To some, Rwanda may seem like one of Africa’s most unlikely tourist destinations but that hasn’t stopped tourism in Rwanda from growing by ten-folds each year. Today, Rwanda has made a name for itself as Africa’s premier gorilla trekking location and a leader among East African sustainable safari destinations. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda also allow for gorilla trekking, but Rwanda’s tourism board has streamlined the permitting process, making it easier for visitors.
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Like most other travellers, Volcano National Park was one of the main draws for us visiting Rwanda. The park is a haven for critically endangered mountain gorillas, amongst other animals, whose numbers are starting to rebound after decades of poaching and habitat instability.
We were pleasantly surprised by how fiercely proud of these gentle giants the locals were and of the sustainability efforts being put in place to protect them. The price tag of gorilla trekking in Rwanda may be high, but the money is funnelled directly back into the park and gorilla conservation efforts. Plus, high prices are one of the ways that the Rwanda Tourism Board is able to keep over-tourism at bay, and the strategy seems to be working!
There are two other main places to see mountain gorillas in East Africa. They are Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, the wild gorillas don’t play by border rules and sometimes cross over into neighbouring countries.
Permits for Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Virunga National Park are less costly, but there are other things to consider when choosing a location for your gorilla trekking adventure. Unfortunately, ongoing political instability in the DRC causes a lot of travellers to pause. While the people of the DRC really need proceeds from tourism, visitors do need to take extra precautions and make situational awareness a priority. Lower permit costs can also lead to over-tourism, so you might have to wait longer for gorilla trekking in Bwindi and Virunga National Park, which have seen a huge increase in visitors due to higher permit costs in Rwanda.
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Gorilla Trekking In Rwanda
Over the last decade, Rwanda has made a name for itself as the premier destination for mountain gorilla trekking in Africa. It’s not the cheapest place for gorilla trekking, but many consider it to be the safest and most developed destination for gorilla trekking.
About half of the population of Rwanda gorillas are habituated, which means they are used to human presence. Those are the ones that you will visit on any Rwanda gorilla tours.
There are 10 habituated groups of mountain gorillas in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, ranging in size from 10 to 28 gorillas per group.
Rwanda Gorilla Tours Permit
To curb visitor numbers, in April 2017, the gorilla trekking permit in Rwanda was doubled in price, going from $750 USD/person to $1,500 USD/person, making it harder for the average traveller to be able to afford this incredible experience.
Permits need to be arranged well in advance (4-6 months ahead if you plan on travelling in the high season, December-February, and July-August) and can be organised through any lodge and through most local tour operators.
Is It Hard To Track Gorillas In Rwanda?
When we were first researching Rwanda gorilla safaris, most of the information we found made it seem like tracking gorillas would be very physically difficult. All safaris are performed on foot, after all.
However, we soon realised that the challenge of a Rwanda gorilla safari varies greatly and relies heavily on the habituated gorilla family you are assigned to for your tour.
The mountain gorillas are very active, and their territories span all across the park so it is your tour guide’s job to find out where they will be hanging out that day. We spoke with some people who found their gorilla group in about a half-hour since they were located near the trailhead.
The average is closer to 1 hour, but our guide explained that sometimes finding your assigned gorilla group can take over 2 hours.
Some bush-whacking may be required when trying to locate the groups deeper within the forest. Tourists are also required to walk along the trodden trails of the National Park, which tend to have some ascents and descents.
However, difficult terrain and high slopes do not deter many, as the endangered mountain gorilla continues to draw close to 20,000 visitors to the Volcanoes National Park on a yearly basis.
Ultimately, some level of fitness will be helpful during Rwanda gorilla safaris, but you don’t need to be some sort of Olympic athlete in order to enjoy this amazing experience.
What To Expect: Gorilla Trekking In Rwanda
Don’t expect to sleep on the day of your gorilla trekking in Rwanda. All trekking experiences start around 7:00 am to 8:00 am.
It can be a bit chilly in the mornings, with average temperatures around 11℃ (52℉), warming up to about 23℃ (73℉) in the afternoon. Dressing in thin layers is ideal in this type of climate, so you can easily pack away what you don’t need as it gets warmer. You can expect more rain during the months of March, April, and May. During the wet season, waterproof clothing is ideal, along with hiking boots with good tread for trekking up the slippery hills.
Visitors are instructed to arrive at the entrance of Volcanoes National Park. It is here that you will be greeted by your ranger/guide and other excited visitors. Everyone is briefed and then split into smaller groups of 8 visitors. Each group is then appointed a gorilla trekking guide and a Rwanda gorilla family to visit.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, extra precautions have been enacted to protect the gorillas and other wildlife in the park. Gorillas share up to 98% of our DNA, making them extremely susceptible to a virus like COVID-19. Be prepared to have your temperature taken at the park entrance, and there might be a requirement for a rapid test.
When the gorilla families are being assigned, if you can snag a group with a baby gorilla, jump at the opportunity. It is loads of fun watching the babies cause mischief in the forest.
In Rwanda, gorillas are to be respected on Volcano National Park safaris. Tour operators and park rangers advocate for as little interference in the lives of the mountain gorillas as possible. To do so, they ask visitors to follow a simple set of guidelines.
- Visitors must keep a minimum of 10 metres between themselves and the gorillas. As you might expect, Rwanda gorillas are extremely curious. They may approach you out of curiosity, but if that happens, you will be required to step back to the minimum proximity.
- Safari groups are to spend no more than 60 minutes observing the gorillas.
- Eating, drinking, and smoking are strictly prohibited around the mountain gorillas. Also, don’t spit, cough, sneeze, or visit if you have a cold.
- Visitors are welcome to document this incredible experience, but flash video and photography are prohibited.
- It is suggested that visitors wash their hands thoroughly before the experience to further prevent any possible contamination.
- Because COVID-19 is still around and can be easily transmitted to these already endangered creatures, safe practices like social distancing and the use of face masks when in the proximity of a gorilla family are enforced.
The Rwanda gorilla tours will last between 2 and 5 hours. As mentioned, this is completely dependent on the location of your gorilla group and the slowest hiker in your group.
How To Prepare For Gorilla Trekking In Rwanda
If you see this type of Rwanda safari in the future, we recommend planning your trip no less than 6 months in advance. Between permits, lodging, and trip preparations, you’re going to need plenty of time.
Hotels Near Volcanoes National Park
Most travellers include gorilla tracking in their Rwanda itinerary organised by one of the many safari companies in the region. These companies take care of all on-the-ground arrangements for your visit; they provide you with a driver/guide, arrange your accommodation options, and secure your permits.
If you would rather handle all of your own organising, then you need to start with the lodges. There are numerous lodges conveniently located outside of Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, but this is the one we stayed at:
Five Volcanoes Boutique Hotel, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
Five Volcanoes Boutique Hotel is a full-board lodge located just outside of Volcanoes National Park and offers a selection of rooms starting from $640 USD/night.
The hotel is family-owned and employs all local staff who act as great sources of information about the community and the park itself. The hotel features a pool and a nice garden area, and on a clear day, it offers beautiful views of the volcanoes.
The lodge can help organise gorilla permits, community visits, golden monkey tracking permits, and other activities in the area. Keep in mind that they do not have vehicles to help transport guests to their activities, so those travelling without a driver/guide will have to hire a driver for the day to get to the trailhead for gorilla trekking.
What To Bring On Your Gorilla Trekking Experience
What you decide to wear and bring to this incredible experience will make all the difference in your comfort level.
We recommend dressing for the occasion by packing long hiking pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and of course, good hiking boots. You risk getting bitten by insects or cut by the dense foliage if you go with shorts or a T-shirt.
The weather is unpredictable in this region, so bring a backpack and load it with gaiters, a rain jacket, and rain pants. We have been caught in rain storms hiking more times than we would like to admit, and it is no fun without the right gear.
Hiking sticks are helpful within Volcanoes National Park due to the multitude of ascents and descents. Bring your tried and true pair from home or rent them from the park’s ranger.
Responsible insect repellent, sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat are essential. We also recommend bringing 1-2 litres of water and some snacks. We always bring our HydroFlask bottles, which hold about 2 litres of water.
It is prohibited to eat and drink in front of the Rwandan gorillas, but you’ll appreciate a bite to eat along the way. Just remember to take your garbage with you. Not only will the garbage impact the gorillas you visit, but also the other smaller primates and other wildlife you will inevitably see along the way.
Don’t load up your backpack with anything unnecessary, but do remember to take a camera or something to take videos. We love these travel cameras, but even a basic phone camera will be able to capture the magic due to the animals’ close proximity.
At the end of the day, nothing will truly prepare for you the moment you see these incredible creatures up close. But if there is one thing we learned from our time in Rwanda, it is this luxury wildlife experience should not be missed!
Other Things To Do In Volcanoes National Park
There is so much to do and see in Volcanoes National Park that it would be a shame to limit your experience in the area. Here are some other activities you can enjoy in the park.
Dian Fossey Hike
This scenic hike leads to the grave of Dian Fossey, a conservationist who spent nearly 20 years of her life protecting the mountain gorilla. Her activism is credited with raising the awareness that led to the rehabilitation of the gorilla population, taking them off of the IUCN’s Critically Endangered Species List. The trail will also take you to her old research camp.
Ibywacu Cultural Village Walk
During this tour of the Iby’Iwacu Village, you’ll experience the cultures of Rwanda’s three tribes – the Hutu, Tutsi, and the Twa. Visitors can visit the King’s house and help prepare traditional dishes.
The park is home to five volcanoes that are part of the Virunga Massif. Mount Karisimbi is a popular hiking destination due to the unparalleled views from the summit. This hike is pretty strenuous, but the trail on Mount Bisoke is much easier and leads to a gorgeous crater lake.
Have You Ever Been On A Mountain Gorilla Safari? What Else Do You Want To Know About Rwanda Gorilla Treks?
Disclaimer: Big thanks to Five Volcanoes Boutique Hotel for hosting us during our time in Rwanda.
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