Backpacking Uganda: Top Experiences
- Come face-to-face with a silverback mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
- Get your adrenaline pumping with a wild raft ride down the Nile River’s Class V whitewater in Jinja
- Spot lions, elephants, giraffes, and crocs on a game drive and boat trip in Murchison Falls National Park
- Hike through impossibly green hills and friendly villages in the Toro Crater Lakes region
- Paddle a dugout canoe to Uganda’s best backpacker hangout — Byoona Amagara — on Lake Bunyonyi
Jump to the list of posts from Uganda, or read on for my comprehensive Uganda travel guide.
Uganda itinerary ideas
Uganda is a tiny country that packs a huge punch. Unusually for Africa, you can get between just about any two cities within five hours. But at the same time, every single destination looks and feels wildly different.
The southwest is the focus for most Uganda itineraries. The typical route heads west from Kampala to track chimpanzees in Kibale National Forest. Then, spend a couple days in Queen Elizabeth National Park, where you can do game drives and boat trips through an incredible diversity of landscapes. Finally, continue to the far south near the Rwandan border to track gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest or Mgahinga Gorilla National Park — potentially basing yourself at Lake Bunyonyi for some post-trek relaxation. This Uganda itinerary can be covered in as little as ten days.
With more time, there are plenty of diversions along the way. Instead of rushing through Kibale Forest just to track chimps, spend a few days trekking through the nearby Toro Crater Lakes region. Or explore the monkey and bird life at Bigodi, just 5 km from the chimp trailhead. A number of excellent budget camps and lodges in the area, plus a very low volume of tourists, make this a great region for backpackers to explore. Serious trekkers should check out the Rwenzori range — where you could have a 7-day peak-bagging expedition all to yourself.
Another increasingly popular pit stop is Lake Mburo. The national park may not have much in the way of Big 5 wildlife, but it’s the only place in southern Uganda where you can see zebras. The savanna landscape is gorgeous (and unusual for Uganda), and you can mix it up with walking, biking or horseback safaris.
If you have two weeks in Uganda or more, you could consider adding Murchison Falls National Park to your itinerary. Out on a limb in the north-central region, this park has far superior game viewing compared to Queen Elizabeth, and it’s less crowded. Budget travelers backpacking Uganda usually visit on a three-day safari organized by Red Chilli Tours in Kampala.
With three or more weeks for your Uganda itinerary, branch out to the east with a day of whitewater rafting in Jinja. Then, make your way north to Sipi Falls in the stunning Mount Elgon region. From here you can easily hop across the border to Kenya, or branch further north to Kidepo Valley National Park and the Karamoja Region — but consider hiring a driver for this very remote area.
Uganda weather and when to visit Uganda
Uganda’s equatorial location means temperatures are consistent year-round, so rainfall is the biggest factor to consider when deciding when to go. Overall rainfall is far higher than its neighbors, and even in dry season, you’ll get rain a few times a week.
The best time to visit Uganda is in December-January, or in June-August. Mornings are usually dry, as are some afternoons. Animals are more likely to venture out of the bush and be visible. It also makes for more pleasant gorilla and chimp tracking when you don’t have to wade through ankle-deep mud. If you plan to trek in the Rwenzori or Mount Elgon, visiting in dry season is essential, but you should still plan for tons of rain and mud.
The downside of visiting in dry season is tourist numbers are at their peak. Uganda isn’t a touristy country, so you won’t feel constantly surrounded by safari vehicles like you might in Kenya or Tanzania. But you’ll need to book gorilla and even chimp permits many months in advance — ideally 6 months or more.
In rainy season, tourist numbers drop dramatically and the possibility opens up of getting last-minute permits for chimps. It’s still quite difficult to get last-minute gorilla permits, but a month or two advance booking is fine. The downside is, well, it’s really wet and muddy. Some roads wash out. Hiking and camping becomes a miserable prospect, especially in the Rwenzori. That said, you’ll have the country largely to yourself and the landscape will be incredibly green.
One other important thing to keep in mind when backpacking Uganda is most of the country is above 1,000 meters in elevation. This means temperatures range from warm and pleasant to quite chilly (below 50 degrees Fahrenheit at night is not unusual). The areas around Bwindi and Mgahinga National Parks are cold enough to make camping unpleasant without a four-season sleeping bag. If you trek in the Rwenzori or Mount Elgon, you should pack snow gear.
Language in Uganda
The primary local language spoken in Uganda is Luganda. It’s a Bantu language with origins in the Buganda kingdom in the eastern part of the country. It’s pronounced exactly as written.
However, there are a total of 41 recognized languages spoken in the country. Many of these are Bantu-derived, and mutually intelligible with Luganda, but others are totally different and not mutually intelligible.
As a result, nearly everyone in Uganda speaks English. You’ll often hear Ugandans speaking English with each other. As a tourist, you can default to English most of the time. But Ugandans are accustomed to hearing English spoken with the Ugandan accent (which is closer to a British accent and has a whole host of its own dialectical quirks), so you may need to speak extra clearly if you have a strong American accent.
In very rare cases, you’ll encounter someone who doesn’t speak English or Luganda. In these cases it’s okay to try Swahili. But most Ugandans don’t use Swahili on a daily basis, and it can even come off as culturally insensitive (like you’re lumping Uganda in with other East African countries rather than recognizing its own unique cultural heritage). Whatever you do, don’t greet people in Uganda with a hearty “Jambo!” or you’ll get some pretty nasty stares.
Whichever language you use, make sure to properly greet people before diving into a conversation. Whether it’s a guard at a national park, a waiter at a restaurant, or someone you need to ask for directions on the street, always start with, “hello, how are you?” and genuinely listen to the answer. If someone else initiates the conversation, the proper answer to “how are you?” is “I am fine”.
The one word everyone backpacking Uganda will become quite familiar with is “mzungu.” This marks you as a person from North America, Europe or Australia (regardless of your skin color — your mannerisms and dress give you away). It’s not an offensive term, just a statement of fact. Sometimes you’ll hear Ugandans using this word when talking about you (as in “that bag is the mzungu’s,”), and other times they’ll use it to get your attention (as in “Mzungu, this is your bus stop!”)
Budget for backpacking Uganda
Backpacking Uganda can be extremely cheap — until you want to do any activities. Day-to-day travel costs are quite low. But nearly every wildlife encounter or adventure tour is pricey. As a result, the most useful way to organize your Uganda budget is separate day-to-day costs and big-ticket activities.
A daily budget for food, accommodation, and travel while backpacking Uganda could be as low as $30/day if you’re camping — but $40 per day would be more comfortable. This would include cheap activities like village walks, hiking and even some wildlife experiences where you don’t have to pay park fees. A healthy mid-range budget would be $80-100 a day, for which you can stay in some very nice lodges and eat at excellent restaurants.
Then, you’ll want a big-ticket activity budget of at least $1,000 — enough for a gorilla permit, chimp permit, and one day of game drives and boat trips in Queen Elizabeth National Park. If you can up it to $1,500 you can also do a Murchison Falls safari and go whitewater rafting in Jinja.
The cheapest hang-out spots for backpackers are Lake Bunyonyi and Jinja. You could camp for days in gorgeous surrounds for a total budget (food and activities — but not rafting — included) of around $20 per day. The Ssese Islands used to be a popular budget getaway, but dodgy ferries and higher malaria risk have made them less appealing as Bunyonyi has developed more for tourism.
ATM’s abound in urban Uganda. They mostly play nicely with foreign Visa cards, but not Mastercard. They dispense shillings, which you need to pay for food, bus tickets, small day tours, curios, etc. If you’re going to be in the bush for a few days, such as on the Bwindi-Queen Elizabeth-Kibale Forest safari circuit, plan your ATM visits in advance — villages and small towns generally don’t have ATM’s.
Most guesthouses and tour agencies quote prices in U.S. dollars, but you can pay in either dollars or shillings. Tips for guides are expected and should always be in local currency. A stash of $100+ in hard currency — dollars are best — is useful for when ATM’s don’t work or the power is out. Euros and pounds are useless except at Forex bureaus.
Cash is king, but mobile money is also popular. It’s kind of like PayPal, but with a cell network instead of web-based. MTN is the most popular provider, and you’ll need a local SIM card to use it. You can only pay with credit card at high-end lodges.
Sample costs (quoted in USD, but usually paid in shillings)
Camping with your own tent at a lodge in or near a national park: $5-10
Rolex (street food): $0.30
Meal at a mid-range restaurant: $3.50
Large French press coffee with local single-origin beans: $2
Half-day village walk or cultural tour: $8-10
Bus from Kampala to Fort Portal: $5.50
Boda (motorcycle taxi) from Lake Bunyonyi to Kabale: $1.30
Game drive in Queen Elizabeth National Park: $70 for the vehicle (up to 4 people) plus $40 park entry fee per person
Gorilla permit: $600, must be paid in dollars
Uganda visa requirements
Nearly everyone backpacking Uganda needs a visa. Unfortunately, the country is shifting rather chaotically to an e-visa system. Reports of whether you can get your visa on arrival are muddled and confusing. Immigration officials don’t know the rules on a day-in, day-out basis, or have different interpretations of the rules. So if you can, you should arrange your Uganda visa in advance.
For citizens of the U.S., Canada, most European countries, and Australia, the visa for Uganda costs $50. You can apply online here at least five days before you arrive. You need a copy of your Yellow Fever certificate and evidence of onward transport out of Uganda. You’ll get a form to bring to immigration when you enter the country, which is when you’ll actually receive the document for your passport (and possibly when you’ll make the payment, although the online system seems to intermittently require you to pay when you submit).
If you’re visiting Kenya and Rwanda on the same trip, it’s cheaper to apply for the East Africa Tourist Visa. This costs $100 and grants you multiple-entry, unlimited travel within all three countries for 90 days. It does not cover Tanzania.
You must apply for the EAT visa from the country that you will visit first. Theoretically you can get it on arrival, but it’s better to organize in advance, as there are conflicting reports about its availability at both Entebbe airport and at land borders. Just make sure you still get a Ugandan entry stamp — you’ll need it to buy a SIM card.
Accommodation in Uganda
When backpacking Uganda, you can choose from a range of accommodation at any budget level. Value for money is outstanding.
Uganda has few traditional backpacker hostels. You can find them in Kampala and, to a lesser extent, Jinja. Elsewhere, some camps and lodges have dorms to suit budget travelers. Prices run about $12 a night for a dorm bed.
Every decent-sized city in Uganda — such as Fort Portal, Kabale, Mbale, or Katunguru — has budget hotels catering to local travelers. $5-10 a night will buy you a clean room with a shared cold-water shower. For more like $15 a night, you can upgrade to a hot-shower en-suite room. The biggest downside is you won’t be immersed in the nature that makes Uganda so special. But if you don’t want to carry camping gear and want your own space, these hotels can be useful staging points from where you can pick up a boda (motorbike taxi) to natural attractions.
If you want to save money, have total flexibility, and avoid dorms, camping in Uganda is the way to go. You can pitch your tent in the yard of virtually any lodge in the country for $5-10 a night. You get to use the lodge’s facilities, including fantastic restaurants and swimming pools. And you usually get a good hot shower and clean restrooms.
You never have to book in advance (you don’t get a campsite, you just pitch your tent in any open space on the property). You can rent camping gear at many popular camps — called “lazy camping” — for more like $20 a night.
There are a couple downsides to camping while backpacking Uganda. First, charging your electronics is a constant struggle. Camps usually only have charge points in their restaurants, which the entire camp competes for during the few hours a day when the electricity is on. Second, because you’ll be way out in the bush, food options are limited. Camps generally don’t have self-catering facilities, and they’re often far (like 30 minutes by motorbike) from even small villages. So you may be stuck eating a three-course dinner at the $15-per-person restaurant rather than grabbing something more local. Finally, while camping in Uganda is very safe, always remember to check with the staff about wildlife — in Murchison Falls a hippo came within a meter of my tent!
If you have a bit more money to spare, Uganda has some world-class budget lodges. These are ideal for exploring the national parks. For $80-$100 a night (including all meals), you can stay in lodges that would cost three times that in Kenya or Tanzania. Most have fewer than 20 rooms and highly personalized service. Sometimes the “rooms” are permanent tents (under a thatched-roof shelter). But don’t worry, you’ll still get a proper bed, electricity, and a bathroom and hot shower inside.
Food in Uganda
Nobody goes backpacking in Uganda for the food. But if you don’t mind a little repetition, you can eat healthily on a budget.
Uganda’s classic street food is the Rolex. It’s not a high-end watch — it’s a freshly-made omelette, with tomatoes, onions and herbs, wrapped in a chapati (Indian-style flatbread) and rolled up. Delicious, healthy, and cheap at about $0.30 per egg. You can find Rolex in even the smallest villages. Rolex stands also sell plain chapati — a useful bus snack — for 500 shillings per piece.
In the markets, you can find veggies ranging from dark leafy greens to 3 kinds of sweet potatoes to broccoli, carrots, bell peppers, tomatoes, several varieties of eggplant, and more. Huge, sweet, creamy avocados are another standout.
The most typical starch in Uganda is a type of boiled plantain called matoke. Other options include ugali (a polenta-like cornmeal dish), potatoes, and rice. These starches are served with meats like goat and chicken, freshwater fish from Lake Victoria, or beans, and a boiled veggie or two. It’s flavorless but it’ll fill you up and cost you about $2.
You’ll also find a huge variety of tropical fruit throughout Uganda. The biggest treat is fresh passion fruit. Watermelon, pineapple, sweet lime, and mango are also popular. Bananas are big business in Uganda — there are 16 different words for “banana”! If you want to buy them from the market, ask for “kabaragala” (the yellow sweet ones that you can eat raw). Most other varieties are meant to be cooked or grilled.
At some point when you travel in Uganda, you won’t be able to look at matoke or chapati one more time. But don’t worry — you can get a variety of Indian, Western and fusion (think “Ugandan burrito”; it’s delicious) cuisine for $5-8 at tourist-oriented restaurants. You’ll find them in cities and larger towns.
If you’re traveling in the bush, often your only option is to eat at your lodge or camp. Breakfast is usually a full breakfast with eggs, toast, baked beans or bacon, and a plate of fruit. Lunch is normally smaller, with a vegetarian or meat sandwich served with chips or a salad. Dinner is a three-course affair, with a vegetarian soup, veggie or meat main, and simple dessert.
Lodge meals are more interesting than what you’ll find at restaurants, but considerably more expensive. Budget-oriented camps are a little cheaper and you can sometimes order off a menu, but the menu tends to amount to “veggie burger or tomato and avocado sandwich,” which gets real old after a few days.
Lodges need to know who is eating, what they’re eating, and what time in advance. So call ahead if you plan to eat there on the day you arrive and tell the staff at breakfast what time you want your dinner.
Drinks in Uganda
Uganda is a major coffee and tea producer. The best tea comes from the Toro region, while coffee production centers around Mount Elgon. Most of the best coffee and tea is exported. But when you visit these regions, you can find the good stuff in any local shop or cafe. Unfortunately, outside of these regions, you’ll mostly find sludgy instant coffee and mass-produced cheap tea. If you order “African” tea or coffee, it’ll be 80% milk.
Fresh fruit juices are another Uganda backpacking highlight. Watermelon juice is particularly delicious. Order it from any restaurant or fruit vendor. It’s safe — if they use water or ice, it’ll be boiled. You can also buy all the usual soft drinks, plus some local brands. Try Honey ginger beer and the pineapple soda.
Beer is the most popular alcoholic beverage when backpacking Uganda. You can buy it at local shops and any tourist lodge or camp. It won’t always be cold. Nile Special is the most popular brand. If you’re up for an adventure, try the local banana beer from the Fort Portal area. Wine is generally imported and only available at nicer restaurants and tourist lodges. When it comes to spirits, gin rules. Usually it’s made from millet or banana.
Ugandan tap water is questionably safe to drink. Water pumps and wells are probably okay. If locals offer you tap water, it’s almost certainly been boiled. But most travelers err on the safe side by buying bottled water, which you can buy everywhere. Consider bringing a Steri Pen so you can fill a reusable bottle from the tap without worrying about getting sick.
Activities you can do while backpacking Uganda
Backpacking Uganda is all about the wildlife. The country offers the single most diverse safari circuit in all of Africa.
Most people come to Uganda to track critically endangered mountain gorillas. This is perhaps the most moving wildlife experience on the planet. After tramping through the forest for anywhere from one to eight hours, you’ll spend one magical hour in the company of a gorilla family — often coming within 3 meters of a 350-pound silverback! The sense of recognition and mutual understanding is extraordinary.
You can track gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest or Mgahinga Gorilla Park. The permit costs $600 — there is no way around this expense. Only eight visitors can meet each gorilla group each day, and in high season, permits sell out up to 6 months early. Success rates are close to 100%.
If you can’t afford the steep gorilla tracking fee, tracking chimpanzees is almost as good. (Although it’s no substitute.) This costs just $150 for an hour with the chimps. The trekking is easier than with the gorillas when the chimps are on the ground, but you may have to run through the forest to follow them when they’re in trees.
Chimp tracking is available in Kibale National Forest, Queen Elizabeth National Park, and near Murchison Falls. Kibale has the highest success rate by far (upwards of 90%) and usually less than an hour of walking before you find them. Permits are easy to come by in wet season, and you can get them just a few weeks before in dry season.
In addition to gorillas and chimps, Uganda has all the typical African wildlife. The three main safari parks are Queen Elizabeth, Murchison Falls, and Kidepo Valley. Lake Mburo is growing in popularity due to its location as an easy overnight stop between Kampala and Bwindi. You can reach Queen Elizabeth and Lake Mburo on public transport, but you’re better off taking a tour or hiring a driver for Murchison Falls and Kidepo Valley.
Uganda also offers the unique experience of tracking white rhinos on foot. Unfortunately rhinos have been wiped out of all the national parks, but the excellent Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary operates a breeding program, with eventual plans to reintroduce them to the wild. It’s an unforgettable stop between Kampala and Murchison Falls.
Besides the wildlife, the most popular activity in Uganda is whitewater rafting on the Nile River. The long-feared Isamba Dam project is now complete, but most of the rapids survived, and it’s still an intense and fun day on the river.
Rafting companies Nalubale and Nile River Explorers have exceptional safety records. Still, you should be water-confident to take on this trip. Three of the rapids have a 70-80% chance of flipping. Even if you’re prepared, it’s terrifying — you’ll be trapped underwater for 30 seconds or so, battered by the whirlpools and waves, before you can find one of the air pockets under the raft. Rafting costs $140, including transport from Kampala, all food and drinks, and up to two nights at the rafting companies’ camps in Bujagali.
Finally, Uganda is a hiker’s paradise. The big trekking region is the Rwenzori Mountains. Rwenzori Trekking Services in Kilembe offers 5-7 day treks (and is far more reputable than Rwenzori Mountain Services, which can’t really be recommended for safety reasons). Mount Elgon is another popular trek, and it’s relatively affordable.
If you don’t want to take on the rain and altitude of the biggest mountains, consider day-hiking on their lower slopes. Near Fort Portal, you have a range of possibilities in the lower Rwenzoris — from the Rwenzori Day Hike to self-guided trails around the Toro Crater Lakes. Sipi Falls, on the lower slopes of Mount Elgon, offers plenty of day-hiking possibilities for nominal guide fees ($5-10).
Transportation in Uganda
Traveling independently in Uganda is still a pretty novel concept. When you’re in the research phase of your backpacking Uganda trip, the most important thing to remember is that there is always a way to get where you want to go. The Internet just doesn’t always know it. So you could Google until your eyes bleed and still not find a single article describing the bus route you want. But if you show up and ask locals, you’ll never have a problem getting around.
Private transport and tours
The top rung of the transportation ladder is to hire your own driver. If you’re traveling in a group, this is very affordable — prices start around $100 per day plus fuel, split among passengers. 4-wheel drive is a good idea anytime, but absolutely essential in rainy season or if you’re visiting Bwindi. A private driver is by far the most common way travelers explore Uganda, and it’s the only realistic option if you’re here for less than two weeks.
Even if you don’t hire a driver for the whole trip, you’ll occasionally need to hire one for a day or two. This is especially common in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Queen Elizabeth National Park, where you can get to the park gates on your own, but you can’t actually get to the wildlife without private transport. The good news is, it’s even more affordable — $50 a day is pretty typical. Email me if you want contact info of a couple of great drivers who charge very fair rates.
Another easy option is to take a budget group tour. Some people backpacking Uganda travel on overland trucks with companies like Intrepid or G Adventures. These tours offer good value for money, but they’re very rushed and miss most of the highlights of Uganda. Instead, consider booking with a local tour agency like Red Chilli.
Coach buses in Uganda
If you’re not limited for time, on a shoestring budget, and want more of an adventure, consider traveling by public transport. You’ll almost always be the only mzungu on your vehicle and you’ll get much more exposure to local life.
The best choices for getting around Uganda on public transportation are coach buses. Preferred companies include Jaguar Executive Coaches, Link Bus, and Elgon Flyer, or take the government-run Post Bus. International companies Trinity Coaches, Mash Bus, and Modern Coast are useful for longer routes connecting to Kigali or Nairobi. Normally each bus company has its own ticket office and departure point, but some smaller cities have a central bus park.
Buses leave at set departure times until about 2 pm. You can buy tickets the day you travel. Most short-haul buses have six seats across instead of the four seats more typical in the U.S. or Europe. Drivers stop every 4 hours or so for a “comfort break.”
Matatus and shared taxis
Unfortunately, not all routes are covered by coach buses. If you’re heading to a smaller destination or along a shorter route, you’ll have no choice but to use minibuses, known as “matatus” or, more commonly, “taxis.” (What we’d call a “taxi” in the U.S. is called a “special hire” in Uganda — confusing, I know.) You can identify taxis by their blue bands painted around the middle.
Taxis are pretty much the worst. They’re more expensive than buses. Conductors routinely try to overcharge passengers. They only leave when full, which can take 2+ hours, and then they stop everywhere. The drivers are extremely reckless — you may notice speeds of 140 km/hr on narrow two-lane roads (when the speedometer works at all). Your head will slam into the ceiling every time the driver hits a pothole. And “full” to a taxi conductor doesn’t mean “each of the 14 seats is filled” — it means “there are at least 22 people in this vehicle but potentially as many as 30, sitting on each other’s laps and in every spare inch of space, plus at least three chickens and probably a basket of dead fish.”
That being said, taxis can get you to parts of Uganda that buses can’t, and they’re fast once you know how to use them. The key is to find an alternative “taxi stage” — or bus stop — that isn’t the central taxi park. This way, you can pick up a nearly-full taxi as it’s passing rather than waiting for one to fill. The only way to find taxi stages is by asking locals.
In some cases, your only option will be to pick up a taxi from the central taxi park. The second you arrive, hordes of people will come at you shouting “where are you going?” as they steer you into vehicles (and then demand tips for their “assistance”). It’s chaotic and confusing, especially since routes aren’t posted.
Just stay calm and remember that the people telling you which bus to get on are taxi conductors who have a financial stake in you choosing their vehicle. If you walk around on your own for 5-10 minutes, appearing disinterested whenever someone approaches you, a window will eventually open to ask calm questions about which vehicle to use. Always verify the destination with locals in the vehicle, ask for a formal receipt for your ticket, and negotiate if the price seems high.
Safety is all relative when it comes to taxis, but a few words of advice: The driver may offer you a seat in the very front of the vehicle. This is a polite offer, but one you should never accept — you’ll be the first one to die in a head-on collision at high speed. Instead, choose a seat smack dab in the middle of the vehicle. You’ll be better protected in a crash and you won’t fly out of your seat at every speed bump or pothole.
On very local or low-traffic routes, sometimes shared taxis replace matatus. While backpacking Uganda you’ll most likely find these on the way to Sipi Falls or between Kabale and Kisoro. They operate the same way — leave when full, cram 12 people into a 5-seat sedan, and drive like maniacs. Shared taxis have the blue stripe around them just like taxis to indicate that they’re a public vehicle.
Bodas, special hires, hitching and informal transport
Uganda’s public transportation network is pretty good. But it will only get you into major towns and mid-sized trading centers. If you want to reach smaller villages, wildlife destinations, or pretty much anywhere down a dirt road, you will have to use motorcycle taxis, called “bodas.”
It’s not hard to find a boda driver anywhere in Uganda. Just look for guys (they’re always guys) hanging out on street corners with motorbikes. Simply say where you’d like to go and start bargaining on price. Prices are fairly standard, and you rarely need to bargain hard. 5,000 shillings per 8-10 km is fair. You can use bodas for distances as long as 20-30 km — drivers will be happy to take you.
Boda drivers don’t carry helmets for their passengers. This makes them theoretically quite dangerous. You’re totally unprotected in an accident, which is not, like, out of the realm of possibility on Uganda’s insane roads.
However, if you ask drivers to go slowly, they respect this request. Usually they’ll even check on you a few times during the trip to make sure you feel comfortable. I never once felt unsafe on a boda in Uganda, and I used them a lot.
The only downside is you’ll be covered in dust when you use bodas on dirt roads. And this should go without saying, but because you will see people doing it: never use a boda in a national park where predators or buffalo may be present.
If you’re not up for taking bodas, the alternative to reaching remote destinations is a special hire taxi. This is where you commission a private driver for a short trip (like a taxi in the U.S.). Special hires aren’t cheap — think $10 for a ride that costs 5,000 shillings on a boda. Technically special hires are supposed to have a yellow band around them, but in practice, you’re more likely to find drivers with unlicensed vehicles.
Finally, in remote areas (but not national parks), many private vehicles double as public transportation. These range from trucks carrying agricultural workers to farms, to park ranger and military vehicles, to U.N. convoys, to newspaper delivery vans. You can hitch a lift for the comparable public transport fare. Confirm a price with the driver before getting in.
Use common-sense precautions when hitching. If a driver offers a free ride or you’d be the only passenger, that should be a warning sign that something’s up. Where informal transport is common, your lodge staff can call ahead or go with you to the departure point to arrange a safe ride.
Some people backpacking Uganda choose to hitch lifts with other travelers. This can be convenient — like getting a ride back to town from others in your chimp tracking group. But never, ever depend on hitching when you have somewhere to be at a set time. There are horror stories of backpackers losing $600 gorilla permits because the lift they were hoping for from their lodge to the trailhead just a few kilometers away never materialized. Uganda simply doesn’t have enough tourists at this point for hitching in the parks to be a reliable transport option.
Safety when backpacking Uganda
Uganda is an extremely safe country to travel in. Of course you could get unlucky and something totally unpredictable could happen, but in terms of day-to-day travel, it’s one of the safest places along the Cape Town to Cairo route. I never once felt unsafe in nearly a month of solo travel in Uganda.
Crime and violence
Street crime is almost unheard of when backpacking Uganda. Even Kampala — which is a big, busy, extremely crowded city — has little in the way of petty theft or muggings. Use common sense: keep an eye on your valuables anywhere near the Qualicell Bus Park due to the crowds, and don’t hop on the back of an unknown boda driver’s bike at 1 am coming out of a nightclub. But you can safely walk around after dark just about everywhere.
Uganda has managed to stay insulated from the violence in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo, just on the other side of the border. Problems aren’t totally unheard of — like the American and her guide who were kidnapped from Queen Elizabeth — but it’s pretty rare and not a cause for concern.
The one place where you should use extra caution is in Karamoja, on the way to Kidepo Valley National Park. For years, this region struggled with armed cattle rustling battles across the Kenyan border. Things have calmed down considerably, but you should check with Uganda Wildlife Authority officials before heading this way overland.
Road safety and traffic accidents
Road safety is a really serious issue in Uganda. You can’t open a newspaper or turn on a television without seeing grisly footage of boda and taxi accidents. In fact, you’re pretty likely to witness or drive past a recent head-on collision or two when traveling on Uganda’s roads.
Your main defense against being in a road accident is avoiding taxis. Use coach buses whenever you can. When you have to use taxis, sit toward the back of the vehicle. Unfortunately there’s no convincing a taxi driver to slow down or stop blind-overtaking once you’re in the vehicle.
Bodas and private drivers are also a potential road risk. But you can protect yourself by asking them to drive slowly, or insisting that they slow down if you feel unsafe. They’ll respect your request.
If Uganda’s roads are a nightmare during the day, they’re a death sentence at night. Drivers don’t use headlights. Wildlife, livestock and pedestrians wander aimlessly across the road. Potholes become invisible. Don’t risk it — make sure you leave early enough to arrive at your destination before 7 pm.
Dangerous animal encounters
Besides road safety, the other potential risk to life and limb when backpacking Uganda is wildlife. Baboons and hippos are the main concerns — but it’s pretty easy to avoid a genuinely dangerous encounter.
If you’re camping, never store food in your tent, even if you think it’s well-sealed. Lodges will store it at reception for you. Baboons can open zippers and have been known to tear down tents with people inside if they smell food.
Additionally, never, ever feed baboons or other monkeys. Baboons aren’t aggressive by nature — but if they’re trained to associate humans with food, they become aggressive. If you encounter them on foot, give them a wide berth. If they growl and show their teeth, slowly back away and be prepared to drop your backpack (which is what they really want). Never try to take food back from a baboon.
Hippos are the deadliest large mammal in Africa. That’s not because they’re aggressive — they’re actually very chill animals. But they feel quite vulnerable when they come out of the water to graze, and they’re spooked easily. So if you surprise them they can easily trample you in a panic as they rush back to the safety of the water.
Never walk between a hippo and a water source (or a hippo and her baby). If you see a path through the reeds, avoid it — it was probably created by hippos, and you don’t know if any are on land or not. Anytime you camp or stay in a lodge near water, check with the staff about the presence of hippos, and always carry a torch (flashlight) when walking between the restaurant and your room/tent. If you do encounter a hippo at close range, give it a wide berth and don’t shine a torch at it or use the flash on your camera. (On the other hand, having a hippo come graze inches away from your tent is one of the coolest experiences you can have in Africa, so don’t be too freaked out!)
Finally, you’ll have the opportunity to encounter a lot of large wildlife on foot when backpacking Uganda — from gorillas to chimps to rhinos to warthogs. These activities are safe in the company of a trained guide. But you absolutely must adhere to the guide’s instructions at all times. This includes not using flash on your camera and staying the required distance back from the animals. One idiot tourist can put the whole group in danger.
Health: Ebola and malaria in Uganda
Most travelers to Africa worry about Ebola. That’s understandable, considering what a horrific disease it is. But unless you’re going to be working/volunteering in the medical field in Uganda, you’re extremely unlikely to be exposed to it.
Ebola is actually quite hard to transmit — you probably won’t get it from a cough or a sneeze. Those most at risk are those handling the bodies of people who have died of the disease.
Uganda has exceptional protections in place to contain Ebola outbreaks. However, I’m mentioning it here because there is currently (September 2019) an outbreak in a highly politically unstable region of the DRC that borders Uganda. In June 2019, a Congolese-Ugandan family slipped across the border and died in Uganda of the disease.
The government reacted quickly to tighten border security and distribute experimental vaccines in the Kasese area, and the average traveler has little to worry about. But the situation in the DRC is unlikely to resolve anytime soon, so it’s worth doing some Googling before your trip.
Ebola may be the most headline-generating, but the most serious health risk that all travelers to Uganda should take precautions against is malaria. Malaria is transmitted by a type of mosquito that bites during dusk and at night.
While many people backpacking Uganda are under the impression that malaria is a minor and easily treatable disease, this is not true at all. If you get sick, at a minimum, you’re looking at a few weeks of feeling like death. But the most common type of malaria in Uganda is “cerebral malaria” — which is also the most deadly. Even when people have access to world-class health facilities (which, in Uganda, you won’t), the death rate could be as high as 10%.
Luckily malaria is highly preventable. Simply taking anti-malarial medication — doxycyclene, larium, or malerone — reduces your chance of getting the disease by as much as 90%. Combined with common-sense bite prevention (like wearing mosquito repellent with a high amount of DEET, sleeping under a net, and wearing long sleeves and long pants starting an hour before dusk), taking anti-malarials virtually eliminates the risk to typical travelers.
Maddeningly, many backpackers decide to forgo taking anti-malarials due to the cost or concern about side effects. This is a really dumb way to put yourself at risk. Most people experience minimal side effects from the pills, and even if your health insurance doesn’t cover them, you can get doxycyclene for pennies per pill. Most medical experts agree that no homeopathic prevention methods out there serve as an adequate substitute (so leave that dodgy tea at home and just take the pills!).
However, no malaria prevention is 100% effective. If you find yourself with a sudden high fever at any point during your trip or up to a year afterwards, you must assume you have malaria and seek medical attention immediately. Even the smallest clinic in the smallest village in Uganda has malaria tests. The faster you seek treatment, the less likely the disease is to progress to the dangerous cerebral stage. If you’ll be in very remote areas in Uganda for long periods of time, you should pack a small extra stash of malerone — which can be used as a treatment in an emergency — to hold you over until you can get to a proper medical clinic.
But really, if you take antimalarials as directed and do your best to prevent mosquito bites, you’d have to be quite unlucky to get sick.
Uganda travel advice for women alone
Uganda is perhaps the easiest country I’ve ever been to as a solo woman.
Ugandans are overwhelmingly friendly. Even if you’re walking around a major city, people will stop to say “hello, how are you” everywhere you go. Every time you go to a restaurant, go on a solo hike, or hire a guide for a community walk, you’ll meet new friends. Plus, everyone speaks English — so you can make connections with local people that are impossible in many countries due to the language barrier.
At the same time, Ugandan men are incredibly respectful of women. I never once experienced cat-calling, inappropriate physical contact, or any other form of threatening behavior. And I could count on one hand the number of times a guy got even mildly flirty with me.
That’s not to say sexual assault never happens. Of course it does. But if you’re backpacking Uganda, it’s a much smaller concern than getting into a car accident.
Sometimes guys will ask where you’re staying or where you’re going — questions that could seem invasive. I always found it harmless, since it seemed like it was innocent curiosity. But it would be understandable to lie or give a vague answer if you’re getting a creepy vibe. New friends will also ask for your phone number. I usually say I don’t have a SIM card yet, but ask for their contact info, so that I’m in control if I want to text them later.
Really, though, it’s incredibly refreshing to travel somewhere where you can hang out with local guys at a cafe, text them later to keep the connection, and all the while never worry that you’re leading them on.
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