Though many travelers come to Rwanda specifically to see the highland gorillas in Volcanoes National Park, the great apes are just one of many types of primate visitors can track during a visit to the country. Frisky golden monkeys can be found in the same forests as the gorillas, while in the southwest, Nyungwe Forest National Park is home to a dozen additional species of primates, including boisterous chimpanzees and sprightly colobus monkeys.
In fact, you might want to consider these alternative experiences even more now thanks to the fact that Rwanda recently raised the prices of its gorilla trekking permits. That money is being put to good use expanding Volcanoes National Park and the habitat in which the gorillas can roam, but can take a chunk out of your travel budget. While relative bargains, these other treks are just as magical.
Volcanoes National Park: Gorillas then Golden Monkeys
Many visitors plan two nights around Volcanoes National Park with one day set aside for a trek to see the gorillas. Stick around, though, so you can spend another watching spirited golden monkeys in action as they frolic through the bamboo forests of the Virunga Mountains. These endangered little primates get their name thanks to a distinctive golden corona of fur around their faces and the fur on their flanks and backs.
Volcanoes National Park contains two habituated troops of golden monkeys, one of which comprises around 80-100 members at any given time. What’s more, they usually live at lower altitudes than the gorillas, so the hike to see them is not nearly as strenuous as ones to visit the great apes.
Once rangers locate the endangered monkeys, visitors can spend an hour watching the energetic creatures go about their daily business of nibbling bamboo leaves, calling to each other in their uniquely raspy voices, and leaping from tree to tree trailed by their long, bushy tails. While shy and tending to stick to the treetops, it is not unusual for the monkeys to come within a few feet of visitors, so keep your camera at the ready.
Chimpanzees and Treetop Walks
If monkeys are truly your mania, however, your destination should be Nyungwe Forest National Park. It only became an official national park in 2005 and covers 970 square kilometers (375 square miles) in the southwest of Rwanda near the borders with Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The area includes primordial rainforests, grasslands, swamps and mountains as high as 2,950 meters (9,678 feet), and is part of Africa’s Great Rift Valley. Scientists believe that it remained forested even throughout the last Ice Age, accounting for the impressive biodiversity of its plants and animals.
A quarter of Africa’s primate species — 13 in all — live here, including chimpanzees, colobus monkeys, owl-faced monkeys, red-tailed monkeys, blue and silver monkeys, L’Hoest’s mountain monkeys, Dent’s mona monkeys and olive baboons among others, many of which exist in few other places around Africa.
There are also nearly 300 bird species to be spotted, such as great blue Turacos, and black-and-white cascade hornbills. The 1,000-plus species of plants include many types of tiny, neon-bright impatiens, enormous drum trees and giant gnarled Sinfonia trees with blood-red blossoms dotting the park’s slopes, not to mention 140 varieties of orchids.
The three marquee experiences here are tracking chimpanzees, spotting colobus monkeys and walking over the impressive Canopy Walk.
Nyungwe Forest National Park contains one of the last intact chimpanzee populations in East Africa, with around 400 members. Most chimpanzee treks take place in Cyamudongo, which is in a small, separate section of the park about a 90-minute drive from the rest of the forest.
The group of 30 or so chimps who live here are most active very early in the morning, so you will have to get up around 4am in order to see them. The park allows only eight visitors maximum to track chimps each day, so you practically have the forest to yourself. The terrain is varied and hikes can be rigorous, lasting several hours in some cases, and at altitudes of over 5,000 feet, so consider your physical limitations beforehand.
Once the rangers locate the chimpanzees, visitors can spend an hour watching them either swinging through the treetops, sedately grooming one another, or even venturing down to the ground for short stints. Every so often the chimps’ piercing hoots will shatter the silence of the forest and ring out for miles around.
Located in the main territory of Nyungwe Forest is one of Rwanda’s most unique visitor attractions, the Canopy Walkway, which was inaugurated in 2010.
Park rangers lead guided nature walks there several times a day, and travelers can see chimpanzees in the morning, then come here for the afternoon. Before setting out, peruse the informational displays at the small visitor’s center. From there, the hike to the Canopy Walkway takes about an hour along the park’s 2.1 km (1.3 miles) Igishigishigi Trail. Along the way, rangers point out indigenous birds and monkeys, talk about the traditional uses for native plants, and discuss the geological and cultural history of the region.
The Canopy Walkway itself is a three-section hanging footbridge suspended 70 meters (230 feet) above the forest floor and running a total length of 160 meters (525 feet). Only eight visitors are allowed on it at any given time, so you don’t have to worry about hordes of tourists ruining your photos or the uninterrupted vistas of the park’s dramatic valleys.
Apart from the guided Canopy Walkway tour, visitors can also hike several other, longer paths through the park to see its mountain peaks, gushing waterfalls and ancient wetlands, as well as the possibility of sighting more chimpanzees.
The third tracking opportunity in this part of the country is to see arguably the cutest of the monkeys that make their home here: black-and-white colobus monkeys. You can easily spot them both on guided treks with rangers and even from the roads to and through the forest thanks to their unmistakable pelts with bright white streaks running along their flanks. Just steer clear of standing under any trees they happen to be traveling past since they have a propensity to…mark their territory
Start budgeting for your visit now since you will have to secure permits, transportation and accommodation.
Permits: Visitors must obtain permits to enjoy any of these experiences. Luckily, all are bookable online in advance from the Rwanda Development Board. Permits to track golden monkeys cost $100 per person, while chimpanzees are $90. Those for the colobus monkeys and the Canopy Walkway are $60 each.
Getting around: Although Rwanda’s roads are in excellent condition, most visitors hire a car and driver. Bookings tend to include pick-up and drop-off in Kigali, the journeys to and from the national parks and keeping a driver on hand for the duration of your visit to take you to any scheduled activities.
At the middle range of the price spectrum, Uber Luxe Safaris offers these services for $370 per day and has a fleet of new vehicles and English-speaking drivers who double as tour guides in many cases.
Volcanoes National Park is a mere two-hour drive from Kigali, which is why many folks make it a day trip. Nyungwe Forest National Park takes five hours to arrive from the capital along beautiful but windy mountain roads.
Where to stay: For your time in Volcanoes National Park, Virunga Lodge is a gorgeous hideaway perched on a mountaintop overlooking Lake Bulera and Lake Ruhondo, with stunning views of the Virunga Mountains and the Musanze Valley. Opened in 2004, it was one of the original safari outfitters in the country and set the standard for luxury travel in Rwanda.
Opened in 2018, One&Only Nyungwe House is the new deluxe option for visiting Nyungwe Forest National Park and recently ranked on the T+L’s It List. The lodge is located on a working tea plantation bordering the forest, and guests are just as likely to see monkeys hanging around the villas as they are out hiking in the national park.
What to bring: As these primates’ habitats are mostly rainforest, it’s a good idea to bring a rain jacket and quick-drying clothes in case there are any expected downpours. Strong sunscreen and mosquito repellant are also good ideas. The trails can be very muddy, so the sturdier your hiking boots the better. Finally, because some of these animals remain aloof or in areas not totally accessible by foot, bring binoculars and a zoom lens in case you need to photograph them from afar.