Seeing Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda for $75
Seeing Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda for $75
Seeing mountain gorillas in Rwanda face-to-face is a once in a life time experience on most people’s bucket lists! However, in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, the unique opportunity to trek alongside these giant creatures comes with an equally giant price-tag – $1500 USD. (Find more information on how to do gorilla trekking right here).
In 2018, I was lucky enough to see a few mountain gorillas for just $75 during my overland trip around Lake Victoria. I explain how below…
Are Gorillas Endangered?
Not all gorillas are endangered, however the mountain gorillas unique to East Africa and are unfortunately listed as critically endangered. Due to intensive conservation efforts, the price of gorilla tours was raised significantly in both Rwanda and Uganda to limit the impacts of tourism, while also creating more funds to support these efforts. The number of humans per mountain gorilla is limited per day, which requires you to plan ahead and pre-book your permit.
However, if you are like me and A) can’t afford a $1500 jaunt in the jungle to see mountain gorillas, or B) can’t get your act together enough to plan that far ahead, the Dian Fossey hike is your answer.
For just $75 USD I saw 2 mountain gorillas and was able to purchase my permit on the day of the hike.
Getting from Kigali to the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda:
To get to the park you will need to catch a bus from Nyabugogo Taxi Park in Kigali to the town of Musanze. The trip takes about two hours and costs RWF 1,950. The buses between Kigali and Musanze run every half hour from about 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. every day. You can either stay in Musanze or the next town closer to the national park called Kinigi. There are no buses from Musanze to Kinigi so you would need to taxi there.
In order to actually access Volcanoes National park, you need to hire a 4×4 to get to the park office where you can buy your permit and to the parking lot where the hike begins. Whether this is a ploy by Rwanda tourism or simply a lack of infrastructure, there is really no other way.
From Musanze it is a 40 min drive to the foot of the park, where a steep incline with rugged lava rock terrain begins. I paid $60 USD for my driver from Musanze (round trip), though I read that if you hire the driver from Kinigi, you can negotiate for $50 USD. Keep in mind you will need to taxi to and from Kinigi so in my opinion it made more sense to stay in Musanze where there are more lodging options.
If you need a reliable driver, mine was Everest (0785828908) based in Musanze. He will ask you for $20 up front as a deposit and you pay the rest after your hike (you can also pay in RWF).
Staying in Musanze:
I stayed in Musanze at the Amahoro Guest house the night prior to the hike, and the evening following the hike (though you will finish your hike early enough to travel onwards if that is what you decide).
My room had a large bed with a net, and an en-suite bathroom with hot water and set me back RWF 60,200 for two nights. I had a really good experience here; breakfast is included and the staff are great. The manager Norbert even got up at 4:00 am to make me breakfast to take on my 5:00am bus ride and walked me to the bus station so I would be safe in the dark.
I also liked that there was a restaurant with a dinner buffet just steps away from the gate of the guest house (if you turn right out of the gate, it’s on your left at the corner). I always travel with tupperware and utensils, so I got take-away dinner both nights from this place for less than 2000 RWF (rice, beans, plantains, spinach, potatoes, avocado). They also include meat in the price if you’re into that!
Staying in Kinigi:
If you decide you want some quality time with mother nature, you can stay in the budget lodgings provided by the Volcanoes National Park. I did not stay here so I can’t give any insights into how it is. To get to Kinigi, you’ll need to take a taxi as there is no public transport available. I read a one-way ride costs approx. RWF 15,000 for 15-minutes.
Buying your Dian Fossey hike permit:
You can buy the Dian Fossey permit for $75 USD via cash or credit from the Volcanoes National Park office before your hike. This includes the cost of the hiking guide.
I went mid-September and was able to buy the permit same day (apparently it is rare for it to sell out). Apparently you can also purchase the permit online ahead of time, though I didn’t attempt it.
What to expect on your Dian Fossey hike hike:
The hike begins at 7:00AM so you will need to get to the permit office earlier. My driver picked me up at 6:20AM. Realistically due to lines in the office, we didn’t get hiking until after 8:00AM.
Note: If you are not a morning person, there is free coffee for you to enjoy while you wait.
Once you buy your permit (or show your pre-purchased permit) you will wait for your guide at the designated meeting point. I was put into a group with four other hikers and introduced to our guide Lois.
The hike begins on the rubbly lava rock road up through a small village with the volcano in plain sight. You will walk for approximately 10 minutes, passing through small farm fields and eventually begin the trail, which gains elevation quickly.
I was warned the trail would be muddy, but it was actually next level mud, with ankle-deep areas. Despite wearing good hiking boots, I was slipping and sliding all over the place. There is also stinging nettle along the narrow path, which will poke you if you are wearing thin pants. You will have an opportunity to rent gators at the National Park if you are concerned about this.
The trail levels off into a lush green forest, saddled between the two peaks of the Visoke and Karisimbi volcanoes. This was once known as the Karisoke Research Center, the site where Dian Fossey once lived, researched and where she was brutally murdered in 1985. Beyond this area lies a burial site where she and her beloved gorillas lay to rest.
Some tourists on my hike were posing for photos smiling alongside the sign where her cabin once stood (aka the place where she was murdered) and again at her tomb stone. I think it is definitely appropriate to take some photos respectfully, but I didn’t feel the need to selfie at the place where someone died. Don’t be that person who smiles for photos at a gravesite — its super uncomfortable and awkward for everyone else.
Is the Dian Fossey hike difficult?
Overall our hike took 3 hours round trip. There were some fit people in my group and to be honest, I was the slowest one and felt rushed. I was recovering from a stomach bug and had a head cold at the same time, so I struggled on the way up with the altitude.
I can’t find any information on how many metres elevation are gained on the trail, but the National park sits at approximately 1200 m and you finish your hike at 3000 m (though keep in mind some of this elevation is gained via the 4×4 truck on the drive from the park to the start of the trail).
Your guide will offer you a walking stick at the beginning of the hike. I had accepted it and instantly regretted it once we got on the trail. I felt like it was cumbersome to use and got in the way more than anything (though it was helpful on the way down). At one point I actually fell because the stick got stuck in a branch. In hindsight, I would have opted not to use it because it interfered with using my camera and there is a porter on the hike who’s role is to help you up/down difficult areas.
Once you get up to the forest, the elevation levels off to a max of 3000 m. The trek down is fairly tough on the knees (again due to the mud) but it is definitely easier than going up.
I would rate this hike as moderate (not super easy/ not super difficult), though there was a 65+ year old man on the hike faster than me, so it goes to show anyone can do it!
Will I see a Gorilla?
So the million dollar question is: will you be able to see mountain gorillas? This hike does not offer the same viewing opportunities as the gorilla trekking or gorilla safaris do, where you actually hike alongside professional trackers to find the gorillas. However, since the gorillas live life freely within the Volcanoes National Park, you will see them if they happen to wander into the Dian Fossey hiking trail area!
With that said, I saw two mountain gorillas during the Dian Fossey hike (one on the way up and one on the way down). I was told that we were very lucky, so I’m not sure how often they are actually sighted from this trail.
Total Cost to See Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda:
The entire 2 day trip to do the Dian Fossey hike in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda cost me $215.00 USD. Roughly, this breaks down into the $75.00 hiking permit, $60.00 4×4 rental, $68 for the guest house, $2.00 for the bus to Musanze and less than $10.00 on food and water.
Note: Tipping is expected for the hiking guide and porter (if you use the porter’s assistance) and if you had an exceptional driver.
You can definitely do this cheaper if you split the cost of the 4×4 with others, stay in Musanze for one night and head back to Kigali the same day of the hike, or if you stay in a dorm room. The Amahoro Guest house where I stayed also offers shared accommodation for a lower price.
Is it worth it?
To be perfectly honest, it wasn’t the most enjoyable hike I’ve ever done. The combination of my congested sinuses, deep mud and stinging nettle did not make for an enjoyable climb…but I SAW A freaking MOUNTAIN GORILLA in Rwanda….SO YES, it was 100% worth it.
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