Wild Mountain gorillas are found in one place in the entire world – The Virunga Mountains in Central Africa. The 433 square kilometer conservation area is made up of 3 different national parks (Mgahinga, Volcanoes and Virunga) located at the border intersections of Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo.
All three parks offer similar gorilla trekking experiences. The Rwanda gorilla trekking experience seems to be the fastest to get to from the airport, but it also carries the most expensive permit at $750 per non-resident vs. $400 in Congo and $600 in Uganda.
We chose Rwanda for a few reasons including the shorter transit time to the park, they have the most habituated gorillas & the price with transportation was less expensive. Plus we love Rwanda, so we couldn’t imagine giving our first gorilla encounter to any country other than Rwanda.
Our experience was beyond what either of us expected. We were assigned our fantastic guide, Placide, and the Pablo Family, the largest gorilla family in the world consisting of 36 members including 3 silverback males. Until recently, the Pablo group was not available for tourist viewing because it was considered a research only family. The Pablo family is said to be similar in size, location and some behaviors as the Susa Family made famous by Dian Fossey.
On most days, the Pablo and Susa families are said to be the most difficult to reach. The hike was tough, but not overwhelming. Our group took plenty of rests along the way to stop and enjoy the incredible views as we climbed about 800 meters up the volcano. We went during the height of dry season in July, so the chance of noticeable rain, flooding, slippery terrain was minimal. The worst elements we had to deal with were a few nettles (plants with barbs that cause itching) and some slightly slippery very thick terrain our guides had to cut through to get to the Pablo Gorilla Family location.
We were quite lucky because we only had to hike about 90 minutes total from the park’s parking area to the location of the gorillas. Some days the treks take far longer to locate any one of the families. We first spotted one of the silverback males just outside a small dense circle of bamboo. He moved into the bamboo, where we all followed to see a mother and the tiniest cutest baby with a cockatoo like hairdo. After that the little area seemed to explode with gorillas. We could hear the trees and leaves swishing and cracking as they all moved throughout the bamboo and the ground. The brush was really thick which made it hard to see clearly at first, but we moved past the thick patch into an open area. In the open we saw several of the members roll, walk, run and play. Early in the hour the gorillas seemed unsure of us and were less active. About 45 minutes in the youngsters really came alive which at one point caused the 2nd silverback to come charging out of the hidden dense area to warn the youngsters and all of us to keep on our best behavior. We got to see a few chest poundings and lots of silly playing. One of the youngsters seemed particularly interested in me and kept testing the distance between us by coming closer and closer. One of the trackers was right behind me and consistently communicated with grunts to the wee one to watch himself and not come past a certain line.
We both agree the most treasured part of the morning was observing how they all watched out for one another. The family dynamic was so strong and obvious how they communicated with each other, and how they looked at each other and all of us. Also, watching their curiosity unfold was fascinating. Their mannerisms are so humanly readable you may forget for a split second you are watching a wild animal in its natural habitat in the middle of a forest on the side of a volcano in the middle of Africa!
Things to Note Before You Go:
No one experience will ever be the same. I repeat no one experience will ever be the same. Don’t create expectations based on experiences you have read about or pictures/videos you have seen. Let your day unfold before your eyes and enjoy!
The suggestions we list below can be used by anyone planning a Rwanda Gorilla Trek. If you are booking your trek through a tour group some of the below may not apply to your experience. Check with your tour group guide/coordinator to confirm your transportation and your family assignment. Trekking without booking through a tour company is cheaper and easy.
Permits can be purchased at the RDB, Rwanda Development Board, in Kigali or Kinigi for $750 per non resident. Visa, Mastercard and cash are accepted. Wifi or electricity outages may cause credit card payment issues, so at times it is cash only. Unfortunately, outages are random without warning. We recommend purchasing your permit as soon as possible in order to ensure the date of your trek.
Kigali office is located at KN 5, KG 9 Ave, the office is located on the ground floor to the right just past the entrance.
RDB Kinigi office is located at the Volcanoes National Park Headquarters in Ruhengeri, Rwanda. This will also be your first meeting location the date of your trek.
After payment the RDB office employee will provide a color copied permit, receipt of payment and instruction sheet. Check to make sure the date requested is correct, and read over the sheet prior to your trek date. Any questions ask asap while you are in the office. It’s much easier to ask while you are there then to try to call or email later.
Trek Level and Family Assignments:
Do some research and determine either what trek level (easy to difficult) or family you prefer to visit during your hike. If you have an idea before you go it will help you obtain your assignment the day of. Be honest about your fitness level! If you pick a difficult trek such as the Pablo or Susa Group and you are not in good shape, your experience will be horrible for you and the other hikers in your group. Have a second choice.
On your trek day arrive to the RDB Kinigi office for registration as early as possible. The information sheet tells you 7 am, but get there even earlier! Go straight to registration. You will need your color printed permit and your passport. You can try to buy a permit at the same office the day of, but some days permits are sold out.
Getting an assignment when you are not with a tour group is a bit confusing. Being there before the rush crowd helps to find people more apt to assist. Our recommendation is to find a guide (dressed in dark green fatigue uniform) and very nicely greet him/her, advise you are on your own and would like to be assigned to a group that matches your preferences. If the guide is unable to help you, find another guide/person who is willing to help. A pleasant attitude and persistence is key.
On the day of your trek you will need transportation to 2 different locations.
4-wheel drive is not required to reach the RDB office, so a moto or taxi from Musanze or local is fine. Registration and family assignments will take place at RDB. This is not where your hike will begin.
Your hike will begin at one of the Volcanoes National Park Entrances located 30 -60 minutes from RDB. A 4-wheel drive vehicle is required to get to one of the entrances. Your entrance will be determined by your family assignment and your guide will let you know which entrance to meet him/her.
If you are not with a tour group there are a few different ways to go about securing transport to/from the park entrance.
- Upon arriving to RDB Kinigi office look for a local offering transport to/from the park entrance. The prices should range from $80 to $100USD. If you can not find someone ask one of the guides or office workers to assist you. This is what we did because we did not know the entrance was a separate location.
- After you have been assigned to a group, ask any of your group members if they have room in their vehicle. This should be the cheaper option and cost should range from $0 to $50USD depending on how many people in the vehicle. This is the option we wish we had known about prior to arriving to Kinigi instead of scrambling once we arrived. By waiting you do run the small risk that no one in your group is willing to share a ride.
- Arrange a ride through either RDB office location or ask your local lodging location to assist with a recommendation prior to your trek date.
What to Wear/Bring:
- Hiking shoes are preferable especially during rainy season. Tennis shoes were fine during our hike in the dry season, but the mountains can get rain at anytime during the wet or dry season causing for more dangerous terrain.
- Long pants are a must.
- During warmer seasons bring a long sleeved light shirt to help protect you from the nettles. In the colder/wetter seasons bring a jacket or rain gear. We brushed up against a few nettles. We felt mildly itchy for a few minutes. If you have sensitive skin or issues similar make sure to cover all exposed skin.
- Hat to keep the sun out of your eyes. Not sure if you are allowed to where sunglasses or not, but we recommend not wearing sunglasses during your viewing time. It may sound crazy, but direct eye contact with a gorilla is pretty cool.
- We received mixed information if clothing color is an issue. Our guide had told us the gorilla’s don’t mind different colors, but when we got to the viewing location one of the trackers asked that a gentleman wearing red change his shirt or put on a jacket. If you have to wear a bright bold color the day of your trek bring and extra muted color shirt just in case.
- Patience, a great attitude and respect for your guide, trackers, fellow trekkers and the gorillas. Remember you are not the only one in the group, and you are entering the gorilla’s home – Don’t be a jerk. Listen to the guides and trackers at all times!
- Bring water with you! There are plenty of places to purchase water and snacks in Musanze or before your reach the Kinigi office.
- Camera, extra battery and memory cards.
- Tip money – It is not required, but you just had one of the most incredible experiences in your lifetime. We absolutely believe you should tip your guide and the trackers!
Note: Porters are available to carry your items for about 5000 Rwf and don’t forget to tip. If you have more than an average backpack plan on paying more. If you need a porter, ask your guide to assist.
Things to Note During the Trek:
Once you leave the parking lot your toilet is now a bushroom instead of a bathroom. If you bring toilet paper in you must take that same toilet paper out – used or not.
Take the time to enjoy the view as you hike up the volcano. Part of the fun is the journey and some of the views are breathtaking.
Just before approaching the gorilla’s location the guide and trackers will secure an area where you will leave your packs, personal items and walking sticks. You and your camera(s) are only allowed to continue to the viewing location. This will be your last chance to snack, drink and use the bushroom for at least the next hour. Also, feel free to bring extra snacks for the guide, trackers and porters!
Don’t be obsessed with taking photos/video. We know it is hard to resist the urge to document every second. Plus that horrible feeling when you miss that shot really sucks. Trust us, we know! But we also know if you take a few minutes to put your camera down and observe it will not only heightened your experience in the moment, but it will also enhance the memory of your experience later. Had I not put my camera down I would not have had the experience with the youngster trying to play with me. His/her eye contact, reaching out to me and mouth gestures are unforgettable. Our times without the camera made the entire experience more layered, meaningful and intimate.
Rwanda Development Board – Gorilla permits and information.
Volcanoes National Park – Information about the gorillas, trekking and the park.
Virunga – A documentary we highly recommend watching.
5 out of 5 Travelationship High Fives – Gorilla Trekking is a must do. The price is steep but worth every cent.
Gorilla trekking is for animal lovers, adventurous travelers, hikers, must be at least 16 years old, most fitness levels.