Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda

Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda

I’ll admit, it took me well over a year to actually make it up to Ruhengeri (Musanze) to do gorilla trekking, but if you are a normally functioning person (meaning you’re able to leave Kigali without crying uncontrollably), you should definitely try to schedule a trip. The mountain gorillas really are one of Rwanda’s most spectacular tourist attractions, and being able to observe them in their natural habitat is quite the experience.  Also, they are an endangered species, people, and what you pay to go see them goes into protecting them, which is like a super nice thing!

There are four main things you need to think about when planning on gorilla trekking: a gorilla permit, a place to stay in Ruhengeri, a car to take you to the starting point for the trekking, and what to bring with you for the trek itself.

Getting a Gorilla Permit

Gorilla-related tourism in Rwanda is strictly controlled by the government. What this means to you is this: you can get nowhere near the gorillas unless you have a permit. When you arrange a trip through a tour company they’ll get the permit for you but if you want to wing it and arrange a trip on your own, you’ll need to get your own gorllia trekking permit at the ORTPN (I still have no idea what this stands for but they’re the Rwanda Tourism office). They have offices in Kigali (up the hill to the left from UTC) and in Musanze.

You should buy a permit in good time before you plan on going, as they might be sold-out, but they’re not known for being very good at answering emails so it might not be possible to get one directly from them until you arrive in Rwanda. It’s common for people to sell passes they can’t use for one reason or another so keep your eye on our travel forum for gorilla permits for sale. For non-residents, a permit costs US$500, foreign residents (meaning you have a work visa) pay US$250, and Rwandans pay Rwf 25,000.

Accommodation in Ruhengeri

Unless you want to get up at the ass-crack of dawn to drive from Kigali, you’ll have to spend the night previous in Ruhengeri as gorilla trekking starts earl in the morning. There are several places to stay, but the most popular for those on a budget, is Fatima Guesthouse (0392 897 704/0779 459 917) which is Rwf 15,000 to 30,000 per night. We’ll post some more options as we visit them. Eventually. In the meantime, if you know of a good place, let us know.

Transportation to Trekking Point

You’ll need to arrange transportation from your hotel to the trekking point, and it’s annoyingly expensive. If you have a car (or rent your own for a few days), you can just follow the guide car, but make sure you have four-wheel drive or you’ll struggle up the muddy roads.

The second option, is hiring a driver. The best option is to find a driver with a car specifically for gorilla trekking, stationed in Ruhengeri. You can get contact information from the ORTPN office, and it’ll cost US$80 to $100.  The driver will pick you up from your hotel in Ruhengeri, drive you to the meeting point, and then bring you back at the end of the trekking.

I’ve also heard of people just arriving at the centre by whatever means necessary (taxi, moto) with hopes of hopping in someone else’s car to get to the trek starting point. It’s been done but if there’s no space for you or if the people on your trek are jerks who won’t let you share, then you’ll have to scramble to come up with another plan.

Gorilla Trekking

On the day of the trekking, you’ll drive (or be driven) to the meeting point around 7am. I suggest wearing good hiking boots, and dressing in layers. The day we went, it was cold and raining in the morning and hot and sunny once we met the gorillas. Obviously, bring a camera but remember to turn off the flash. Don’t pack any food on you, though if you bring a backpack you can leave it with some of the guides and they’ll guard it while you’re in the forest. Also bring sun lotion, sunglasses, and water. You might have to walk for a while before you actually enter the dense forest, and these things will be good to have with you.

And of course, don’t forget your gorilla permit! You will need to show this in order to register with your group in the morning.  Normally there are around 20 to 30 people trekking on the same day, but you’ll be divided into 4 to 5 smaller groups, each one heading to different gorilla families so as not to stress out the poor gorillas by unleashing 30 people on them at once.

Before you head off into the forest, the guides will give you a quick gorilla lesson, as well as some tea and coffee. Part of this includes orders not to stray to within 7 feet of the gorillas which is very loosely policed since they’ll often wander right across your path. From the orientation, your group will head to the starting point of the trekking. Usually the guides have some idea of where to find the family, but it can still take a few hours before you’ll reach them. When I went it took no more than 20 minutes, and we spent the rest of the time just following them around.

The whole trekking takes about 4 hours, and to be honest that’s enough. A gorilla’s day pretty much consists of eating and napping, and then walking a bit, and then eating again. Though it’s awesome being so close to these wild animals (as well as walking around in the serene rain forest), a couple of hours are sufficient. You’ll be back in town in time for lunch unless you have to walk awhile to find them and it could be later.

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9 thoughts on “Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda”

  1. Good article 🙂
    ORTPN stands for – Office Rwandais de Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux – ( Rwandan Office of Tourism and nationals parks)

  2. Does anyone know if you can get a student discount for this? My family is coming out and want to see gorillas, and it would be great if we could save some money!

    1. As far as I know there are no student discounts, sorry. If you’re a resident of Rwanda you can get a pass for half price, but that doesn’t apply to guests.

  3. We went to visit the gorillas with husband and two grown-up daughters and it was an amazing experience! we stayed at the Kinigi guest house which was not expensive , a little rustic, the food was buffet style, just near the park office, we had a car 4 x4 luckily because we had to go in very bad roads to start the gorillas trekking. It took us more than an hour and go through the forest and the bottom of a crater to meet the family of about 26 gorillas and their young ones. It was worth the effort and the money goes to the local communities.

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  5. We’ve lived in Rwanda just over 3 years and until recently hadn’t been to the gorillas. We’d seen golden monkeys twice, caves twice, hiked Karisimbi, hiked Bisoke, etc., but had been waiting for family to visit to justify the significant expense. When my mom and dad made the trip to Rwanda, we finally got to see the gorillas. Everybody in our group loved the gorillas and of course Volcana Lounge pizza is worth the trip. Amazing experience and we’ve got the prerequisite 2,000 great photos to prove it 🙂

    Then on a whim a couple months later, we learned of a last minute holiday announcement and decided to drive to Bukavu, DRC for the weekend. CEPGL costs $10 and only takes a day to get. Crossing the border is easy ($35 on the DRC side per vehicle). Trekking to see the Eastern Lowland Gorillas (same species, a bit bigger, only one silverback per family, etc.) in Kahuzi-Biega National Park is only $200 per person. Reservations were easy (it took me 4 visits to RDB and at least 10 hours of my time to finally get the Rwanda gorilla permits and that is easy compared to arranging reservations in Nyungwe). Rangers were super friendly. Hike was great. There weren’t dozens of military with automatic weapons surrounding us. It was an unexpected and phenomenal experience. The only potential down side is that they’re much more protective of the gorillas so everybody wears a mask and you they make you honor the stay-away distance (as opposed to the Rwanda side where the trackers encourage you to touch the gorillas because they want a bigger tip). We were back Monday night and all well rested for work on Tuesday.

    If you are visiting or live in Rwanda you have to see the mountain gorillas. You won’t regret it. But if you live here for any length of time, go to DRC too. The reservation experience is so much easier. When you hike Mount Nyiragongo you can make the reservation online including credit card payment and get an email confirmation with all your details w/in a day!!! The people are so nice. Everything is much less expensive. Definitely worth the 30 minutes it takes to cross the border.

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