Virunga National Park is Africa’s oldest national park and is often considered the crown jewel of parks on the continent. It lies in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo formerly named Albert National Park, is a 7,800-square-kilometre National Park that stretches from the Virunga Mountains in the south, to the Rwenzori Mountains in the north, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, bordering Volcanoes. Virunga Mountains are a chain of volcanoes in East Africa, along the northern border of Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda.
The Republic of the Congo has put in place a conservation effort to conserve different species such as chimpanzees, forest elephants, and western gorillas from poaching and deforestation. The western lowland gorilla is considered to be critically endangered by the IUCN.
There are roughly 700 mountain gorillas remaining on Earth, and nearly half live in the forests of the Virunga Mountains in central Africa. Mountain gorillas are the most endangered of the three subspecies, and are seriously threatened by the possibility of extinction. There are less than 790 of them left in the world, and they can only exist in the wild.
Getting a tourist Visa
When planning to Democratic Republic of Congo, you need to first purchase a Tourist Visa, a Mountain gorilla permit, a Nyiragongo trek permit, a valid Yellow Fever Vaccination card, pay for accommodation at the Mikeno Lodge. Treks or accommodation linked with the purchase of a tourist visa through Virunga National Park are non-refundable.
How to get there
The southern sector of Virunga National Park is easily accessible in a number of different ways the most common are:
- From Uganda, cross the border in Bunagana, from where the Mountain gorilla sites Jomba and Bikenge are easily accessible within 1 hour.
- From Rwanda, cross the border at Gisenyi/Goma, the border crossing is easy if you pre-arranged a visa, if not it will be difficult or expensive
- Fly into Goma from within the DRC many flights connect to Goma, from outside the DRC Entebbe is the only city connected by TMK. Once again make sure you have a pre-arranged visa.
Mountain Gorilla Permit: $400 less than the cost in Uganda and Rwanda. These can be bought online via the local tour operators offering budget gorilla tours in Congo in the Virunga National Park.
Nyiragongo Volcano Trek Permit: $300. If you have a sleeping bag, you can stay overnight and sleep on the summit in one of the twelve summit shelters with a view over the largest lava lake in the world. The cost of staying in a summit shelter is included in the permit fee. There is no food service on Nyiragongo. Porters can be hired at the base of the climb to carry loads for $12/day ($24 for the overnight trip). The maximum weight that porters are authorized to carry is 15kg. Unless if you are paying the Mikeno package $80 everything will be cleared minus the porters
Rwenzori Mountain Trek Permit: $200 (multi day trek). Different treks are possible (4-5-6 days)
Activities to do
Nyiragongo Volcano Hike
This volcano is famous for its lava Lake, is a technically easy climb from the direction of Goma. A trip to the top should take from 7 to 8 hours and climbers spend an overnight at the top. This also makes it possible to see the boiling lava by night, when it becomes even brighter and for more information visit the Visit Nyiragongo Website.
Mountain Gorilla trekking
The Mountain Gorillas are located in the Mikeno Sector, about a two and half our drive from Goma. They can also be approached from Bunagana (border of Uganda). The visits are also a bit more authentic and in smaller groups. Treks usually require 1-2 hours of hiking in each direction, depending where the mountain gorillas spent the previous night and the difficulty of the terrain. You are allowed a maximum of one hour to watch and observe them while taking pictures and videos of them.
Rwenzori Mountain Trek
The Rwenzori Mountains are a snow capped mountain range in the north of Virunga National Park on the Border with Uganda. The highest peak in the range lies on the border and can be climbed from both countries. The trek to the glacier can be made in a 4-5 or 6 day trek. In order to start the trek visitors will need to travel to Beni by airplane either from Goma or Entebbe.
Guests staying at Mikeno Lodge can join this team on their daily visits to the chimpanzees. The day begins when a group of local trackers leave their camp at 4:30 am to locate where the chimpanzees spent the previous night. Lodge guests set out at 6:00 am to find the chimpanzees. Groups are limited to 4 people and time with the chimpanzees is restricted to one hour. The group now consists of 32 individuals.
Senkwekwe Gorilla Center
Senkwekwe gorilla center is located where guests can see the only 4 captive mountain gorillas in the world, 2 of which were the baby orphans rescued after their mothers were killed in the 2007 gorilla massacre.
Accommodation at Virunga National Park
Nyiragongo Crater Cabins
The Cabins are situated at the edge of the crater in sight of the lava lake, the sight of which has an astounding effect on visitors. Small cabanas built and managed by the park at the edge of the most active volcano of Africa. An overnight in the cabanas is included in the permit fee for visiting the volcano and checking out the amazing lava lake. All guests can arrange packed meal service and gear rental for the trip at an additional charge at checkout. Packed meal service includes snacks, lunch, and dinner on Day 1 and breakfast and snacks on Day 2. Water is also included for both days. Porters can be hired at the base of the climb to carry loads for $12/day ($24 for the overnight trip). The maximum weight that porters are authorized to carry is 15kg.
Bukima Patrol Post
Bukima Camp is situated in the foothills of the Mikeno Mountain, the home to Mountain Gorillas. An old research camp transformed into a cozy and basic tented camp at the foot of Mikeno Mountain where the hikes to the gorillas start. It is a cheaper option to spend the night close to the gorillas, but offers all essentials, toilet, shower, BBQ area, drinks for sale etc. The views are amazing day and night when the glowing Nyiragongo volcano can clearly be seen.
The only high-end option within the park is the Mikeno Lodge. The lodge is situated in the forest of Rumangabo in the southern sector of the park, 1 hour north of Goma. 5 minutes’ walk from the lodge the Senkwekwe gorilla center is located where guests can see the only 4 captive mountain gorillas in the world, 2 of which were the baby orphans rescued after their mothers were killed in the 2007 gorilla massacre. The lodge is owned and operated by the Park, assuring that all profits from the lodge are reinvested in conservation efforts.
Bukima Patrol Post
The camp also offers secure self-camping options for travelers on a budget, you can pitch your own tent on the camps grounds and use its facilities for only 15$ per person.
Transportation to Goma and Virunga National Park
Goma is just across the border from Gisenyi (Rubavu) which is about a 3 hour’s drive from Kigali. If you don’t have your own vehicle you can easily catch a bus from the Nyabugogo bus station. If you’ve got a lot of bags you’ll probably want to stake your claim to good seats and stash your bags on a bus that’s not yet full which will probably mean waiting about 20 to 30 minutes for it to leave.