Where to See Gorillas: Congo, DRC, Uganda, or Rwanda?
From King Kong to Koko, gorillas have truly captivated human curiosity. To understand the behavior and human-like nature of these rare and precious primates, one must journey to where they roam in the rainforests of central Africa to come face-to-face with our distant relatives. The following four countries support gorilla observation in a safe and protective way. As gorillas strive to survive in our modern day, any time spent with them at the following national parks is an exceptional experience you’ll be sharing on social as a “Throwback Thursday” for years to come.
- Where to go: Located on the northwestern corner of the country is the world-famous Volcanoes National Park. This rainforest is home to one of the highest populations of these beautiful primates, with 178 of them making up 10 habituated gorilla groups of varied sizes, ranging from 11 to 33 family members. History buffs will appreciate that you can follow in the footsteps of American primatologist and conservationist Dian Fossey, who had famously studied the Gorillas in the Mist (the title of her book and film) here and brought worldwide attention to the importance of their conservation.
- When to visit: Gorilla trekking is a year-round activity, but like any rainforest, it’s easier to trek in the dry seasons, which are mid-December to early February and June to September. Park rangers track the groups’ movements year-round, so if you don’t mind muddy boots, the opportunities are still there when the rains come down—just bring your best waterproof gear. In the wet season, the air is crystal clear, so you’ll find great views of the volcanoes and gorillas tend to hang out on the lower slopes of the mountain.
- What you need to know: To support conservation efforts, the Rwanda Development Board only issues 80 gorilla permits daily for $1500 per person—with a max of eight people allowed per group. Each trekking group is “assigned” a gorilla family by a ranger the day-of their trek, according to group size and fitness levels. The pricey permit grants you an hour-long experience with a gorilla group once a park ranger locates them. This price may be steep, but you’ll be in one of the cleanest, most progressive model nations on the continent. Also, 10% of what you pay goes to surrounding communities.
Plus, Rwanda combines easily with a Kenya or Tanzania safari as a two- or three-day add-on. There are daily flights from Nairobi and parts of the Serengeti, and it is only a 2.5 hour drive to get to the rainforest. For those really pressed for time, you can also hire a private helicopter from Kigali.
- Where to go: Technically, travelers can opt for Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, but we prefer the more popular Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, about 30 miles north of Mgahinga. It’s the protected, lush-green abode for more than 400 mountain gorillas, half of the world’s remaining population. A guided trek can bring you to one of 11 family groups with a total of over 160 members, including adorable, must-see gorilla babies. Serious adventurers may want to add the Gorilla Habituation program to their itinerary for a more exclusive experience. This intimate, four-hour hike in Rushaga (the southern part of Bwindi) offers an incredibly unique and rare encounter; meeting gorillas that are not yet fully habituated means you get to help introduce them to human interactions
- When to visit: Gorilla trekking is available anytime, but most people go during the two dry seasons: January to February and June to September. It may be advantageous to opt for the rainy season when the apes are just as present and there’s less competition to secure one of the limited 96 gorilla permits issued per day.
- What you need to know: Permits are $600 regardless of what season you go. Unlike Rwanda, gorilla families or trek areas are assigned at the time you buy your permit, not day-of. This is important information, because it could add up to 2 hours of driving to begin your trek, depending on your assignment and where you’re staying. The permit for Gorilla Habituation is $1500 with a max of four people per group. Warning: Trekking across these regions is not for the faint-hearted thanks to elevation gains of up to 7,500 feet in humid and muddy conditions. It’s a long drive from the capital (9-10 hours) to Bwindi, so we like to combine Uganda trekking into a five-day, or longer, safari to explore other areas of the country. If you can’t swing a few extra days, there are also daily flights to from Entebbe to the forest.
3. Democratic Republic of Congo
- Virunga National Park is temporarily closed to visitors while the park’s operators re-evaluate security measures. The park is tentatively set to reopen in January 2019.
- Where to go: The rainforest-covered volcanoes that host many mountain gorilla habitats across the borders of Uganda, Rwanda, and DR Congo are known as the “virungas,” or volcanoes. Hence, the namesake Virunga National Park in the central eastern part of this country. More than 100 mountain gorillas reside in this UNESCO World Heritage Site, the oldest national park in Africa. Eight accessible gorilla groups roam within, the largest featuring 26 members in the Bageni clan. However, dueling silverbacks may change group dynamics as family drama is continual amongst these extremely societal animals. Don’t worry, the gorillas don’t appear to have much drama with visiting tourists.
- When to visit: Like its neighbors in Rwanda and Uganda, DR Congo has better and drier opportunities to see mountain gorillas from January to February and June to September. However, when the rainfall starts, the gorillas don’t exactly go into hibernation, making gorilla trekking a year-round affair.
- What you need to know: DR Congo is still recovering from a war conflict that ended in 2003, and civil unrest continues to plague parts of the country. However, the government is looking to tourism as a means to come together to build much-needed infrastructure, and move on. The extreme impact of tourism here is part of why we love it; camps are run by the national park and all revenue goes back into supporting gorilla protection.
- An added incentive: Gorilla permits are less expensive than its immediate neighbors, starting at $400 per person. To make this trip extra rewarding, visit the Senkwekwe gorilla orphanage, or spend a magical night sleeping on the edge of Nyiragongo Volcano at 11,383 feet. Plus, Virunga National Park is only 3 hours from Kigali by car, making it extra convenient.
4. Republic of Congo
- Where to go: Head west to Odzala-Kokoua National Park, which includes the vast Congo rainforest basin. This expanse of dense trees, bushes and marshes is known for African forest elephants as well as one of the most diverse primate populations on the continent. It is also believed to have the highest number of western lowland gorillas in Africa. Temperatures are generally hot and muggy, but for the intrepid traveler, it is an amazing opportunity to visit a gorgeous, almost untouched area.
- When to visit: It’s best to go during the dry seasons, from June to September or December to February. Not only do these times allow for better odds for sightings of lowland gorillas gathering fruits, but it’s also when the roads to these parks are less prone to flooding and, therefore, more accessible.
- What you need to know: This is an amazing adventure for seasoned African travelers. You must be willing to tolerate some discomforts (heat, humidity, and insects), but you’ll be rewarded with astounding wildlife diversity in one of the most remote regions in the world. Gorilla permits here are very affordable at $355 per person, but visiting Odzala is more than just seeing gorillas. We recommend spending at least a week so you can get the full experience of staying at all three camps and seeing some of the rarest species of African wildlife, such as the forest elephant, forest buffalo, bongo, sitatunga and many monkey species not found elsewhere.
- As if the wildlife weren’t impressive enough, we’ve really fallen for Odzala as an authentic exploratory destination: from following rainforest trails and game driving across savannahs, to boating, kayaking or river-wading through the area’s rivers, baïs and swamps, Odzala feels like a world apart. If you opt for the seven-day program, bi-weekly charter flights whisk you between camps. While we don’t recommend the 14-15 hour drive to camp, a vehicle transfer is possible.