Trekking through the African rainforest to see the majestic mountain gorillas in their natural habitat is one of the most breathtaking, mesmerizing, and unforgettable experiences one can have. However, figuring out how to plan and embark on this once in a lifetime journey can be a daunting task, that’s why we’ve written this extensive guide with everything you need to know about gorilla trekking in Africa.
Where is the Best Place to Go Gorilla Trekking in Africa?
There are only 1,000 mountain gorillas left in the world and they can be found in the wilderness of only 3 countries: Rwanda (Volcano National Park), Uganda (Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park) and Democratic Republic of Congo (Virunga National Park). Each of these countries cater to different travelers but offer the same gorilla trekking experience.
Deciding which location is best first requires knowing important factors such as travel time, number of gorilla families, safety, and more. And though the price is very important, it shouldn’t be the only determining factor.
To help we’ve compared gorilla trekking in Uganda, Rwanda, and DR Congo side by side so you make the best choice for you.
1. Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda
Gorilla trekking in Rwanda is ideal for luxury travelers, as Rwanda is well known for it’s high end tourism. There are plenty of high-end resorts and accommodations and with gorilla permits costing $1,500, gorilla trekking in Rwanda is one of the most expensive safari experiences in Africa. However, higher prices mean higher standards, better infrastructures, excellent organization, and safety.
Gorilla trekking in Rwanda is also ideal for travelers who have limited vacation time. As Volcanoes National Park is only a short three hour drive from Kigali International Airport, it is possible to do a one day gorilla trekking safari there which isn’t the case for the other locations. Trekking at the national park is also relatively easy, and faster than trekking at Bwindi in Uganda.
Rwanda stands out as the most well organized, safest, and most luxurious place to see gorillas in Africa.
2. Gorilla Trekking in Uganda
Gorilla Trekking in Uganda is ideal for travelers who are flexible with time, want to do additional safaris, and are looking for a good balance between price and safety. Uganda is home to almost half of the remaining mountain gorillas in the world, with most of the families residing in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. This means Uganda offers more gorilla permits than either Rwanda or the DR Congo at $700 per permit.
Gorilla trekking in Uganda requires a minimum of 2-3 days as it takes about 9 hours to drive from Entebbe International Airport to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. Alternatively, you can catch a domestic flight to the south of the country or land at Kigali International Airport in Rwanda, which is just a four hour drive from Bwindi.
For people wanting more than just 1 hour with the gorillas, Uganda also offers a habituation trek where you can observe the gorillas for 4 hours at the same price as the one-hour Rwanda gorilla permit, i.e. $1,500. Because Uganda is a complete African wildlife safari destination, you can include other activities such as trekking for golden monkeys and chimpanzees, a Big 5 African safari, and cultural activities in your itinerary.
Uganda tends to be the chosen destination to go gorilla trekking over Rwanda and DR Congo, because it offers a happy medium by being safe and not too expensive while still offering an all around wildlife safari experience for those who seek it.
3. Gorilla Trekking in the DR Congo
Gorilla trekking in the DR Congo is ideal for budget and adventure travelers who prefer to travel off the beaten path. At $400 per permit ($250 during low season), the DR Congo is by for the cheapest gorilla trekking experience one can have.
However, due to political unrest, the country has been very unstable and dangerous in the past few years. Since fighting takes place on the eastern side of the country around the Virunga National Park where the gorillas live, many park rangers and trekkers have lost their lives. In 2018, after two British tourists were kidnapped and released, the park closed in an effort to evaluate and enhance safety measures. The park reopened in Feb. 2019.
Despite all the instabilities, fighting, and difficulties in conservation, the Virunga National Park is still considered an African gem and a unique travel destination, as it’s one of the oldest parks in Africa with the highest rate of biodiversity in the world! Not to mention it’s home to one of the most active volcanoes in the world, Nyamuragira and Nyiragongo, which can be climbed as a separate activity while in DR Congo.
The DR Congo also has managed not only to quadruple their numbers of gorillas from 75 to 300 but also to increase the number of tourists visiting the park by the thousands in 2014.
Comparison Chart for Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda, Uganda and the DR Congo
|Gorilla Trekking Permit Cost||$1,500||$700||$400|
|Estimated Average Cost of a Safari Tour||1 Day Tour = $2000 – $3000 pp||3 Day Tour = $1,250 – $2000 pp||2 Day Tour = $750 – $1000 pp|
|Days Needed For Safari||1||3||2|
|Closest International Airport to the National Park||Kigali||Entebbe OR Kigali (Rwanda)||Kigali (Rwanda)|
|Distance From Airport to Park||3h drive||From Entebbe: 9h drive or domestic flight to the south of the country.|
From Kigali: 4h drive
|Drive 3h to Goma (border) then cross over to DR Congo|
|Gorilla Trekking Location/ National Parks||Volcanoes National Park||Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mgahinga National Park||Virungas National Park|
|Number of Habituated Gorillas/ Gorilla Families||150 / 12 families||500 / 17 families (15 in Bwindi & 2 in Mgahinga)||300 / 6 families|
|Numbers of Permits Issued Per Day||96 permits||136 permits||48 permits|
|Other Nearby Activities to Do||Watch Golden monkeys, visit local villages, Lake Kivu, Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund museum, Dian Fossey’s grave, & climb nearby volcanoes||Big 5 game drive & watching tree climbing lions at Queen Elizabeth National Park, Visit Pygmy people, Lake Bunyonyi||Climb Mt. Nyiragongo (active volcano), go chimpanzee trekking|
|Safety||Very Safe – Rwanda is one of the safest countries in Africa||Safe – Uganda’s national parks are very safe||Unstable – Political unrest, numerous killings of park rangers and guides as well as kidnappings of 2 tourists in 2018|
Who Can Go Gorilla Trekking?
Everyone is welcome to go gorilla trekking as long as they have a permit, are at least 15 years of age, and are not sick.
The gorillas share about 98% DNA with us so they are very susceptible to human disease and sickness. Something as small as the common cold or flu could wipe out an entire gorilla family. So if you find yourself sick the day of the trek, please let the rangers know and reschedule your trek for the sake of the gorillas!
When is the Best Time to Gо Gоrillа Trеkking?
Gorilla trekking is a year round activity which you can get permits for any day of the year. However, due to heavy rainfall during certain months of the year, the best time to go is during the drier months. From June-September and December-February you’ll experience mostly sunny days, however there is still a possibility of rain in the forests. These months are considered high season, so expect for permits to be in higher demand.
If you could care less about the rain, consider going during the low season, where you can experience fewer crowds, cheaper rates, and a more intimate experience with the gorillas.
How Much Does a Gorilla Trekking Permit Cost?
The purpose of a gorilla trekking permit is help reduce our impact on these already endangered species while helping to preserve their habitat and species. The permit does this by limiting the number of visitors to less than 100 people per day. Therefore, it’s highly recommended to purchase your permit well in advance (6+ months), especially if you are trekking during the high season when permits go fast.
The cost of a gorilla trekking permit depends on where you choose to go. A gorilla trekking permit in Uganda costs $700 for foreign non-residents, $1,500 in Rwanda, and $400 in the Domcratic Republic of Congo ($250 in low season). While the price tag is steep, you’re contributing to the conservation of mountain gorillas and as a thank you you’re getting rewarded with a glimpse of these amazing animals in their natural habitat. Not to mention the higher prices keep away the large hoards of tourists.
Thanks to the efforts of conservationists, mountain gorillas moved from critically endangered to endangered in 2018, so your dollars do truly make a difference.
Every permit, no matter where you go trekking, allows a one hour visit with a specific mountain gorilla family in a group of no more than 8 people. If you want more time with the gorillas, Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park offers a Gorilla Habituation Experience in which you are granted 4 hours with the gorillas instead of just one. This is done with a group of only 4 people. The cost for this permit is $1,500.
Where Can I Get a Gorilla Trekking Permit?
In Uganda, gorilla trekking permits are issued by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), and are marketed primarily through the Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO) to the public. There are 3 ways to get your gorilla trekking permit in Uganda:
- On Your Own: You can apply directly to UWA via email or phone since there is no online system. However, this can be more frustrating and difficult to do as you can’t always get in touch with them nor is a reply guaranteed, not to mention only a small number of permits are put aside for direct sales.
- Through a Uganda Safari Agent/Tour Operator: There are over 1,000 tour agencies in Uganda. However, with the officially recognized partners i.e. AUTO members, getting your permit will be more of a guarantee as they purchase over 80% of all the permits from UWA. When acquiring only the permit, companies will charge an extra fee of $60-$100 for administrative costs, however this price is waived if you also book a safari with them.
- Gorilla Trekking Safari Tour (Recommended): This is the best option as the tour company handles everything for you including getting the permits at no extra charge and you won’t have to lift a finger.
Gorilla permits in Rwanda are issued by Rwanda Development Board (RDB) and you can apply for them directly through the official online booking system or with a reputable tour agency.
Gorilla permits for DR Congo can also be acquired online via the official Virungas National Park website or through a reputable tour operator.
Am I Guaranteed to See Mountain Gorillas on a Trek?
With anything that involves tracking animals in their natural habitat, nothing is 100% guaranteed, however the chance of seeing a mountain gorilla is extremely high. It’s very rare not to see any, as before you even get to the park, trackers are sent out to locate the gorillas and are in communication with your guide to make sure you and your group are heading in the right direction.
How Long Does it Take to Find the Mountain Gorillas?
This is a tricky question as wild animals don’t stay still for too long and can cover a lot of ground in a short period of time. Some trekkers are lucky enough to see them less than 30 minutes into the trek, while others can wait as long as four hours before spotting their gorilla family.
It’s also good to note that during your briefing the park rangers will have somewhat of an idea of where the gorilla families are (or were) and therefore will try to divide the trekkers based on their fitness level and their preference of a short, medium, or long trek. But, regardless of the time it takes, it will be worth it. After all, trekking in the jungle is also a part of this memorable experience.
Is It Necessary to Hire a Porter?
Before the trek, you will get a chance to hire a porter, someone who will carry your bags during the trek, for around $15. Depending on your level of fitness, which kind of trek you choose, and how much you bring with you, you might want to hire one, especially since most people aren’t used to walking for a long period of time with a loaded bag. Pairs can split the cost of a porter between them to make it cheaper. If you do hire a porter, know that you are supporting a local from one of the surrounding villages.
What Are the Gorilla/Human Interactions Like?
Unlike in a zoo you’ll get to admire the mountain gorillas up close and personal with no glass in between you. Once you find the gorillas you have 1 hour to observe and take pictures. There is no touching, feeding, or interaction of any sort with the gorillas.
Though the gorillas are quite used to humans at this point, and generally speaking are not dangerous, it’s important to follow a few rules to maintain both your safety and theirs:
- A distance of ~7 meters bеtwееn уоu аnd the gorillas is required аt аll times.
- If for whatever reason a silverback (dоminаnt mаlе gorilla) сhаrgеѕ aggressively towards you, it iѕ vеrу important that уоu don’t move or run away. Rather, stay where уоu аrе, and аdорt a ѕubmiѕѕivе, сrоuсhеd posture.
- Avoid making аnу ѕuddеn mоvеѕ or loud nоiѕеѕ.
- Staring into the eyes of the gorillas is not permitted as it may be misunderstood as an act of hostility.
- Smoking, drinking, оr eating is strictly prohibited within 200 meters of a gorilla fаmilу.
- Flаѕh рhоtоgrарhу iѕ not аllоwеd
- Don’t Litter. You’re a guest in their home, so take your trash with you.
- If you need to sneeze or cough, move away from the gorillas and cover your mouth/nose.
What to Wear on a Gorilla Trek?
Regardless of if you are gorilla trekking in Uganda, Rwanda, or the DR Congo, there are some essential items you need to bring with you. So to make sure you are prepared for your gorilla trekking adventure, we’ve compiled a list of all the essential items you’ll need to wear on your gorilla trek.
- Waterproof Hiking Boots: Mud, rivers, sliding soil, uneven terrain, impassable trails, and rain is some of what you’ll be dealing with while trekking. This is why the type of hiking boots you bring is very important. Unlike sneakers or sandals, hiking boots will give you stability, balance, traction, and support your ankles while keeping your feet dry and warm throughout the trek. Therefore, you’ll want to invest in good quality hiking boots which are ankle high with excellent grip and can fit a pair of thick socks. Waterproof hiking boots are highly preferred. Our favorite hiking boots are the Merrell Moab 2 Mid.
- Long Hiking Socks / Gaiters: A pair of long hiking socks which you can tuck your pants into are needed to prevent different critters from crawling up your leg, especially red fire ants. Good quality hiking socks will also help to keep your feet warm. If you are trekking in Rwanda you should be wearing gaiters to protect yourself from stinging nettles. Our favorite hiking socks are the Darn Tough Micro Crew Cushion.
- Long-Sleeve Shirt: The weather in these parts of the continent can change quickly from warm and humid to very cold and rainy, which is why we recommend a breathable, sweat proof long sleeve shirt. The long-sleeve shirt also prevents scratches and bruises from plants and bushes. We can’t recommend the MERIWOOL Merino Wool Long-Sleeve Shirt enough.
- Long Hiking Pants: Long hiking pants will protect you from branches, nettles, thorns and anything else that can prick or scratch you. Lightweight and waterproof hiking pants are ideal in this terrain. Avoid wearing jeans as they can become heavy when wet and are not the best to trek in in the jungle. Our favorite hiking pants are the prAna Stretch Zion.
- Rain Jacket: The probability of rain in the forest is about 90%, even in the dry season. so unless you want to be trekking soaking wet, bring a waterproof jacket which is also light and breathable. We love the The North Face Resolve 2 rain jacket and highly recommend it.
- Hat: Protect yourself from the scorching sun with a hat. Women with long hair should consider a hair bandanna, to protect their hair from getting caught on anything.
- Garden Gloves: Garden gloves help protect your hands from getting hurt, as you will often need the support of tree branches and plants which may have thorns. Something like this will work.
Important Note: Avoid wearing camouflage patterned clothing as in most countries in Africa these patterns are associated with soldiers. Ideal colors to wear are safari type colors such as khaki, brown, green, black, and gray.
What to Bring on a Gorilla Trek
- Travel Insurance: Being insured while abroad is 100% required. That way if you get sick or injured you will be covered and not have to worry. Not to mention, Gorilla trekking isn’t the cheapest activity so if something like missing your flight happens, you can get some form of compensation from your travel insurance company. We use World Nomads and can’t recommend them enough.
- Daypack: All your belongings and food needs to be stored somewhere, that is why a daypack of at least 20L is recommended. You’ll want to buy a hiking daypack with good support and a hip belt as you’ll be trekking for a long period of time. You’ll also want a daypack that’s waterproof or comes with a rain cover to protect your things from getting wet. Our favorite daypack is the Osprey Talon 22.
- Camera: It goes without saying that you need to pack a good travel camera to capture this once-in-a-lifetime experience. The Sony Alpha a6000 with a 24-240mm lens works great on a gorilla safari.
- Binoculars: Binoculars are a must-have on every safari and a gorilla trekking safari is no exception. The Aurosports 10×25 Binoculars are super compact and inexpensive, perfect for safari.
- Insect repellent: It is recommended to travel with strong insect repellent that’s at least 30 deet as mosquitoes in Africa do carry malaria. The Repel 100 Insect Repellent works quite well.
- Mini First-Aid Kit: With antiseptic, plasters, and wet wipes. Something like this Swiss Safe 2-in-1 First Aid Kit will work.
- Sunscreen: Depending on the weather and your skin complexion it might be worth bringing your favorite sunscreen with you.
- Water and snacks: In case your trek goes on for a few hours, make sure to pack enough snacks and water. Remember to bring at minimum 3 liters of water per person. Also, remember not to eat or drink within 200m of the gorillas and to take your trash with you.
Well, there you have it – everything you need to know about gorilla trekking in Africa. Gorilla trekking is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will exceed all of your expectations, so don’t let they high price tag deter you from going on this adventure.