While mountain gorilla trekking is the big draw and anchor experience for many people visiting Uganda, the country offers a lot more in terms of atmosphere and experiences. Prior to our trip to Uganda, we’d heard from other travelers that the country was among their favorites in Africa due to its friendly people and laid-back feel. Beyond the critical human element, you have rafting through Nile River rapids, exploring sprawling markets, hopping a back-seat motorbike tour around the capital city of Kampala, and taking mini animal safaris across the country.
So if you’re wondering which travel experiences in Uganda to consider beyond the mountain gorillas, here are a few thoughts.
Note: If you are interested in learning more about mountain gorilla trekking in Uganda, read this article with all the details you need to plan and prepare.
1. Lake Bunyonyi
Lake Bunyonyi served as our base for gorilla trekking. While its location made for a long drive on the morning of the trek, it made for a great place to reflect, recharge and soak up the surrounding natural beauty of the lake and its many islands. Particularly if you’ve been on the road and are moving at pace, it’s an excellent spot to relish in some down time. Horizons and the surface of the water seem to have a meditative effect.
Although we mainly relaxed at Lake Bunyonyi, we also took a short hike up to Arcadia Cottages for a fantastic mountaintop view across the lake and the islands. We can definitely recommend the restaurant’s crayfish curry, with crayfish caught fresh from the lake. Top that off with a cold beer and the view and you’ll have one of life’s “it doesn’t’ get any better than this” moments.
If you wish to get out on the water and visit the nearby islands, you can rent a canoe or kayak. There’s also no shortage of men with dugout boats to take you island hopping. Just remember to negotiate a fair price.
2. Rafting (or Flipping One’s Raft) on the Nile River Rapids
We’ve rafted Class V rapids a number of times – New Zealand, Costa Rica, among others – but none of that quite prepared us for the joy-meets-terror experience while rafting the Nile River rapids near the town of Jinja. These rapids are an intense adrenaline rush, often complete with several raft flips and a fleeting sense of your own fragility. We won’t lie to you: flipping is exciting, but it’s also frightening as the current is strong and you must keep your wits about you. In many ways, it’s life affirming.
We recommend it.
Be sure to ask questions of your river guide as you’re floating along in-between rapids. Juma, our guide, was an Olympic paddler. Beyond his skill on the water, he was a wealth of great stories, fabulous humor, and cynical insight into Ugandan politics, corruption, religion, foreign aid and more. His perspective alone was worth the price of admission.
Note: If you have not been rafting before or are not completely comfortable in the water, consider taking one of the other more mellow boat rides offered. You can also let your guide know at the beginning of your paddle which level of adrenaline you’d like. There are measures the guide can take to ensure a smoother ride over the rapids – or a rougher one. If you are already out there and find that the rapids become too much — as they were for one woman in our group who had never been rafting before — there is a safety boat that you can hop on to float over the more unnerving segments of the paddle.
Details: We rafted with Nile River Explorers. They run a hostel in Jinja town and a campsite out by the river. We would have preferred to stay out by the river but during our visit the roads were too washed out for our truck to pass. The cost: $110 for a half day, $125 for a full day, which includes a lunch and a beer (or two, or three) at the end. Given the price and the fact that the most memorable rapids are in the afternoon, we recommend the full day experience. The price also includes transfer from/to Kampala and a night’s accommodation at the Explorers Hostel or campsite. Even if you don’t require the transfer and free accommodation, the price remains the same.
3. Boda Boda (Motorbike) Tour of Kampala
Kampala is a big, sprawling city that can feel nothing but overwhelming when you find yourself in the middle of it. Locals affectionately refer to it as “organized chaos.” We think of it as something a bit simpler: chaos.
One of the women in our rafting boat, a public health consultant working in South Sudan, knew Kampala quite well from frequent rest and relaxation visits. When we asked her how best to explore and approach Kampala, she responded immediately: “Take a boda boda (motorbike) tour with Walter. I learned so much about Kampala on that tour, even though I had visited the city several times before. And, being on the back of a boda boda, it’s just a lot of fun. In fact, I’m thinking of doing it again this visit.”
We were sold.
Walter’s boda boda tour quickly breaks the city down into a series of manageable and enlightening experiences over the course of one day. Your motorbike driver will double as a guide, so be sure to bring your curiosity. Ask him anything about his home city and country and he will likely be glad to share.
You can customize your motorbike tour experience to your interests. We spent the morning visiting traditional sights like the Hindu Temple, National Mosque (including its panoramic views of the city and its “7 hills”), and the infamously crazy Kampala central taxi and bus park.
The typical tour continues with historical sites like the Royal Palace and National Museum, but we were more interested in going local by visiting markets and neighborhoods. We visited Mengo Market, small and local, and spent the rest of the day in several of the sprawling downtown markets (e.g., Owino Market), and neighborhood “slums” (our driver’s words) on the city’s edge.
Don’t fear the word slum. These neighborhoods aren’t frightening, but in the words of our motorbike drivers, are instead “the real Uganda.” Being on the back of a motorbike allows you to cover large parts of the city while enjoying a reasonable pace and the flexibility to cut through narrow alleys and market spaces.
Details: The easiest way to book: send an email to Walter through his website. Tours run between $30-$45/person, depending upon the number of people in the group, time of year, etc. Walter, the founder of the company who adores motorcycles himself, has an interesting story and tries to help foreign visitors experience his country in different ways. Check out his other tours.
4. Fresh Markets
Fresh markets are usually where the action, people, and food are. Whether we found ourselves at a weekly market on the shores of Lake Bunyonyi or in the middle of Kampala, it’s no different. As English is spoken by many people in Uganda, it is relatively easy to ask questions about vegetables, roots, fruits, smoking implements and other bits and bobs that were previously unknown to us.
Though sometimes the exact meaning of the name of a vegetable was lost on us. We picked up kilos of “sweet potatoes” and “bitter tomatoes” for our group thinking they were one thing, only to be enlightened by our guide that they were not at all potatoes or tomatoes but cassava-like roots and a rough local version of an eggplant. We found a way to cook and eat them anyway.
The best-known markets in Kampala are the Nakasero fresh market (partially covered) and the Owino goods market, both of which can feel overwhelming because of their intensity and sprawl. For a smaller and more personal market experience, consider checking out the smaller neighborhood markets (e.g., Mengo Market).
5. Chimpanzee Trekking
Although Uganda’s mountain gorillas usually steal the traveler spotlight, chimpanzee trekking is also pretty cool and provides an opportunity to learn about these intelligent yet conniving, meat-eating apes.
Our chimpanzee trek began early in the morning from Kalinzu Forest National Reserve and our challenging climb followed the sounds of the chimpanzees in the trees above us. Along the way, we also spotted Colobus monkeys.
The chimpanzee jungle guides have highly tuned senses and can pick up chimpanzee sounds that are imperceptible to the untrained ear. The chimps usually hang out high in the canopy, so they are hard to see up close, but if you are quiet you can watch them as they feed on the leaves of the trees above and occasionally make their way to the jungle floor.
Be sure to take a moment to enjoy the sounds, including a chorus of birds like none you’ve heard or seen before. This is the jungle — enjoy the entire show.
6. Eating a Rolex
No, this is not about downing a luxury watch. In Uganda, a rolex is a chapati (Indian flatbread) filled with eggs, onions, tomatoes, and cabbage. It’s quick, tasty and cheap street food that fills you up. And it’s fun to chat with vendors and watch as they make them. Particularly at less tourist-trafficked markets, take a photograph and the cooks will really think you’re crazy.
Kikomando, a Ugandan dish composed of beans tossed with slices of chapati, is also worth a try. We were told that the name of the dish is inspired by scenes from action films like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Commando. The idea: eating kikomando will make you strong like Arnold. I’m not certain about that, but this dish proves exceptionally efficient at filling you up for the rest of the day.
And if you love avocados like we do, be sure to stock up on them in Uganda. They are delicious, cheap and not prone to browning like the avocados you might be accustomed to. When ripe, they can be spread like butter over a chapati. Oddly delicious, especially when hungry on a nine hour bus ride through the border to Rwanda.
7. Ugandan People
Finally, we close with the lasting impression that Uganda often gives: the warmth of its people. From the endless groups of kids waving from the side of the road or the all the people who helped us with directions through Kampala while retrieving our bank card from Barclays Bank in Entebbe (it was swallowed by the ATM at the Kampala/Entebbe airport…beware), the people are the country.
English serves as one of the country’s national languages and people will often greet you, ask where you are from and inquire as to how you like their country. We found that people were rather open to talking about life, politics, challenges, hopes, and more. So don’t be afraid to follow your curiosity respectfully.
As a foreigner, you’ll likely find yourself attracting touts aiming to sell you something, or otherwise attempting to extract money from you. One of the twists in Uganda, however, is that often these touts are representing a nearby “orphanage” or similar heart-tugging NGO, employing what our guide called “sympathy tourism.” We found that asking a few questions regarding the organization’s operations, allocation of money, and contact information would usually leave touts speechless and with no other choice than to move on. We don’t want to discourage giving in general, but suggest you give responsibly by researching organizations and avoiding indiscriminate giving on the street.
A note on seeing the mountain gorillas
This piece aimed to highlight what to do and see in Uganda outside of the mountain gorillas to create a well-rounded itinerary. For all you need to know on this topic, check out our Gorilla Trekking Beginner’s Guide.
In full disclosure, the highlights of our Uganda travel experience represent only the beginning. Had we more time, we would have trekked the Rwenzori Mountains, taken a wildlife boat tour in the Kazinga Channel, and spent a few days at Murchison Falls on safari, as was recommended by another traveler we’d met.
We often leave a country with more things on our wish list than when we first arrived. Uganda is certainly no exception. We’re already imaging how we’ll return.
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