Gorilla trekking in Rwanda is said to be one of the most aspirational bucket list items. It has attracted millions of visitors, including Hollywood celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres to football stars like David Luiz. And now you.
Coming face to face with mountain gorillas is exhilarating, an experience of a lifetime. But before you get there, you must prepare, and there are a lot of moving parts.
That’s where we come in. In this article, I’ll show you:
- What to expect
- How to get permits
- Where to stay
- What to pack
Let’s get into it, shall we?
Rwanda’s Mountain Gorillas
The species found in Rwanda are the mountain gorillas. Currently, there are only 1,060 mountain gorillas in the world. Most of these endangered apes live in the mountains and forests of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Thanks to conservation efforts in Rwanda, the country’s gorilla population is steadily rising.
Mountain gorillas stand at about 4 to 5.5 feet when standing on two legs and weigh up to 440 lbs.
They have thicker fur compared to other apes, which helps them survive in extremely cold habitats.
Mountain gorillas live in dense forests at elevations of between 8,000 to 13,000 feet.
Volcanoes National Park
The best place to see the mountain gorillas is in Volcanoes National Park.
Here, there are 12 mountain gorilla families. Each family includes at least one silverback, several females, and their children.
Volcanoes National Park is in northwest Rwanda. The park is 105 kilometers from Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city. It’s a two to three-hour drive from Kigali National Airport.
The park consists of a rainforest covered in green grasslands, bamboo, and other tree species and five dormant volcanoes that make up the Virunga Mountains. The park is home to many incredible mountain gorillas and is the go-to destination for gorilla trekking in Rwanda.
Trekking groups are made up of 8 people and are allocated one family to avoid overwhelming the gorillas.
While you may be visiting the mountain gorillas, the park is also a birders heaven. If you’re into bird watching, you can hear and see over 200 colourful birds as you move around.
Another attraction of the Volcanoes National Park are the rare golden monkeys. You can see other monkeys and chimpanzees at the park. In fact, this is a standalone excursion available you want to add an extra activity while gorilla trekking in Rwanda.
Finally, if exploring caves interests you, you will be happy to know that there are over 50 caves available for caving. They are in Buhanga Eco-park, which is within the park’s boundaries. This ancient forest holds caves formed over 60 million years ago during the last estimated volcanic eruption.
Getting Your Gorilla Trek Permit
A permit is required for gorilla trekking in Rwanda. This is the most critical step before booking your trip. You must be at least 15 years old to be allowed a permit. A ticket costs USD1,500 per person.
The fee covers park entrance, expert guides and trackers, the security of a tourism police force in the parks, and one hour with the gorillas.
The cost is steep, but a large percentage of the permits’ revenue is allocated towards Rwanda’s conservation efforts and work with local communities.
There are more mountain gorillas in Rwanda and are easy to sight, and the terrain is manageable. As a result, the price for gorilla trekking in Rwanda is higher than in Uganda or DRC.
You can book permits directly through the Rwandan Development Board, the tourism governing board. There are also global and local tour guide operators that you can use to secure a permit.
As only eight group members can visit one family at a time, only 96 tickets are available per day. I’d advise you to book earlier than you intend to visit.
What to Expect on Your Trek
Check-in for the gorilla trekking in Rwanda is 7.00am at Volcanoes National Park offices. Here Park Rangers will sort you into groups of 8. As you wait for departure, there’s a briefing on safety measures, rules of the trek, and guides and trackers will be assigned to your group.
A trek can last from two to nine hours, depending on the location of the gorilla family. The difficulty also depends on the location of the family. They will assign you a gorilla family to track based on your age and fitness level during the briefing.
Once you spot a family, you are allowed only one hour to observe them as they go about their business; feeding, interacting with each other, etc. The mountain gorillas are used to people, but you are required to stay at least five meters away and cannot touch them.
Guides are well trained and will advise how far you should stand or whether to move if the gorillas are feeling agitated. The most important thing is to quietly enjoy the moment, no sudden movements. And if you want to take photos, remember to turn off the flash on your phone or cameras.
The park is a two-three hour drive from Kigali. While it is possible to drive up on the same day as the trek, it can be tiring. There are hotels and lodges near the park where you can have an overnight stay then wake up fresh and energetic for the trek.
I’d recommend you set aside three days, one for traveling to your accommodation, one for the trekking day, and the last for traveling back to Kigali. You can travel back after the trek, but it can be an exhausting journey after a day of hiking.
Best Times for Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda
Gorilla trekking in Rwanda is a year-round activity. However, the country’s dry season offers a better experience. During this time, the trails are more accessible, and you can avoid diseases like malaria because of the cold and rainy weather.
The dry season starts in June to Mid-September. There are short rains from October to November, then soon after a short dry season from December to February. Heavy rains begin in March to May.
The dry seasons are peak seasons, and getting permit tickets can be challenging.
If you don’t mind the rain and muddy hikes, I suggest you book your trek for the rainy season. T is the low season. The advantage during this time is that there are higher chances of getting discounted accommodation from many hotels and lodges. There are also fewer visitors, getting a permit last minute is possible.
Places Stay Near Volcanoes National Park
There are several places near the national park to stay ahead of your gorilla trekking in Rwanda. They range from luxurious to budget hotels and lodges.
Bisate Lodge is near the entrance of the Volcanoes National Park. It consists of six luxurious traditionally shaped villas with conical thatched roofs, surrounded by dense foliage woodland. Its location offers you stunning views of the volcanic peaks. A stay here costs from US $750 to US $1250 per person/night sharing on average. This is exclusive for permit costs for gorilla trekking in Rwanda.
Other hotels and lodges offering luxurious accommodations at similar pricing include Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, Virunga Lodge, and One&Only Gorilla’s Nest Lodge.
Mountain Gorilla View Lodge
This hotel offers sweeping views of the Virunga Mountains as a backdrop and is close enough to the park. They have 30 rooms, and you can choose from rooms with a king-sized or twin beds. Their prices range from USD 300 per night.
Le Bambou Gorilla Village
If you are looking for mid-range safari accommodation during your gorilla trekking in Rwanda, this is for you. It’s comfortable, the price fair, and the location convenient. The prices range from USD 175 per night. Le Bambou is located at the base of the national park.
Other hotels and lodges within the same price range include Gorillas Volcanoes Hotel and Villa Gorilla.
Staying in Kigali
So, you’ve just landed at Kigali and are looking for a place to stay before proceeding for gorilla trekking in Rwanda. There are so many places you can stay, here are just a few.
Kigali Serena Hotel
This hotel has plenty of facilities, including a spa, swimming pool, and two restaurants. It’s a city hotel only five minutes away from the central business district. A night in their presidential suite starts from USD 144.
The Nest is a great value hotel located 6 kilometers from Kigali International Airport. They offer airport transfers, a shared kitchen, and free Wi-Fi throughout the property. They are an excellent choice for a stop-over on your way to the gorilla trek.
Mijo Hostel is a reasonable option for tourists on a budget. If you’re looking for a place to rest before heading on the gorilla trek that won’t break the bank, then I recommend you check out this place. It’s perfect for backpackers too.
Packing for Your Trek
You don’t need to pack excessively for gorilla trekking in Rwanda. There are, however, some essentials that you must have. These include:
- Waterproof hiking boots
- light, waterproof jackets and trousers
- Long-sleeved shirts or t-shirts to protect against scratches and insect bites on the trails
- Sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses
- A raincoat, especially if you are going during the rainy season.
It’s important to pack light for the trek, but you also have the option of hiring porters to carry your daypacks and camera equipment. They are usually found at the base of the camp.
This experience is worth it, and I hope you find all this information useful. You can also give us tips on preparing for gorilla trekking in Rwanda in the comment section below. Enjoy your trip!