Virunga National Park: The Complete Guide

Mountain gorillas foraging in Virunga National Park, DRC

Konrad Wothe / Getty Images

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Virunga National Park

Address
WGX7+WP7, Bulambo, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Phone +243 991 715 401

Founded in 1925 and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Virunga National Park is one of Africa’s greatest (and most imperiled) treasures. It covers an astonishing 3,000 square miles of land on the edge of the world’s second-largest tropical rainforest. Within its borders exist an incredible array of habitats—from the swamps of the Semliki River basin to two active volcanoes and the snowfields of the Rwenzori Mountains. In the southeastern sector of the park, where it adjoins Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, a third of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas seek sanctuary in the misty montane forests of the Virunga Mountains. 

Gorilla trekking is the main activity in Virunga National Park, just as it is in the neighboring parks of Rwanda and Uganda. The latter two countries are significantly safer and more popular for most gorilla enthusiasts. Yet, intrepid adventurers are drawn to the DRC by its reputation as the last frontier of the untamed African wilderness. Prices are also considerably lower, and a visit to Virunga National Park offers two unique attractions—the chance to summit still-active Mount Nyiragongo volcano and the possibility of spotting the critically endangered Grauer’s gorilla, a subspecies found only in the DRC. Read on to find out how to make visiting this extraordinary park a reality. 

Safety Advice 

Before planning a trip to Virunga National Park, it is essential to understand that the park is known as one of the most dangerous in the world. This is due to fallout from the Rwandan Genocide and the First and Second Congo Wars, which resulted in dozens of rebel groups residing in and around the park, illegally exploiting its natural resources to fund their operations. Violent confrontations between rebels and park rangers are commonplace. To date, over 200 rangers have been killed since the early 1990s. From June 2018 to February 2019, the park was closed to tourists due to ongoing violence, and even though it has reopened, there have been fatal incidents as recently as February 2021. With all of this in mind, it is generally rangers and not tourists who are the victims of these atrocities, and every precaution is taken to keep visitors to Virunga National Park safe. 

Mountain gorilla male 'Silverback' portrait, Parc National des Virunga, Democratic Republic of Congo,
Anup Shah / Getty Images

Things to Do

Those who visit the park will be rewarded with astonishing scenery dominated by majestic volcanoes. The sheer diversity of the park’s habitats results in an impressive variety of flora and fauna. More than 1,000 wildlife species are recorded in the park—of which 44 are endangered, and many more are Albertine Rift endemics. One of the park’s most remarkable claims to fame is that it is the only protected area in the world to host three taxa of great ape: the mountain gorilla, the eastern chimpanzee, and the critically endangered Grauer’s gorilla. However, chances for seeing the latter are slim, given that they are currently on the very brink of extinction. 

In total, Virunga is home to 22 different primate species, ranging from the endangered golden monkey to the rare Hamlyn’s monkey. Other mammals include elephants, buffalos, lions, the largest concentration of hippos in Africa, and many different antelope. Among these are regional specials such as the bongo, the water chevrotain, and the endemic and endangered okapi, a species restricted exclusively to the DRC. Birders are also well catered for, with at least 16 Albertine Rift endemics recorded within the park’s borders. Keep an eye out for colorful rarities like Shelley’s Crimsonwing and the Rwenzori turaco, and be sure to scan the park’s Ramsar wetland areas for over-wintering Palearctic migrants during the rainy seasons. 

Gorilla Trekking 

There are approximately 1,000 mountain gorillas left in the wild, and a third of them live in Virunga National Park. Amongst them are nine troops that have been habituated for contact with humans, giving visitors the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe one of our closest living relatives in their natural habitat. Gorilla treks led by armed rangers are the primary purpose of visiting Virunga. Each group is assigned a troop, and depending on which one you get and the conditions on the day, it can take up to three hours of strenuous hiking to locate the gorillas. Then, you’ll have up to an hour with the great apes before heading back to base. If you visit Mikeno Lodge, you also have the opportunity to meet rescued gorilla orphans at the Senkwekwe Center. 

The top of Mount Nyiragongo in Virunga National Park near Goma
Chris Dennis Rosenberg / Getty Images

Nyiragongo Volcano Trek 

The guided Nyiragongo volcano trek takes ambitious hikers to the summit of this active stratovolcano, whose caldera contains the world’s largest lava lake. The route begins at the Kibati Ranger Post (6,135 feet above sea level) and ascends over roughly 4 miles to reach the summit at 11,385 feet. Getting there takes four to five hours—and along the way, you’ll pass through five distinct habitats ranging from the forests of the lower slopes, where wildlife including chimpanzees, monkeys, and bushbuck may be spotted; to old lava flows and high montane forest. The hike includes an overnight stay in a mountain shelter so that you can watch the sunset from the summit. 

Nyiragongo backpacks are available for $100 and include everything you need for your time on the volcano, including a sleeping bag, warm clothes, and meals. You will need to carry everything yourself unless you hire a porter from the ranger post for $25 per 33-pound bag.

Where to Stay 

For security reasons, camping is not permitted in Virunga. Instead, the national park owns and operates lodges located in three different areas. 

Mikeno Lodge

Situated at park headquarters in Rumangabo, Mikeno Lodge is surrounded by beautiful forest and stunning Albertine Rift views. You can admire these from the veranda of the main lodge, which includes a full restaurant and bar. Or, look out for blue and colobus monkeys from the terrace of your private bungalow. All 12 cabins have a seating area with a fireplace, a soaking tub, a natural stone shower, and flushable toilets. 

Kibumba Tented Camp

Kibumba Tented Camp is the camp of choice for gorilla trekkers, thanks to its location in the park's southeast corner. Its 18 luxury, safari-style tents are situated on Mount Mikeno and have en-suite bathrooms with hot water and flushable toilets. The camp's main lodge has its own dining room, while the veranda offers opportunities for al fresco dining and spotting golden monkeys and rare montane bird species. 

Tchegera Tented Camp

Tchegera Tented Camp is situated in an idyllic location in the middle of Lake Kivu, on the ridge of a collapsed volcanic caldera. With just six tents, it's the most intimate accommodation option and offers opportunities to enjoy water-based activities such as kayaking, paddle boarding, and snorkeling. Each tent has its own bathroom with hot water and a flushable toilet, while the entire camp (including the restaurant and bar) boasts 24-hour solar electricity. 

How to Get There 

Getting to Virunga National Park is a little different from your average African safari experience. To apply for the special two-week, single entry visa granted for visitors to the park, you must first book one of several packages via the official Virunga National Park website. These packages include all transport to, from, and within the national park, your accommodation, specified activities and relevant permits, and meals (except those required on Nyiragongo volcano treks). Upon paying for your package, you will receive a booking code to apply for your visa. Visas cost $105 per person, are non-refundable, and take at least two weeks to process.

Nyamuragira, an active volcano, erupts in the background of a rural village inside Virunga National Park
Morgan Trimble / Getty Images

Accessibility 

Unfortunately, Virunga National Park and its activities are not suitable for visitors with mobility issues. There are no provisions for disabled guests. However, both Rwanda and Uganda offer the option for guests to be carried on ladders to see their habituated gorilla troops, so that is a possible alternative.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Virunga’s proximity to the equator means that temperatures remain pretty consistent all year round, although they can differ quite significantly within the park depending on elevation. Averages at lower altitudes range from 73 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit and from 61 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit at higher altitudes. On the summit of Mount Nyiragongo, it’s common for temperatures to fall below freezing. 
  • There are two main rainy seasons: September to November and March to May. Birding is most productive during these periods, but otherwise, the dry seasons are generally the best time to travel to Virunga. 
  • Packing essentials include a lightweight waterproof jacket, sturdy, well-broken-in hiking shoes, and long-sleeved shirts and pants. Gaiters are also a good idea to protect against biting insects and stinging nettles. 
  • Although your Virunga package covers most expenses, some are not. Bring cash for drinks, gratuities, and Nyiragongo backpacks and porters. Note that only undamaged U.S. dollars printed after 2009 will be accepted.
  • The recommended tip amount is $10 per person, per day, which will be divided equally between all staff members at your chosen accommodation. 
  • The CDC recommends several vaccinations for all travelers to the DRC. These include vaccines for cholera, hepatitis A and B, meningitis, polio, typhoid, and rabies. Proof of yellow fever vaccination is required for all visitors aged nine months or older — you will not be allowed to enter the country without it. Malaria prophylactics are also recommended all year round.
  • All visitors to Virunga National Park must take out travel insurance worth at least $100,000 in emergency medical evacuation fees plus $100,000 in medical expenses.
  • Park management has the right to cancel any activities if there is a perceived safety risk. You will be offered an alternative or refunded in full. 
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Virunga National Park: The Complete Guide