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By Alicia Erickson
The car bumped along the verdant highlands, curving around hills to reveal sweeping views of lakes and silhouettes of volcanoes. We began our ascent into the mountains, carving our way through rugged green hills. I was back in one of my favorite places on earth: Uganda, a small landlocked country in central Africa bursting with wildlife and adventure.
Having spent time living and working in East Africa, much of my travel in the region has been shaped by a very local experience, making me a novice when it came to the traditional tourist industry in the region. I planned this trip with the intention of better understanding the major tourist attractions in Uganda and the range of accommodation available.
Rich in natural beauty and stunning views, the opportunity for eco-friendly travel immersed in the heart of nature is abundant. Prior to embarking on this adventure, I researched ‘eco hotels Uganda’ and was overwhelmed by the possibilities of accommodation that were available near some of the country’s most stunning attractions.
For those seeking to explore southwestern Uganda – a region rich in national parks, tropical rainforests, wildlife, lakes, and mountains – I’ve discovered three perfect accommodation options that offer comfort, style, eco-friendly policies, and complete immersion into the Ugandan wild.
Nestled on the shores of Lake Mutanda an hour’s drive from the Rwanda-Uganda border, the lodge aptly named after its surroundings offers panoramic views of the lake and sweeping views of the volcanoes along the borders of the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda. Reachable by mountainous dirt roads carving in and out of the terraced farm land and passing by tiny villages, Lake Mutanda Resort offers a perfect retreat into nature. It is an escape into the rhythm of daily village life in rural Uganda, a lakefront refuge, and conveniently accessible to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for gorilla tracking.
While there are an overwhelming number of lodges to choose from for Bwindi, I intentionally wanted a place that was a destination in its own right as well, offering an experience and activities beyond gorilla tracking. Something one has to be cautious about when booking their accommodation for Bwindi, however, is its accessibility to the entrance of the park for which your permit is. Lake Mutanda is ideal for the Rushaga entrance in the south, however would be too far to reach other parts of the park.
Accommodation at Lake Mutanda comes in the form of free-standing wood and canvas bandas, all with spectacular views of the lake, optimized by glass doors opening up to lake views, best enjoyed from one’s private balcony. The bandas are tastefully decorated in minimalistic white and green decor, reflecting the natural beauty of the setting. White linens and canopy decorate the cozy beds, while grass baskets and pottery sinks add an element of nature to the bathroom.
The main lodge, a short walk away from the bandas, is tastefully decorated with masks and artwork from around East Africa and is equipped with a fireplace and book selection to cozy up in front of on chilly evenings. Meals are served at the lodge, which offer a buffet breakfast and three course dinner, all with locally sourced products and vegetarian-friendly options. On some evenings, the lodge is also graced by a performance of local dance and music.
The lodge prides itself on its eco-friendly policies. Electricity is provided by generators and solar power. Internet and full-electricity usage are only available during a few hours in the evening, while there are lights running off of solar power for the remainder of the day. Hot water is provided by eco-gas heaters. To reduce lake pollution and water consumption, sheets and towels are only replaced upon request.
Most guests come here strictly to encounter gorillas, but there’s plenty more to do here: enjoy the panoramic lake views from your private deck, with a glass of wine or tea. Rare for the region, Lake Mutanda is safe to swim in. Floating on the water is the perfect reprieve from the afternoon sun, providing even more spectacular views of the looming volcanoes. Boat trips on the lake and trips to one of the islands in the lake can be arranged, and local caves and island villages can be explored.
The area is also abundant in hiking opportunities from Sabinyo Gorge to Mount Muhavura. For a shorter excursion, the area immediately surrounding the lake is incredibly beautiful, providing unrivaled views and a taste of village life. Lake Mutanda offers the perfect blend of adventure, relaxation, and immersion into the wilderness and culture of southwestern Uganda.
From our lake lodge, we drove north to reach Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda’s second largest national park. Its extensive size requires several days to explore the two major sections; the first is in the south on the River Ishasha, a comfortable, budget-friendly lodging option set in the heart of the bush.
The lodge, perfectly placed near the southern entrance to Queen Elizabeth National Park, is an ideal escape into the rhythm of African wilderness, blending parched savannah grasslands and luscious woodlands. Free-standing wooden bandas blend in with the natural surroundings, offering rustic and comfortable accommodation. The en-suite rooms offer two queen beds covered in white linens and is decorated with vibrant kitenge – the colorful local fabric – and wildlife photography. I loved the natural bathrooms with views to the river. The River Ishasha is an eco-camp, minimizing electricity use by limiting outlets to the main lodge and heating water via wood stoves.
The most obvious choice of activity at the River Ishasha is taking game drives in the nearby Queen Elizabeth National Park. Most guests come with a car and driver/guide, but the lodge can also provide these if needed. This entrance to Queen Elizabeth is most famous for its tree-climbing lions, spotted napping in branches in the afternoon, where they pass most of their time escaping the heat – quite a sight to see!
Other highlights of my trip here was dinner beneath the stars on the river’s edge, and bush camping, which involved taking a trek into the national park and camping alongside the wildlife; watching the sunset over grazing buffalo and being waken at dawn by the trumpeting of elephants is absolutely unforgettable.
Back at our lodging, a small pool offered cool reprieve during the days, but I preferred spending time by the river Ishasha at the edge of the lodge’s property. Dense trees and bushes line a quiet river, shallow in the wake of the dry season, yet safe to take a refreshing swim in after a long morning of game viewing. The riverbank is also the perfect space to practice yoga, read, and immerse yourself further in nature. Evenings are best spent by the river as well, illuminated by the warmth of a campfire, under the stars of the southern hemisphere, and being lulled to sleep by the soft chirping of crickets, frogs and birds.
After a strenuous and cold few days hiking in the Rwenzori Mountains, we continued north to Papaya Lake Lodge, which offers the idyllic retreat at which to unwind. Papaya Lake Lodge is located outside of Fort Portal, nestled in verdant valleys of banana fields and surrounded by villages and crater lakes. Its unassuming location is perhaps one of my favorite features.
The Lodge was built on expansive lakefront property, nestled into hills sloping down to a lake. Each hut is a short walk away from the main building, secluded in the lush greenery of the property. The huts are open and airy, with massive decks equipped with hammocks and lounge chairs ideal for watching the sunset over the lake. The beds are the stuff of fairytales, all draped in delicate canopies and complete with plush duvets and pillows. Reed woven baskets, mats, and wall hangings added a natural flair, unassuming and reflective of the natural beauty of the region.
The main lodge offers a dining room, a bar and lounge, and an extensive deck, once again offering unbelievably beautiful views of the lake. The decor here is comprised of a dreamy collection of African antiques, rich woods accented with succulent plants, and brilliant fuchsia bougainvillea flowers At night, the lodge is romantically lit by fireplaces, while the paths leading back to the huts are illuminated by lanterns. The food is as sophisticated as it is delicious, offering a different ethnic cuisine each night, boasting several courses rich in flavor and locally grown ingredients.
The lodge is sustained with an eye to environmentally-friendly policies, without trading in comfort in the process. Electric outlets and internet access are limited to the main lodge. Nights here are primarily lit by kerosene lamps, both inside and outside. Hot water for the showers is heated by log fires.
The biggest attraction near to Papaya Lodge is Kibale National Park, famous for its chimpanzees. It is recommended to book permits ($150 USD) in advance, particularly during high season, as these are limited. The lodge can also arrange trips into the surrounding area including hikes to waterfalls, walks through a natural preserve, or an excursion into the local community. However, after days of hiking and wildlife viewing, my preferred activity was to more closely examine the fascinating antiquities of the Lodge, marvel at the views of the crater lakes, and to engage with the friendly local community.
Perhaps one of my best memories here are thanks to one local man I met in that community. He led me and a few other visitors on a tour of the local village, pointing out various crops, taking us to visit local schools, and explaining the names and uses of the rich vegetation surrounding us. I guess the reason I enjoyed this excursion so much is because it tied in everything I most love about Uganda – the people, their traditions, and their deep connection to natural world.