If you talk to someone who has been fortunate enough to visit the mountain gorillas of Rwanda and Uganda, you’ll be treated to an enthusiastic, if not rhapsodical, explainer on why the experience is both magical and moving.
To be sure, trekking through emerald rain forests searching for one of humankind’s closest relatives is nothing short of spectacular. It’s also rare.
Today, only about 1,000 mountain gorillas are left, making the species critically endangered. The sole way to see them (there are none in zoos) is by trekking in certain East African national parks (Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda). That trek also needs to be with a certified guide for your protection and the protection of the gorillas. From costs and permits to tour providers who can organize it all, here is how to plan a gorilla trekking trip.
How much does it cost?
The price for a full tour, including permits, guides, lodging, and additional add-ons can vary wildly, but expect to spend per person around $1,000 on the low end and $15,000 on the high end for a gorilla trek. Prices can vary depending on if which country you’re trekking in—permits are $700 per person in Uganda but $1,500 per person in Rwanda—your accommodation type, the tour provider you select, and whether there are other excursions planned for the tour (like additional treks or safaris).
The permit price helps the countries with protection and conservation efforts—particularly important, considering the mountain gorillas are critically endangered. Generally speaking, 15 percent of the money collected from gorilla permits goes to the government, 10 percent to the local communities, and 75 percent to gorilla conservation.
Most operators include the price of the permit in the overall tour, but be sure to double-check with your company. At the very least, your tour should include lodging and meals.
What is likely not included is the tip for the guide and the porter (should you choose to use one). For guides, $25 per traveler is recommended. For porters (someone who carries your backpack and helps provide an extra hand when crossing trickier parts of the forest, like going up muddy hills or over large fallen trees), the going rate is a minimum of $15. Even if you’re fit and aren’t carrying much, most guiding companies recommend getting a porter. Although $15 may not seem like much to you, the sum is hugely important to them. It also helps the locals benefit from ecotourism, which in turn shows them the value of protecting the gorillas. Some of the porters are actually former poachers who have come to realize that there’s greater value in conservation.
When is the best time to see the gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda?
While it can be argued that there is no bad time to come face-to-face with these incredible animals, certain months are better than others—specifically during the dry seasons of December through February and June through August. Heavy rains throughout the rest of the year can make trekking trails, which can have steep slopes, muddy and slippery. Those are not ideal conditions for an all-day outdoor excursion. That being said, it’s easier to get permits during the low season.
If you’re planning to travel during peak season (June–August), it’s good to book as far in advance as possible, as there are only eight permits permitted each day for each habituated gorilla family (meaning they’re used to seeing humans). There are a total of 104 daily permits in Uganda and 80 in Rwanda.
How long are gorilla treks?
No two gorilla treks are the same. It can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 8 hours to find a family in the rain forest, and once there, visitors are allowed one hour with the gorillas.
What is the difference between gorilla trekking in Rwanda and Uganda?
While both Rwanda and Uganda offer fabulous gorilla treks, there are a few small differences to consider when deciding which country to visit.
One of the big draws of going to Rwanda is how close Volcanoes National Park is to Kigali International Airport—it’s about a two-hour drive. If you’re short on time, it may be the better option. In Uganda, it’s about nine hours from Entebbe International Airport to either Bwindi Impenetrable National Park or Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. It is also possible to fly into Kigali and cross the border by land into Uganda—Mgahinga National Park is just on the other side of the border, about four hours away.
In Rwanda, you can only see mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park, where there are currently 10 habituated gorilla families, ranging from 11 to 33 members. The gorillas here are the descendents of those Dian Fossey first studied (specifically the Susa family, which is also the largest group and one of the hardest to track). In Uganda, it’s possible to see gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, where there are 12 families ranging from 9 to 26 members, and Mgahinga National Park, where there is only one family of nine gorillas (though it does have the highest percentage of silverbacks per family, with four). Because there are more families in Bwindi, it’s usually easier to get permits for there.
Trekking and difficulty
As for the actual trekking, Rwanda is considered less steep and slippery than in Uganda, but it is at a higher elevation, which can be challenging.
As of February 2022, guests can visit the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund before or after their trek to get a better understanding of the great apes. The campus includes three main buildings—a research center, education center, and a gallery where visitors can learn about the gorillas and Dian Fossey—plus housing for 30 visiting students and researchers.
What to expect on a gorilla trek
Even if you’re trekking during the dry season, remember that it is a rain forest and there’s still a possibility of a downpour. Expect the trails to be fairly muddy. It’s a good idea to wear hiking boots with ankle support and knee-high gaiters or rainboots (the latter is what all the guides wear) to keep your socks dry and your feet more or less blister free. Also be sure to pack a raincoat.
On the day of your gorilla trek, you and everyone else with a permit will meet at a staging area. Here you’ll be put into groups and assigned a family to trek to. If you have mobility issues, now is the time to let the guides know—they typically try to appoint the most fit with the gorilla families that are the most challenging to reach, while those who may need to move at a slower pace are assigned to families easier to find. This is also when you’ll be briefed on safety measures.
From here you’ll go to the park entrance, where you’ll be able to hire a porter.
Trekking for gorillas often means hours of hiking through dense forest on steep, narrow paths, always behind your guide. Earlier in the day, groups of trackers set out to find the various families. During your trek, the guide will be in constant communication with the trackers to assess where they gorillas may be heading and determine the best spot to try to meet them.
Once your group finds your gorilla family, you have one hour to spend with them. During that time, you may observe them looking for and eating food, playing, sleeping, or grooming each other. While the gorillas are gentle, it’s important to keep a safe distance and follow the instructions of your guide. You’re allowed to take as many photos as you wish, as long as you don’t use flash. We recommend setting your camera aside for at least part of the encounter—this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that goes by all too fast, so try to be present. After your hour is up, you’ll hike back out.
Best gorilla trekking tours
Here are a few companies we recommend if you’re considering booking a trip.
Departure dates year-round from $3,975. email@example.com, volcanoessafaris.com.
For 25 years, Volcanoes Safaris has led great ape (mountain gorilla and chimpanzee) ecotours from four of its lodges in Rwanda and Uganda. It’s something the company is passionate about—one of its properties, Virunga Lodge in Rwanda, even has a permanent exhibition honoring the primatologist Dian Fossey.
Guests can opt to participate in a four-day trip that focuses on one park and one lodge, or they can do a 6-, 7-, 8-, or 10-day circuit of Volcanoes Safaris lodges to see multiple parks and primate families.
Cox & Kings
Departures are year-round from £5,650 (US$7,086). coxandkings.co.uk.
While the mountain gorillas may be the marquee animal, they’re not the only wildlife encounter you’ll have on Cox & Kings’ nine-night “Primates of Uganda” safari.
Beyond doing a one-day trek to commune with the mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, guests also can see monkeys and chimpanzees at Kibale National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park (as well as forest elephants, tree-climbing lions, gazelles, hippos, and buffalo). Clients can opt to do a private tour or join a group.
Departures are offered from June to March (no departures in April and May), starting from $4,479. gadventures.com.
Combining some of the most iconic experiences in East Africa, G Adventures’ 12-day Masai Mara & Gorilla Adventure starts with a safari drive in the famous Masai Mara National Reserve to look for the Big Five. From there, it’s off to Kibale National Park for chimps and then Queen Elizabeth National Park to spot primates, warthogs, elephants, and more. The tour wraps with gorilla trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
Regular departures June–October, plus select dates in February and April. Prices from $3,922. Intrepidtravel.com.
Intrepid’s six-day Premium Uganda & Rwanda has the Goldilocks seal of approval for those who want something that’s not too short and not too long. And, unlike many other tours, guests have the option to add a second day of trekking to see another gorilla family in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
Intrepid also offers longer tours that incorporate time with the mountain gorillas, including Remarkable Rwanda & Gorillas of Uganda (9 days), Premium Uganda, Rwanda & Kenya (13 days), and Gorillas & East Africa Safari (18 days), among others.
Departures year-round, starting at $2,950. go2africa.com.
This Africa-based tour operator offers everything from 5-day hikes that focus on the mountain gorillas of one park to epic 15-day journeys that combine some of East Africa’s most dizzying wildlife experiences (like gorilla trekking, viewing the Great Wildebeest Migration, and scanning the horizon for Africa’s Big Five at Ngorongoro Crater).
Go2Africa has also partnered with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund to develop four new experiences aimed at giving travelers a richer, more immersive gorilla trekking encounter. The experiences include getting a behind-the-scenes tour of the facilities, trekking with a researcher, getting a private master class on gorilla conservation, and picking the brains of Fossey Fund staff during a private cocktail hour. They are booked by Go2Africa and the funds go back to the Fund as donations to support children’s outreach programs.
Customized departures are available year-round. Prices vary. 212-226-7331, extraordinaryjourneys.com.
Safari specialists at this luxury travel company can craft unique itineraries for those who would prefer to only travel with friends and family. They are able to build itineraries in Rwanda or Uganda (or both), as well as other African nations like Botswana, Zimbabwe, Seychelles, and beyond.
Abercrombie & Kent
Departures for small group tours available from August through October (private tours offered year-round), prices starting at $10,995. abercrombiekent.com.
This luxury tour operator’s Uganda: Gorillas and Beyond 2022 tour starts with a cruise up the Nile River to look for water birds, hippos, and crocodiles. From there, it’s off to Kibale National Park to spend time with its famous chimpanzees, followed by two days of game drives in Queen Elizabeth National Park, where Uganda kobs, Cape buffalo, elephants, and lions make frequent appearances in camera viewfinders. Finally, to cap off the extraordinary 11-day trip: trekking to see the mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
Abercrombie & Kent also offers the option to have private, customized itineraries for clients who would prefer not to travel with others.
National Geographic Expeditions
Departures in February, June, August, September, and December in 2023. Rates for a double occupancy room are $16,495. nationalgeographic.com.
National Geographic Expeditions is known for featuring truly immersive experiences, and its Great Apes of Uganda and Rwanda is no exception. Over the course of 11 days, guests will travel with National Geographic–funded primatologist to see gorillas, chimpanzees, and golden monkeys, as well as meet the scientists at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.