If you are thinking of traveling to East Africa, you may want to consider the often overlooked countries of Uganda and Rwanda. While they may not be as famous as their neighbours for travellers seeking a safari experience, you’ll be surprised at the number of outdoor activities they offer.
Owing to their smaller size, travellers are able to explore these unique countries in relatively shorter time, allowing you to really make the most of your visit. You’ll get the best wildlife experiences (including primate trekking, game drives in savannah national parks and birdwatching), mountaineering, community encounters and several other adventures. All you need to do is decide where to go.
Uganda vs Rwanda: here’s what you need to know.
Uganda and Rwanda are both similar and different at the same time. Some activities can be found in both countries, while others are more specific to the destination. On paper, it may seem like Uganda has more to offer. Home to ten national parks, twelve game reserves and several lakes and rivers developed for tourism, Uganda can make Rwanda’s four national parks seem minimal.
But there’s more to it than that.
Let’s walk you through some examples.
Mountain gorilla trekking
Uganda is home to over 50% of the world’s wild mountain gorilla population, most of which are found in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Bwindi is an eight hour drive from Entebbe, or a handy one-hour-thirty-minute flight from Entebbe.
Gorilla trekking in Bwindi promises an adventure through thick forest, giving visitors the opportunity to experience the ‘African jungle feel’ firsthand. Depending on the gorilla family you visit, you may have to trek to steep areas of the the Bwindi forest, meaning some level of physical fitness is important. A gorilla permit costs around $700 in Uganda.
In Rwanda, gorilla trekking happens in Volcanoes National Park which is a two-hour-thirty-minute drive from Kigali, or thirty-five minutes by helicopter.
The trekking experience takes place in slightly less dense vegetation than Bwindi, but offers similar surroundings to Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park as both are located in the Virunga massif. A gorilla permit costs around $1500 in Rwanda.
Chimpanzee trekking in Uganda happens in Budongo Forest, Kibale Forest, Toro-Semuliki Wildlife Reserve, Kalinzu Forest and Kyambura Gorge.
Most of the chimp trekking happens in Kibale, where you will find more habituated families and, as a result, chimpanzee sightings are almost guaranteed. This is less hectic than gorilla trekking, with less steep topography to tackle and shorter walking distances.
In Rwanda, chimpanzee trekking takes place in Nyungwe Forest and the small Gishwati-Mukura National Park. The chimp trek in Nyungwe is slightly more hectic, both because of the hilly terrain and the somewhat elusive nature of the chimps – they tend to congregate in the trees here, posing a challenge for photographers especially.
Uganda is home to over 1090 bird species, which accounts for around 10% of the world’s bird species. They are found in many habitats across the country, including wetlands, forests, savannah, woodland, grasslands and on the banks of lakes and rivers.
Birding in Uganda is done in both protected areas and non-protected areas, from agricultural land to small pockets of vegetation in cities. Visitors on a two-week birding safari can expect to see or hear over 400 different species.
Rwanda is home to over 700 bird species – a huge number for a country of its size. Just like in Uganda, the bird habitats found here consist mostly of forests, wetlands, savannah, woodland, grasslands, lakes and rivers. It is easy to bird in Rwanda because of the relatively short distances between the different parks.
Uganda offers game drives through its savannah national parks. These largely take place in Kidepo Valley National Park, Murchison Falls National Park, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Lake Mburo National Park and Pian Upe Game Reserve.
Normally, game drives take place in the morning, early evening and at night, allowing visitors the chance to spot nocturnal animals too.
Rwanda’s game drives take place in Akagera National Park, an excellent choice for travellers hoping to catch a glimpse of all of the Big Five at the same time. Akagera also offers a boat safari on Lake Ilema, a unique experience that allows visitors an insight into the full range of Rwanda’s wildlife.
Uganda is home to over 57 tribes, each with their own unique language, food and culture. You can choose to visit some of these when on a safari in Uganda, in addition to the usual wildlife experiences on offer. Taste their food, dance to their music and listen to the folktale – you won’t regret it.
Unlike in Uganda, Rwanda’s cultural and community experiences tend to vary less across the country – but that isn’t to say they aren’t worth having.
For international travellers seeking insight into a culture and way of life entirely different from their own, Rwanda is an excellent choice.
Uganda offers numerous activities for adventure enthusiasts, including white water rafting on River Nile, kayaking, jet boating, bungee jumping, zip lining, mountain biking, abseiling, quad biking, tubing and canoeing, to name but a few!
In Rwanda, adventure activities on offer include cycling, kayaking, canoeing and several high-altitude canopy walks. These can also be added onto most safari itineraries.
Hiking and mountaineering
Uganda is home to several mountains and volcanoes open for hiking and mountaineering. Visitors can choose from multi-day hiking on Mount Elgon, Mount Rwenzori, Mount Moroto and Mount Kadam, or single-day hiking to the Virunga volcanoes of Mount Muhabura, Mount Gahinga, Mount Sabyinyo, Mount Wati, Mount Morungole and Mount Kilak.
For outdoorsy travellers, adding a few days of mountain experience sonto your safari itinerary can be an unforgettable experience.
Rwanda offers hiking experiences in the Virunga volcanoes of Mount Bisoke, Mount Karisimbi, and for two-day hiking trips, Mount Muhabura. This can be easily tacked onto a traditional itinerary of gorillas, golden monkeys and trekking to see chimpanzees.
Cost and accommodation
In general, Rwanda is favoured by luxury travellers, with a number of luxury lodges to choose from in the Volcanoes park area. While Uganda does have a number of pricier options, visitors here will likely enjoy a more rustic adventure experience.
The cost of your trip will depend on both its length and the number of activities included. We offer a 10-day tour of western Uganda – including walking with chimpanzees and gorillas, and several game drives – with prices starting from $7000. An 8-day tour of Rwanda’s primates starts from $8500.
Weather and climate
With some exceptions (such as the Karamoja region in North East Uganda which has one long dry season and one wet season), Uganda and Rwanda generally share the same seasons. In general, December-February and June-September are dry months, and March-May and October-November is the rainy season.
Most people prefer to travel in the dry months as hiking and mountaineering tends to be easier during this period. It also makes navigating the dirt roads found in the savannah parks during game drives a more pleasant experience.
That said, traveling during the rainy season should not be seen as out of reach: wet weather tends to come thick and fast, lasting only a few hours before the sun comes out in full force.
Travelling in this season has the advantage of fewer crowds and a a higher chance of spotting primates that haven’t been pushed further into the forest in search of food. Many lodges also offer discounted rates for travelling in the low season.
Getting there and away
Both countries have direct flights from major European cities, as well as good connectivity to the Americas and the UAE.
The gateway to Uganda is Entebbe International Airport which also has connectivity to several national parks and towns across the country. Kigali International Airport is connected to the major parks with helicopter flights of about thirty-five minutes on offer for most travellers.
Kagera Safaris has been in the business of organising custom safaris for travellers since 2012. They have intimate knowledge of Uganda and Rwanda, ensuring you have the best trip possible. Head to their website for details of customised itineraries and departure dates.
For more information, you can also see our guides to Uganda and Rwanda.