Seeing mountain gorillas in the wild is one of the most majestic and mesmerising experiences of my life but it is not easy to plan a trip or find out accurate and useful information comparing the gorilla trekking in Rwanda vs. Uganda vs the DRC. A lot of information online is also inaccurate and is written by tour companies who are trying to convince you of either of the locations because that is where they run tours. I have seen it all, from inflated permit prices to incorrect advice. I have seen the gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda and I would love to share the facts with you. For a complete guide to Rwanda, read my post here.
Where to find mountain gorillas
Mountain gorillas only live in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo and can therefore only be visited in the parks that straddle the three countries, namely the Virungas National Park in the DRC, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mgahinga National Park in Uganda and the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda.
I prepared the map below showing where the mountain gorillas live across Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC.
There are other subspecies of gorillas which inhabit other countries across Central, East and Western Africa but they are not mountain gorillas. You can read more about all the subspecies of gorillas, where they live and their habits in my in-depth post about gorilla facts.
Trekking gorillas in Rwanda
Gorillas in Rwanda live in the Volcanoes National Park, located about 3h drive from Kigali in the northwest of the country, on the border with the DRC and Uganda.
The park hosts around 150 habituated gorillas split into 12 groups and several wild ones and issues 96 gorilla trekking permits every day to visitors.
This is the country where Dian Fossey’s work was taken to after the civil war in the DRC forced her to move across the border into Rwanda and so the oldest habituated gorillas are here.
Rwanda’s recent bet for high end low impact tourism has doubled the cost of gorilla trekking permits which are now twice the cost in Uganda and almost four times the cost in the DRC.
Rwanda’s high end tourism strategy is attracting the most exclusive resorts and promising higher income to the local communities on the edge of the Volcanoes National Park where the mountain gorillas live. This also means that a gorilla safari in Rwanda is one of the most expensive travel experiences there is with two nights at the most premium gorilla lodge, the spectacular Bisate Lodge, coming to almost $10,000 for two people.
Gorilla trekking in Rwanda is also easier with several gates to the park from the farmland that surrounds it and all the facilities and infrastructure to make it a pleasant and sustainable experience. Rwanda is safe, peaceful and clean and there is no corruption or bribery going on. Things always work how they are supposed to and they are very well organised, running smoothly like clockwork. The prices are higher but they come with higher overall standards.
For all the details about gorilla trekking in Rwanda read my in-depth article here.
Trekking gorillas in Uganda
Gorilla trekking in Uganda happens mostly in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and a little bit in Mgahinga National Park. While Mgahinga National Park is part of the Virungas Massif together with the Virungas National Park and Volcanoes National Park, there is only one habituated gorilla family there, the remaining are all in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Uganda has 400 mountain gorillas split into 37 social groups, 36 of them in Bwindi, 10 of which are habituated to humans and welcoming daily visits as part of the tourism efforts.
Gorilla trekking permits in Uganda are far more affordable than in Rwanda at just $600 per person per day. Since comparing gorilla trekking between Rwanda and Uganda, the cost of the permit is the main decision factor for most visitors, Uganda tends to be the chosen destination for many. However, the gorillas are farther and harder to reach in Uganda than in Rwanda.
To reach Bwindi Impenetrable Forest one used to have to drive for over 12h when I visited several years ago. The drive was bumpy and on terrible roads. When I trekked to see the gorillas in Uganda, I did not have the luxury of time and could not afford to spend two days getting to Bwindi and back to Kampala. So me and my friend chartered a private two-seater propeller plane to land us at Queen Elizabeth National Park, famous for its tree climbing lions.
This was a really expensive experience and I remember it being quite scary too because it started to rain heavily and propeller planes do not fly very high and are not pressurised so the plane was moving a lot, shaking up and down until we finally landed.
Today, getting to Bwindi can be done more comfortably and affordably on scheduled flights.
Gorilla trekking in the DRC
Gorilla trekking in the DRC closed in May 2018 after the kidnapping (and further release) of two British tourists and their driver and the killing of their guide but it is expected that trekking in the DRC will resume soon, not without the same risks of kidnapping and danger. This was not an isolated case, 6 park staff members were killed in April 2018.
The security situation in the DRC has been unstable and dangerous for years since the country descended into civil war and unrest, particularly on the eastern side and around Goma where the gorillas and the Virungas National Park area. And that is not news. The UNESCO-listed Virungas Massif enjoyed decades of peace and prosperity until 1990 when the civil war closed the park until 2014. When I visited Uganda in 2009 the Virungas was closed off.
Local armed groups still operate in the eastern part of Congo and around the Virungas making gorilla conservation efforts far tougher than in Uganda and Rwanda because of the unpredictability of the safety situation and the difficulties in protecting the gorillas who are threatened by trophy hunters in search of bush meat. Gorilla trekking in the DRC is therefore cheaper, but also exponentially more dangerous than in Uganda or Rwanda where safety is not a concern.
Despite all the challenges, the Virungas National Park is the gem of Africa and has many unique features making it a fascinating tourism destination.
The park has the highest biodiversity in the world and is the oldest one in Africa, having been inaugurated by King Albert I of Belgium in 1925. It also boasts one of the most active volcanoes in the world, Nyamulagira, which has erupted dozens of times since 1800s, last in 2011. The other amazing volcano, Nyiragongo, last erupted fatally in 2002, covering one third of Goma in ashes and lava. Nyiragongo can be climbed today and you can see the boiling lava, the smoking cone and the largest lava lake in the world.
Despite the fighting, the safety situation and the difficulties in conservation, the committed efforts of the park rangers and the team has managed to increase the number of gorillas from 75 to over 300 today. Tourism numbers have also picked up and the park has welcomed 17,000 visitors since it reopened in 2014.
There are currently six habituated families in the DRC although this number is always in flow as new families can be created from spinoffs from the existing ones, or a family from Rwanda could travel across as it happened in the opposite direction in the past. All the gorillas are found in the southeastern part of the Virungas National Park, on the border with Rwanda and Uganda.
Gorilla trekking permits in the DRC cost just $400 for foreigners and $150 for Congolese and they can be bought online in the official online booking system. Apart from gorilla trekking, the park also has a group of habituated chimpanzees so you can also go on a walk with them.
Comparing gorilla trekking in Rwanda vs. Uganda
In the following table I have put together the main decision factors when choosing where to see the gorillas. I am comparing Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC for their gorilla permit prices, the location where the trek starts from, the airport you should be flying to, the accommodation options and the number of gorilla families that are habituated to humans, among other things.
These are the most important decision factors, and price will be the determining one for many people but it is critical to have the full picture because the price of the permits should not be the only aspect you look for when deciding where to go gorilla trekking.
|Gorilla trekking permit cost||$600||$1,500||$400|
|Park where the gorillas live||Volcanoes National Park||Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mgahinga National Park||Virungas National Park|
|International airport you need to fly to to get to the national park where the gorillas are||Kigali||Entebbe||Kigali|
|How far is the park from the international airport||3h drive||Entebbe, requires another domestic flight to the south of the country||3h drive to Goma then cross the border by road into the DRC|
|Safety||High, Rwanda is one of the safest countries in Africa||High, Uganda’s national parks are very safe||Low and unstable. There have been numerous killings of park rangers and guides nad kidnappings of tourists|
|Number of habituated gorilla families||12||11||6|
|Other opportunities for sightseeing nearby||Golden monkeys, Lake Kivu, Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund museum, Dian Fossey’s grave, climb the volcanoes in the area, visit the local villages||Pigmie visits, visit to the local medicine man, visit the local villages, Queen Elizabeth National Park and its tree climbing lions is not too far||Climbing Nyiragongo (very tough climb) which is an active volcano, seeing chimpanzees|
|Range of exclusive accommodation options||High||Medium||Low|
|Range of affordable accommodation options||Medium||High||High|
If you are looking for the cheapest gorilla trekking then the DRC is your best bet. It is also relatively easy and affordable to get to the Virungas National Park since access is from the Rwandan side, flying onto Kigali and driving to the border with the DRC, crossing into Goma in just 3 hours. Most of the tour companies will help with the visa and the travel arrangements. There is also far less tourism there.
However, the DRC poses several safety challenges as the country has been in conflict for decades. Therefore, most travelers prefer to avoid going on a gorilla trek there.
The next most affordable option is Uganda where permits are still at $600 per person. There are also a range of affordable accommodation options and domestic flights you can take to get there from Entebbe. You will probably have to book well ahead since Uganda has become very popular in the high season, especially since Rwanda increased the cost of permits.
If you are a luxury traveler and prefer more intimate and high-end experiences, Rwanda is your best choice. Lodges here are some of the most exclusive and stunning in Africa. All the big names in luxury travel are present in the area surrounding the Volcanoes National Park, from the fabulous Bisate Lodge run by Wilderness Safaris to the soon to open One&Only Gorillas Nest and Singita’s Kwitonda Lodge set to open in 2019.
Rwanda is also one of the safest, best organised places to trek with the gorillas and the experience will be on par with the price. However, the permits are significantly more expensive at a steep price of $1,500 per person.