If you want to see gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo, you've got to go to Virunga National Park. In addition to excellent gorilla trekking opportunities, the oldest park in Africa offers varied landscapes—from dense wooded forests to glaciated peaks to the massive volcanic Lake Edward—across 3,000 square miles that will delight nature enthusiasts.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the park was founded in 1925 with the purpose of protecting the mountain gorilla population, and while its role has expanded since then, these curious creatures remain at the heart of any visit.
1. BUKIMA TENTED CAMP
Get settled in: This camp, which sits just outside the Virunga National Park boundary, was originally built for researchers, but is now mainly used by trekkers. The six platform tents are simple, but comfortable with plush beds and dressers. You’ll be well cared for here, but the setting is what Bukima is all about.
Photo courtesy of Virunga National Park, Visit Virunga, Bukima Tented Camp
Proximity to the primates: This is the location for mountain gorilla trekking in the park, and all treks leave from here. Your ranger and trackers come to camp in the morning for a pre-trek briefing as you finish your coffee. Then, you hike straight into the forest to find the gorillas. Keep an eye out: Occasionally, mountain gorillas wander into the camp itself. Treks are typically considered moderate in difficulty, requiring one to two hours of hiking on either end of the gorilla encounter.
Photo courtesy of Virunga National Park, Visit Virunga
Why else you’ll love it: Get ready for knockout views. With volcanoes Mt. Mikeno to the south and Nyiragongo, which features the world’s largest lava lake (more on this below!), and Nyamulagira across the valley, the sights are jaw-dropping, especially when an eruption treats you to a spectacular fireworks show. What's even better, all profits go right back into the park’s conservation efforts: Every stay is crucial to Virunga’s pioneering conservation mission.
2. MIKENO LODGE
Get settled in: The first and, perhaps, nicest option in the park, Mikeno offers more modern-day amenities than the satellite camps that take you deeper into the wilderness. That doesn’t mean the lodge isn’t scenically situated, too. Its 12 en suite bungalows, built with lava-stone and featuring 24-hour electricity plus running hot and cold water, are tucked into the lush hillside with plenty of dramatic decks and outdoor spaces for viewing the rift valley and volcanoes.
Photo courtesy of Virunga National Park, Visit Virunga, Mikeno Lodge
Proximity to the primates: It will take an hour, or longer, to drive to Bukima, which is why some clients opt to overnight there the evening before their trek. If finer amenities are important, you may be willing to trade location for convenience.
For a different kind of gorilla encounter, head to Rumangabo to see the Senkwekwe Center, the only facility on the planet offering shelter to orphaned mountain gorillas, of which there are four currently in their care. This rehabilitation center is an integral part of Virunga’s pioneering vision for conservation. The orphanage is within walking distance of this camp, but closes to visitors mid-afternoon, so plan your day accordingly. (If you love supporting orphanages for wildlife, learn more about these rescued baby elephants in East Africa.)
Photo courtesy of LuAnne Cadd, Virunga National Park, Visit Virunga
Why else you’ll love it: Aside from the perks of the lodge itself, there are ample activities, focused almost exclusively on conservation and community, including getting to know the canine anti-poaching unit as well as the rangers and caretakers. By the end of your trip, you may feel completely invested in Virunga's mission to protect this wild region—and the truth is, you are an investor. Like Bukima, profits from Mikeno get funneled right back into the park.
3. NYIRAGONGO VOLCANO SUMMIT SHLETERS
Get settled in: Situated at the top of Nyiragongo Volcano, these 12 basic huts, sometimes described as “Spartan,” are unbelievably enchanting. Sleeping on a volcanic rim overlooking roiling lava is not an experience you’ll likely have again. From the almost-bare rim, you’ll have unparalleled vistas of Lake Kivu, Bukavu, Rwanda and Burundi at your feet. Ascending the lower slopes, you’ll also get to explore rich forests teeming with chimpanzees, monkeys, and a choir of birdlife.
Photo courtesy of Viruna National Park, Visit Virunga, Nyiragongo Summit Shelters
Proximity to the primates: You won’t stay at the summit shelters as part of your gorilla experience, but a night here makes for an incredible add-on to the rest of your epic journey. Reaching summit is a demanding four- to six-hour hike, depending on your fitness level. Though it’s possible for very fit people to climb up and down the mountain in one day, it’s recommended to split the trip up into two days, ascending the first, staying overnight, and descending the second. Warning: Altitude sickness can be an issue, as the hike is quite steep, but the view is absolutely worth the risk.
Photo courtesy of Inspired Journeys
Why else you’ll love it: What an adrenaline rush! Trekking Nyiragongo is for the intrepid, give-me-more-adventure traveler. It’s not right for everyone, but this trek falls right in line with our passion for unique, experiential travel. Luxury, in this case, is one of exclusivity and awe of nature’s power. If you can stand ditching running water and soft pillows for an evening, you won’t regret it.