Deciding What Countries To Travel In East Africa: A Simple Framework To Make Deciding Easier

Thinking about traveling to East Africa? From the Great Migration, to tree climbing lions to chimpanzee habituation and gorilla trekking, there’s a plethora to see and do.

So, where in East Africa should you go? Ideally you’d visit all of the (safe) countries. But if you have to pick and choose, how do you decide? This article will help you make those decisions. My objective is to give you a framework, to help you plan the best East Africa trip, for you.

First a couple of important notes:

I’m the sort of traveller where planning my trips literally becomes a second job for me. For this trip I spent about 60 hours to put it all together – from deciding what countries to visit, logistics, lodging, transportation, and activities.


In this article I will walk you through the decisions, decision making criteria and details about each destination, in an effort to help you plan your trip.

{Mainland Countries in East Africa}

East Africa is comprised of these countries:

  1. Kenya
  2. Tanzania
  3. Uganda
  4. Rwanda
  5. Democratic Republic of Congo
  6. Burundi
  7. South Sudan

Tourists primarily visit the top four countries on the list: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda because they’re safe countries to visit and lots to see.

{East Africa Highlights}

Kenya highlights: Safari, visiting indigenous people
Tanzania highlights: Safari, The Great Migration, Mount Kilimanjaro, Ngorongoro Crater, tree-climbing lions
Uganda highlights: Gorilla trekking, chimps, Murchison Falls (waterfall + game drives), tree-climbing lions
Rwanda highlights: Gorilla trekking

{First Decision: What Experience Are You Going For?}

Is this your first time to Africa?
Have you been on safari before?

The Planet Earth Experience. For those going on safari for the first time, most people probably imagine riding in an open safari jeep riding in the midst of vast plains teeming with wildlife, as you’ve probably seen on Planet Earth, Nat Geo, etc. If that’s the experience you’re looking for, then go to Kenya and/or Tanzania during the peak of the Great Migration. That’s not to say you can’t do excellent game drives in other countries or at other times of year, but if that Planet Earth image is fixated in your mind’s eye – them it’s Kenya or Tanzania in June, July, or August.

The Great Migration Moth-by-Month: the animals are always migrating. Towards the end of the year – November and December, the rainy season, the wildebeest arrive at the Serengeti. The females are pregnant, so they’re not gonna be jumping across rivers. They’re resting in fields with tall grass that camouflages them from predators.

In February they give birth, again in tall grass. Starting in April they start moving north with their calves. Zebras join the wildebeest – strength in numbers right?! By May they’re all moving West. In June the Migration often gets halted at the South bank of the Grumeti River due to channels in the river. Plus, river crossings are scary. There are crocs eagerly awaiting to prey. There’s traffic, with thousands of other animals crossing. The mothers are simultaneously looking after their young who are crossing for the first time, they’re scared and not as strong. On land, lions, cheetahs and other predators also constantly lurk as the Migration, when the mothers are pregnant to when they’ve given birth, to when the animals are moving are an ‘easy’ target. They have many options in addition to vulnerable ones – the young, which are easier to catch.

In July and August the herds keep moving north – some through Grumeti Reserve and others through the Serengeti. In September, they’re gathered at the Mara River which gushes water and provides a major obstacle. This and the Grumeti River crossing are often what you see on TV.

If the above, is the experience you’re looking for, you’re not going to see it in Uganda, nor Rwanda. The Great Migration doesn’t flow through either country. But, if you go to Murchison Falls or Queen Elizabeth National Park, you will get to do scenic game drives. In Rwanda less so. While the plains are completely different, making them hard to compare – I saw much more wildlife at Murchison Falls and the Ishasha sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park than the two times I’ve been to Hwange National Park. The time of year matters. I’ve been to Hwange in mid-September as well as the end of May and Murchison Falls and Queen Elizabeth National Park at the end of September.

Primates. If your mi focus is to see primates (gorillas and chimps), then visit Uganda and/or Rwanda. More detail about choosing between Rwanda and Uganda below.

And if this isn’t your first African safari, then keep reading because there are some other factors that could influence where you decide to go.

{Second Decision: What Are You Optimizing For?}

What are you optimizing for? Time? Cost? Experience? Most people are going to say, “all of the above!”. But no, what I mean is how would you prioritize — rank those 3:

  • time
  • cost
  • experience

It’s important to know this, because how you rank them, can completely change your trip!

Optimizing for time? If you’re optimizing for time, because you’re short on time and you want to go on safari and see primates, then combine Rwanda and Kenya.

Virunga National Park, in Rwanda, is only about a 2-hour drive from Kigali International Airport. And once you get to the park, typically trekkers find the gorillas much faster than compared to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. And the trek itself is relatively flat and easier compared to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda.

Then head to Kenya for safari. Direct flights from Kigali to Nairobi are only an hour-and-a-half, whereas flights from Kigali to Arusha in Tanzania, fly via Dar Es Salaam and the journey can take 6-15 hours.

In Uganda, most tourists travel by car and the roads can be tough and bumpy. It’s a 9 hour drive from Entebbe International Airport to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest which is too long to do in 1 day so most people break it up. There are sights to stop and visit along the way but that means more time, which is not good for people trying to optimize for time. FYI you can fly within Uganda, but it’s $$$$.

Optimizing for cost?

  1. If you’re optimizing for cost then don’t visit any of these countries during the summer (June-September), as it’s peak season. During the summer at nicer, upscale lodges, expect to spend $1000 per day per person. That’s inclusive of meals, lodging, transportation, and included activities. (This may or may not include some other activities such as guided fishing trips, guided hikes, visiting villages, and hot air balloon rides – it will just depend on your tour operator). Please know that Uganda and Rwanda are much younger countries in terms of tourism compared to Tanzania and Kenya. So while you might spend $1000 per day, the standards and conveniences are not the same across each country.
  2. When choosing between Uganda and Rwanda, the gorilla trekking permit in Rwanda costs $1500 per person per trek. It costs $650 per person per trek in Uganda.

Optimizing for Experience? This is where you make decisions between seeing a lot vs. enjoying a lot. There’s so much to see in these four countries and if you’re like most Americans who have limited time off (often 14 days at most). You have to make trade offs. You simply can’t go to all 4 countries (and enjoy it) in 14 days.

So, in that case, if you’re optimizing for time – you might choose Rwanda + Kenya or Rwanda + Tanzania. No doubt you’ll see a lot but there are a lot of logistics involved with transfers and you end up adding 3-4 nights as a result. Alternatively you could go to Uganda only. You won’t see the Great Migration, but you’ll still have an incredible experience.

{My Recommendations for Primates + Safari}

Option: If you want to go gorilla trekking and do game drives then either:

  • go to Rwanda for gorilla trekking and then head off to Tanzania or Kenya. OR
  • spend the entire time in Uganda

Option: If you want to see gorillas and chimps and do game drives, then go to Uganda and Tanzania. Or only Uganda.

Option: If you want to keep costs as low as possible: go to Uganda

Option: If you’ve been to Africa before such as South Africa, Botswana or Zimbabwe, and you’re looking for something totally different, then go to Uganda. But if you’re looking for your Southern Africa experience, on steroids then go to Tanzania and/or Kenya.

Originally I was looking into a 15 day trip to go to Uganda and Tanzania or Rwanda + Tanzania. What I found:

  • Tanzania is $$$ (esp. during June-August; which of course is when I want to go. Depending on the type of accommodation you select it’s about $1000 per day per person.
  • Smaller planes, flights to/from Tanzania are expensive and added a few hundred dollars per leg.
  • Because of the restrictive flight schedules, transfers added 1-2 additional “travel-only; non-activity” days which also increased accommodation costs.
  • Trying to do both countries and cover everything I want in 12 days was too hectic.

{Third Decision: What Countries to Visit?}

Once you’ve figured out your priorities, next it’s time to finalize what country or countries you’re actually going to visit.

When I first started planning my East Africa trip I wanted to go on safari as well as gorilla trekking. I researched several scenarios – Rwanda + Kenya, Rwanda + Tanzania, Uganda + Tanzania. And after doing hours of research, I finally decided that given my personal prioritization of:

  • experience (1)
  • budget (2)
  • time (3)

I had to separate safari and gorilla trekking into two trips – it just wasn’t working out (based on my priorities) to accomplish both.

Since I’ve been on African safaris before, I decided that going to see the primates was where I wanted to focus for this trip and that traditional safaris were less of a priority. Once I made that decision then the next thing was to decide where to go: Rwanda or Uganda?

{Choosing Between Rwanda and Uganda}

If you’re:

  • short on time: Rwanda
  • want to avoid long drives: Rwanda
  • want to see gorillas and don’t care to see chimps: Rwanda
  • interested in other sites in addition to gorilla trekking: Uganda
  • optimizing for lower cost: Uganda
  • want to see chimps and gorillas: Uganda
  • want to go where fewer tourists are: Uganda

When visiting Rwanda and Uganda the primary attraction is gorilla trekking (though there are other things to do and see in each country). But since gorilla trekking is the main attraction, the notes below are comparisons of the two countries:

Getting to the National Parks for Gorilla Trekking:  Volcanoes National Park from the airport in Kigali is much closer (2-3 hour drive from Kigali International Airport) compared to the 8-9 hour drive from Entebbe to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda.


Gorilla Trekking Is Challenging: In general, the hikes to find the gorillas are shorter, flatter and thereby easier in Rwanda compared to Uganda. Note: this is a generality, after all anything is possible in nature. In Uganda trekkers are encouraged to hire a porter who carries your gear and helps you through the muddy and steep hills.


Gorilla Trekking Cost: The gorilla trekking permit for Rwanda is $1500USD per person per trek, compared to $650USD per person per trek in Uganda. In both countries, each trek gives you 1 hour with the gorillas.

There’s no guarantee that you’ll even see gorillas on your trek. This happens rarely….but it does and can happen. So some tour companies will urge you to apply for 2 permits on two separate days. (You can’t get two permits for the same day). If your budget allows for that…it’s better to be safe than sorry, right? And if you compare the permit costs between Uganda and Rwanda, you can do two days of trekking in Uganda for less than the cost of 1 permit in Rwanda.


Number of Gorilla Families: There are 36 gorilla families in Uganda. However only 11 of them have been habituated so that humans can visit them. There are 7 habituated gorilla families in Rwanda. Uganda has 57% more gorillas compared to Rwanda, therefore higher chances of seeing them, BUT you might have to trek several hours to see them. Not that, that couldn’t happen in Rwanda too, but according to info and reports, typically they’re more easily found in Rwanda.


Other Things To Do Besides Gorilla Trekking: Most tourists don’t stick around to see the rest of Rwanda. After visiting Virunga, most people head off to one of the surrounding countries by car or plane. In fact the Rwanda Development Board is trying to encourage tourists to visit other destinations within Rwanda by offering a 30% discount to people who stay for 3 or more days and/or visit one of the other national parks.

Uganda has several other attractions besides gorilla trekking that tourists love:

  • Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary
  • Murchison Falls for river safari to see the Shoebill
  • Queen Elizabeth National Park for river safari and to see tree-climbing lions
  • Kibale National Park to see the chimps
  • Lake Bunyoni to relax and swim in one of the rare lakes in East Africa where it’s completely safe
  • White water rafting at the source of the Nile River in Jinja

And that’s just the Western side of the country! The Eastern side of Uganda is beautiful with more national parks, breathtaking waterfalls, Seese Island, which is a popular holiday escape and more.

{Fourth Decision: What Activities Are You Going To Do?}

Once you’ve decided what country or countries to visit, next it’s time to figure out what you’re going to do within those countries. How are you going to get to each location?

{How Many Days to Spend in Each Area?}

In both countries if you’re doing 1 gorilla trek, plan on spending 3 days. Two travel days + 1 trek. Add a day if you’re doing two treks. As for the other activities it’s up to you. For traditional safari it’s recommended to spend at least 3 nights but to truly gain from the experience we recommend at least 5 nights. For chimps 2 nights, and Murchison Falls, 2-3 nights as well.

In Murchison Falls you can river cruises, driving safari as well as hike to the falls. If you want to do all of those activities then stay at least 2.5-3 days.

ProTip: If you’re really interested in seeing tree climbing lions, you can go to the Ishasha area of Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda or in the Serengeti as well as Lake Manyara in Tanzania.


{What I Decided for My Trip}

First, I decided that I wanted to go to Tanzania and Uganda. After further research and considering my priorities, I realized that going to both countries in one trip was going to be a mistake. And I decided to go to Uganda instead of Tanzania because:

  1. I’ve been on safari before (in Zimbabwe and Botswana). I LOVED every minute of those trips and I’m excited to visit Tanzania at some point, but for this trip seeing primates is the priority.
  2. I’m also a bit of a waterfall chaser so seeing Murchison Falls is definitely something I’m interested in as well. And there’s plenty more I’m interested in, in Uganda to fulfill the rest of the trip: Murchison Falls, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Lake Mburo, the source of the Nile in Jinja.

I narrowed down to 11 days in Uganda visiting: Murchison Falls, Kibale National Park, and two gorilla treks in Bwindi. And instead of driving to each destination, I decided to save time and fly to each location. It does cost more but that was a tradeoff I was willing o make.

I decided to put off Tanzania for a future trip, even though in the end I knew it was the best decision for me. This was a difficult decision to come to as no matter what country you choose, it’s still an expensive trip and East Africa isn’t exactly around the corner from San Francisco. My original thought was, I’m going all that way, so I want to see everything. But the more I researched and read and really laser focused on what I wanted to get out of the trip and the kind of experience I wanted, the more I realized that separating them into two trips was the best thing to do to ensure I accomplish what I’m optimizing for.

In the end I felt pretty relieved when I came to this decision as trip planning can be overwhelming and there’s so much that’s unknown. It’s expensive and you want to make sure you’re getting the best experience. The last thing anyone wants is to feel they missed out. But I was clear about my expectations, the experience I wanted, and the logistics.

Notes:

As I stated at the beginning of the article, and want to reiterate is that I wrote and posted this article BEFORE leaving for my trip, so I don’t have the benefit of hindsight. And I think it’s important to point that out because you’re probably in the same boat. If you’re reading this it’s probably because you’re also thinking about/researching a trip to East Africa and are going to make the best decisions accordingly.


Also, I am the sort of trip planner where it becomes a second job. I typically spend more than 60 hours researching and planning trips, especially big ones like East Africa.

{Conclusion}

I hope this framework for deciding where to go to in East Africa and where to go for gorilla trekking has been very useful to you. If it has please let us know in the comments! We love hearing from you! Send us your photos and travel stories! We’d love to share them on our social media!

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Wishing you happy, safe and fun travels!

 

 

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