Imagine slashing your way through undergrowth, sidling around bamboo forests, and peering through eucalyptus leaves to catch a glimpse of the massive and majestic silverback mountain gorilla.
He makes eye contact, grunts, then proceeds to pick his nose. Two teenage gorillas, drunk off bamboo sap, roll past in a wrestling match, brushing your leg as they go by. A mother gorilla carts her two-week-old baby around piggyback and throws a cautious glance your way. Visitors describe the hour-long encounter with gorillas in Volcanoes National Park as surreal. Set against the backdrop of the Virunga Mountains, each peak topped by saucer-shape clouds, a visit with mankind's not-so-distant relatives certainly seems to defy reality.
Volcanoes National Park is one of only four places on earth where visitors can commune with the critically endangered mountain gorillas. The park encompasses a 160-square-kilometer (62-square-mile) slice of the Virunga Mountains, including a string of nine volcanoes that extends into neighboring Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The ecologically rich Virunga region is home to more than half of the world's mountain gorilla, which number fewer than 900.
Volcanoes was gazetted in 1925, making it the first national park in Rwanda. Tourism activities were suspended during the Rwanda Civil War but resumed in 1999. Now travelers can visit one of 10 habituated gorilla groups by purchasing a permit for US$750. A maximum of eight people are allowed to visit each group daily.
Gorillas may be the headline act, but there's plenty more to see and do in the park. Hiking enthusiasts can navigate a network of trails through the Virunga Mountains, including summiting the 3,711-meter (12,175-foot) Mount Bisoke, with its crater lake and rewarding cross-border views of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. History and mammal buffs can visit the grave and research center of prominent primatologist Dian Fossey, whose life and work inspired the movie Gorillas in the Mist.
A visit with the park's population of golden monkeys is worth the US$100 permit. These hyper, cherub-cheeked primates swing through the bamboo forests, occasionally swooping down to the forest floor for a particularly choice bamboo shoot. Be warned that catching them on camera can prove tricky. Volcanoes is also home to forest elephants, buffalo, spotted hyenas, and nearly 200 bird species.