How To See Gorillas In Rwanda – Complete Guide

RWANDA TRAVEL GUIDE
AND ALL YOU NEED TO PLAN A MOUNTAIN GORILLA TREK

“In all my travels, I’ve never seen a country’s population more determined to forgive, and to build and succeed than in Rwanda.” 

Rick Warren

We went to Rwanda for the mountain gorillas. We left with our pre-conceived notions about Sub Saharan Africa in tatters.

The primates are magnificent. The story of Rwanda’s climb out of the dark and devastating chasm of genocide to be counted among the safest and most progressive countries in the developing world is no less impressive.

If safety concerns are holding you back from embarking on that bucket-list mountain gorilla trek, you should know that Rwanda ranks 31 on the WEF Safety and Security index 2019.

Our visit was an add on to our longer Tanzania itinerary, and one that we dithered over due to the high cost. We are so glad we took the plunge. Then again, our gorilla safari permits cost us exactly half of what it would today.

The subject of human intrusion into the habitat of this endangered species is a real worry. It is my understanding that the pros of wildlife tourism – properly handled – far outweigh the cons.

The gorilla story, as also the success of tiger conservation in India, are cases in point. Community development is critical in anti poaching efforts and poor countries are hugely dependent on tourism dollars to fund them.

There have been reports of Coronavirus lockdowns and the attendant loss of livelihoods increasing instances of poaching across Africa and Asia. Proof that wildlife tourism and conservation are interdependent even with allowances for corruption.

This guide is focused on the mountain gorilla experience with a link to my post on the genocide. I’ve tried to include every little detail that you’ll need to get up close to those gentle giants of the wild.


FEATURED STORIES


Largest Silverback Guhonda looks straight at the camera.

Rwanda – Rubbing Shoulders With Silverbacks!

The magnificent mountain gorillas are Rwanda’s major draw. I am more of an urban explorer and yet, when asked to pick my most memorable travel moments, it is our precious hour with the silverback gorillas that first comes to mind.

Read More

The Extraordinary Renewal Of Rwanda

The Kigali Genocide Memorial is a powerful tribute to the victims of genocide. It is also a testament to the tenacity of a people and their remarkable rise up from that dark and devastating chasm into hope and renewal.

Read More

MORE THINGS TO DO


As an add on to a Tanzanian safari, we just had three full days dedicated to the silverbacks. Rwanda has so much more to offer. Allow ten to twelve days to experience most of it. This is a good ten day itinerary.

OUR RWANDA ITINERARY

Day 1: Arrival Kigali. Transfer to hotel. Overnight Kigali. City tour including visit to genocide museum.
Day 2: Drive (approximately two hours) north to Ruhangeri. View twin lakes. Overnight Ruhengeri (Musanze)
Day 3: Gorilla trekking day! Visit to Musanze market. Return to Kigali late afternoon / early evening. Overnight Kigali
Day 4: Dawn departure to KIG airport to board Coastal Air flight to Arusha, Tanzania.

The gorillas were undoubtedly the highlight. The genocide memorial is unmissable for the insight it provides into Rwanda’s recent history. The two other things that stood out in our all too brief itinerary were the drive up to the twin lakes of Burera and Ruhondo and the market in Musanze where we got to interact with a few locals.

WHAT WE’D DO DIFFERENTLY

I would have liked to have at least one extra day in Ruhangeri to be able to visit Dian Fossey’s grave in Karisoke. It’s a 30-minute drive from the park headquarters and then two or three hours hike (one way) through the forest

Most people – with deeper pockets than ours – reserve two mornings for the Gorilla safari and one afternoon for the golden monkeys (also in the same park). We would have liked to do the same but at $750 per person (at the time) for the gorilla trek and an extensive Tanzanian safari to follow, we settled for the one night in Ruhangeri. We were fortunate to have gotten to the gorillas early on our safari day.

Young silverback on all fours, his back to camera

GORILLA TREK INFO


GORILLA PERMIT COST – RWANDA OR UGANDA?

The most expensive part of a Rwanda trip is the gorilla safari permit that has now been doubled to US$1500 per person. Visitors planning to visit all three national parks can avail the discounted price of US$1050.

The costs are geared to keep visitor numbers low while aiding their much lauded conservation and community development efforts whose results have indeed been spectacular. But it is a huge blow to low budget wildlife enthusiasts.

If gorilla tracking is your primary focus, costs in Uganda are much cheaper at US$700. The longer distance to be covered between Entebbe and Bwindi National Park (it takes nine hours by road as opposed to two hours from Kigali to Musanze) that entailed an extra night’s stay made it less favourable for us in 2014 when the difference was around US$150 per person. It might be worth considering now.

You can also fly from Entebbe to Bwindi in just over an hour. Remember to factor in the extra costs. The treks in Uganda are said to be relatively more arduous, although that will depend more on luck and the gorilla family you are allotted. Uganda also offers a Gorilla Habituation Experience which costs US$1500 but you get to spend four hours with the gorillas vs one hour on a regular trek in both countries.

GORILLA TREK DETAILS

Gorilla trekking is highly regulated keeping in mind the safety of visitors as well as the health of the silverbacks.

  • Only twelve families are habituated to humans. A maximum of 8 visitors are allowed to visit a single family of habituated gorillas per day in oder to minimise contact and risk of disease.
  • Viewing time is limited to one hour.
  • Gorilla Trek permits can be purchased directly on the Rwanda Development Board site or through safari/tour operators.
  • Permits are limited so you need to book well in advance if your dates are not flexible.
  • Minimum age for a gorilla trek is 15 years.
  • Once confirmed permits cannot be cancelled, changed or transferred.
  • Exceptions:
    • Those showing visible signs of illness after having travelled all the way to Ruhengeri. They will not be allowed to join a trek and will be offered a 50% refund.
    • Visitors who fail to track gorillas the whole day as a result of the Gorilla group’s movement shall be given another chance or receive full refund on their permit. 
    • However, those who would have tracked the whole day and failed to make contact with a gorilla family for whatever reason will be refunded 75% of the tracking fee.
  • You’ll need to indicate your preferred type of trek – Easy, Medium or Hard – in advance. Gorilla families will be allotted accordingly.
  • It is a moderately high altitude trek, so expect to get slightly breathless in the steeper parts.
  • If on a tour, your driver will drive you to the briefing point at the RDB Tourism & Conservation offices in Kinigi. Registration time is 7am. You’ll be served beverages and biscuits and get to watch an Intore dance troupe perform.
  • The driver will then drive you to the departure point and wait there for your return.
  • If you aren’t on a tour and are not self driving, your hotel will be able to hire transport. Cost will depend on distance to the park.
  • Each group will be accompanied by a guide, some armed guards and several trackers who’ll help hack through the jungle. A group of forward trackers stay connected via radio. You can also hire porters for a small fee.

GORILLA VIEWING RULES:

  • Opt out if you have the slightest sign of a cold or flu coming on. You’ll get a 50% refund if you show visible signs.
  • Maintain a distance of 7 meters (about 22 feet) from the gorillas. And do not touch any of the gorillas even if they approach you.
  • Do not eat or drink around the gorillas. And do not spit in the park. Use tissues and bring them back!
  • Cover your mouth and turn away from the gorillas if you feel the need to cough or sneeze.
  • Do not talk loudly in the presence of the gorillas.
  • Turn off your flash and avoid sudden movements so as not to startle them.
  • Staring is rude even in the wild. If a gorilla, especially the lead male, approaches you, stay still and adopt a submissive crouch with eyes downcast.
  • Respect the fact that you are a guest of the gorillas. Do not leave behind wrappers or litter of any kind.
Intore dancer at the gorilla trek briefing centre in Kinigi.

THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO TO RWANDA


RWANDA FAST FACTS

  • Capital: Kigali
  • Currency: Rwandan Franc – RWF (Latest exchange rate.)
  • Language(s): Kinyarwanda, French, English and Swahili
  • Population: 13 million
  • Area: 26,338 sq km (10,169 sq miles)
  • Electricity Voltage: 230V
  • Electricity Sockets: Type C and J

BEST TIME TO TRAVEL TO RWANDA

Rwanda enjoys temperate weather with temperatures ranging from 15°C (59°F) to 30°C (86°F). The Virunga mountains are the coldest. Kigali is in the middle with average temperatures around 21°C (70°F).

Primate tracking in Rwanda is possible year round. The dry season between June to September and mid December through Jan is recommended for gorilla tracking. The wet season through March and April apparently affords better Chimpanzee sightings.

GETTING TO RWANDA

Many American, European, Middle Eastern and Asian airlines operate flights to Kigali. We flew Qatar Airways from Chennai to Kigali and returned from Dar es Salaam.

RwandAir is the flag carrier that connects many African destinations. We flew onward to Arusha (in Tanzania) with Coastal Aviation.

Search for the best flight connections on Skyscanner.

VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR RWANDA

Since 2018, travellers from most countries are eligible for free visa on arrival for stays up to 30 days. Citizens of countries not on the prescribed list can also avail visa on arrival for a fee ranging from $30-$100. Credit cards are accepted. Check latest visa regulations on the Rwanda immigration website.

Travellers wishing to visit Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda simultaneously can apply for the East Africa Tourist Visa (EATV) on arrival. It can also be availed online, pre-departure, at this Rwanda EGovt services portal or from Rwanda Diplomatic missions abroad. If acquiring the EATV visa before travel, your first entry point must be the country through which you applied for the visa.  The East Africa Tourist Visa costs US$100, is valid for 90 days and is multiple entry (if staying within the three countries).

VACCINATIONS

Rwanda is yellow fever free, so a yellow fever vaccination certificate is not required for travellers coming from yellow fever non-endemic countries and those without an active transmission outbreak. Check out this list in case you are travelling to or from any of the countries in the endemic list. And please check your home country advisory for travel to Africa.

India requires citizens travelling to Rwanda to be vaccinated against yellow fever and carry an international certificate as proof. Failing to do so might entail institutional quarantine upon your return.

Here’s a list of GOI authorised yellow fever vaccination centers across the country. Some of them only function a few days a week so make sure you book an appointment well in advance. You’ll need to carry your passport. Current charges are ₹300/- per dose. It is valid for ten years.

The twin twin lakes Burera and Ruhondo about an hour's drive from Musanze.

WHERE TO STAY IN RWANDA


Kigali has a variety of mid-range options. We stayed in the Kigali Serena which was pure comfort.

Ruhengeri/Musanze is limited in the mid price range. It’s either over the top – think US$1500 – US$3000 per person per night! – or very basic.

We opted to stay in Mountain Gorillas lodge in Kinigi, close to the Volcanoes Park entrance. It is rather basic for the price, and food, at the time, was nothing to write home about. But the setting is picturesque and cottages large and comfortable, if a bit cold. They light log fires in the rooms every evening and place hot water bottles in the super comfortable beds. Our request for an electric portable heater was instantly met. All things considered, a solid choice given the limited offering. Going by current reviews it continues to be the most popular mid range option.

The Ingagi Park View Lodge and Tiloreza Volcanoes Ecolodge are new properties that appears to have good reviews.

Amohoro Guest House, owned by people who run a safari outfit of the same name, is a great low budget option close to town.

With the trek fee hike and the burgeoning of several high end properties, Rwanda is clearly positioning itself as a luxury safari destination. If budget is no consideration the Bisate Lodge, Singita’s Kwitonda Lodge, Virunga Lodge, Sabinyo Silverback Lodge and One & Only Gorilla’s Nest are all stunning properties in fabulous settings that will organise transfers and multiple experiences for you.

The Bishop’s House, a beautiful new property located in Musanze town (approx. a 25min ride to the park.) appears marginally less pricey.

Check availability and accommodation options for other towns and parks in Rwanda in Booking.com or Expedia.com

WHERE TO EAT

Most lodges catering to the gorilla trek crowd are all inclusive. A few decent restaurants service those staying in or around Musanze.
Pailotte seems to be a favourite.

Kigali has a relatively buzzing restaurant scene.
Disclaimer: The restaurant we ate at on our first night is currently closed. We dined at the Serena on our final evening. The following are highly recommended by seasoned traveller friends whose opinions I trust.

  • Mocha Cafe – What to order: Hummus topped with meat, Yemeni chapatis, avocado sandwich, Yemeni coffee.
  • Repub Lounge – African, Fusion. Request table with view. What to order: Sambaza (fried sardines), Liboke Chicken, Vegetarian Matoke Stew
  • Alfa Organics – Vegan – What to order: Wraps, sandwiches, Tofu ‘eggs’, smoothies.

RWANDA TRAVEL TIPS


GETTING AROUND RWANDA

We used JK Safaris to work out all the logistics of our trip from booking our hotels and permits to our onward flight tickets. They did an excellent job. Rwanda Eco Tours also comes highly recommended.

You can easily organise a trip independently. Book your gorilla permits well in advance and then get your hotels to organise your transfers. Guides are not really required if you have a knowledgeable English speaking driver.

If on a budget, and hotels are unable to organise transfers, you can hop on a Virunga Express bus to Musanze for under 2000 francs. You can get your lodge to arrange transport to and from the gorilla trek briefing centre in Kinigi next morning. Read entry above for trek details.

Self-driving around Rwanda will require an international driving licence. Most of the main roads are well paved but the smaller rural roads are not and can get pretty messy during the rains.

Although there are many car rental companies that charge more or less the same rates, make sure the vehicles are roadworthy and the air conditioning in order. You’ll need to allow plenty of time to change vehicles if it does not meet your standards. Limoz was the company recommended by our Kigali hotel.

Employing a local driver might cost just marginally more than driving yourself and save you much of the hassle.

PACKING ESSENTIALS FOR A GORILLA TREK

Generic travel items including electronics and photography gear are covered in my essential packing list. Listed below are a few things you’ll need for the gorilla trek.

  • Sturdy shoes with good grip. Good sneakers are fine but waterproof shoes might be handy in case it rains. Hiking socks that you can tuck your pants into can keep bugs from crawling up your legs. Most hotels and lodges can arrange for gaiters for a small fee. You shoes will invariably be coated with mud. Hotel staff usually offer to clean them upon your return.
  • A pair of gloves – gardening gloves are best – will protect your hands from scratches.
  • Weather can change from warm and humid to wet and cold, but you’ll have to contend with nettles, so long pants and long-sleeved shirts are a must. Not too thin. I had two layers on. Stick to neutral colours.
  • A light jacket and waterproof outer layer in case of rain.
  • A small backpack for documents, snacks and water. Carry non messy snacks like sandwiches, energy bars or fruit.
  • Tap water is not safe to drink. Filtered water dispensers are common in hotels. While bottled water is plentiful and reasonably priced in most places, carrying refillable water bottles and portable water filters would be eco friendlier options.

GENERAL PRECAUTIONS WHILE TRAVELLING IN RWANDA

  • Local currency is preferred but USD is accepted in larger establishments at a pinch. Just make sure you are carrying newish bills dated 2008 or later.
  • Have a reasonable cash back-up. It is best to change money in Kigali. Smaller towns might not have ATMs. Credit card usage while apparently on the rise is still limited to larger establishments. You’ll need cash for local markets.
  • Non-biodegradable plastic is banned in Rwanda. Any plastic bags in your possession can be confiscated at border checkpoints and might incur fines.
  • It is mandatory to buy travel insurance with adequate medical cover before you arrive. We never travel without insurance.
  • Taking photographs of military buildings and of army personnel in town is prohibited.
  • Drones will need to be pre-registered by a Rwandan national.
  • Tipping, usually in cash, is discretionary. Preferably in local currency since exchanging small bills is not an easy task for porters and service staff. A ballpark figure for tipping guides is the equivalent of $10 per day and for drivers around $2 per day.
  • Homosexuality isn’t illegal, but it isn’t widely accepted either. LGBT travellers are advised discretion.
  • The genocide is a sensitive subject. Be respectful and refrain from joking about it or bringing it up in irrelevant conversations.

ESSENTIAL READING

Explorers & Conservationists Of The Virunga Volcanoes (PDF EBook)
A Good Man In Rwanda (BBC Story)
Portraits of Reconciliation (Photo Essay)
The Triumph Of Evil (Reports & Interviews)
Left To Hell (Book)

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Largest silverback, Guhonda, in a pensive pose and staring straight at the camera - Pinterest Pin
Mountain gorilla munching bamboo shoot - Pinterest Pin

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