If you’re thinking about gorilla trekking in Uganda, you’re in the right place! As someone who didn’t plan ahead, I can tell you from experience exactly where I went wrong and what you should do beforehand to have the best experience. I also did my best to do this trip as cheap as possible since I’m balling on a budget and travel full time! So you’ll find lots of info regarding prices and different options in this guide.
Where Can You See Gorillas?
There are only a few places in the world where you can see silverback gorillas in the wild. They are all found either in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), Uganda or Rwanda. Upon doing some research, I very quickly found out that the cheapest place to go gorilla trekking is in the DRC, coming in at $400 USD. With that being said, it’s fairly unsafe to do it there so most people opt for Uganda or Rwanda.
Gorilla trekking in Uganda will set you back $700 USD for the permit which sounds like a lot but is nothing compared to the $1500 USD permit fee in Rwanda. I personally chose Uganda because I was already volunteering there and the price point was much more affordable.
About Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
Bwindi is without a doubt one of the most beautiful parts of Uganda. It’s super lush and provides stunning views. It honestly reminded me a little of what I saw while I was in Sri Lanka! The eastern part of the forest is about 2450m above sea level with the highest point being 2607m and the lowest point being 1106m above sea level.
Bwindi is home to 459 gorillas (at the time of writing this blog – July 2022). Half of them are habituated for tourism and research and the rest are wild. There are a total of 1062 mountain gorillas in the world, so as you can see Uganda has a fair number of them. It’s a tropical rainforest which means that the weather can change at any time. It’s also known as an impenetrable forest, which means that there are no set paths and machetes are needed to cut branches to move through.
Gorilla movement is unpredictable. It’s determined by the ability of food and how safe/secure they feel at any given time. When two gorilla families meet, they always fight.
Booking the Permit
Once you decide you’re 100% going to go gorilla trekking in Uganda, you need to book a permit. The permit itself costs $700 USD, which I will admit is a tough pill to swallow (especially with the Canadian conversion 😳). The easiest way to book a permit is through an agency. They charge an additional $50 USD to submit the application on your behalf but it’s 100000% worth it! They’ll ensure everything is submitted properly and will send you proof of your permit quickly.
I used Africa Adventure Vacations and they were incredible helpful and responsive. Robert sent me all the details and let me know that I would need to choose a specific sector and date for the gorilla trekking. I had connected with a French girl through a Facebook group who had booked the same day in the Ruhija sector so I chose the same one! I don’t think the sector you choose makes much of a difference but apparently some are ‘easier’ trekking. I can’t thank Africa Adventure Vacations enough for their help with booking the permit because it can be extremely stressful if you don’t know what you’re doing.
I also encountered a few agencies I wasn’t sure I could trust but African Adventure Vacations were reliable and I’d recommend to friends and family!
Getting to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
Getting to Bwindi isn’t as easy as you may think. If you’re coming from the capital (Kampala), you’re in for a bit of a mission. Because Uganda doesn’t have the best public transit options, you aren’t left with many ways to get there. Here are your transit options if you’re coming from Kampala:
- Public buses (taxis) – While this is doable and certainly the cheapest option, it will take you around 2 days and 5 different buses. You’ll also need a private driver near the end when you enter the national park because the roads are quite rough and public transit won’t travel there.
- Private driver – This is the easiest and most expensive option. You can ask tour operators to quote you on a price and it will generally fall between $500-$800 USD. It will take around 12 hours to get there.
I was coming from Jinja which is two hours further than Kampala, which made my journey more complicated (and expensive). The host I was staying at drove me so I got a slightly discounted rate but it still cost me around $400 USD.
If I were to do it all over again, I’d go from Queen Elizabeth National Park because it’s only about 2-3 hours driving. You can fly into various airports near Bwindi but that’s usually quite costly. Alternatively, it’s probably much easier flying into Kigali, Rwanda and crossing the border. I chose to forego this option because at the time I would have needed a PCR test to get into Rwanda for an additional ~$200 USD.
Budget Accommodation Options
When it comes to finding affordable accommodation in Bwindi, it’s a bit of a challenge. I started by searching on Booking.com for lodges and found a few near the sector of the park I would be trekking in. I ended up going with Ruhija Gorilla Friends. They had many campsite or room options that included meals if you wanted.
I’d definitely recommend staying there if you’re after budget accommodation. I paid $30 USD for a room with two single beds plus breakfast. I also ended up getting dinner there as well the night before and their veggie curry was great!
What to Wear While Trekking
When looking online for outfit recommendations for gorilla trekking in Uganda, I came across endless blogs with tips on fashionable outfits. But as someone who’s travelling with one 45L backpack, I didn’t have many options to go with. The weather can change in an instant in Bwindi so I tried to dress in layers. I wore running shoes (hiking boots would be great if you have them), a hoodie, jean jacket and brought a backpack with my camera, windbreaker, water and food.
If you have high, thick socks, that would probably be a good call. The park rangers also recommend gloves, as some branches may have thorns. I didn’t end up needing gloves but they might be nice if it’s raining or a cooler day.
All About the Trek
No two trekking experiences will be the same. Trackers start tracking the gorillas at 7 am each day and communicate their location to the trekking guides. Each group consists of up to 8 people and you have 1 hour with the gorillas once you find them. Everyone is required to wear face masks as they approach the gorillas. This is to avoid spreading any disease to gorillas or catching anything from them. I bet you didn’t know that we share 98.4% of our DNA with gorillas! So, you can see how any outbreak of disease could seriously impact the already endangered species.
When you first arrive to the starting point, there’s a little show and orientation where you hear about the plan for the day. There is a guide that come with each group to stay in touch with the trackers. There are also two rangers that escort each group to look out for wild elephants that roam the park and in case something goes wrong with the gorillas.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell how long it will take to find them. When I spoke to one of the guides, he said there have been times where it took 8 hours to find them and others where they were found within half an hour. I was lucky enough to be in a group going after a gorilla family that was quite easy to find – maybe a little too easy. It took us about 20 minutes of trekking through the forest to hear from the trackers that the gorilla family was near.
When you get to the gorillas, the timer starts and you have one hour with them. This is to ensure they don’t get too many hours of human interaction each day. You’re welcome to take as many photos and videos as you’d like, as long as there’s no flash. You’re also supposed to be quiet, so you don’t scare the gorillas away. You can still talk but loud noise or sudden movements may cause them to run off and you’ll have to chase them through the forest.
Gorilla Trekking Budget
So how much can you expect to pay when gorilla trekking in Uganda? That’s a great question and one I wish I had known more clearly before deciding to do it myself! Here’s a little breakdown of what you can expect to pay at an absolute minimum:
- Permit – $750 USD
- Accommodation – $30 USD/night
- Food – $15 USD/day
- Transportation – $400 USD (to and from Kampala)
Total = $1195 USD
Was it Worth it?
This is definitely an unpopular opinion but if I’m being honest, I don’t think it’s really worth the price tag they put on the experience. Sure, I’m happy that the money is being used to help with the conservation of these endangered animals but it still seems a little steep for 1 hour of time with them. It was an incredible experience but it’s definitely a once in a lifetime sort of thing and it’s certainly not every day that you can say you were a metre away from a silverback gorilla!
Want to see more of my experience? You can watch my TikTok here 👇🏼
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