Uganda Travel Guide
Uganda is a country in south-east Africa that covers almost a quarter of a million square kilometres. It’s a country landlocked by Tanzania and Rwanda to the south, Kenya to the east, South Sudan to the north and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west. It’s a country without a coastline, but with no shortage of water.
Around sixteen per cent of Uganda, which is located within the African Great Lakes Region, is covered with water. Half of Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake, stretches across the country’s southern border with Tanzania. Lake Albert and Lake Elizabeth occupy a substantial area along Uganda’s western front with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and those are just three of Uganda’s lake. There are many more including the stunning Lake Bunyonyi with its plethora of verdant islands, but whose beauty is marred by a dark and somewhat sinister history.
Topographically, Uganda is a contrast of unbelievably scenic landscapes. From the snow-capped peaks and glaciers of the Rwenzori Mountains to the undulating foothills covered with coffee plantations, to the extensive savannahs of the lowlands where you can spot tree-climbing lions and its crystalline expanses of lake water, Uganda is a country of outstanding beauty.
Uganda is also a country with an incredible bio-diversity where you can see mountain gorillas in their natural habitat, go chimpanzee trekking, follow herds of elephants on a game drive or see some of the most spectacular waterfalls on the African continent. Start out by discovering all about the country’s tribal heritage in the museums of the capital city, Kampala and you’ll be well prepared to head out to the national parks on the African adventure of a lifetime.
Currency, ATMs and Credit Cards
The currency used in Uganda is the Ugandan Shilling – UGX or USh. It’s a currency with an exceptionally low value. 1000 UGX is worth approximately thirty cents – $0.30 USD. Notes are of large denominations starting at 1000 then incrementing to 2000, 5000, 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000. It’s possible that the 1000 USh will at some time be replaced by a coin. Keep in mind that a 50,000 USh note has a value of around $12.00 USD.
There are ATMs in the larger cities located within the buildings of international banking facilities. There are ATMs in most small towns too, though as communication coverage can be unreliable, it’s better not to depend too much on being able to find one in working order. Dollars, euros and sterling are accepted in many places including at the ticket offices to the national parks.
Foreign exchange offices are few and far between outside of Kampala so carrying sufficient cash when heading to more rural areas is a good idea. All withdrawals made from ATMs in Uganda will be in USh and the large numbers can be confusing so double-check how much you’re taking out before proceeding with the transaction. 400,000 USh is approximately $100 USD – that’s a lot of zeros to contend with, and for just $250 you’ll be a USh millionaire.
Credit and debit cards are accepted in most hotels and larger retailers, but the smaller business will expect to be paid in cash. Always keep in mind there might not be a good enough communications signal to complete a transaction so keep some cash with you at all times when you travel in Uganda.
Language & Religion In Uganda
Uganda has two official languages. The first and most commonly spoken is English. The country’s second official language is Swahili which is more widely spoken in the northern regions. Bantu and many of its dialects are also spoken in many areas, but it is not classed as an official language.
The majority of the Ugandan population follow the Christian religion. The most practised denomination is Roman Catholic which is worshipped by around forty percent of the people. The Anglican Church of Uganda ranks second on the list of most followers. Only approximately fourteen per cent of the population follow the Islamic religion.
Is Uganda Safe?
When you travel to Uganda it’s wise to take precautions for your personal safety. Petty crime, kidnapping and sexual harassment are common so it’s advisable not to travel alone in Uganda. The drugging of drinks is prevalent so never leave yours unattended. Take care when using your credit card in ATMs or when paying for goods. Machines are often tampered with. It’s wise to leave your important documents locked in your hotel safe and carry a photocopy of your passport when you travel in Uganda. Avoid or be extra vigilant when in crowded places both for pickpockets or the threat of a possible terrorist attack.
While political unrest is relatively stable, there is a large influx of refugees from South Sudan entering illegally across the eastern and northern borders. This has put a strain on the authorities in the region resulting in an increase in the crime rate. Uganda’s border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo can experience combative actions by groups of armed guerillas. Updates and advice on how to stay safe while visiting Uganda can be found on the US Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs website – travel.state.gov.
Before you travel to Uganda it’s advisable to consult a medical practitioner on any updates for required vaccinations or outbreaks of infectious diseases in the country. Your normal vaccinations for measles, polio and tuberculosis need to be current and you may require vaccination against yellow fever. Malaria, as well as several other virulent diseases, are known to occur and your medical practitioner will be able to advise you on the best course of action to take before you travel to Uganda and while there.
Typical Food In Uganda
Uganda is one of the poorest countries in the world and this fact is reflected in the staple diet. The same as in most African countries, ugali is a common carbohydrate served with most meals. Ugali or posho as it’s sometimes called in Uganda is a doughy mass made from white corn flour. It can also be made into a porridge-style dish. It’s used as a bread substitute along with chapatis.
Root vegetables such as potato, sweet potato, cassava and yam are the basic vegetables used on a daily basis along with boiled green bananas. Ground peanuts, peanut sauce and sesame paste are used as flavoring ingredients. The meat of various types including chicken, mutton or goat and fish are typically cooked as stews with the meat being separated from the sauce and dusted with ground peanuts before serving.
Street Food In Uganda
Ugandan food has been influenced by British, Indian and Asian migrants, a fact which is very apparent when it comes to the street food served on the stalls of the cities suburbs. Tuck into a Rolex and you’ll be eating a chapati rolled up and stuffed with a fried egg, cabbage, onions, tomatoes and green peppers. If you prefer a bit of a crunch to your street food snack, try some nsenene which are fried grasshoppers. If that’s not quite to your taste, go for muchomo, seasoned and grilled beef on a skewer. For health and safety reasons, when buying snacks from street food vendors in Uganda always try to go to the busiest ones and if you can, one frequented by locals.
When To Visit Uganda
While Uganda is an all-year-round destination, there are some months of the year when the climate is more agreeable to game drives and gorilla trekking than others. Climatic conditions can change as well according to the area of the country you’re visiting. Expect on average for temperatures to be somewhere in the region of the high twenty to thirty degrees Celsius with major peaks during the months of January and February that can reach as high as forty degrees.
The Lake Victoria region in the south experiences two wet seasons a year from September to November and then from March to May. In the north of the country, you’ll find the rains fall mainly from March to November with the dry season occurring between December and February. If you’re planning to travel to Uganda to see the wildlife or go gorilla trekking try to time your visit to fall between June to August or December to February. While all of these months fall within the peak tourist season for Uganda, it’s not that busy, so as long as you book your gorilla or chimpanzee trekking permit in advance, you’ll be in for a unique and unforgettable experience.
Places To Visit In Uganda
Kibale National Park
The Kibale National Park is an area of protected rainforest located in the western region of Uganda close to the country’s border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The extensive acreage of the park merges with several other wildlife preserves to form the Kibale Forest Corridor Game Reserve and the Kibale Conservation Area.
The Kibale National Park is one of the best places on the African continent to go chimpanzee trekking or to see a multitude of primate species. It is reputed to have the highest population of primates in any forest worldwide and is one of the must-see attractions when you travel to Uganda. The lush terrains of Kibale National Park also provide a habitat for more than three hundred species of birds. Many large mammals including elephants and buffalos live in the park. Big cats like lions, African Golden Cats and leopards also roam the parklands so any visit there will result in viewing a multitude of wildlife.
Best Way To See Kibale National Park
The best way to see the Kibale National Park is by going on a safari there. Spending a few nights in the park will give you more time for spotting the wildlife. There are several safari options to choose from. What suits you will depend on the time you have available and your budget limitations.
The shortest safari lasts for a duration of two days. Most of the first day is spent travelling north from Kampala to the park and settling into your overnight accommodation. It’s an early start on day two when after a short informative briefing you head up into the mountains on foot. Most encounters with chimpanzees on the shorter safaris are with animals that have become habituated to seeing humans. To see ones that aren’t accustomed to people, you’ll need to take a three, four or six day experience in the park. The longer safaris trek further into the forests. You could be hiking for anywhere between two to five hours before sighting the wild primates high up in the forest canopy. Viewing the chimps is only permitted for a maximum of one hour.
You can also take day hikes through the Kibale National Park. Stay the night at the park then set off at the crack of dawn the next day with a guide and you’ll be able to spot many of the smaller primate species, elephants wallowing in the mud holes and an endless variety of birds.
Park Entrance Price: $40
Chimpanzee Trekking Permit: $150
Best Places To Stay – Kibale National Park
Stay at the Kyaninga Lodge and you’ll be in a spectacular hilltop setting high above the treetops with incredible views all around. The lodge is close to the town of Fort Portal and around a fifty minute drive from Kibale National Park. There you’ll sleep in log cabin-style cottages with typical African décor. The lodge has a swimming pool, wellness center with sauna, in-house restaurant and bar. For more down to earth accommodation, try the Chimpanzee Forest Guest House. The guest house is a small complex of thatched-roof cottages with en-suite bathrooms. The cottages are distributed through lawn grounds and surrounded by trees. It’s a tranquil setting and ideal for relaxing after spending the day trekking through the park. The guest house has a restaurant and bar plus a fascinating collection of literature dating back to the Colonial days.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
The Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is a three-hundred and twenty square kilometer wildlife preserve in south-west Uganda. Located close to the Ugandan border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the park is remote and difficult to access. The park is home to a large population of endangered mountain gorillas known as the Bwindi Gorillas. Other than Rwanda, it’s one of only a few places in the world you can go to see mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. (You can also check out the Rwanda travel guide here) Living alongside the gorillas in the densely forested mountains and around another ten species of primate plus many mammals and several species of predators including the African Golden Cat. You cannot miss out on visiting this place when you travel to Uganda.
Best Way To See Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
There is only one way to see the gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and that’s by trekking into the forest on foot. There are no roads inside the preserve itself so taking a safari in a vehicle is not an option. Trekking Bwindi gorillas is something you will need to be reasonably fit to do. After setting out, you could find yourself hacking away with a machete at thick undergrowth just to be able to advance through the forest. The hiking is hard even for dedicated hikers and if you’re fortunate to encounter with some of the incredible creatures, your time viewing them will be strictly limited to one hour. Trekking groups are limited to eight people and there’s only one group allowed near to the most habituated gorilla families. Expect to be hiking for two hours or much more before making a sighting.
Entrance Price: $40
Gorilla Trekking Permit Cost: $700 – from 07/2020
Best Places To Stay Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
One of the closest places you can stay to the start-out point of the gorilla treks is the CTPH Gorilla Conservation Camp in Buhomi. The camp is right on the edge of the forest and twenty minutes from the briefing station. Don’t expect too many luxuries, this is a budget accommodation option which more than makes up for its lack of home comforts with convenience. A guest lodge at the camp offers single, double or triple occupation rooms as well as tents. Food is provided on-site but not included in the price. If you want a little more luxury but still want to be in the thick of the jungle, take a look at the Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp. It’s right in the heart of the forest and it’s not unknown for gorilla families to wander through the grounds. The accommodation is in sheltered tents with canopied four-poster beds and en-suite bathroom. The camp has a deluxe communal area with bar and dining room. It really is the perfect place to stay for that once in a lifetime gorilla trekking experience when you travel to Uganda.
Murchison Falls National Park
The Murchison Falls National Park is one of the most picturesque regions in Uganda. The park is located in the north-west of the country near the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s bordered by the Karuma Game Reserve to the west and Lake Albert to the east. Covering an area of almost four thousand square kilometers, the park encompasses part of the Victoria Nile River. Apart from its incredible wildlife and stunning landscapes, the park’s most impressive feature is the one-hundred and forty-foot high Murchison Falls.
The parklands have extensive savannahs where herds of antelope, giraffe and elephants roam alongside prides of lions. The wetlands are populated with hippos and crocodiles and the forests full of primates including chimpanzees. The river and lake waters attract over three-hundred species of birds some rare and difficult to spot anywhere else in the world which is why you cannot miss out Murchison Falls National Park when you travel to Uganda.
Best Way To See Murchison Falls National Park
There are two amazing ways to see the best of Murchison Falls National Park. One by land and one on the water. To see the large mammals like the Rothschild giraffe and the herds of African elephants take a day-long game drive over the savannahs. You can take a game drive either in the morning or in the evening though mornings are reputed to result in the best wildlife spotting.
On morning game drives, the four by four vehicles set out at just after sunrise to spend around five hours driving through the park. Evening game drives start at around four in the afternoon and take about four hours. It is possible to make a self-drive game drive during the daytime, but each vehicle is required to be accompanied by an armed guide.
The best way to enjoy the river and the varied bird and animal life found there is by taking a four-hour launch trip. The boats leave twice daily at nine in the morning and at two in the afternoon. Most of the boat trips also stop by the waterfall so you can make the thirty-minute hike up the hillside to see the magnificent cascade from the top.
Entrance Price: $30
Best Places To Stay Murchison Falls National Park
If you have a limitless vacation budget, you may want to stay at the Paraa Safari Lodge. The lodge is located inside the park boundaries to the north-west on the banks of the Victoria Nile River. The lodge consists of a relatively modern hotel-style construction with African décor, a conference facility and a huge pool. The rooms are large, have ceiling beams and are ventilated by overhead fans. All rooms have a balcony that looks out onto the river and a savannah landscape. For anyone travelling on a budget, the Red Chilli Rest Camp is well worth considering. The camp is also inside the park boundaries but offers accommodation in either tents or individual hut-style rooms for lower prices. It’s a real back to basics place with no wifi and electricity provided by generators though they do serve up a very tasty a la carte breakfast that will set you up for the day.
Queen Elizabeth National Park
The Queen Elizabeth National Park occupies almost two-thousand square kilometres of terrain in the south-west region of Uganda. The park is bordered in parts by Lake Edward and Lake George and intersected by a thirty-two-kilometer long waterway, the Kazinga Channel, that connects the lakes. The park is renowned for its huge population of wildlife and in particular for its pride of Ishasha Tree Climbing Lions. Lions lazing in the tree branches are a rare sight and one that attracts many visitors to the park. Herds of African elephants roam the grass-covered plains and buffalo, warthogs and hippos wallow in the shallow water by the lake shores. When you travel to Uganda, you must visit the Queen Elizabeth National Park and you’ll find a little piece of Africa that remains just the way it should be. Wild and practically undisturbed by human inhabitants.
Entrance Fee: $40
Best Way To See Queen Elizabeth National Park
The best way to see the Queen Elizabeth National Park is on a game drive, on a three-day safari or by taking a boat cruise along the Kazinga Channel. The park has a large network of trails and tracks that are negotiable in a four by four vehicle. You can self-drive around the park though it’s recommended that you hire a ranger-guide to accompany you. They will be more knowledgeable about the location of the animals, how to get there and be able to assist you if anything goes wrong. If you prefer to go it alone, you can purchase maps of the park in the office where you pay the entrance fee.
Most organised three-day safaris to the Queen Elizabeth National Park will start by collecting you from Kampala unless you are already staying in one of the lodges nearby. Day one of the safari usually includes an evening game drive followed by dinner in your chosen accommodation. Day two starts with an early morning game drive to spot lions, elephants, antelope and any other animal or bird happy to put in an appearance. In the afternoon, you’ll take a boat ride along the channel to view hippos, crocodiles and warthogs as well as the birdlife that habitats the shoreline. On the morning of the third day, the vehicle is left behind and you’ll take a hike through the forests to view the primates. The three-day safari is a complete experience and one every visitor to the Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda should consider doing.
Many of the lodges in the park have their own boats to ferry guests along the Kazinga Channel. If yours doesn’t have, you can catch a boat from the jetty near the Mweya Safari Lodge. The two-tier boat sailing from there is run by the Uganda Wildlife Authority. There is also a boat privately-run by the Mweya Safari Lodge. They’re both sedate cruises lasting around three hours during which you’ll see lots of hippos, buffalo and flocks of wading birds including pelicans, storks and cranes.
Best Places To Stay Queen Elizabeth National Park
There’s a wide choice of accommodation available in the Queen Elizabeth National Park. The Myewa Safari Lodge caters for guests with a higher budget and discerning taste. The lodge is located on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Edward and is surrounded by savannahs with views of mountains in the distance. The luxurious lodge houses its guests in either deluxe rooms, individual thatched cottages or tents fit for Bedouin princes. There are lake views from the pool, a cocktail bar, restaurant and business center. If you’re wanting to do a lot of bird spotting while in the Queen Elizabeth National Park, a stay at the Kitandara Hippo Hill Camp will be ideal for you. The camp provides guests with accommodation in roofed tents by the shore of Lake Edward. While it may be basic, the tents have adjoining bathrooms with toilets and showers plus verandas where you can sit to enjoy the stunning scenery.
Lake Bunyonyi is a picturesque, forty-six kilometer square lake in south-west Uganda near the country’s border with Rwanda. The lake is twenty-five kilometers long and dotted with many small islands. Historically one of the islands was used as a prison and another as a leper colony. While there’s not many animals or aquatic life in and around the lake, it’s one of the best places to travel to in Uganda to go bird watching. The name of the lake means place of many small birds and there are at least three-hundred different species, if not more, to see there. Otters also inhabit the waters and can often be spotted on the shores feasting on crayfish that they’ve caught. Many visitors that travel to Uganda go to Lake Bunyonyi to relax with a swim and some chill-out time after their game drives or safaris. It’s one of the few places in Uganda without hippos, crocodiles or dangerous bacteria in the water.
Best Way To See Lake Bunyonyi
The best way to see Lake Bunyonyi is by boat. You can either explore the lake on an organised day cruise in a motorized boat or paddle around the lake in a dugout canoe. There are many different companies offering cruises on Lake Bunyonyi and most of the guesthouses around the lake have their own boats. Boat cruises usually last between one to three hours or as long as you want if you’ve chartered the boat privately. While it’s great fun and safe to paddle yourself around the many islands, on a cruise with a good guide you’ll find out much more about the area and its history than you will by going it alone.
Best Places To Stay At Lake Bunyonyi
The Bunyonyi Rock Resort is a small but deluxe hotel on the shores of the lake. Built-in a stilt-style similar to native villages, the resort has both lodge accommodation as well as cottages and larger bungalows. The lodge rooms have en suite bathrooms and balconies looking out over the lake. The bar and dining room is on an outdoor terrace which also has amazing lake views. The Birdnest Bunyonyi Resort is a modern four-star hotel on the eastern shore of Lake Bunyonyi. The resort is built on a peninsula and almost entirely surrounded by water. The rooms are air-conditioned and decorated in a contemporary style which gives them a cool, fresh feeling. The main lodge has several floors and the higher up your room then the more sensational the view from your balcony. There is a lengthy infinity pool for swimming laps plus a first-class in-house restaurant and bar.