The 32,000 ha (331 sq km) jungle is as magnificent as it sounds. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is home to some of Africa's rarest plant and animal species, including more than 500 endangered mountain gorillas that attract most visitors to the forest reserve.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is an oasis of protected thick, steamy forest blanketing southwestern Uganda's rugged landscape in the shadows of the Virunga Mountains. The 32,000 ha (331 sq km) jungle is as magnificent as it sounds, protecting some of Africa's rarest plant and animal species and more than 500 endangered mountain gorillas, the biggest attraction for visitors to the Park.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is a World Heritage Site of utmost biodiversity importance. It is a conservation frontline surrounded by an agricultural landscape supporting one of tropical Africa's highest rural population densities. Mountain gorilla tourism and other ecotourism activities in and outside the Park have immensely contributed to the conservation of this unique site and highly benefited the communities around it.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park has a wet, yet mild, climate. Temperatures remain consistent yearlong due to their short distance from the equator. Daytime temperatures oscillate around 23°C/73°F are usual, with a significant drop at night to around 11°C/52°F.
Bwindi receives a lot of rain throughout the year, and June and July have the least rain. From March to May and October to November, the rainfall is highest. Waterproof clothing and hiking shoes are essential.
Bwindi's most significant wildlife are the more than 500 mountain gorillas, but the forest has nine other primate species, including the chimpanzee, olive baboon, vervet, black-and-white colobus, and l'Hoest's monkey. Other present but rarely seen animals include forest elephants, bushbuck, forest duiker, leopards, giant forest hogs, side-striped jackals, African civets, and golden cats.
The forest reserve has the highest diversity of tree species in East Africa (over 200 species, including 10 endemics), some 104 species of ferns, and 202 species of montane forest butterflies, some of the rarest, such as Cream-banded swallowtail and African giant swallowtail.
Bwindi offers the best montane-forest bird watching in Africa, with over 347 species; at least 70 out of 78 montane forest bird species and 22 of the 36 endemics in the Albertine Rift region are found in Bwindi Forest. Birds of significance include the African green broadbill, Turner's Eremomela, Grauer's swamp warbler, Shelley's crimson wing, and Chapin's flycatcher.
As their name implies, mountain gorillas live in mountain forests at 8,000 to 13,000 feet high altitudes. They are bulkier, more powerful, and have thicker fur, and more of it, compared to lowland gorillas or other great apes. The IUCN lists these magnificent giants as endangered species due to human civil conflict, poaching, and human populations encroaching on their habitats.
Mountain gorillas live in only two isolated populations—one on the slopes of the Virunga Mountains spanning the borders of DCR, Rwanda, and Uganda. The other population lives in Bwindi impenetrable Forest, which is entirely within Uganda, 310 miles (500 km) southwest of the capital.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is a sanctuary to over 500 mountain gorillas, half the world's mountain gorilla population. Most of the gorillas in Bwindi live deep in the misty impenetrable forest out of human reach, but a few gorilla groups have been habituated for tourism, which offers visitors enchanting encounters with the great apes.
Mountain gorillas live in family groups of about 5 to 20 individuals but can even be more than 50 in a single group. The group is led by a dominant adult male, a silverback, with several related females and their young ones in tight social bonds. Uganda Wildlife Authority, the government body in charge of Bwindi, with help from international conservation bodies, has habituated 19 gorilla groups in Bwindi and availed them for tourism to help fund conservation efforts to protect the great apes of Africa.
Trackers and guides lead visitors on daily morning gorilla trekking excursions to see mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Visitors would have booked a trekking permit, and a small group of eight tourists could observe a gorilla family for an hour after tracking it to its position.
In Bwindi, visitors can also observe a gorilla group that hasn't completed the habituation process but is approachable for about four hours on a Habituation Experience starting at sunrise.
For any visitor to join the early morning gorilla trekking tour, they must have spent a night at one of the four entry points (trailheads) in the four corners of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. These four park entrances are quite a distance apart, and that's where you'll find accommodation and food for the gorilla trekking tour in Bwindi.
Visitors can access Bwindi Impenetrable National Park's activities using the four entry points called sectors, with functional visitor centers—Nkuringo, Rushaga, Buhoma, and Ruhija Sectors. All decent accommodation and services for park activities are concentrated in these four sectors.
To see gorillas in Bwindi, you must have booked a trekking permit for either Nkuringo or Rushaga in the south of Bwindi, Buhoma in the north, or Ruhija in the eastern section.
Nkuringo Sector is a southern entrance to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, preferred by luxury and seasoned hikers. Nkuringo trailhead lies at a higher altitude than the other sectors and has three habituated gorilla groups for trekking.
Apart from gorilla trekking excursions, the Nkuringo visitor center offers visitors access to other park activities like bird watching, visiting the Batwa forest people on a cultural trail, and guided nature walks through the forest.
Nkuringo offers the mid to high-end price spectrum for gorilla trekking accommodation with a few options, as shown below;
Nkuringo Sector is a magnificence of rugged landscape views, stunning views of the rift valley curtained by the imposing chain of the Virunga Volcanoes into Rwanda and DRC. Staying at any forest lodges in Nkuringo will suspend you above the rainforest canopy into the forested mountain slopes with misty and dreamy sunrise views across the Virungas.
You can access Nkuringo via Kisoro Airport by domestic flight, through Kisoro City driving 1.5 hours from the city, and off the Kabale-Kisoro highway at Muko (44 km from Kabale) onto the 32-kilometer dirt road.
Rushaga Sector, also in the south of Bwindi as Nkuringo, has the highest number of habituated gorilla groups for tourism. With its uneven landscape, Rushaga provides lower-priced accommodation than other Bwindi gorilla trekking sectors, and it's becoming a favorite among independent travelers.
Rushaga Sector is the only place for the Gorilla Habituation Experience that allows visitors to spend at least four hours with a wild semi-habituated group of gorillas. Rushaga has six habituated gorilla groups, including;
Top accommodation in the Rushaga sector includes
You can access Rushaga via Kisoro Airport by domestic flight, through Kisoro City driving 1.5 hours from the city on a dirt road, and off the Kabale-Kisoro highway at Muko (44 km from Kabale) onto the 32-kilometer dirt road.
The Ruhija Sector is northeast of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which is not very popular for gorilla trekking. Ruhija's location gives it easy access to wildlife safaris in Queen and the main highway through Kabale, a two-hour drive in either direction.
Ruhija sector has three habituated gorilla families available for trekking.
Although the sector has few accommodation options, you can track gorillas staying at the nearby Kabale or Lake Bunyonyi. Top lodges for gorilla trekking in Ruhija Sector include;
The Buhoma sector, north of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, houses the UWA park headquarters. It is at a lower altitude than the other three Bwindi sectors, and it offers tourists vantage access to the gorillas from the Ishasha sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park.
For that reason, and with many available accommodation choices, Buhoma is preferred by many visitors to Bwindi, who usually extend their gorilla trekking tour with a wildlife safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park. However, the availability of gorilla permits for trekking in Buhoma and accommodation can be a pain in the neck, especially during the high seasons.
Buhoma sector has five habituated gorilla groups available for daily trekking excursions, including;
Buhoma has the largest community surrounding the Park, with more than 350 people per square kilometer. Nonetheless, it also has the most developed tourist infrastructure. Many conservation organizations, community projects, and various accommodation choices exist.
You can get to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park by road (11 hours from Entebbe) or by small aircraft, 1 hour from Entebbe to Kihihi or Kisoro airport. However, you must know which of the four sectors (Buhoma, Rushaga, Nkuringo, Ruhija) is your entry access to Bwindi because they are several hours apart.
By road: You can drive 2 to 3 hours from Queen Elizabeth to Buhoma, north of Bwindi. Driving from Queen Elizabeth to Nkuringo, Rushaga, and Ruhija sectors will take 5 to 6 hours. From Lake Mburo National Park, you can drive to Bwindi for about 5 to 7 hours through Kabale Town. Coming straight from Entebbe or Kampala, the trip by road will take about 10 to 11 hours. There are about 12 miles of dirt road from the main highways to Bwindi trailheads; travel by 4WD vehicle is necessary.
By Air: You can fly by a domestic carrier from Entebbe International Airport (EBB), 23 miles (38km) from the capital, to Kihihi Airport (north of Bwindi) or Kisoro Airport (south of Bwindi). If you are heading to Buhoma, the nearest airport is Kihihi, about a 2-hour drive. Kisoro Airport access Rushaga, Nkuringo, and Ruhija with a 1.5-hour drive to either one. There are daily 1-hour scheduled flights between Entebbe and Bwindi and the other national parks.
While your primary visit to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park may be to see the mountain gorillas, there is much more to make you stay longer, like forest walks, bird watching, and visiting the native tribes and communities living in the park boundaries.
Several day-walking trails run by Nkuringo Walking Safari Guides infiltrate the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest at Buhoma and Nkuringo Sectors. Guided nature walks begin at 9:00 am and 2:00 pm and cost $150 per person, including the park entry fee.
The Waterfall Trail leads to a magnificent 33-meter waterfall on the Munyaga River deep inside the impenetrable forest. The trail is just as impressive as the rich forest ecosystem, with orchids, butterflies, and primates crossing your path.
Muzabijiro Loop Trail and Rushura Hill Trail offer excellent views of the Virunga Volcanoes and the entire rift valley mountainous region. Rushaga Hill Trail is more physically demanding than the former.
The Ivi River Trail is a favorite with most hikers. The trail takes a 14-km forest path, seemingly planned but never-built, between Buhoma and Nkuringo Sectors, for 14km and 6km uphill along a road to Nkuringo village; you might be able to hitch this last part. It is usually a great challenge after trekking the gorillas in either Nkuringo or Buhoma and an excellent birding trail.
For seasoned hikers, take the 18-km Kisoro-Lake Mutanda-Nkuringo Walking Trail through remote communities and terraced garden slopes with incredible rural landscape views. The trail starts from Kisoro with a 2-hour walk through villages to Lake Mutanda for a 2-3-hour dugout canoe paddling with local fishermen. From Mutanda, you can walk another 8km to Nkuringo. Book it with Nkuringo Walking Guides - they pioneered Bwindi adventures in 2007.
The Batwa forest people are believed to be the original inhabitants of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest until they were forced to leave in 1992 to give way for conservation. They are an ancient tribe of hunter-gatherers who lived off forest resources for quite an evolutionary time.
Today the Batwa live on the forest fringes, forbidden to hunt in the National Park, laboring in other people's gardens for a living, uneducated, and struggling to cope with the contemporary world outside the forest. Their fate is similar to most indigenous communities worldwide, forced out of their ancient way of life, although several non-profit organizations are helping them forge a path of survival.
After seeing the gorillas, visitors to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park can also visit the Batwa in their village or on a forest trail run by the Batwa Development Programme.
On the interpretive guided walk through a small pocket forest set aside for the tribe, the Batwa showcase how they used to hunt, forage for honey and medicine, climb trees, and re-enact living tableaux of the life they used to live, from preparing traps to building houses and even disposing of the dead. You could really enjoy the Batwa cultural performance if you put aside your feelings about their vulnerability and sad plight.
Expect to pay between $60 to $80 per person to visit the Batwa on a guided excursion. The Batwa trail experience will stay with you long while the ticket sales help fund sustainable medical and educational programs for the Batwa communities in Bwindi.
Managed by Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), Bwindi is protected under the provisions of various Ugandan laws and international conventions. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park has an approved conservation management plan and is highly honored and supported by local communities and substantial support from local and international NGOs as a conservation site. Bwindi has a permanent wildlife research institute located within the Park which is engaged in research and continued monitoring of the Park's integrity.
These factors and strong political support assure the Park's long-term protection and conservation. Bwindi's management has developed ecotourism programs that support community livelihoods, a major reason for community support. The Park is a model for integrating community sustainable resource management in the country and possibly in the East African Region.
However, there is still a strong long-term need for greater primate protection, given the new tendency of trafficking mountain gorilla babies and chimpanzees. As the mountain gorilla is so closely related to people, it is also threatened by the transmission of human diseases due to tourism activities.
UWA is closely monitoring these threats and working with stakeholders and NGOs to mitigate these threats. Continued enhancement of conservation is required in law enforcement and monitoring.