Rwanda and Uganda are two captivating destinations that offer unique safari experiences. Both countries boast lush forests, diverse ecosystems and incredible wildlife, including mountain gorillas. But each has its own distinct character and attractions and there are other differences which may tip the scales, depending on what your priorities are – from how much time you have to what your budget is to how many times you want to gorilla trek.
Rwanda is known as the Land of a Thousand Hills for its countless beautiful mountains, some topping out at almost 15,000 feet. The scenic beauty of the country’s landscapes adds to the overall enjoyment of any safari. Cosmopolitan Kigali is the gateway to Rwanda and the city welcomes visitors with fantastic dining, sophisticated hotels and world-class museums, while nature-based adventures await outside the city.
Most people think of mountain gorillas when they envision a trip to Rwanda. A visit to Volcanoes National Park provides guests the chance for intimate interactions with the gentle giants and attracts wildlife enthusiasts from across the globe. The treks lead through lush rainforests, sometimes high up on the slopes of the volcanoes, accompanied by experienced guides who provide insights into gorilla behavior and conservation efforts. Gorilla permits in Rwanda and Uganda are limited to a certain number each day, so it’s essential to book your safari well in advance.
Trekking in Rwanda can sometimes be easy, with gorilla groups low on the volcanoes and reachable within minutes, but they can also involve hiking up the steep slopes to reach your assigned gorilla family. Trekking guides do their best to assign guests to trekking groups based on their physical ability and conditioning.
In recent years, Rwanda has been working hard on broader conservation of its incredible natural resources. Visitors can go to Nyungwe Forest National Park, the largest remaining tract of montane rainforest in East Africa, to try to see some of its 13 different species of primates, nearly 300 bird species and to enjoy hiking its large network of trails.
Akagera National Park now offers travelers the chance to see the Big 5 among its tall mountains and sparkling, forest-lined lakes. It is Rwanda’s largest park, and its only park with savanna habitat.
Rwanda also affords visitors the chance to engage with local communities and learn about their rich cultural heritage. Exploring traditional villages, attending cultural performances and interacting with locals provide a deep and meaningful connection to the country. Guests can also learn more about Rwanda’s history in museums and memorials throughout the country. From Kigali’s moving Genocide Museum to small rural monuments, you will have the chance to gain a deep understanding of recent history.
Uganda is known as the Pearl of Africa, a term coined by Winston Churchill to convey its beauty, biodiversity and natural wealth. Those wishing to trek to see mountain gorillas have options – there are multiple groups of gorillas spread across two distinct areas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, as well as a habituated group in Mt. Gahinga National Park, which is part of the Virunga Volcanoes ecosystem that stretches into Rwanda. Where you trek will be decided by your choice of accommodation and gorilla permit availability.
In addition to gorilla trekking, Uganda offers a wide range of safari experiences including tracking chimpanzees, savanna and water safaris and a range of adrenaline-inducing fun.
Uganda’s landscapes include the stunning Great Rift Valley, home to Lakes Albert and Victoria. The dramatic landscapes, open savannas and lush wetlands contribute to a diverse ecosystem that supports a wide variety of wildlife. One of the country’s flagship parks, Queen Elizabeth National Park, offers travelers the chance to see big game including elephants, leopards, tree-climbing lions and Cape buffalo, as well as myriad plains game species including the endemic Ugandan kob antelope. A cruise on the park’s Kazinga Channel is a must, both for the chance to see some of the park’s 600 plus bird species, along with elephant, buffalo and antelope species on the shore, crocodiles and breeding pods of hippos.
Murchison Falls National Park, the country’s largest protected area, also offers excellent wildlife viewing opportunities on land and by water. A trip on the Nile to the bottom of the eponymous falls is awe-inducing while also providing the opportunity for excellent wildlife viewing along the way. Birders should take note that a cruise on the Lake Albert Delta can provide an excellent chance to see the much sought-after shoebill stork.
In addition to its wildlife, Uganda’s adventurous offerings extend to activities like white-water rafting and kayaking, bungee jumping and ziplining, as well as trekking the lofty peaks of the snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains. This makes Uganda an ideal destination for travelers seeking both wildlife encounters and adrenaline-pumping experiences.
One way to choose between Rwanda and Uganda is to consider your larger trip. There are easy connections between Kenya and Uganda with direct flights between the Masai Mara and Entebbe, Uganda’s capital. Likewise, Tanzania and Rwanda combine well with direct flights from the Serengeti to Rwanda’s capital Kigali. Internationally, more airlines fly into Entebbe than into Kigali, however there are plenty of options for both destinations.
Another consideration is cost. Gorilla permits in Rwanda are priced at $1,500 per person per trek, while permits in Uganda run $700 per person per trek. Both Rwanda and Uganda offer a variety of accommodations, but Rwanda offers more high-end, 5-star options near the gorilla parks. Also note that Rwanda has 96 trekking permits available daily while there are 136 in Uganda between the different sectors in Bwindi and Mt Gahinga, so you have more chances for permits in Uganda which is especially important in high season. Some people wish to experience gorilla trekking in both countries – combining Rwanda and Uganda is also easy with land border crossings or flights.
Rwanda is a better fit for travelers with less time. The country is much smaller and it’s quicker to drive from Kigali’s airport to the gorilla park. Visitors can be at Volcanoes National Park in just 2.5 hours’ drive from Kigali whereas it is a 9-hour drive from Entebbe to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in Uganda. There are also flights from Entebbe to an airfield near Bwindi, but the timings of the flights usually require an overnight stay beforehand in Entebbe.
Finally, with all of the diverse experiences on offer, each country can also be a stand-alone destination, though Uganda is a much larger country and has more parks, a greater variety of landscapes, more lakes and rivers and offers a more diverse experience overall.
When deciding between a safari in Rwanda or one in Uganda, consider your interests, preferences and the experiences you’re looking for. Rwanda offers an intimate connection with gorillas and a focus on cultural immersion, while Uganda provides a more diverse array of wildlife, including gorillas, and adventure activities. Each country offers exceptional opportunities to witness Africa’s remarkable wildlife and natural beauty up close and promises a unique adventure, leaving you with memories that will last a lifetime along with a deeper appreciation for the breathtaking biodiversity of the African continent.
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