As far as names of places go, there’s hardly a more evocative destination name than Bwindi Impenetrable National Park—a protected ancient and untamed tropical rainforest in East Africa’s Uganda.
This swath of steep mountains covered in thick, steamy, untamed rainforest jungle is just as magnificent as it sounds. The 32,092 ha (331 sq km) World Heritage Site is one of Africa’s most ancient habitats that survived the last Ice Age as most of the continent’s other forests disappeared.
For thousands of years, the tropical forest has provided a reliable sanctuary for hundreds of animals through human’s most destructive times of war, hunting, habitat destruction, and disease. The 459 endangered mountain gorillas native to the region are the most critical inhabitant among the many.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is located in southwest Uganda’s mountainous region on the border with DRC in the west and about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the border with Rwanda in the south. It is waged on the eastern edge of the Albertine Rift Valley.
Its 331 square kilometers of tropical forest spread over steep ridges and valleys. It is one of the most extensive rainforests, with Afromontane lowland forest extending well within the montane forest belt in East Africa.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is believed to be a Pleistocene refugium. Scientists believe the Bwindi Forest is a mere remnant of a vast forest that once covered much of western Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
According to UNESCO, the property is a biodiversity hot spot with possibly the most significant number of tree species at that altitude in East Africa. It is also host to a rich fauna, including several endemic butterflies and one of the richest mammalian assemblages in Africa.
Home to almost half of the world’s mountain gorilla population of 1067 individuals, the property represents a conservation frontline as an isolated forest of outstanding biological richness.
Bwindi Forest is surrounded by an agricultural landscape supporting one of tropical Africa’s highest rural population densities. Community benefits from gorilla trekking tourism and other ecotourism may be the only hope for the future conservation of this unique site.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park has the highest diversity of tree species in East Africa. It contains over 200 tree species, including 10 endemics and 104 ferns.
It may also be the most noteworthy forest in Africa for montane forest butterflies, with 202 species (84% of the country’s total), including eight Albertine endemics such as the African giant swallowtail and Cream-banded swallowtail.
Of Bwindi’s wildlife collection, over 347 forest bird species are recorded in the park, and at least 70 out of 78 montane birds in the Albertine Rift region find refuge in the Bwindi forest. Notable rare bird sightings include the African green broadbill, Grauer’s swamp warbler, Turner’s Eremomela, Chapin’s flycatcher, and Shelley’s crimson-wing.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park has an estimated 120 mammal species, of which 10 are primates and more than 45 are small mammals.
Overall, Bwindi hosts numerous globally threatened species, including high-profile mammals such as the mountain gorilla, chimpanzee, black and white colobus, red-tailed monkeys, L’Hoest’s monkey, and vervets. Other remarkable mammals species include:
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park is home to almost half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas, with about 459 individuals living in stable patriarchal family groups of around 10-15. These veggie giants feed on roots, leaves, and fruits from the park’s many tree and fern species.
Although the park has many troops flourishing at elevations of 8,000 to 13,000 feet, the government’s conservation body, UWA, has habituated 20 mountain gorilla groups and availed them for conservation monitoring and tourism. At least eight tourists can visit any gorilla group in the four sectors of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
The mountain gorillas are heavily protected from poaching and an encroaching human population within the park boundaries for conservation purposes and as the country’s tourism jewel. UWA highly regulates gorilla trekking excursions to control the spread of diseases between humans and gorillas and preserve the forest’s natural state while benefiting the surrounding communities.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park offers several activities to visitors, starting from any of the visitor centers located in the park’s four sectors, Buhoma, Ruhija, Nkuringo, and Rushaga.
Some notable activities in Bwindi include bird-watching excursions, nature hiking, walking safaris, gorilla trekking, gorilla habituation experiences, and student research excursions.
The most revered activity in Bwindi is tracking a mountain gorilla family to spend an hour observing their unique behaviors—an activity famously dubbed gorilla trekking.
As the best place for gorilla trekking in Africa, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park gets the highest number of high-profile wildlife tourists in the country.
However, the Uganda Wildlife Authority highly regulates the number of visitors to the park to maintain the integrity of the park and control human-animal contact. That makes the conservation area a hot item on Uganda safari holiday packages.
Many visitors to the park find that single hour spent with the mountain gorillas ethereal—an incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience no words can describe. With such attention the park gets, tickets to watch the mountain gorillas in Uganda can get really scarce; adventure travelers have to book months in advance.
All visitors to the park need a gorilla permit to join the daily small-group gorilla trekking excursions. They have to be above 15 (minimum required age). You can book your ticket with UWA or a licensed tour operator for 700 USD a piece.
Gorilla trekking excursions begin early in the morning (7:30 am), which means you would have spent a night near the visitor center to make it in time for the early briefing. After a briefing, trekkers are selected into small groups of eight. Each group is assigned a lead tracker guide and two armed rangers with a walkie-talkie to communicate with rangers onsite.
Sightings are 98% guaranteed, with a few isolated disappointments. That’s because a group of rangers goes ahead of the trekkers to locate the gorillas before they leave their nests, stay with them the whole day and direct your group to their location.
However, the high altitude, mountainous, and heavily forested uneven terrain can be somewhat challenging for some trekkers. The barely existing paths can often be steep and slippery. And, it could take anywhere from 30 minutes to five hours to find the gorillas, so you’ll need to be in reasonably good physical shape.
If you think you will struggle, hiring a porter (for 20 bucks) is strongly advised. The porter will carry your day pack and lend a hand getting up and down the hill. Taking a walking stick is also a perfect idea; you can pick one from the visitor center or pack one of those modern adjustable ones.
Once you find the giant primates, you will have a maximum of 60 minutes near the gorillas. You can get up to 10 meters (32 ft) close, but you must refrain from intended physical contact with these great apes.
On a Gorilla Habituation Experience, you can stick with the gorilla family for up to four hours, following and studying their every move with the help of gorilla researchers and rangers.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is subdivided into four sectors, with functional visitor centers where tourists can access the park activities. These park access points are where decent tourist accommodations are concentrated to give visitors easy access to the park.
Buhoma sector is north of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, and it is where UWA park headquarters are situated. It is at a lower altitude than the other three park sectors. Buhoma provides tourists with vantage access to the park from the western Uganda safari circuit via Ishasha in Queen Elizabeth National Park.
For that reason, it’s a better choice for many travelers hoping to trek gorillas and see Uganda’s big game on the same trip without breaking the bank. However, because of the attention Buhoma gets, availability for tickets and accommodation can be a pain in the neck.
Tourists to buhoma will see one of the five habituated gorilla groups on a particular day.
As the first section of the park to open for gorilla tracking, Buhoma by far has the most developed tourist infrastructure. There are many conservation organizations, community projects, a dense community population, and a wide range of accommodation choices.
From budget homestays to luxury camps and lodges hanging above the Bwindi Canopy, all types of travelers can find where to stay and eat a decent meal in Buhoma. All accommodations in Buhoma are at least a walking distance from the trailhead on a relatively flat landscape.
You can access Buhoma from Kihihi Airport, about an hour and a half’s drive, and connect to Entebbe International Airport. Also, traveling by road, you can connect to other northerly attractions on the western safari circuit from Buhoma. From Kampala, buhoma is about a 10-hour drive, but about 60 kilometers of the road is not paved.
Nkuringo Sector is not as famous as Buhoma. Still, seasoned travelers prefer it for its adventurous activities and entertaining gorilla families. It has three habituated gorilla families available for gorilla trekking and one other soon to open up.
Nkuringo is south of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park at a higher altitude than all the other three sectors.
Apart from gorilla trekking, from Nkuringo, you can go canoeing on Lake Mutanda, Kayaking, Mountain Biking, Bird Watching, and visiting the Batwa forest people. You can also take on the hiking trails across Bwindi with Walking Safari Guides.
Nkuringo has fewer accommodation choices, mainly leaning toward the mid to the high end of the Budget. The few hand-picked lodges include Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge, Clouds Mountain Lodge, Gorilla Heights Lodge, Mutanda Lake Resort, Chameleon Hill Lodge, and Four Gorillas Lodge.
If you’re a sucker for landscape views, you must know that Nkuringo beats the other park sectors with the most stunning landscape views in the region. Anywhere in Nkuringo, you can see far and beyond the rift valley region, the Virunga Mountains, and Bwindi Forest Canopy.
Although Rushaga Sector has the highest number of habituated gorilla groups for tourism, it provides lower-budget accommodation options. It is common among budget travelers and tourists who have failed to secure a gorilla permit in other sectors.
However, Rushaga is the only one that offers the gorilla habituation experience that allows visitors to spend at least four hours with a wild troop of gorillas. When you visit this side of the park, you’ll track one of the six available gorilla groups on a gorilla trekking excursion.
If you are looking for mid to luxury accommodation near Rushaga, you may have to drive 30-45 minutes from Nkuringo Sector and as far back as Lake Mutanda resorts.
You can access Nkuringo from Kisoro Airport, connecting scheduled domestic flights. You’ll drive for about one and a half hours to reach Rushaga via Kisporo.
Ruhija Sector sits in the northeast of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Its location with Buhoma to the north and Kabale in the south gives it easy access to both sides of the park.
Nonetheless, Ruhija is not popular with many travelers and is always the last choice when tourists can’t find gorilla permits for other sectors. It has habituated gorilla families available for tourism.
Ruhija is accessible from Kabale or Buhoma, a two-hour drive in either direction.
Even if you can’t afford gorilla tracking, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is a rewarding park to visit just for a chance to explore the lush virgin rainforest.
Several 3 to 4-hour hikes run by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) in collaboration with Nkuringo Walking Safari Guides penetrate the Impenetrable Forest around Buhoma and Nkuringo Sectors. The walks begin at 9 am and 2.15 pm and cost US$40 to $150 per person (not including your park entry fee).
You will enjoy the Waterfall Trail, which leads to a magnificent 33m waterfall on the Munyaga River. Munyaga River is just as impressive as the rich forest ecosystems it flows through, and it’s the best trail for spotting orchids and primates.
Weather permitting, the Muzabijiro Loop Trail and Rushura Hill Trail offer excellent views south of the Virunga volcanoes and the Western Rift Valley in the DRC. The latter, which is a more challenging climb, also serves up views of Lake Edward and, on an exceptionally clear day, the Rwenzoris.
A longer but much easier trek is along the Ivi River Trail, which follows the path of a planned but never-built road between Buhoma and Nkuringo Sectors. It’s 14km through the forest and then another 6km uphill along a road to Nkuringo village; you might be able to hitch this last part. If you’re moving between Nkuringo and Bihoma, this is the most rewarding way to go. It is also the best bird-watching trail in the forest.
For seasoned hikers, start from Kisoro town and take the 18km trek to Lake mutanda (10 km with some driving), passing through remote communities and terraced garden slopes. Nkuringo Walking Safari guides exclusively offer this one.
Children dashing out hellos and cheering like a July parade will cheer you up on this trail.
You will then reach Lake Mutanda and take a 2.5-hour paddle (life jackets provided) in a dugout canoe across to Mutanda Lake Resort. From here, it’s another 4km on foot to Kisoro or driving 36km (1 hour) on a dirt road to Nkuringo Sector.