For wildlife lovers, seeing the gorillas that live in the misty mountain jungles between Uganda and Rwanda is a bucket-list must. With only 880 of these intelligent primates left in the wild, any up-close encounter you have with them may literally be the last of its kind.
To see the gorillas, you have to trek into the mountain forest. And the only way to do that is to obtain one of a limited number of visas; only eight people are allowed to visit each gorilla group per day, with a maximum of 96 daily permits in total among the various groups.
Partly because visas are so rare, prices for them are high—and that's on top of the wallet-draining costs for airfare and lodging.
Sounds like an unfeasibly expensive adventure, doesn’t it? But you can bring the cost to the lowest level possible if you know the secret to a budget-friendly trip: Visit Uganda in the low season.
Uganda is still a relative bargain for wilderness explorers. Permits, usually $600 in high season, decrease to $450 for the low-season “shoulder” months of November, April, and May, when you can venture into the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to see the gorilla families.
Yes, those months coincide with rainy season, but with the money you’ve saved on permits, you can splurge on a poncho and boots.
Rwanda, meanwhile, is currently enjoying a moment in the spotlight, thanks to a couple of high-profile lodges opening this year, one from Wilderness Safaris and another from the upscale One&Only. Amid the excitement, the country has doubled the price of a daily gorilla trekking permit from $750 to $1,500.
Not only are Uganda's permits significantly less expensive in low season. According to safari expert Mark Nolting of the Africa Adventure Company, “Uganda also has better low-season prices for accommodations in April, May, and November than Rwanda and more reasonably priced, quality, mid-range accommodation options.”
Ashley Norman of Tourism Uganda, the country's official tourist board, gives these examples for low-season rates at top lodging options: Mahogany Springs charges $240 per person, per night (the high season rate is $290), and at Bwindi Lodge, where gorillas often walk onto the property, guests pay $188 per night ($250 in the high season). These prices become a better value when you consider that all meals and most drinks are included—due to Bwindi’s remote location, this inclusive pricing is the case with most lodging options in the area.
For help securing permits and coordinating transfers, consider opting for a guided safari. Volcanoes Safaris, for example, sells an off-season 4-day Gorilla Safari including permits, expert guides, ground transfers, visits to local communities, and even post-trek massages for roughly $650 per person, per night. By comparison, the new Bisate Lodge in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park will cost you $1,100 per night.