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Trip Ideas

JS Travel Diaries: Just Back From Rwanda and Uganda

Recently returned from eastern Africa's rolling tea plantations and wildlife-rich rain forests—the only place in the world you can see the endangered mountain gorilla—Jetsetter editor Lindsey Olander shares some of her favorite discoveries.

Something is happening in East Africa. Be it newfound optimism about economies on the rise, or a newfound interest in gorilla tourism, neighboring countries Rwanda and Uganda are back on the safari circuit. Some two decades since Rwanda’s darkest hour, its capital of Kigali is now a tiny boomtown thanks to a wave of new hotels and restaurants. Meanwhile, 65 miles northwest, Wilderness Safaris’ Bisate Lodge—just six individual thatched villas with soaking tubs and sweeping views of Volcanoes National Park, home to half of the world’s mountain gorillas—brought a whole new level of luxury to the region when it debuted in 2017. Two more recent openings, One&Only Nyungwe House and One&Only Gorilla’s Nest, have added to the buzz.

Despite Rwanda’s gorilla permit cost doubling from $750 to $1,500 a person, the experience to see these endangered creatures remains as sought-after as ever. Meanwhile, neighboring Uganda, whose permits still hang around $600, is enjoying the spill-over of those seeking more affordable—but no less magical—encounters.

I traveled to both countries this past fall, stopping first in Kigali and then on through lodges in both Rwanda and Uganda, to see it all for myself. Here are some highlights—and snapshots.

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Memorable meal

Heaven, Rwanda’s most buzzed-about restaurant in the capital city of Kigali, features an open-air terrace overlooking the city and sources ingredients directly from local farmers. A few favorite dishes: the fried avocado salad, Creole-spiced Nile perch, and kuku paka (a Swahili spiced chicken curry)—all washed down with a refreshing Gingertini (vodka, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, lemongrass syrup, and lots of peeled ginger).

The owners, an American expat couple, have opened Kigali’s first luxury hotel on site, The Retreat by Heaven, featuring 11 peaked-ceiling rooms with front and rear private patios, beautiful outdoor showers, and private butlers.

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Top view

I felt on top of the world while waking up over breakfast in the main building at Rwanda’s Virunga Lodge, two-and-a-half hours’ drive northwest of Kigali on a peak overlooking twin Rwandan lakes Bulera and Ruhondo.

The lodge, reached via a steep muddy road carved directly into the mountainside, is one of Africa’s most spectacular, with eight standalone bandas (cottages) that share the same views as the lodge’s wraparound terrace. From there, you can see, depending on the direction you face, both the lakes or all five volcanoes within Virunga National Park, which extends into the Congo.

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Gorillas in the Mist

Full disclosure: my porter did most of the work hauling me up the near-vertical slopes of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest as I embarked on an adventure I’ve been dreaming about for years—tracking the endangered mountain gorilla. It took two grueling hours to reach the Bitukura group, a habituated 12-member family, but the aches and pains flew from my mind as I locked eyes with the dominant silverback and cooed at a mother coddling her curious one-year-old baby. Needless to say, the Amarula-spiked hot chocolate I had at Bwindi Lodge later that night was well earned!

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A Batwa woman giving a lesson in medicinal forest herbs at Mount Gahinga Lodge.

 

Local souvenir

You’ll find hand-carved gorilla statues in all shapes and sizes almost everywhere you turn in tourist-visited villages near the parks. I also picked up two beautiful handwoven baskets made by Uganda’s vulnerable Batwa tribe, who currently live down the road from Mount Gahinga Lodge on the outskirts of Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, in far southwestern Uganda. The indigenous Batwa were evicted from their rain forest home when Mgahinga was designated a protected national park in 1991, but, with help from the Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust, they’re building a permanent settlement right on the park borders.

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Most underrated activity

Tracking golden monkeys in Mgahinga—almost as difficult as trying to photograph them! These playful creatures, found only in the Virunga mountains of central Africa, get their name from the long golden hair on their backs. It’s difficult to keep track of their numbers because of their social group size (anywhere from 30 to 80 members) and fast movements within their thick bamboo habitat, but experts estimate that only around 2,000 survive in the wild today.

Go with a guide

Volcanoes Safaris can arrange everything from car and small-plane transfers between lodges, acquiring gorilla tracking permits and entry visas, and meetings with local tribes.

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Left to right: The lawn at Mount Gahinga Lodge; a rolling tea plantation in Uganda, one of the country's biggest exports.

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One final glimpse of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, on the road to Uganda.

 

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