Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is a vast park of snow-capped mountains, tangled rainforest, thick mists, streams and dew, endangered mountain gorillas and loud, colourful birds.
Located in the southwest of Uganda, it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country because of its famous gorilla treks. On a gorilla trek you go on a guided hike through the forest to find and spend an hour in the presence of a mountain gorilla troop. It’s a truly special experience that few get to enjoy. And it almost never leaves you unchanged.
In this post we answer all of your questions and tell you some important information about Bwindi Impenetrable National Park …
- What is Bwindi famous for?
- How big is Bwindi?
- Where is Bwindi?
- Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
- Bwindi and gorilla trekking
- The Bakiga and Batwa peoples
- Hiking in Bwindi
- Wildlife of Bwindi
- Best time to visit Bwindi
- Where to stay in Bwindi
What is Bwindi Impenetrable National Park famous for?
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – or just Bwindi to make things shorter – is famous as one of only a handful parks where you can see mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. It was established in 1991 in large part to protect the species. Mountain gorillas can only be found in three countries: Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC.
Bwindi has more than half of the world’s population of mountain gorillas – around 400. It’s also the only place on the globe where mountain gorillas and chimpanzees live in the same ecosystem. At Bwindi you can go a guided trek in the forest to find and observe a mountain gorilla family, known as a troop. The trek to find a gorilla troop takes you through beautiful and ancient montane forest that is often drenched in dew (if it’s not actually raining).
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park has more than half of the world’s mountain gorillas.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Bwindi National Park has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its biological richness and significance. The park has 160 species of trees, which is the highest diversity of tree species in East Africa. It also has more than 100 species of ferns, over 347 species of forest birds, and more than 200 species of butterflies.
How big is Bwindi Impenetrable National Park?
Bwindi National Park is 321 km² or 32,092 ha. It has an unusual shape, as shown in the map below. The park was created through the merging of three former protected areas: the Impenetrable Central Forest Reserve, the Mgahinga Gorilla Reserve, and the Rwenzori Mountains Reserve.
Map of Bwindi
The map below shows the outline of the park, its location near the border with the DRC, and the different gorilla trekking sectors within the park.
Gates into Bwindi
There are a few different gates where you can enter Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Remember that the park is extremely large, and it can take hours to drive from one gate to another.
The main gate is Buhoma on the park’s northern border. This is where you’ll find the park’s headquarters. Visitors to Bwindi are given permits for a specific gorilla trekking sector of the park (more on that later), and must head to the gate granting entrance to that particular sector to be admitted into the park.
Where is Bwindi Impenetrable National Park?
Bwindi National Park is in the southwest of Uganda. It shares a border with the DRC, as shown in the map above. In terms of its geology, the park sits on the edge of the Albertine Rift, a western branch of the East African Rift. As much as 60% of the park is over 2,000 m above sea level.
How do I get to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park?
The two main ways of reaching Bwindi National Park are to travel there from Kampala, the capital of Uganda, or from Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.
The quicker route is actually via Kigali, but you’ll then need to clear immigration twice: at the airport in Rwanda and when crossing the border into Uganda. If you’re heading to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, you’re probably also planning to see more of Uganda, in which case it makes the most sense to travel to Bwindi via Kampala.
Here are the details for each option to help you figure out which is the best route for you …
Travelling from Kampala, Uganda
One way to arrive at Bwindi National Park is to fly into Entebbe International Airport just outside of the city of Kampala. From there, you can choose one of three options to reach Bwindi National Park:
- fly to Kihihi Airport north of Bwindi, then drive south
- fly to Kisoro Airport south of Bwindi, then drive north
- drive straight there
The flight from Entebbe to Kihihi lasts 80 minutes. From there, you must take a roughly 80-minute drive southwards to reach the park’s Buhoma gate. The flight from Entebbe to Kisoro lasts one hour and 50 minutes. From there, you must drive north for over an hour to reach Rushaga Gorilla Camp in the southern part of Bwindi.
The drive from Kampala to Bwindi follows a southwesterly route of 463 km and takes eight to 10 hours. If you opt to drive, we recommend that you take in some other sights along the way, as we do in our gorilla trekking itinerary. A great idea is to split the trip into two days and stop over at Lake Mburo National Park or Lake Bunyonyi.
Travelling from Kigali, Rwanda
Another, faster option is to fly into Kigali and then drive north to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. There are a couple of routes you can drive. The fastest is to drive straight north to Kabale, a town in south Uganda. The drive takes under two hours, and there’s a bus service covering the route. From Kabale, it takes about an hour’s drive to reach the eastern tip of Bwindi National Park.
Reaching the trailheads
Bwindi encompasses montane rainforest, so it probably won’t surprise you to learn that during the rainy season a four-wheel drive vehicle is necessary to reach some of the trailheads. If you travel with an organised tour operator like Follow Alice, your transport needs will be covered.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
The word bwindi is from the Runyakitara language and means ‘impenetrable’. So in English, we’re basically calling it the Impenetrable Impenetrable Forest.
What makes it impenetrable is that the tall hardwoods are interspersed with bamboo and dense ground cover made up of various ferns, vines and other plants. It can be really hard to pass through this thick vegetation!
The forest is a large and primeval one of great ecological importance given its impressive diversity. It covers the mountains, valleys and ridges of the Albertine Rift, which is part of the East African Rift, and ranges from 1,160 m to 2,607 m above sea level.
The forest, under the protection of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, was given UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1994 in acknowledgement of its biological significance.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is noisy and dense, just as you’d expect from any healthy tropical forest. It’s often covered in mist, as are nearby mountain ranges, hence the title of Dian Fossey’s famous autobiography Gorillas in the Mist.
Bwindi and gorilla trekking
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is one of only a handful places in the world where you can go see mountain gorillas in the wild. It’s also one of only a handful places where you can see mountain gorillas full stop, as there aren’t any in captivity that we know of.
Mountain gorillas live only in the DRC, Uganda and Rwanda. Most people who want to visit mountain gorillas head to Uganda or Rwanda. Gorilla trekking in Rwanda is far more expensive than in Uganda, which is one of the reasons why Follow Alice organises gorilla trekking trips in Uganda.
To go on a gorilla trek you have to book in advance, as a limited number of gorilla trekking permits are issued each day. In Bwindi, there are four gorilla trekking sectors, and each sector issues no more than 40 permits per day, with most sectors issuing far fewer than that. Permits are issued in groups of eight, with each group being assigned to track and visit a specific gorilla troop.
What is a gorilla trek like?
On the day of your trek, you’ll meet up with your trek guide, who will lead you into the forest to find your particular troop. The hike to the gorilla troop can last from around 45 minutes to a few hours, and there’s often plenty of uphill climbing. Fortunately you can usually opt for the length of hike that best suits you. Note that it’s also often muddy and the terrain is uneven.
When you find your gorilla troop, you will quietly spend an hour with them, often standing just a few metres away. Photography is allowed, provided your flash is turned off. When the hour is up, you’ll head back to base.
Gorilla trekking permits are issued on a first-come, first-served basis.
Gorilla habituation experience
Note that there is also a gorilla habituation experience for those who wish to spend longer with the gorillas. These permits are even fewer in number, so must be booked far in advance. They allow the visitor to spend four hours with a gorilla troop undergoing the habituation process with park rangers.
Gorilla trekking sectors of Bwindi National Park
Bwindi National Park has four designated gorilla trekking sectors. These sectors don’t cover the entire park – they’re just the sections where habituated gorilla troops live. A habituated gorilla troop is one that has been made accustomed over time to the presence of humans. Trekkers only visit habituated gorilla troops.
The four gorilla trekking sectors in the park are as follows:
- Buhoma sector in the north
- Nkuringo sector in the west
- Ruhija sector in the east
- Rushaga in the south
Note that there’s plenty of varied accommodation in all four sectors, from budget camps to fancy lodges. So you should have your choice of accommodation type (provided you books early enough).
Each gorilla trekking sector is a little different from the others, so let’s look at a few details of each …
Buhoma is the most easily accessible and therefore the most popular gorilla trekking sector in Bwindi. It hosts the Bwindi National Park headquarters. Buhoma has three habituated gorilla troops, which means 24 individual trekking permits are issued per day for the sector.
In the Ruhija sector there are two gorilla troops and so the park issues 16 trekking permits per day. This is a very cold section of the park, and is where you’ll find elephants. Interestingly, Bwindi is home to both forest and savannah elephants, and the two species have interbred over the years.
In the Rushaga sector 40 trekking permits are issued per day as there are five habituated gorilla troops living in it. The Nshongi gorilla troop lives here, and it’s the biggest in the park, boasting 25 members!
The Nkuringo sector has a high elevation and takes a little longer to reach than the other sectors. There’s only one habituated gorilla family living in this sector, the Nkuringo troop, so only eight permits are issued per day. The gorilla trek that takes place in this sector is harder than the norm, so it’s better suited to the young and the fit. But the rewards in terms of the scenery on this hike are unparalleled. Note that there’s a slight chance that you could develop symptoms of altitude sickness hiking in this sector given its greater elevation.
If you have a hankering to go gorilla trekking in a particular sector of Bwindi, you should book as early as possible to ensure you get your choice. If you choose to go gorilla trekking with Follow Alice, we’ll do our best to get you permits to the sector of your choice!
Bakiga and Batwa peoples
The Ugandan population is incredibly diverse. Many of its smaller people groups retain strong cultural identities that have been developed over centuries. And many welcome interested visitors to spend a day with them learning about their lifestyle and customs. Depending on the gorilla trekking sector you visit, you’ll be able to go on a Bakiga or Batwa Cultural Experience if you wish.
The Bakiga cultural experience
If you visit the Nkuringo or Buhoma sectors, you’ll have the chance to visit a Bakiga community. The Bakiga (or Kiga) people migrated to what is now southern Uganda from present-day Rwanda a few centuries ago. They speak the Bantu language of Rukiga. They’re known for being very hospitable, for their attractive terraced farms, and for their high energy levels. Their cultural dance involves lots of jumping and stamping, and is incredibly physical!
The Batwa cultural experience
If you stay in the Ruhija or Buhoma sectors of Bwindi you’ll have the opportunity to go on a cultural visit to a Batwa community. The Batwa are rainforest hunter-gatherers of short stature who have lived in the region for thousands of years. Their culture, homeland and very existence has come under threat through the spread of farmland, the modernisation of Uganda, and (sadly) the creation of Bwindi.
A Batwa Cultural Experience helps to support this marginalised people, and of course is incredibly rewarding for visitors who wish to learn about other ways of life. The visited community shares with you their traditional ways of hunting, making fires, building homes and more. They also sing and play traditional instruments, which is a truly special experience. Be sure to go on an official tour only – one hosted by the United Organisation for Batwa Development in Uganda, the Uganda Wildlife Authority or the Batwa Development Programme – to ensure your money goes to the Batwa community.
Hiking in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Bwindi offers some of the best hikes in the world. Seriously. The rugged terrain makes them challenging while also offering fantastic viewpoints. And the rich ecology of the park means that you see a gorgeous array of trees, vines, flowers, birds, animals, insects, mosses and more. Further, the hikes are guided, so you’ll always have a knowledgeable person on hand to identify and discuss fauna and flora of interest.
The different hikes
For starters, you can take a guided hike along one of two well-maintained foot trails connecting Buhoma and Nkuringo gates. The Kashasha River trail takes around five hours, including rest stops. The Ivy River trail is a 14 km trail that takes about six and a half hours, including rest stops. The cost to do one of the hikes is US$70 per person. You’ll need to bring at least two liters of water and a packed lunch. And you’ll need to wear long trousers and good hiking boots (ideally waterproof).
Hikes for bird lovers
There’s also a scenic trail from Nkuringo to Lake Mutanda. This lasts around five hours, and costs around $50 to $70 per group. Then there’s the Munyanga Waterfall trail, a gorgeous hike from the park’s HQ to Munyaga Waterfall and back that lasts about three hours. This is a great hike for those with limited time and also for bird lovers (though all Bwindi hikes, to be fair, are great for bird lovers). Other hikes that are particularly rewarding for birdwatchers are the Rusizi River trail and the Habinyanja trail. To learn what birds to look out for, read the section below on Bwindi’s birdlife.
Biggest, baddest hikes
There’s also the Mubwindi Swamp trail in the Ruhija sector of the park. This beautiful, moderate-level hike takes four to five hours and offers spectacular views of the valleys and the Virunga massifs. Given its location in the Ruhija setor, you may well spot elephants if you’re lucky. And then there’s the Muzabajiro Loop trail for those in the Buhoma sector. This hike lasts three to four hours and provides epic views over the forest, the Virunga massifs and the Rift Valley from Rukubira hill.
Another very popular hike is the Rushara Hill trail, which takes place in the Buhoma sector of the park. A fairly strenuous hike, the trail leads to the top of Rushara hill, the highest point in Buhoma sector. From here you can look out over the Western Rift Valley, the Virunga massiffs, and the high Rwenzori Mountains to the north.
If you’d like something even more challenging, you might like to take on the Bamboo trail. This is one of the best trails in the park. The Bamboo trail lasts seven hours and has you climb a steep path up to 2,607 m above sea level – the highest point in the park. From here, you can survey not only Bwindi National Park but also Lake Bunyonyi and the Virunga Volcanoes. This trail starts in the Ruhija sector of the park.
Please note that these are guided hikes, each with a different cost attached. The Kashasha and Ivy River trails, for instance, are US$70 per person, and the Nkuringo to Lake Mutanda hike is around $50 to $50 per group.
If you love nature, however, any of the hikes is very much worth the investment.
An exploratory hike also further justifies the time and effort spent getting to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. In fact, it would be a travesty to step foot in this ancient, pristine forest and not explore more of it than that seen on your gorilla trek!
Wildlife of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Bwindi National Park was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its exceptional biodiversity. It has 120 mammals species (including 10 primate species), 348 bird species, 220 butterfly species, 27 frog species, and the list goes on.
Some of the park’s notable mammals include:
- forest elephants (in the eastern portion of the park)
- yellow-backed duikers (small antelopes)
- chimpanzees (though these are rarely spotted)
- blue monkeys
- l’Hoest’s monkeys (also called mountain monkeys)
- copper-tailed monkeys
- red-tailed monkeys
- black-and-white colobuses
Birds are a major attraction within the park. If you stay in the Buhoma sector, there’s a shelter for birdwatching, and the great blue turaco resides in this area. Other birds to look for in the park include:
- black bee-eaters
- black-billed turacos
- short-tailed warblers
- Grauer’s rush warblers
- African green broadbills
- handsome francolins
- African black ducks
- Cassin’s grey flycatchers
Best time to visit Bwindi
You can go gorilla trekking any time of the year, as mountain gorillas don’t migrate, hibernate or anything of that sort. That said, gorilla trekking in the wet season is a very muddy and slippery experience, so maybe don’t go then. The best times of year to head to Bwindi National Park for gorilla trekking are therefore the two dry seasons. These are mid December to early February, and June to September. The word dry is fairly relative, as Uganda straddles the Equator, so there’s rain all year round.
The best time of year to visit Bwindi National Park is December to February or June to September.
Where to stay in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
There are dozens of establishments within Bwindi offering accommodation, not to mention those only a little ways outside of the park’s boundaries. The park sector with the highest number of options is Buhoma. Fortunately accommodation within Bwindi Impenetrable National Park caters for the budget traveller as well as those looking for something more luxurious.