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Immerse yourself in the world of mountain gorillas in Rwanda with the assistance of this 3 day itinerary. This travel guide is ideal if you are dreaming of an unforgettable encounter with these majestic creatures in their natural habitat, but are limited on time (such as a stopover on your way to a safari). If you are not constrained by time, you can easily add multiple adventure-packed days in Rwanda.
Mountain gorillas are found only in the mountains of Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Uganda. Volcanoes National Park in the Virunga Mountains in Rwanda is a perfect place to search for this critically endangered species.
We fell in love with the beauty of Rwanda and the warmth of the people. Rwanda, a small landlocked country, known as the “Land of a Thousand Hills,” is strikingly clean. Not once did we see a single piece of litter. Non-biodegradable plastic bags have been banned in Rwanda for over a decade. Once a month, every Rwandan between 18 to 65 years of age participates in cleaning their home and country. This day is called Umuganda Day and is on the last Saturday of each month.
When to Visit Mountain Gorillas
Gorilla trekking is a year-round activity. Rwanda’s longest dry season spans from June to mid-September. We visited in late August. It was cold in the morning and at night, and warm midday. April and May are rainy, and the trekking can be more strenuous.
Gorilla Safari Tour Operator
There are several gorilla safari tour operators in Rwanda. We selected African Jungle Adventures Ltd. to create the perfect tour for us. African Jungle Adventures Ltd. provides customizable tours in Rwanda ranging from one day to multiple days. If you’re even shorter on time than this itinerary, there is a one day tour option that picks you up from your Kigali hotel around 4:00 am and returns you back to Kigali that night. Their longer tours can add many additional excursions, including tracking for chimpanzees, golden monkeys, and gorilla tracking in Uganda. African Jungle Adventures, Ltd. exceeded all of our expectations. We were very pleased with the timeliness, knowledge, and professionalism of our guides and driver.
Cost of Rwanda’s Gorilla Permit
You need a permit to visit mountain gorillas, and it is quite expensive. The cost of the gorilla permit in Rwanda is $1,500 per person. Gorilla permits are only issued to those over 15 years of age. To promote tourism throughout the country and encourage longer stays, the price is discounted for travelers extending their stays in Rwanda and visiting Rwanda’s other national parks.
You can feel good about the steep price tag as a portion of the revenues collected from the permits have funded clean drinking water, schools, and hospitals to the local community, along with funding the gorillas’ continued protection. Police and armed rangers are hired to protect the gorillas from poachers. Trackers are paid to hike into the forest every day to monitor the gorillas’ movements and feeding habits.
Confirm Your Gorilla Permit First
Book your gorilla permit first and before finalizing any non-refundable segment of your trip. The gorilla permits are in high demand with a very limited supply. Volcanoes National Park is home to ten gorilla families available for visiting. Only eight tourists are permitted to visit each gorilla family per day for a maximum of one hour. Your tour operator can obtain your gorilla permit for you or you can email the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) at [email protected].
Travel to Kigali
Fly into the Kigali International Airport (KGL), and transfer to the Kigali Serena Hotel. The hotel is located just over 6 miles from the Kigali airport, and had all the Western comforts. The hotel’s restaurant overlooked the inviting swimming pool and had plenty of delicious options. The room was immaculate and comfortable. The hotel felt very secure. Everyone entering the hotel had to pass through airport style security along with a thorough scan of their bags.
Day 1 – City Tour and Genocide Memorials
I recommend you spend your first full day in Rwanda touring Kigali and visiting the powerful genocide memorials. This also allows a hedge against flight delays. The memorials provide a sobering look into Rwanda’s harsh and tragic recent past.
WARNING: The memorials are very graphic. However, the local guides provide you with firsthand history and insight into the period making it a deeply personal experience.
- Ntarama Memorial Site is dedicated to the estimated 5,000 people who lost their lives there. Ntarama is a small red brick church covered with holes from grenades and gun shots. Blood still stains the walls. Clothes of those who perished there are strewn down from the walls. Cracked skulls and bones are stacked on shelves. Coffins rest on top of the wooden bench seats. We were told each coffin is the final resting spot for approximately 100 bodies. I will never forget the feeling of horror combined with heartbreak I felt while at Ntarama.
- Nyamata Memorial Site is a larger brick church in comparison to Ntarama. Clothes are bundled on the wooden bench seats in the interior of the church. Behind the church are large mass graves. An estimated 50,000 people are buried at Nyamata. There’s a basement containing the bones and skulls of thousands of dead from the genocide.
- Kigali Genocide Memorial walks you through the history of what led to the genocide, the horrific acts during the genocide, the aftermath and recovery. The remains of over 250,000 people are buried there.
Alternatively, you can coordinate with your tour operator to substitute the city tour and head out into the jungle for a wildlife safari.
Day 2 – Gorilla Trekking
Your tour operator picks you up at your Kigali hotel around 4:30 am and transfers you two hours to Volcanoes National Park in the Virunga Mountains. Prior to starting your gorilla trek, you are briefed about the process, rules, and are assigned a gorilla family. While with the gorillas, you must be very quiet and refrain from making any sudden movements. If the gorillas move closer to you than the distance instructed by your guide, remain still and avoid making direct eye contact. During our visit, one gorilla walked toward me and brushed against my leg. While you are permitted to snap as many pictures as your heart desires, you are prohibited from using the flash as the bright light scares the gorillas. If you’re sick during your visit, you will not be permitted to visit the gorillas as they are susceptible to catching human diseases that can be deadly to them.
After receiving your briefing, you are driven to the base of the volcanoes to start your ascent through the Rwanda jungle in search of your assigned gorilla family. Generally, being super fit is not a prerequisite for this experience, but some degree of physical fitness is needed. Many trekkers were living out the dreams of their retirement, and almost all had successful treks. Each day, trackers hike up into the mountains in search of the gorilla family. They communicate the location to the guides via walkie-talkies (or something comparable). While receiving our pre-trek briefing, the guides did their best to match tourists with the degree of physical fitness expected to be required to reach the gorilla family.
The average trek traversing deep into the forest lasts 2 to 6 hours. You can expect both sun and rainfall. There is no distinct path since the gorillas wander freely. Your guide often clears paths by slicing through thick vegetation using a machete. At times, the prickly bushes are chest level.
Be prepared for the possibility that the trek can be very steep and strenuous. Our trek was 8 hours. After a few hours of our trackers being unable to locate the gorilla family we were assigned, our guide turned us around and up a completely different mountain in search of another gorilla family that had no prior visit from tourists that day. Two members of our group were unable to make it to the gorillas. A third member was practically carried down the mountain by two porters (but he made it!). Based on our discussions with our guides and other travelers, our experience was not the norm. I mention it mainly to remind you that you’re searching for unpredictable wildlife and there are no guarantees.
My heart started beating faster when we finally found and approached our gorilla family. As I observed their interactions, I was completely awestruck. We were close enough to hear their every movement. They seemed undisturbed by our presence. Their interactions seemed similar to human families. The mommy gorilla was trying to rest while her baby was crawling all over her and swinging from tree branches. The dominant male silverback leads the troop. Only adult male gorillas become silverbacks. The fur on their back turns silver, hence the name “silverback,” around 12 years of age.
What to Wear/Bring Gorilla Trekking
- Camera Accessories – Bring a camera, extra batteries, and extra camera cards.
- Long Sleeves and Pants – Long layers will help protect you from ants, insects, and the prickly vegetation.
- Waterproof Hiking Boots with Good Ankle Support
- Raincoat – Rainfall is common and unpredictable.
- Sweater – It can be cool in the morning and evenings, and hot midday.
- Garden Gloves – Garden gloves may come in handy while maneuvering through the thick and prickly bushes you may encounter during your hike.
- Gaiters – Gaiters will protect your shoes and lower pants from dust and mud.
- Hiking Sticks (optional)
- Plenty of Water – My husband and I always bring along a CamelBak Bladder when we go hiking.
- Packed Lunch and Snacks
- Insect Repellent
- Cash – Bring cash for tipping your guides and trackers. We were told $20 was a fair tip for the guide and $10 for the trackers. Before starting the hike, you can also hire a porter to carry your backpack or other belongings. They were charging $10 at the time of our hike. The porters went above and beyond for members of our group who were struggling with the trek.
Where to Stay Near the Mountain Gorillas
We were lavishly pampered at the secluded Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge located at 8,251 ft. above sea level. This boutique lodge nestled into mountains is the perfect setting to unwind and relax after a strenuous day of trekking. We reflected upon the memories of the day snuggled up to our private fireplace with a glass of wine in hand. Mount Sabyinyo, an extinct volcano marking the intersection of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, dramatically stands in the backdrop. The summit of Mount Sabyinyo at 11,959 ft. appears serrated, and we were told “Sabyinyo” means “old man’s teeth.”
While the lodge is quite expensive, averaging $1,111 per night per person sharing during high season, the cottages are luxurious and you can expect to be catered to beyond measure. We were welcomed with refreshments. Our hiking shoes, gaiters, and dirty clothes were taken from us and returned as clean as new. We were given slippers to walk around the property. Our fireplace in our beautifully furnished and detached cottage was started for us. All meals and house wines were included with our stay. A selection of wines from South Africa and Italy were extra. Hot water jugs were tucked under our blanket at night making our bed warm and toasty.
Day 3 – Return to Kigali
After a leisure morning at your lodge, you are transferred back to Kigali to return home or continue exploring elsewhere.