Hike with Gorillas in the Virunga Mountains

Rate this Adventure Rwanda Volcans National Park, Rwanda

Added by Lisa Zook Sorensen

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hike through the Virunga Mountains and spend time up-close with a family of mountain gorillas in the wild.

The Virunga Mountains straddle the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda, and Rwanda. Nearly half of the world's remaining mountain gorillas live in these mountains. You can enter the mountains from any of the 3 countries but each country has it's own regulations and costs. This particular adventure describes entering the mountains from Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda.

Gorilla trekking is regulated by the government of Rwanda in order to ensure that funds generated by the permits go to gorilla conservation. As such, it is necessary to hire a local driver/guide to facilitate the process. For Rwanda, the government issues 80 permits a day to visit 10 gorilla families, so you need to plan in advance.

Contact a trekking outfitter and they can assist you in traveling from Kigali to Musanze as well as securing a trekking permit. There are a lot of companies offering Gorilla Trekking Safaris. I can personally recommend: http://www.rwandagorilla.com/

Musanze is the nearest town to the park, with several lodging options: Hotel Muhabura ($), Virunga Hotel ($$), or La Palme ($$$).

Since the permit to visit the gorillas is pricey (750 USD), I opted for Hotel Muhabura. It's a no-frills hotel but certainly safe and caters to the trekking crowd. There is a restaurant on-site which will keep you well-fed before and after the trek!

The morning of the trek, be sure to grab a hearty meal at the hotel. It will be very early, so it's worth warning the hotel staff the night before that you would like some food early the next morning. Your driver/guide will drive you to the entrance to the park where park rangers have coffee and biscuits waiting for you.

This is where it really helps to have the driver/guide facilitate the permit process. At some point there is exchange of passport information, money, and the permit but it's slow, a bit chaotic, and generally just better to have a local handle it all.

Park rangers split the 80 trekkers in to groups of 10. They keep couples/groups together, but otherwise seem to create groups of similar physical strength and stamina. Each group has 1 or 2 guides and a set of porters. Most importantly, each group is assigned one gorilla family.

The hike begins on relatively flat terrain at the foothills of the mountains. While gorilla families sleep in a different spot every night, they don't travel too far during the day. As a result, the trekkers know approximately how far away from the base of the mountain every gorilla family is located. Depending on which group you are assigned, you may have a short hike in to the foothills or strenuous trek up and over the mountains. It starts to become clear why they grouped everyone based on fitness!

While you're hiking, there is a group of local trekkers about 2 hours ahead of you searching for your gorilla family. Through walkie-talkies they will communicate with your guide the exact location of the family.

Most of the hike is on a footpath, but once you get close to your gorilla family, your guide may lead you on a bushwhacking adventure. At some point you will drop your bags, jackets, extra gear and leave it all with the porters. Don't worry, it's safe. Gorillas may be interested in your snacks or they may be tempted to snatch a backpack, so it's best to leave everything except your camera behind once you get close to your family.

Approaching a family of gorillas in the wild is nothing but incredible. Writing about the experience here won't do it justice, so the only piece of advice is:

Enjoy every second. Take photos but remember to put the camera down and observe how these beautiful creatures exist in nature and interact with one another.

You are allowed 1 hour with the gorillas. You are not able to touch them and it is requested that you stay a distance (at least 7 meters) away from them. There is a good chance, however, that they will come close to you, brush up against your leg, or grunt a little. Trust your guide, he or she knows these gorillas. Your guide can tell you about their relationships, their personalities, and their history. Soak it all in because your hour with the gorillas will go quickly.

Shortly you will be saying goodbye, going to pick up your bags from the porters, and hiking back down the mountain. Fortunately you'll have memories and photographs to last a lifetime.

Pack List

  • Permit (secure through a Gorilla Trekking Safari company such as http://www.rwandagorilla.com/)
  • Passport
  • Plenty of water
  • Snacks (granola bars)
  • Camera(s) - worth bringing 2 in case one malfunctions
  • Light jacket
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
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Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More

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Activities:

Hiking, Photography

Skill Level:

Intermediate

Season:

Year Round

Features:

Forest
Groups
Scenic
Wildlife

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Added by Lisa Zook Sorensen

Enjoying the company of conifers | Ohio-born, Michigan-bred, North Carolina-educated, Seattle-settled.

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