What You Should Know About a Maasai Village Visit

What You Should Know About a Maasai Village Visit

Zanzibar. The Serengeti. Mount Kilimanjaro. These are the first things that come to mind when I hear Tanzania. All of these are extraordinary experiences, yet when I arrived, I sought to find the most unique places to visit in Tanzania. I turned to Google and typed “cultural tourist attractions in Tanzania,” but still didn’t find anything that stood out. Then suddenly I received a text from my friend Martha:

“Kesi! Just met this girl, Ebone, at Soho House that you would love. She was just in Tanzania, and I’m giving you her number so you can get all the recommendations from her.”

Jackpot! (The best travel suggestions always come from friends.) I messaged this mystery woman, and will be forever grateful! She introduced me to one of the most culturally immersive experiences I’ve ever had–an authentic Maasai village visit. And yes – I am talking about a real authentic Maasai village visit rather than one that tour companies promote.

A Maasai Village Visit Does Not Have To Be a People Museum

Every guide around Arusha offers the option to add a Maasai tour to a safari package. Maasai tourism is popular, and I understand the desire to visit a distinctive group of people and learn about Maasai traditions. Yet I’m always hesitant to go on an organized tour to visit a tribal village because I don’t want it to feel like a human zoo.

On my blog, I strive to share experiences that are authentic and as local as possible. Visiting an African tribe for a couple of hours to witness a choreographed show or watch staged Maasai rituals purely to entertain tourists is too contrived for my liking. I don’t judge individuals who support Maasai tours if it is bringing money to the Maasai communities, yet I prefer a different style of traveling.

But alas – There is a way to have an authentic Maasai village visit!

Contact Details: If you are looking for a completely immersive Maasai experience, and would like to support a family directly, then I highly recommend contacting Tobico to arrange a homestay in his village outside Arusha. You can find more information on his website or Facebook Page

Maasai Homestay Quick Facts

 

Location: Loiborsoit, Tanzania

Days Needed: 2 to 3

Estimated Cost:  $40 USD 

Value: 10/10: Off the beaten path and authentic cultural exchange

 

Who Are These Maasai People?

The Maasai Tribe is one of the most well known in Africa since many African brochures feature them, and Maasai Tribe clothing is distinctive. Nonetheless, if you asked me to list Maasai Tribe facts, I would be at a loss. Heck – if you asked me “Where do the Maasai live” I would’ve failed. I ignorantly assumed they all lived in Kenya and had no idea the tribe extended into Tanzania. But once I landed in Tanzania, it became apparent that the Maasai Tribe culture permeates throughout the country.

False First Impressions: Meeting “Fake” Maasai in Zanzibar

While in Zanzibar, there were tons of men dressed in Maasai clothing. I thought it was pretty cool that there were so many Maasai people, until I discovered that most of these men were “fake” Maasai. There are several theories on why people dress up like Maasai:

1) To take advantage of tourists – You’ll find many fakes on the Zanzibar beaches who share false Maasai warrior stories of fighting lions, but in reality, they just want to get your attention so they can sell you things or charge for photos.

2) To get girls! No joke – It’s a way to impress Western ladies! Maasai men are known for being superior sexual partners. On a night out in Zanzibar, it’s common to see a western woman locking lips with a guy dressed like Maasai – so it works!

3) Because they think it’s cool – The life and customs of Maasai are fascinating; therefore some individuals appropriate the culture because they want to.

P.S – You can find some real Maasai in Zanzibar. Hint: if the guy is drinking alcohol, or wearing really stylish sunglasses, probably a fake Maasai.

Want to know what a real Maasai man thinks of imposter? Check out my interview with Tobico in the Local Lingo section of my blog.

After interacting with many fake Maasai, by the time I left Zanzibar I wanted to understand what it really meant to be a Maasai warrior and learn true Maasai facts.

5 Reasons Why You Should Book a Maasai Village Visit with Tobico 

I am thankful that via a random text message I was introduced to Tobico and his family. This is the most culturally immersive experience I’ve had while abroad. Here are 5 reasons why I encourage you to book a homestay with Tobico:

1) Support local entrepreneurship  Tobico is college educated, but there were few job opportunities when he graduated. He has decided to become an entrepreneur and start his own tour company, which offers an authentic Maasai tribal visit.

2) It’s a genuine cultural exchange – The foundation of Tobico’s business started with Tobico hosting people via Couchsurfing. He googled, “How to make friends,” and was introduced to the Couchsurfing app. The primary mission of Couchsurfing is to share cultures between the host and the guest. Tobico and I were around the same age and he had as many questions for me as I did for him. It was interesting getting to learn about one another and to experience Maasai life. Even though Tobico charges for the homestay experience, the origin started with the idea of making new international friends.

3) Money goes directly to Tobico and his family – there is no middle man or tour operator, so all the money that you pay for the homestay directly supports Tobico and his family.

4) Complete Immersive Experience – booking a homestay is a different experience than visiting an African tribe for a couple hours. By staying for one or two nights, you get a better understanding of the way of life in the village. There is no Wi-Fi, limited electricity, and little cell phone reception. It was nice to be disconnected from devices that I’m usually attached to and to immerse myself into the Maasai community fully.

5) Cheaper than organized tours an organized tour would charge $40-$100 for a one hour visit. Tobico charges a fair price depending on how many nights you stay, which covers the cost of food and accommodation.

To find out more about Tobico and his life, check out my interview with him in the Local Lingo section of this website. 

My Experience Couchsurfing For Two Days in Loiborsoit

Ok, now that you understand why you should go on a Maasai village visit with Tobico, let me explain how the actual encounter was.

Tobico met us in the center of Arusha so he could show us the way to his village, which was 3 hours away. We opted to pay for a private driver since it wasn’t too much money and would save time and comfort. As we started our journey, we had no idea what to expect.

When we arrived in Loiborsoit, we weren’t greeted by some dance, like other tours do, but were casually introduced to family and friends living their daily life. It was clear that the rest of the Maasai village was unaccustomed to visitors. I could feel all of the stares. 

I was only the third westerner that Tobico has met.

Tobico has a cute, two-year-old daughter who immediately started crying when she saw my friend Jordan and me. She could tell we were foreigners and didn’t belong and was scared of us. I thought since we were black we would fit in, but since we were light-skinned, wore different clothes, and had different accents we still stood out. In fact, every time she saw us for the next two days, she would hide behind her mom and start crying.

The best way to describe my experience is via all the photos I captured:

These were the two wives and their kids that lived at the property. The hut behind us was the kitchen, where the wives would cook over fire. Tobico’s child is giving a fierce look to the camera. I don’t think she was too happy being so close to me, as a stranger.

Luckily, not all the kids were scared of me. Look how bright this child’s face was. He was always full of giggles and smiles and was fun to play with.

On the second day, Tobico and his wife, Namnyaki, dressed us up in traditional clothing. There were more layers than expected. The Maasai are proud of their clothing and heritage. I asked Tobico if he had a choice between normal street wear or their traditional garb while walking around Arusha; he confidently said he would choose the Maasai clothing.

The Kraal is the hut where the Maasai live. Since the Maasai are nomadic and migrate with their cattle, their temporary homes are reasonably easy to make. All the materials used to create the hut are natural. Each wife has her own Kraal, and all the huts together make up a Boma.

I travel with a scrubba bag to do my laundry. We compared and contrasted who had the better method for washing clothes. Tobico is fortunate to have a water hose on his property. Most people do not have a water source and have to walk to a well to get water.

Tobico and his friend, Lazaro, took us on a walk around his land. Tobico was very proud of all the land he owned. Unfortunately, most of it could not be used for farming. He said the primary issue was lack of water. To sustain the farm, he needed to invest in a proper irrigation system, but he did not currently have the money to make such an investment.

Tobico explained that their shoes were made of tires, which he said are very economical and last for 5 years. They are also suitable for getting around if it rains. Jordan was wearing Rainbows and she was slipping everywhere when we were walking around, so the tire shoes were more effective.

This is the inside of the Kraal. There is one bed for the kids and one for the wife. This small space is meant for cooking, sleeping, and socializing. The mother that lived here was nice and fixed us a snack of hot porridge. You can also see Jordan and myself decked out in our new Maasai jewelry.

Namnyaki, Tobico’s wife, would bring us tea, and we would gather around this table to talk about each other’s lives. It amazed me that I was in the middle of nowhere in Tanzania, yet was still able to have meaningful conversations in English. The older generation didn’t speak English, but the younger generation was pretty fluent.

I guess I should thank British colonialism? That sounds so wrong to write, but one of the reasons why East Africa is my favorite part of the world to travel is because I can have significant conversations with locals in English. For example, if I were in Thailand, it would be impossible to have a similar interaction.

 Leaving on local bus – we took the transportation many Maasai men and women make each day into Arusha. It’s necessary for the Maasai to make this commute in order to work and provide for their families.

Africans sure know how to pack a car. When there was no more space inside the vehicle, people hopped on the roof and stayed there for the 3-hour ride into the city.  it’s necessary to squeeze because there are only so many cars that make the drive back and forth. 

And yes – those are feet dangling from the roof in the picture to the right. 

What I Learned About Maasai Culture

Spending two nights in Loiborsoit, I picked up on different things about Maasai culture. 

  1. Extremely Patriarchal – The male and female dynamic was apparent. The wives always cooked and served us tea, while we talked to the men of the household at the table. We never ate breakfast or lunch with the wives, as they sat separately. The wives would take care of the kids, and from an outsider perspective seemed to be valued less than the man. I did not want to question the dynamics because I didn’t want to be insensitive, but I wondered if the wives were happy in their traditional roles.
  2. Cows are currency – the Maasai are a nomadic tribe, whose lifestyle is heavily impacted by their livestock. If there is no more grass for the cows than it is time to move to the next place so the cows can keep eating. When a man wants to marry, he must pay the father of the bride in cows. The more cows one has, the wealthier they are.
  3. The Maasai women create beautiful jewelry – I bought several necklaces and earrings from the Maasai women. The Maasai jewelry design is one of my favorites. I’m upset I did not buy more, because when I traveled throughout the rest of the continent, I could not find any similar jewelry.
  4. Maasai marriages are Polygamous – it is common for a man to have several wives. When we visited Tobico’s mother in her home, there were two other homes on the same boma for the other wives. The Maasai man is financially responsible for all of his wives. Tobico only had one wife and did not express interest in finding another.
  5. Not a lot of opportunities – In the village, there are not many ways to make money. Some men and women wake up at the crack of down and travel 3 hours into the central city, Arusha, to try to make money and come back to the village at night. Tobiko, who is college educated, explained that he has tried to find a job but has been unsuccessful.
  6. More modern than expected – I assumed that Maasai people, living in the outskirts, would not be interested in social media, but Facebook and smartphones have allowed the Maasai to stay connected with the outside world. I still chat to Tobico and some of his friends from time to time on Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. It does not matter how isolated a village is; with the Internet everyone remain in touch.
  7. All electricity is from solar power. The Maasai have to take advantage of natural resources, and get all their energy from the sun.

Overall, spending time in Loiborsoit was a unique and telling adventure. 

Tobico wants to replicate the experience I had with others. If you are interested in booking a homestay experience, please connect with Tobico on his facebook page and have the best Maasai tourism experience.

To read about my other favorite African adventures, check out gorilla trekking in the DRC or hiking to the largest lava lake in the world

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Couchsurfing review – is it still worth it?

Couchsurfing review – is it still worth it?

The first time I used Couchsurfing was in 2012 on my first solo trip backpacking through Europe. In 2012 Couchsurfing was a great web application and I connected with locals in London and Stockholm. These cities are notorious for having high accommodation prices, which is what initially made me interested in Couchsurfing, but after I surfed a couple of places, I realized Couchsurfing is much more than just a free place to stay.

How does Couchsurfing work?

If you have never heard of Couchsurfing before, let me break it down real quick! As a solo traveler, it is one of my favorite ways to meet people around the world. Couchsurfing connects locals with people visiting their respective city. 

A Host offers a free place, usually a couch, to stay.

A Surfer is a traveler who will sleep for free in someone’s house.

But why would a host offer their place for free? There has to be a catch!

There are several reasons why hosts offer their place to stay:

  • It is a way to meet new people from around the world.
  • The host wants to be a surfer when they travel, so they host to build more reviews so that they can get accepted when they send out Couchsurfing requests.
  • They love the Couchsurfing community and want to give back, by hosting other travelers.

How Has Couchsurfing Changed?

Couchsurfing has lost popularity over the years due to Airbnb, but it is still alive! Here are the significant changes I’ve noticed:

Fewer activities posted – The major shift I have noticed in Couchsurfing is that there are fewer activities posted. In 2012, I was in Sweden and saw a CS event to play Brännboll, a Swedish game similar to baseball. Brännboll was the perfect Couchsurfing event because it introduced me to something native to Sweden and allowed me to make new friends. Nowadays I never check the activities in a particular city, because there aren’t that many and the ones that are listed aren’t as interesting.

Men treat it like the new tinder – Some members treat Couchsurfing like a dating site, which is off-putting towards women. Please make sure to read reviews to avoid awkward encounters. Also, if you stay with an overly aggressive host, write a review so others can be informed.

Less couchsurfing requests –  As a free member, you can only send 10 messages to hosts per week. If you pay for a membership, then you can send an unlimited amount of surfing requests. This change is positive because it helps decrease mindless Couchsurfing requests. Since you only have a limited number of messages per week, there is a higher incentive to research the hosts and write a thoughtful note.

5 Reasons Why You Should Still Couchsurf

Although Couchsurfing has changed over the years, I still highly recommend it, especially for a solo long-term traveler. Here are the top 5 reasons to still Couchsurf:
1. Save money – Couchsurfing is free, which is great for your wallet! As a courtesy, offer to pay for a drink or meal for your Couchsurfing host. Or bring something small from your home country.
2. Travel like a local – This is the real benefit of Couchsurfing. Take advantage of the local knowledge your host has. The ideology is that CS facilitates cultural exchange. Having access to someone local is valuable since you have an insiders guide to different things to see, types of restaurants to try, and fun activities to do.
3. Instant friend – I Couchsurf in places where I don’t know anyone because I immediately have someone to hang out with. Couchsurfing is ideal for solo travelers, but it’s also possible to surf with one or two other people.
4. Improved review systems – Couchsurfing has enhanced their rating systems, so people aren’t afraid to leave bad reviews. In the past, hosts and surfers could write reviews whenever they wanted – if a surfer wrote a bad review than the host could retaliate and also leave a bad review, which led to everyone only writing good reviews. Now, after a stay, the host and surfer have 2 weeks to write a review. Once both have written a review, it becomes public. If only the host or surfer writes a review, it will still be public in 2 weeks, but the opposite party can’t change or do a new review after reading their evaluation.
5. Keep the community going – Yes, Couchsurfing is free, which is an excellent way to save money, but the actual benefit is the community. In the current age of Airbnb, the people who still host on Couchsurfing are more interested in making connections and sharing their culture than trying to make extra money. Let’s keep this “pay it forward” community together because connecting people is one of the most important things about traveling.

How to get people to accept your Couchsurfing Request

  • Introduce yourself – When you introduce yourself, think about what things make you interesting. Why would someone want to have you in their home? i.e., My name is Kesi, and I’m from NYC. I’ve been traveling around the world for 4 years.
  • Be personal – read the whole profile of the host and some reviews. Find something on the profile that interests you and mention it in your request. Some hosts get several requests per day, so it’s important to give the impression that there is a specific reason why you would want to stay with that person. Find some connection. i.e.,– I see that you have traveled to Mozambique. I’ve always wanted to go there and would love to hear your stories!
  • Offer Something – I love cooking, so I always offer to cook a meal when I’m a surfer. Think of something useful you can share, whether it is travel stories, a gift from your home country, or offering to buy a beer if you have a night out. i.e., By the way, I work as a chef on boats, and if you are interested would love to cook one night. Maybe you can teach me some cooking techniques from your country?
  • Be flexible – remember people are opening up their homes to you. You have to follow all of their rules. Sometimes there is no extra key, so you have to leave the house when the host is not home. Also, you might stay a couple of days with one host and then switch to another host. Let your host know that you are flexible. i.e., I would appreciate it if you could host me for a couple of days. Please let me know if these dates work with you, or if there is an alternative date that is better.

Couchsurfing experiences from around the world

Couchsurfing Review – Africa

My best Couchsurfing experiences were on the continent of Africa.

I surfed in Morocco, Uganda, and Tanzania. The hosts in the countries truly embody the CS spirit, and their sole mission is to show you the local life in their town.

One reason why African hosts are the best is that CS is their only source of travel. For example, a Moroccan passport is hard and expensive to travel with since visas are required to visit different countries. It is easier for someone from Morocco to “travel” by participating in Couchsurfing and hosting surfers from around the world. Couchsurfing allows hosts to learn and interact with different cultures without actually being in a different country.

Below is a photo of my host from outside of Casablanca, Morocco. I called him my brother from another mother – afros unite! He went out of his way to show me around his city. Even though he comes from a low-income family, he bought me street food (snails!) because he wanted me to try local cuisine. Spending a couple of days with him and his family was a different, and enjoyable way to travel in Morocco.

 

My most unique CS experience was with Tobiko and staying with his family in a Masaai Village in Tanzania. I asked my Tobiko, “How did you find out about Couchsurfing?” He replied,

“I Googled how to make friends, and Couchsurfing popped up.”

My most unique CS experience was with Tobiko and staying with his family in a Masaai Village in Tanzania. I asked my Tobiko, “How did you find out about Couchsurfing?” He replied,

Couchsurfing Review – Australia

I prefer to stay in hostels in Australia.

Australia is a very social place to backpack, especially the East cCoast. I tried Couchsurfing twice in Australia but realized that I would rather spend money and hang out in hostels. My CS hosts were always ready to party, but they weren’t always people I would necessarily want to hang out with. I would rather make friends on my own, and since Australia has extremely social hostels, I wasn’t in search of friends while on the continent. To read more about my experience backpacking in Australia, check out my interview by UPROXX Magazine.

Couchsurfing Review – Europe

Accommodation is expensive in Europe, and Couchsurfing helps offset the cost.

Europe is the first place I ever Couchsurfed. Visiting major cities in Europe can be overwhelming. I prefer living like a local versus sightseeing all day. Couchsurfing in Europe is perfect for getting a sense of what it would be like if you lived in that city. With a plethora of options in each town, it’s always nice to have someone local with recommendations.

Couchsurfing Review as a Solo female

A solo female traveler has a higher chance of being accepted as a surfer when compared to a single male traveler. The reason is that women are not as threatening. Is it safe to surf with strangers? Every decision you make in life has an inherent risk, yet Couchsurfing strives to remain a safe space. Before accepting a host request, always have a backup option in case you feel uncomfortable. The worst plan is to solely rely on your host because if they end up being creepy, you need to find a safe place to go.

I have never had anything scary happen to me while I have Couchsurfed, but there is one time in Croatia where I felt uncomfortable and chose to remove myself from the situation. The guy I stayed with had over 100 reviews, but there were signs that he wanted to be more than just friends. The first sign was that he took my girlfriend and me out to a nice meal and paid for everything. With CS, since the host is already giving a free place to stay, nothing else free is expected. The second sign was that he would always walk around in his small underwear. It’s his house, so he can choose to wear what he wants. The final straw was when one night, he suggested I sleep in his bed instead of my bed. My bad vibe was confirmed after he asked me to share a bed, so I politely told him I would be leaving and found an Airbnb. Listen to your gut and make sure always to post reviews if anyone is treating Couchsurfing like a dating site.

For other tips on solo travel, check out this guide for first-time solo travelers.

For other longterm travel advice, click here.

 

Couchsurfing Alternatives

Here are some alternatives to Couchsurfing. I have not personally tried these websites, but other travelers have recommended them. 

Free Alternatives

  • Bewelcome.org – This website is a smaller community filled with a lot of ex-Couchsurfers. Basically, everyone who got pissed off that the CS community changed and become low quality decided to join Bewelcome, which has the same values Couchsurfing originated with.
  • Hospitalityclub.orgworldwide home sharing site offering free accommodation
  • Servas.org -This is the pioneer website and was around before there was even internet. 

Paid Alternatives

  • Airbnb – a home sharing site where you can rent a single room, an entire apartment, or even a villa. One of the downsides of Couchsurfing is if you don’t bond with your host, you are awkwardly stuck with them. Sometimes it’s better to pay for accommodation, to have your own space. Airbnb is an excellent alternative because you can find hosts with a similar Couchsurfing mentality, who strive to provide a local experience, like my host in Split, Croatia. Airbnb is cheaper than staying in a hotel. Airbnb also allows you to book experiences, which are unique ways to see a city.

Do you like free money?

Click here to sign up for Airbnb and get $40 off your home booking. And you get $15 to use toward an experience worth $50 or more.

  • Veg Visits – a home sharing site that’s specifically for vegetarian and vegan accommodation. It’s excellent for the hosts, who don’t have to worry about guests cooking meat in their kitchen. And it’s also helpful for the travelers, as the hosts will be able to give them insider advice about the best places to eat out or shop for specialty items. Some hosts even offer the use of their kitchen to travelers who don’t need accommodation but are looking for a place to prepare their own meals. Users can even filter to see which hosts have blenders, food processors or other equipment.

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Couchsurfing Host in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Local Lingo with...

the Democratic Republic of Congo

My favorite part about backpacking is meeting new people and learning their stories.  “Local Lingo” is a part of my site that interviews individuals from all over the world who have made an impact on me. Not everyone gets the chance to interact with locals while they travel, but it’s beneficial and intriguing to understand different perspectives from around the world. 

The Local

John Paul Zihalirwa

John Paul Zihalirwa

Local Tour Operator

Nationality: Congolese

Hometown: Goma, the Democratic Republic of Congo

Age: 33

Job Description: Welcomes and shows around tourists

Description of DRC in one-sentence: “Congo is the paradise on earth.”

How did we meet?

I interviewed John-Paul, who I met via Couchsurfing in The Democratic Republic of Congo. After the first 5 minutes of having a conversation with John-Paul, I could tell he was a quality person. His spirit was warm, his helpfulness was genuine, and he made sure to take care of me while I was in his country. Not only did he organize accommodation and transport to the Congo Gorilla Trek and Volcano hike, but also – more importantly – he taught me about the current state of The Congo. He is the first person I am featuring in “Local Lingo.”

The Interview

Background Questions 

Q. How would describe your childhood?

A. I spent all my childhood in Goma. It was a long story to grow up, particularly all the devil things which I have seen and for this, I can give thanks to God only.

Q. What’s your favorite food to eat?

A. Well, all the food from Congo is my favorite, because it is delicious, makes you strong and gives enough energy.

Q. What causes stress in your life?

A. When I look at something and don’t get it – this creates stress in me. I really hate to be stressed, so I do whatever I can to avoid being stressed. for something which it can create for me the deeply death cause of the stress.

Q. What do you do for fun?

A. Sports, seeing & discovering new things, going out with friends, and watching TV

Q. What makes you happy?

A. If a person doesn’t have any problems, this is what makes me happy.

Q. Did you go to college? What did you study? Afterward, was it easy to find a job?

A.Yes, I went to Mwanga and studied administrative commercial. It was not easy to get a job after my studies. It took me years to get my first job before starting tourism.  I lost hope because everyone was refusing to give me opportunities. My life was not easy, filled with tribulations. When living in a place like this, you need to be prepared for all the pure bad things that can happen to you.

Homecountry Questions 

Q. The Congo is known for it’s instability, corruption, and violence? How would you describe the Congo? Have you ever felt unsafe living in Goma?

A. Yeah for this, sure – I agree. Of course, Congo is known for its bad reputation because of the bad things that happened in the past years. Instability, corruption, and all kinds of violence – this is true. Even if I feel unsafe, where can I go? There is not a better place to live than Goma, because today Goma is a good place. We are here because there are international, national, and provincial authorities.

Q. Why should people visit the Congo?

A. All is here in the province of North Kivu, Goma. You might hear bad things about it, but go and see for yourself. Once you are here, you will want to come again because you will love it. There are good people and beautiful things to discover. For tourists – first, you have to know what you can do or what you are going to see. There are two national parks in eastern DRC. The one in Goma, Virunga National Park, is where you can look at all kinds of animals like gorillas, chimpanzees, and other monkeys. There’s also the Mount Nyiragongo, which is an active volcano in Goma. You won’t find a volcano like this in the whole of Africa or anywhere else in the world. There’s another volcano, called Nyamuragira, which neighbors Nyiragongo. In Goma, there are also kayaks that you can take on Lake Kivu, one of the largest lakes in Africa. Another thing you can do is visit the Pygmies and different villages.

Q. : How has the closing of Virunga National Park affected the local economy?

A. Local tour operators and the economy are falling in the water. Not all is bad, since closing the national park protects tourists and the local community. The park closed since there are unanswered questions regarding the two British citizens who were kidnapped and the ranger who was killed. After the two tourists were freed, the general director and government decided to close the park until next year. After the elections in January or February, it will open again. I hope it opens because as a local tour operator, we have nothing and our economy is down.

Q. : Are you proud to be Congolese? What are the best things about being from the DRC?

A. Oh yes – sure, of course! I am so happy and proud to be a citizen of this big country. Even though our leaders betray us, it is not bad to be here. Many people in the world would like to be one of us, but they don’t have opportunities to be Congolese. We don’t want wars with others, and we welcome other nations in the world. We welcome everyone – whatever your color or nationality – we always welcome you in DRC. This attitude is what makes us the best in Africa. Ask others who live here or who have passed by; they can tell you more about the Congolese and who we are.

Q. What needs to happen to make the DRC a better country?

A. The only way to make this country better is by having good leaders. It will never be like before, but today it seems like there’s no hope. The evil leaders are the source of our miserable life. We are treated like slaves by the politicians from this country, other powerful countries who collaborate with our Government, and all the wealthiest people from the DRC. The government here is like a nonexistent government because of the corruptions since 1967. It has been many years living in poverty.  Before 1967 – I wasn’t born yet – but from what I heard, life was easier, and there was some good security in the country. 

Q. Anything else important you’d like to discuss about being from the Congo?

A. The best way for the Congo to leave this chaos is to have good leaders. We really need good leadership and not the stupid politicians who only want money for feeding themselves and their families. They forget who voted for them and let them be as they are today. The Congo has not found the right person who can lead this country in dignity and justice.

Travel Questions 

Q. Do you have a passport?

A. No, I don’t have a passport because it’s too expensive. It costs $300 you need to wait for two to four weeks.

Q. Is it easy for you to travel to other countries?

A. Traveling to other countries is not easy because I need money, and I have no passport. I can go to countries like Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya because the government can give a document to citizens which allow travel if you don’t have a passport.

Q. What’s one place you want to visit and why?

A. ? I want to visit U.S.A for seeing my friends who live there. I would like also go to the UK, and Australia – maybe make some business partners.

Q. Why do you like hosting Couchsurfers?

A. I like to host the Couchsurfers because I want to learn other cultures and hear amazing stories from strangers. Also – maybe they can put me in some different business.

Q. What is your impression of Americans?

A. Americans are the best in the world I’ve ever seen. They are terrific people. By saying this, I mean all the English speakers, because it is them who taught me what I know today. Without English speaking peoples I don’t know what I will be without them.

Thank you John Paul for answering all the questions. Be on the look out for more local interviews. What countries would you like to hear more interviews from? What questions do you want answered?  Answer in the comments below!

Congo Gorilla Trekking – Backpacker’s Guide to Gorilla Tours

Congo Gorilla Trekking – Backpacker’s Guide to Gorilla Tours

This article may contain affiliate links. This means that if you make a purchase after clicking on the link, I may receive a small commission.

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.

congo gorilla trek baby gorilla

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 limited vacation, and wants to add gorilla trekking as a one-off experience before jetting back home. The Volcanoes National Park is only a 2-hour drive from Kigali airport, making a one-day gorilla tour possible. (You’ll just have to wake up super early at 4 am). Rwanda caters to a more polished gorilla trekking experience, since the country is clean and organized, has good infrastructure, and relatively good roads. The terrain during the trek is easier to hike when compared to Uganda.

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 reservation@rwandatourism.com

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 Sit Campground. 

Click here for current prices and details on La Paillote. 

If you want to stay in Ruhengeri then The Amahoro Guesthouse ($30 per night) is a good option.

Click for more details on Amahoro Guesthouse.

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: Cheaper than Rwanda, Safer than the DRC

Con: Harder trek, Park is far away

(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

democratic republic of congo gorilla trek

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.

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 closed the park to tourists to reevaluate and establish robust measures to ensure the safety of the animals and visitors of the park. The park reoponed in February 2019, and I still encourage to visit Virunga.  

silverback gorilla trek congo

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.

Click here to find the latest hotel prices and book a place to stay.

La VersaillesBudget 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 LodgeFlashpacker 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 LodgeLuxury 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 CampGlamping 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

What to pack

Remember – you are hiking in the wild, so make sure to have the proper equipment to enjoy the experience fully. Here is a list of items I would recommend. You can find all of these suggested items on Amazon.

  • Hiking Boots – It is possible to trek in sneakers, but hiking boots are best especially if it rains. I was lucky, and my hike was not strenuous, but I was happy that I had hiking boots since some parts were muddy. Click here to review my favorite hiking boot.
  • Long Pants – Do not wear shorts, unless you like having weeds scratch you. Click here for travel pant suggestions.
  • Walking Stick (Optional) – I did not think a hiking stick was needed, but my friend Jordan bought one at the gorilla trek entrance for $5, and she was happy to have it.
  • Best Camera You Own – When else will you be this close to silverback gorillas. Be prepared and invest in a high-quality camera. I only travel with my smartphone, but luckily l was my friend Jordan who had a DSLR when I backpacked in Africa.  Click here for DSLR camera suggestions.
  • Poncho – Just in case it rains, especially if you are going during the rainy season
  • Selfie Stick – Who doesn’t want a gorilla selfie?! Here is the cheap selfie stick I use for my Pixel 2 phone
  • Water Bottle – I travel with the LifeStraw water bottle since it allows me to drink tap water anywhere. Click here for prices and more detail. 
  • Cash for tips – Make sure to tip your guide!

mother gorilla trek congo

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! Yes I was, and I felt completely safe. Looking out the window, I saw busy streets – boys were carrying heavy logs on human-made bikes, women dressed in bright patterns selling food in the market, and UN trucks driving around. I looked straight ahead, and we were headed towards the Mount Nyiragongo volcano, which was an unbelievable background view for a city. I had only been in the car for 5 minutes, yet was already blown away by Goma’s beauty!

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.

silverback gorilla farting

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.

virguna national park congo

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.

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