If you’re planning a backpacking trip through East Africa, gorilla trekking is probably high on your list. Uganda is the cheapest country to track gorillas in. But to reach the gorillas in Uganda, it’s faster and easier to fly into Kigali, Rwanda. Then, you’ll need to get from Kigali to Kabale, Uganda.
Every tour company in Uganda will tell you that you need a private driver to get across the border from Kigali. And if you Google buses on this route, you could be fooled into thinking that there are none.
But it’s actually quite easy, safe, and comfortable to get from Kigali to Uganda by public transport. And you’ll save buckets of money by taking the bus. In this post, I’ll walk you through the steps.
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Step one: Get from your hostel in Kigali to the bus station
The first — and hardest — part of your journey from Kigali to Kabale is getting to the bus station. The terminal is 2 km northeast of the city center, in a neighborhood called Nyabugogo.
If you followed the advice in my post on spending one day in Kigali, you’re hopefully staying at the lovely Yambi Hostel in Gikondo. This neighborhood is on the opposite side of the city from the bus park, and it’ll take you about 30 minutes to get there in rush hour traffic.
The most convenient option for reaching Nyabugogo Bus Park is to take a moto (motorcycle taxi, where you ride on the back of a motorcycle). From Gikondo, this costs 1,200 francs. Motos in Kigali are pretty safe — the drivers are registered and they carry helmets for passengers. The only problem is the motorbikes are tiny and Kigali is extremely hilly. So if you have a big backpack that’s really heavy, hold on tight!
Alternatively, you could take a special hire taxi (a sedan car) to the bus park. This costs around $15. It also takes quite a bit longer due to traffic — allow 45 minutes. The best way to organize a special hire is through your guesthouse.
However you choose to get to Nyabugogo Bus Park, you should aim to arrive by 9 am. Most buses into Uganda depart in the morning.
Step two: Find the offices of Jaguar Executive Coaches
Your moto driver will drop you off at a gas station just outside the bus park. There’s a market and a shopping center here, and the actual bus park entrance isn’t immediately obvious. Just keep a lookout for a bus turning into the terminal and follow it (it’ll be on your right). You’ll end up behind the shopping center in a large parking lot.
As far as African bus stations go, the one in Kigali is quite orderly. That being said, if this is your first bus station in Africa, it will feel wildly chaotic relative to bus travel in any other part of the world. Try your hardest not to look like a clueless mzungu who needs help — confusion attracts fixers, who expect tips for helping you. Once you get your bearings it’s easy to find the right bus.
The key for safe and successful bus travel in East Africa is to only use companies with a good reputation. In the case of the Kigali to Kabale route, the two best companies are Trinity Coaches and Jaguar Executive Coaches. They have neighboring offices in the far corner of the bus park from where you enter (if you’re standing by the toilets facing the whole bus park, they’re in the back left corner). They both visibly advertise the Kigali-Kampala route, with stops in Kabale and Mbarara.
Trinity Coaches only operates very early morning and very late-night buses, so you’ll need to use Jaguar. They have a bus roughly once an hour through mid-morning. Simply walk up to the window, tell the attendant that you’re going to Kabale, Uganda, and fork over your 5,000 francs. You’ll also have to show your passport since it’s a cross-border bus.
Step three: Boarding the bus from Kigali to Kabale
Once you have your ticket, a Jaguar employee will direct you to your bus. It’ll be a big coach bus with air conditioning and only four seats per row (unlike the usual 6 seats you find throughout Uganda).
You’ll need to have your luggage searched before you can board the bus. Anything too big to go on your lap will go under the bus — hold onto the receipt they give you, since you’ll need it to collect your luggage when you get off.
Then, you can board the bus and find a seat. Aim for something in the middle of the bus (extra protection in case of an accident).
An attendant will come around and check tickets and passports for everyone on board — make sure he knows you’re getting off in Kabale. The bus continues all the way to Kampala and it doesn’t stop in Kabale unless you specifically ask it to.
Then sit back, relax, and chat with the person sitting next to you — it’s about a two-hour drive through gorgeous scenery to reach the border post at Gatuna.
Step four: Cross the border from Rwanda to Uganda
The Gatuna border crossing between Rwanda and Uganda may be one of the most laid-back borders in the world. It only takes about an hour for the entire bus to go through immigration on both sides.
You’ll hop off at the Rwandan immigration post. You need to bring all your carry-on luggage with you, but if you have a bag under the bus, you can leave it behind. It’s a short walk to the immigration post, where you’ll stand in line to get stamped out of Rwanda.
Once you have your Rwandan exit stamp, walk to the left down the road about half a kilometer. Along the way you’ll pass a couple banks where you can change money for fair rates (no ATM’s). You’ll walk across a small roadblock forming the physical barrier between countries, continue down the road a short way, and then come to the entrance of Uganda.
Stand in line again to get your Ugandan entrance stamp. This border post is currently (September 2019) not issuing visas on arrival — you need to either get an e-visa in advance or have the East Africa Tourist Visa that covers Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya. You can get the EAT visa online before you enter Rwanda here. Keep in mind that both countries change their immigration procedures often and border officials are often confused about the current rules, so research this right before your trip to get updated information.
By the time you’re stamped into Uganda, the bus will be ready to pick you up. Show the conductor both of your new passport stamps to prove you’ve followed all the rules and hop back on.
Step five: Arrival in Kabale, Uganda
From the border, it’s only another 30 minutes to Kabale. You’ll leave behind the beautiful Rwandan countryside and notice the typical Ugandan urbanization.
Since your bus is just passing through Kabale, it won’t drop you at the bus park. Rather, it’ll stop just after the roundabout to the Mbarara road, across from Buhooro Guesthouse.
As soon as you step off the bus, boda (motorbike) drivers will surround you offering you rides to Lake Bunyonyi. If that’s your final destination, go ahead and take them up on it — you should pay 6,000 Ugandan shillings for the 20-minute ride.
Alternatively, walk back toward the roundabout and take a right to head toward the Skyblue/Skyline Hotel, across from the (very visible) Trinity Coaches booking office. You’ll find a cafe here where you can grab a cheap bite, a bank with a reliable ATM, an MTN service center where you can buy a SIM card, and a supermarket where you can pick up snacks and water if you’re heading to Bwindi for gorilla trekking. The center of town is about half a kilometer further down this road.
And that’s it! Assuming you left Kigali around 9 am, you’ll be in Kabale before lunchtime — safely and stress-free. The Kigali to Kabale bus is one of the easiest public transportation journeys in East Africa!