So you want to go mountain gorilla trekking …. awesome idea! We’ve been, and we can tell you that it’s definitely, absolutely, positively worth it. Standing just a few feet from these gentle giants in their forest habitat, seeing them munch on fruit and plants, play with or groom one another, and idly look at the curious bipeds looking at them – these are magical moments that stay with you for a lifetime. But to get to be in that special place, you first must decide where to go to see them. Do you go gorilla trekking in Rwanda? Or do you go gorilla trekking in Uganda? Well, answering that question is what this blog post is all about. We also touch on some related topics like what a gorilla trek actually is, when in the year is the best time for gorilla trekking, and what other attractions are nearby.
- What is gorilla trekking?
- Where can I go gorilla trekking?
- Is gorilla trekking worth it?
- Gorilla trekking Rwanda
- Gorilla trekking Uganda
- Common gorilla trekking mistakes
- What is the cost of gorilla trekking?
- Gorilla habituation permits in Uganda
- Is gorilla trekking safe?
- Best time of year for gorilla trekking
- Chimpanzee trekking
- Other attractions in Rwanda
- Other attractions in Uganda
- Gorilla trekking with Follow Alice
What is gorilla trekking?
Gorilla trekking is the term given to a group hike through the forest to see mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. Because mountain gorillas don’t live anywhere in the world outside of the forests of Central and Eastern Africa, gorilla trekking is the only way for humans to see and observe them.
Gorilla trekking has become a very popular trip with conservationists, nature and animal lovers, ecotourists, adventure travellers and others in recent decades. Fortunately, mountain gorillas aren’t aggressive animals in general and so humans are able to come in relatively close contact with them. A gorilla trek usually brings visitors to within a few metres of a troop of gorillas.
Trekkers visit habituated mountain gorillas
The mountain gorillas that visitors trek to see are those that have become habituated to the presence of humans. The process of habituating them to humans takes about two years. But even though they become used to the presence of humans, there are still strict rules in place to interfere as little as possible with their habitat and way of life. For starters, only one group of eight people are allowed to visit each gorilla troop per day, and then only for one hour. Other rules, as discussed in 20 things to know about mountain gorilla trekking, include not making loud noises and sudden movements.
For this reason it’s best to book a gorilla trek in advance, as treks fill up quickly. Incidentally, a perk arising from the limited numbers is that a gorilla trek is never a crowded affair.
Where can I go gorilla trekking?
There are two main countries for mountain gorilla trekking: Rwanda and Uganda. In Rwanda you can trek to see mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park. In Uganda you can visit mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park or Mgahinga National Park. The gorilla population in Mgahinga isn’t as large and steady as that of Bwindi, making the latter the better and more popular option.
As mentioned earlier, mountain gorillas live in the Virunga Mountains, a chain that runs across the Uganda-Rwanda border. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Volcanoes National Park meet at this border; each park therefore essentially holds one half of the same forest. This means that visitors to either country are visiting the same gorilla habitat, just from different entrance points.
The decision to go gorilla trekking in Rwanda or Uganda therefore really rests on other factors, like cost and accessibility. You also want to consider what else you’ll do on your trip to the country, as the cost and effort of a gorilla trek means you’ll likely only be seeing gorillas on one day. We discuss all these matters in just a moment, but first, let’s answer a very important question …
Is gorilla trekking worth it?
Speak to anyone and they’ll tell you the same thing: gorilla trekking is 100% worth it! The time, the money, the effort – nobody regrets investing in a gorilla trek.
On a gorilla trek you encounter a species of ape that shares 98% of our human DNA. These similarities make for an extraordinary meeting. It’s fascinating, for example, to watch the young gorillas at ‘play’, which includes activities like climbing trees, swinging from branches and chasing one another. For a whole hour you get to quietly observe these mighty animals as they interact with one another, eat, groom themselves, and more. You’re close enough to look into their eyes, as well, and many visitors come away with an increased sense of connection to the animal world and nature in general.
A few facts about mountain gorillas
Let’s brush up on our mountain gorillas facts …
- The scientific name for the mountain gorilla is gorilla beringei beringei.
- Mountain gorillas live in high mountain forests.
- They’re a species distinct from other gorillas like the lowland gorilla (Gorillas World explains the different gorilla types nicely).
- Mountain gorillas are social creatures, and live in family groups known as troops or bands.
- Mountain gorilla babies are called infants, and they ride on their mother’s backs for two to three years.
- Adult males are called silverbacks because they develop silver fur on their backs and hips at around age 12.
- The average mountain gorilla lives for about 35 years in the wild.
- When fully grown, a mountain gorilla stands about four to six feet high.
- Mountain gorillas are vegetarians, eating shoots, bark, roots, fruit, wild celery and pulp.
Mountain gorillas are endangered
Sadly, mountain gorillas are an endangered species, mostly thanks to humans. The plight of mountain gorillas was brought to international attention by Dian Fossey through her 1983 book Gorillas in the Mist and its subsequent movie adaptation.
Most mountain gorillas live in the Virunga Mountains, a volcanic mountain range that runs along the borders of the DRC, Uganda and Rwanda. A recent census put the Virunga mountain gorilla population at around a thousand individuals. There are no known mountain gorillas in captivity. This means you can only see mountain gorillas by flying to Africa and visiting them in their natural habitat. What a great excuse for an African adventure!
An ancient and beautiful forest
Something else that makes gorilla trekking so special is having the opportunity to trek through a highly remote and pristine rainforest. As already mentioned, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda are two parts of the same forest, it’s just been split by a political border.
This forest, which is designated Afromontane, is an ancient one and is rocking it on the biodiversity scale. It contains more than a hundred fern species as well as about 140 tree species, which includes Guinea plum, African alpine bamboo, and African mahogany. If you’re interested in botany, then your toes will curl in delight the moment you step into the forest.
Being so close to the Equator, it’s a humid forest. Streams, waterfalls, rivulets and dripping leaves are all standard! The forest blankets the mountains save for a few places where sheer rock face breaks through. It’s a truly breathtaking part of the world. And we haven’t even mentioned the birdlife, which is a reason to visit the park on its own! You can spot such beauties as the boldly coloured Lady Ross’s turaco and the gorgeous little red throated bee eater.
Let’s now discuss gorilla trekking Rwanda versus gorilla trekking Uganda …
Gorilla trekking Rwanda
Rwanda is a small and mountainous East African country with a population of around 13 million people. It’s sometimes called the pays des mille collines, which is French for ‘land of a thousand hills’. The main language in the country is Kinyarwanda, spoken by most citizens. English, French and Swahili are also official languages.
Rwanda is a phoenix of the twenty-first century, having risen out of the ashes of its tragic genocide of 1994 to become one of Africa’s great success stories. It’s capital city of Kigali is well-known for its beauty and cleanliness. In fact, did you know that’s illegal to buy, use or sell plastic bags in Rwanda?
Volcanoes National Park
Tourism has played a major role in helping Rwanda to rebuild itself, and mountain gorillas are at the heart of the tourist trade. As mentioned, Rwanda’s mountain gorillas live in Volcanoes National Park. There are about 56 mountain gorilla troops in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.
As Rwanda is a small country, getting to Volcanoes National Park is a relatively easy affair. Visitors simply fly into Kigali International Airport and then it’s a short drive of about two and a half hours northwest to arrive at the doorstep of Volcanoes National Park. Even though the drive is short, it’s always advisable to travel with a reputable tour operator who knows the region and roads well. The proximity of Volcanoes National Park to an international airport is a major draw for Rwanda’s mountain gorilla tourism industry.
Gorilla trekking Uganda
Uganda is a landlocked country consisting of massive plains, volcanoes, snow-capped mountains, thick forests, savannah, immense lakes, diverse wildlife and more. The population of about 43 million is extremely diverse, and there are over 40 languages spoken in the country. Ugandans are known for their warmth and friendliness. Many speak English, which is a helpful fact for tourists.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Most of Uganda’s mountain gorillas live in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in the SW corner of the country. This is an alpine forest that sits between 1,160 m and 2,607 m above sea level. As the name suggests, the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is a thickly forested area. Given the density of vegetation, it can be pretty gloomy in the forest. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and rightly so.
If you look at the map of Uganda below, you can see that Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is in the extreme SW corner of Uganda. This places it decently far from the capital city of Kampala in south central Uganda, and Entebbe International Airport. Moreover, the roads connecting the two aren’t smooth, open highway. So the drive takes about nine hours. It’s advisable that you travel with someone who knows the region rather than road tripping on your own.
While you can take a short flight from Entebbe to Bwindi, driving is the cheaper option, especially as part of a tour group. Some who want to go to Bwindi for gorilla trekking actually choose to fly into Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city, and drive north across the border, as this is a shorter drive of about four hours.
Reaching Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda is harder than reaching Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda.
Given the relatively close proximity of Volcanoes National Park to Kigali Airport, Rwanda is the better country for visitors who only have time for a brief stopover to go gorilla trekking, and nothing else. This is more likely to be the case for those in transit to somewhere else, or travelling in from a nearby country. For most foreign travellers, however, the time and expense put into getting to East Africa means they want to do more activities while in the region, like go on safari or climb Kilimanjaro. For such travellers, Uganda is the better option as it has more to offer. But more on that in a moment.
Uganda has more habituated gorilla troops than Rwanda
Note too that while it’s easier to reach Rwanda’s mountain gorillas, Uganda has more habituated mountain gorillas and so admits more trekkers per day. About 80 people a day are allowed to visit Uganda’s gorillas. In Rwanda, the number of daily visitors is about 56. This makes obtaining a gorilla trekking permit in Uganda a little easier than obtaining one in Rwanda, especially if you don’t book very far in advance.
“I just came back from an amazing 14 days trip to Uganda with Follow Alice, and I strongly recommend them. This was my second experience with Follow Alice, and just like the first trip, everything was flawless.” Bernardo Guimarães da Fonseca
Common gorilla trekking mistakes
Unfortunately some who travel all the way to Uganda or Rwanda to go gorilla trekking don’t actually get to do so, for the reasons shared below.
Arriving at the wrong park gate
A common (and rather tragic) mistake on the part of many would-be gorilla trekkers in Uganda is arriving at a different part of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park to what’s on their permit. Bwindi is a large park of 331 km² (128 mi²). There are four regions, as follows:
- Buhoma in the north
- Ruhija in the east
- Rushaga in the south
- Nkuringo in the south
When you book a gorilla trekking permit, you obtain one for a specific region. So if you show up in Buhoma with a trekking permit for Nkuringo, for instance, you’ll miss your trek!
Arriving on the wrong day
The second common mistake that visitors coming to see mountain gorillas make is rocking up on the wrong day. Permits are issued for specific dates and are non-transferrable. This is because trek groups fill up far in advance. There are also no refunds.
Not bringing your passport
Visitors must bring their passports on the day of the gorilla trek as park officials check these against permits to ensure only rightful permit holders are admitted to the park. Forget your passport and you may not be allowed into the park! It’s possible you’ll be able to dash back to your accommodation to fetch it, but at the very least that will be stressful. At worst, you’ll miss the trek.
Mistakes like those discussed above are some of the reasons why we recommend you travel with an experienced and reputable tour operator like Follow Alice. We know the in’s and out’s of gorilla trekking super well and ensure our clients don’t go home with any woeful tales like not getting to see mountain gorillas on their mountain gorilla holiday.
Another reason for booking with a tour operator is the cost-effectiveness of travelling in a group in terms of transport and accommodation. With that in mind, let’s get onto the topic of the cost of gorilla trekking.
“Reto and Dan’s quick responses and Skype chat sold us on booking via Follow Alice.” Nicole Bailey
What is the cost of gorilla trekking?
To visit a gorilla troop in Rwanda or Uganda, you need to buy a trekking permit. A permit in Rwanda currently sit at $1,500 per person. In Uganda a permit is $600 per person, though this will increase to $700 as of July 2020.
Gorilla trekking permits are much cheaper in Uganda than in Rwanda.
All permits are for a group trek, and each group is assigned a specific gorilla troop. A permit allows you and your fellow trekkers to visit with the assigned gorilla troop for just an hour. This timeframe obviously doesn’t include the time it takes to hike there and back.
While the gorilla troops that are visited are habituated to the presence of humans, only a certain number of visitors are allowed to go gorilla trekking per day in order to minimise the impact of human contact. Each troop is therefore only exposed to humans for one hour each day.
Of course, the gorilla trekking permit isn’t the only cost to consider when deciding which country to visit. You also need to consider the cost of flights, internal transport, and accommodation, among other things.
Gorilla trekking accommodation
If you decide to go gorilla trekking in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, then you’ll need to book accommodation that’s close to your permit region. Remember that we said there are four different regions to Bwindi: Buhoma, Ruhija, Rushaga and Nkuringo? If your permit is gorilla trekking in the Buhoma region of the park, then you need to book accommodation near to that region’s entrance gate. Again, if you opt to have a tour operator organise your trip for you, they’ll know about details such as this and you won’t need to concern yourself with such details.
A point worth noting is that Rwanda is largely geared towards high-end tourism. It has many upscale and boutique accommodations on offer near to Volcanoes National Park. Uganda’s mountain gorilla tourism is more geared towards the everyday traveller who may not have so much green in his or her pocket. That’s not to say there isn’t any budget accommodation available near Volcanoes, nor any luxury accommodation available near Bwindi – far from it. But the differing target markets do help to explain the price differential in the one-hour trekking permits of the two countries.
Gorilla habituation permits in Uganda
Something on offer only in Uganda is the gorilla habituation permit. This permit allows the visitor to spend four hours with a mountain gorilla troop in the south of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The habituation permits costs $1,500, which is the same price as the one-hour gorilla trekking permit in Rwanda.
The habituation permit was introduced only recently in response to visitors’ desire to spend more time with the mountain gorillas. Only two gorilla troops have been set aside for these habituation experiences. This means about eight habituation permits are issued per day, so you have to book well in advance if you want one.
Visitors who do the four-hour gorilla trek get to take part in habituation activities, like making calls, collecting specimens, and even sometimes naming the individual gorillas. It’s a truly special, once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Is gorilla trekking safe?
We’re happy to report that, yes, gorilla trekking is safe. The countries, the gorillas, the trek itself … you don’t need to worry about any of it, as elaborated below.
Uganda and Rwanda are pretty stable countries
Rwanda and Uganda are stable countries with thriving tourism industries. Both Bwindi Forest National Park in Uganda and Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda are well-run parks. Visitor safety is a top priority at both parks, and experienced trek guides always accompany every gorilla trekking party.
Mountain gorillas are gentle giants
Some might understandably have qualms about the mountain gorillas themselves. A silverback can weigh around 150 kg, after all! But mountain gorillas are, in fact, gentle giants. Some might even be surprised to learn that they’re vegetarian. They have no interest in messing with humans.
Further, the gorilla troops that visitors trek to see are habituated gorillas, which means they’re gorillas who’ve become accustomed to the presence of humans. Obviously there are rules to follow when observing the gorillas that are geared towards not angering, frightening or in any other way upsetting the gorillas. Poking a silverback’s stomach, for instance, is not allowed. Nor is climbing into the lap of one of the females. But if you follow the rules of your trek guide and act with common sense, you’re perfectly safe visiting the gorillas.
The forest trek is safe
Mountain gorillas live in montane forest, which means you have to walk forest trails to find them. A gorilla trek is all about seeing these magnificent animals in their natural habitat, after all.
Every forest trek varies in length and difficulty depending on a few factors, like which park you visit, the weather, and the particular gorilla troop you’ve been assigned (troops’ locations are monitored by park rangers and each trek group is assigned a specific troop to visit). Generally speaking, visitors can ask to be assigned a troop near or far from the starting point. The less able-bodied, for example, may wish to have short hike. Hikes range from about half an hour to three or four hours. There are no overnight hikes.
At Follow Alice we usually opt for the longer trek, as the trek itself is part of the fun of the whole experience. This is because you’re walking through beautiful, remote and well-preserved indigenous forest. We love the towering trees, ancient ferns, overgrown bush, energetic streams, butterflies, bird calls … all of it! It’s a hike that’s special and rewarding even if there were no mountain gorillas in the mix.
Aside from the usual dangers accompanying any hike in nature, the trek is safe. (Read 20 things to know about mountain gorilla trekking if you’d like to know what clothing and equipment to bring for the trek.) The parks are well patrolled, and every trek group is led by an experienced trek guide, who has your safety as a top priority. Also, there are no large predatory animals in the parks.
Best time of year for gorilla trekking
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 can feel more like gorilla slipping since the trails become very muddy. The best times of year for gorilla trekking are therefore the two dry seasons: mid December to early February and June to September.
Uganda does, however, straddle the Equator, so we’re talking about a region of the world that is never exactly dry. So there’s always the chance of rain and some mud, whenever you go gorilla trekking.
If you’re keen on seeing mountain gorillas in the wild, chances are you’d also love to see chimpanzees in the wild! The beautiful Kibale Forest National Park in Uganda is one of the best places in the world to see chimpanzees in their natural habitat. Also in the southwest of Uganda, Kibale Forest is about 230 km from Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. In Rwanda one of the best places for chimpanzee trekking is the gorgeous Nyungwe Forest National Park in southeast Rwanda. A highlight here is walking across the rope bridge suspended high above the forest canopy.
Similar to gorilla trekking, in chimpanzee trekking a small group goes on a hike with trained rangers to see and spend time with a chimpanzee troop in the wild. Chimps are very similar to gorillas in many ways, while also of course having easily noticeable differences like size and shape. One of the main differences between a chimp and gorilla trek is that the former live primarily in trees and the latter on the ground. This means chimps are a little harder to spot and photograph. The best times of year for chimp trekking are the same as for gorilla trekking: November to February, and June to October. This makes it easy to take on both treks during a trip to Rwanda or Uganda.
Other attractions in Rwanda
It would be easy to talk for hours about the other attractions of both Rwanda and Uganda. These are two beautiful, lush and culturally rich nations. They have much to offer the curious visitor in addition to their cherished mountain gorillas. Here are just a handful of Rwanda’s many natural and cultural attractions:
- Kayaking on the beautiful Lake Kivu
- Going on safari in Akagera National Park to see the Big Five
- Visiting the stunning 15 m high Rusumo Falls on the border with Tanzania
- Exploring the truly fantastic Inema Arts Centre in Kigali
Other attractions in Uganda
Winston Churchill called Uganda the Pearl of Africa. And what a pearl it is. Uganda is home to the Big Five, for starters. It boasts Lake Victoria and Murchison Falls. It changes from immense mountains in the west to vast plains in the east. And it also has a huge diversity of peoples and cultures. It’s a truly spectacular country to visit and explore.
Uganda has nine national parks to visit compared to Rwanda’s four. It also has far more wildlife than Rwanda, which is understandable as it’s a much larger country – about nine times larger, in fact. Some of the famous parks and attractions on offer in the Pearl of Africa include:
- Visiting the breathtaking Murchison Falls
- Meeting white rhinos at Zhiwa Rhino Sanctuary
- Boating on Lake Victoria
- Going on safari to see lions, elephants and more
- Canoeing in a traditional dugout on the island-dotted Lake Bunyonyi
- Hiking in the snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains
- Exploring Mountain Elgon National Park, with the extinct volcano at its heart
- White water rafting on the Nile
- Visiting the Uganda Equator site
- Taking a guided tour of the infamous Kabaka Palace
- And so much more!
Read more about these as well as other attractions in Top 20 things to do in Uganda.
“Our trip to Murchison Falls exceeded expectation and had lots of really memorable moments thanks to our super guide UganDan!” Amandeep
Gorilla trekking with Follow Alice
For all the reasons discussed above, we at Follow Alice go gorilla trekking in Uganda, not Rwanda. Check out our suggested nine-day Uganda itinerary, which of course includes gorilla trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. You can also read through the reviews to see what our past clients thought of the experience. Please note this is a flexible itinerary – we’re happy to lengthen or shorten it. We can also switch things up to suit your preferences and needs. We also find that some clients like to bundle a Tanzania safari or Kilimanjaro climb with their gorilla trekking adventure while they’re in the region.
Dan the Man
Our ace in the hole when it comes to gorilla trekking – and all things Uganda, for that matter – is Dan. Or UganDan, as we like to call him 🙂
“Dan exudes positivity, confidence, and really was the reason we fell for this colorful, emerging location. Dan made us feel safe, has a passion for animals, loves his country and has interesting insight on its current affairs. Thank you Follow Alice and Dan for this incredible experience!”
Ready to take the plunge?
If you’re ready to explore Uganda and go gorilla trekking, or you just have some questions you’d like answered, press that pink button below and let’s start chatting!