Uganda is a country in East Africa. It is bordered on the east by Kenya, the north by Sudan, on the west by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the southwest by Rwanda, and on the south by Tanzania. Famously called the Pearl of Africa by Winston Churchill, it is home to one of the most diverse and concentrated ranges of African fauna including the highly endangered mountain gorilla (Gorilla gorilla) and the endangered common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes).
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 gorillas 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. Prices in several parks seem to be set at 20 (1 day), 35 (2 days),.. An ISIC student card cuts you a 25% off the entrance fees these days.
During Uganda's era of British colonialism, settlement by Europeans was not allowed, and today there are few Caucasians in Uganda. The term for whites is mzungu, and 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 because begging by children is growing in the touristy parts of Uganda 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 Rwenzoris, 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. Emirates offers flights from Entebbe to Dubai via Nairobi and Addis Ababa on Airbus A340S with onward connections to Europe, N. America, and Asia from Dubai. Ethiopian Airlines offers service to Addis on Boeing 737s. Kenya Airways and KLM fly daily from Entebbe to Amsterdam either via Nairobi or direct.
There is currently no passenger train service to or in Uganda.
Alternatively do the trip in stages. Take a matatu or bus up to the border and walk to the other side.
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. If using Boda-Bodas, be extremely careful as they are frequently involved in accidents, inspite of this they are a fun and fast way to get around. Note that if you advise the driver that you want him to drive slower and safer, he may actually listen to you.
Uganda has decent bus system. There are two classes of buses. The "taxis" are actually minibuses or commuter vans called which run fixed routes (see below).
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 aisle before somebody gets off and you can get a seat.
Both buses and taxis run along most roads between cities, paved (sealed) or dirt.
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 costs approximately 8000 Uganda shillings.
Note that both buses and "taxis" do not run on fixed schedules; rather, they leave their terminus stop when they are completely full. On heavily-travelled routes they fill up within minutes and this is not a problem, but on less-travelled routes (or if getting on a large bus), be prepared to wait a while before departure.
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. They are crowded, cheap, frequent, and make lots of stops.
They run along fixed routes, picking up and dropping off people anywhere along the route. If you want to get on, stand at the side of the road and wave your arm. To get off, say "stage" and the driver will pull over and let you off. They're not marked with destinations, so you'll have to listen to the destinations that the drivers are yelling out the window. If you're not sure where to catch a taxi going to your destination (especially at Kampala taxi park, which is huge!), just ask a nearby driver or conductor, and they'll probably be able to point you in the right direction.
Taxis, called special hire taxis, are available in most every decent sized town. Fares are negotiable over long distances.
The roads in Uganda are comparable to many in Sub-Saharan Africa. Most of the main roads are metalled though the condition of them can deteriorate in patches. And some become extremely pot holed. Many of the minor roads and side roads are made of hard packed earth (murum) and when graded are quite quick and reasonable. However they will deteriorate in heavy rains and wash boarding frequently occurs. The best way to deal with the wash boarding is not to slow down, but to find a speed sympathetic to the road surface and effectively skip from ridge to ridge. Untarred roads, if wet, may be unpassable in the mountainous regions of the south-west. 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!). The best advice is drive cautiously and stay totally alert.
When planning a journey it is best not to ask how far it is but to ask how long it will take. Local drivers normally have a good idea of how long journeys will take.
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.
English is widely spoken as the lingua franca, but Swahili will come in handy in places (though many Ugandans do not speak Swahili at all, it is a common African trade language). As English is the official language, many people in the major cities speak English (though to varying degrees of fluency). Dozens of African languages are spoken in Uganda, the most common being Luganda.
The national currency is the Ugandan shilling, code UGX, sometimes written as UgSh. There are 50000, 20000, 10000, 5000 and 1000 shilling notes and 200, 100, 50 and 10 shilling coins (although the 10 shilling coin is no longer issued).
Other currencies that might be accepted for transactions are the US dollar (USD), notes must have been issued since 2000, or possibly the Euro (EUR) or British pound (GBP). Older US notes might not be accepted even in banks but newer US notes can be spent directly at fair exchange rates, although you will receive shillings in change.
Cash 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. Exchanging notes is possible in the larger towns if you need Ugandan Shillings. Note that there are better rates for exchanging larger notes (US$50 or more), so do it in big chunks if you need to. Try to have all your cash needs arranged before leaving Kampala if you can ('red-fox' forex on kampala road is thought to offer the best rates in the country).
With Visa cards you can withdraw money in at least one ATM in Kampala's City Garden mall. With MasterCard cards you can withdraw money in Barclay Bank's main office, opposite the main post office in Kampala. There are also many other ATM points around the city. Information can be obtained from the bank branches. As for your American Express card: leave it at home - you can't use it.
As of 2 June 2006:
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. Never 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. Most people have to buy a visa when they arrive at the airport currently (2006-May-04) this costs US $30 (bills must be newer than 2000!). You used to have to pay when you left the country (air-tax), but this has been removed.
You don't need to give large tips, as people don't expect/depend on tips.
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.
Food from Uganda is a sensation. You could sample the luwombo, which is meat cooked in green leaves. It has a tantalising aroma. You could also try the fried fish, though its mainly cooked on the beach and it is found to be succulent. You might also want to try the traditional matooke, binyebwa (ground nut sauce), chappatti, and meat stew. Toasted sandwiches can be found in some places for the less adventurous. 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 very cheap, to say nothing of the roasted mealies and roasted chicken. There are also a number of fast-food places, such as Nando’s, Steers, Domino’s Pizza, and Hungry Lion, in the city centre.
A basic local dish start at around 500 USh, and goes up to 3000 USh. A cut-up pineapple you can have for only 300.
See the Fang Fang Hotel below for good Chinese food in Kampala. Other Chinese restaurants with good food include Fang fang restaurant (different from hotel above), China Palace, and Golden China restaurant all located in the city centre.
In Entebbe, try the Boma Guesthouse on Gowers Rd. (see below under Sleep). Local food in Entebbe can be found at the Golf course restaurant and at the Airport Motel among other places.
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.
Be advised to drink Bottled water. Water flowing from taps is not treated.
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 there also Bed & Breakfast establishments to make you have a homely feel away from home at the lowest rates.
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 1962, 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 National Park 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 jewelery or bulging bags are not likely to draw unwanted attention to themselves. However, any caucasians 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. 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 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.
AIDS/HIV infection rate is very high.
Take precautions against malaria! It is worth seeking out a packet of Artenam while you are in Kampala if you are travelling up-country. Artenam is a reliable cure and works on chloroquine-resistant malaria strains too.
Remember, that many of the lakes have bilharzia. Check with the locals and do not paddle on the lake shore if you're not sure.
Uganda has a fairly conservative Christian/Muslim based society. It is not considered acceptable for women to wear skimpy clothing or to have overt displays of sexuality. Most Ugandans go to church / mosque regularly and consider religion an important part of a moral society. Never critize religion in presence of an Ugandan!
You will not be taken seriously if you wear shorts outside the obvious tourist destinations and no adult Ugandian would ever wear shorts. Usa a pair of light trousers to blend in better.
Don't be surprise if you see two men holding hands. They are not gay, since homosexuality is forbidden by law and is indeed punishable. Good friends do this often.
Mobile phone network coverage is available in most parts of the country (over 70% ), 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 VSATs or mobile phones. The Internet connection bandwidth is very low and can be frustrating for one who is used to a high speed internet connection.