Traveling to Africa to see primates, especially gorillas and chimpanzees, has recently become a hot item for wildlife and rainforest adventure nerds. Many safari vacations to East Africa include 2-4 nights in a luxurious cottage in the woods on the edge of the gorilla park. Guided trekking excursions head out every morning, taking small groups of tourists to spend one unforgettable hour with troops of gorillas or chimps.
Whether it is the awe of walking in ancient woods or the adrenaline rush of encountering the wild apes that draw us into the misty rainforests, a trekking adventure to see mountain gorillas, chimpanzees, or golden monkeys in Uganda and Rwanda will leave you star-struck with a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.
Are you thinking about experiencing it for yourself? Here's our essential guide to seeing primates in Uganda and Rwanda.
They're like us
but they're not us.
Uganda has one of the highest populations of primates, with up to 20 species recorded in its protected wildernesses. Three of the most exciting primates to watch in Africa, the mountain gorilla, chimpanzee, and golden monkey, are all well represented in Uganda with a robust conservation program to let them roam free within their natural habitats.
The population of mountain gorillas in Uganda is more than half of the world's total, protected in two separate mountainous habitats, Bwindi Impenetrable and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. These two national parks offer the best and most affordable forest vacations to watch mountain gorillas.
Uganda's rainforests are home to a sizeable population of common chimpanzees of about 5,000 individuals, offering the best opportunities to see primates in their natural habitat. You can see chimps in Budongo Forest Reserve, Kibale National Park, and Kalinzu Forest Reserve. However, the best chimpanzee tracking experience in Uganda occurs at the Kanyanchu visitor center in Kibale National Park. The primate park alone contains about 25% of Uganda's chimpanzees.
In Rwanda, you can see chimpanzees in Nyungwe Forest, a protected rainforest national park on the southern edge of Rwanda's border. With about 500 chimps recorded in the protected forest, and two habituated chimpanzee troops, Nyungwe offers enriching tours to see primates in Africa. Its location allows for visitors to combine gorilla trekking and chimpanzee tracking excursions on a single Rwanda tour package.
After booking a chimp trekking permit, you can join the daily guided morning and afternoon excursions to see chimpanzees in Uganda's Kibale Forest, Budongo Forest, or Kalinzu Forest. However, in the western region in the shadows of the Rwenzori Mountains, Kibale Forest offers the most exciting adventures to meet our cousin primates.
A good choice of hotels and lodges just out of the park and on the fringes of Kibale with stunning views across the crator lake region offer comfortable accommodations for all travelers. It's easier to book with your travel specialist because they would know which one suits your budget and travel preferences.
There is a 6-7-hour driving distance between the gorilla parks and the chimpanzee rainforests. Therefore, it is wise to spare a day for transferring between the gorilla and chimps destinations in Uganda and Rwanda, see primates the following day, and spend another night in your forest lodge.
Vacation packaging companies commonly call excursions to see gorillas in Africa gorilla trekking tours. The Gorilla trekking excursion is an all-day activity that starts in the morning at sunrise. The guided excursion begins around 7:00 am with registration and a briefing at the appropriate national park visitor center. That means you would have slept at a lodge near the park entrance; otherwise, joining the timely gorilla trekking excursion may be challenging.
There are five sectors or park entrances to watch gorillas in Uganda. They unquestioningly determine where you book your accommodation. Four of them are in the four corners of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Either one of the sectors offers the best gorilla trekking experience and accommodation choice, with Buhoma (in the north), Nkuringo Sector, and Rushasha (in the south) providing the best accommodation choices.
When planning your gorilla trekking tour, the gorilla permit, a document that allows a tourist a guided trek to see gorillas, is the first item you must secure. Seeing gorillas is highly regulated, with fewer than 170 available daily and in high demand. When we reserve your trekking permit first, you will likely get a room at selected lodges. You can plan your vacation in Uganda around those dates.
Your physical fitness is a huge factor in determining whether you should visit Africa on tour to see gorillas. Mountain gorillas live in rainforests high in the mountains, at elevations between 8,000 to 13,000 feet (2,400 to 3,900 meters). You'll hike through a thick jungle with unmarked trails and steep, muddy inclines. If you are more of a laid-back, back-of-the-safari-jeep kind of traveler, then gorilla trekking is not for you.
However, the scenery in the gorilla mountains is stunningly beautiful, and the hike is all part of the gorilla experience. Once you make contact with the gorillas, you'll spend an hour observing them munching on plants, mothers feeding their young, juveniles violating their boundaries, and others grooming each other, playing, napping, farting, or the silverback shamelessly mating in front of you. The entire gorilla trekking experience is unique to every tourist; enjoy their presence.
You can reach the gorilla park in the southwest near the Rwanda-DRC border by a smooth road across the country, driving for 10-11 hours. Buses go 80% of the route stopping in the small cities about 10 miles (32 kilometres) to the gorilla park gates. Traffic is too slow or non existent that part of the country.
Or you can catch a one-hour domestic flight to a small airport, a 1.5-hour drive outside the park. It saves you a load of travel fatique. Your local specialist can organize the transport for you.
In general, if you want to avoid the local logistical nightmare, book your gorilla trekking tour in Uganda with a trusted local operator. Our local specialists at Gorilla Junction will handle everything on the ground, including accommodation, meals, and permit handling. All you have to do is bring yourself to see primates in the most refreshing natural environment.
Rwanda offers two ways to join the trekking excursion to see gorillas. You can secure a permit through the RDB government body and then independently try to book a guide, transport, and accommodation. Or you can book the entire gorilla tour through a licensed tour operator like Gorilla Junction. We will arrange your gorilla tracking permit, lodging, and local logistics.
Plan to stay at least two nights near Volcanoes National Park, which will allow you one night to acclimatize to the altitude and another to recuperate after the gorilla trek. Flying in and out on a one-day excursion is possible, but we don't recommend it. There's much more to the country than one hour of watching gorillas!
Part of the excitement of visiting East Africa to see primates is the unexpected encounter in a random place anywhere in the rainforest. The high altitude, the dark, thick, and misty rainforest, the unexpected downpours, creating your own trails, and the whispers make the experience an authentic adventure.
Most visitor expectations will be trumped by unexpected, natural, and untamed events, so let your expectations loose and have a great time.
Remember that primate sightings are not guaranteed, but there is at least a 97 percent chance that you will find your primate troop.
A typical primates tour package in Uganda and Rwanda to see gorillas and chimpanzees looks like this: