Widely seen as the definitive bucket list wildlife encounter in Africa, trekking to see the critically endangered mountain gorillas, of which there are only 880 straddling the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is an experience not to be missed. Here we give you a run down on how the two countries compare to help you decide which is the right choice for you.
Bang for your buck
In 2017 the Rwandan government made the decision to increase the cost of a gorilla permit from $750 per trek to $1,500, citing a desire to focus on high value, low volume tourism. There were concerns raised at the time that this meant that only the most affluent visitors would be drawn to Rwanda’s arguably more famous gorillas.
By comparison, Uganda has fixed its permit price at $600 per trek (although they no longer offer the lower priced permits during the low season). Uganda has seemingly benefited from the Rwandan decision with it being increasingly hard to find permit availability in Bwindi, while at times Rwanda has a surplus. With the opportunity to do two gorilla treks in Uganda for less than the price of one permit in Rwanda, it is certainly worth more budget-conscious travelers considering Uganda over its better-known neighbor.
Ease of trek
We like to think that anyone can undertake a gorilla trek, but it is physically demanding and shouldn’t be underestimated. The first thing to point out is that for those who perhaps have mobility issues but don’t want to miss out on the experience, both Uganda and Rwanda have a ‘gorilla chair’ which can be hired for guests to be carried on by porters to the gorilla encounter.
Our experts have trekked gorillas in both countries and found that the gorilla families in Rwanda feel more accessible. There are certainly more gentle treks available in Rwanda (although it’s worth bearing in mind that you are at higher altitude here which carries its own effects) and for older guests or those who are less active, it would be our top recommendation.
While Uganda is certainly trickier and tends to involve more hiking and a longer trek, it is still a great option for those with a reasonable level of fitness, and beyond. Regardless of which country you choose, it is worth taking the time to prepare for the trek and discussing tips with you travel expert so that you feel fully-prepared and know exactly what to expect.
Where to rest your head
Both Rwanda and Uganda have some fantastic options when it comes to where to stay, but there is an increasing drive in Rwanda to the highest level of luxury accommodation with the opening of Wilderness Safaris’ Bisate Lodge, the upcoming Singita Kwitonda Lodge and the recent addition of One&Only’s Gorilla’s Nest. These high-end lodges join the established offerings of Sabyinyo Lodge and Volcanoes Virunga Lodge; both of which are fantastic options for those looking for a more affordable, yet still luxurious stay.
Ugandan accommodation tends to come at a lower price point, but there are still fabulous options here with Volcanoes Bwindi Lodge and Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp being among our favorites. For those looking for spectacular views, exclusivity and something a little special, you can’t beat the homely Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge in a remote corner of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
Ease of access
Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park is an easy three hour drive from the capital Kigali on well-maintained tar roads and this is the easiest option for a quick add-on (it is also possible to fly in by helicopter). Depending on your international flights you may need a night in Kigali either on arrival or departure. For one gorilla trek you can get away with two nights at a lodge, while for two treks we would recommend three.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda is not as accessible, requiring an easy light aircraft flight from Entebbe followed by a road transfer ranging from 90 minutes to 2 hours on dirt roads of varying condition (unless gorillas are part of a longer Uganda itinerary where you can avoid the flight). Regardless, we would recommend the same number of nights and Bwindi has the advantage over Rwanda of having more to do by way of additional experiences both with wildlife but more so cultural and community projects.
What to combine your gorilla trek with
Many choose to add on their gorilla trek to a more extensive safari vacation and there are so many options for what to do. Rwanda has more limited options in-country but the development of Akagera National Park and the reintroduction of the big five is an exciting prospect. The newly opened Magashi Camp is a lovely prelude before a grand finale at Bisate Lodge.
Uganda is more developed as a safari destination in its own right. It has, however, lacked the conservation focus of neighboring Tanzania and Kenya, meaning that it isn’t able to offer the same level of safari experience. Saying that, for those looking for a diverse experience with plentiful wildlife (think spotting elephants on a cruise down the River Nile in Murchison Falls National Park, tracking tree-climbing lions in Queen Elizabeth National Park or going in search of our closest cousins – chimpanzees – in Kibale Forest National Park), Uganda has plenty to offer!
For those looking for a more concentrated safari experience it’s worth combining gorilla trekking in either Rwanda or Uganda with a neighboring country. Tanzania works well in combination with Rwanda thanks to a direct flight between the capital, Kigali and the Serengeti and will allow guests the chance to combine gorilla trekking with a traditional safari experience and if they time it right, another wildlife spectacle – the Great Migration.
Uganda doesn’t have as good direct connections, but it is easy enough to combine with Kenya and specifically the Maasai Mara with a logistical overnight in either Entebbe or Nairobi for a high impact and great value trip.
Interested in finding out more about gorilla trekking in Uganda and Rwanda? Call one of our Africa Experts on (858) 523-9000 or check out our primate safari itineraries here.