Bwindi Impenetrable National Park: The Complete Guide

Mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park

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Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Address
Buhoma, Uganda
Phone +256 751 285659

With a name that conjures up images of intrepid adventure, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park offers some of the most memorable wildlife experiences in Uganda. It’s located in the southwest of the country on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and is famous around the world as a place of sanctuary for endangered mountain gorillas. It is one of only four parks on Earth where one can enjoy close encounters with the gorillas, a rare subspecies that are amongst our closest living relatives.

Situated on the edge of the Albertine Rift Valley, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park incorporates 124 square miles of untamed mountainous and lowland forest. Carpeting steep ridges and valleys veiled in mist, the forest is over 25,000 years old and is also one of the most biologically diverse in the country. Five major rivers begin their journey in Bwindi, all eventually flowing out into Lake Edward to the north of the park. In recognition of its importance as a stronghold for the mountain gorilla and other rare or endemic species, the area was declared as a national park in 1991 and inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. 

Things to Do

Most people travel to Bwindi National Park to meet its mountain gorillas. There are approximately 1,000 of these great apes left in the wild and Bwindi alone is home to around 400. After getting a gorilla permit, you'll enter the park with one of the local guides and be able to spend an hour watching one of the gorilla families.

If you're worried about making the long journey to Bwindi just for 60 minutes of gorilla time, don't worry; there's plenty more to do around the national park. There are six hiking trails you can explore with a chance to see some of the other diverse wildlife in the park. This includes 120 mammal species like chimpanzees, black-and-white colobus monkeys, red-tailed monkeys, elephants, antelope, and giant forest hogs. Birders can keep an eye out for the roughly 350 different avian species that live in the park, while botanists ogle at the endemic plants.

If you’re passionate about mountain biking, consider exploring Bwindi’s forest on two wheels instead. Head to Buhoma Community Rest Camp, where you can make arrangements to cycle an 8-mile trail that takes you from the Park Headquarters to the Ivi River, a round-trip of around seven hours. 

When Bwindi was gazetted as a national park, the local Bakigwa and Batwa people were forced to relocate from their ancestral homes deep in the forest to villages on the park’s boundaries in rural villages. You can support these communities and learn about their way of life by adding a cultural experience to your Bwindi visit. Opportunities include workshops in African cooking, weaving, dancing, and drumming at the Nkuringo Cultural Centre. One of the most immersive cultural experiences is a walking tour of Buhoma village. During your time in the village, you will learn about the Batwa’s former life in the forest through interpretive song and dance performances. You’ll meet the village’s traditional healer, visit a local school, and have the opportunity to purchase handcrafted souvenirs. At the end of the experience, toast new friends with a mug of lubisi, or homemade banana beer. 

Gorilla Trekking

Bwindi’s gorilla families can be visited at close quarters through organized treks in the company of an Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) guide. Treks take place in four areas of the park (Buhoma, Ruhija, Rushaga, and Nkuringo) and are strictly controlled for the gorillas’ safety. In addition to being physically fit (it can take several hours to locate the troop), participants must be at least 15 years old and in good health. 

To see gorillas, you first need a permit from the Uganda Wildlife Authority. Only eight visitors are permitted to visit each gorilla group per day for a maximum of one hour. This means that permits are both scarce and expensive and should be booked well in advance. Tourist agencies book up a majority of the permits, so the easiest way to get one is to go through a tourist agency. If you book a tour package with a company, your permit to enter the park is included in the tour price. However, you can also ask tour companies to simply sell you a permit—with a surcharge, of course—without buying a tour package.

Best Hikes & Trails

While the vast majority of African safari adventures are done by jeep, Bwindi's impenetrable forest is one of the few that is only accessible on foot. You don't need the gorilla permit to hike on one of the park's six trails, but you do need to pay a park entry fee. While you won't see gorillas on one of these hikes, the scenery is breathtaking and you're sure to come across other rainforest residents.

  • Muyanga Waterfall Walk: Walk along the Ivi River to a spectacular 108-foot tall waterfall. This trail is a part of the longer Ivi River Walk trail.
  • Rushura Hill Walk: On a clear day, this trail offers breathtaking views of the Rwenzori Mountains, the Virunga Volcanoes, and Lakes George and Edward.
  • Habinyanja Trail: Keen birders should make sure to walk the Habinyanja Trail, which takes hikers past a rock in the shape of a map of Africa to the bird-rich Habinyanja Swamp. The most sought-after sighting here is the rare and elusive Pel’s fishing owl. The trail takes about four to six hours.
  • Muzubijiro Loop: This loop trail is nearly 4 miles and is usually populated with primate species like baboons and other monkeys.
  • Ivi River Walk: This 9-mile trek takes about seven hours, but it passes by a place called Mukempunu, meaning "place of pigs." As the name implies, you'll likely find a group of giant forest hogs hanging out in the water.
  • Buhoma-Nkuringo Trail: This trail crosses through the park and connects the villages of Buhoma and Nkuringo. It takes about three to four hours to complete one way, but you can hire a driver to bring your luggage to the other town so it's waiting for you at your destination.

Where to Camp

Visiting Bwindi National Park is expensive but you can minimize costs by camping, which can be either sleeping in a tent or sleeping in a small basic cottage known as a banda. Most camping accommodations don't have websites, so ask around in the nearby villages like Buhoma for even more options around the park.

  • Gorilla Conservation Camp: Gorilla Conservation Camp is one of the top choices for budget travelers. You can actually camp if you have your own tent, but there are also self-contained rooms available to rent.
  • Bwindi Forest Farm: If you want the opportunity to do some volunteer work while camping, Bwindi Forest Farm helps organize projects for interested campers. The farm is on a coffee plantation and you may help with farming, building structures, or working in a local school. You can rent a tent at the camp or reserve a banda to sleep in.

Where to Stay Nearby

Accommodation is plentiful at Bwindi and mainly located in the adjacent towns of Buhoma, Nkuringo, and Ruhija, although Buhoma is the largest town and has the most options and easiest connections. There aren't many mid-range options, so based on your budget you'll have to decide between rustic bandas or luxury lodges.

  • Nshongi Camp: This lodging is located in Nkuringo outside of the main tourist area in Buhoma. It's also appealing to budget travelers because the accommodations are basic but inexpensive, with a very affordable room and board option to have your meals taken care of—they'll even pack you a lunch to bring on your hike.
  • Volcano Safaris Bwindi Lodge: On the more luxurious end of options is this jungle lodge with bandas perched in the rainforest canopy, where your neighbors may be local birds or playful monkeys. With just nine bandas, personal butler service, and an on-site spa, you're guaranteed to have a lavish and exclusive experience.
  • Mahogany Springs Safari Lodge: Another high-end option in Buhoma, Mahogany Springs offers suites for couples or families, all of them with balconies overlooking the trees of the rainforest.

How to Get There

Entebbe International Airport near Kampala is Uganda's main port of entry for overseas visitors. From there, you can either take a pricey charter flight to one of the nearest airstrips to the park (Kisoro Airport or Kihihi Airfield), but driving to the park is more common. It takes roughly eight hours from Kampala, three hours from Queen Elizabeth National Park, and two hours from Kabale town. If you book a gorilla tracking tour, your chosen company should be able to arrange transport to the park on your behalf.

Tips for Your Visit

  • The park is open year-round, but the best time to visit is during the dry seasons of December to February or June to August.
  • You can find low-season prices if you visit during the rainy months, but the already difficult trails become even more challenging when they're wet and muddy.
  • Bwindi’s location close to the equator means that there’s relatively little difference between seasons in terms of temperature. Instead, the tropical climate is wet and humid all year round, although nights and early mornings are often chilly.
  • A lot of scam safari companies exist, so look for a reputable company that belongs to the Association of Uganda Tour Operators when booking a safari or buying a permit.
  • If a company is offering a "deal" on gorilla permits, it's likely a scam. Gorilla permits have a fixed price of several hundred dollars, so if you see a company selling them for less it should raise suspicions.
  • For your hike, make sure to bring a lightweight waterproof jacket or poncho, sturdy hiking boots, a long-sleeve shirt, pants, gloves, and knee-high hiking gaiters. Don't forget to pack warm layers for the nights.
  • If you're feeling ill, postpone your gorilla trek. Not just because of the strenuous hiking conditions, but gorillas are susceptible to many of the same viruses and bacteria as humans.
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Bwindi Impenetrable National Park: The Complete Guide