Vegetarian or Vegan Traveling in Uganda

Vegetarian and vegan diets are not common in Uganda. And most tourists who go there aren’t vegan nor vegetarian either. The lodges can cater to vegetarians and vegans but know that there will be fewer options compared to non-vegetarian guests. And you’ll have to make a constant effort to remind lodge staff about your dietary needs.

{Context}

To provide some context, we were in Uganda for two weeks and split our time in three locations: Murchison Falls, Fort Portal, and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (in Buhoma).

We stayed in luxury lodges that cost anywhere from $500+ per night – though I would argue that Engagi Lodge (in Bwindi), is not a luxury lodge (more on that below).

All of the meals are served at the lodge. And if you’re going to be out all day, then the lodge will pack your meals and give them to you before you head off for the day. You have to let them know one meal ahead. So you’ll place your breakfast order at dinner, the night before etc.

{Uganda Tourism Standards and What To Expect}

While we were booking our trip to Uganda, our tour company told us that tourism standards in Uganda aren’t as established there, compared to other East African as well as Southern African countries. But they didn’t really specify what that meant and now that I’ve gone through the experience I understand.

And I wrote this article so that future travelers will be more prepared about what to expect.

Overall, even though we had a lot of food issues throughout our trip, I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything. Uganda really lives up to its nickname, “The Pearl of Africa”. And Ugandan people are very kind.

Plus these unique – and sometimes challenging – experiences are a part of the wonderful charm of traveling the globe!

{Tips for Vegans and Vegetarians Traveling in Uganda}

First, you have to initiate and ask for what you want vs. expecting anticipatory service. Service-wise, Westerners are accustomed to anticipatory service, especially at luxury restaurants and hotels. In Uganda a lot of the staff (excluding managers) are really running on rote. They’re happy to serve, but you have to ask. Don’t expect them to anticipate your needs.

At each lodge breakfast for vegans and vegetarians is pretty much limited to coffee, fruit and bread. We were fine with that but if you want anything else, the staffer working there is not the right person to ask. Whomever their manager is, is whom you need to talk to.

Second, you have to be very specific and very literal with the staff. I had an incident at Engagi Lodge in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, where I wrote down the breakfast orders for my husband and I. I specifically wrote “no pineapple” and I thought it was understood that I was placing the order for my husband AND I since I spoke to the manager and write it down. But things got lost in translation. In retrospect, I think the manager just handed the morning staff the paper without talking to them, because the next day they gave us one package with pineapple and one without.

Third, staff are not trained to deal with customer issues, questions, complaints. I noticed at all 3 of the luxury lodges that we stayed at that they train the staff to check in and ask you how your meal is etc.  — normal server behavior.

But there was a break down if a guest didn’t like something or wanted something more or something changed. Servers are mostly expecting you to say, “everything’s great”. And when guests say anything other than that, like “well my soup is a bit salty” for example or if you ask to have something substituted, then they aren’t trained to handle that.

The staff member would either get a surprised or scared or nervous expression and kind of get flustered and then either walk away or defer to a manager. Then a manager would come over and resolve.

It’s important to understand that there’s a lot of competition for employment in these lodges and tourism in general. And many Ugandans are impoverished. So anything that wasn’t satisfactory makes lodge staff (non-managers) nervous as I think there’s a constant fear for their jobs.

{Lodges Weren’t Prepared For Us}

The thing I didn’t like was that none of the lodges we stayed at were prepared for us when we arrived. The whole point of paying for a luxury experience and spending time sharing our dietary needs with our tour company was, so that those logistics would be handled between the tour company and the lodges. But none of the lodges had a clue about our diet. Upon arrival we had to re-share the info. No big deal right?

But that meant that they needed 1-2 meals to get their bearings. Again, when you’re paying anywhere from $500+ per night, I expected the lodges to be prepared when we arrived.

You might be thinking, that this is a problem with my tour company but it wasn’t. We met two other vegetarian couples during our trip. We were all traveling with different companies and we all experienced the same issues.

When I addressed this with the tour company after we returned they were totally hands off. They literally said that they sent the info to each lodge, so they fulfilled their duty. Anyone can send an email. In my opinion, if you’re paying for a luxury experience, it’s their responsibility to follow up with the lodges to make sure they’re prepared. And it’s also each lodges bad for not being on top of it either.

{How Meals Work in Uganda}

3 meals per day. The way food and beverage work at luxury lodges in Uganda is there’s 3 set meals – breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Each meal is served in set windows of time. For example dinner was from 6:30pm-9:30pm nightly. No snacks are served in-between meals…at least none that are included in your fee.

This was a very different experience than my previous African safaris in other countries. In Uganda you can order snacks in-between meals but you pay extra, whereas when I went on safari in Zimbabwe for example, there were hors d’oeuvres and snacks in-between each meal which were already built into the per person pricing.

Each day was so active that we were pretty hungry by the time it was time to sit down for our meals. The portions were small at some lodges but since they were 3-4 course meals, we never left the table hungry.

We packed a bunch of Clif bars and were really glad that we did to snack on during the day!

Beverages are extra. Another thing that was a surprise when we arrived at each lodge was that aside from coffee and tea, we had to pay extra for beverages. And alcohol is not cheap in Uganda. One cocktail cost at least $10USD.

When I show you pictures of the meals we ate, you might think I’m too hard to please, as the meal presentation was artistic by trained chefs. The context though is that we paid a lot for a luxury experience and all of the lodges were informed about our diet beforehand. But none of them were prepared for us.

And that resulted in things like only being able to only eat bread and fruit for breakfast, whereas all of the other guests had lots of options. And being served only fruit for dessert where other guests had delicious cakes. And also no recognition on the part of the lodges that that wasn’t fair – nor right. We paid just as much as other guests and were given less value.

{The Lodges Are Integral To Your Overall Experience}

So much about an African holiday revolves around where you stay, more so compared to traveling to major cities and other places around the world. Your lodge is your anchor on an African holiday. You’ll eat all your meals there. Most of your downtime is spent at the lodge so it’s important to stay at a place you’ll like and can cater to your needs.

In Africa most lodges (not hotels) are set up like camp grounds where there’s a main/central lodge and individual, detached cabins/bungalows/rooms – whatever you want to call them. So you walk to-and-from your bungalow to the main lodge for meals.

Naturally, the nicer the lodge the better the views and more exclusivity you’ll find.

{Baker’s Lodge Murchison Falls}

Our best food and lodging experience, by far, in Uganda was at Baker’s Lodge in Murchison Falls. This gorgeous luxury lodge sits on the River Nile. We loved eating all of our meals on the river bank or on the lodge terrace watching the resident hippos. It was an incredible experience to stay there! The lodge is absolutely stunning and is truly a gem in Uganda and the world. The staff is incredibly kind, welcoming, and friendly.

The meals at Baker’s Lodge were 4 courses, delicious and artfully presented as you can see in the images below. They used fresh vegetables and fruits in all of our meals. For breakfast we ate bread and fruit with tea, coffee, and juice. They had non-vegetarian and egg dishes as well for non-vegetarians and non-vegans.

Most of the meals we had at Baker’s were vegan except for the French onion soup. But they tell you what’s on the menu beforehand and you can alter things a bit. For instance my husband doesn’t like French onion soup so they made him an alternate soup instead.

We really appreciated the packed meals at Baker’s Lodge for when we wouldn’t be back from our activity in time to eat there. They put together very professionally packed boxed lunches.

Packed meal at Baker’s Lodge, Murchison Falls, Uganda

Each bungalow at Baker’s Lodge is equipped with everything you’d need throughout your stay. We spent 3 nights there. In those days we did a Nile River cruise, Delta cruise, hiked to the top of Murchison Falls, a river safari, and two land safaris. Our days were action packed and we loved every minute of it!

{Kyuninga Lodge, Fort Portal, Uganda}

Kyuninga Lodge is a luxury lodge that sits on a crater lake in Fort Portal. The meals were just ok there. We found portions small and the food very simple. This was the most expensive of the 3 lodges we stayed at. They didn’t seem to have a lot of experience with vegetarian guests, especially compared to Baker’s Lodge.

We learned that Ugandans have adopted Indian chapati into their diet. Our first night at Kynuniga we were pleasantly surprised to have chapati with sabzi (vegetables) and Indian inspired rice. That was my favorite meal at Kyuninga.

At Kyuninga, I ordered a cocktail and a fly drowned in it. I’d barely drunk any of it. As we left the bar to head back to our room, the barman saw that I’d left my drink and asked me if I wanted it. I told him that a fly flew in, and he gave me a half baked, “sorry”. But he didn’t offer to replenish the drink and they still charged me for it. I don’t blame him though. He was a very young guy and it was obvious that he was either new at Kyuninga or in training. It’s more of an issue with their management, not training their staff to handle situations like this.

Had I said something or asked him to replenish it or not charge me, I think they probably would have.

{Sharing Dietary Restrictions With Your Tour Operator}

One thing to understand about booking your African safari with a third party tour operator is that that’s exactly what they are — a third party.  Their primary role is lead generation to all the lodges and tours and customer service with clients. They don’t own any of the lodges, they don’t actually operate any of the tours.

Lesson Learned. Looking back, had I known better, I would have booked my entire trip through Wild Frontiers. They have a very high standard for excellence and they own lodges and they are the tour operator. My trip was comprised of an amalgam of tour companies. It would have been better if the entire thing had been through one company for service and experience continuity.

{Most Important Travel Tip for
Vegetarians and Vegans in Uganda}

Even though you will tell your tour operator your dietary restrictions, I strongly advise you to email your accommodations directly too. And email them a few times. When you book a trip to Africa, most people are booking at least 6 months or more in advance. So don’t assume that because you told them once, they got the message. Message them a few times, especially if you’re traveling during peak season (anytime other than April, May and November).

Start emailing your lodges a month in advance, then again two weeks later and again 1-2 days before you arrive. It’s not obnoxious to do this. Think about how many times you need reminders or need to hear info before it sinks in.

Don’t solely rely on your tour operator, and assume that they will take care of everything. More real anecdotes from my trip below.

{On Night 3 Out of Four Lodge
“Forgot” We Are Vegetarian}

Our lodge in Bwindi, Engagi Lodge, was our worst food and overall lodge experience during our two week trip in Uganda. That was unfortunate because that was also the place where we stayed longest.

On night 3 of 4, we weren’t served dinner as their staff literally forgot that we are vegetarian. To be clear, there were 12 people max staying there. And it was the same staff throughout all 4 nights.

That night the lodge guests decided to dine together, at one table. The manager came over and announced the menu for the evening – none of which was vegetarian. So afterwards, I pulled the manager to the side and asked him what they were planning to serve us? He looked confused so I reminded him that we’re vegetarian and he looked at me with worry and surprise. On day 3 of our stay! At that point,  I had literally been planning our meals with him for three days!

He said he’d talk to the chef. Then we were literally served slices of avocado with mustard sauce splatted all over it. I’m not kidding.

And for dessert, while everyone else had decadent chocolate cake they gave us slices of fruit. To add insult to injury there was no apology.

{Experiences Being Vegetarian in Uganda}


We had 4 more meals at Engagi after that and I had to proactively create the menu and write it down and go over it with the management prior to every.single.meal to make sure we’d even have food.


Since we had to leave very early the next morning to go gorilla trekking, they packed breakfast for us. The night before, I gave the staff our breakfast order. I wrote down and verbally told the manager, no eggs. And what did we discover inside the bags the next day? Boiled eggs.


They were careless. Because they didn’t know what to make for us they just slapped stuff together. They packed slices of pineapple in aluminum foil. Naturally the juices leaked out creating a sticky, wet mess of the brown paper bags they were packed in and everything else inside of it. For the kind of money we paid, I expected professionalism.

{Paid for PRIVATE Cruise But They Still Gave Us Non-Vegetarian Food!}

On our first night in Uganda, we paid for a private Nile River cruise. It was about three hours and was supposed to include cocktails and snacks. Three out of four snacks were non-vegetarian on our PRIVATE cruise. Again it’s not like the tour company hadn’t been informed ahead of time. It was frustrating because we paid for a service that we didn’t get. And all of the involved parties blamed each other afterwards, and no one apologized or tried to make it up to us.

{Conclusion}

I hope this article prepares you for what to expect if you’re vegan or vegetarian and decide to travel to Uganda. I’ll be honest, we had issues with food. But given the opportunity, I’d go back to Uganda in a heartbeat. And I hope you won’t let food challenges stop you from experiencing the beauty and rich culture of the country.

Uganda is still nascent in tours of tourism, especially compared to the neighboring countries and in a way that’s awesome as it’s nice to visit a place before it becomes “too touristy”.

I think it would have been better if the tour company and informed us ahead of time, what to expect. But I’m assuming that they and most don’t even recognize that as a thing, as only fellow vegans, vegetarians or anyone else with dietary restrictions would even know to think of that.

{My Uganda Itinerary}

Entebbe – 1 night (quick stay after late night flight arrival)
Murchison Falls – 3 nights
Fort Portal – 2 nights (Kasese airstrip)
Bwindi – 4 nights (I did two gorilla treks + day trip to Ishasha; Kihihi airstrip)

We flew to each destination instead of driving which would have taken 6-9 hours per location. Uganda has one domestic airline called Aerolink. The planes seat around 20 people. There’s a strict 15kg per person luggage limit. And they do not allow hard shell bags. Most people travel with backpacks and duffels.

Entebbe-Africa-Uganda-Airport-International-travel-domestic-small


Enjoy your trip to Uganda! I hope it finds you with a satisfied and belly full of great vegetarian and vegan food! Keep adding those stamps to your PassportPages!

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