Most of the areas of interest to travelers are in the south-west part of the country, a side branch of the famous and volcanically active Great Rift Valley, with the exception of Jinja and Murchison Falls. Gorilla tracking draws most foreign tourists, and there are several troops of gorillas that can be visited in at least three different locations. Book gorilla tracking permits well in advance (6 months or more) to avoid disappointment.
The national parks are beautiful and, on the whole, uncrowded. See the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) website http://www.uwa.or.ug/ for details of gorilla tracking, safaris, chimpanzee tracking and more. UWA are competent and tech-savvy.
See also: African National Parks
During the bad old days of colonialism the British did not allow settlement by Europeans and as a result there are few Caucasians in Uganda. The term for whites is mdzungu, so caucasian visitors should get used to hearing it shouted out by children in every corner of the country. It is not a derogatory term per se, so smile and wave in reply (do not give out sweets or -- worse -- money. The begging by children is growing in the touristy parts near the gorillas!)
Uganda is accessible and affordable, but not up to the high tourism standards of more mature destinations such as Kenya or Tanzania, much less South Africa. This gives it more edge, more authenticity and less predictability. This does not mean danger (but see Stay Safe section below), rather greater opportunities for delight -- and frustration. This is real Africa, the dirty urban bustle of Kampala bursting at the seams then giving way to lush subsistence farming and small villages. Roads are rough, people are friendly, everything seems to have a smell all its own, and not everything moves according to schedule or to plan.
Most travelers visit for the gorillas, but other major draws are the chimpanzees, birding, trekking the Ruwenzoris, and visiting the source of the Nile River.
Entebbe Airport is the hub for Ugandan air travel. Many flights to cities in Africa take place from here. Direct flights to and from Johannesburg run three days a week on South African Airways. Direct flights to and from London run every other day on British Air.
There is currently no passenger train service to or in Uganda.
Several bus companies offer direct lines from Kampala to Nairobi and Kigali. A nightbus from Kampala could start at 4 pm. to arive at 6 am. in Nairobi, costing 23000 USh.
Altneratively do the trip in stages. Take a matatu or bus up to the border and walk to the other side.
The best way to get around Kampala and the neighboring towns is by using minibus-type taxis called matatus. This is the most efficient and cost-effective method of transportation in urban areas, but try not to get ripped off by the conductors as they sometimes try to overcharge tourists.
Uganda has decent bus system. There are two classes of buses. The "taxi's" are actually minibuses which run fixed routes. They are crowded, cheap, frequent, and make lots of stops.
There are also real buses which run less frequently, usually leaving Kampala early in the morning. There are many companies which almost all leave from the same general area. The buses fill up so if you get on mid trip you'll be spending some time standing or sitting in the isle before somebody gets off and you can get a seat.
Both buses and taxis run along most roads between cities, paved (sealed) or dirt.
The roads in Uganda are simply appalling. A brief stretch of tarred road west of Kampala toward Mbarara is passable, as is the road from Kampala up, but otherwise strap yourself in for a bumpy, slow ride. Commercial drivers of buses and trucks compound the danger, as do pedestrians, livestock, cyclists, dogs, and the odd police roadblock. Plan on 60km/hr as a typical rate of travel (speed will vary, though!). Untarred roads, if wet, may be unpassable in the mountainous regions of the south-west.
Expect to pay a lot to hire a vehicle. A sensible choice is to hire a 4x4 with a driver given that you will need local language assistance and expertise should something happen on the roads. Most places have accommodation and meals for drivers as this is common among travelers. This will cost upwards of USD100.00 per day (not including fuel) with the cheapest vehicles typically having no windows, a canvas roof, an assembly date in the 1970's and so on. You get what you pay for. A cheap option is likely to leave you stranded somewhere remote and that can mean days of your itinerary lost. (Caveat emptor for those hiring from Walter Egger in Jinja for just this reason!) Unless you are comfortable paying cash in advance without a signed contract and no network to help you get out of a breakdown, go to one of the major agencies.
Domestic bus travel is reasonable and cheap between major centres, and is a good choice for backpackers with time, but may not run reliably on schedule. A trip from Kampala to Masindi takes about 8 hours and takes about 8000 shilling.
Taxis, called special hire taxis, are available in most every decent sized town. Fares are negotiable over long distances.
In Kampala and some other towns, the boda-boda is a good way to get from place to place. These are small mopeds, motorcycles, bicycles or scooters with cushions on the back and are cheap transport as used by locals.
Money can be complicated to deal with, as there are only a few ATMs in Kampala (and in Mbarara) and credit cards are only rarely accepted. Even cashing travelers checks can be difficult. Best to take US Dollars or Euros, which can be spent directly at fair exchange rates in most places (you'll get shillings as change), and exchanging notes is possible in the larger towns if you need Ugandan Shillings. Note that there are better rates for exchanging larger notes (100 dollars/euros or more), so do it in big chunks if you need to. Try to have all this arranged before leaving Kampala if you can.
Food and goods are cheap. On a shoestring you can get by on less than 10 euro a day, excluding park visits and other expensive activities. Make sure you bargain for everything you buy around town except in the bigger stores and malls. Do not ever pay face value when buying from the local vendors around town. Hotels can be costly so, if you are a student it would be a good idea to look for a hostel in Kampala.
Coffee! The best place to find this wonderful but hard-to-find product is in Kampala at the 1000 Cups Coffee Shop on Buganda Road. They have many Ugandan and other African varieties freshly roasted and at reasonable prices to take with you.
Unfortunately, food prepared for tourists tends to be overcooked, bland imitations of English dishes (or, just as bad, continental cuisine). Soup from a packet, meat and potatoes, with a sweet dessert is typical. Toasted sandwiches can be found in some places. If this does not appeal, it is best (and far more interesting) to stop at roadside stands or in markets to purchase fresh produce -- fruits and vegetables abound and are cheap cheap, to say nothing of the roasted mealies and roasted chicken.
A basic local dish start at around 500 USh. and goes up to 3000 USh. A cut up pineapple you have for only 300.
See the Fang Fang Hotel below for good Chinese food in Kampala.
In Entebbe, try the Boma Guesthouse on Gowers Rd. See below under Sleep.
Coffee is one of the best products from Uganda, but the British hooked the locals on tea, so finding a decent cup of native joe is nearly impossible, especially outside of Kampala. In Kampala, try the coffee house 1000 Cups on Buganda Road. You can also buy coffee beans there (see above under Buy).
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. Sadly, ordinary black tea is likely to be Five Roses imported from South Africa, not the local tea.
Lower-end South African wine can be had in some restaurants, but stick with the beer. Any of the four major brands are acceptable, but the Pilsner brand is the only one made without added corn sugar for those who care about such things.
Bottled water only!
There are many hotels in Uganda. If you go on the higher end you will pay high prices, over $100 per night. Standard traveler 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 traveler. These are most frequently used by Truck tours which are popular with the less independent traveler.
The accommodations provided in the national parks by UWA are generally of a good standard and are quite inexpensive compared to alternatives. They vary in amenities and price, and the cheapest can be as little as USD5.00 or less per person per night.
Few moderately priced options are available, and the high end, while expensive, are substandard compared to the high end options of Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and other mature tourist destinations in Africa. Unfortunately, few alternatives are available. There are some notable exceptions, but best to go either highest end or stay in the UWA budget accommodations and spend more on a better vehicle!
Uganda has been home to some of the more gruesome atrocities in modern African history since its independence in 1960, particularly under the heinous dictator Idi Amin, but in the years since 1987 things have consistently improved. Today, in 2005, the single party state is relatively stable after 19 years of stereotypically 'strong man' rule by Yoweri Museveni who seems torn between embracing more enlightened government and clinging to power (by amending the constitution to allow himself to serve a third ten-year term). A major concern for travelers in the northern part of the country, however, is the Lord's Resistance Army, who have been making the Acholi, Lango and Teso districts lawless and dangerous since 2002, although they have been active insurgents since 1989.
Travel north to Murchison Falls is safe, but the north and east of the country are particularly volatile, so one is well advised to get the latest news updates before traveling there. Note that overlanders from Tanzania and Kenya regularly make the trip routing through Jinja, so the danger is nothing like travel in southern Sudan or the DRC.
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 jewelry or bulging bags with the hottest brand names will not be threatened. However, any caucasians walking about are likely to be stared at openly, which may cause discomfort to those unaccustomed to travel in Africa. What little begging exists is some of the most polite and inoffensive to be found in African cities. 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 near the border with the DRC there was one incident in the late 1990's 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.
As in all African countries, AIDS/HIV infection rate is very high. Do not risk unprotected sex.
Take precautions against malaria!
Uganda has a fairly conservative christian / muslim based society. It is not considered ok for women to wear skimpy clothing, or to have over displays of sexuality. Most ugandans go to church / mosque regularly and consider religion an important part of a moral society.
Cell phone coverage is not bad over all, but geography can make trouble in the mountainous regions. SIM cards are cheaply available everywhere in 'starter packs'.
Internet cafes can be readily found in Kampala and Jinja. In all towns with more than about 20,000 you'll find internet cafes running off of either vsat's or mobile phones. They connections suck, but are widespread.