Gorilla trekking in Rwanda was a life-changing and once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. It will forever remain one of my favorite travel experiences. If you haven’t already, here’s why you need to add it to your bucket list!
What is gorilla trekking?
There are only 880 mountain gorillas in the world, living in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Years of war, habitat destruction and hunting have made these gorillas a critically endangered species. Almost half of these gorillas live in the Virunga mountain range, straddling the three countries, while the others live in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
Gorilla trekking allows you to hike through the forests and up the mountains where these gorillas live, and spend some time with them in their natural habitat. The high fees you pay for this once-in-a-lifetime-experience as well as other conservation efforts in these geographies have had a huge impact on the gorilla population, which has risen from 620 in 1989, to 880 today.
Where can I go gorilla trekking?
You can choose to go gorilla trekking in Rwanda, Uganda or the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, each country differs in terms of how much time is required to complete the trek, the trek’s difficulty level, the number of permits that are given out and most importantly, the cost.
Why should I go gorilla trekking in Rwanda?
Rwanda is your best bet for gorilla trekking – while the cost for a permit is significantly higher than in Uganda or DRC, the park is MUCH closer to the airport (2 hours vs 8 hours), saving you precious time on vacation. In addition, the Rwandan trek is the easiest of the three. This came as a huge relief for a non-athletic person like myself. Not to mention, the country is absolutely stunning with a fascinating history. Unfortunately, the Rwandan government just doubled the permit prices in May 2017! So, if time is not of concern, then go ahead with Uganda (more details on an adventure-filled trip in Uganda here). Due to security reasons, I wouldn’t recommend gorilla trekking in the DRC, despite it having the cheapest permit costs.
In terms of the gorilla viewing and photographing experience, all three countries are equally good.
|Time from airport to park||2 hours|
Kigali to Volcanoes National Park by car
Entebbe or Kampala to Bwindi National Park by car
Kigali to Virunga National Park by car (crossing the Rwanda/DRC border)
|Cost of one permit||USD 1500|
(increased from USD 750 in May 2017)
|USD 450 (rainy season – April, May, November)|
USD 600 (rest of the year)
|Trek difficulty level (exact time depends on where your assigned gorilla group is)||Easy to moderate|
30 minutes – 4 hours one way
|Moderate to difficult|
2 hours – 8 hours one way
|Number of permits given out per day||80||72||N/A|
Planning your gorilla trekking in Rwanda:
- Book your permits months in advance. Your best bet is to book your trip through a tour operator as they will procure permits, provide transport to and from Kigali, and book your accommodation. We used Primate Safaris, but a few other options are included here. If you want to do it yourself, start at the Rwanda Tourism website.
- The day of the trek, you will wake up really early to make it for the 7am briefing. There are 10 gorilla families that are available for visits by the public, and you will be placed into groups of 8, assigned to a particular family.
- Give your guide an honest assessment of your stamina in advance, so they can assign your group a gorilla family that is closer to the base of the mountain. Keep in mind that this can’t always be guaranteed. Our gorilla family was apparently very close to the base of the mountain, but as we started trekking, they moved further up. We ended up trekking for 3 hours and 9,000 feet to get to them!
- Hire a porter. I cannot emphasize how helpful this was. Not only will they carry your backpack for you, but they also help you keep balance and pull you up during steep portions of the trek. You will generally pay anywhere between USD 10 to 25 for one. Well worth it!
- Gorilla viewing is 100% guaranteed! Once you find the family, you get to spend an hour with them.
- You aren’t allowed to touch the gorillas or get too close to them. They have a weaker immune system than us, but are prone to the same illnesses (including a common cold). Nonetheless, one of them will most likely interact with you in some way: one mischievous teenage gorilla tried pulling my jacket, and stroking a fellow tourist’s back!
Cost of gorilla trekking in Rwanda:
- Permit fee: USD 1500. The permit fee was just increased from USD 750 to USD 1500 in May 2017. That is outrageously expensive, but the country is making massive strides in its conservation efforts
- Accommodation: USD 200-450 for double occupancy at a moderately-priced hotel
- Transport: USD 1200 for international round-trip flights + USD 150 for transport to and from Kigali
- Visas: USD 50 for the 90-day East African visa covering Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania. More visa information can be found here. Please check if your passport allows you to travel to Rwanda without a visa!
- Booking through a tour operator will likely give you a better rate for the entire package
Accommodation for gorilla trekking in Rwanda:
- Moderate: Mountain Gorilla View Lodge (USD 230-450 for double occupancy, including full board). This is where I stayed – it’s a great option if you’re looking for something that’s closer to the luxury category, yet not outrageously expensive.
- Luxury: Virunga Lodge (USD 500-900 per person for double occupancy, depending on time of year). Even if you don’t stay here, definitely catch a drink here at sunset. The views are spectacular (I was too exhausted after my trek to make it here, but heard amazing things).
- A selection of the best options across budget ranges can be found here.
Best time to go gorilla trekking in Rwanda:
While the weather is generally pleasant year-round, it is recommended to visit Rwanda during the drier season. This is December to March, and June to September. You don’t want to be trekking mountains while it’s raining!
What to pack for gorilla trekking in Rwanda:
I really struggled with finding the right information for this before my trip, so I hope this information is helpful to all those planning a gorilla trek in Rwanda, Uganda or the DRC!
- Full sleeve shirt of slightly thicker material like denim (there are poisonous nettle in the forest and you need to be covered)
- Waterproof hiking pants like these
- Leggings or tights to wear under the pants (incase you get cut)
- Gardening gloves like these (you will have to push away poisonous vegetation during some parts of the trek, or even grip onto them for balance)
- Light-weight waterproof hiking boots (please invest in a good pair with ankle support. Avoid sneakers.)
- Thick full-length socks
- Gaiters like these
- Rain jacket/windcheater as it can get cold or rainy even during the dry season
- Small waterproof backpack to carry some water, snacks, your camera and other essentials. You will be in the mountains for anywhere between 3 to 8 hours, so pack some energy bars
- Sunscreen lotion
- Camera/video camera
- Insect repellant
Getting to Rwanda:
You will land at Kigali International Airport. There are direct flights from several destinations in Africa, Europe, and Asia. Check your flight options here.