Editor’s note: Due to COVID-19, a government-issued travel advisory by the Republic of Rwanda has closed the Rwandan borders. Stay updated here.
Anyone who has gone on safari in Kruger National Park, Serengeti National Park, the Okavango Delta, or any of the other popular game reserves in Africa will tell you it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But trekking through the forest on foot in Volcanoes National Park next to a family of silverback gorillas—that’s something else entirely.
Thanks to a surge in luxury hotels and a recently reinvigorated capital city of Kigali, Rwanda is quickly becoming the must-visit African destination for its unique gorilla trekking experience. But planning a trip still requires a bit of knowledge and forethought, so here’s what you need to know to get started.
There are two distinct seasons
Rwanda experiences two distinct seasons. The high season (aka the dry season), is from June through October, and there’s another short dry season from December until mid-January. The low-season, which is the wet season, runs from mid-January through May. While off-peak hotel rates are substantially lower, it rains frequently, and the forests are often slippery and muddy. The consensus? High season offers a better trekking experience.
Planning in advance is crucial.
Volcanoes National Park limits the number of gorilla trekking passes it gives out. Fewer than 100 permits are given out each day, so if you’re visiting during the high season when tourism is at its peak, book your permits ASAP. You’ll want to lock one down at least five months before your trip.
It’s (sigh) expensive
Unfortunately, gorilla trekking in Rwanda is not really a trip you can do on a budget. Off the bat, everyone who wants to go gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park needs a pass, which costs $1,500. And as is typical of safari lodges, hotels in Rwanda are not cheap. That said, there are a handful of accommodations from the semi-affordable to the extremely luxurious. At one end of the spectrum, rooms at Sabyinnyo Silverback Lodge start at around $500 per night, or a standard banda at Virunga Lodge starts at $605 per person per night during the low season. Then there’s the ultra-luxurious One&Only Nyungwe House, where rooms start at around $1,700 per night during the low season and around $2,200 in the high season. Finally, there’s the new and highly anticipated Singita Kwitonda Lodge, where rates rise to $2,200 per night during peak months.
Everyone who goes gorilla trekking does so with a trained guide, who is equipped with a radio and a rifle, and according to an article in the New York Times, no travelers have ever been injured by a silverback during a trek. But hey, it may be thrilling, to say the least. The silverbacks are 300 to 400 pounds, and you’ll probably catch them play-fighting, slapping at one another and rolling on the ground right beside you. Guides know how to communicate with the gorillas through low, growling sounds and body language. Although it may sound frightening, don’t be alarmed if you’re told to avoid direct eye contact and to stand still if a silverback charges.
It’s a bit of a workout.
While there are different hikes at many difficulty levels, gorilla trekking does require a bit of physical fitness. The easiest hikes are considered moderate, and others are very challenging, requiring trekkers to walk up steep, un-pathed fields. The elevation in Volcanoes National Park is around 8,500 feet, so the air is thin and even walking is more strenuous than normal.
There’s more to do and see than gorilla trekking
Getting to Africa is quite a trip, so make the most of your time there. It’s worth spending some time in the newly revitalized capital city of Kigali: Over 20 years since the country’s horrific genocide, Kigali has rebuilt itself into a vibrant and clean city teeming with start-up businesses, interesting art and an exciting food scene influenced by European and African flavors. If you’re hoping to go on a traditional safari to see the Big Five, spend a few days at Ruzizi Tented Lodge in Akagera National Park. If you want to tack on another destination, many travelers will cross the border from Rwanda to Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, where you can live out your Lion King fantasies and see the Great Migration in real life. Or you can head to Zimbabwe, home to Mana Pools National Park and Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve.