provides a rare opportunity to observe the everyday interactions of these gentle mysterious primates.
Mountain gorillas only live in the dense vegetation of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and along the dormant volcanic Virunga mountain range that stretches across Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Often the question on every traveler’s mind is which of these East African countries they should visit for the ultimate gorilla trekking experience. There is no easy answer as each country is unique and offers different experiences
To help you choose between these two famous gorilla trekking destinations, we’ve pitted Uganda and Rwanda against each other to answer the ultimate question; Gorilla Trekking: Uganda or Rwanda? Here we go.
In Rwanda, gorilla trekking experience takes place at Volcanoes national park with a total of 380 gorilla members divided into 10 habituated gorilla families. Only 8 people are allowed to trek a family in a day implying there are only 80 gorilla permits available in one day thus booking a gorilla tour in advance is important.
On the other side, Uganda gorilla safaris take place in Bwindi impenetrable national park and Mgahinga gorilla national park both in the southwest of the country. Uganda has a total number of 14 habituated gorilla families with each group comprising of 10 to 40 members of varying ages headed by a silverback gorillas (the oldest male) in the group. Bwindi impenetrable forest is known for having the highest number of gorillas in the whole world; 50% of the global population resides in this thick jungle of Uganda. These gorillas are in 12 habituated gorilla groups and 2 more families available for gorilla habituation experience. Only 8 Gorilla permits are available each day for each gorilla group. Gorilla families are given names depending on their formation history, group location and name of the dominant silverback.
Mgahinga national park hosts just one Uganda gorilla family known as the Nyakagezi group. Few visitors go to Mgahinga for gorilla tours despite having one of the largest gorilla families anywhere around.
The Nyakagezi family is composed of 9 members; 4 silver backs, 2 infants, 2 adults females 1 juvenile.
In the past, the group was famous for their migratory behavior across the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda. However, this gorilla group has today settled in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda where tourists are assured of gorilla trekking experiences.
Gorilla permit cost
At $1,500, the Rwanda gorilla permit is said to be the highest in the region; the permit costs $700 in Uganda. For those travelling at a tight budget, Uganda is the best option to save $800.
Some travelers opt to go to Rwanda despite the higher permit cost due to several reasons we will cover in the blog. However, some choose Uganda due to the higher cost of the permit in Rwanda, planning either to do 2 gorilla treks each at $700 and still save some money for their porters or do a gorilla habituation which costs the same price as a normal gorilla permit in Rwanda. ($1,500)
On a gorilla habituation, tourists are allowed to interact with these great apes for 4 hours unlike on a normal trek where it’s approximately 1 hour with them.
This is the number one reason why many opt for Uganda over Rwanda while planning their gorilla trek in Africa.
The tracking experience is an open door to seeing these primates in their natural habitat and the trek to reach them is wild enough itself .Both Uganda and Rwanda offer great opportunities for gorilla trekking.
However, Rwanda is more favorable as most of the terrain during the gorilla trekking is a little bit more open and therefore it is easier to get a good view.
Trekking routes in Rwanda are considered a bit more open and not as steep and slippery compared to Bwindi in Uganda. That said, many tourists who are not ready for the real trekking challenge opt for Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. However, the park is at a much higher altitude than Bwindi and this can also make the trek more challenging.
In Uganda, the gorillas cover large territories due to the high numbers in the Bwindi forest and tracking time can vary greatly from day to day, from 30 minutes up to eight or nine hours. The vegetation can be very thick, hence the name Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Slopes can be steep, often steeper than a flight of stairs and there are no trails. Some of the flora is so dense; rangers have to cut it back with machetes. There are no footpaths or clear routes, just the rangers following their intuition and instruction from the trackers as you scramble behind them.
The treks are varying lengths according to one’s fitness ability, so make sure you’re honest about any physical limitations before you begin, otherwise you may end up being carried down the rocky terrain on a stretcher.
Uganda also offers a unique way of watching gorillas unlike Rwanda known as the Gorilla habituation where tourists are allowed to spend more time (4 hours) with the gorillas unlike on the normal trek where they are permitted only one hour.
The habituation permit was introduced only recently in response to visitors’ desire to spend more time with the mountain gorillas in Uganda’s Bwindi impenetrable national park and only 2 gorilla families have been set aside for this amazing experience in the southern sector of the park
Given the relatively close proximity of Volcanoes National Park to Kigali Airport (KGL), Rwanda is the best country for visitors who only have time for a brief stopover to go gorilla trekking, and nothing else. This is more likely to be the case for those in transit to somewhere else, or travelling in from a nearby country like Tanzania, Kenya or from South Africa.
It takes approximately 3 hrs to drive 120km from Kigali international airport to Volcanoes national park. This makes it easy for one to arrive in the country in the morning or afternoon and still get to the park in time for dinner and an overnight stay.
With the case of Uganda, it’s quite different. It takes 10 hours to drive 465km from Entebbe international airport (EBB) to Bwindi impenetrable national park. This drive involves bumpy and dirty drives as you approach the park through the remote villages.
Proper planning is key when you choose Uganda; the drive must start in the early morning hours to avoid rushing and to enjoy the beautiful sceneries and amazing stops as you cruise to the south west of the country.
Alternatively, for those who can’t stand the long hours drive there is an option of flying to and from the park . There are domestic flights on arrangement by Aerolink and Bar aviation taking off from Entebbe and landing in Kihihi and Kisoro airstrips for the northern and southern sectors of the park respectively and drive to the park head quarters in 2 hours.
For most foreign travelers, the time and expense put into getting to East Africa means they want to do more activities like a safari, hike the great mountains or experience the culture of the locals while in the region than flying back and forth.
Rwanda is a land of extreme beauty, each bend in the road revealing a more beautiful vista than the one before.
Before going out of the capital and to Rwanda’s famous national parks, you will probably want to visit the Genocide Memorial Center in the capital Kigali. The Museum holds the remains of about 250,000 people who were brutally murdered by the Interahamwe (Hutu extremists). The center is divided into three sections – one for children killed during the genocide, another for adults and the final section dedicated to learning about genocides which occurred in different parts of the world.
Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda with its golden monkey trekking adds an additional experience to a gorilla-trekking visit. So, if clients want to see both golden monkeys and gorillas we recommend that they visit Rwanda.
Nyungwe Forest is perfect for people wanting to hike with 130 kilometers (80 miles) of trails and the chance of seeing 13 different primates
Rwanda is growing its diversity with the reintroduction of lions and rhinos to Akagera National Park and there is a boat safari on Lake Kivu hence offering a perfect safari making it a wonderful addition to the gorillas.
Gorilla trekking in Rwanda is more accessible to meetings and incentives travelers thanks to the infrastructure the country has to offer. Rwanda has recently been ranked among the safe countries and the most popular conference and events destinations on the continent by the International Congress and Convention Association and now famous for having the cleanest city Kigali in the whole of Africa.
Uganda has always enticed travelers with its unrivaled natural features and incredibly rich fauna. After all, it is what Winston Churchill referred to as “the Pearl of Africa.”
Its 10 national park boast a diverse ecosystem including barren savannahs that host an incredible concentration of wildlife including some of the rarest animals on the planet, beautiful lakes and waterfalls, and green rain forests that gives haven to mighty primates and unique birds.
Queen Elizabeth National Park is a famous park in Uganda and one of the reasons for this is because it shows a different side of Uganda. In this park, you get to spot diverse wildlife including tree-climbing lions, warthogs, elephants, leopards, waterbucks and many more. You also get to go on a boat cruise along the Kazinga channel where you can see many birds and animals like crocodiles, hippos, and buffaloes. Other activities in this park include visiting a salt lake as well as visiting a fishing village.
Kibale National Park holds one of the most beautiful and most varying tracts of tropical forest in the whole of Uganda. Arguably the best chimpanzee destination and some refer to it as the primate capital of Africa.
Kibale forest is just close on the wind ward side of the Rwenzori Mountains. This is one of the most picturesque natural scenery in East Africa. It supports glaciers and is one source of the river Nile. It offers spectacular trekking and climbing trips featuring a breathtaking variety of landscapes including bamboo and giant fern forests, alpine meadows, gorgeous lakes, and snow-capped peaks.
Uganda has the source of the longest river on this planet; the Nile river. In Jinja where it flows out of Lake Victoria is a very interesting and adventurous district with lots of attractions and activities to do including the best white water rafting on the continent, bungee jumping, kayaking, tubing, water slide, boat cruises, biking, horse riding to mention but a few.
As the Nile flows to the north of the country, it forms the most powerful waterfalls know as the Murchison falls where it squeezes through a narrow gorge just 7 meters wide making a thunderous roar and a spectacular scene.
The amazing savannah where the falls are is known as the Murchison falls national park. This is one of the best safari destinations in the country with hundreds of elephants, giraffes, buffaloes, lions, leopards and thousands of different antelope species roaming the plains. The boat ride on the Nile to the bottom of the falls offers one of the best river safaris with schools of hippos, crocodiles basking on the shores, elephants and other grazers lining on the river shores to quench their thirst. For bird lovers, the cruise will add more colorful bird species on your checklist.
Given the number of its amazing attractions, a perfectly planned 10 days Uganda safari will connect to most of them for a thrilling adventure experience of this pearl.
Where to stay
In Rwanda, there are limited options when it comes to lodging in the wilderness unless you book an exclusive luxury lodge that come at a higher cost. The growing number of guests has attracted new luxury lodges opening in Rwanda, including Wilderness Safaris Bisate Lodge, One & Only’s Nyungwe Lodge, Gorilla’s Nest as well as Singita Kwitonda.
Most budget and standard lodges are available in towns quite a distance from the park.
Check out where to stay in Volcanoes national park.
In Uganda, there is a plethora of accommodation options whether you are in a shoestring budget or an all-out luxury vacation. In all the four tracking points; Buhoma, Ruhija, Nkuringo and Rushaga, there are different options of accommodations right from camping to a five star lodge in the wilderness and close to the park headquarters where tracking begins. This makes Uganda favorable to every traveler planning to track gorillas. Check out where to in Bwindi impenetrable national park.
With all these mind-blowing adventures, it is not easy not to fall in love with Rwanda or Uganda. Whichever country you choose, you will surely enjoy the place.
Other than the cost of the permits and the number of gorillas available (Uganda has over half of the world’s population of critically endangered mountain gorillas), there really is little to differentiate between these two wonderful gorilla-trekking destinations.
If costs are a concern, Uganda might be the answer, but all things being equal, you will have an unforgettable experience whether you encounter Rwandan or Ugandan gorillas.