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Everything you need to know about gorilla trekking in Rwanda and Uganda

Few experiences can rival spending time with gorillas in their natural habitat. But how does it actually work? What’s the best place and time to do it? And can you do it more than once? This article will answer all these questions … and more!

Witnessing a family of mountain gorillas go about their business in the highlands of East Africa is one of the world’s great privileges. While every gorilla trekking experience is unique, you’ll probably get to see youngsters playing, mothers tending their young, blackbacks (up-and-coming males) wrestling and beating their chests … and a 400lb silverback quietly demonstrating his ultimate dominance.

Whether you choose to go gorilla trekking in Rwanda or in Uganda, you’re bound to have an unforgettable experience. But depending on your exact circumstances and desires, one of these two countries might make more sense.

Beautiful green landscape at Fort Portal, Uganda
Enter the beautiful countryside of Fort Portal, Uganda, overlooking the Rwenzori Mountains.

Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda and Uganda: The similarities

The gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda are exactly the same species (Gorilla beringei beringei) and the trekking experience is, broadly speaking, pretty much the same. You’ll trek for several hours, in a group of up to eight tourists led by a local ranger, to reach a gorilla family. Once there, you’ll get to spend an hour (60 minutes) with the great apes, before trekking back down again. (If you pay for eight permits, you can trek in a smaller, private group.)

The landscapes in Rwanda and Uganda are spectacular, and both countries offer loads of other activities, including chimp trekking, golden monkey trekking, and traditional safaris. Gorilla trekking is a year-round activity in Rwanda and Uganda – but because you’re trekking in a tropical rainforest, you should come well prepared for wet weather!

Two golden monkeys at Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
Two curious golden monkeys spotted in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda.

Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda and Uganda: The main differences

Rwanda is a much smaller country than Uganda and, broadly speaking, the roads tend to be better. The drive from the capital Kigali to the Volcanoes National Park (where all gorilla trekking in Rwanda happens) takes under two hours on well paved roads, although the tracks to the trekking trailheads can be pretty rough. Accessing the various gorilla trekking regions in Uganda is a longer and more arduous experience, and typically involves a connecting flight from the capital Entebbe and a fairly lengthy land transfer on bumpy roads. Many prefer the rugged wildness of Uganda, but the logistics surrounding the experience in Rwanda are definitely more seamless.

While Uganda has some fantastic, high-end accommodation options, Rwanda boasts a handful of extremely luxurious internationally-owned lodges, the likes of which you can’t find in Uganda. If you’re accustomed to staying in the best of the best, then Rwanda might be a better option for you. You can even do all your transfers by helicopter! If, on the other hand, you’ve got some time to play with, and you’re keen to really get off the beaten track, Uganda has a lot to offer.

Exterior view of Ndali Lodge, Uganda. Tent room in Magashi Camp, Rwanda
Both experiences offer spectacular stays, from Uganda’s Ndali Lodge overlooking Nyinambuga crater lake (left) to Rwanda’s Magashi Camp holding luxury tents (right). (Courtesy Photos of Ndali Lodge & Magashi Camp)

The other obvious difference is the price of the gorilla trekking permit: $700 per person per trek in Uganda compared to $1,500 per person per trek in Rwanda. Rwanda does offer a discount if you include Akagera or Nyungwe National Park on your itinerary.

Gorilla trekking in Rwanda

All gorilla treks in Rwanda depart from the Volcanoes National Park HQ. The park has 12 habituated gorilla families, and only eight people are allowed to visit each family per day. Once you’ve assembled at HQ, the guides will decide which family to take you to, based on your supposed fitness and the location of the gorilla families. If you have strong feelings about whether you want an easy/strenuous trek, please do let the guides know.

Large mountain gorilla in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
Visiting a gorilla family is perhaps the world’s most profound natural history experience.

Rwanda is the most densely populated country on mainland Africa, so you should expect to hike through cultivated areas to reach the gorillas. You should also be prepared for the fact that the gorillas may be foraging in farmlands when you find them. (This can also be the case in Uganda.) At certain times of year, it is possible to find the gorillas feeding in bamboo thickets – a real hit for the serious photographers.

Gorilla trekking in Uganda

Getting to and from the trekking areas in Uganda is an experience in itself, and you cannot fly out of the park on the same day as you trek. Most gorilla trekking in Uganda takes place in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, but you can also go trekking in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, the only place in Uganda with golden monkey trekking.

Bwindi is divided into two sectors: north and south. It takes six hours to drive from north to south, so most people end up staying and trekking in one sector only. This isn’t an issue – Bwindi is enormous, and both sectors boast plentiful gorillas and incredible topographical variety – but it is worth bearing in mind when you book your trip.

Baby gorilla in the trees of Bwindi National Park, Uganda
Look out above! A baby gorilla just might be watching over you.

In general, the trekking in Bwindi is steeper and tougher than it is in Rwanda, although there are less strenuous options in both the north and south of the park. Wherever you trek in Uganda, it will be wilder and more remote than the trekking in Rwanda. If you want a really challenging trek, you should stay in the south. Also in the south is Chameleon Hill Lodge, whose location on Lake Mutanda is one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

Two Bwindi bucket list experiences

  1. While driving is not recommended, it is possible to hike between the northern and southern regions of Bwindi. The nine-mile Ivy River Trail takes between five and nine hours depending on your fitness – but this mesmerizingly gorgeous experience is a nifty way of combining lodges in both regions on your itinerary. You’ll hike with just a small daypack, and your guide will provide all refreshments along the way. Your other luggage will be transferred by road.

  2. If you stay in the south of Bwindi, you can opt to go on a once-in-a-lifetime gorilla habituation experience. This full-day trekking experience allows no more than four tourists to accompany Ugandan park rangers, who are in the process of habituating a gorilla family. The habituation experience costs $1,500, but it enables you to spend up to four hours with the gorillas – in the company of people who’ve worked closely with them for decades. (Gorillas move much faster than humans, so if the gorillas decide to push off, you may spend less than four hours with them.)

One trek or two

Once you’ve gone to all the effort of getting to Rwanda or Uganda, and considering you only get to spend 60 minutes with the gorillas per trek, it often makes sense to book two gorilla treks. If you choose to do this, you will get to trek to two different gorilla families, usually on consecutive days. Travelers to Uganda can also opt to go on the habituation experience as one of their treks.

Gorilla trekking as an add-on

Many people choose to add a gorilla trekking component on to a safari in another part of Africa. Generally speaking, it makes sense for groups who’ve been in South Africa or Tanzania to see the gorillas in Rwanda, as these countries boast easy connecting flights to Kigali. Those who’ve been on a Kenyan safari, however, often find it easier to go gorilla trekking in Uganda, as there’s a direct flight from the Masai Mara to Entebbe.

Giraffes hugging in Akagera National Park, Rwanda
Akagera National Park in Rwanda has an abundance of wildlife, including herds of elephant and buffalo, leopard, lions, hyenas, and more than a dozen types of antelope.

What about chimp trekking?

It is possible to go chimp trekking in both Uganda and Rwanda, but not in the parks where you go gorilla trekking. First things first it’s important to stress that because chimps live in communities of up to 150 animals, it’s highly likely that, regardless of where you trek, you will encounter other trekking parties when you reach the chimps. Also, chimps move around a lot more than gorillas so you may not get your full 60 minutes with them.

The only park with habituated chimps in Rwanda is the Nyungwe Forest National Park, which also boasts an amazing canopy walkway, fantastic birdlife, and a great luxury hotel. Uganda, on the other hand, has several options.

  1. With a 98% success rate, Kibale Forest National Park is the best place to see chimps in Uganda – and Ndali Lodge is a wonderful base from which to explore Kibale. You can choose between a morning or afternoon trek, and the topography is fairly level so it’s not too strenuous. You can also opt for a chimp habituation experience, where you get to spend the full day in the forest and up to four hours observing the chimps.

  2. Murchison Falls National Park is Uganda’s premier safari destination and it’s home to a jaw-dropping waterfall on the Nile River. But it’s got another ace up its sleeve: the Budongo Forest. Although there aren’t as many chimps, there are also fewer visitors so it can be a more intimate experience. Budongo’s long association with Jane Goodall means the guides are excellent.

  3. It’s also possible to go chimp trekking in the Queen Elizabeth National Park. There’s about a 60% chance of spotting the chimps in the Kyambura Gorge, but Queen Elizabeth has plenty of other attractions, not least the lion research project and the option to go on a water-based safari on the Kazinga Channel.

Go big or go home

While this blog has been all about choosing between Rwanda and Uganda, many of our travelers end up deciding to visit both of these spellbinding central African nations! We can highly recommend going gorilla trekking in both countries, but there are loads of other attractions too. As we’ve alluded to already, Uganda has several amazing, off-the-beaten-path safari parks. And Rwanda’s capital city Kigali is a cosmopolitan gem, with wonderful museums (a visit to the genocide museum will stay with you forever), restaurants, bars, art galleries, and shops.

Have we convinced you yet? Check out our most popular Rwanda and Uganda gorilla trekking itineraries. Or speak to a Destination Expert about crafting the central African adventure of your dreams.

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