Where: Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
Seeing mountain gorillas in the wild isn't easy, which is exactly what makes it so exciting. Unfortunately, only about 700 of these magnificent creatures still live in their natural environment—in the Virunga range of volcanic mountains on the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, and Uganda, and in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. In other words, the chance to see one is slim.
But a large number of endangered mountain gorillas reside in northwest Rwanda, often called the land of a thousand hills, and most are found in the Volcanoes National Park. In recent years, the country's tourism office (www.rwandatourism.com) has made great strides toward protecting its population of apes. The steep mountainous terrain and dense rainforest acts as somewhat of a deterrent for less intrepid or less active travelers. For others, the country's location near the DRC, where insurgent groups are still involved in violent conflicts, makes it undesirable. To further limit visitors, permit fees remain expensive at $750. Furthermore, there are restrictions on how many humans may observe a gorilla family—one group of 8 people a day for only an hour, to keep a distance of at least 21 feet at all times. These obstacles make a gorilla safari one of the world's most difficult, exclusive, and exhilarating wildlife experiences.
For those who do journey to Rwanda, the Virunga volcanoes—Karisimbi, Bisoke, Sabyniyo, Gahinga, and Muhabura—make a striking backdrop as you travel into the Volcanoes National Park. Rwanda's enthralling, lush green landscape is a good distraction during the beginning of what can be an arduous trek. Be prepared to hike for several hours, climbing at altitudes between 8,000 and 10,000 feet (2,400 and 3,000 meters), in wet and muddy conditions, before glimpsing an ape. Trails are often slippery, covered with vines, leaves, and fallen branches. Along the way, you might see golden monkeys, buffalo, and a wide variety of birds. But coming across mountain gorillas is what really makes your efforts worthwhile.
Male silverback gorillas can stand taller than 5½ feet, and weigh more than 400 pounds. If they feel the need to ward off danger, they can charge, scream, or bare their teeth. In general, gorillas are easygoing animals that survive on a mostly vegetarian diet of celery, nettles, bamboo, and thistles. You may see them going about their daily business during the day: eating, grooming, taking care of their young, or resting and hanging out in a group. At first sight, it's hard to remember that these huge, hairy, human-like creatures are actually gentle and social beings, something like the hippies of the animal kingdom. But after an initial adrenaline rush, it's easy to feel peaceful in their midst.
Information: Rwanda Tourism Board, Boulevard de la Revolution 1 (tel. +250 252 57 65 14; www.rwandatourism.com)
Tour: Gamewatchers Safaris (tel. 877/710-3014; www.porini.com/african-safari-holidays/rwanda/)
When to Go: June–Sept, and Dec–Feb (Nov is also a fine time to go, but trekking can be particularly muddy and difficult due to frequent rain.)
Getting There: Kigali International Airport
Where to Stay: Mountain Gorilla's Nest Lodge (www.gorillanestlodge.com). Virunga Lodge, Parc National des Volcans (tel. 866/599-2737; www.volcanoessafaris.com/go/ecolodges/virunga-lodge/).