Before I left on my backpacking trip to Africa, I promised my mother that I would not visit the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), since the Congo is known for political instability, corruption, and violence. Well – sorry mom – looks like I broke that promise. Although I gave my sweet, old mother a heart attack, I am so happy that I visited the Congo because I participated in two unique travel experience. (Seriously, it is hard for me to think of a better experience). I got to meet Silverback gorillas in their natural habitat and hike to the largest lava lake in the world! In this post, I will focus on gorilla trekking in the Congo at Virunga National Park.
Gorilla Trekking Tour – Worth the Money?
A moment I’ll never forget – after an hour of walking through luscious, green farmlands and arriving at the top of a hill, our guide points in one direction. I look over and bam – there’s a silverback gorilla! I’m amazed, yet a bit nervous at how close I am. Observing this massive animal in his daily routine – stuffing his face with leaf after leaf – enthralls me. The ranger pulls out a machete and hacks away at a bush uncovering a mother and baby gorilla. A huge smile immediately covers my face. After the baby has had enough leaves, he starts walking my direction and passes over my feet. I stand completely still and turn my head back to the Silverback. I hope he isn’t upset that I’m so close to his family, but the Silverback is just chilling, making me realize I don’t’ have to be as nervous. Instead, I need to enjoy this unique wild animal experience.
Gorilla trekking Rwanda vs. Uganda vs. the Democratic Republic of Congo
The top item on my to-do list before I stepped foot in East Africa was to go on a gorilla tour. Is gorilla trekking cheap? No way. Is it worth it? 100% yes – and I would do it again in a heartbeat! There are only 3 countries in the world where you can go mountain gorilla trekking: Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Each of these countries caters to a different type of traveler. So where did I decide to ball out and spend all my money to meet some Silverbacks? I chose the Democratic Republic of the Congo and encourage others to visit the Congo as well. There are pros and cons to each country. Take a look below at the logistics for each to make your decision.
Rwanda Gorilla Trekking Logistics
Traveler type: Time & comfort are more important than budget
Location: Volcanoes National Park
Days Needed: 1
Permit Cost: $1,500 USD; Discounted Permit: $1050 if visit other Rwanda national parks (Akagera and Nyungwe) for a minimum of 3 days between Nov – May.
1 Day Tour Cost (includes transport, lunch, permit, & guide): $1780 – $2000 USD per person
Visa Cost: 7-day transit visa: $30 USD; 3o-day tourist: $50 USD
Rwanda is perfect for a traveler who has
Pros: Easy access, easier hike, good infrastructure
Con: The most expensive
Travel like a Backpacker | How to save money and book a Rwanda Gorilla Trekking trip independently without a tour
Step 1 – Get Gorilla Trek Permit: Contact the Rwanda Tourism Board to get your permits. Do this in advance – especially during high seasons (December – March, and June – September)! There are a limited amount of passes for each day. Their email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Step 2 – Organize Transport and Accommodation: You can either take public transport or hire a private driver to Volcanoes National Park.
Hiring a Taxi: I recommend hiring a driver in Kigali. Even though it is slightly more expensive, it saves time and guarantees less stress. You leave at 4:30 in the morning, go gorilla trekking and come back to Kigali the same day. Hiring a driver with gas included costs ~$150-$250 USD.
Local Bus Option: Taking local transport is the cheapest option, especially if traveling solo. You’ll need to take the bus from Kigali to Ruhengeri (1700-5000 RWF/$2- 6 USD), which takes 3 hours and runs every 30 minutes. (You can purchase tickets at the bus station).From Ruhengeri connect to Kinigi, which is 20-30 minutes away. The local bus costs 300-1500 RFW/$0.30-1.70 USD, and a mototaxi costs 2000 RFW/$2.70 USD to Kinigi. It is still necessary to have a 4WD for the gorilla trek the next day. Ask your hotel to organize transport, which should cost $80-$100. Your driver will drive you to the starting point and also wait until you finish trekking to bring you back.
Accommodation: Budget Hotels in Kinigi range from $15- $80 a night. One recommendation is La Paillote Gorilla Camp Site Campground. If you want to stay in Ruhengeri then The Amahoro Guesthouse ($30 per night) is a good option.
Uganda Gorilla Trekking Logistics
Interested in adding other safaris, has more time, and in decent physical shape
Location: Bwindi National Park
Days Needed: 3
Permit Cost: $600 USD
3 Day Tour costs (includes transport, food, accommodation, permit): $950 – $1,250 USD
Visa Cost: 7-day transit visa: $30 USD; 3o-day tourist: $50 USD
Uganda is ideal for travelers who have more time flexibility, and want to go on additional safaris. It is possible to travel independently, but save yourself the burden and choose from the numerous gorilla tour operators who will organize permits, transport, and accommodation. Also, spending money on a tour helps the local economy. If you are on a budget, I recommend booking with Seith at Bwindi Backpacker Lodge. He is responsive to emails and offers a lower cost option for gorilla trekking. A bed costs $15 a night, and he can organize a taxi from Kabale for ~$100 plus fuel.
It takes a full day (9 hours) to drive from the international airport to Bwindi National Park. I’d recommend extending your holiday in Uganda, staying for one or two weeks to see everything the country has to offer. Combine the gorilla trek with other popular attractions like canoeing in Lake Bunyonyi (which inspired Wakanda in the movie Black Panther), or a game drive in Queen Elizabeth National Park to see the tree climbing lions.
For super gorilla fans, there is also a habituation trek, which is limited to 4 people per day and last 4 hours instead of 1 hour like the other gorilla tours. The permit cost is $1,500. A habituation trek differs because the goal is to get the wild animals used to the sight of people.
Pros: Easy access, easier hike, good infrastructure
Con: The most expensive
(Short on time – here’s a tip: Check the option of flying into Kigali, Rwanda instead of Entebbe, Uganda. Bwindi is only 4 hours from Kigali, so the drive to the park is shorter, but there is an additional visa cost for Rwanda.)
Democratic Republic of Congo Gorilla Trekking Logistics
Traveler Type: Budget-conscious, adventurous
Location: Virunga National Park
Days Needed: 2
Permit Cost: $400 USD or $200 USD during rainy season (Mar 15 – May 15)
2 Day Tour costs (includes transport, accommodation, permit): $650 – $750 USD
Visa Cost: 7-day visa: $105
Pros: Cheapest option
Con: Country is unstable, the park can close if there are safety concerns
The Democratic Republic of Congo is perfect for an experienced traveler who likes to get off the beaten path and wants the cheapest gorilla trekking option. Since I did the gorilla trek in the DRC, I have the most information and will go in depth about my experience in the section below.
Complete Guide to Gorilla Trekking in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Why you should visit the Congo?
Initially, two reasons convinced me to go gorilla trekking in the Congo:
1. Hello! I’m a backpacker who is always looking to save money – it’s the cheapest place!
2. I also wanted to hike the Mount Nyiragongo Volcano, so might as well kill two birds with one stone.
After I completed the trek, there became even more reasons why the Congo is the best place to visit for a gorilla tour.
3. Easy Booking Process: Virunga National Park is very organized, and all logistics can be booked directly with the park, without the need for a tour agency or middleman. There are options to apply for a visa and book gorilla permits, accommodation, and transport all on its website. I tend to be a last minute planner but recommend booking at least a month in advance, to ensure there is space. Also, visas can take up to 1-2 weeks to process.
(Currently, it’s not possible to book a trip on the Visit Virunga website since the park is closed until 2019).
4. John Paul aka The Best Guide Ever! The transportation and accommodation options on Virunga’s site were above my budget. I searched for a Couchsurfing host in Goma and was lucky to find John Paul. (Check out his Couchsurfing references here). Although he couldn’t host at his home, he went above and beyond to make sure that my friend and I were taken care of during our visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Before we even met JP, he was proactively helpful. We ordered our visas and gorilla permits online on our own, and he visited Virunga’s office on our behalf to ensure everything was running smoothly. Then he insisted on meeting us at the border to help guide us through Goma. The bus from Kigali took longer than expected and JP patiently waited over an hour for us at the border, and still greeted us with a warm smile and showed zero signs of annoyance. John Paul sorted a cheap hotel after asking for our price range and specifications (aka – must have Wi-Fi), and also arranged a cheaper taxi to the gorilla trek. Not only was he organized and supportive, but also was a fascinating person. Congo has an unstable history and having a local to talk to about the political climate, daily life, and what it means to be Congolese is precisely the reason I travel – to meet new people and hear their perspectives of life.
John Paul makes his living by organizing tours in the DRC. I cannot recommend him enough! He will find you the best prices, and all the money you spend helps to support the local entrepreneurs in Goma, Congo. Check out my interview with John Paul in The Local Lingo section on my site.
The moment you decide to visit the DRC contact John Paul on Facebook, or Whatsapp: +243 990 622 714
5. Virunga National Park needs tourist money. The permit cost supports Virunga National Park’s conservation efforts and makes a more significant impact in the Congo versus other gorilla trekking countries. Rangers risk their lives daily to protect the wildlife and nature from poachers and rebels. Unfortunately, ranger deaths are common (not in the same area where tourists go). There have been 170 rangers killed in the past 20 years – making this park the most dangerous conservation project. Tourism is low since people are afraid to visit the DRC. Our guide at the end of our trek told us if we felt safe and enjoyed our time then we should outreach and encourage others to visit the Congo. So here is my plea! Spend your money in the DRC! The mountain gorilla population has increased to 1,000, and to keep protecting these animals it’s important to support Virunga National Park financally.
Wait…is the Congo safe?
People are always shocked when I tell them I went to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “Wait, isn’t the Congo very dangerous? Why would you go there?” Although I am well traveled, I too was a bit nervous about venturing to the Congo. I questioned if it was stupid to go to a country tormented by civil wars and distrust in the government. Yes – the Congo is a dangerous place, but Goma is generally safe for tourists, and Virunga National Park prioritizes keeping visitors protected. If there are ever any safety concerns, the park will close. When I researched the park, there had been no attacks against tourists in the past 20 years, so I was comfortable to go trekking.
Unfortunately in May 2018, right after I visited Virunga National Park, two British tourists were kidnapped for 48 hours. They were unharmed and released safely. Virunga decided to close the park to tourists until 2019, to reevaluate and establish robust measures to ensure the safety of the animals and visitors of the park.
Transportation to Virunga National Park
Start in Kigali, Rwanda: Kigali is the most accessible city to enter by either a flight or a bus. Kigali feels western, so it’s a comfortable place to spend the night. Spend at least a day in the city and visit the Genocide Memorial. This experience is somber, yet also a compelling one. The genocide is an essential time in recent history, which has also directly affected life in the DRC. BBC wrote an article about the domino effect of the genocide in the Congo.
Kigali to Gisenyi, Rwanda – Border Crossing: There is a local minibus that frequently runs from Kigali to Gisenyi that takes ~3/4 hours. There are two border crossings: the Petite Barrière and the Grand Barrière. Even though the Grand Barrière is open until 10 pm, I would recommend leaving Kigali before 3 pm to have enough time to cross the border. Remember…this is Africa, transportation & logistics always take longer than expected.
Goma: After crossing the border find a mototaxi to take you to your hotel in Goma. There are plenty of mototaxis by the border. I recommend spending the night in Goma since there is cheaper accommodation than in Virunga National Park.
Goma to Bukima (Virunga National Park Gorilla Entrance): Find a private driver to Bukima. It is necessary to have a proper 4WD car because the roads are in bad condition. John Paul organized a driver for us for $120. It’s also possible to book transport through the Virunga website; it’ll just be more expensive – $188. I can’t recommend enough contacting John-Paul to organize your gorilla tour. He has the best prices and is trustworthy.
Where to stay
The night before the gorilla trek you can stay in Goma – the cheapest option, Virunga National Park – the more luxury option, or Bukima – the closest option.
La Versailles – Budget Room in Goma
We told John Paul that we wanted the cheapest room, but also Wi-Fi and he recommended staying at La Versailles. A double room cost $30 per night and included breakfast. This accommodation is simple but easy to reach in Goma and good value. The price is higher on booking.com, so I’d recommend using John Paul to book.
Rated 3 out of 5 stars on TripAdvisor
Lac Kivu Lodge – Flashpacker Room in Goma
Situated on the lake in Goma, Lac Kivu is a good option for a flashpacker who wants more comfort and a beautiful view, but not spend an excessive amount of money. Prices start at $80 USD for a room.
Rated 4.5 out of 5 stars on TripAdvisor
Mikeno Lodge – Luxury Room in Rumangabo
An expensive, high-end lodge with amazing scenery situated between the gorilla trek and volcano hike. It is an ideal location to stay the night between the two activities.
Rated 5 out of 5 stars on TripAdvisor
Bukima Tented Camp – Glamping right next to gorilla trek entrance
Located within walking distance to the gorilla trek, this is a luxury option for individuals who like nature and want convenience. If you are lucky, maybe a gorilla will walk by during your stay.
Rated 4.5 out of 5 stars on TripAdvisor
The Congo gorilla trek experience – What is the day like?
6:15 AM – my alarm starts going off. I’m not usually an early riser, but today was easy to wake up because it was gorilla trekking day! At 6:30 AM John Paul arrived at our hotel and introduced us to his friend who would drive us to Bukima. Since I came to Goma late the previous night, I had no idea how it looked. I jumped in the back of the Jeep and felt a sense of adventure driving around the city. I kept thinking to myself, “Am I really in the DRC, right now?” Yes!
Our driver turned to me and asked, “Have you ever had an ‘African Massage’?” I have already been traveling for 1.5 months in East Africa, so I knew that question meant we were headed to streets filled with potholes. For 1-2 hours we endured a long, bumpy ride or “African Massage” to the gorilla trek entrance point. I still loved the experience though, because each time I looked out the window, the locals would be smiling and waving at me, especially the kids. Sharing smiles tend to put me in a good mood.
When we arrived at Bukima around 8 am there was a diverse mix of 20ish people from Russia, Bangladesh, Australia, Canada, and the USA, all of whom were just as excited as us for the day. We checked in with our gorilla permits and sat down, waiting for the gorilla trek introduction. One of the rangers explained the logistics for the trek and described the different families in the park. We split into groups ranging from 4 to 6 tourists, 1 guide, and 2 additional rangers. My friend, Jordan, decided to buy a walking stick for $5 since it looked pretty cool. In hindsight, it wasn’t necessary since the trek was easy and only lasted an hour before we reached the gorilla family. (The other groups also said their treks were relatively easy and took 1 to 2 hours to find the gorillas). I already described my first interaction with the gorillas at the beginning of this blog post, but I’ll reiterate that being so close to Silverback gorillas and their family is one of the top experiences I’ve ever had!
The most surprising elements were:
- How similar the primates looked to us – humans share 95-99% of the same DNA. During the gorilla tour, I felt like I was looking in a mirror (- ok, maybe I’m slightly prettier). To observe a wild animal and the physical similarities, like hands and thumbs, to humankind was “funnily surreal.”
- The gorillas’ behaviors were similar to humans. At one point it started to rain, and the mother immediately picked up her baby and walked into a more covered area. Well, Miss mother gorilla – I feel you, I also don’t like to get my hair wet!
- How much the gorillas farted! Seriously every 5 minutes I’d hear a release of gas.
Gorilla trekking during rainy season
Should you do a gorilla trek in the Congo during the rainy season? Since I am a backpacker that means I have a tight budget, so when I saw the gorilla permits were half the price – $200 – between March 15 to May 15, I knew that was the time I wanted to go. Although it was the rainy season, we got lucky and experienced no rain during the gorilla trek. It also didn’t rain at all the next day during the Nyiragongo volcano trek. It rained at nights while we were there, but the weather did not impact our journey. I don’t think rain would hinder the experience (i.e., you will still find the gorillas), but it would be an annoyance. Don’t let rainy season stop you, just be prepared with proper footwear, a poncho, and an umbrella to hide under to take photos.
Things i wish i knew before
- Do not fly out of the Goma – The airport is small, and they try to get additional money out of Westerners. Most people choose to fly out of Kigali, but since I used airline miles, I decided to fly out of Goma. When I arrived at the airport, I was surprised that I needed to pay an additional $50 departure tax in cash. The airport staff also wanted to charge me for extra shots, even though I had my yellow fever vaccine card. I assured them that since I am from the US, I already had all the necessary vaccinations and did not need them to stick any needles in me! I could tell they thought they could take advantage of me.
- Use John Paul as soon as you decide to visit the Congo. Seriously, he will organize everything for you and make you feel comfortable in a country that has many negative associations.
- An East African Visa is voided once you enter the Congo.
- To cross the border, you need to show your yellow fever vaccine card.
- Spend more time in Goma. I only planned to stay in Goma for two nights for the gorilla trek and volcano hike, but I would’ve loved an extra day or two to explore Goma, and kayak on the lake.
- I wish I were more knowledgeable about Congo’s complicated history. Then I would have had more enlightening conversations with the locals. I highly recommend watching the movie This is Congo, an unfiltered documentary that follows the life of 4 Congolese affected by the ongoing conflicts.