Lake Bunyonyi is the most popular chill-out spot in Uganda. It attracts backpackers looking to lounge around for a few days, mid-range travelers recovering from a gorilla trek, and Ugandan families escaping the capital for a weekend. And the variety of Lake Bunyonyi activities means there’s something for everyone. In this post, I’ll cover the best things to do in Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda!
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- 1 1. Paddle a dugout canoe: The most iconic of all Lake Bunyonyi activities
- 2 2. Go for a swim in the hippo, croc and bilharzia-free waters
- 3 3. Hike up to Arcadia Cottages for the best view of Lake Bunyonyi
- 4 4. Explore the islands: Learn how “Punishment Island” got its name
- 5 5. Take a community tour or visit local villages
- 6 6. Relax with a good book at one of the lake beaches or docks
- 7 7. Eat a “Ugandan burrito”
- 8 8. Visit Rutinda on a market day and shop for fresh produce
- 9 9. See how many of the 200+ bird species you can spot
- 10 Where to stay while enjoying these Lake Bunyonyi activities
- 11 How to get to Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda
1. Paddle a dugout canoe: The most iconic of all Lake Bunyonyi activities
As much as Lake Bunyonyi has a bit of a resort vibe, local life here is still fiercely traditional. The majority of people who live around the lake still use dugout canoes as an important form of transportation. So there’s no better way to start your exploration of the best Lake Bunyonyi activities than by taking a ride in one!
To get your feet wet, hire a canoe captain to take you around a few of the lake’s 29 islands. You’ll have to help paddle, of course, but you won’t have to do all the work yourself and you’ll learn a bit more about the lake from your captain. You can organize a two-hour tour through most guesthouses, or just go down to the nearest dock and start bargaining. Prices start at just 8,000 shillings.
Once you’ve got the hang of it, consider renting your own canoe for the afternoon. This will allow you to explore at your own pace. Just be forewarned, steering yourself isn’t as easy as it looks — locals love to make fun of the “mzungu circle,” when you get stuck in one spot. Canoe rental costs around 5,000 shillings. Some guesthouses let guests use their canoes for free.
You can dock at most islands and hop out of the canoe to explore. A few charge admission fees — most notably Bushara Island and Kyahugye Island, where you can spot the resident impalas and zebras.
2. Go for a swim in the hippo, croc and bilharzia-free waters
Lake Bunyonyi may be the second-deepest lake in Africa, but it’s one of the safest for swimming. This is because it lacks the three biggest nuisances to fresh water bodies on the continent: hippos, crocodiles, and bilharzia (a parasitic worm). That makes taking a dip one of the best Lake Bunyonyi activities.
Just remember, the water is deep — really deep. If you’re not a strong swimmer, ask at your resort or guesthouse if you can borrow a life vest. You won’t be able to stand, even directly off-shore, and there aren’t any lifeguards around.
Most resorts and guesthouses have a dock you can swim from. Some even have diving boards, rope swings, small beaches, and other amenities. The water is surprisingly warm. It’s a great way to wash the dust off if you’ve just come from gorilla trekking.
3. Hike up to Arcadia Cottages for the best view of Lake Bunyonyi
Lake Bunyonyi has some of the most dramatic scenery in Uganda. It was supposedly even an inspiration for Wakanda in Black Panther. So you can’t spend two days at Lake Bunyonyi without taking in the views.
The absolute best views of the lake and islands are from Arcadia Cottages, a high-end resort at the top of a hill on the mainland. You don’t have to shell out for the luxury rooms to enjoy the view, though. They also have a restaurant and espresso bar, so you can come for a juice or cappuccino if you aren’t staying here.
You can take a boda (motorbike taxi) to Arcadia, but if you’re into more active Lake Bunyonyi activities, walking is a better option. Walk along the road out of town (toward Kabale) until you reach the junction where the former Lake View Restaurant is on your left. Take a right and continue up the hill. The total walk there takes about two hours. It’s fairly steep in sections. You can stop at one of the very simple local restaurants or shops along the way for a break.
To get back to the lakefront, follow the local footpaths from just outside the gate at Arcadia. It’s a lot quicker — it only takes half an hour to walk down — but much steeper. If it’s rained recently take the road instead. And I definitely wouldn’t recommend hiking up the local footpaths.
Not up for a half-day hike? You can still get great views on a shorter walk. Starting from Rutinda, walk along the main road toward Bunyonyi Overland (and pass it). After a very dusty 1.5 km, you’ll come to Bunyonyi Safari Resort. Follow the signs to their “hilltop location” — it’s an outdoor arena about 1 km up the hill on your left. The views are almost as good as at Arcadia.
4. Explore the islands: Learn how “Punishment Island” got its name
Lake Bunyonyi has a total of 29 islands. Many of them are inhabited. Others have unique local folklore associated with them. So one of the best things to do at Lake Bunyonyi is to take a tour — either by motorboat or dugout canoe — to a few of the islands to explore.
The most interesting island is called Punishment Island. This is the smallest island of Lake Bunyonyi Uganda. It’s barely big enough for even one tree!
The island got its name because in the old days, women who got pregnant out of wedlock were banished here to either drown trying to swim to shore, or starve to death on the island. Legend dictates that only one woman ever survived. She did so by luring a group of men to the island in a canoe, which she then capsized, killing them all. She then took the canoe back to shore. (In reality, a number of women escaped the island by marrying men who couldn’t afford a typical dowry.)
Bwarma Island is another interesting stop. It was long uninhabited until a British colonial official established a leprosy treatment center there. At the time, leprosy was a serious issue in this part of Africa. Today it has been nearly eradicated, and the island is more of a tourist destination than anything else.
A half-day tour taking in a few of the islands costs around $8 by canoe or $15 by motorboat per person, depending on your group size.
5. Take a community tour or visit local villages
One of the most underrated Lake Bunyonyi activities is getting to know the local people. The folks who live around the island are extremely friendly (as is typical in Uganda) and are very open to introducing travelers to lakeside life.
On some islands, you can connect with the community simply by walking around on your own. Itambira Island is a particularly good option. You can follow hiking trails around the small island, which lead to the village on top of the hill. Along the way you’ll surely meet locals who will offer to show you their community craft shop or answer questions about their lives.
If you want something a little more structured, all the guesthouses around the lake can hook you up with a village walk or community tour. These range from one hour to all day, depending on whether you stay near the lake itself or head further into the surrounding hills. Some Lake Bunyonyi tours even take you to local shamans to learn about spiritual practices.
One word of caution: When researching village walk options, you may encounter people offering a “pygmy tour.” Several unscrupulous operators run exploitative tours to Batwa communities, often referred to as pygmies, for an extremely contrived experience. If you want to meet Batwa people and learn about their culture, book through the Batwa Trail Experience in Mgahinga Gorilla Park instead of taking one of the tours around Lake Bunyonyi. (Yes, it’s radically more expensive, but it’s worth it to avoid contributing further to the marginalization of the Batwa.)
6. Relax with a good book at one of the lake beaches or docks
Even though there are tons of fun things to do at Lake Bunyonyi, one of the best activities is to just chill out for awhile. The pace of life here is extremely laid-back. You could spend all day sitting around one of the awesome Lake Bunyonyi lodges and not even realize it.
So embrace the chill lifestyle. Spend an afternoon relaxing in the shade with a good book. Most guesthouses have plenty of chill-out areas with nice lake views. If yours doesn’t, head to the restaurant (and life-sized chess board!) at Bunyoni Overland Resort.
At budget camps and lodges, WiFi is limited and extremely slow when it works. So take the opportunity to disconnect a bit.
7. Eat a “Ugandan burrito”
Okay, I know this one sounds weird, but bear with me for a second. Some of the staple foods of Uganda are: kidney beans. Avocados. Chapati. Vegetables. Chili oil.
So it’s not actually that much of a leap to get to one of the greatest fusion foods ever invented: the Ugandan burrito!
The concept was pioneered in Kibale Forest National Park by Eco-Burrito. Sadly, the original inventors have closed up shop. But their brilliant cuisine has migrated south to Lake Bunyonyi.
For 15,000 shillings, you can try this inventive, delicious and huge meal. It’s vegetarian-friendly. And unlike pretty much everything else you eat in Uganda, it’s loaded with flavor. The guac alone, made from the freshest, sweetest avocados you’ve ever tasted, makes it worth trying.
Byoona Amagara has the best burritos in the vicinity of Lake Bunyonyi.
8. Visit Rutinda on a market day and shop for fresh produce
If you’ve been in Uganda for more than about 12 hours, or if you’ve taken a single public transport ride in the country, you know that this country is completely obsessed with bananas. In some local languages, there are more than a dozen words for “banana!”
But you can’t really appreciate the agricultural bounty of this nation until you visit a local market. And Rutinda, at the main jetty on Lake Bunyonyi, is a great one.
Most people living around Lake Bunyonyi still work in agriculture. So on market days (Mondays and Thursdays), they haul their wares by motorbike, truck, or dugout canoe to Rutinda. Think pineapples, potatoes, radishes, matoke, sweet bananas, sweet potatoes, yams, bell peppers, carrots, passion fruit, watermelon, and much, much more
The entire spectacle is wildly colorful and lively. Mzungu’s are welcome to simply wander around and observe — no one will hassle you to buy anything. If you are feeling hungry, pick up some fruit or veggies for pennies.
Additionally, the Rutinda market is a good place to pick up handicrafts like woven baskets or textiles. Value for money is exceptional. You’ll have to gently bargain, but vendors don’t relentlessly overcharge. Expect to pay around 10,000 shillings for a small basket.
9. See how many of the 200+ bird species you can spot
Kingfishers. Bee-eaters. Crested cranes. African broadbills. These are just a few of the bird species you can find around Lake Bunyonyi Uganda.
Even if you’re not a big “bird person” at home, Lake Bunyonyi will stun you. For the full effect, sleep in a tent and wake up to the sound of a dozen different bird calls all around you. But even if you stay somewhere with four walls, it’s hard not to be in awe of the colors, sounds, and unique behaviors of the different birds.
One of the best Lake Bunyonyi activities is to look out for the iconic Crested Crane. This is the national bird of Uganda, and you can see it on the Ugandan flag. It’s not hard to spot one around Lake Bunyonyi. You can see them hanging out in trees or flying across the lake.
Most guesthouses have binders with full bird checklists in them if you want to keep track of what you’ve spotted.
Where to stay while enjoying these Lake Bunyonyi activities
Lake Bunyonyi has possibly the best variety of accommodation in Uganda. Backpackers can camp in their own tents or find a cheap dorm. Mid-range travelers will find cozy guesthouses. And of course, there are a couple of options at the top end of the price spectrum.
Your biggest decision will be whether to stay on the mainland or on one of the islands. The big advantage of the mainland are that you’re closer to the main activities. It’s also a lot faster to get back to Kabale when you’re ready to leave the lake. But the mainland is more chaotic and noisy than the islands, and prices are a bit higher.
On the mainland, most accommodation is within a kilometer of Rutinda. Rutinda is also the site of the main jetty to the islands. If you don’t have transport included with your island accommodation, you can hire a canoe or motorboat driver here.
Best Lake Bunyonyi accommodation on the islands: Byoona Amagara
The absolute best Lake Bunyonyi resort is Byoona Amagara, on Itambira Island. In fact, it’s one of the best backpacker places I’ve stayed anywhere in the world.
Byoona Amagara has a huge range of accommodation. At the low end, you can pitch a tent in their large and secluded camping yard for just 12,000 shillings — about $4 — per night. A bed in a dorm costs closer to $6, while a simple private room costs $10. More popular, however, are the atmospheric “geodomes” — open-air glamping accommodations with proper beds and self-contained bathrooms. These start at 50,000 shillings per night.
Aside from the geodomes, most rooms share very clean composting toilets and outdoor showers. You can organize hot water for a small additional cost if you’re willing to wait an hour for the staff to heat it over a fire. The campground has its own toilets nearby, but it’s a long (and dark!) walk to the showers at night.
Additionally, the food at Byoona Amagara is awesome — which is good, because you’ll have to eat at the camp (there are no restaurants on the island). The aforementioned Ugandan burrito is the highlight, but you can also get a variety of local and international dishes for 8,000-20,000 shillings. Extra points for lots of veggie options. The restaurant has a gorgeous lake view and comfy seating, and if you’re lucky, the WiFi might work for a couple hours a day.
The camp has its own swimming dock and plenty of hammocks along the shore to chill out in. You can rent canoes and organize tours to the surrounding islands. And if you’re looking for a more sedentary activity, there’s an enormous film library.
To reach Byoona Amagara from the mainland, go to the dedicated parking area just before the Rutinda jetty. You get a free canoe transfer when you arrive. The ride takes an hour and passes all the major touristy islands. Going back by canoe costs $2, or you can hire a motorboat for $5.
Best place to stay on the mainland: Lake Bunyonyi Overland Resort
If you’d rather be closer to the main Lake Bunyonyi activities, you’ll have to stay on the mainland. Your best option here is Lake Bunyonyi Overland Resort.
This camp has one of the best set-ups in East Africa. On any given night, it can accommodate a half-dozen overland trucks and buses, plus a couple dozen independent travelers, without feeling crowded or noisy. Pitching your own tent costs $10-$12 depending on your bargaining skills. Dorms are a fairly steep $20, and private rooms start at $40.
Bunyonyi Overland Resort falls short in only one way — there aren’t enough bathrooms for everyone. But the ones they have are immaculately clean. The showers are hot and have fantastic water pressure.
The enormous restaurant has 24/7 electricity, good WiFi and plenty of charge points — a huge luxury if you’ve been backpacking around for awhile. The food is solid, if not spectacular. Mains run 12,000-25,000 shillings, and vegetarians won’t have trouble finding something they can eat. Board games, fooseball tables, and TV’s playing international football matches add to the appeal.
The property also has private swimming docks, boat docks, and lounge areas. You can book all the typical Lake Bunyonyi activities at reception.
How to get to Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda
Lake Bunyonyi is in southwest Uganda, 8 km from the town of Kabale. The only way to get here is by boda (6,000 shillings max) or special hire ($10 USD). You could also walk it in about four hours, but it’s quite steep at times. The road is dirt, but it stays in decent shape year-round. Just ask your driver to go slowly on the steep sections.
Direct buses run a few times a day between Kampala and Kabale, stopping in Mbarara (for connections to Queen Elizabeth National Park, Fort Portal, or Lake Mburo). The trip takes 6-8 hours and costs 40,000 shillings from Kampala to Lake Bunyonyi. Most buses leave before 10 am or after 8 pm, but the daytime buses are a much better option for safety reasons. Gateway runs the most buses (Ugandans consider it dodgy but I had no issues with them), but Jaguar is a better bet.
To reach Kisoro from Kabale, your only option is a shared taxi. Start out as early as you can bear (6 am is best) to avoid a very long wait for the car to fill. Brace yourself for maniacal driving and to be squeezed in like a sardine with 12 other people in a 5-seat sedan car. You’ll pay around 10,000 shillings depending on bargaining skills and how full the car is.
Lake Bunyonyi is perfectly positioned as a staging point for gorilla trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest — especially if you have a permit for Ruhija. Assuming you have private transport to reach the trailhead and get a very early start, you could even stay overnight at Lake Bunyonyi and track gorillas on a day trip.
Whether you’re breaking up a long bus journey, soothing sore muscles after gorilla trekking, or just want a nice place to relax and enjoy the scenery, Lake Bunyonyi is one of the best places to visit in Uganda. Don’t miss the chance to see it for yourself!
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