When I told most of my family and friends that I was going to Uganda for a summer, most of them responded…Where’s that again? Most Americans can’t place Uganda on a map, but that’s a mistake and it’s time to change that.
Based on my time there, the quality of the ginger beer, and the sheer number of things to do, Uganda should be on every traveler’s bucket list. And there’s more good news – Uganda is set to resume flights and reopen its borders to foreigners on October 1. Here are my top 5 experience plus a bunch more if these 5 didn’t convince of all that this small but incredible country has to offer.
Go Mountain Gorilla Trekking at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Uganda is one of only three countries in the world where you can visit mountain gorillas in their natural habitat at the aptly named Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (the other two being Uganda’s neighbors, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo). Happily, the mountain gorillas have recently been moved off the critically endangered species list due to conservation efforts, but they are still endangered with only about 1,000 left.
I loved this experience because you get to spend an hour with the mountain gorillas in their natural habitat, and it really is incredible to watch them. You also have the thrilling experience of setting off into the impenetrable park with a guide holding a rifle and a machete, clearing an unknown path to find wherever the gorillas are hanging out that day. This experience is nature at its finest.
Now it’s not cheap – gorilla tracking permits alone are currently $700 in Uganda (but compare that to neighboring Rwanda, where it’s $1500, and it feels like you’re getting a bargain). However, this money goes towards gorilla conservation efforts, maintaining the incredibly biodiverse park, paying the staff, and regulating the flow of tourists to avoid overcrowding, so you can think of it as a conservation investment. And although it is expensive, this is truly and once-in-a-lifetime, breathtaking experience. Find out more about gorilla trekking here. And if you can’t swing the pricey entrance fee – understandable – I’d recommend watching the film Virunga (available on Netflix), which chronicles the Virunga park in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
Raft the Nile River in Jinja
Did you know that Uganda is the source of the Nile River? Not only that, but it’s a great spot for white water rafting that’s a short distance from Kampala. The rapids range from grades 3-5, also depending on the time of year. I love rafting so this was a lot of fun, I also liked that some parts of the river were so calm that we could jump off the raft and take a swim in the Nile. There are many different tour operators that offer rafting trips.
Take a Motorcycle Tour of Kampala
In Uganda, motorcycles are know as boda-bodas or just bodas for short. When I visited Kampala, I signed up for Walters Tours – one of my favorite tours ever. Hop on a boda, with a helmet of course, and your guide will take you through the winding streets of Kampala to see the city highlights and learn more about Ugandan history. Back in 2013, these included:
- Uganda’s National Mosque (Gaddafi Mosque) where you can climb to the top and see stunning views of the city
- Banana beer tasting
- King’s Lake, the largest man-made lake in the country, constructed by the Buganda Kingdom
- Kabaka’s Palace, where the king of the Buganda lived and you can visit the horrifying torture chambers used by dictator Idi Amin
- The fish market alongside Lake Victoria for lunch, the largest lake in Africa and the third largest in the world
- The bus station – this might not sound exciting, but it was jam-packed with minibuses (called matatus) moving in all directions, making it one of the more hectic places I’ve ever visited
See Wildlife at Queen Elizabeth National Park
You can see all of the big five in Uganda, and you can spot four of them (everything except the rhino) in the wild at Queen Elizabeth National Park. The park also has hippos, crocodiles, chimpanzees, 600+ species of birds, antelopes, impalas, and tree-climbing lions. Hire a guide to take you around, and if you go early in the morning or later in the day you’ll likely see lions (I missed this due to time constraints, but I got to see more elephants than I ever hoped, so it was still worth it). As a bonus, you get to be on the equator! Find out more about the park here.
Relax on Lake Bunyonyi
Nestled in southwestern Uganda, this scenic lake is a quiet, beautiful getaway for a relaxing weekend. Imagine staying in a hotel alongside a picturesque lake where you can unplug (literally, because there is no electricity). During the day, you can swim in the lake, take a ride in a canoe, hike up the hills for stunning panoramic views, and pass through the villages dotting the hills. We had a guide for our hike, who took us through one of the villages to try bushera, a fermented drink made from sorghum.
And There’s More
These are my top five spots, but I’ve been to Uganda three times now, and there’s still more to discover. Some other places that look incredible include:
- Ziwa Rhino & Wildlife Ranch, where you can view the only rhinos in the country
- Africa’s tallest mountain range, the Rwenzori Mountains, with a park that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its endangered species and glaciers, waterfalls, and lakes
- Murchinson Falls National Park, featuring stunning waterfalls and chimpanzees
- Kidepo Valley National Park, Uganda’s most isolated park but also toted as one of the top safari spots on the continent