My Bucket-List Trip to Rwanda + Uganda

By Francesca Panzariello, General Manager of Thomson Collection

When I was 11, I made a PowerPoint presentation for my parents about why our next vacation should be to Rwanda and Uganda to go gorilla trekking. It was filled with reasons why we should branch out from our usual local or European vacations to experience something new. Rwanda was also coming up in school a lot because we were learning how women helped rebuild Rwanda after the genocide. And of course, I filled the slides with pictures of gorillas that I had dreamed of meeting someday.

They shot it down and told me, “Good try, do it on your own.”

So, I did. Almost twenty years later.


Worth the Wait

I arrived in Africa eager to get my passport stamped. As soon as I stepped out of the airport, I took a deep breath and thought, “Wow, here I am.” It was everything that young Francesca dreamed of (and so much more). From the warm hospitality of the local people to the delicious flavors of the country’s cuisine, I fell in love instantly.

cesca with gorilla in uganda


Golden Monkey Trekking

Our first trek was a journey into the jungle to track golden monkeys. These monkeys are endangered, so to see them in their natural habitat was a special moment. My guide led me through the dense vegetation, his keen eyes spotting telltale signs like broken bamboo shoots and playful hoots. And then, there they were – a family of golden monkeys swinging through the branches.

Golden monkey in bamboo

We visited during their feeding time, so we watched quietly as they tore open bamboo shoots, gnawed on the roots and threw the remainders on the ground. Mothers fed their young and communicated through their language of hoots and yowls–it was apparent how smart these animals are. It was a privilege to observe them in their natural habitat, their playful antics and family bonds leaving me with a smile that wouldn’t fade.

After a long day of trekking, I was happy to come back to the beautiful lodge, where a cocktail and a complimentary massage were calling my name.

All the lodges I stayed at were incredible. Each used local materials to match the aesthetic of the lodge to its environment: in the north, at lodges like Kyambura Lodge, the climate is warmer, and the big open windows let the Ugandan sunshine spill into my room. As you worked your way south to a cooler climate, like Mount Gahinga, the lodges were cozy with fireplaces and blankets everywhere. Each lodge was a perfect haven to relax after a long day.


Chimp Trekking

These intelligent primates are endlessly fascinating, their movements mirroring our own in so many ways. Chimpanzees have been known to make tools, solve puzzles and even communicate in basic sign language. We spent hours following a habituated chimp group, witnessing their complex social interactions, from playful wrestling matches to tender grooming sessions.

My guides on this trek (and really, every trek) were out of this world. I’m very wary of wildlife, but there was not a single moment on any of my three treks or nature hikes where I felt even marginally uneasy. We always had at least one national park ranger guarding us, and our guides were experts on the trail. They kept us motivated and taught us new things throughout the entire trek!

chimpanzee in uganda


Gorilla Trekking

My group geared up and took off to the jungle, eager to meet a family of gorillas. Our guides said that tracking the family of gorillas can take anywhere from an hour to six hours. Luckily for my tired legs, we found a family after only an hour of trekking.

After waiting 20 years for that very moment, the hour we spent with the gorillas was transformative. It wasn’t just about witnessing their incredible presence; it was about feeling a profound connection to another species. They were intelligent, deliberate and tender in their interactions. They’re so similar to us, but so foreign at the same time. You’re looking at them and they’re looking at you, and you’re both equally curious.

A gorilla laying down  A gorilla in the sunlight

Here’s my advice: take as many pictures as your heart desires (my camera roll is overflowing with enough primate close-ups to make Jane Goodall jealous) but then take a step back, breathe deeply, center yourself and be completely present.

selfie with gorilla

I hope I’ve inspired you to consider gorilla and chimp trekking in Rwanda and Uganda. It’s an experience you’ll never forget, and it just might change your perspective on the world we share with these incredible creatures.

And if you need help convincing your fellow adventurers to join you, give me a call at 855-923-2434. I’ll send you that presentation!