If you’re planning a trip to Uganda, gorilla trekking is probably high on your list. Spending an hour with a family of these critically endangered, fascinating creatures is the most intense wildlife experience on the planet. But you can’t just show up in the country and expect to go trekking with gorillas the very next day. You need to arrange a Uganda gorilla permit well in advance of your trip.
Most people track gorillas as part of an organized tour out of Kampala or Kigali, Rwanda. This is the most convenient option — but also the most expensive. If you’re backpacking East Africa on a budget, you can shave hundreds or even thousands of dollars off the cost of seeing gorillas by making arrangements yourself.
Many travelers are deterred from making their own arrangements because there is very little information online about how to do it. But with a little determination, a lot of patience, and plenty of time before your trip, you can get your permits without paying commission. In this post I’ll walk you through all the steps you need to take.
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- 1 What is a Uganda gorilla permit?
- 2 What is the price of a gorilla permit in Uganda? What does it include?
- 3 When should you book your permit?
- 4 Booking a Uganda gorilla permit directly through UWA
- 5 Book gorilla permits through a lodge
- 6 Booking your permit through a tour company – without taking a tour
What is a Uganda gorilla permit?
In order to go gorilla trekking in Uganda, you need a permit from the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA).
UWA issues a total of 152 permits each day — eight permits each for nineteen gorilla families in two national parks. Your permit specifies the date you can trek and the park or sector of the park you will start at. (There is only one trailhead in Mgahinga Gorilla Park, but Bwindi is split into four sectors: Buhoma, Ruhija, Rushaga, and Nkuringo.) Some sectors have multiple families, so you won’t know which exact family you’re tracking until the morning you leave.
You cannot go gorilla trekking without a permit in Uganda. And with a standard permit, you cannot spend more than one hour with the gorillas. There are no loopholes or cheaper alternatives to these rules, and you have virtually no chance of seeing mountain gorillas in the wild outside of a UWA-organized trek.
On the morning of your trek, you will need to show UWA staff a copy of your permit and register with their office at the trailhead. Uganda gorilla permits are now so popular that you won’t be able to buy a last-minute slot on the day you trek — you must organize it in advance.
If you want to spend more than an hour with the gorillas, you can choose to do the Gorilla Habituation Experience instead of a standard permit. Only eight permits are available each day, and they cost $1,500 apiece.
What is the price of a gorilla permit in Uganda? What does it include?
There’s no way around it — gorilla trekking in East Africa is an expensive activity. If you want a Uganda gorilla permit, you’ll have to fork over $600. The price is going up to $700 beginning in July 2020.
Your fee includes a short safety briefing, one-eight hours of walking through the forest to find the gorillas, and one hour in the gorillas’ company. You’ll travel in the company of a UWA guide, scouts who trek ahead of you to find the gorillas, and potentially a researcher or two.
The rest of the fee for your permit goes toward conservation efforts and community projects. These projects are essential to maintaining partnerships with the communities who live in the forest — many of whom are historically marginalized Batwa pygmy tribes — in conservation efforts.
The only thing not included in your permit fee is a porter if you want to hire one. Most trekkers do, and it’s definitely smart if your shoes don’t provide good ankle support. Porters cost $15 for the day.
You will also be expected to tip your guide, scouts, researchers and porters, all separately. You should tip in Ugandan shillings rather than U.S. dollars. Budget about $20 total to distribute among your staff.
When should you book your permit?
The two busiest seasons for traveling in Uganda are December-January and June-August. The big advantage to traveling at these times is you have a decent chance of dry weather. The downside is you’ll need to make arrangements well in advance of your trip.
See, the way the Uganda gorilla permit market works is tour agencies book however many permits they think they need for each sector up to a year in advance. Then when a traveler books a last-minute tour, they already have the permits on hand.
So if you’re trying to arrange your permit on your own, you need to beat the tour companies. That means start researching about 6-8 months before your trip.
Just to give you an idea of how competitive it is, I did my gorilla trekking in August. I booked my permit in April, but I started researching in March. I was flexible on dates within a week. And I was willing to go to any trailhead where I could get a permit. Even then, UWA had a total of five permits left for my entire date range, split across three sectors of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
If you’re visiting Uganda in rainy season, you don’t need to be quite as far ahead of the game — but you still need to book 2-3 months in advance. UWA no longer offers rainy season discounts for gorilla permits, and they do sell out every day.
Don’t even think about showing up in Uganda expecting to go gorilla trekking if you haven’t made advance arrangements — unless you can shell out for a tour. You have basically zero chance of snagging a next-day permit or even a next-week permit, even in wet season. Your only hope is if someone is too sick to trek and wants to offload their permit that morning.
Booking a Uganda gorilla permit directly through UWA
If you’re trying to organize your own gorilla permit in Uganda, your first port of call should be reaching out to UWA directly. Email them at [email protected]. You will get a much faster response emailing that address than using the contact form or the procedures they lay out on their website.
Make sure your email includes the dates you’d like to trek, which sector/park you want to trek from (i.e. not just “Bwindi,” but “Buhoma” or “Ruhija,” etc.), your name, and how many people you need permits for.
After a day or two, the UWA staff will get back to you with availability. Once you’ve confirmed the details and sent a copy of your passport, they’ll send you wire transfer instructions. At this point the only way to pay for your permit from abroad is by wire, so brace yourself for hefty fees.
It usually takes 3-4 days for the wire transfer to process. Once it’s gone through, you’ll get a copy of your receipt — check the details. This isn’t your official permit; you’ll need to pick that up from the UWA office in Kampala when you arrive in Uganda. If you won’t be passing through Kampala, make sure the staff know that before you wire them any money. They can arrange for staff at the trailhead to accept your receipt as proof of your permit, but they need to know in advance.
If you’re booking your permit through UWA, don’t make accommodation or transport arrangements until you have your permit. This is because you want to be absolutely sure that you know which sector you’re trekking in so you stay overnight in the same sector. You can’t trek at Buhoma from a lodge in Rushaga, for example — or, at least, not without a midnight wake-up call and six-hour drive in the dark through the forest, with no margin for error in the event of a breakdown.
Book gorilla permits through a lodge
If you waited too long to get your Uganda gorilla permit, there’s a good chance UWA will tell you they’re all sold out for your dates. But don’t worry — this doesn’t mean you can’t still get a permit!
Your next-best option is to start reaching out to lodges you’d like to stay at to see if they have any permits they can sell you. But only contact lodges that you would actually stay at if they have a permit — they don’t offer this service to non-guests.
The most reliable budget option for lodge-based permits is Bwindi Backpackers, in the Nkuringo sector of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The owner is extremely responsive (I never waited more than about an hour for a response). He doesn’t charge commission and he takes credit card. The downside is some travelers report feeling nickel-and-dimed by the lodge itself.
There are a couple downsides to organizing your permits this way. First, some lodges can be quite slow to respond — 2-3 days is typical. That can be an issue because if they tell you permits are available and you confirm that you want to book, they might be gone by the time the lodge responds.
Additionally, most lodges in Uganda have only a handful of rooms, and in high season they sell out. So if you couldn’t get permits through UWA for your preferred sector, you may not be able to get a room in that sector either. And then there’s the reality that sometimes the tour companies book gorilla permits out before even the lodges can buy any.
Booking your permit through a tour company – without taking a tour
If you can’t get a Uganda gorilla permit through UWA, and you can’t get one through a lodge, you might be starting to lose hope. But there is one last option you can try. In fact, this was how I got my gorilla permit for the sector I really wanted to trek at (Ruhija) after everyone else told me they were all sold out.
You can try contacting tour companies that operate gorilla treks and ask if you can buy a permit from them. The tour companies almost always have permits — even relatively last-minute ones. And if you ask around enough, someone is bound to be nervous that they won’t have a tour booked for a date they have permits. They might be willing to offload it to you.
Unfortunately, if you’re stuck with this option, you’re going to have to do a lot of research. I emailed a total of 64 companies before I found one with a gorilla permit that worked with my dates!
You also want to make absolutely sure that the company you book with is registered with the Association of Uganda Tour Operators. Overall Uganda is a very safe and scam-free country, but with a $600 gorilla permit at stake and the knowledge that the company has little to gain by delivering for you, you need to be extra-cautious.
You’re also more likely to have to pay a commission if you go this route. Sometimes the commission is small — $20 is common — but it can be as high as $60.
My experience taking a risk with a tour company
As much as booking through a tour company is fraught with issues, I will put in a plug here for my amazing experience with Home to Africa. I had my heart set on tracking gorillas at Ruhija, but I just couldn’t find a permit after weeks of research. I was so intent on Ruhija because I desperately wanted to stay at a lodge there, but the lodge wasn’t responding to my questions about permits and the UWA staff said they were sold out.
But when reading TripAdvisor reviews for the camp, I noticed that a few people mentioned that Home to Africa was the tour company that brought them there. So I reached out to the Home to Africa team and asked if they had a permit they could sell me if I didn’t need a whole tour.
Much to my surprise, they not only said yes, but offered to sell me the permit without commission! I paid just the straight-up $600 plus a small credit card processing fee. I had my receipt in hand within 12 hours.
The whole time, Elias in their office was extremely responsive and helpful. He made me feel absolutely secure about booking with his company. He even went into the office on a Sunday to take a photo of my receipt on his phone and send it to me.
But that’s not all. I was traveling to Bwindi from Kigali, Rwanda, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to pick up my permit in Kampala. Elias offered to send my permit with a driver to Ruhija so it would be waiting for me on the morning of my trek. Sure enough, it was there waiting for me.
It can be mildly terrifying sending a $600 payment to a total stranger in a foreign country when they aren’t even getting much out of the deal. But as long as you’re careful, it can all work out.
Organizing your own gorilla permits is more of a hassle than taking an all-inclusive tour. But it also frees you up to travel at your own pace and choose your accommodation more carefully. You may not save any money on the permit itself, but the total cost of a tour is much higher than making all your own arrangements. So if you’re traveling to East Africa, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t get your Uganda gorilla permit yourself!
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