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Beyond gorillas: Uganda and Rwanda are spectacular destinations in their own right

We’ve already written about how the experience of going on a gorilla trek in Rwanda or Uganda can be life-changing. But these east African powerhouses have loads of other tricks up their sleeves – and they don’t get as much tourist pressure as places like Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa. Read on for a rundown of the cultural and safari highlights…

First things first

If you’re primarily interested in seeing gorillas and chimpanzees, we advise you check out our recent article: Everything you need to know about gorilla trekking in Rwanda and Uganda. Once you’ve read that, we highly recommend coming back to this page and finding out more about this fascinating east African duo.

Uganda: The pearl of Africa

Home to mist-shrouded mountains, majestic freshwater lakes, and sunbaked savannah, Uganda is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet. No wonder Winston Churchill dubbed it “the pearl of Africa.” The best part? This world-class safari destination has flown blessedly under the tourist radar, and isn’t nearly as crowded as some other places.

Murchison Falls National Park

Uganda’s largest national park takes its name from the jaw-dropping falls, which see the fabled Nile River plunge almost 400 feet through a narrow cleft in the Rift Valley escarpment. While marveling at the falls is the focal point of any trip to Murchison (we advise seeing them two ways: on a three-hour boat trip to the base of the falls, and on a precipitous jeep ride to the top of the falls), it’s by no means the park’s only attraction.

Roaring canyon waterfalls at Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda
The spectacular waterfall surges through a narrow gorge in Murchison Falls National Park.

Other highlights include game drives on the shores of Lake Albert (the park’s home to an abundance of antelope and buffalo, the largest population of Nubian giraffes in Africa, and healthy numbers of lion, leopard, and elephant), and a three- or four-hour boat trip to the Nile Delta. This is an absolute must for bird lovers (it’s a great opportunity to see the rare and otherworldly shoebill, not to mention a whole host of other species), and the scenery is utterly spectacular. As if this isn’t enough, you can also go chimp trekking in the nearby Budongo Forest.

Kibale Forest National Park

The most accessible of Uganda’s rainforests, Kibale, is the best place in the country (and arguably the world) to go chimp trekking. (Click here for more info on chimp trekking.) But this is by no means its only attraction. It’s home to 13 primate species, including Ugandan mangabey, red colobus, black and white colobus, and L’Hoest’s and blue monkeys. It’s also a fantastic place to spy the elusive forest hog – and the hiking and birdwatching is out of this world.

Great blue turaco bird in Kibale National Park, Uganda
The gorgeous great blue turaco is the largest of its family and averages the length of 30 inches!

Queen Elizabeth National Park

With 95 mammal species and a whopping 610 different birds, this mind-altering safari destination has one of the highest biodiversity ratings of any park on the planet. Spanning everything from grassy savannahs and volcanic crater lakes, through to leafy rain forests and dense papyrus swamps, Queen Elizabeth National Park offers an array of experiences under one “roof”.

During your stay, you’ll go on game drives in two entirely different ecosystems: The Channel Drive Circuit, which winds between tangled thickets, is a great place to spot elephant, bushbuck, hippo, and the normally elusive leopard. It’s also one of the only places in Africa where the rare giant forest hog is often spotted. The Kasenyi Plains, meanwhile, are a typical African savannah featuring rolling grasslands scattered with picturesque acacia trees. Kasenyi boasts incredible concentrations of plains game, and is generally regarded as the best place in Uganda to see lions.

Rare giant forest hog spotted in Aberdare National Park, Kenya
The giant forest hog is the largest member of the pig family.

But Queen Elizabeth is about far more than just game drives. Other attractions include a water-based safari through the Kazinga Channel (elephant, bushbuck, buffalo, and large breeding pods of hippo are often spotted), a one-of-a-kind lion tracking adventure across the Kasenyi Plains, and an unforgettable chimpanzee trek through the fertile Kyambura Gorge.

Rwanda: Land of a thousand hills

Tiny, landlocked Rwanda is proof that dynamite comes in small – and steep – packages. From the beaches of Lake Kivu to the rainforests of Nyungwe, Rwanda’s scenery will knock your socks off. And its capital Kigali is one of the loveliest cities in Africa. What’s more, Rwanda boasts some of the finest accommodations on the continent.

Akagera National Park

Did you know you can go on a bona fide Big 5 safari in Rwanda? Akagera, named after the Kagera River, is a mesmerizing jigsaw of swamps and lakelets interspersed with wide plains and forest pockets. This makes for a truly varied game viewing experience – on land, on water … and even by air from a hot air balloon.

Hippopotamus in the swamps of Akagera National Park, Rwanda
A peculiar hippopotamus side-eyeing its photographer.

A true conservation success story, Akagera is once again home to an abundance of apex predators and their prey. Marvel at lion, white and black rhino, buffalo, elephant, hyena, zebra, giraffe, and a variety of antelope species. The shallow waters of Lake Ihema, meanwhile, harbor healthy populations of crocs. And, as is the case with all the parks in this neck of the woods, the birding is out of this world. Bucket list species include the extremely rare papyrus gonolek and the elusive – and extraordinary – shoebill stork.

Kigali

With its immaculate boulevards, trendy eateries, and world-class museums, Rwanda’s cosmopolitan capital is an attraction in its own right. The mind-numbing Genocide Memorial Museum serves as a permanent reminder of the costs of ignorance – and the power of the human spirit to recover and rebuild in the wake of unspeakable tragedy. The fact that many of the museum’s guides are survivors of the genocide makes the experience all the more poignant.

Kigali city skyline in Rwanda
Kigali is nestled between Mount Kigali and Mount Jali, influencing the urban region’s rolling hills and verdant trees.

Another must-see is the Inema Arts Center, a space for Rwandan artists to explore their creativity through contemporary African arts, crafts, music, and dance. This is much more than an art gallery: it’s a creative experience that will help you to reflect on Rwanda’s past … And leave you feeling enthused about its future.

Nyungwe National Park

This primeval rainforest enclave is Rwanda’s most biodiverse park, boasting 90 mammal species, more than 310 birds, and over 1,050 plant species … Not to mention a whopping 13 different primates! Nyungwe is the only spot to go chimp trekking in Rwanda (check out this article for much more info on chimp and gorilla trekking), but this is by no means its only drawcard. Other attractions include colobus monkey trekking (one group numbers more than 500 monkeys!), guided or unguided forest walks, and a once-in-a-lifetime canopy walkway experience – the closest you’ll come to knowing what it feels like to be a chimp swinging through the trees. Activities aside, Nyungwe is also a truly gorgeous slice of Africa – and the One&Only Nyungwe House, located on a working tea plantation, is one of those very special hotels that is a destination in itself.

Canopy walkway in Nyungwe Forest National Park, Rwanda
The 525-foot-long canopy walkway suspends above a ravine in the lush rainforest of Nyungwe National Park.

See it for yourself

It goes without saying that most travelers who visit Uganda or Rwanda make gorilla trekking the centerpiece of their itinerary. But, as you’ve just learned, this is by no means the only reason to visit the region. While we specialize in curating bespoke itineraries to cater to your exact needs, we’ve listed a few of the most popular ways of seeing these two hidden gems:

As we’ve mentioned already, these are just a few ideas to whet your appetite. We’d love to flex our creative muscle and come up with a bespoke itinerary that takes in the best bits of Rwanda and Uganda (and perhaps some Kenya or Tanzania too?).

Contact one of our Destination Experts to begin customizing your extraordinary East African adventure.

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