Today (March 8, 2019): Comparing gorilla trekking in Rwanda, Uganda and Congo.
Tracking the endangered mountain gorilla through the mysterious intimacy of the rainforest, alive with the calls of colorful birds and chattering of the rare golden monkey, is one of the most unique, memorable and life-changing travel adventures one can undertake in a lifetime. Gorilla trekking takes place in Rwanda, Uganda or the Democratic Republic of Congo. Only eight visitors are allowed per gorilla group each day, and to minimize possible transmission of human diseases, visitors are asked to maintain a distance of 7m (about 22 feet) from the gorillas. Typically, tracking can take from one to ten hours and requires some level of fitness since the hikes goes through dense jungle vegetation up steep and often muddy slopes.
In this review, I compare different aspects of gorilla trekking in Rwanda, Uganda and Congo:
- Where are the mountain gorillas?
- Cost of a gorilla permit
- Availability of gorilla permits
- How to get there & accessibility
- The hike to the gorillas
- Viewing & photography
- Overview & key points
Where are the mountain gorillas?
Today, there are around 1000 mountain gorillas living in the rainforests of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. More than half of this population is found in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, while the other half lives in the Virunga Mountains in three adjacent national parks, namely Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mountain gorillas are not to be confused with lowland gorillas, which is the most numerous and widespread of all gorilla subspecies, living in swamps and forests of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
Both Uganda and Rwanda are safe countries, although Rwanda is clearly better managed than Uganda, with less corruption and crime. In fact, Rwanda is Africa’s second safest country (after Botswana). Gorilla trekking in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a different story, since the security situation here has been unstable and dangerous for decades because of civil war (and recently Ebola). All governments have issued stern travel warnings against travel in this area (since armed groups still roam the area) despite the fact that the UNESCO listed Virungas National Park is one of the world’s most fascinating tourism destinations. In May 2018, gorilla trekking in Congo’s Virunga National park was cancelled following the kidnapping (and further release) of two British tourists and their driver and the killing of their guide. This was not an isolated case since six park members were killed in the month prior to the kidnapping. Although gorilla trekking in Congo recently resumed, it remains exponentially more dangerous than in Uganda or Rwanda where safety is not a concern.
Cost of a gorilla permit
Ultimately, the deciding factor between gorilla trekking in Uganda, Rwanda and Congo is the price (and availability) of the permit, which allows you one hour with the mountain gorillas. Focusing on high-end low-impact tourism, Rwanda has recently doubled the cost of a gorilla trekking permit, which is now twice the cost of a permit in Uganda and almost four times the cost of a permit in Congo.
- A gorilla permit in Uganda for Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga National Park costs USD $600 USD per person. Uganda also offers a unique experience, the Gorilla Habituation experience, which allows a person four hours in the company of the gorillas for a fee of $1500 USD; during the Gorilla Habituation experience, you witness the act of training wild gorillas to become used to the sight of people.
- A gorilla permit in Rwanda for Volcanoes National Park costs USD $1500 USD per person. This was increased in 2017 from $750 USD. However, discounts are possible:
- Tourist who visit Nyungwe National Park and Akagera National Park for a minimum of three days during the low season (November-May) receive a discount of 30% on their gorilla permit.
- A 15% discount is valid for conference tourists who stay in Rwanda pre-or post-conference dates to see the gorillas.
- A gorilla permit in Congo cost $400 USD per person in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Last year, Congo introduced low season discounted gorillas permits – costing $200 USD per person – during the months of March, May, October and November. You can as well see low land gorillas in Congo, with a permit also costing $400 per person, Congo’s lowland gorillas are found in Kahuzi Biega National Park while its mountain gorillas are seen in Virunga National Park.
Availability of gorilla permits
In Rwanda, 96 gorilla permits are available on a daily base (for 12 habituated gorilla families). Uganda sells 96 gorilla permits per day for Bwindi National Park (88 permits for 11 gorilla groups) and Mgahinga National Park (8 permits for one gorilla group). In high season (June to October and mid-December to February), permits in Rwanda and Uganda sell out months in advance. During the low seasons, availability of permits is better, since there is a low turn up of tourists, mainly attributed to the rainy weather. Congo’s Virunga national park is home to 8 habituated gorilla families an 64 permits are available per day; because of security concerns, it’s quite easy to buy a permit, even last minute.
How to get there & accessibility
The main entry point into Uganda is Entebbe international airport, which is a 10 hour drive on bumpy and winding roads from Bwindi Impenetrable or Mgahinga National Park (where the gorillas are found). You can always charter a flight for an added cost, but if you choose to travel by road, you will need three days for gorilla tracking (with an overnight stay in the area before and after your trek). The good thing is you can plan your Uganda gorilla trekking as part of a longer journey, with chimpanzee trekking in Kibale National Park and big game viewing in Queen Elizabeth National Park & Murchison Falls National Park.
Rwanda’s gorilla tracking site – Volcanoes National Park – is only a 2,5 hour drive from the airport in Kigali. And the road between Volcanoes National Park and Kigali is excellent and paved. While it is possible to do a gorilla trekking as a day excursion from Kigali, it’s best to spend two days on a gorilla safari (with an overnight stay near Volcanoes National Park before you trekking). I advise you to stay some more days in Rwanda, so you can also track big game in Akagera National Park, go chimpanzee or golden monkey tracking in in Nyungwe National Park, or explore Kigali and visit the Genodice Memorial Center.
Congo’s Virunga National Park Congo is mostly accessed via Gisenyi from Rwanda crossing into Goma; Gisenyi is 3 hours by car from Rwanda’s capital Kigali. From the border, it’s about one hour by car to Virunga National Park’s headquarters. Border crossings at Gisenyi are open until 10 pm, although they can be closed in case there is a security concern.
Hike to the gorillas
IMHO, gorilla trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest In Uganda requires more physical fitness and stamina compared to gorilla trekking in the Virungas area. The Bwindi jungle is very thick and slopes can be steep – often steeper than a flight of stairs – in the absence of trails. However, that makes the experience more exciting for most people.
In Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, gorilla trekking is done on the slope of a volcano, and the hiking is a bit easier. In Rwanda, you are also assigned a group based on your physical abilities. So, older travelers or travelers that have mobility issues may be better choosing Rwanda instead of Uganda.
However, in the end, it all comes down to the location of the gorilla group that you are tracking, and the hiking time may vary from 30 minutes to 6 hours.
Viewing & photography
In the end, most travelers want to take some amazing photos of their gorilla experience. However, the quality of your pictures will depend on a number of factors, such as the gorilla group you are visiting and their precise location (in the open vs in the bush). In Uganda, the vegetation is very thick, hence the name Bwindi Impenetrable National Park; this can make photos quite dark. In Rwanda and Congo, you are climbing up the side of a volcano, with more open spaces in the forest, so the views of the gorillas and the photos are somewhat better. But whether you decide to track gorillas Rwanda or Uganda, you will always be able to take some mesmerizing pictures.
If you prefer a more intimate and high-end experience, Rwanda is your best choice. Lodges here are some of the most exclusive and stunning in Africa. All the big names in luxury travel are present in the area surrounding the Volcanoes National Park, from the fabulous Bisate Lodge run by Wilderness Safaris to the soon to open One&Only Gorillas Nest and Singita’s Kwitonda Lodge.
|Safety||Rwanda is one of the safest countries in Africa||Uganda’s national parks are very safe, although there is crime outside the parks||Low and conflict riddled. There have been numerous killings of park rangers and guides; tourists have been kidnapped in the past|
|Cost of gorilla permit (USD)||$1,500||$600||$400|
|National Park where gorillas live||Volcanoes National Park||Bwindi Impenetrable Forest & Mgahinga National Park||Virungas National Park|
|International getaway airport||Kigali||Entebbe||Kigali|
|Distance from the airport to the park||3h drive||10h drive||3h drive to Goma then cross the border by road into Congo|
|Road conditions to the park||excellent||bumpy and winding||excellent to the border, then bumpy|
|Number of habituated gorilla families||12||12||8|
|Gorilla habituation process (4 hours with the gorillas)||not offered||offered||not offered|
|Other attractions||Rwanda Genocide Memorial, Lake Kivu, big game in Akagera National Park, and chimpanzee tracking in Nyungwe National Park||Chimpanzee tracking in Kibale Forest National Park, big game in Queen Elizabeth National Park & Murchison Falls National Park||Climbing Nyiragongo (very tough climb) which is an active volcano, seeing chimpanzees|
|Accommodations||high-end hotels||mid-range & budget hotels||budget hotels|