How to Go Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda

Gorilla family in the forest, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda


ksumano / Getty Images

The African continent is renowned for its once-in-a-lifetime animal encounters. Few are more memorable (or so frequently featured on traveler bucket lists) as coming face-to-face with mountain gorillas in their natural environment.

There are approximately 1,000 mountain gorillas left in the wild, divided across two distinct populations. The first lives in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The second, larger population lives in the Virunga Mountains, at the point where the boundaries of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) meet. Each country has its own national park in the Virungas. Respectively, these are Volcanoes National Park, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, and Virunga National Park. 

Of these, Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park is considered the best option for gorilla trekking. It is a safer country to visit than the DRC, with more developed infrastructure and a better choice of reliable tour operators. Meanwhile, Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is much smaller than its neighbors, and home to just one habituated gorilla troop. This means that there are far fewer trekking permits available, and, because the troop often moves across the border, there is a chance of missing the gorillas completely. 

Although Rwandan permits are considerably more expensive than Ugandan ($1,500 versus $700), they sell out less quickly, making it more likely that you will be able to travel on your chosen dates. Additionally, a day trip from Kigali is possible, which cuts down on extraneous costs.

From the best time to go to our favorite tours, here's what you need to know to plan your gorilla trekking adventure in Volcanoes National Park.

The side view of young mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) among vegetation in Volcanos National Park, Rwanda
Ibrahim Suha Derbent / Getty Images

What to Expect

Volcanoes National Park has 12 gorilla troops that have been habituated for tourist encounters. Each one is made up of at least one alpha male, or silverback, and his harem of females and juveniles. Your adventure starts at the park headquarters in Kinigi at 7 a.m., when your group will be assigned to a troop and given a briefing on rules for visiting the gorillas. These rules include maintaining a distance of around 22 feet, and not hiking when sick with any contagious diseases that could infect the gorillas. Basic rules for safe interactions will also be outlined, from not using flash photography to keeping voices low and movement to a minimum. 

Your group will be the only one to interact with your allocated troop on the day of your visit. The maximum number of people in each group is eight, ensuring that the experience is kept as unobtrusive as possible for humans and gorillas alike. As nomadic creatures, gorillas spend their days on the move, foraging for the vast quantity of vegetation required to support their huge size. Because of this, it is difficult to predict exactly where each troop will be from one day to the next, although they tend to stick to a preferred general area. Much of the trekking experience consists of hiking through the misty forest to find them—a process that can take anywhere from 30 minutes to five hours or more. Generally, troops are assigned according to the fitness levels of each group and porters are available to help carry cameras and backpacks. 

Once your guide has located the troop, you will spend up to an hour sitting quietly within a few feet of them, watching as they continue to go about their daily routines unfazed by their human visitors. Encounters are strictly kept to this time limit to ensure that each troop is impacted on as little as possible. Gorillas are our closest relatives after chimpanzees and bonobos, sharing 98 percent of our DNA. As such, much of their behavior feels familiar—whether it’s a mother grooming her infant, or juveniles play fighting with one another while the adults forage for food. 

What to Wear

The climate in Volcanoes National Park is both cool and wet, so whenever you travel, you should be sure to dress appropriately. This means plenty of layers so that you can stay warm when sitting with the gorillas, but strip off when hiking. It also means waterproof jackets and pants, and sturdy hiking boots or shoes with sufficient grip for slippery, uphill terrain. There are plenty of stinging nettles, so thick-woven clothing and gaiters are also recommended. If you’re susceptible to sunburn, bring sunglasses, a sunhat, and sunscreen for when the sun makes an appearance in between downpours. 

How to Get a Permit

With eight people permitted to visit each of Volcanoes National Park’s 12 habituated gorilla troops every day, there are only 96 permits available for any given date. This means that they sell out months in advance and getting hold of one can be quite competitive. Do not wait to book your permit until you are in Rwanda. Instead, book your permit first and then build the rest of your itinerary around it. You can purchase your permit independently through the Irembo government website; however, the site is in Kinyarwanda and most visitors prefer to have their chosen tour operator navigate the process.

How to Budget 

Rwanda is often hailed as the world’s best destination for gorilla trekking. However, it is also the most expensive with permits costing $1,500 per person. Ten percent of this fee goes towards local community initiatives and may also be used to compensate farmers if the gorillas venture onto their land and damage their crops. This helps to keep the relationship between conservationists and residents amicable, as well as increase local support for gorilla conservation. 

In addition to the trekking permit, you will need to consider the cost of flights, accommodation, transportation, meals, tips, and optional extras. Often, the easiest way to budget is to book an all-inclusive package with a company that specializes in gorilla safaris. This way, you will know the total cost well in advance and have plenty of time to save up without worrying about unexpected expenses. Having said that, package prices vary considerably depending on the style of accommodation and other variables. Read on for our pick of the best package tours for all budgets. 

Best Tours

Budget

With trekking permits costing $1,500 per person, there’s no such thing as a cheap Rwandan gorilla trekking tour. However, locally owned company Katona Tours caters to budget travelers by offering an in-and-out experience that starts and ends in Kigali on the same day (eliminating the cost of accommodation in Volcanoes National Park). $1,850 per person includes transportation in a 4x4 safari vehicle, the services of an English-speaking guide and driver, your gorilla trekking permit, park entrance fees, and lunch at the local Muhabura Hotel. 

Mid-Range

For a more immersive experience, consider extending your stay in Volcanoes National Park with this four-day itinerary from Intrepid Travel. It also begins and ends in Kigali, starting with a tour of the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Then, you’ll sleep overnight at a lodge on the outskirts of the national park before heading out on your gorilla trekking adventure the following day. The third day is reserved for other park activities, including visiting the Karisoke Research Center and tracking golden monkeys. On the last day, you'll head back to Kigali for a walking tour of the city. $4,835 includes transportation, accommodation, most meals, your trekking permit, and both activities in Kigali. 

Luxury

South Africa-based luxury travel company andBeyond offers luxury gorilla trekking packages starting from $5,504 per person. Lasting five days and four nights, the tour starts and ends in Kigali and includes one day dedicated to tracking the gorillas and a second reserved for tracking golden monkeys (at an additional cost). Accommodation is included and involves stays at the luxurious Kigali Serena Hotel and Virunga Lodge. Also covered are your airport meet-and-greet, gorilla permits, most meals, soft and alcoholic drinks, scheduled transfers (including the exclusive use of a luxury vehicle), a nature walk, and a complimentary post-hike massage. 

Portrait of golden monkey
EEI_Tony / Getty Images

Other Attractions

Although gorillas are top of the wish list for most visitors, a hike through Volcanoes National Park also yields an opportunity to spot many other interesting species. These include endangered golden monkeys (of which there are two habituated troops), forest elephants, black-fronted duikers, buffaloes, forest hogs, and more than 200 bird species. Many of the park’s birds are endemic to the Albertine Rift, making them especially sought-after by keen birders. 

Also of interest is Karisoke Research Center, where legendary primatologist Dian Fossey began her 18-year research project on mountain gorillas in 1967. It’s also where she wrote her seminal book, "Gorillas in the Mist," made many discoveries about gorilla behavior that continue to form our understanding of the species today, and was eventually murdered in 1985. Today, visitors can tour the research center to learn more about the valuable work being carried out by resident scientists, as well as conservation initiatives put in place to ensure the future of the park’s gorillas. It is also possible to hike to Dian Fossey’s grave. 

Best Time to Go

Due to its proximity to the equator and its high elevation, temperatures in Volcanoes National Park stay consistently cool throughout the year. Expect average daytime temperatures of around 61 degrees F, and chilly nights that can drop as low as 43 degrees F. Rain and mist are also ever-present, although less so in the drier months from June to August. Lighter rainfall at this time of year makes it the best time to visit for gorilla trekking since the terrain is easier to navigate and the gorillas themselves are often more active. October, March, and April are the wettest months and are typically best avoided.

Getting There 

For most international visitors, the main port of entry to Rwanda is Kigali International Airport (KGL), located roughly 6 miles east of the Rwandan capital. From there, it’s just over 70 miles and a little under three hours by road to Musanze, the park’s closest town. Then, it’s another 30-minute drive to the park headquarters at Kinigi, from where all gorilla trekking tours depart. Most visitors either hire a car and driver to get to Volcanoes National Park or choose an organized tour with transfers included.  

Tourist visas are required for most nationalities and can be purchased on arrival at Kigali International Airport or any land border. You can opt for a single entry tourist visa (priced at $50 and valid for 30 days), or the East African Tourist Visa, which costs $100 but lasts for 90 days and permits entry into Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya.  

Before traveling to Rwanda, remember that the CDC recommends a variety of vaccinations, including hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and rabies. Proof of yellow fever vaccination is an entry requirement if you are traveling from any country where this disease is prevalent. Additionally, malaria medication is recommended for travel throughout Rwanda. Be sure to book a consultation with your physician to discuss which option is best for you.

Article Sources
TripSavvy uses only high-quality, trusted sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. World Wildlife Fund. "Wild mountain gorilla numbers grow to more than 1,000." Retrieved on December 6, 2021.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Rwanda." Retrieved on December 6, 2021.

Was this page helpful?