Rwanda is an excellent option for those with limited time when it comes to seeing mountain gorillas. The mountain 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.

You can see mountain gorillas in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park (VNP), which is home to twelve habituated mountain gorilla groups all offering different characteristics and relationships.

VNP is set over 160 km² and is situated in northwestern Rwanda where it borders the DR Congo’s Virunga National Park and Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Together, these three parks form the Virunga conservation area - the world's largest gorilla trekking area.

Volcanoes National Park is distinguished by five of the eight volcanoes of the Virunga Mountains that sit along the park boundary: Karisimbi, Bisoke, Gahinga, Sabyinyo and Muhabura.

The biggest mountain gorilla group in Rwanda 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 more 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.

It’s worth noting that gorilla trekking in Rwanda is a more expensive than trekking in Uganda as authorities are making a concerted effort to focus on the high-end, luxury travel market. In 2017, the government doubled the gorilla trekking permit price to USD$1,500.


Mountain gorilla in Volcanoes National Park

The best time to see gorillas in Rwanda

Climate and trekking conditions

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. Peak seasons are June to October and Christmas and the New Year. 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.

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

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.

Rwanda silverbackmountaingorilla

Silverback in Volcanoes National Park

What does it feel like to see the mountain gorilla?

This guide explains exactly how you can plan a trip to go gorilla trekking in Rwanda, but what does the experience actually feel like? Here's what you can expect from your magical hour with the gorillas and here's a podcast with legendary conservationist Ian Redmond on saving the gorillas.

How difficult is gorilla trekking in Rwanda?

Fitness and acclimatisation

Mountain gorilla trekking is always strenuous, with muddy paths, dense rainforests and thick vegetation. Gorilla families in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park are said to be harder to see than those in Uganda as they live deeper into the forest and higher up in the mountains.

However, you can hire porters to carry your daypacks and equipment, and your ranger guides will try to make the trek as easy as possible. Altitude sickness isn’t normally a problem, particularly if you spend a day acclimatising before your gorilla trek.

It’s worth bringing gloves to protect your hands and good hiking boots that can provide grip on the slippery, muddy slopes.


How do you book a gorilla trek?

Gorilla permits and trekking guidelines

Plan to stay at least two nights in the vicinity of Volcanoes National Park for your gorilla trek in Rwanda. This will allow you to spend one night acclimatising and another recuperating after your tiring trek. It is possible to fly in and out on a trek, but we don’t recommend it.

Gorilla trekking in Rwanda is highly regulated and follows strict ecotourism guidelines. As only 96 permits are available per day, tours do get booked up quickly. You should book your gorilla tour and permit at least six months before you plan to travel.

There are two ways to book a permit. You can either book directly through the Rwandan Tourism Board and then try to secure a guide in Rwanda, or you can book through a licensed tour operator who will arrange your gorilla trek. It is normally quicker to book through an operator and no extra charge for the permit should be made.

Each gorilla permit only allows you to see gorillas for one hour, so if you want to make multiple visits, you will need multiple permits.

Pro tip

Remember you’re allowed just one hour of contact time. Many visitors find the gorillas more interesting when they’re resting, family clustered together, snoozing, grooming and playing. When you approach, ask your guide if they are on the move and, if they are, if you can wait for them to stop before making contact.

Rules and regulations

Ensuring safety for you and the gorillas

Tourists are only allowed to visit and interact with habituated mountain gorilla families in Rwanda. Habituation is a gradual process through which the gorillas get used to the presence of humans. This allows people to go gorilla trekking in Rwanda without affecting their daily lives or natural behaviour.

Although the gorillas are habituated, the Rwanda Development Board and the Uganda Wildlife Authority enforce rules governing how tourists can interact with the animals. The following are for the safety and wellbeing of the gorillas and tourists and are considered non-negotiable:

  • The maximum group size for tracking the gorillas is eight people (plus rangers and porters).

  • Your group is allowed a maximum of one hour with the gorillas.

  • Visitors to the gorillas must be over the age of 15.

  • Trekking in thick forest at an altitude of over 2,000 metres (6,560 ft) can be tough. It is often wet. Gorilla trekkers must be fit and in good health.

  • You should not go gorilla trekking if you have diarrhoea, flu or a cold. Gorillas have no immunity to most human diseases and even mild human infections can be lethal to a gorilla. You are obliged to inform the authorities if you are sick and they will decide if you are well enough to visit the gorillas. Remember that the lives of the critically endangered gorillas are more important than your holiday.

  • If you need to sneeze or cough, cover your nose and mouth to reduce the chance of spreading infection.

  • Don't spit or leave litter in the forest. Gorillas can catch diseases from human rubbish.

  • Always leave a distance of seven metres between you and the gorillas. If the gorillas start moving towards you, the rangers may advise you to move away from them.

  • Gorillas can be quite curious. Do not touch the gorillas, even if they come close to you

  • Do not make any sudden movements.

  • If a gorilla charges, do not run away. Avoid direct eye contact until the gorilla has moved away. Stay calm and slowly crouch down.

  • Stay in your group. Do not crowd or surround the gorillas.

  • If you need to go to the toilet in the forest, tell your guide and he will dig a hole for you. Cover the hole afterwards to prevent spreading disease to the gorillas.

  • Flash photography is strictly forbidden.

Follow these simple, common-sense rules and your visit will be a positive one -- for the gorillas as well as yourself.


What to do after a gorilla trek

There's more to Rwanda

Rwanda has a limited (but decent) range of wildlife and safari activities, including Akagera National Park (a Big Five destination) and Nyungwe Forest National Park (for chimp trekking).

Rwanda may be a small country but it has made serious investments in tourism over the last few years. It's an easy country to move around with good roads. There are four national parks. The fourth - and latest - is called Gishwati Mukura.

Akagera National Park may be small but has enough wildlife to warrant a visit. Over the last few years, white rhinos and lions have been reintroduced. The lions are already breeding successfully. Visitors may also spot leopards, elephants, numerous species of antelope and a healthy population of grey-crowned cranes. Rwanda is committed to conservation at the highest levels of government.

Nyungwe is in the far south-west of Rwanda and is arguably worth the trip for the canopy trail alone. This metal walkway stands 70m above the forest floor and the views are without equal. Look around and you are surrounded 360° by mature indigenous rainforest. There is no sign of human activity for as far as the eye can see. Nyungwe is also famous for its birdlife, waterfalls, chimp tracking and population of black and white Colobus monkeys.

To the north of Nyungwe lies Lake Kivu; Rwanda’s seaside and the popular town of Gisenyi, a small laid-back place with a popular public beach and a view of the Congo across the lake. Adjacent is the town of Goma.

Rwanda’s capital Kigali would look comfortable in Europe. The city's excellent roads, street lights and traffic regulations make it the envy of many other African nations. It's a well-organised city with a growing range of international hotels and top conference venues. It has interesting cafés and art galleries. A visit to the world-class Genocide Memorial Museum may be painful yet is highly recommended.

Trip planning FAQs

What you need to know

Which country has the most mountain gorillas?

There are just over 1,000 mountain gorillas living in the jungles of Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo. Around 700 live in the Virunga Mountains of Central Africa, spread across the three countries. The number of mountain gorillas in Rwanda has grown from around 200 in 1981 to more than 500 today, according to the Rwandan Development Board.

How old do you have to be to go gorilla trekking?

The minimum age to go gorilla trekking in Rwanda and Uganda is fifteen. Expect park authorities to verify your passport birthday against the date given in your gorilla trekking permit.

Why is gorilla trekking in Rwanda so expensive?

Seeing mountain gorillas in Rwanda isn’t cheap. A gorilla trekking permit alone costs $1,500 per person, with accommodation, guides and tour costs meaning that a gorilla trek can cost upwards of $5,000 per person. So why is gorilla trekking so expensive?

The top reason is that mountain gorillas are highly endangered. This means that the Rwandan authorities need to limit the number of interactions the gorillas have with people. This is also important as one of the biggest threats to the gorillas’ survival is disease. Sharing 98% of their DNA with humans makes gorillas highly susceptible to being infected by human diseases, so limiting the number of visitors can help to control potential infections.

Thirdly, the need to conserve the gorillas’ habitat requires funding. A significant percentage of tour fees and gorilla permits goes back into conserving the gorillas’ mountain forest habitat. Finally, some of the money you pay will go into research and monitoring of the gorillas, as well as paying your guides and encouraging sustainable tourism. The Rwandan authorities point to the growth in gorilla numbers as evidence of their success.

How close can you get to a mountain gorilla?

Regulations state that you must stay 7m from the gorillas at all times and only spend one hour with them. In practice, inquisitive gorillas may come closer to you on your trek. If they do, stay calm and quiet, follow your guide’s advice and never touch the gorillas. Keep your voice low and avoid eye contact.

The gorillas will be more relaxed the further back you are, so your guide may ask the group to move to a different location to a) calm the gorillas b) get a better view.

How big is a silverback gorilla?

The mountain gorilla is the world’s largest living primate. You can expect a fully-grown male gorilla to be between 5-6ft tall, weigh 140-200kg. Female mountain gorillas are between 4-5ft tall, weighing 90-100kg.

Mountain gorillas are exceptionally strong – and deceptively quick. A gorilla can reach speeds of 25mph and is between 8-15 times stronger than a human.

Are gorillas dangerous?

Mountain gorilla trekking trips are not dangerous. All gorilla trekking in Rwanda trips will involve the use of a guide who spends a lot of time with mountain gorillas. Secondly, you are only allowed to visit gorilla groups who have been habituated to humans, meaning they are used to seeing people and understand they are not a threat.

Most gorillas are shy and reserved, spending the majority of their time feeding and looking after their young. However, gorillas can go into a defence mode if they feel uneasy. Your guide will know what to look for, but this can include mock charging, beating their chests aggressively and grunting. Always follow your guide’s lead, but if faced with an aggressive gorilla, crouch down, look away and act casually.

Your day of gorilla tracking will be long, active and at least fairly arduous. You’ll be hiking in thick forest in a changeable climate. Evenings can be cold, mornings are cool and the days are hot — especially when you’re clambering up a muddy mountainside.

Having the right gear makes all the difference.

  • A small backpack to carry water, packed lunch and rain jacket.
  • Walking boots or hiking shoes. Boots are ideal for the extra ankle support on rocky and muddy terrain.
  • Long socks will allow you to tuck in your hiking trousers and protect your ankles from scratches and biting insects. Higher-end lodges may loan gaiters to guests.
  • Lightweight waterproof jacket.
  • Hiking pants or waterproof trousers (handy when sliding down muddy slopes!) Do not plan on wearing jeans or shorts. Hiking in wet jeans is a misery and shorts will leave you exposed to scratches and hungry insects.
  • A long-sleeved shirt offers much needed protection from the sun and insects.
  • A fleece or light-wool sweater for cold mornings.
  • Cheap gardening gloves will protect your hands but aren’t essential.
  • Sunglasses, sunscreen and sunhat.
  • Camera and binoculars.
  • Walking poles if required. Upmarket lodges will provide poles. In Rwanda your guide can cut you a custom-made pole from bamboo!
  • At least one litre of drinking water and your packed lunch.
  • A basic first aid kit may come in handy: antiseptic wipes, anti-histamine cream, insect repellent, plasters, painkillers, malaria prophylaxis and rehydration sachets.
How to see gorillas in Rwanda

Charlotte Beauvoisin

Charlotte is a travel blogger based on the edge of Kibale Forest, Uganda. She is a contributor to the Bradt Uganda Guidebook and has written for Lonely Planet, The Daily Telegraph and Fodor's. She first arrived in Uganda in 2009 as a Voluntary Service Overseas volunteer with the Uganda Conservation Foundation.

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