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Planning a trip to Uganda: A Detailed & Honest Guide

January 5, 2022 4 Comments

I was not mentally prepared for my trip to Uganda. 

Physically yes; I’m in good shape, I was on my malaria medication and I had all necessities packed.

But mentally? Nope. Oh I thought I was. I thought that growing up in South Africa, having travelled to 55 countries and doing extensive research would’ve prepared me adequately. 

I was mistaken. 

Now don’t get me wrong- this isn’t a post to discourage you to go to Uganda. In fact when you see the photos and read about the incredible experiences I had, you will most definitely want to start planning a trip to Uganda. And I am going to help you put together your trip and  plan your itinerary with this blog post.

But I say this with respect and kindness- UGANDA IS NOT FOR EVERY TRAVELLER. 

Sadly no other blogger or influencer is telling you this. I didn’t read anything that actually was honest and mentally prepared me for my trip to Uganda. We need to stop this culture of only promoting the positives online (but that’s another post for another day). 

It’s important to remember that Uganda- unlike its neighbours, Kenya & Tanzania- is fairly new to the tourism game, only really starting a push for tourism in the nineties. Also, under the control of authoritarian leaders (some may boldly use the word ‘dictators’), the country has not progressed as much as it should have. 

For example, only 4% of the country’s roads are paved. Let that sink in. 

So even if you paid copious amounts of money to stay in absolute luxury, you would still encounter some hardship, delays and stress due to poor infrastructure, power outages and disorganisation. 

The good news is that, despite the challenges I encountered while in Uganda, the richness and intensity of the experiences I had made it all worthwhile. It was the genuine conversations with the locals, watching the baby gorilla clamber up a tree, being whirled around the River Nile while white water rafting and sipping spiced milky tea in the early morning as the rain fell over the forest that makes Uganda so worth it. 

In this post, I will take you through some of the mistakes we made when planning a trip to Uganda and tell you how to be better so that you have a smoother trip through Uganda. 

How to use this post:This post contains some hyperlinks with specific and detailed information for planning a trip to Uganda. It will provide a day by day itinerary & daily overview of my trip to Uganda; but clicking on the hyperlinks will help you to be better planned for activities that are more detailed. 

If you’re looking for other destinations I travelled to during the pandemic, you may want to consider my posts on Russia, Georgia, Egypt, Cyprus & Zanzibar.

Note: The flights, accommodation and activities mentioned in this post were NOT sponsored/discounted/gifted. Here is a summary of our expenses for our road trip through Uganda:

FIRST IT’S TIME FOR A BRIEF PPG (PANDA’S PROGRESSIVE GEOGRAPHY) LESSON!

Uganda is a landlocked country in the southeast of Africa. Uganda was the home to tribal hunter gatherers for thousands of years when the Bantu people migrated into the land and established several kingdoms. These kingdoms included the Empire of Kitara, the kingdom of Buganda, and the kingdom of Ankole. 

Arab traders came to Uganda in the 1830s, followed by British explorers in the 1860s. In 1888 Uganda came under the control of the British Empire and remained a colony of Britain until 1962 when the country became an independent nation. 

The first Chief Minister of Uganda was Benedicto Kiwanuka. But in 1971 Idi Amin took control of the country and declared himself president. Around 300,000 people were killed by the government during this time. The terror continued with the rule of Milton Obote from 1980 to 1985. Starting in 1986 some stability was brought to the country by freedom fighter Yoweri Museveni who has been in power ever since. Yes you read that right. [History Source].

The currency used in Uganda is the Ugandan Shilling. English is widely spoken and they drive on the left side of the road (like the UK).  The airport code is EBB (Entebbe International Airport). 

PREPARING FOR TRAVELLING TO Uganda

For detailed information about applying for the evisa (which most nationalities can obtain for 50USD), please click here

Our mistake: In an attempt to save money, we opted to do a DIY Uganda trip rather than utilise a tour operator. We reached out to a local friend who hooked us up with a driver and helped us to plan our journey. She also accompanied us on our trip and eventually we came to rely on her when our trip- and all its plans- started to fall apart. While this experience with a friend was amazing- we had so many incredible authentic experiences and met wonderful people- I would not recommend this style of DIY travel  to others when planning a trip to Uganda. We had many communication mishaps (we were over promised and under delivered), multiple mechanical failures (which led to us losing precious travel days and missing out on things we wanted to do) and endless bargaining and negotiating. It was very stressful for me and I lost sleep almost every night wondering what the next day would bring. Although we did save money overall, it was NOT WORTH the headache. 

What you should do: Book a tour operator when planning a trip to Uganda. Another travel blogger I know- Ankitha- has a recommendation in her blog post. Quotes I personally received from around 8 companies ranged from 2500USD per person to 5000USD per person for 7 days depending on the class of accommodation chosen and what was being offered. Shop around and do your research. Remember that 700USD goes directly for your gorilla trekking permit. 

Currency

Our mistake: Every blog online I read about planning a trip to Uganda said to bring US dollars and that they’re widely accepted everywhere. They’re not. Even some hotels refused to take them. It was a massive inconvenience to find a place to exchange them in small towns. Every place we went to preferred Ugandan shillings. So do not waste your time exchanging money to dollars before you come to Uganda, just withdraw shillings once you arrive.

Day by day itinerary

I am sharing our itinerary but honestly it was very flawed and contributed to our exhaustion. I will share tips on how to improve when planning a trip to Uganda.

Day 1

We landed at Entebbe Airport and drove straight to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Along the way our suitcases flew out the boot of the vehicle (don’t ask), went on the roof of the car untethered (please don’t ask), made their way back into the car when it started to rain (I said not to ask!). We also stopped for lunch & to take photos at the equator. All this in the first few hours of our trip. Did I mention we lost our driver at the airport because he had to go get himself vaccinated in order to enter the airport? An eventful start to the trip for sure!

Due to Uganda’s odd road network, a 9 hour drive turned into 12 hours as darkness fell and the roads worsened.

On top of that, our driver seemed to have no clue where he was going and was utterly confused about where he was taking us. Thankfully we were in touch with the lady from our accommodation who kept checking on us.

When we FINALLY reach our accommodation- in the dead of the night- we had to hike for 15 minutes up a steep hill while local children carried our suitcases on their heads. I swear I am not making any of this up. Expat Squirrel asked them multiple times, “Are you sure we are at the right place?” and just when I was about to collapse from dehydration, we reached the most inviting residence.

We had made it.

Driving time according to Google- 8 hours 53 minutes

Actual driving time- 12 hours

What you should do: Drive halfway to Mbarara. Book a nice place to stay and rest before attempting to drive to Bwindi. You could also incorporate a visit to Lake Mburo National Park depending on how much time you have.

Day 2

This was the day of our gorilla trekking. Because we had stayed in Bwindi the previous night, we started our day at 06:30 by making our way to the Ruhija tracking headquarters. I write more about the the trekking itself, items needed and how to get a permit, in this detailed post to help you understand what to expect.

Driving time- 1 hour

Trekking time– 3 hours

What you should do: Make sure- whatever your plan is- to have a good night’s rest before the gorilla trekking. We did not (due to arriving late the night before) and this wasn’t great considering the physical exertion this hike needed.

After the trek, we went to our accommodation and relaxed. We learnt how to pick tea leaves, spotted a 3 horned chameleon and just enjoyed our surroundings. I strongly recommend not booking anything else after the trek so that you can rest and recover.

Where we stayed: We booked Ihamba Residence as it was recommended to me by a local. This was one of the most incredible places I have ever stayed at. The proceeds from your stay go towards empowering local women in the neighboring village and the property itself overlooks the forest. It is worth EVERY cent and I strongly recommend booking a stay (all meals are included and dietary requirements are accommodated).

Day 3

We made our way to Lake Bunyoni to enjoy a boat tour across the lake. This is a very lush and picturesque part of Uganda which will immediately relax you. Dotted with a 29 islands – some inhabited, some uninhabited, it’s undoubtedly a place of wonder and beauty. Lake Bunyonyi is a volcanic lake, about 25 kilometers long by 7 kilometers wide and is an ideal location in Uganda for an exploratory boat cruise.

We learnt about the history of the area including Punishment Island (pictured above) where unmarried women were sent to die (since being unmarried and pregnant is deserving of death?!) . Our boat guide’s grandmother was a woman who was taken by her male family members to Punishment Island, beaten and then left to die. A fisherman passing by heard her screaming, rescued her and married her. It was a story she had only shared with her family a few years prior and it amazed me that someone who had lived through such an archaic and barbaric practice was still alive.

Cost of the boat tour: 120,000 UGX

We also enjoyed some ziplining at Supreme Adventure Park where you can zipline from one island to another. While not exactly an extreme activity, it was still fun and if you’re after even more thrills, they have a whole high ropes course you can experience.

Cost of the ziplining: 50,000UGX per person

What we did: We stayed at a beautiful looking property called Byoona Amagara. Some bloggers I follow had recommended it but goodness what a mistake. The staff at the property acted as though we were inconveniencing them by making requests and asking questions. They wanted to charge us extra for breakfast (even though it was included in the booking), buy our own internet (even though it was included in the booking) and then they wanted to charge us extra when we tried to pay by card but he didn’t have any change when we tried to pay in cash. The outdoor shower also had only 2 teaspoons of hot water even though I had requested hot water 2 hours prior to me taking a shower. It was one of the worst places I have ever stayed at.  

What you should do: Book a property that is on the mainland and doesn’t require a boat to get to it so you don’t waste time commuting across the lake to different islands. Personally, while Lake Bunyoni was a nice stop, I wouldn’t say it’s a must do and can probably be removed off your itinerary if you’re short on time. Something to consider when planning a trip to Uganda.

Driving time to Lake Bunyoni from Bwindi– 2 hours

Day 4

From Lake Bunyoni, we began a long drive to Queen Elizabeth National Park. This is where we were lucky enough to see the tree lions (lions who climb trees) without having to drive to the remote area where they are normally found.

We enjoyed a wonderful safari spotting hippos, buck, buffalo and warthogs. For non-residents, the entry fee is 40 USD per person, which allows you to enter the park for 24 hours. Meaning that you could spend a night in the park and do a game drive the next morning if you entered the park around 11 the day before.

The park is huge so do your research beforehand about what exactly you want to see; it will be nearly impossible to cover the entire park in one day so you will need to make some decisions. The park is also eerily quiet so you won’t be able to stop other vehicles and ask them wha they’ve seen and where to go (which is common practice in South Africa).

Unfortunately we were told that we couldn’t take our vehicle into the park and had to take an official safari vehicle from the park. No explanation was given for this as our vehicle was equipped to do a safari. I think this was one of those situations where they heard we were ‘international’s’ and suddenly a new rule came into effect (upon seeing our faces). This costs us an extra 250USD in addition to the 40USD we had to pay to enter the park. I was a little annoyed but since we were already there, we had no choice.

Cost: 250USD (we split this 5 ways) for the vehicle and 40USD per person for the entry fee

Driving time to Queen Elizabeth National Park from Lake Bunyoni and then to Kibale Forest: 6 hours

Day 5 

We stayed at Kibale Guest Cottages near Fort Portal and explored Ambere Caves nearby. This was a recommendation from the manager at the property and one we were so glad we took!

Ambere Caves is a privately owned ‘park’ where you can visit Nyasuka Falls as well as see the stalactites and stalagmites in the caves. A guide takes you around the property and explains the local legends surrounding the area. The walk takes around 30 minutes and starts off with the pretty Nyasuka waterfall.

Afterwards you continue to loop to gaze at the stalactites and stalagmites after which, you can choose to hike or drive up to a viewpoint to see 3 crater lakes. For the intrepid explorer, there is a further 20 minute hike for a higher view even if you do drive to the first viewpoint. 

Personally this was one of the most worthwhile activities we did, it was relaxing beautiful and no one hassled us or suddenly changed the rules upon seeing our faces.

Sadly, our joy was short lived because upon making our way back from the caves, we had mechanical trouble with our vehicle and had to find another driver to take us back to our accommodation. I wondered if our vehicle would be fixed in time for the rest of our journey the next day and what we would do if it wasn’t…

Cost- 50,000 UGX per person 

Where we stayed: Kibale Guest Cottages- set on the outskirts of the Kibale Forest- was just what we needed at that point in our trip. Warm, inviting staff coupled with homey food and the tranquility of our surroundings made for an ideal stay. In fact I would say that the staff went over and above to accommodate us. Definitely a place worth staying at so do not skip this one off your itinerary if you happen to be in the area!

Driving time to and from Fort Portal– 2 hours

Day 6

We planned an early start to head from Kibale Forest to Kampala where we needed to do our covid test and visit the market. Our driver assured us that his vehicle was fixed and could make the long journey ahead.

Sadly, that was not the case.

Unfortunately after one hour, our vehicle failed again and we were stuck on the side of the road for 3.5 hours waiting for it to be sorted. (We were told it would only take 30 minutes). Frustration levels were high especially as we had woken up at the crack of dawn to get a move on our day only to be further delayed. Plus, we struggled to find someone else who would take us to Kampala.

Thankfully, with the help of our local friend, we did manage to find someone. We had to pay the new driver 84USD to take us to Kampala and by the time we reached, we could only do our covid test at The Medical Hub and get food before the 9pm curfew came into effect (the last order for food was 7pm). It was a disappointing day and I started to regret not using the safari operator more than ever.

Cost of covid test: 100,000UGX per person. Results came in under 12 hours. 

Driving time from Kibale Forest to Kampala: 7 hours

Day 7

A highlight of our trip was an all day white water rafting expedition in the Nile River. Of course, another driver had to be found to take us on this trip since our driver was out of commission which involved lengthy negotiations and long conversations. We ended up paying 90USD to hire another vehicle and driver to make our way to Jinja. 

I wrote a detailed post about my experience white water rafting in Uganda to help you understand what to expect. Please read it before you decide if this activity is for you.

The white water rafting was an exhilarating experience, one of the most terrifyingly thrilling things I have ever done. We started off with grade 1 rapids (most gentle) and ended up on grade 6 (basically a hurricane in the river). Towards the end many of our group opted out due to the terrifying nature of the rapids and in hindsight maybe I should’ve too because it was incredibly scary being thrown off the boat and being sucked into the river multiple times!

We paid 100USD per person (after negotiations) for an experience that included breakfast (before rafting), lunch (after rafting), all equipment as well as photos and videos. It was definitely worth it but request a more relaxing selection of rapids if you aren’t as adventurous as my group! 

Cost– 100USD per person 

Driving time to and from Jinja– 5 hours 

Day 8

On our last day in Uganda, all we needed was to eat breakfast, print out our PCR test results and head to the airport. The Hilton Garden Inn Kampala charged us 20USD per person to take us to Entebbe Airport. Sadly they didn’t have any understanding of how to print or functionally use email so they delayed us by 40 minutes while one of my friends had to give them a step by step tutorial on how to use email and print (I kid you not, this a world class chain of hotels but they were unfamiliar with the concept of email). 

In addition to the 40 minute delay, Kampala once again showed off its legendary traffic and an hour drive turned into 2 hours. We were convinced we were going to miss our flight. 

Thankfully, our driver tried his best to get us there on time and eventually our flight was delayed so we made it out of Uganda, breathless and sweaty. But honestly at this point, I was tired of everything being a struggle and causing stress. I was actually burnt out by what was supposed to be a holiday.  I was ready to leave. The last time I felt that way about a holiday was Sri Lanka in 2016.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for sticking to the end. As you can see, we made a lot of mistakes when planning a trip to Uganda. And the overall travel culture of Uganda did not help us; in fact it hindered us completely. If we did not have a local friend travelling with us, we most likely would still be stuck in Uganda! I want to again emphasize that Uganda is not a destination to be avoided; on the the contrary, its a must see. However, planning a trip to Uganda must be done carefully to minimize stress.

Uganda is quite simply one of the best travel destinations in the world! Whether you’re wowed by landscape, wildlife or culture, or you simply seek adventure, Uganda is almost certainly the perfect destination for you. Despite this, it still receives relatively few visitors compared to its neighbours, Kenya and Tanzania. 

The fact that Uganda is relatively unexplored is yet another one of the things to make it so appealing. Lastly, I have a wealth of information on my Instagram especially in the Uganda highlight and my reels. Do have a look. If you enjoyed this post about planning a trip to Uganda, please pin it using the pin below:

Other Uganda related posts include:

Panda’s Guide to Gorilla Trekking in Uganda

White Water Rafting in Uganda: Is it Worth It?

If you have any questions about travelling to Uganda, please leave them in the comments below!

expatpanda

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4 Comments

  • Rochelle | Adventuresfromelle January 6, 2022 at 6:20 am

    Lovely detailed post and I love that you gave a balanced review. Admittedly, Uganda wasn’t high on my list before but you’ve showed me some lovely gems that could get me to reconsider. Still shocked at the fact re only 4% paved roads…

    • expatpanda January 9, 2022 at 6:07 pm

      Uganda is definitely a place for the intrepid traveller who has a lot of patience HAHA! Hope you can visit one day 😊

  • Diana @ Handstands Around the World January 6, 2022 at 9:16 pm

    Thanks for the honest review! I’ve never considered traveling to Uganda… this does make me want to maybe visit one day, so I appreciate knowing what to look for and what to avoid.

    • expatpanda January 9, 2022 at 6:05 pm

      You’re most welcome. I hope you do get the chance to visit this amazing country!

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