Although located in the very heart of East Africa, Uganda is much less visited than most countries in East Africa and receives just a fraction of the visitors who arrive in neighboring Kenya each year for an adventure into the Masaai Mara. At the same time, this is often what people find so appealing in any travel destination; when the crowds are absent; a local experience tends to be more primitive, rather than tailored to please the tourist.
Yes, you will find souvenir stalls and tour operators here too but really, the locals in Uganda are less accustomed to people who are curious to know about their way of life, and the National Parks feel almost empty in comparison with the Masaai Mara or nearby Serengeti. And in many ways this primitive nature is really what separates Uganda from many of the more popular places to visit in Africa; you can find the same fascinating experiences here as elsewhere, but it feels more personal, less intrusive and far more worthwhile.
Arriving in Kampala and meeting the locals
Few cities in Africa are as frantic as the Ugandan capital which can feel unnerving yet exciting to a first time visitor. The efforts of traffic lights and police officers appear futile in the face of the chaotic traffic, and fresh food markets crowd even the busy streets of the city center. In fact, when you first arrive in Kampala the relentlessness of the city can feel slightly uncomfortable but make no mistake; this is an amicable place to explore with many layers beyond the busy exterior.
Yes, whether you decide to get lost in the local markets or visit the ancient remnants of what was once the great Buganda Kingdom, you should quickly learn that the locals here are usually excited to know their visiting guest and then just as eager to help you feel at home. For something a little different and a unique insight into “Real Africa”, there is also an opportunity to visit the township of Bwaise which is one of the largest slums in all of East Africa. From primary schools and small clinics to the red light district and community center, a township walking tour is a unique way to interact with the people and the perfect way to help yourself to feel at home in this colorful and frantic capital.
Natural attractions and Adrenaline activities
Uganda is possibly most famous for being home to Lake Victoria and the town of Jinja, the source of the River Nile. Renowned for being one of the Great Lakes in Africa, the sheer scale of Lake Victoria is evidenced in the green and luscious vegetation you should encounter all over Uganda. From banana trees, papyrus plants, potato fields and tea plantations, everything in this part of the world seems to derive from the earth, and this is exactly how the locals like their food – natural. That being said, the local cuisine is far from famous, and most menus consist of the staples rice and beans, with the one exception being the “Rolex” – a delicious sandwich-like wrap which is filled with meat and vegetables.
Another highlight of the Nile River is the incredible rapids which make this one of the best whitewater rafting locations in the world. Situated on the banks of the river just a short distance from Jinja town, some campsites are also the base for professional tour operators who provide many options to explore the river such as kayaking, paddleboarding, jet boating and rafting. Needless to say, this popular part of Uganda is a huge draw for volunteers and backpackers alike with the adrenaline activities offering a brief distraction to exploring the local culture and wildlife.
Of course, no trip to Africa can ever be complete without getting up close to the animals and despite the lack of information, advertising or marketing; Uganda is overflowing with such opportunities and more. Take for example Virunga National Park next to the Rwandan border, where you can trek deep into the rainforests to spend time with the endangered mountain gorillas, truly a once in a lifetime experience. Just south of Entebbe you will then find “Chimp Island”, a sanctuary for this beautiful and endearing character. Furthermore, there is also Mgahinga National Park where you can trek upon similar terrain in the presence of elephant and buffalo as you hike in search of the incredible Golden Monkeys.
Primates aside, there are more wildlife parks to explore in Uganda, and arguably the highlight of these is Queen Victoria National Park. If you want to sleep in the wild with the sound of elephants walking around the tent at night, this is the place to visit. Likewise, if you wish to take boat trips in hippo infested waters or marvel at a pride of lion in the bush, you can find all of these experiences in the one place. Uganda may not have the same reputation for wildlife experiences as other African countries but rest assured, you will find many opportunities and means of which to access them.
Cultural places of interest
And then there are the local or more cultural points of interest such as Lake Bunyoni in the very western reaches of Uganda. Yes, you can search out local experiences quite easily in just about any town or village in between, but this stunning lake near the town of Kabale provides the same opportunities in an unforgettable setting. While Winston Churchill referred to this region as the “Switzerland of Africa”, it is the locals who make this such a memorable destination. Featuring an incredible scenic lake surrounded by conical mountains as far as the eye can see, the shores of Lake Bunyoni is overflowing with communities who thoroughly enjoy interacting with visitors and encouraging them to understand their way of life. If this is not primitive enough, there is also the option of visiting a nearby Batwa Tribe, one of the last remaining indigenous peoples who still live in the same way as their ancestors.
Experience everything and more
When it comes to expectations on a trip to Africa, Uganda is a smart and conscious choice. As mentioned, it is without the crowds and lacking in tourist infrastructure, but it has everything else that most people wish to witness on the Dark Continent. From exotic wildlife and stunning landscapes to tribal encounters and village experiences, it may come without the reputation of the more popular countries to visit in Africa but make no mistake, Uganda is the perfect opportunity to get off the beaten track and experience everything a trip to Africa has to offer, and more.