Gorilla tracking safaris


Gorilla trekking in Rwanda

Where to see mountain gorillas in Rwanda

Charlotte Beauvoisin
By Charlotte Beauvoisin

Rwanda is the more exclusive, higher-end gorilla trekking destination. With its compact size and ease of access, I usually recommend Rwanda for those on limited time.

Rwanda has 12 habituated gorilla families that can be tracked by tourists: Agashya, Amahoro, Hirwa, Igisha, Isimbi, Karisimbi, Kwisanga, Muhoza, Noheli, Sabyinyo, Susa, Umubano. All live in Volcanoes National Park (VNP).

Volcanoes National Park is accessed via gently sloping farmland. Inside the park is a variety of habitats: bamboo forest, open bush and darker, moss-covered trees with rocky paths. The higher you climb, the denser the forest.

Rwanda’s gorilla trekking region is just a two-hour drive on good roads from Kigali International Airport. Although you still need to be fit to go gorilla trekking in Rwanda, the terrain is generally easier going than in Uganda.

Where to go gorilla trekking in Rwanda

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Gorilla trekking in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park

Gorilla trekking in Rwanda

Where and how to see mountain gorillas in Rwanda

VNP occupies 160 square kilometres (ambitious plans exist to extend this). The park is in north-western Rwanda where it borders the DRC’s Virunga National Park and Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Together, these three parks form the Greater Virunga Conservation Area, the world's largest gorilla habitat.

Volcanoes National Park is distinguished by five of the eight volcanoes of the Virunga Mountains that sit along its park boundary: Karisimbi, Bisoke, Gahinga, Sabyinyo and Muhabura. The park is bordered by farmland, with the local community cultivating land right up to the park boundary.

Go slow

I always recommend that visitors plan to stay at least two nights in the vicinity of Volcanoes National Park. This will allow you to spend one-night acclimatising and another recuperating after your trek. It is possible to fly in and out on a one-day trek, but I really don’t recommend it. There’s much more to the country than one hour with the gorillas!

Rwanda silverbackmountaingorilla

Silverback in Volcanoes National Park

Choosing your gorilla family

The location of each gorilla family determines the length and difficulty of the hike required to reach them. Rwanda’s biggest mountain gorilla group is the Kwitonda family, with 35 members. Previously, the Susa group was the largest, but they have split into three smaller groups. This is not the first time the Susa group has split, and they may regroup to form a larger family again. The Susa inhabit the lower base of Mount Karisimbi and are one of the more difficult groups to trek. If you’re after an easier hike, look for the Bwenge family near Mount Visoke, which is a relatively easy hike.

The Karisimbi, Amahoro and Kwitonda families are more challenging to track, while Sabyinyo is the nearest and easiest group to reach. The guides will advise you during your morning briefing and you’ll be assigned to track a gorilla family that matches your group’s fitness and ability.

DIY vs organised treks

There are two ways to organise a gorilla trek in Rwanda. You can either secure a permit yourself through the Rwanda Development Board and then try to book a guide, transport and accommodation independently.

Or you can book the whole thing through a licensed tour operator who will arrange your gorilla tracking permit, accommodation and all the necessary logistics. My advice is to book your trip with a tour operator. Rwanda is an easy place to travel around but things can go wrong, and their help can be invaluable.

Rwandan vs international tour operators

There are many Rwanda-based operators as well as international travel companies, often with stark price differences between the two. International travel companies often use local operators to run the ground operations, so you may wonder why you’re paying a premium to a middleman. Generally speaking international operators can offer an extra edge of luxury, more hand-holding, and stronger financial protection. I suggest it’s worth considering booking locally, but do check independent reviews and try to pay on a credit card and with travel insurance for financial protection.


Baby gorilla in Volcanoes National Park

When to go gorilla trekking in Rwanda

Best time of year to see gorillas in Rwanda

Gorilla trekking in Rwanda can be done year-round, however, rainfall is heavier in September-November and March-May, when paths can become muddy and difficult to hike.

Remember that you’re visiting a rainforest. It will, by definition, be wet all year round!

That said, there is still a marked difference between the dry and rainy seasons. The weather is generally drier and hotter between June and September, and again from December to February. These are my preferred months to go gorilla trekking in Rwanda.

During March and May, and again from September to November you can expect more frequent and heavier rain showers. Muddy roads and paths can become tricky to handle.

Temperatures are fixed year round between 21°C (70 F) and 30°C (86 F), dropping to 10°C (50 F) at higher altitudes. Although chilly at night, the exertion of hiking and climbing will keep you warm during the day.

The advantages to visiting in dry season are less muddy paths, easier hiking and clearer views of the wildlife. The disadvantage is that this is peak tracking season and therefore permit availability is lower. You’ll need to book well in advance.

Peak season & when to book

Peak tourism seasons are June to August and around Christmas and New Year. If you plan to go gorilla trekking in Rwanda during peak season or if you are in a large group, you should book six months or more in advance. The earlier you book the more choice you have on where you trek gorillas and where you stay. Last-minute bookings may be possible during low season or with smaller groups.

Aside from more choice in permit and accommodation availability, there are some other pros to visiting during rainy season—not least that smaller group sizes allow a more intimate tracking experience.

If you have little time it is, in theory, possible to see mountain gorillas in Rwanda in just one day—if you fly in very early in the morning. However, it is strongly recommended to spend at least two or three days in the region. The altitude and exertion of the climb can be unpleasant when rushed, and it is worth spending some time to explore Rwanda and its culture beyond just gorillas.

Events and festivals

The annual Kwita Izina gorilla-naming ceremony takes place every September and offers a fascinating insight into Rwandan culture and the country’s efforts to promote gorilla conservation. The event is free to attend, but by invitation only. A good tour operator will be able to arrange access for you.

A more solemn occasion is Kwibuka, which means remember in Kinyarwanda. This is a series of events held in April in commemoration of the 1994 genocide in which nearly one million Tutsi—70% of the Tutsi population—were killed. Visitors are welcome at these events.

Rwanda gorilla trekking prices

Permits, accommodations & tours

In Rwanda a gorilla tracking permit ordinarily costs US$1,500 for international tourists.

At the time of writing, there are 96 permits available per day. You can buy your permit up to two years in advance through the Rwanda Development Board or through a registered tour company.

Rwanda pitches itself as the high-end gorilla trekking destination; this is reflected in the higher price of the permit and the bigger range of top-end accommodation. Rwanda has some sensational luxury properties and a fair number of overpriced mid-range ones, so book with caution.

Typical accommodation costs in Rwanda:

Budget : $30 - $50 per person per night based on two sharing

Mid-range: $80 - $250 per person per night based on two sharing

Luxury: $300-$3,000 per person per night based on two sharing

Rwanda’s gorilla trekking region is only two hours’ drive from Kigali, making the gorillas far more accessible than in Uganda. In theory this means you can save on transport and accommodation by doing a shorter trip. It’s possible to do a one-day gorilla trek in Rwanda from around $1,700 per person. A two-day gorilla tour will start from £1,900. A three-day luxury gorilla safari may cost $2,000 to $5,000 per person. Tours include one gorilla tracking permit, private transport, English-speaking guide, accommodation and meals. Charter plane and helicopter transfers are additional options.

My advice is to slow it right down and don’t rush in and out just to track the gorillas – you’ll be doing yourself and your hosts a great disservice.

About the author

Gorilla trekking in Rwanda

Charlotte Beauvoisin

Charlotte is a travel journalist and guidebook author based on the edge of Kibale Forest, Uganda. She is an expert contributor on East Africa for the Bradt Uganda Guidebook and has written for Lonely Planet, The Daily Telegraph and Fodor's. She also volunteers with Conservation Through Public Health where she works with Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, Uganda's most prominent gorilla vet.

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