20 Sep Rwanda Gorilla Travel Tips + Photos
It’s all about the gorillas, baby!
You are likely reading this blog because are interested in going to see the gorillas. So let’s get to it. You can see the gorillas at Volcanoes National Park, in the Virunga Mountains near the Congo and Ugandan border. Volcanoes National Park is in the northeast part of the country.
To get to the gorillas, invariably, you will have to start from Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda.The easiest and safest way to get to Kigali is to fly into Kigali International Airport (airport code: KGL), which is a small, clean and well-organized airport. Click here to read about my Kigali Travel Tips + Photos.
What I did: I flew to Kigali from Zanzibar via Kenya Airways. There are a number of other airline options: Precision Air and RwandAir. On the way back, I flew Precision Air, which I found to be quite a good, low-cost airline.
Rwanda Gorilla Travel Tip: Chances are that you will not fly into Kigali directly. You will have to fly into another African country, one with a larger international airport. Maybe Kenya, Tanzania or South Africa, and then take another inter-African flight. I suggest using a meta site like Skyscanner to determine which airline and would work best.
Rwanda Gorilla Travel Tip:
There are a number of ways to organize a trip to the Volcanoes National Park to see the gorillas.
1) Find a tour company that will do all the work for you. Get you the gorilla permit, book hotels for you, drive you from Kigali to Volcanoes National Park and back. This, of course, is a costly option. If you go for this all-inclusive option, one good thing is that these tour companies give you options in terms of the level of quality of hotel: 3-star, 4-star, 5-star, etc. So, if you are on a tight budget, choose a 3-star hotel. It is only going to be one night of stay, so you don’t need anything super fancy hotel. Just keep your expectations in check. 3-star accommodations, while clean and safe, can be basic.
2) Do all the bookings yourself. This is, of course, less costly but more hassle to organize from abroad.
Rwanda Gorilla Travel Tip:
If you are really on a tight budget, or pressed for time, you can do a 1-day tour of the gorillas from Kigali. This, however, makes for a very long day. You will start from Kigali at 4 am and won’t return to Kigali until really late into the night. This is an exhausting day and I don’t recommend it because you will be too tired to fully enjoy the experience. I mean, if you are going to go all the way to Rwanda, then just save enough to stay overnight near Volcanoes National Park.
What I did:
I booked the accommodation myself online, thereby taking out a third party who always charge extra if you book accommodation through them.
And after a lot of research, I hired a tour company to do the rest for me (get the permit and drive me to Volcanoes National Park and back).
I was very happy with organizing the gorilla trip this way and also was very happy with the services of the tour company that I used. If you want to know which tour company I used, send me an email.
My Gorilla Trek Itinerary
The gorilla trek starts early in the morning: My gorilla trek started early. I was picked up by the tour company from my hotel at 6:30 am and all the trekkers gathered in front of Volcanoes National Park. The image to the left is Virunga mountains that I climbed to see the gorillas. The Virunga Mountains border Congo and Uganda. The mountain gorillas can also be found in Congo and Uganda but the political situation in Congo makes it a no-go zone while I have heard that the Ugandan side is not very well organized. However, with the permit fees now skyrocketing to $1500 USD in Rwanda, Uganda is going to benefit.
Dancing and singing while we wait for the trek to start: While the tour companies were busy picking up people from various hotels to bring them to Volcanoes National Park, the Park did a good job of keeping people entertained. They offered tea, coffee and there a free Rwandan dance and song performance.
Rwanda Gorilla Travel Tip: I was there in late July and it was quite chilly in the morning while we waited for the trek to start. So make sure you dress warmly.
People are then divided into smaller groups: The park rangers will ask you what level of difficulty you can handle for the hike to see the gorillas. It is a bit random, but they will then split you into small groups (8-10 people per group). People who want an easy hike are group together and more fit people, who can handle a more challenging hike, are grouped together.
The trekking experience: In terms of the difficulty of the hike, I was slotted in the mid-level group. We walked for about an hour. Part of the walk was amidst this thick jungle, pictured above. There is no walking trail in Volcanoes National Park and we literally had to hike through the massive thick jungle.
Rwanda Gorilla Travel Tips: While the hike itself is not difficult because the terrain is mostly flat, the biggest challenge was that the jungle is littered with stinging nettles. Make sure you have dressed appropriately. Wear thick, long sleeve shirt and pants. I must admit that even though I was covered from head to toe, the stinging nettles are brutal. They little thorns pierced through the clothes and all of us were stung multiple times. The good news though is that the sting only lasts a few minutes and the sheer thrill of seeing the gorillas made me forget about the pain!
You get to see these beautiful creatures really close! On average, you are allowed a 1-hour visit per permit. The gorillas, while massive in size, are extremely gentle creatures. It also helps that they are herbivores, so there is an extremely remote risk that they will come after any visitors. Regardless, the entire time I was accompanied by 5-6 rangers, some of whom carried a machete or a rifle, in the rare event that they do charge. Even though the visiting time is only an hour, I can’t express in words that indelible experience this was. Easily in the top 10 travel experiences, I’ve had. And without sounding too trite, I confess that this was a life-changing experience. It was deeply spiritual.
Rwanda Gorilla Travel Tip:
Heads up if you are an avid photographer like me that taking photos of the gorillas is going be very challenging. There are a lot of factors for this. The gorillas are almost always on the move, the lighting will vary considerably, you will be surrounded by thick jungle and your group mates who will be in your shot or trying to get good photos themselves. You will be excited and trying to take it all in, all the while trying to some glorious photos of these beautiful creatures. And you only have an hour! No doubt, you are going to get some good photos but probably far less than you hope. So my advice, take those prized photos but don’t forget to enjoy the gorillas. I spent way too much time trying to get some perfect photos and I wish I had spent more time just seeing and being with the gorillas.