Getting a Visa: There’s the Easy Way and the Hard Way…
This is not a national park where you can rock up to the gate on the day and expect to casually drive on through. Actually, never mind entry to the park, you won’t even be allowed across the border unless you have a pre-arranged visa.
Getting a visa for the Congo is your first reminder that this isn’t Kenya. A quick scan of the requirements from the DRC’s London visa centre reveals a process that seems long (20-30 business days of processing time), expensive (£154.80), difficult (I need the signature of a local who’s meeting me a the border?) and includes a form still partially in French. In short, if you weren’t put off by the lawless armed conflict, you will be by the bureaucracy of form filling.
DRC do their visas old school: a massive stamp with notes in biro pen.
Thankfully, the Congolese government seems to have realised that having a tourist industry is a good thing, so in true Congolese style Virunga is an exception to the rule.
Virunga can organise a special two week visa for you at the discounted price of $105, providing you book a permit for the gorillas, the Nyiragongo volcano or stay in the expensive, but no doubt luxurious Mikeno lodge. You can book this via their attractive and functional website (which you have to do to visit the park in the first place).
This should make the visa process straightforward, although as you’ll read below in the section on crossing the Congolese border, nothing is quite straightforward in Congo!
The DRC is one of the Poorest Countries in the World – and Ironically one of the Most Expensive to Visit.
There is no budget backpacking culture in Congo. Heck, there isn’t even a middle class to demand a decent midrange hotel. This is a country where there is only rich and poor. And you, my likely Western reader, will have no option but to live and pay like the rich.
The glass window of our jeep symbolically separating us from the locals.
Your splurge in the Congo will begin with the permits at Virunga park. A 1 day permit to see the gorilla’s is a clean $400. To put this in context, gorilla permits in Uganda cost $600 and in Rwanda a staggering $1,500 (having doubled the price in 2017). So, at Virunga you are in fact getting the cheapest gorilla deal around.
The 2 day trekking permit for Nyiragongo volcano is a slightly cheaper option at $300. Ideally, after making the somewhat perilous trip to the park, I would have liked to have seen both the volcano and the gorillas, and had it just been $700 I would have scraped enough space in my budget for this unique experience.
Is Coming Face to Face with a Gorilla Priceless? Not When You’re Penniless.
Unfortunately, the costs don’t stop there. The permits include neither transport, nor accommodation, and this is where things go from expensive, to really expensive. The cheapest place to stay within the park (opening just last year) is the Kibumba tented camp at $140 for a single room (tent). If you wanted to do both gorilla trekking and the volcano trek you’d have to spend at least a night here.
Staying in these slightly dilapidated huts on the edge of the volcano is thankfully included.
Then, as private vehicles aren’t allowed in the park, you’ll need to hire a taxi in the form of a 4×4 complete with a soldier armed with a Kalashnikov. You book this from the site as well, and there are specific rates for each individual journey you’ll need to take in the jeep. So, for both gorillas and the volcano, you’ll need to take the jeep from Goma to Kibati (volcano trek), Kibati to Kibumba (overnight stay and gorillas), and then Kibati back to Goma. This totals to another $112 dollars on your Virunga tab.
My bank account considered, I decided to go for the volcano trek and leave the gorillas for my triumphant return to the Congo as a rich, middle aged woman. This meant my upfront cost to get to the Congo totalled at $461, rather than $1,057 (by 2017 accommodation prices).