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Uganda is a landlocked country in central Africa that has endured a troubled past marked by human rights atrocities, political corruption and the current AIDS epidemic.
Still, there's much for travellers to enjoy in Uganda. Its lush, arable land is unusual in this part of the world, while Bwindi National Park is home to half the world's population of mountain gorillas. Murchison Falls and Queen Elizabeth National Parks are two more parks boasting a rich variety of flora and fauna. Meanwhile, adventurous travellers can go white water rafting down the Nile in Jinja.
Warning: Despite some improvement in the country's political landscape over the past decade, travel in Uganda is not without its risks. Travellers are strongly advised to avoid northern Uganda and anywhere near the borders with Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The rest of the country is more secure, but still make sure you're aware of any major developments.
The inhabitants of Uganda were hunter-gatherers until 1,700 to 2,300 years ago. Bantu-speaking populations, who were probably from central and western Africa, migrated to the southern parts of the country.
Arab traders moved inland from the Indian Ocean coast of East Africa in the 1830s. They were followed in the 1860s by British explorers searching for the source of the Nile. Protestant missionaries entered the country in 1877, followed by Catholic missionaries in 1879. The United Kingdom placed the area under the charter of the British East Africa Company in 1888, and ruled it as a protectorate from 1894. As several other territories and chiefdoms were integrated, the final protectorate called Uganda took shape in 1914.
Idi Amin (1925–2003) seized power in 1971, ruling the country with the military for the next eight years. His regime was armed by Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi who saw Amin as a promising fellow Muslim, until the Soviet Union became the primary partner. Amin's rule cost an estimated 300,000 Ugandans' lives. He forcibly removed the entrepreneurial Indian minority from Uganda. The Ugandan economy was devastated. Amin's reign was ended after the Uganda-Tanzania War in 1979 in which Tanzanian forces aided by Ugandan exiles invaded Uganda.
Museveni has been in power since 1986. In the mid to late 1990s, he was lauded by the West as part of a new generation of African leaders. His presidency has included involvement in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and other conflicts in the Great Lakes region, as well as the civil war against the Lord's Resistance Army, which has been guilty of numerous crimes against humanity including child slavery and mass murder. Conflict in northern Uganda has killed thousands and displaced millions. In 2007, Uganda deployed soldiers to the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia.
Uganda is located in Eastern Africa, west of Kenya, south of South Sudan and east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It covers around 236,000 square kilometres, of which around 200,000 is land. The country is located on the East African plateau, lying mostly between latitudes 4°N and 2°S, and longitudes 29° and 35°E. It averages about 1,100 metres above sea level. Uganda lies almost completely within the Nile basin. Although landlocked, Uganda contains many large lakes; besides Lake Victoria and Lake Kyoga, there are Lake Albert, Lake Edward and the smaller Lake George. However, much of the south is poorly drained, while the centre is dominated by Lake Kyoga, which is also surrounded by extensive marshy areas. Uganda lies almost completely within the Nile basin. The Victoria Nile drains from the lake into Lake Kyoga and thence into Lake Albert on the Congolese border. It then runs northwards into South Sudan. One small area on the eastern edge of Uganda is drained by the Turkwel River, part of the internal drainage basin of Lake Turkana. Lake Kyoga serves as a rough boundary between Bantu speakers in the south and Nilotic and Central Sudanic language speakers in the north.
Uganda's 80 districts are spread across 4 administrative regions.
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Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is the prime spot in Uganda to go on a trekking to see the Mountain Gorillas. The park is located in the southwestern corner of the country and apart from gorillas offers a wide range of monkey, birds, butterflies and other wildlife to view upclose. A gorilla permit is expensive though, around US$600, and as this is the most favorite spot in Africa to go on a trekking, the permits sell out quickly, especially by tour groups who buy them well in advance. As an independent traveller, you might be more lucky in Rwanda to get a permit within several days, although prices over there are even higher at US$750. Another option is to opt for a permit in the low season months of April, May and November. Prices are 'just' US$350 during those months. The disadvantage of course is there is a lot more rain, though November is not as bad as April/May.
Kibale Forest National Park is located in the west of the country, not far from Fort Portal and is famous for its chimpanzee tracking and bird watching.
Kidepo Valley National Park is located in the extreme northeastern corner of Uganda on the South Sudan border. There is incredible wildlife here that comes right up to some of the lodges. Elephant, zebra, nile buffalo, kob often visit the lodges.
Murchison Falls National Park is known for its waterfalls, where the Nile drops down for over 40 metres, making it one of the most powerful waterfalls in Africa. A boat ride will take you past hippos and crocodiles and other wildlife in the park, including elephant, buffalo, giraffe, lion, leopard and many species of antelope and birds. The park is only accessible by a tour, or by private vehicle, as the actual falls are far from the gates, and walking alone is not permitted. The hike up to the top of the falls is a short walk, but steep uphill, but does afford fantastic views over the falls.
Rwenzori Mountains National Park is a mountain range in southwest Uganda bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is 120 kilometres long and 48 kilometres wide with its highest peak at Mt Stanley (5,109metres. The range was first described in the 2nd century by ancient Greek astronomer Ptolemy as the "Mountains of the moon", and first ascended in 1896 by Italian explorers. By the end of 2006, its ice cap has retreated from 6.4 square kilometres a century ago, to less than 1.28km². In the Rwenzori Mountains near Fort Portal you find Mitandi. The place represents a unique opportunity to explore the mountains and get to know the culture of the local Bakonzo mountain people.
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Queen Elizabeth National Park offers another option to go on a safari, with great wildlife viewing between Lake Edward and Lake George and on top of that the Kasinga Channel has the largest concentration of hippos in the world! Also, the endemic Ugandan Kob, a species of antelope, lives here.
As one of the sources of the Nile is in Uganda, the country offers fantastic white-water rafting. The centre of the activity is in Jinja, conviniently on the route between Kampala and the border to Kenya. There are several tour operators in town, offering full-and half-day packages with various options. Usually, the full-day means about five hours on the river, as well as breakfast, lunch and dinner - sometimes the accommodation for the night after as well. The rapids are between grades one and five, so expect the boat to tip over at least once! Prices start from about US$75 for a full day - however, it is worth checking the company's safety records before committing as new companies seem to come and go. One of the tour operators also offers a bungy jump over the river (dipping into water optional).
Note that there is bilharzia in the still parts of the river.
This weekly celebration takes place at the beginning of August in Jinja, and focuses on the rich and diverse cultures of the people that live along this famous river, blended with traditional art and culture from all over the globe. It features music, dance, theater, folklore and storytelling, and food as well as live performances. It also has a street parade, children’s activities and dance workshops. It is a great opportunity to learn about the tribes throughout Uganda, and the lineup changes each year.
Also known as the Amakula Kampala Cinema Caravan Festival, this festival moves around the country over a course of four months, from the beginning of September to the end of November. It showcases both old and new films that feature themes of independence and fall under one of five platforms, which include African Panorama, Highlights and Tributes, Regional Views, Landmarks and Contemporary World Cinema. It also offers workshops on film training and creating soundtracks for silent films.
Each September, this popular three-day festival takes place at the Uganda National Theatre in Kampala’s city centre. The festival focuses on arts and culture in Uganda and is a must for all visitors hoping to learn more about the music and art scene of the country. This festival has grown to become the country’s number one festival, in which Kampala truly comes to life. The festival brings music, film, dance, theater, and visual arts together under one roof, and showcase not only local artists but those from other East African counties as well.
This four-day festival that happens each September was created to celebrate hip hop in Uganda. Its vision is to educate youth through hip hop culture and to teach Ugandan youth the importance of reconnecting with their roots. It brings the youth of Uganda together with some of Uganda’s hip hop leaders to promote peace, love and fun.
This one-day event happens each October in Kampala and features some incredible jazz played by musicians from all over the world. Each year there is a new list of performers, but one thing that is consistent is that the music is always fantastic. Saxophones, bass guitars, drums, keyboards and pianos play to a growing audience of Ugandan jazz lovers, and of course visitors are always welcome.
This annual festival is to showcase the diverse cultures throughout Uganda through art, music, poetry and dance, with an emphasis on female artists. Each December thousands come to Kampala’s Kyandondo Rugby Club to watch some phenomenal live performances. The festival also has a lounge area where festival goers can socialize, as well as booths that promote woman’s rights, education and HIV/AIDS awareness.
Uganda has a tropical climate with hot and humid weather throughout the year. There are two dry seasons, the cool and long from June to September, and the warm and short from December to February. From March to May is the long rainy season, with heavy rain possible for days on end. From October to early December is the short rainy season with showers at the end of the day but most of the time it is dry. Daytime temperatures usually hoover around 30 °C, but a bit lower from June to September. Some parts in the north are warmer though and temperatures over 35 °C are not uncommon. Night temperatures are typically around 20 °C. In the mountains in the west temperatures at night can become rather chilly though.
Air Uganda is the national airline of the country and only started flights in 2007. It is based at Entebbe International Airport (EBB) near Entebbe, not far from the capital Kampala. International destinations are Nairobi, Mombasa, Khartoum, Kilimanjaro/Arusha, Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar. Other airlines serving the country are mainly African airlines serving a number of destinations in East and Central Africa. South Africa Airways flies to Johannesburg, Brussels Airlines to Brussels, British Airways to London and KLM to Amsterdam. Eagle Air has many charter flights to lots of African countries only.
International bus connections include those to Kigali in Rwanda (8 hours, some continuing to Bujumbura in Burundi), Nairobi (12 hours) in Kenya and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. You can also cross from Uganda directly to Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo, although it's quicker and safer from Rwanda. You can also travel in stages by minibus if you want to stop in other places like Eldoret in Kenya.
There used to be passenger service across Lake Victoria to Tanzania, but services were suspended. You might be able to book a passage on a cargo ferry (operated by Tanzanian Railways) to Mwanza though. Most boats start at Port Bell near the capital Kampala.
Eagle Air probably has the most domestic flights, flying between Entebbe (near Kampala) to most major towns. Several other smaller charter airlines have flights as well, including those to small airstrips in or near national parks.
There is no internal train service. For now, the international train link with Nairobi is out of order as well, although this is worth checking, as the situation seems to change often.
Renting a car in Uganda is very expensive, as is fuel. Add to that the absence of road signs and the occasional rough roads, and you start to realize how hard it can be to drive in Uganda. Hard, but certainly not impossible.
Hiring a car is possible with international companies at the airport in Entebbe and in Kampala and major towns near the national parks. You can ask for a car with a driver as well, for a few more dollars. If driving yourself, be sure to have an international driving permit. Driving is on the left.
Buses connect most major towns on at least a daily basis. Many buses originate in Kampala. The Ugandan postal service has minibuses travelling from Kampala to all major centres several times a week as well, usually being cheaper as well as faster and more reliable.
Minibuses, matatus, are an essential part of life in Uganda. Regular minibuses travel between Kampala and Entebbe, and many other towns, such as Masindi in the north, and Jinja in the east. Minibuses do not have set schedules, but depart when they are full; be aware that sometimes you might be waiting up to two hours. Most matatus in Kampala depart from either the New Taxi Park, or the Old Taxi Park, located about 300 metres apart. Note that matatus are sometimes called Taxis in Uganda, and buses simply mean the large, inter-city buses, which have a set time table.
Biking around Uganda is dead easy. The country is well enough populated to ensure that you never have to carry more than half a day's worth of food, but not overpopulated, so peace and tranquility is occasionally stumbled upon. The south is hilly and relitively cool (but still high 20 °Cs mid afternoon). Guesthouses (not all top quality) abound and food is cheap so you could probably leave your tent and stove at home.
Ugandan visas are issued at embassies and High Commissions and also at all entry points. The Uganda Visa Policy uses the principle of reciprocity, that is all countries that require visas for Ugandans are visa prone in Uganda.
Visa Fees: Single Entry for 3 months US$50; Multiple Entry for 6 months US$200; Inland Transit USD50;
As of December 2013, only single entry visas were available at the airport and multiple entry visas had to be procured prior to the trip.
Since multiple entry visas are both expensive and must be obtained from Uganda's diplomatic missions abroad, bona fide tourists may want to consider the East Africa Tourist Visa announced in Jan 2014 and first issued in Mar 2014 that allows travel between Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda with multiple entries in a 90 day period for US$100 and without "restrictions on country of origin". You can buy this visa on arrival at Entebbe airport (or Kenya or Rwanda if that is your first port). However, since some finicky airlines may refuse to board you without the assurance of a visa, Rwanda has made the smart move of setting up an webpage on-line website to issue these, which means that some tourists may want to first land at Rwanda's capital airport of Kigali rather than Entebbe or Nairobi since this visa must be issued by the country that you first plan to visit (similar principle to Schengen visas in the EU).
Countries exempted from visas: Angola, Antigua, Bahamas, Botswana, Barbados, Belize, Comoros, Cyprus, Eritrea, Fiji, Gambia, Grenada, Ireland, Jamaica, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Malta, Mauritius, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tonga, Vanuatu, Zambia and Zimbabwe .
See also Money Matters
Like a lot of African currencies, the Ugandan shilling floats against other currencies, and it is therefore a good idea to check the correct rate before exchanging money. There are plenty of bureaus de change in Kampala, as well as plenty of ATM's. Most machines accepts Visa; the Barclays in town centre also allows you to withdraw with foreign debit cards.
When crossing over from Kenya, there is an ATM right at the border, as well as money changers. Try and carry small notes with you, as change is usually hard to come by. Ask your money changer to give you small notes.
It is possible to pay with US dollars at some hostels/guesthouses, and for some activities; however, they usually offer a much poorer exchange rate than the exchange bureaus.
Kampala hosts Makerere University which is a world class institution.
There are about 32 tribes each with their own culture and language. These can be grouped into bantu and nilotic languages. In fact, in the west of Uganda, the languages spoken are collectively known as Runyakitara and have a lot of similar words.
However, as Uganda was a British Colony, English is the official language, and so you are more likely to find English speakers. Also Swahili is spoken in the north of Uganda and borders with Kenya and Tanzania.
Bananas are the main staple in most parts of Uganda. There are different types of bananas. Large bananas called bogoya ; thick finger sized bananas called sukari because of their intense sweet flavour; then there is roasting bananas called gonja usually sold at road side stalls. Green bananas known as matooke are usually steamed in leaves and served with savoury sauce.
The diet of most Ugandans is vegetarian and consists of starchy foods like sweet potatoes, cassava (manioc or yukka), white potatoes, yams, bread made from ground maize flour called ugali or posho and also bread made from a combination of ground millet and cassava, pumpkin. These are served with sauces made from legumes like peas, kidney beans, chickpeas, sauce made from groundnuts (peanuts) which is similar to satay.
Ugandan cuisine has been influenced by Indian settlers and so you'll find chapatis (flat bread made from wheat flour). Sometimes this is rolled up and stuffed and is nicknamed rolex. Another influence from India is chillies kamurari. Ugandan food is traditionally not chilli.
Meat is eaten once a week. The rich can afford to have it every day. Chicken is for very special occasions or special guests. Roast pork and goat muchomo are popular in drinking establishments.
Fish - large Tilapia is grilled whole. You will also find smoked fish sold in the markets. This is normally cooked in peanut sauce. Uganda has a wide choice of delicious fruit and availability depends on the season - large sweet pineapples, mangoes, oranges (with green skin but very sweet), tangerines, jackfruit, passion fruit, papaya (called pawpaw) sugar cane, coconut etc.
There are many hotels in Uganda. If you go on the higher end you will pay high prices, over $100 per night. Standard traveller hotels will have simple rooms with shared bathrooms for around 3,000 to 10,000 shillings. Many places will rent you a tent, or place to pitch a tent for the budget traveller. There are various budget places in Kampala and Jinja to choose from. Some are better than others, and may suit different preferences, so it's best to explore the reviews on Tripadvisor to assess what would be best for you. A stay in one of these will cost from US$5-15 a night, depending on whether you camp or stay in a dorm. They also offer private rooms or safari tents, and some have self-catering cottages which are great for long stay/groups.
Coffee is one of the best products from Uganda, but the British hooked the locals on tea, so finding a decent cup of coffee is nearly impossible, especially outside of Kampala. In Kampala, try the coffee house 1000 Cups on Buganda Road.
Chai tea is available widely, and is best in the rural areas near the tea plantations. You will see signs posted on shops and kiosks where it can be purchased.
Lower-end South African wine can be had in some restaurants, but stick with the beer. Any of the four major brands are acceptable, though the Pilsner brand is the only one made without added corn sugar for those who care about such things.
Be advised to drink Bottled water, usually called mineral water in local restaurants. Water flowing from taps is not treated.
See also Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Uganda. There are two exceptions though. You have to have a cholera stamp (prove of the fact that you don't have that desease) when entering Uganda overland. And you need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Uganda) where that disease is widely prevalent. A yellow fever vaccination is recommended anyway.
Still, it's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Uganda. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also both hepatitis A as well as typhoid would be recommended.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months. When staying longer than 6 months, vaccination against meningitis might be recommended, depending on your contact with other people.
Like most African countries south of the Sahara, Malaria is prevalent in the country. Don't underestimate this tropical disease and take precautions. Buy repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS. Also note that Southern Africa and thus Uganda as well has a high percentage of people with AIDS.
See also Travel Safety
Uganda has been home to some of the more gruesome atrocities in modern African history since its independence in 1962, particularly under the heinous dictator Idi Amin, but in the years since 1987 things have consistently improved. Today the state is relatively stable. Travel north to Murchison Falls National Park and Ajai Game Reserve is perfectly safe.
As in any urban area, Kampala can be dodgy. One is well advised to remain in tourist areas, but sensibly garbed visitors not dangling the latest cameras, flashy jewellery or bulging bags are not likely to draw unwanted attention to themselves. However, any any non-blacks walking in the street stand out and are likely to be stared at openly, which may cause discomfort to those unaccustomed to travelling in Africa.
What little begging exists is some of the most polite and inoffensive to be found in African cities, nowhere worse than in the West. Small children are sadly becoming a nuisance in some rural spots frequented by tourists doling out sweets and coins but nowhere near the swarming throng one can attract in many cities around the world.
In the gorilla tracking region of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park near the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there was one incident in the late 1990s in which bandits attacked a group of tourists and killed several people. Since then, there have been no incidents and all groups now go out with armed guards (which was not the case before). There is a visible security presence in the region, but this is a preventative measure rather than a response to anything specific.
Travellers should still avoid the northeastern areas as Karimijong attacks have occurred that involved tourists. Some jihadists have engaged in retaliatory activities in protest at the counter-jihad policies of Museveni.
Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda and attitudes towards LGBT people are extremely hostile. Though 2011's notorious "Anti-Homosexuality Bill", which proposed the death penalty for "repeat offenders", failed to pass, a revised version that imposes a life sentence did. There is a small underground gay scene in Kampala, but violence is commonplace and gay travellers are advised to be extremely cautious. Various studies have shown that one of the worst places in the world to be homosexual is Uganda. Hence, if you are gay and choose to visit Uganda, it is advisable to keep your sexual orientation a secret. A recently enacted law has made it illegal for one to know that someone is homosexual and not report it to the authorities.
Internet cafes can be readily found in Kampala and Jinja. In most larger towns you'll find internet cafes running off of either VSATs or mobile phones. The Internet connection bandwidth is very low and can be frustrating for those who are used to a high speed internet connection.
See also International Telephone Calls
Mobile phone network coverage is available in most parts of the country (over 80%), but geography can cause trouble in the mountainous regions. SIM cards are cheaply available everywhere in 'starter packs' but need to be registered before use. They make a good deal though, as prices for international data roaming are extremely high.
Mobile broadband (3G, HSDPA, HSPA, HSPA+) is available in several places. Airtel has mobile broadband available in larger places along Jinja Road. An example of price for mobile broadband on a phone through Airtel is UGX25,000 for 1GB traffic in one week.In the more rural areas, a slower (EDGE) connection might be available. Orange also offer mobile broadband. Other networks include MTN (the biggest in Uganda), Warid Telecom and Uganda Telecom.
Posta Uganda offers reasonable services. Prices are not high, though it might not be the fastest company. Expect postcards and letters to take at least 7-10 days to Europe, longer to North America and Australia. Post offices are generally open from around 8:00-9:00am until late afternoon. If you want to send parcels overseas, it would be better to use companies like TNT, UPS, FedEx or DHL, as they are competitively priced and also much faster.
Ask Aremik a question about Uganda
Iam a promoter of several genuine tour operators in Uganda offering safaris and tours in East Africa including gorilla trekking, birding tours, tours to cultural and historical sites, white water rafting, camping safaris and tailored safaris to suit your needs.
Ask mara85 a question about Uganda
Travelled a lot in Uganda and have a lot of friends over there.
Could help with adviisng people on place to stay, to visit, routes to take. Also did a lot of selfdrive East Africa. Thnk I could help givng some advise
Ask AfricaGO a question about Uganda
Iam Ugandan by birth. Pursued my studies right from elementary level to tertiary and graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Tourism from my birth country. Iam willing to assist all those interested in Uganda. I have read extensively about the history, culture, people and all relevant issues pertaining to social, economic and political aspects. By virtue of my profession, Tour and Safari Specialist i have a wealthy of information relating to leisure,travel and tourism. Iam comprehensively on ground when it comes to this industry.
Ask Lady Irene a question about Uganda
I have lived in Uganda almost all my life, I have travelled too many countries but what is so special with Uganda is the natural beauty, wildlife, hospitality(social life) of the people, culture, all year sun, fresh fruits and foods, just make a wish!. I have assisted many students from Norway while visiting and studying in Uganda and trust me they all agree that Uganda is the Pearl of Africa as Sir Churchhill Winston described Uganda.
Trust me you will live and love it especially in the central part (very Peacefull).
We can assist you as I give information as an Insider and my husband as an outsider.
Ask Hakwa a question about Uganda
I am well traveled within Uganda and I have been to all of Uganda's national parks and other tourist attractions. I am available to offer help on any issues, tour operators, hotels, best tourist attractions, how best to enjoy your trip to Uganda, weather and even politics. Just ask me and I will give you the answers.
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