Lake Bunyonyi is a magical resort destination in Kabale southwestern Uganda. The lake is dotted with at least 20 small islands and it’s surrounded by steep terraced hills and exotic rural landscapes and the Virunga mountains backdrop. It is popular with day trips out of Kabale, gaining popularity by the day, thanks to a proliferation of entertainment, food, and lodging places around the lake. Many budget lodges, campsites, and resorts float around the small fishing village of Rutinda (also known as Kyabahinga) and nearby islands.
Bunyonyi is a local name translating to “little birds,” which references the prolific weaver colonies along its shore. Larger birds, such as the grey-crowned cranes, African harrier hawks, and herons and egrets, are also present. Other common sightings include the levillant cuckoo, white-tailed monad, slender-billed baglafetch, cardinal woodpecker, and the African kingfisher.
The lake is large and irregularly shaped with numerous islands and the surrounding hillsides, which locals beautifully cultivate like parts of Nepal. The area is vibrant, with activities like canoeing, cycling, and hiking.
Also in its favor is the high-altitude location, which ensures a moderate climate (often becoming quite chilly at night) and a relatively low malaria incidence. Health authorities have reliably reported the absence of Bilharzia and crocodiles, and hippos, which means the lake is very safe for swimming adventures.
Active travelers will be excited about the easy availability of canoes, kayaks, mountain bikes for hire, and enough potential excursions to keep one busy for days.
The endless opportunities for the region’s activities make Lake Bunyonyi a favored attraction among adventure travelers. Many villagers around the lake, several guesthouses, and campsites have boats for hire, making it simple to arrange a canoe trip on the lake.
Canoeing is a popular activity, and you can rent dugouts from most of the camps. Charges are reasonable but practice for a while before heading off on an ambitious trip around the islands. Many tourists go round in circles, doing what’s known locally as the mzungu (corkscrew).
There is endless nature walking opportunities in the area. Guided walking adventures are popular around Lake Bunyonyi, which travelers usually arrange through camps or the long-serving Nkuringo Walking Safaris operator.
For those who want a challenge, boat across the lake and trek the 40-kilometer (29-mile) walking trail to Kisoro. However, if you want a relaxed amble along the shores of the lake, it is straightforward enough to find your own way.
You can hire a Mountain bike for 30k shillings a day ($10) from Bunyoni Overland Camp, a great way to get along the lakeshore. However, getting to Kabale would require a king of the mountains, Tour de France style effort.
Wednesday and Saturday are Kyenvu open market days, drawing villagers from around the region. It is a long way from all the camps around the lake and involves a three-hour trip by dugout canoes. Nonetheless, most bases can arrange a rower to help out or secure a motorboat for rent. People here are pretty shy, so be sensitive with a camera.
There are also several Batwa villages in this part of the region. If you can link up with a friendly guide at the market, they can arrange a visit to a Batwa community.
Nearer to the camps is Punishment Island, located midway between Bushara and Njuyera Islands, so named because it was once where unmarried pregnant women were dumped to die. Tragically, most of them died trying to swim for shore because they usually didn’t have the stamina to make it. It is easy to spot – it has just one small tree in the center.
An all-weather dirt road connects Kabale to Rutinda, the focal point of tourist activity on Lake Bunyonyi. If you’re driving yourself, follow the Kisoro road out of Kabale for 500m. Almost immediately after passing a Kobil filling station, turn left at a junction distinguished by several signposts to the various lakeshore resorts. After about 5km, the road reaches the hill above Bunyonyi, where there is a five-way junction. Turn left for Acacia Cottages; otherwise, keep going straight ahead to get Rutinda after another 2km.
The road branching right at this junction offers spectacular views over the lake, emerging at Muko on the main Kabale—Kisoro road after about 20km.
Motorists heading to Bushara Island can park their vehicles safely at the island’s parking compound in Rutinda. Safe mainland parking is available for a small charge at Lake Bunyonyi Overland Camp.
For those without private transport, the Lake Bunyonyi Overland Camp runs a twice-daily shuttle to Rutinda, which leaves Kabale in front of the Highland Inn at 09.30 and 16.30 daily. It costs 5K shillings per person. Although it’s subject to demand, it’ll take a few people but won’t make the trip for one individual.
Regular minibus taxis and pick-up trucks, costing 5k shillings, run between Kabale and Rutinda on market days (Monday and Friday), but the service is somewhat erratic on other days. A special hire to Rutinda should cost 50k, and a boda-boda about half that.
It’s also possible to walk to the lake along the road described above, with a slight chance of hitching a lift. A quieter, more scenic route follows Butambuka Road west out of the town center, following local footpaths. There are plenty of villagers around to point you in the right direction.
Either way, the walkout is worthwhile in its own right, passing by traditional homesteads and patches of forest rustling with birdlife. It should take the best two hours, involving a stiff ascent as you approach the summit above the lake.
One thing you don’t want to do is hire a push bicycle to get to Bunyonyi. Unless you are exceptionally fit, you’ll probably spend as much time pushing the bike up steep hills as you will cycling.
If you want to go out on the lake or spend a night or two at one of the islands, you can hire a dugout or motorboat from Rutinda Jetty. Prices are negotiable but expect to pay about 20k shillings each way for the ten-15-minute motorboat trip to either Byoona Amagara or Bushara Island or 10k per person for a 30-45-minute ride in a dugout canoe. Bushara Island is closer than Byoona Amagara, but it’s more expensive.
Byoona Amagara, Itambira Island
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Byooma Amagara is long renowned as the top place to stay at Lake Bunyonyi for its creative Geodomes, each with its private balcony having views of the surrounding islands and hillsides. Friendly staff, great meals, and it is among the region’s least expensive places. The facility also has basic dormitory accommodation for hippies.
Prices range from $4 to $20 per person. The meals cost $2-$6.
Arcadia Cottages are on a hillside with spectacular panoramic views of Lake Bunyonyi. The lodge has pretty gardens and 12 rooms built as octagonal rooms with ensuite bathrooms and grass-thatched roofs. The room price is $80 per night.
Africa Explorer Eco Village, Kyabahinga
The Africa Explorer Ecovillage floats on Kyabahinga ridge overlooking Lake Bunyonyi, the islands, and the Virunga Mountains bordering Rwanda and the Congo. They have African Huts, wooden cabins powered by solar with ensuite bathrooms. Domes and camping grounds for backpackers are available.
The restaurant serves organic food in international and local dishes, but the price of meals may be a bit pricy for a budget traveler.
Lost Paradise Beach (Kirangara)
Lost Paradise Beach, with a beach and a fantastic view of the lake Bunyonyi provides accommodation in beautifully simple cottages. There is excellent African-European-Asian food and drink. They provide canoeing on Lake Bunyonyi for free for all residents.
The place has clean leisure gardens, camping grounds, a tropical fruit garden, an eating and party hall, a Waterhouse for lonely twosome breakfast, a beach, and a lovely swimming dock.
Bugombe Island Gateway
Bugombe Island Gateway has a bird-watching sanctuary on Bugombe wild island and canoe trips to the ten islands on the lake. They offer full board accommodation with simple but reasonable meals, USD 100 per person.
Bunyonyi View Resort
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Bunyonyi View Resort is a favorite choice for many travelers to Lake Bunyonyi because of its varied accommodation choices. You can get a room from $15 to $100 per person, and meals will cost you from $4 to $7; it’s a family-friendly place. It’s built on a hillside with great views of Lake Bunyonyi.
The most popular place to pitch a tent is the Lake Bunyonyi Overland Camp. In most respects, this is the best option, though nearby Kalebas and Crater Bay are quieter. Campers can also cruise the lake to Bushara Island and Byoona Amagara.