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Uganda, my adopted home, is the biggest gorilla safari destination. Uganda has around 400 mountain gorillas living in two national parks in the country’s south-west: Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.

I’ve lived in Uganda since 2009, originally arriving on a VSO placement that quickly turned from a two-year stint to an indefinite stay. Over the last 15 years I’ve trekked with gorillas four times while working as a travel journalist, guidebook author and a volunteer with the Uganda Conservation Foundation and now Conservation Through Public Health. I’ve experienced first-hand the gentle beauty of the gorillas, and I’ve seen how the Uganda gorilla trekking business works – and what you might need to know.

Uganda gorilla trekking: Quick reference

  • Gorilla trekking in Uganda is cheaper and more diverse than in Rwanda, with accommodation for a wider range of budgets and a greater range of activities. If you’re on a tighter budget, or you’re looking for a longer, more varied and more adventurous trip, I’d probably recommend seeing gorillas in Uganda.
  • The actual trekking in Uganda is generally harder than in Rwanda: the slopes are usually steeper, the forest denser and the trails muddier. If you want more of a challenge, I recommend Uganda.
  • Uganda's habituated gorilla families are found in two separate parks, and in Bwindi they're scattered across four sectors, each with their own entrance. Booking accommodation near your chosen entrance is supremely important to avoid a long drive on the morning of your trek.

Ready to go? Read on for my expert guide to gorilla trekking in Uganda.

Where to go gorilla trekking in Uganda

Uganda is home to over half of the entire mountain gorilla population. There are 23 habituated gorilla families that can be visited by tourists: 22 in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and just one in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. In Bwindi, the gorillas are scattered across four distinct sectors, each with their own entrance.

Easy-going trekking in ​​Buhoma
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Easy-going trekking in ​​Buhoma

Charlotte Beauvoisin
By Charlotte Beauvoisin

In Bwindi’s northern sector is the Buhoma gate. Trekking here is generally easier than the other areas. The Binyindo, Habinyanja, Katwe, Mubare, Muyambi and Rushegura families are tracked from here. This was Bwindi’s first and thus most developed gorilla trekking site with a wide range of accommodation and fantastic views of the rainforest.

Buhoma acts as Bwindi headquarters for the Uganda Wildlife Authority; the visitor centre is a large modern building with a cafe, a small display area and good facilities.

Buhoma is also a good base for visits to local communities, including the Batwa, the forest’s indigenous tribe.

Birdwatching & gorillas in Ruhija
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Birdwatching & gorillas in Ruhija

Charlotte Beauvoisin
By Charlotte Beauvoisin

Bwindi’s Ruhija entrance is on the park’s eastern edge. This is one of Uganda's top destinations for birdwatchers in search of rare endemic species. Ruhija is home to the Bitukura, Mukiza, Kyaguliro and Oruzogo gorilla families.

Rushaga for last-minute bookings
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Rushaga for last-minute bookings

Charlotte Beauvoisin
By Charlotte Beauvoisin

In south-west Bwindi is the Rushaga area, home to the Bikingi, Busingye, Bweza, Kahungye, Kutu, Mishaya, Mucunguzi, Nshongi, Rwigi and Tindatine families. Stay in Rushaga if you are booking the gorilla habituation experience. Rushaga has the most permits available, with ten habituated groups resident, and a growing range of accommodation choices.

Challenging treks with great views
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Challenging treks with great views

Charlotte Beauvoisin
By Charlotte Beauvoisin

In the far south-west is the Nkuringo gate of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, home to the Nkuringo, Bushaho, Christmas and recently habituated Posho family. Trekking the steep terrain of Nkuringo can be more challenging than at other sites and is not for the fainthearted. In addition to panoramic views of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Nkuringo has dramatic views of the Virunga volcanoes. I highly recommend this area for those seeking more of a challenge!

Uganda's hidden gem: Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park

Uganda's hidden gem: Mgahinga Gorilla National Park

Philip Briggs
By Philip Briggs

Mgahinga, set on the Ugandan slope of the Virungas, is my personal favourite among East Africa’s gorilla tracking destinations. True, there’s only one habituated group here, but if you can secure one of the park’s eight daily permits, you're in for a special experience. This is because the group in question is overseen by a trio of massive male siblings, making for superb silverback viewing. In addition, the gorillas here are generally found in bamboo forest or other relatively open areas, hiking conditions are usually quite undemanding, and low tourist volumes give the park a relatively off-the-beaten-track feel. What’s more, the location, below the volcanic Virunga peaks, is utterly spectacular, and other activities on offer include golden monkey tracking and various volcano hikes.

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Gorilla trekking in Uganda: Need to know

Everything you wish you'd known before you booked

The logistics to planning and booking a gorilla trek in Uganda are a little more complex than in Rwanda. Here are my insider tips and recommendations to help you plan your trip.

Where you stay matters!

Unlike in Rwanda, Uganda’s gorilla population is more dispersed and planning a gorilla trek here requires more planning.

The gorillas of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest are scattered across four distinct areas: Buhoma, Nkuringo, Rushaga and Ruhija. In each area the gorillas are various distances from the entrance, and the terrain can vary greatly – which means an easier or harder trek depending on which area you visit.

Generally speaking I recommend Buhoma for easier-going treks and Nkuringo for longer and more challenging treks. Rushaga has the most permits, and Ruhija is good for birdwatching, although you'll probably need to do a separate (quieter) guided birdwatching hike after your gorilla trek.

The other key factor to bear in mind is to ensure your accommodation is not too far from your chosen trekking area. You have to be at the relevant entrance for the 7:00am briefing, so you should book a lodge that is not too far away from your chosen area entrance.

This only really matters if you’re booking your travel arrangements independently. If you’re using a specialist tour operator they’ll make the best match for your interests, budget and hiking ability.

Sign for the Busingye gorilla group assigned to gorilla trekkers at Rushaga Gate in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park Uganda

Meeting point for the group tracking the Busingye family in the Rushaga sector, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

What to expect on the day

You'll arrive at your chosen entrance at 7:00am for the morning briefing. It's at this point that you'll be assigned to visit a certain gorilla family. The park rangers know roughly where each family is and how far they are from the entrance, and thus the length and difficulty of the trek to reach each one. You'll be assigned to visit a family that is suitable for your hiking ability – if you have any preferences for a longer or shorter hike, speak up at this point!

In all of Uganda’s gorilla trekking locations, the terrain is often steep, slippery and sometimes muddy. Bwindi is a dense jungle of trees, shrubs and creepers. The terrain is mountainous, with access via steep dirt roads. The trees – some reaching 50 metres high – create a dense canopy overhead. Trekking through the jungle can be tricky and you may have to hack a path with machetes. The clue’s in the name, it’s not called Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for nothing!

The forests of Mgahinga are less dense than Bwindi, but the climb to see the gorillas can be steep.

Uganda_gorilla_Biwindi Impenetable-National Park

A mountain gorilla and baby in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

How to get gorilla tracking permits in Uganda

In Uganda, international visitors must buy gorilla tracking permits via a tour operator. Only Ugandan residents can buy permits directly from the Uganda Wildlife Authority office in Kampala.

The price for a gorilla permit in Uganda is US$700 per person (due to increase to $800 in July 2024). The option for an extended "habituation experience" permit allows approximately four hours with the gorillas, rangers and researchers and costs $1,500.

As an incentive to explore less-visited corners of the country, gorilla permit holders are entitled to a day’s free entrance to either Mount Elgon National Park in eastern Uganda or Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve in western Uganda. This fee doesn't cover activity fees, only the park entrance.

Permit numbers are constrained by the number of habituated families in Uganda: with 23 habituated gorilla families and a maximum of eight visitors per group, there are a total of just 184 permits available per day.

Permits sell out quickly. A knock-on effect of Rwanda’s near doubling of the price of their gorilla tracking permits has been to drive up demand for permits in neighbouring Uganda.

If you plan to travel during peak season or if you are in a large group, you should book six months or even a year in advance. Peak seasons are June to October and Christmas and the New Year. The earlier you book the more choice you have on where you stay and where you track. Last-minute bookings may be possible during low season or with smaller groups, but cannot be guaranteed.

Book with a specialist tour operator

You can travel around Uganda independently – I do, by default! – but the gorilla tracking permit can only be reserved through a tour operator. You can just ask them to book your permit (and arrange everything else yourself) but do be very careful that the family you have the permit for is close to where you book your lodge.

I’d encourage you to consider booking your trip with a specialist tour operator with in-depth local knowledge. They will have visited the lodges personally and be familiar with the proximity of each gorilla family. This knowledge can prove invaluable when planning your trip.

Tour operators should employ reliable ground staff, including good drivers who know the terrain well and can negotiate the steep dirt tracks.

If you plan to extend your trip after you have seen the gorillas, a specialist tour operator can provide an itinerary and organise your other activities, accommodation and transfers. If you buy a multi-day Uganda safari, do double check your gorilla tracking permit is included in the price.

Uganda baby Mountain gorilla2 cropped

Baby mountain gorilla, Uganda

Prices

Uganda has more budget and mid-range accommodation options than Rwanda and also has a number of luxury lodges.

Budget : $50-$70 per person per night based on two sharing

Mid-range: $80-$120 per person per night based on two sharing

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

The cheapest three-day gorilla trek will cost around $1,200 per person and will include one gorilla tracking permit, private transport, an English-speaking guide, accommodation and meals. A three-day luxury gorilla safari may cost upwards of $3,000 per person. Higher-priced tours may include flights to one of the small airstrips a half-hour drive from the gorilla tracking region.

Domestic flights within Uganda are notoriously expensive (around the $350 mark) but flying in a 12-seater plane over lakes and villages into the misty mountains is undeniably thrilling. Scheduled flights fly most days; early-morning flights are glorious (arrive at your lodge in time for breakfast); afternoon flights departing the gorilla habitat area can be bumpy.

When to go

Gorilla trekking in Uganda is a year-round activity, however, rainfall is heavier in November and April-May. During those times, it can be very muddy underfoot. The upside is that permits are a little easier to obtain plus you may find fewer tourists on your trail, which I prefer.

With the rainfall comes colder nights. Since you’ll be staying at altitude above 1,500 metres, you are likely to feel the cold. All the best lodges have fireplaces; many will secrete a hot water bottle between your sheets while you’re at dinner.

Uganda is much more than ‘just’ its gorillas

Probably my biggest tip is to remember that visiting Uganda is much more than just seeing the gorillas.

The country is a haven for primate lovers: you can track golden monkeys in Mgahinga and chimpanzees in Kibale Forest, Kyambura Gorge (Queen Elizabeth National Park), and a handful of forest reserves including Budongo and Kalinzu. But don’t stop there: keep your eyes peeled and you can see dozens more primates including red-tailed and black-and-white Colobus monkeys across the country.

Most visitors to Uganda combine gorilla trekking with either chimp tracking or a safari, or both. Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls are the country’s two most popular national parks, offering boat safaris on stretches of water teeming with hippos, Nile crocodiles, buffalo and elephants. Uganda has an astonishing 49% of Africa's bird species.

When I first moved to Uganda, most visitors were attracted by primates and safaris, but the country is developing in leaps and bounds – literally – with adventure tourism thriving across the country: friends recently took a 26-day bike trip on the ‘Uganda cycling trail’ that criss-crosses from the south-west to the north-east. Abseiling and ziplining complement the more established white water rafting on the Nile at Jinja.

Some of my favourite experiences include crossing Lake Bunyonyi in a dugout canoe; drinking homebrew from a gourd; four days spent camping on Mount Elgon as we trekked to Wagagai peak; dancing with the Pokot tribe in Karamoja (a rarely visited corner of the country that’s now coming online for tourism).

Uganda gorilla trekking FAQs

Your questions, our expert answers

Question

We have hotel reservations for Bwindi, but need to buy gorilla tracking permits. How can we buy the permits?

I
Asked by Isai
Answer

In Uganda, international visitors must buy gorilla tracking permits via a tour operator. Only Ugandan residents can buy permits directly from the office in Kampala.

I recommend travelling with a tour operator that is registered with the Uganda Tourism Board. In addition, you may check they are registered with
the Association of Uganda Tour Operators, the Exclusive Sustainable Tourism Association, and/or YUTO.

You'll need to give the tour operator the name of the lodge where you are staying. This is because gorilla tracking is an early morning activity so ideally they'll book permits for a gorilla family that is a short walk / drive from your lodge.

Charlotte Beauvoisin
Answered by Charlotte Beauvoisin

About the author

Gorilla trekking in Uganda

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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Charlotte Beauvoisin

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