Nyiragongo Volcano Trek – climbing to the largest lava lake in the world

Nyiragongo Volcano Trek – climbing to the largest lava lake in the world

Table of Contents

Nyiragongo Trek Quick Facts

 

Location: Virunga National Park

Days Needed: 1

Estimated Cost:  $400 USD 

Value: 200% Worth it! One of my top travel experiences I’ve ever had. 

 

Why you should visit the Congo?

What if I told you the coolest experiences I have had while traveling were in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Has the DRC ever been on your bucket list? Well, it should be! I’ve already written about the gorilla trek, and now it’s time to reveal the other major attraction in the DRC, the Mount Nyiragongo volcano trek.

P.S – it makes sense to book the Gorilla Trek and Volcano hike together. Also, there are other activities like kayaking Lake Kivu, so add an extra day to your Congo itinierary to explore Goma.

Is it safe to visit the Congo?

I woke up with a natural high the morning after my Congo gorilla trekking experience. I was eager to head back to Virunga National Park to participate in the Nyiragongo volcano trek.

My excitement turned to fear when I checked my phone and received a message stating, “5 rangers in Virunga National Park have been shot and killed.” I immediately looked at my travel buddy, Jordan, and questioned if coming to the Democratic Republic of Congo was a foolish mistake. Should we still participate in the volcano hike in the same park where poachers killed rangers the previous day?

After consulting our local friend, John Paul – (featured in Local Lingo), and visiting the Virunga Park office, we felt assured that it was still safe to climb the volcano. Unfortunately, ranger deaths are common in Virunga. These rangers risk their lives to protect the park and conservation efforts. If there were any potential threat to tourists, Virunga National Park would close its doors.

Think about it…Virunga National park is the biggest driver of tourism in the DRC. If anything happened to a tourist it would ruin business; therefore the safety of tourists is the highest priority.

With this information, we still decided to climb Nyiragongo on that day, and it was 100% worth it.

Full Disclosure: Virunga National Park had its first incident regarding two British tourists, who were kidnapped for two days in May 2018. The tourists were not harmed physically. The park closed for 10 months to reinvest in safety measures, but just reopened in Feb 2019! Don’t let this one unfortunate incident deter you from booking a trip with Virunga National Park.

5 Reasons Why You Should Climb the Nyiragongo Volcano

    1.  It’s the largest lava lake in the Lava lakes are extremely rare, as there are only 6 lava lakes in the world. The others are located in Erta Ale – Ethiopia, Kilauea – Hawaii, Mount Erebus – Antarctica, Mount Yasur – Vanuatu, and Ambrym – Vanuatu.

2. You can also go gorilla trekking! The cheapest gorilla trekking permit is in the DRC, so might as well achieve two once in a lifetime experiences in one trip.

3. Support Virunga National Park and tourism in the Congo. All revenue that Virunga receives from the permits supports the park’s rangers and the local communities that live within a day’s walk of the park. The money makes a significant impact, considering fewer tourists frequent this country due to safety concerns.

4. The hike was not as hard as all the blogs stated! Yes – it is strenuous, but this is a manageable hike for the average healthy person. There is no rush to get to the top, and everyone can go at his or her own pace.

5. It gives you a chance to explore the Congo. The DRC is not a backpacker friendly country due to its violence and political instability. It is not recommended to travel throughout the country. Goma and Virunga National park are safe for tourists, so the Congo volcano hike is a great way to be introduced to a new country.

    The Nyiragongo Volcano Trek Experience

    If you like to hear stories and know my first hand experience on the trek than you are in the right place! Otherwise, if you are only interested in logistics than skip to the next section.

    So who else is crazy enough to hike a volcano in the Congo?

    Once my friend Jordan and I agreed to still go on the hike, our driver picked us up at 8 am from our hotel and dropped us off at the Kibati entrance. Twelve other brave trekkers from all over the world met us. Here was the breakdown:

    –   5 tall men from Russia who were intimidating, with their professional hiking equipment and RBF’s (resting bitch faces)– can guys have resting bitch face?

    –    An older Sri Lankan couple that we met the previous day on the gorilla trek. They were looking for an adventurous holiday and chose the Democratic Republic of Congo #oldercouplegoals

    –   A younger American couple that was also University of Pennsylvania Alums! (#Quakerpride and yes – our university mascot is a Quaker). This couple quit their jobs in LA and added the DRC and Ethiopia to their one year around the world travel itinerary. Their Instagram is @ourradicalsabbatical and has serious travel inspiration with photos from places that are off the beaten path.

    –   A Belgian man in his 50s, who was no stranger to the DRC, since he does business between the DRC and Belgium. He bought his 18-year-old son to the DRC to celebrate his birthday. A Congolese man who was a business partner accompanied them.

    Let’s start climbing!

    With our eclectic group, we were ready to ascend the mountain. I was nervous to begin the Nyiragongo volcano trek, but I was pleasantly surprised since the first section was a breeze. At our first rest stop, our chef came by and offered some nuts as a snack, while our porter grabbed us water. (The gear package we purchase from Virunga included a chef and snacks). After a 15-minute break, the group was ready for the next section, which also wasn’t too hard!

    In total there were 5 rest stops, and each gave plenty of time to recover. Although each section got more vigorous, no one was rushing in the group, and we hiked at a leisurely pace. The age in our group ranged from 18 to 50+, and only one person, the Congolese guy, had some issues since he had bad knees.

    Suggestion Time – Talk to the rest of the people on the hike! One of my favorite things about the Nyiragongo volcano trek was the other people in the group. I love traveling to less popular countries because other travelers who decide to visit tend to be pretty interesting people. The third section of the hike was a bit difficult, yet I distracted myself by engaging in an informative discussion with the Belgian father in the group. Since he works in the DRC, I was curious about his opinion of the way Belgium has impacted the country. He gave me a history lesson of Belgium in the DRC, which is pretty f**d up. Read more about it here.

    The Best Moment – making it to the top

    The last section of the hike was the most exciting. Once I saw the huts at the top, I immediately had a flashback of all the previous photos I’ve seen of the lava lake when I researched it and was anxious to see it up close and personal. Once we reached the summit, I immediately went to the edge, and my mouth dropped in awe. LAVA IS SOOOO COOL!!!

    Note: I was so happy to have the hired chef because he made hot tea, which was the perfect companion for my cold hands to observe the lava.

    As the sun started setting and it became darker, the lava lake became more and more beautiful. The red color intensified and I could see the lava crackle and pop. Honestly, I could’ve stared at the lava for hours. Who needs a television, when lava can entertain you!

    Nyiragongo Volcano trek has the most rewarding view at the summit. I challenge you to find a trek that has something as sensational at the end! (Seriously, leave me a comment if you know of a cooler hike. I’m always up for new adventures!)

    The descent

    The next morning, I sadly said goodbye to the lava lake and started the 4-hour hike downwards. The Nyiragongo volcano trek has officially ended. After the hike, the guide thanked each of us for trusting the park and not canceling after the news broke out about the rangers. I tipped my chef, porter, and guards and our driver picked us up to drop us off at Goma airport for our flight at 3 pm.

     

    Our time in the Democratic Republic was over, and we had miraculously survived.

    Nyiragongo Trek Guide – Full logistics for booking the Congo volcano hike

    How To Book

    Hiring an external guide is not necessary, since the easiest way to book the Nyiragongo trek is through the Virunga website. Virunga has a straightforward booking process where you can purchase all permits, transport, accommodation, and visas.

    To save money, I recommend booking via my friend John Paul since he can find lower prices than the Virunga website. He will cater to your budget and is one of the most interesting men I’ve met while traveling. You can contact him on WhatsApp +243 990 622 714

    Total Expenses

    Nyiragongo trekking is expensive, but trust me – it’s worth it!

    The total expenses range from $450 to $650, depending on how many optional things you add.

    Here is the cost breakdown:

    $300 – permit for Nyiragongo Volcano Trek

    $105 – Congo Visa, which can be arranged directly with www.visitvirunga.com. Give your visa more value by also going gorilla trekking in the DRC.

    $50 to $70: Transportation to Kibati, the starting point in Virunga National Park. Kibati is only 30 minutes from Goma, yet a 4x4 is needed since the road conditions are bad. You can book transportation easily via Virunga’s website ($70), but if you want a lower price than contact John-Paul.

    $20 – $60+ : Tipping. Tipping all the guides is important – at least $10 per person. If you hire a chef and porter tip each at least $10 as well. I originally tried to tip my porter $7, because I ran out of money, and he told me that it wasn’t enough. Luckily I was able to borrow $3 from someone else, but the rangers, porters, and chef all work hard and rely on tips for their livelihood. If you can afford the trek, then you can afford to tip. 

    Optional Expenses

    $25 – Porter for 15 kg. Make your life easier and book a porter. Also, note that by booking a porter you are helping create employment for the local community.

    $100 – Extra gear package (sleeping bag, warm clothes, & rain jacket) and cook that provides breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. Not necessary, but worth it.

    $10 – Locally made walking stick – Skip this purchase. My friend bought one but didn’t need it.

    Should you hire a cook and porters?  

    You can hike without hiring a cook and porter, but if you have flexibility in your budget, I recommend the package. First, once you climbed for 5 hours up the mountain, the last thing you want to worry about is making food. My friend and I, and the Penn couple were the only people who hired a chef. The food was much better than expected. Even as a budget backpacker I was happy to splurge for these added benefits.

    I also definitely recommend a porter, unless you are an experienced hiker who usually always carries your own camping equipment. If not, hire a porter and help support the local economy. Also, if you are struggling at all, your porter will always wait for you and give you words of encouragement.

    What to bring?

    If you purchase the gear package than not much else is needed. I recommend the following items:

    • Hiking Boots
    • Waterproof hiking pants
    • Hat and Gloves
    • Headlamp or flashlight
    • An extra pair of socks
    • An extra sweater – even though the package includes warm weather gear, it can get very cold at the top and it’s better to be over prepared versus unprepared.

    If you don’t hire the gear/chef package you’ll also need:

    • Sleeping bag
    • Sleeping bag liner to ensure you stay warm
    • Warm weather gear
    • Rain Jacket
    • 3L of water
    • Food – Pack lunch, dinner, and breakfast. I suggest bringing food that does not require heating up.

    If you want to cook, then you’ll also have to pack:

    • Coal
    • Cooking equipment

    Where to Stay?

    If you only plan to hike the volcano, then you can stay in Gisenyi, Rwanda the night before, in order to have more accommodation options.

    Gisenyi Recommendation: Inzu Lodge

    Backpackers recommend Inzu lodge since it offers great value. You can find a bed for <$40 and are provided with stunning views of Lake Kivu. The food also has rave reviews.

    If you also plan to go gorilla trekking as well then look at the accommodations I posted in the complete guide to gorilla trekking in the DRC.

    How to get there

    The volcano hike entrance is much closer than the gorilla trek starting point.

    The meeting place for the hike is Kibati and the briefing starts at 9:30 am.

    From Gisenyi

    Cross the Grand Barrière border right when it opens at 8 am. Contact Virunga or my friend John-Paul to ensure you have transportation from the border to Kibati.

    From Goma

    The drive to Kibati is 30 minutes. Expect your driver to pick you up from your hotel at 8 am to leave enough time.

    Additional Tips and Tricks

    • Get Allianz travel insurance. All other bloggers mention that their insurance (usually world nomads), won’t’ cover them in the DRC, but Allianz Insurance covers every country! Unfortunately, I can’t make any affiliate income from Allianz, but I always want to provide my readers with the BEST information out there for THEM and not me.
    • An East Africa Visa is terminated once you visit the DRC. Make your travel plans and purchase visas accordingly.
    • There are only two bad things from the hike. 1 )the huts smelled like pee – you’ve been warned -, and 2) Trying to find the restroom at night is hard. Bring a flashlight
    • Even though we did the Nyiragongo volcano trek during the rainy season, we lucked out and did not have one droplet. If it were raining it would have been way less pleasant, but the clothing package we purchased from Virunga National Park included a poncho.
    • Stay in Goma an extra day and go kayaking in Lake Kivu

    Pin this post to reference later!

    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

    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

    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 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 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: 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

    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 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

    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.

    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.

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