Uganda Beyond the Gorillas: From Boda Boda to Bunyonyi


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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.

Uganda Road
Jungle roads, carved by the rains in Southwestern Uganda.

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.

Looking Out Over Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda
A short hike and big rewards above Lake Bunyonyi.

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.

Crayfish Curry at Arcadia Cottages Restaurant - Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda
Spicy crayfish curry and a cold beer above Lake Bunyonyi. So nice.

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.

Our Boat Flips on the Nile River - Jinja, Uganda
And this is how you flip on the Nile River, Uganda.

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.

White Water Rafting Down Nile River - Jinja, Uganda
On one of the more mellow rapids, Juma steers us through.

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.

Dan Enjoying His Boda Boda Tour of Kampala - Uganda
Dan explores Kampala on the back of a boda boda (motorbike).

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.

Kampala National Mosque, Uganda
A long way down. The spiral staircase of Kampala's National Mosque.

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 Facebook page. 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.

Find accommodation in Kampala

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.

Boats Bringing Charcoal to Lake Bunyonyi Market - Uganda
Vendors bring their goods to market by boat across Lake Bunyonyi.

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.

Fruit and Vegetable Stand, Mengo Market - Kampala, Uganda
Overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables, Mengo Market.

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.

Chimpanzee Trekking in Kalinzu Forest Reserve - Western Uganda
Chimpanzee tracking, we follow our guide.

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.

Chimpanzee Mother and Baby - Kalinzu Forest Reserve, Uganda
Mother and child chimpanzees up high in the branches.

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.

Time to Make the Rolex - Kampala, Uganda
Time to make the rolex. Mengo Market, Kampala.

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.

Kikomando, Filling Ugandan Street Food - Kampala, Uganda
Kikomando. Become strong like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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.

Mother and Son - Mengo Market, Kampala
A Ugandan mother and her son ham it up for the camera.

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.

Market Vendor, Big Smile - Mengo Market, Kampala
Friendly vendor at a market in Kampala.

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.

Dan and Audrey at the Equator in Uganda
Uganda, one foot in each hemisphere.

Disclosure: We experienced most of the above on the G Adventures Uganda Gorillas & Overland Tour that was provided to us by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!

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About Audrey Scott
Audrey Scott is a writer, storyteller, speaker and tourism development consultant. She aims to help turn people's fears into curiosity and connection. She harbors an obsession for artichokes and can bake a devastating pan of brownies. You can keep up with her adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about her on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

18 thoughts on “Uganda Beyond the Gorillas: From Boda Boda to Bunyonyi”

  1. A lovely post that makes me want to travel to Uganda right now! Everything from gorillas and chimps to boda bodas, the people and eating a rolex sounds right up my street, but I think I’ll give the river rapids a miss.

    Reply
    • Roxanne, so glad this post spurred your curiosity about Uganda! The white water rafting on the Nile can be a bit rough, but it is possible to take an evening cruise or more laid back river trip so you don’t miss the beauty of the Nile area.

      Reply
  2. Loved reading your Uganda piece this morning. I worked in Uganda on photo assignments and led a couple of photo safaris in the country. I was just telling my wife why they call motorbikes in Uganda “boda-boda”. It comes from all the motorbikes at the border that are there to help travelers navigate the crossing. To get a client they all hollar at once “boda boda, boda boda” Or “border border, border, border.”

    Reply
    • Hi Michael,
      Glad you enjoyed this and that it brought back some good memories from your trips. Thanks for sharing the story behind “boda-boda” – didn’t know that! It is a fun way to get around, although some of the drivers can be a bit crazy.

      Reply
  3. Uganda is one of my favorite places! We enjoyed Queen Elizabeth National Park, and also stayed near the crater lakes when chimp tracking. While the gorillas are definitely awesome, there is so much else to see/do in Uganda. Impressed with the boda-boda tour, that sounds like a great way to see Kampala. I’d love to get back there.

    Reply
    • Heather, after doing the boda-boda tour in Kampala I kind of wished every city had something like it. The motorbikes get through traffic quicker and the drivers as guides was a great combination.

      We’ve heard great things about Queen Elizabeth National Park, so it’s definitely on our list for next visit. It seems like every time we leave a country we have more things we want to see than when we arrived 🙂

      Reply
  4. It was wonderful reading about a side of Uganda unknown to most travellers. Your photos of the markets and the stories of how the produce journeys there by boat every day speak volumes about the Ugandan way of life.

    Reply
  5. I LOVE the photo of the mountaintop view of Lake Bunyonyi. It definitely inspires me to add Uganda to my travel bucket list. Thanks for the inspiration, Audrey!

    Reply
    • You’re welcome! Glad to add to your travel bucket list 🙂 We were surprised by Uganda’s landscapes with its lush hills and lakes.

      Reply
  6. I actually don’t know much about Uganda, but I am guilty of thinking it’s “that place where you can walk with gorillas”, so thank you for this post which has opened my eyes a bit more! It looks like a fabulously diverse place – and the food looks great, too 🙂

    Reply
    • Lizzie, it’s easy for that to happen as the gorillas are what most people talk about when they mention Uganda. That made all the other things we discovered a rather pleasant surprise and we wanted others to know so that they stick around for a bit after seeing the gorillas. Hope you get to try a rolex soon!

      Reply
  7. Thanks for this post! It is hard to get publicity for these more off-the-beaten path options, and Uganda is about diversity if anything. Not only human diversity – it was recently recognized as the most ethnically diverse country in the world – but natural diversity given its location at the intersection of the jungle and savanna.

    You are definitely right to consider Murchison Falls for your next trip (best park in the country!), and don’t forget Kidepo Valley in the northeastern corner, Lake Mburo, Ssese Islands, Sipi Falls, and the Batwa Trail in Mgahinga which are all worth consideration as well.

    Let me know if you want more ideas before your next trip. I just finished writing guidebooks to Murchison, Kidepo and Lake Mburo for African Wildlife Foundation so hopefully those will be available soon.

    Thanks for highlighting the best country in Africa, if not the world!

    Reply
    • Mark, glad you enjoyed this piece! We found that for some travelers we met that their focus on gorilla trekking kind of put on blinders to other experiences and places around them in Uganda. So, that’s where the idea for this article came up 😉

      We know that we have only experienced a small slice of all that Uganda has to offer from nature to cultural experiences, but we hope that these encourage future travelers to seek out even more. Thanks for all the advice for a future trip!

      Reply
  8. I’m heading to Uganda in less than two months and this really post really helps! I’ll be going for a volunteer trip, and I’ll be staying outside the city. So nice to see a post about smaller things to do besides the big treks, I’ll be looking into some of these things! I’m a recent college graduate and am traveling on a tight budget! I would love to hear more about your adventures to the country!

    Reply
    • Hanna, congrats on your upcoming trip to Uganda. Although this post is a good starting point for Ugandan travel advice, I’m sure you will hear of more places and experiences once you get on the ground and start talking with people. Enjoy your trip!

      Reply
  9. Regarding the boda boda ‘border to border’ motorbikes, they first became popular on the Uganda Kenya border. Basically, you check out of one country and have several hundred metres of no man’s land before officially entering the other country. People importing goods would therefore need a hand transporting said goods across the no man’s land area. The orginal boda bodas were pushbikes, rather than the more common motorbikes that we have now.

    Uganda couldn’t function without the boda boda. They can be immense fun but a word of caution: many of them are unlicensed, few have insurance, and few will hang around if you get into an accident. Therefore, always try and use a boda driver that has been recommended. Don’t just get onto the back of any bike flying past you in the street, although Lord knows dozens will want to take the visiting tourist for a slightly higher ‘muzungu price!’

    No trip to Uganda is complete without getting on the back of a boda boda and eating a rollex ‘rolled eggs’ chapati omelette. I would highly recommend a night out in Kampala too – the best nightlife in East Africa. It is legendary across the region!

    For more Uganda travel ideas, and stories about conservation, volunteering, culture and community tourism, feel free to check out my blog Diary of a Muzungu.

    Reply
    • Completely agree that Uganda couldn’t function without the BodaBoda – they really are everywhere and help get people around quickly, even in the midst of crazy Kampala traffic. We wanted to be sure that we were on a safe boda boda with our own helmet, so that is why we first went on Walter’s Boda Boda tour to give ourselves an overview of the region and then would hire them on the street. But, we always insisted on having a helmet 🙂

      Reply
  10. nice one; besides Lake Bunyoni and chimp trekking, we mostly fell for the boda bodas. it’s some adventure to ride, a great way to get around, many of the bikes are beautifully decorated – and I think it’s also worth mentioning that bodas have quite a big economic impact; they offer jobs and future prospects for a lot of people.

    Reply

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