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Uganda Travel Advice

Geography

Uganda is a landlocked country in East Africa. Uganda is also known as the “Pearl of Africa”. It is bordered by Kenya in the east, South Sudan on the north, on the west by the Democratic Republic of Congo, on the south-west by Rwanda and south by Tanzania.

The southern park of the country includes a substantial portion of the mighty Lake Victoria, which is also bordered by Kenya and Tanzania.

From the second you step off the plane, the overwhelming impression of Uganda is one of rich natural diversity, friendly locals and a burgeoning cultural scene that is currently producing some of the most exciting artists in Africa.

Host to the source of the Nile at Jinja, Uganda is home to the world’s second largest lake - Lake Victoria, one of the most ancient volcanoes on Earth - Mt. Elgon.

Pristine and largely undiscovered, the country’s land are of 236,580 sq km bursts with a vibrant tapestry of diverse vistas against the backdrop of sparkling lakes, islands, rivers and waterfalls. The country boasts of an incredible array of landscapes that range from the snowcapped Mountains of  the Moon (the Rwenzori mountains) in the west to the jungles of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in the south-west to the semi desert north-east and water-spangled lake districts in between.

A popular spot for wildlife watching is Queen Elizabeth National Park, which is home to four of the Big Five, a flock of flamboyant flamingos and the rare tree-climbing lions of Ishasha.

The star attraction, though, is the iconic mountain gorilla, which can be found further south in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

While you’re down there it’s also worth taking a detour to Lake Bunyonyi, a mountain retreat famed for its stunning vistas and freshwater crayfish.

More natural wonders await in northern Uganda, home to the magnificent Murchison Falls, and in the east, where visitors will find the outstanding desert crags and ossified anthills of Kidepo.

Regardless of where you go in Uganda, when it comes to leaving, it will be with a heavy heart.

Climate - When to Go

Uganda has a tropical climate, with temperatures ranging from 21-25°C (70- 77°F), apart from in the mountainous areas, which are much cooler; the top of Mount Rwenzori is often covered with snow. The hottest months are December to February. Evenings can feel chilly after the heat of the day with temperatures around 12- 16ºC (54-61°F).

Gorilla tracking and other forest walks are less demanding during the drier months of June to September and December to March. Wildlife viewing is best at the end of the dry seasons, when game is more concentrated around water sources.

The European winter is the best time for birds, as Palaearctic migrants supplement resident species.

Most regions of Uganda, apart from the dry area in the north, have an annual rainfall of between 1,000mm and 2,000mm. There is heavy rain between late March and May and between October and November.

Language

Uganda’s official languages are English and Kiswahili, spoken throughout East Africa is also widely spoken throughout the country.

Uganda is home to many ethnic groups and so around forty different languages are used in the country. Ugandan English is a kind of local variant dialect.

The most spoken language in Uganda is Luganda, spoken predominantly in central Uganda but also across all major cities in the country.

Economy

Primarily a subsistence agriculture economy, Uganda nonetheless produces and exports some of the finest tea and coffee in the world. Other industries include sugar, fishing and cut flower export. Tourism is the main foreign exchange income earner for Uganda.

Getting There

Uganda is served regionally and internationally by several airlines including:

  • Kenya Airways
  • KLM
  • Qatar Airlines
  • Emirates Air
  • Etihad Airlines
  • Fly Dubai
  • Turkish Air
  • South Africa Airways
  • Brussels Airlines
  • Ethiopian Airlines

All international flights arrive at Entebbe International Airpot, 35km from the capital city Kampala.

Passports and Visas

A valid passport (6 months minimum and at least 1 blank page) is mandatory.

Effective July 1, 2016, visas and residency permits will no longer be available at Entebbe Airport upon arrival.

All visa and work permit (E-Visa and E-permits) applications must be completed via the https://visas.immigration.go.ug. Under the new application process, you must apply online for all immigration services such as visas, permits, and passes at least two weeks prior to travel. The fee for a single entry tourist visa is $50.

Uganda is one of the countries covered by the new East Africa Tourist Visa, and for those also visiting Kenya and Rwanda on the same trip it is a cheaper alternative. The visa costs US$100, is valid for 90 days and is multiple entry – it is available upon arrival or from embassies abroad.

If acquiring the visa before travel, your first port-of-call must be the country through which you applied for the visa.

Please be aware that a visa does not determine how long you may remain in Uganda. The Ugandan immigration officer at the port of entry determines the length of authorised stay, which is generally from two weeks to three months for tourists. Immigration policies are not always consistently applied and may change without notice. Pay close attention to the validity of your visa or special pass to avoid fines or travel interruptions. Ugandan immigration imposes a fine of up to $100 per day for visa overstays and sometimes detains individuals who overstay their visas until the fine is paid. Extensions of duration of stay may be requested at Ugandan immigration headquarters on Jinja Road in Kampala.

For more information on immigration issues, please see the Directorate of Citizen and Immigration Control website.

Health Care and Vaccinations, Health Insurance

Yellow-fever vaccination certificates are compulsory for entry.

Make sure your health insurance covers you while overseas and consider supplemental insurance that includes medical evacuation. 

Medical facilities in Uganda are limited and only equipped to handle minor medical emergencies. Surgical capabilities are inadequate and blood supplies may be insufficient. Outside Kampala, hospitals are scarce and offer only basic services. Travellers should carry their own supplies of prescription drugs and preventive medicines. Check out here for a list of medical providers.

Medical Insurance: Make sure your health insurance plan provides coverage overseas. Most care providers overseas only accept cash payments.

We strongly recommend supplemental insurance to cover medical evacuation.

If traveling with prescription medication, always, carry your prescription medication in original packaging with your doctor’s prescription.

The following diseases are known to occur in Uganda:

  • HIV
  • Malaria
  • Polio
  • Typhoid
  • Tuberculosis
  • Ebola hemorrhagic fever and Marburg hemorrhagic fever
  • Pneumonic plague
  • Meningitis
  • Yellow fever
  • Schistosomiasis, otherwise known as bilharzia, a parasite that lives in fresh water and enters the body through intact skin is present in the country. If you do swim in any lake in Uganda, then source the treatment - a drug called Praziquantel - locally and take it six weeks to three months after your return. Alternatively you can be tested at a tropical medicine centre on your return.
Food and Drink

Food is generally safe to eat if well-cooked and hot. If in doubt, veer towards larger restaurants in cities and those aimed at tourists, which will have undergone government safety checks. Avoid buying food from the side of the road and don’t drink tap water. Use bottled water or otherwise boil or sterilise. Milk is unpasteurised and should be boiled. Powdered or tinned milk is available and is advised. Avoid dairy products that are likely to have been made from unboiled milk. Only eat well-cooked meat and fish, preferably served hot. Vegetables should be cooked and fruit peeled.

Ugandan cuisine draws on English, Arab and Asian – especially Indian – influences and uses local produce including plantains, sweet potatoes, corn, beans and cassava.

It’s easy to eat cheaply almost anywhere in the country. International restaurants can be found in larger towns, with Indian, Chinese and Italian being the most popular.

Traditional foods include ugali (solidified maize meal porridge) served with a stew of groundnuts (peanuts), beans, chicken or meat such as beef, goat or mutton. Game can be found on menus in some restaurants and at safari lodges. Fish including the tiger fish, mputa (Nile Perch) and tilapia are popular.

Vegetarians may struggle outside of major towns, but most tourist lodges and restaurants generally offer a selection of vegetarian dishes.

Specialities

  • Chapati: Indian-style flat bread fried in oil.
  • Grasshoppers: The crunchy, deep-fried insects are a popular street food.
  • Luwombo: Stew made from meat, vegetables or fish steamed in banana leaves.
  • Matoke: A green banana, often steamed in its own leaves and mashed.
  • Millet bread: A mixture of millet and cassava flour, eaten with peanut or meat sauce.
  • Posho: Made from white cornflour, this starchy staple is similar to polenta.
  • Rolex: An omelette with onion and veg rolled up in a chapatti.
  • SimSim: Roasted sesame paste mixed into a dish of beans or greens and served as a side.
  • Kikomando: A chapati cut into pieces and served with fried beans.
  • Mandazi: A doughnut often served with cinnamon or sugar.
  • Pombe: Fermented beer made from millet or banana.
  • Waragi: A potent local gin.

Alcohol

Several brands of local and international beer are available, including leading local beers: Bell, Club, Pilsner and Nile Special beers. Most spirits and wines are imported and are readily available. Uganda Waragi is a very popular local gin.

Drinking and driving is prohibited and purchase of alcohol under the age of 18 years is also illegal. Drinking age:  18.

Money Matters

Travellers should expect to pay for most expenses, including airplane tickets, in cash. Most Ugandan banks and businesses do not accept traveler’s checks. The Uganda shilling is easily exchangeable for hard currencies in banks and cash exchange bureaus. The US dollar is the hard currency of preference, but also Euros and British pound sterling are also widely accepted.

Most banks and exchange bureaus will not accept U.S. currency printed before 2006 so travel with newer U.S. currency notes. Additionally, many exchange bureaus offer preferential rates for $50 bills and hotels or exchange bureaus may refuse to accept smaller bills.

Western Union, MoneyGram, and other types of money transfer facilities are available in Kampala and other cities throughout the country.

International ATMs are increasingly available in every major city in Uganda. ATMs in Uganda largely accept Visa cards; MasterCard cards might only be used at Stanbic Bank and Standard Chartered Bank ATMs.

Credit cards are accepted at hotels, restaurants, and large grocery stores in Kampala and many main cities across the country.

Be sure to confirm the available method of payment with businesses in advance.

Businesses are charged a fee to process your card payment, usually 5.5% for VISA and 6% for other cards. This charge is usually shared between the customer and the business.

Most banks, shops and offices are open from 8am to 5pm on weekdays, with a lunch break being taken between noon and 2pm. Banks are open from 8am to noon on Saturdays.

ATMs are available but many only function for customers who have an account with a specific Ugandan bank.

Road Travel

Several international reputable bus companies link Kampala to other major cities in the region.

Highly consider finding a tour operator to assist with your travel plans.

Public Transportation

Most inter-city transportation in Uganda is by small van or large bus. Many drivers of these vehicles have little training, but some are reckless. Vans and buses are often poorly maintained, travel at high speeds, and are the most common vehicles involved in the many deadly single and multi-vehicle accidents along Ugandan roads. Accident victims have included foreign tourists traveling in vans and personal cars, as passengers on motorcycle taxis locally known as "boda bodas" and as pedestrians.  Try to avoid using boda bodas and matatus (minibus taxis)  to avoid accident and crime risks.

Driving Yourself/Self Drive

Self-drive options are best left for return visitors to the country and more seasoned travellers who are accustomed to driving in a variety of road conditions. You may find you are more comfortable leaving the driving up to a local driver guide who will also give you an interpretive commentary while you enjoy the scenic view.

Driving in Uganda is challenging due to the poor condition of the roads in places (especially in the rainy season), the somewhat erratic driving of others on the road, and potential collisions with livestock. Before setting off, ensure your vehicle is in good working order and has a sound spare wheel (preferably two), as the country's corrugated and dirt roads are sure to take their toll. A 4-wheel drive is advisable if you intend to go off the beaten track, along with a jerry can with spare petrol, oil, water, a fire extinguisher, a wheel spanner, jack and a first-aid kit.

If you are driving your own vehicle you need to buy an entry permit and insurance at the border. You can drive using a your driving licence or an International Driving Permit for up to 1 year, after which you should apply for a Ugandan license.

Third-party insurance is required and will cover any damage from involvement in an accident resulting in injuries, if the driver is found not to have been at fault. The driver’s license of individuals determined to have caused an accident may be confiscated for three months.

Nighttime travel should be avoided whenever possible. We recommend that you use of a reliable taxi service to and from the airport if possible.

Drivers should take extra care as pedestrians often walk in the roads and may not be visible to motorists. Large branches or rocks in the road sometimes indicate an upcoming obstruction or other hazards.

It is usually expected that the drivers stop and exchange information and assist any injured persons injured in an accident. In some cases where serious injury has occurred, there is the possibility of mob anger and violence against the driver perceived to be at fault. In these instances, Ugandans often do not get out of their cars, but drive to the nearest police station to report the accident. 

Ugandan traffic laws prohibit the use of mobile phones while driving and, if apprehended, the driver will be fined. Hands-free devices may be used. 

Communications

Telephone communication to and from Uganda is generally reliable. Cellular telephones are available for purchase in many large towns and cellular service is reliable along most major routes in Uganda. There are three main cellular providers: MTN, Orange/Africel and Airtel. International roaming facilities are available. Internet service is increasingly available throughout Uganda, but high-speed connections are often unavailable or unreliable.

International phone calls can be made easily. Appropriate sim cards for local networks can easily be bought from shops at the airport and major towns across the country, as is airtime top up.

Make sure that your phone isn't locked to your home network, as it may reject Uganda sim cards.

All our drivers/guides have cell phones and maintain contact with the Head Office throughout safaris. Airtime can be purchased for your use or the driver/guides' mobile phones if necessary.

Electricity

Uganda: 240 volts. 3-pin (square) sockets. It is recommended that you bring your own adapter. Most hotels, lodges or camps can make arrangements for recharging batteries. Please ask us on booking if you have specific requirements.

Photography

Though some types of film are available in many of the lodges, it is advisable to bring film and batteries with you or to purchase them in Kampala.  A pair of binoculars will prove extremely useful for a keen game viewer or birder. There is no charge for photography cameras and personal video recorders, but there may be a charge for commercial cameras in some places. Clients are responsible for any such fee. High-speed film is recommended for gorilla photos and high altitude filters are best for climbers. Check with your photo shop.

Crime

Levels of crime remain relatively low in Uganda, but there have been reports of increased instances of burglary, theft and mugging in Kampala in recent months. Incidents of bag snatching, mugging and stealing from vehicles in traffic jams targeting foreigners have been reported in recent months.

You should take sensible precautions. Take care when walking at night. Pre-arrange transport. Lock car doors when driving, don’t leave valuables in cars when parked and don’t leave cars unsupervised in the town centres. Don’t carry large amounts of money or other valuables.

Victims of Crime

If you or someone you know becomes the victim of a crime in Uganda, you should contact the local police at 999 and the nearest of your respective embassy or consulate.

Victims of sexual assault should seek medical assistance and counselling immediately regarding prophylactic treatment to help prevent the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Remember that local authorities are responsible for investigating and prosecuting the crime.

LGBT Rights

There might be no issues if lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals refrain from public displays of intimacy.  They might however face societal discrimination and abuse if they display deep intimacy in public.

Needless to say, consensual same-sex sexual relations are criminalised in Uganda.

Travellers Who Require Accessibility Assistance

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in employment, education, access to health care, and the provision of other state services but the government does not enforce the law consistently. No statutory requirement exists mandating that buildings be accessible to persons with disabilities. Accessibility to public transportation, foot paths and road crossings, free or reduced fares, taxis, communication, lodging, medical facilities, restaurants, cafes, bars, and other tourist spots is similarly non-existent.

Tipping

Like when travelling anywhere, it is helpful to be aware of tipping etiquette and culture.  In Uganda, two areas were tipping considerations should be made regard transportation and restaurants, where practices are quite different.

Taxis, taxi-vans and motorbike taxis (if you are brave enough) generally don't expect tips, and always get a quoted price up front for your trip.

At local restaurants, most servers will be happy with a 5-10% tip in cash Uganda shillings or USD.  However, if you liked the server and plan on going returning to that establishment again, go ahead. This will increase the odds of you having similar or even better service when you dine at the establishment again.

Tour guides are normally tipped as per the level of service but mostly from $10-$20 per day given at the end of the tour.

Local tour guides are often tipped $5 per trip.

What Should be Packed While Travelling for a Uganda Safari
  • Long trousers/pants to avoid stinging nettles please do not wear short parks when tracking gorillas. The trousers must be strong enough to withstand occasional pulls from thorns.
  • Long sleeved shirts/t-shirts.  To avoid stinging nettles
  • Gloves - not such a big necessity but you may need them to avoid injury to your hands.  Remember the grounds are wet and slippery.  To avoid injury from thorny bushes and objects on ground.
  • Hiking boots - Please bring average waterproof sturdy walking boots reaching ankle level not mountain climbing boots. Something light and hardy will do.
  • Warm cardigan - the hills can get extremely cold.  A warm cardigan is required to keep off cold.
  • Long sleeved rain coat or anorak -it can rain anytime in Volcanoes National Park even on hot days.  The downpours are heavy and extremely cold.
  • Water proof container for your cameras.  Yes I know there are waterproof cameras but even them to be sure just put them in a waterproof container.  When you are slipping and falling in muddy grounds you do not want your precious photos damaged or do you?
  • If you desire headgear (hats), a baseball cap is recommended as gorillas are familiar to them.
  • A camera.
  • If you are interested in birds, you can bring a field guide to birds of East Africa by Fanshawe and a pair of binoculars.
  • Sunscreen.
  • Insect repellent with DEET.
  • Small day pack.
  • Kleenex tissues.
  • Sunglasses with neck strap.
  • Flashlight.
  • Binocular.
  • Extra batteries.
  • Small notebook.
  • First Aid Kit with anti-diarrhea, motion sickness pills, rehydration sachets, medicine, aspirin, cold medication, antiseptic cream, band-aids, lip balm, eye drops and personal medication.