Uganda is a place I think about often. I was last there in 2013, and I can't think of a country I am more fond of. For two epic weeks, I explored the southwest region of the country, traveling to Lake Mburo, Kabale, Nkuringo, Buhoma, the Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Kibale, Fort Portal and Entebbe. The trip was wildly adventurous, wonderfully remote and completely off-the-beaten-path. And it took almost a year to plan. These were the days before Instagram and Pinterest, when Uganda blog posts were far and few between. A time when this part of East Africa seemed more far reaching than it does today. It's quietly flown under the radar - you'll find far fewer tourists here than in Tanzania or Kenya, and that's part of the appeal. I'm sharing all my Uganda research in the travel guide below, as well as travel logistics, permit pricing, itinerary ideas, lodge suggestions, travel tips, what to pack and more.
A visit to the Kibale Rainforest promises trekkers the rare opportunity to see chimpanzees in the wild.
The rolling tea fields scattered throughout the country are stunning.
UGANDA TRAVEL PREPARATIONS
PASSPORT AND VISA
A valid passport is required to enter Uganda, along with a $50 USD tourist visa that must be obtained via the government's e-immigration website at least two weeks prior to arrival.
Visitors should check the CDC website and visit a health clinic to ensure they get all necessary vaccines for Uganda. Some vaccines require multiple doses, so best to take care of this several months in advance.
The currency used is the Ugandan Shilling. I suggest arriving with local currency or exchanging before leaving Kampala. Outside of the capital city, money changers are far and few between, and the ATM machines are very particular about accepting cards. Also, only bring crisp bills to exchange. Bills with tears, rips or marks are not accepted.
GORILLA & CHIMPANZEE PERMITS
There are a limited number of permits per day, so these need to be secured in advance through the Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA). Permits must be purchased in person, so unless you plan to be in Uganda one to two years prior to your trek, a registered tour operator is the best way to secure the permit. Most people purchase the permit as part of a larger package, but tour operators can secure permits for a small fee. More details on permits in the Bwindi, Kibale and Kymabura sections of the blog below.
UGANDA TOUR OPERATORS
I'm not a fan of tour groups or guided tours, but working with a tour operator is pretty essential for a trip to Uganda. Some visitors book their entire holiday through these companies, while others use them for just a portion of the trip. At the very least, you'll want to go through an operator for gorilla permits, chimpanzee permits and safari vehicles (it's very complicated to do it any other way). That said, it's important to use a company that is registered with the UWA to ensure they are certified, qualified and legitimate. Operators range from luxury to mid-range, and all offer a variety of tour packages that include a complete itinerary, safari vehicle, private driver, lodging, park permits and tours costs.
For travelers that don't want a cookie cutter itinerary, I planned out our entire trip a year in advance. While it included several popular stops, I also worked in activities and locations that weren't part of standard tour packages. I e-mailed several tour operators with the itinerary, and requested quotes for a safari vehicle, private driver and tracking permits. Prices varied by company. After a lot of research, I decided on Gorilla Tours. The reviews of the company on TripAdvisor were very positive, and the prices were pretty reasonable. I booked all our lodging separately, and we paid park fees and activity costs out of pocket while in Uganda.
Overall, we were completely happy with Gorilla Tours - they were accommodating, pleasant and easy to communicate with by e-mail. Our spacious Land Cruiser was equipped with a pop-top for game drives and eight seats for the four of us. But the best part of our trip was the two weeks we spent with Musa, I couldn't imagine traveling the country with another driver. He brought a level of warmth, authenticity and knowledge to our trip that made it truly special.
Other companies I found with very positive feedback and reviews include Kazinga Tours & Safaris, Churchill Safaris and Africa Tours Adventure.
Lake Mburo is a national park in southern Uganda, located approximately four hours from capital city Kampala. For tourists with plans to gorilla track in Mgahinga National Park or the Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest, Lake Mburo is a great spot to spend a day or two to break up the long journey. It doesn't have the variety of wildlife found in other Ugandan parks, but it's one of the only places that offers walking safaris, in addition to game drives and boat safaris. Lake Mburo is home to an impressive 69 species of mammal and 332 species of bird. Visit the UWA Lake Mburo page for a complete list of activities, prices and general park info - it's very comprehensive for planning purposes.
Lake Mburo is one of the few places in Uganda that offer walking safaris, the chance to see wild zebras on foot.
This is the only place in Uganda to see Burchell's zebra.
Most travelers focus on the primates in Uganda, and that leaves Lake Mburo relatively off-the-beaten-path.
They were very aware of our presence.
We ended our visit with an afternoon boat safari where we spotted this beautiful crocodile.
LAKE MBURO PARK ENTRANCE FEE
$40 USD per person; park fees and safaris can be arranged at the Rwonyo Park Headquarters.
HOW MANY NIGHTS ON LAKE MBURO?
For travelers with big safari plans up in Queen Elizabeth National Park, one night on Lake Mburo is enough. However, if this is the only safari destination on the itinerary, then stay two nights to get in as much game adventure as possible.
THINGS TO DO ON LAKE MBURO
Boat safaris depart from the launch near the Rwonyo Rest Camp every two hours starting at 8 AM. The two-hour voyage takes visitors along the eastern shores of the lake, in search of crocodiles, warthogs, fish eagle and a variety of birds. (PRICE: $30 USD per person; HOURS: Boats depart at 8 AM, 10 AM, 12 PM, 2 PM, 4 PM and 5.30 PM)
SAFARI GAME DRIVES
Both day and night game drives are available with UWA park rangers. Game drives last two to three hours with the evening option starting at approximately 6:30 PM. For a higher chance of seeing the elusive leopard, hyena and bushbaby, join a night safari. (PRICE: $20 USD per person for Day Drive; $30 USD per person for Night Drive)
It's listed on the UWA site as a Nature Walk, but it's essentially a walking safari. Lake Mburo is one of the only places to do this in Uganda, and it's a nice change of pace for travelers with several game drives in their itinerary. An armed ranger leads small groups on two-hour hikes through bush, rock and savanna landscapes to track a variety of wildlife. Because Lake Mburo isn't the busiest of parks, we were the only ones in our group and it felt like a private walking safari. (PRICE: $15 USD per person; HOURS: 7 AM - 9 AM)
WHERE TO STAY IN LAKE MBURO
These mid-range cottages are located 2km from park headquarters within Lake Mburo National Park. The Arcadia Cottages are clean, simple and include a private bathroom. It's a step up from the Rwyonyo Rest Camp, and a restaurant is available on site.
RWONYO REST CAMP
Budget campsite ideally located at park headquarters, very close to the lake. Options include bandas and safari tents with a separate community restroom and showers.
LAKE MBURO CAMP
Mid-range tented camp located on a hilltop within Lake Mburo National Park. Tents at Lake Mburo Camp have wooden decks, private bathrooms and a view of the park below.
This luxury camp sits just outside of Lake Mburo, near the Kyanyanshara Gate. Mihingo Lodge is home to 12 spacious, upscale rooms built in a traditional safari tent style. The rooms offer a variety of stunning views, and the lodge's epic pool overlooks the park's waterhole and salt lick for game viewing.
BUHOMA | BWINDI IMPENETRABLE RAINFOREST
The Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest is a truly magical place. A rich ecosystem situated along Uganda’s Democratic Republic of Congo border, this expansive swath of jungle sits just north of Virunga National Park. The 331 sq km of tropical jungle is home to more than 120 species of mammals, 350 species of bird, 220 species of butterfly and more than half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas. A real life Ferngully. Visit the UWA Bwindi page for a complete list of activities, prices and general park info - it's very comprehensive for planning purposes.
Trekking through the rainforest to find this family of wild gorillas was one of the most memorable experiences I've had abroad.
It's required that trekkers keep a distance of 25 feet from the gorillas. But, the rangers said if the gorillas approached us, we were okay to remain still, and not required to back away.
Our presence didn't seem to have an affect on the gorillas. They treated us as though we were just trees in the jungle and went about their morning.
There are no trails on this hike. The gorillas are wild, and that means trekking through dense rainforest growth to try to find them.
One of the smallest gorillas in the family.
The group's giant Silverback hiding behind this sleeping beauty.
The most challenging adventure of the trip was a 13km hike through the rainforest that connects Buhoma to Nkuringo.
Gorillas cleaning each other's fur.
Gaiters are a must for the Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest. Safari ants are everywhere. Even with the gaiters, I had ants climbing up my pants and biting my legs.
This is the Habinyanja gorilla group. It's 30 members strong - we saw about 16 of them.
Those black bundles of fur behind me are gorillas.
Feasting on the rainforest foliage.
The family's great silverback.
Soaking in the views where the countryside meets the rainforest.
Shopping for artwork in Buhoma Village.
We spent two weeks with our rockstar driver Musa.
LOCATIONS IN BWINDI IMPENETRABLE RAINFOREST
There are four areas to track the mountain gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest - Buhoma, Nkuringo, Rujija and Rushaga. These four sectors are where 15 habituated gorilla families reside, groups ranging in size from six to 20+ members. Nshongi is the largest family with 25 members. The UWA allots eight tracking permits per day, per gorilla family accompanied by UWA rangers. Visitors get exactly one hour with the gorillas once they are spotted. When I arranged our permits through Gorilla Tours, I sent them our first, second and third choices for gorilla families to track. Habinyanja was our first choice, and we got it.
Permits are currently $700 per person, and can be secured up to two years in advance. When we visited, they were only $500, so the demand is definitely growing. Once our permits were secured by Gorilla Tours, they sent an e-mail with scanned copies and retained the originals until we arrived. Initially, it made me a nervous to pay $2,000 for the permits a year before the hike, knowing I'd only receive scanned copies. But other travelers reassured me that this was the Ugandan system, and that our tour operator was reliable.
We were up at sunrise on trek morning to make the 7AM call time for our gorilla adventure. Buhoma’s Visitor Centre was located next to the Buhoma Community Rest Camp where we joined 20 other trekkers eager to start the morning briefing with the UWA. The lead ranger walked us through the day, covering guidelines and regulations – most of the information very familiar to all of us. There was no doubt that everyone had spent months reading up on rules, tips, dos and don’ts to be ready for the big day. We then splintered off into three smaller groups, everyone heading one to two hours in opposite directions by Land Cruiser to track their permitted gorilla groups - Mubare, Rushegura and Habinyanja.
Our journey on foot into the Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest was an adventure in itself. I’ve explored my share of tropical jungles, but nothing as remote and off-the-beaten-path as Bwindi. It truly felt like the edge of the world. No paths, no people - just untouched rainforest that we needed machetes to get through. It wasn't the longest hike of my life, but the terrain made it one of the most challenging with dense overgrowth, unruly ferns, safari ants, uneven footing, slippery slopes, giant bugs, hanging vines and muddy inclines. Truly, a badass adventure.
The mountain gorillas are constantly on the move, and the rangers can't predict how long it will take to find them. Some groups find the gorillas in an hour, while others are searching for five hours. It took us two hours to find the Habinyanja group. The permits limit trekkers to 60 minutes with the gorillas, and the clock starts the minute the primates come into sight. We were a group of seven hikers, but completely outnumbered by the 16 mountain gorillas that surrounded us. The endangered primates were a surreal sight, seemingly unfazed by our smiles, stares and camera snaps. For the full hour, we sat amongst the trees and watched in awe. There were baby gorillas that played in the branches; the Silverback that cleaned the coats of other gorillas; females that munched on bamboo reeds; and several group members that sprawled out asleep on the ground around us. It was the quickest one hour of my life!
THINGS TO BRING
A small daypack loaded with a camera, water, lunch, compact rain jacket and tip money for the amazing rangers. Hiking sticks are also helpful for the jungle terrain.
WHAT TO WEAR
Most trekkers were outfitted in safari clothes. I wore lightweight North Face hiking pants, a Dri-fit tank top, Dri-fit pullover, thick hiking socks, Gaiters, hiking shoes and a bandana. I'd say the Gaiters were the most important item because they added a layer of protection against the safari ants. Even with the Gaiters, the ants crawled up my legs and bit me, but it could have been worse.
THINGS TO DO IN BUHOMA
This 2km trek along the Munyaga River to reach this 33ft waterfall takes approximately three hours round trip. High possibility of monkey sightings.
RAINFOREST HIKE TO NKURINGO
It's a 10km uphill hike to reach Nkuringo from Buhoma. This trek cuts straight through the Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest, but unlike the gorilla tracking, this hike is on a proper trail. Hikers must be accompanied by a guide - we booked ours through Nkuringo Walking Safaris. It's a grueling hike that takes five to seven hours, so best done as a one-way adventure where your driver meets you in Nkuringo with the safari vehicle and luggage. Note that it will be a seven-hour journey from Buhoma to Nkuringo for the driver because the only route is a 120km bumpy road around the rainforest.
HOW MANY NIGHTS IN BUHOMA
Three nights, knowing the the gorilla trek will eat up one full day.
WHERE TO STAY
If you have plans to visit the Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest, make sure to map out lodging options based on the gorilla group you are tracking. There are different meeting points for the different gorilla groups, and you want to make sure yours is reachable in a reasonable amount of time. The distances in this a part of the country are deceiving because there are no direct roads through the Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest. For example, on a map the Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge appears to be a mere 12 km from the Buhoma Visitors Centre, a meeting point for three of the gorilla groups. However, it's a seven hour drive because the only route is the road around the rainforest. So, if you're tracking the Mubare, Rushegura or Habinyanja family, do not book a stay in Nkuringo.
BUHOMA COMMUNITY REST CAMP
The Buhoma Community Rest Camp sits at the edge of the jungle, very close to the meeting point for tracking the Buhoma gorilla families. The camp is made up of six green safari tents, two bandas and a dormitory built up a lush mountainside that overlooks the rainforest. Guests in the tents are treated to spectacular views of the jungle, and sometimes the resident monkeys. The tents are equipped with beds, a storage bench, private shower and toilet (nothing fancy, very rustic).
Upscale lodge made up of eight eco-friendly cottages surrounded by the Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest. The Buhoma Lodge rooms are spacious and elegantly furnished with verandas that open up to sweeping views of the surrounding rainforest.
GORILLA SAFARI LODGE
The beautiful Gorilla Safari Lodge sits on a hill with panoramic views of the rainforest below. The 18 cabin-style rooms are incredibly spacious. Rooms include a bed, wardrobe, sitting area, large bathroom and private wood balcony.
QUEEN ELIZABETH NATIONAL PARK
For the most popular tourist destination in Uganda, head to Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP). This part of the country boasts a variety of activities including safari game drives, safari boat trips, crater lakes, chimpanzee tracking and more. The park is home to more than 600 bird species and more than 95 mammal species including the rare tree climbing lions. Visit the UWA QENP page for a complete list of activities, prices and general park info - it's very comprehensive for planning purposes.
My favorite adventure in Uganda? Our hike down into the Kyambura Gorge to track wild chimpanzees.
They call Uganda the primate capital of the world, and it's true. It's absolutely incredible to see gorillas, chimpanzees and so many species of monkey in the wild.
We took a boat safari on the Kazinga Channel and spotted this massive hippo surrounded by grazing buffalo.
This guy decided he needed to rest, which also gave us a much-needed break.
About to enter the jungle and climb down into the Kyambura Gorge, also known as the Valley of the Apes.
The first of many African Elephants we spotted on safari in QENP.
Private safari vehicles are how most tourists get around Uganda. We rented ours for two weeks.
The chimpanzees walked across this tree that functioned as a bridge over a flowing river. So we followed them.
Crossing the "bridge" in the jungle.
What made the Kyambura chimpanzee tracking so exciting was that the animals were constantly on the move.
Bucket list adventure.
I think this is an African Fish Eagle.
There were so many hippos in the Kazinga Channel.
Our safari tent at the Queen Elizabeth Bush Lodge, the perfect location for our stay in the national park.
After dinner, armed guards walk guests back to their tents for moments like this. We found this giant hippo peacefully grazing right in front of our door.
Wild vervet monkeys were constantly running through Queen Elizabeth Bush Lodge.
Antelope crossing the dirt roads on our morning safari.
We shot this from our tent porch at the Queen Elizabeth Bush Lodge. The lodge's location is completely epic, perched above the Kamera River. Every morning we woke up to views of wild elephants and buffalo bathing in the water below us.
The buffalo look like a safari painting.
QENP ENTRANCE FEE
$40 USD per person.
THINGS TO DO IN QENP
Dozens of crater lakes are scattered throughout Uganda, several of which can be found in Queen Elizabeth National Park. The lakes offer up a number of tourist activities including short hikes, biking and boating.
ISHASHA GAME DRIVE
The park's rare tree climbing lions can only be found in the Ishasha sector of the park where elephants, buffalo, antelope, kobs, waterbuck, warthogs and much more game reside.
KASENYI PLAINS GAME DRIVE
Head to the Kasenyi Plains for the largest concentration of game in QENP, and the best opportunity to see lions.
KAZINGA CHANNEL BOAT SAFARI
A boat launch trip on the Kazinga Channel is a must-do while in QENP. Two hour safaris are offered throughout the day - we opted for a late afternoon safari because I read we'd have a better chance of seeing elephants. There are a couple options for the boat launch trip. The UWA runs a 40-seater boat for $30 per person, and it departs at 9 AM, 11 AM, 3 PM and 5 PM. The luxurious Mweya Lodge also offers a trip, on a smaller boat for a more intimate experience. that departs at 11 AM and 2 PM. E-mail the lodge for the most up to date pricing.
KYAMBURA GORGE CHIMPANZEE TRACKING
Kyambura sits in the far east sector of QENP, and it's often called the Valley of the Apes because of the chimpanzees that live in the jungle oasis. An armed ranger leads two trips a day to track the primates (departure times at 8 AM and 1 PM) with a group of six permitted hikers. It's a very similar concept to the chimpanzee tracking in the Kibale Rainforest, only the Kyambura Gorge is more beautiful, less crowded and a third of the price. The hike itself is incredible. We followed our ranger down into the gorge where we found a group of highly active chimpanzees. Unlike the gorillas, these guys were on the move, and we literally found ourselves running and climbing our way through the jungle to keep up with them. I booked our permits a year in advance. (PRICE: $50 USD per person)
MARAMAGAMBO FOREST WALK
An unguided 1km stroll from the park Visitors Centre to Jacana Lodge that leads through the forest. High chance of seeing monkeys on this walk.
HOW MANY NIGHTS IN QENP
Four to five nights, there's lots to do in QENP.
WHERE TO STAY IN QENP
KASENYI SAFARI CAMP
Upscale safari camp that sits on the rim of Lake Bunyampaka in the park's Kasenyi savanna. Kasenyi Safari Camp is made up of eight tents complete with ensuite bathrooms and private verandahs. Wild game is often sighted around the camp including lions, elephants, buffalo, hyena and warthogs.
QUEEN ELIZABETH BUSH LODGE
Queen Elizabeth Bush Lodge is one of the best options in the park - clean, iconic safari style tents that overlook the Kamera River where elephants, buffalo and hippo congregate all hours of the day. The spacious tents open up to wooden porches ideal for game viewing, and all have private bathrooms with outdoor showers and sand toilets. Wildlife close encounters are common on the property. Armed guards escort guests to their rooms in the evenings - we found a grazing hippo blocking our front door one night after dinner. Buffalo, monkeys and warthogs were also common sightings for us in the camp.
It's a beautiful drive through Uganda's rolling tea fields to reach the rainforest setting of Kibale National Park. The 795 sq km region is home to 351 tree species inhabited by 13 species of primate. Visit the UWA Kibale page for a complete list of activities, prices and general park info - it's very comprehensive for planning purposes.
On our drive to Kibale, a troop of baboons appeared in the middle of the dirt road.
Mama and baby.
Children on their way to school.
We saw so many species of monkey wandering the grounds of the Kibale Primate Lodge.
Tea fields on our drive to Kibale.
These baboons were just a few steps from our room at the Kibale Primate Lodge.
There were far more tourists chimpanzee tracking in the Kibale Rainforest compared to the Kyambura Gorge.
A real life Jungle Book.
Found this guy relaxing on the forest floor.
Current price for chimpanzee tracking in Kibale is $200 per person.
Uganda is home to dozens of incredible craters and crater lakes.
I think this too is an African Fish Eagle.
THINGS TO DO IN KIBALE
BIGODI WETLANDS SANCTUARY
A wonderful two to three hour guided swamp walk to see a variety of wild monkeys that live in the surrounding wetlands. The monkeys are around all day, so any time is good for the stroll that starts at the KAFRED office on the Fort Portal side of Bigodi. Lucky visitors will see Red Tailed Monkeys, L'Hoest Monkeys, Black and White Colobus Monkeys, Grey Cheeked Mangabeys and Baboons. We were the only visitors during our afternoon visit. (PRICE: $23 per person)
One of most popular tourist activities in Uganda is the chimpanzee tracking in Kibale. The $200 permits are in high demand, and should be booked well in advance. Groups depart from the Kanyanchu Visitor Centre at 8 AM and 3 PM, and the treks last two to three hours. Group size is limited to six people, but when we visited it seemed like all groups were tracking the same chimpanzees, and the jungle was filled with tourists. We preferred our experience in Kyambura Gorge where chimpanzees (not people) outnumbered us.
Several of the country's iconic crater lakers sit on the outskirts of Kibale.
The rolling tea fields that lead to Kibale are absolutely stunning, especially in the early morning. Stop the safari vehicle and roam the fields to snap a few photos.
HOW MANY NIGHTS IN KIBALE
Three to four nights should allow enough time for chimpanzee tracking, hiking the Bigodi Wetlands and visiting the crater lakes.
WHERE TO STAY IN KIBALE
A luxury lodge option that overlooks one of Kibale's crater lakes with sweeping views. Kyaninga Lodge's nine private cottages burst with creature comforts missing from most tent style lodging in Uganda including soft linens, feather pillows, glass showers, hot water and claw foot tubs. An outdoor pool overlooks Lake Kyaninga.
KIBALE FOREST CAMP
For the classic African safari tent experience, Kibale Forest Camp offers guests a selection of more than 20 tents that surround an on-site restaurant and bar.
KIBALE PRIMATE LODGE
These mid-range and luxury eco-cottages at Kibale Primate Lodge are reasonably priced, and surround a lovely open air bar, restaurant and lounge area. Ideally located in the heart of the Kibale Rainforest, guests are almost certain to spot a variety of wild monkeys scampering around the property. We saw the Black and White Colobus Monkey, Red Colobus Monkey, L’Hoest’s Monkey, Vervet Monkey and Red Tailed Monkey. And one afternoon we returned to our cottage to find a dozen baboons wandering around our front door and sitting in our window. Only in Africa!
Most visitors stop in Fort Poral merely to break up the long journey between Kamapala and Kibale or Queen Elizabeth National Park. While there isn't much game activity, the city is quite pleasant to explore and a nice change of pace from safaris life. And between the Ruwenzori Mountains and the local crater lakes, there's enough to do in Fort Portal to make it a worthwhile stop for travelers.
We stayed two nights at the Ruwenzori View Guest House, and it was lovely.
We drove through so many towns and villages on our roadtrip.
The ease with which Musa navigated us through Uganda was a true super power. In two weeks, I only saw a handul of actual signs.
THINGS TO DO IN FORT PORTAL
AMABERE CAVES & CRATER LAKES
We bicycled through town and into the countryside in search of the Amabere Caves. It was a great way to see Fort Portal, and then enjoy a short hike through the caves, waterfalls and to the surrounding crater lakes. We rented the bicycles from Kabarole Tours, and they provided a map for our self-guided tour.
RUWENZORI MOUNTAINS HIKE
For thrill-seekers interested in experiencing the neighboring Ruwenzori Mountains, there are several trail options available. A popular route is the eight-hour roundtrip ascent and decent of Karangura Peak. This hike, as well as variety of other adventures, can also be booked though Kabarole Tours.
HOW MANY NIGHTS IN FORT PORTAL
Two to three nights.
WHERE TO STAY IN KORT PORTAL
RUWENZORI VIEW GUEST HOUSE
An absolutely lovely guesthouse option in the heart of Fort Portal. Rooms are clean, well-appointed and surround a lovely garden. Highlight of any stay at Ruwenzori View Guest House is the family style dinner - the food is incredible, and their soups are legendary.