Best place to see gorillas in the wild: How to decide where to gorilla trek

The gorillas of Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC are among the most endangered large mammals in the world.

One of the highlights of traveling in East Africa is the chance to come face-to-face with mountain gorillas. This critically endangered species can only live at high altitudes in dense forests. And thanks to decades of poaching and habitat loss, there are currently only three places in the world where you can find them: Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But which is the best place to see gorillas in the wild?

There are many factors to consider when deciding where to see gorillas in Africa — like cost, ease of transport, and safety. In this post, I’ll walk you through the pros and cons of each country and park where you can see the gorillas to help you decide which to choose.

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Gorilla trekking in Rwanda: Expensive but easy

Seeing the African gorilla in Rwanda will cost you $1,500.
Of the three countries with gorillas, Rwanda charges the most for permits.

The best place to see gorillas in Rwanda is Volcanoes National Park. The park contains some of the most epic landscapes in the world — misty volcanic slopes, dense forest, and of course, gorillas and golden monkeys.

There are a couple huge advantages to gorilla trekking in Rwanda. For one, the park is only two hours from Kigali. You have to be at the trekking point by 7 am, so you can’t take public transport, but you can easily hire a driver (for about $100) and do your gorilla tour as a day trip from the capital. If you want to extend your stay, you can choose a lodge in Musanze, right at the park entrance.

Additionally, Rwanda is an extremely safe country to travel in. You don’t have to worry about security issues disrupting your trek. The country even has fairly tolerable road safety standards (compared to the rest of East Africa).

Finally, it’s quite easy to arrange a gorilla permit in Rwanda. All you need to do is go online to the government’s tourism portal and purchase your permit on the spot! You still need to book well in advance in high season.

But there is one big disadvantage of doing a gorilla trek in Rwanda: cost. The permit for foreign non-residents is $1,500. That puts it well outside a backpacker budget.

Gorilla trekking in DRC: The best place to see gorillas for adventurers

Compared to the Rwanda gorilla permit cost, the DRC's permits are a steal.
Gorilla tourism is the most popular reason to visit the DRC, which is still fairly dangerous.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Virunga National Park is the oldest national park in Africa. And in addition to being one of the top gorilla safari locations, it has another unique feature: one of the world’s only permanent lava lakes. You can see gorillas on one day and continue your tour to camp on the rim of an active volcano the next. If you want to add a little adrenaline to your trek, the DRC is the best place to see mountain gorillas in the wild.

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The DRC is also the only place where you can both see mountain gorillas and their cousins, Western Lowland Gorillas. You’ll have to travel deeper into the country to do this, and it’s very, very expensive.

What’s more, permits for gorilla trekking in the DRC are a steal, at just $450 — far cheaper than either Rwanda or Uganda.

But the DRC comes with a couple huge disadvantages as well. The biggest one is security. North Kivu Province, where Virunga National Park is located, is one of the most politically volatile areas in the world. It’s been the center of what some experts refer to as “Africa’s first World War” for well over a decade. And the park itself is not much safer — because it sits atop unexplored oil fields, rangers face huge risks on a day-to-day basis just to prevent illegal mining and drilling.

Even if you’re willing to take the risk, sometimes the DRC government isn’t. The park occasionally closes due to security issues. So it’s not a good idea to buy your permit more than a few weeks in advance.

And even though permits themselves are cheaper, the DRC is a more expensive country to travel in. You’ll probably pay more to cross the border to DRC, stay overnight in Goma, and gorilla trek in Virunga National Park than you would for the whole package in Uganda.

Still, if you’re willing to book a budget tour, you can get a pretty good deal on a gorilla trek/volcano climb combo. It’s a good option for last-minute gorilla trekking.

Gorilla trekking in Uganda: The best place to see gorillas in the wild

Uganda has the highest number of gorillas in the world.
For a balance of cost, convenience, and beautiful landscapes, Uganda is the best place to see gorillas in the wild.

If Rwanda sounds too expensive for you, and the DRC sounds too dangerous, don’t worry — Uganda gets the gorilla trekking experience just right.

Uganda has two parks where you can track gorillas: Mgahinga Gorilla Park and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The experience is similar in both places, and the cost is identical.

Gorilla permits in Uganda cost $600 (going up to $700 in July 2020). You can book them on your own or through a tour agency, but making your own arrangements will save you a lot of money.

Uganda is a very safe country, so you don’t need to worry about security issues like in the DRC. While the landscapes aren’t quite as spectacular as Rwanda, they’re still pretty awesome — you won’t feel like you’re missing out on anything. And most of the starting points for gorilla treks are accessible by public transport or motorbike from a major city. This makes Uganda the best place to see gorillas if you’re trying to stick to a budget.

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Uganda is also the best place to see gorillas if you want to add Big 5 safaris onto your trip. Queen Elizabeth National Park is just a short drive away from the gorilla trailheads.

Gorilla trekking in Mgahinga Gorilla Park

Mgahinga National Park is one of the best places to see gorillas in the world -- but it only issues eight permits a day.
The advantage of gorilla trekking in Mgahinga Gorilla Park is permits are sometimes available at short notice.

Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is the less-common place for gorilla trekking in Uganda. This is because only 8 permits are available for each day. The park has only one habituated gorilla family.

However, the big advantage of Mgahinga over Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is that last-minute permits are often available. This is because years ago, the gorilla family here used to occasionally wander across the border into the DRC — making trekking impossible. So you could book a permit and lose it at the last minute. But today, you don’t have to worry. The gorillas have stayed on the Ugandan side of the border for nearly a decade.

Additionally, Mgahinga is extremely accessible from Kisoro (a big city in southern Uganda). You can take a motorbike to the trailhead on the morning of your gorilla trek for about $10 round-trip. Kisoro has lots of budget accommodation and food options. It also has direct buses from Kampala, and it’s convenient to the Rwandan border if you’re coming from Kigali.

If you want to extend your visit, Mgahinga is also a great place to track golden monkeys. You could also climb one of the volcanoes or spend a couple days at Lake Mutanda.

Gorilla trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park

Ruhija in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is incredibly beautiful
Bwindi is split into four sectors — Ruhija is the highest gorilla trailhead, and is often considered the most beautiful.

The most popular place for Uganda gorilla tracking is Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. This enormous park houses 18 gorilla families, for which you can purchase one of 144 permits daily.

The park is divided into four sectors, which are connected with sketchy dirt roads and very occasional transport. When you buy a permit, it specifies which sector you’re trekking at — and you should book accommodation and transport to that sector.

Buhoma is the most popular sector. It was the first sector to open to tourist visits to gorillas, and it still has the largest number of habituated families. You can reach Buhoma on a once-daily direct bus from Kampala.

Ruhija is the highest sector (2,000 meters) and it’s known for being the most beautiful. Its gorilla families have an unusually high ratio of silverbacks. I’m biased, because I tracked gorillas at Ruhija. But I’d vouch for it being the best place to see gorillas in Uganda. The only downside is you need private transport (from Kabale). It costs around $100 for a private driver for three days. This is also the easiest trailhead to reach if you flew into Kigali.

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Rushaga has only one habituated gorilla family, and a second where you can do the Gorilla Habituation Experience (four hours with a semi-habituated family for $1,500). It’s also the most accessible trailhead. You can easily reach it by motorbike (less than $10) from Kisoro or Lake Mutanda.

Finally, Nkuringo is a popular trailhead with budget travelers because it’s the base for Bwindi Backpackers Lodge. This hostel offers the best-value accommodation in Bwindi and makes it really easy to get your gorilla permits. The downsides are the trekking here is the most difficult — your trek starts with a one-hour descent just to reach the gorillas’ habitat — and it’s a 2.5-hour, $25, very dusty motorbike trip from Kisoro.

How to choose where to see gorillas?

It doesn't really matter where you track gorillas -- you'll have an amazing time.
Is gorilla trekking worth it? The vast majority of travelers would say absolutely.

Now that you know all the different options, let’s talk about how to plan your gorilla trek.

The first factor to consider is cost. Can you afford a permit in Rwanda? Are you willing to shell out for visa fees in DRC? Or is the value-for-money ratio in Uganda ideal for your budget?

Then, think about how much time you have. You can realistically squeeze a gorilla trek in Rwanda into a three-day trip. You’d need a minimum of five days in the country in Uganda. You could rush through DRC in four days, but five would be easier. And do you want to rely on public transport (only possible in Uganda) or are you willing to pay a driver?

Additionally, consider availability of permits. Are you planning a trip last-minute in high season? Then DRC is probably your only option. If you’re set on Uganda, start reaching out to tour companies or the Uganda Wildlife Authority to figure out which trailheads they have permits for.

Finally, decide what other activities you’d like to combine with your gorilla trek. Are you interested in climbing the volcano in DRC? Do you want to track golden monkeys? What about day hikes or overnight treks?

Overall, I’d recommend trekking with gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. It has the best value for money, incredible scenery, no security problems, and relatively easy transport options.

But no matter what you decide, gorilla trekking is sure to be the highlight of your trip to Africa. There’s nothing like it. So start planning your trip now!

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Planning a gorilla safari in Africa? Discover the best place to see gorillas in the wild -- one of East Africa's most spectacular wildlife encounters -- in Rwanda, Uganda or the DRC. #travel #africa #safari

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Rachel
4 years ago

This is such a helpful post! I’ve always had gorilla trekking in the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda on my bucket list but never got as far as actually looking into it…it’s good to know that there’s a cheaper option also involving a volcano in the DRC, although as you point out there are plenty of other things to consider in the decision too. This has kickstarted my thinking on actually doing this, so thank you!

Bliss Eatts
4 years ago

This is such a bucket list thing for me. I didn’t know there were so many places that you could do it at.

John Confidus
4 years ago

Amazing experience. Great photos! I hope I manage to visit Africa to see it! Thanks for sharing!

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