Uganda or Rwanda for gorilla trekking?

Uganda and Rwanda are two of three countries (DR Congo is the third) in the world where mountain gorilla trekking is possible. For decades, the Buutu Safaris team has gone on gorilla tours in both Rwanda and Uganda with hundreds of trekkers from all over the world. A common refrain among prospective trekkers is “which is better for gorilla trekking –Uganda or Rwanda?” To comprehensively grasp this, one needs to analyse the border history of Uganda and Rwanda. Like many African borders, the Uganda – Rwanda border is a recent colonial imposition. Colonialists drew arbitrary borders with little regard to history, culture and ecology.  This left a legacy of confusion along with challenges in conservation. But Uganda and Rwanda are more similar than they are different. Rwandans and western Ugandans speak a similar language and have similar culture. The gorillas are similar and live in the same highland landscapes. Both countries offer amazing gorilla trekking experiences and we’ll take a closer look at the difference and similarities of the trekking experience in both countries.

The Case for Rwanda

Rwanda is a landlocked country in the western sector of the Great Rift Valley, a few degrees south of the equator. Rwanda is bordered by Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is one of Africa’s smallest countries, covering an area of just 26,338 square km of land (about the size of Albania). Rwanda is known for its mountainous landscape and is nicknamed ‘land of a thousand hills’ with cities scattered across very high elevations. Rwanda has a rich biodiversity which includes rainforests, hundreds of species of birds, antelopes, several primate species including golden monkeys, chimpanzees and the highly sought after mountain gorilla.
Rwanda gorilla trekking tours are done in the Volcanoes National Park which is home to about 340 mountain gorillas clustered in 12 families. These gorilla numbers are comparable to those in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in neighboring Uganda. VPN is known for its unmatched ambiance, hospitality and amenities. Trekkers reporting to the park headquarters at Kinigi are given a complimentary cup of coffee and there is free Wifi access on the premises.
The Rwanda Development Board issues a total of 96 gorilla permits daily as each of the 12 gorilla families is limited to a maximum of eight trekkers per day.
In spite of the high altitude terrain with numerous hills and mountains, the park is easily accessible by road and Rwanda boosts some of the very best road infrastructure in the region. The park is easily accessible from the airport, which is a 2-hour drive (160km) through the picturesque region of the Gahinga, Karisimbi, Muhabura, Bisoke, and Sabinyo volcanoes.
Before the tour, a $1,500 gorilla trekking permit is required of all trekkers, in addition to a $50 PCR test for COVID-19 which is done to ensure that the gorillas don’t get infected.(as of Dec 2022) Trekkers have to bear in mind that gorillas share 98% of their DNA with humans and can easily contract human diseases.
Volcanoes National Park and Mgahinga National park are one and the same except for an artificial border created in colonial times. The park has three volcanoes with Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, the terrain and trekking experience are somewhat similar, though in Rwanda the experience comes at a higher price than Uganda.

Other things to do around Volcanoes NP:

  • Game drives in Akagera National park
  • Golden monkey tracking
  • Kigali City and genocide memorial Historical Tour
  • Hiking Karisimbi Volcano, Gahinga, Muhavura or bisoke, which typically takes 2 days.

A Case for Uganda

Uganda is the most unique of the two countries, offering contrasting landscapes featuring swathes of savanna grassland and dense tropical rainforests. Measuring 93,000 square km, Uganda is a landlocked country bordered in the north by South Sudan, DRCongo in the west, Kenya in the east, Tanzania in the south and Rwanda in the southwest. Dubbed the “Pearl of Africa”, Uganda is one of the most ecologically diverse places in the world featuring numerous lakes, rivers, vast swamps, snow capped mountains, tropical rainforests and savanna grassland. Visitors are blown away by the variety of flora and fauna and dramatic changes in landscape. Unlike Rwanda which has no savanna grassland, Uganda has both mountain rainforests and savanna grassland within 3 hours of each other. As such, trekkers have the opportunity to see gorillas and go for game drives in national parks that are close to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. Game drives in Ishasha tree climbing sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park which is about 3 hours away offer exciting add on options for gorilla trekkers.
In Uganda, the mountain gorillas tour is available for trekking in two national parks. One gorilla population lives in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage site) located in southwestern Uganda. The other gorilla population lives in the Virunga Mountain range in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park located on Uganda’s border with Rwanda. Bwindi Forest NP is by far the most popular park of the two and is divided into four sectors: Ruhija(average difficulty) Rushaga (has a mix of hard and easy), Buhoma (medium, gorilla close) and Nkuringo (most steep).
Uganda charges $700 for gorilla permits –a bargain compared to the $1500 tab in Rwanda. Gorilla permits are pre booked through the Uganda Wildlife Authority or a travel agent before traveling to Bwindi/Mgahinga. Unlike Rwanda, there is no need for a PCR test for COVID. Nonetheless trekkers must wear a face mask to safeguard the mountain gorillas from COVID and communicable diseases they could contract from contact with humans. The permit is also valid for only one sector.
Bwindi impenetrable national forest park is home to about half of the world’s mountain gorilla population. This ancient forest (and Africa’s oldest rainforest) is also home to antelopes, chimpanzees, golden monkeys, red tail monkeys, black and white colobus monkeys, forest elephants, among others. Bwindi boasts over 350 species of birds (including several endemic species) and more than 200 species of butterflies.
From our experience, each sector offers its own unique trekking experience:
Buhoma: the gorillas here are the most accessible. There is an incredible nature walk to three waterfalls.
Nkuringo: has amazing views of the virunga volcanoes. Offers the most challenging treks due to its very steep trails. There is the opportunity for a forest walk in the Buniga forest.
Ruhija: nature walks to the swamp from which bwindi gets its name.
Rushaga: has the largest number of habituated gorillas. Might see the forest elephants if you are lucky.

Proximity to Add on Big Game Experiences

Queen Elizabeth National Park is only about 3 hours away from Bwindi, so trekkers looking for a savannah safari experience have the opportunity to explore the vast savanna grassland teeming with wildlife for a change of scenery. This is the beauty of Uganda –these two national parks are just a few hours apart but offer vastly different experiences.
Mgahinga National park is Uganda’s smallest national park, but in our experience, one of the most impressive. The park has three of the eight volcanoes that make up the Virunga volcanoes: Muhavura(4,127m) which has a lake at the top, Mount Gahinga (3,474m) –swamp-filled crater, and Sabinyo (3,669m) which is on the corner where D.R. Congo, Uganda and Rwanda meet. For years, there has been only one habituated gorilla group in the park. However, this group has in the past crossed borders into Rwanda. In case this happens during your tour, you will automatically get a new permit for Bwindi.

Other Activities besides gorilla trekking:

  •  Game Drives in Queen Elizabeth, Murchison Falls or Kidepo National parks
  • Trekking chimpanzees in Kibale, Queen Elizabeth or Murchison Falls NPs
  • Trekking golden monkeys in Mgahinga National park
  • Hiking into Sabinyo Gorge and to the other volcanoes
  • Canoe rides on the scenic lake Bunyonyi and lake Mutanda