airport_transferbarbathtubbusiness_facilitieschild_activitieschildcareconnecting_roomcribsfree_wifigymhot_tubinternetkitchennon_smokingpetpoolresturantski_in_outski_shuttleski_storagesmoking_areaspastar

The Ultimate Backpacking Guide to Uganda

Villager with an umbrella, near Mweya, Uganda
Villager with an umbrella, near Mweya, Uganda | © Emily Marie Wilson / Shutterstock
Uganda lends itself perfectly to being an interesting yet budget-friendly country to explore. There is so much to keep a restless budget traveller busy, making it one of the world’s top backpacking destinations. Here’s our guide on how to make the most of it.

The backpacker scene

There are a number of backpackers’ hostels and low-budget accommodation facilities with travel resources in Kampala, and even more so in the outskirts. It’s a good idea to stay in the city to enjoy Kampala’s nightlife, and use the guided city tours to kickstart your expedition; most backpackers and hostels offer shuttle services for those taking their activities out of town, as that’s where the real action happens. Generally, it’s very easy to get around using public transport such as buses, shared taxis (minibuses) and of course, the boda bodas (bicycle and motorcycle taxis) – but don’t forget to use a helmet. Have your tent on you, so you can determine where your day ends.

Ugandan boda boda driver  © emre topdemir / Shutterstock

Making the most of it

Do a little research

As with all successful projects, a little research goes a long way. The internet is turning the world into a global village, and it’s very inspiring to read a recommendation from a visitor to go and see or do something in your own country. Read from the locals as well: there are tons of shoestring travel blogs and rich experiences to learn from. Get in touch with the places you intend to stay and inquire about their rates, activities, meals and anything you may need to know – this way, you have an idea of what to expect.

Travel local

Most folks aren’t keen on using public transport, with all the chaos it entails, but it’s a sure way of making your shillings last. Use the matatu (privately owned minibuses), buses or boda boda to go places. Keep away from the fancy and fast-food restaurants, as the real soul food at incredibly low prices is found in the bufunda – dingy restaurants. Granted, they can be a little noisy and crowded, but the food is served steaming hot, so you know it’s safe to eat. You save money, eat healthy food and appreciate the local cuisine all in one sitting.

Ugandan meat served straight from the grill © T. Miller / Shutterstock

Be flexible

While backpacking through Uganda, plans are bound to change from time to time. Allow room for such instances in your schedule by being flexible. So when an activity is cancelled because of the rain, replace it with the one that’s rain-friendly, and carry your waterproof essentials.

The entrance of the taxi station in Kampala  © emre topdemir / Shutterstock

Safety

Except for the petty pickpockets and a few phone snatchers in the city, the country is pretty safe. Still, it doesn’t hurt to exercise some vigilance —you’re visiting somewhere for the first time, after all. If you plan to explore the city for a few days, use SafeBoda and UberBoda; these can move you around Kampala safely and securely as they offer their passengers helmets and they use maps, thereby reducing the chances of getting lost.

If you plan to experience true Kampala nightlife without much worry, use Uber. However, it doesn’t work far out of the city. Hiking through national parks and game reserves, Uganda Wildlife Authority offers trained armed guides in case you cross paths with a wounded or hysterical animal.

An armed guide with a hiker on a mountain for safety Olive Nakiyemba / © Culture Trip

Food and accommodation

Depending on how tight your budget is, eating like a local is one way to stretch your shillings. Try a rolex (an omelette, tomatoes and a choice of vegetables rolled into a chapati), or order a steaming plate of katogo – a mix of meat or peanut paste boiled together with bananas for a breakfast that costs less than a dollar from one of the bufunda; return for a food-coma-inducing lunch if the service was good, otherwise try somewhere new. For dinner, take a trip to the trading centre for some grilled chicken – get it while the fire is still burning on the grill, so you know it’s safe.

A street vendor prepares food in Wakiso District, Uganda © Delmas Lehman / Shutterstock

As for where to rest your body, the city and the outskirts are dotted with backpackers and hostels from as low as $15 a night for shared dorms. In some places, you can pitch your tent for as little as $7 a night. The good thing is, most of these are strategically located within walking distance of the trading centre, the mall and the places where activities such rafting and quad biking take place.

Making friends

It’s easy to make friends here, as Ugandans are generally warm people. Grab a beer or your choice of drink in the backpackers’ hostel’s lounge area or by the campsite’s bonfire and by the time it’s finished, you’ll have picked up friends for life. There are a handful of budget travel groups such as Mountain Slayers Uganda, Mountain Club of Uganda, Koi Koi UG, Kayak the Nile and others with activity calendars. If solo travel doesn’t appeal to you, join one of these on one of their trips and escape the hassle of planning a trip. These trips are quite affordable because group travel saves a lot on the money you would otherwise spend on activities.

Pick up a few phrases to express yourself and you will be speaking to their hearts; watch how warm and wide their smiles get.

Kayaking in Uganda © PorChonlawit / Shutterstock

Money, money, money

Currency

The cost of living is relatively low in Uganda compared to its neighbours. But don’t make the mistake of underestimating the Ugandan shilling; with so much to do and so much to spend it on, the rate at which it slips through the fingers can be dizzying.

$1 = 3,864.55 Ugandan shillings (as of June 2018)

Whereas Kampala city is starting to embrace the cashless economy (depending on where you go), the majority of the country deals with cash. Mobile Money services are giving the mainstream banking industry a run for its money, so once you get your local SIM card, which you will have to register with your national ID if you’re Ugandan and a passport if you’re a foreigner, and your number will be activated to transact mobile money. Save some of your shillings on your mobile account to avoid traveling with too much cash, and withdraw it in any town.

Costs

1 meal: $2–$4
1 beer: $0.70 in a supermarket, $1 in a local pub and $2.6–$3 in an upscale bar
1 night at a backpacker hostel: $15–$50
1 cheap mode of transport for inner-city travel: $2–$5
1 hygiene or medical essential at a local shop: $2–$5
1 affordable experience or a Kampala City field trip: $7

Chapatis will be your friend; whether it's plain, with beans or a rolex, you can never go wrong  © Adam Cohn / Flickr

Where to go

Murchison Falls

Known for its furious rapids, Murchison Falls shouldn’t be missed by any self-respecting backpacker. It’s found on the White Nile, between Lake George and Lake Albert. In the national park, trekking and safari drives are quite affordable.

Murchison Falls, Uganda © semue85 / Shutterstock

Jinja

The adrenaline capital in the east offers activities that get your heart racing, like bungee jumping, kayaking, horse riding, quad biking and water rafting.

Jinja, Uganda © pooyeh / Shutterstock

Queen Elizabeth National Park

This is the only place you will find tree-climbing lions. Besides the lions, you will find the big animal species such as hippos, giraffes, elephants, other mammals and a diverse and unique vegetation.

Karamoja

Go off the beaten track by the exploring this relatively virgin territory in the northeast. Experience an authentic African village setting by spending a night in a kraal with the local herders and their cows as you watch the stars dance in the sky.

A rock formation in Karamoja region of northeastern Uganda © Jimmy Adriko / Shutterstock
A young rhino at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary in Uganda © Patrick Messier / Shutterstock

Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary

This is the only place in Uganda where you can see rhinos in the wild. It’s a conservation project that started with six rhinos, four bought from Kenya and two donated by Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Today, Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary has 15 rhinos.

Bucket-list experiences

Track the chimpanzees in Kibale National Park

Kibale is a diverse rainforest with over 351 types of tree, some are over 200 years old. This is also home to 13 primate species; the stars are the chimpanzees.

Raft the Nile

Try this thrilling once-in-a-lifetime experience before the rapids on the River Nile disappear with the construction of a dam.

Hike a mountain

Challenge your will and summit Mount Elgon at 4,321 metres (14,177 feet) high, or Mount Sabinyo in the southwest with its three peaks and hellish ladders, and marvel at the country’s beauty from higher ground.