Destination of the week: Kampala, Uganda
There's plenty to do in the city limits and the wild areas surrounding this central African capital.
Mon, Feb 28, 2011 at 10:38 AM
ON THE LAKE: Tourists take boats at the north shore of Lake Victoria in Jinja, Uganda, to the source of the Nile River. (Photo: ZUMA Press)
Kampala, the capital of the central African nation of Uganda, is known for its green urban landscapes and its prime location on the shores of Lake Victoria. The city's tree-lined streets are only part of the story for green-minded visitors. National parks and nature preserves are within striking distance of the city limits, meaning that the famed wildlife of this region is only an hour or two from any nature lover's hotel room.
Kampala is a laid-back city with a friendly population. Unlike in neighboring Nairobi, Kenya, the threat of robbery or violent crime is very low here and the people are generally extremely welcoming to visitors.
The natural splendors outside the city are the main reason that most eco-tourists visit. Kampala is a relatively user-friendly base camp for adventurers setting off to view primates or paddling down the headwaters of the Nile. The city itself is filled with green. Some people criticize the tree-lined streets and urban plant life, saying it makes Kampala look underdeveloped. But this non-concrete jungle is quite cosmopolitan with a diverse eating scene, energetic nightlife and plenty of culture.
Here are the highlights of the green scene in and around the capital of the country that is often called the Pearl of Africa.
The Kampala Serena Hotel earns four stars when it comes to service and eco-friendliness. The grounds feature extensive water gardens filled with indigenous plants. These natural areas are a popular stopping-off point for migrating and local birds. The hotel supports local businesses by buying organic food from nearby growers (some which are located within the city) and aids small businesses by selling goods crafted by city residents in its gift shops. Another Serena location, on the shores of Lake Victoria between Entebbe (the airport) and Kampala, has a similar sense of earth-friendliness and the same progressive business practices.
For those wanting more of a classic safari experience, the Cassia Lodge, located on a hill above Kampala, is a good choice. It operates 20 safari-style cottages. The Red Chilli Hideaway, on the outskirts of the city, has a clean, safe campground. Guests can bring their own tent or rent one on-site. Dorm rooms are also available.
Getting around can be an adventure in Kampala. Motorcycle taxis, called "boda boda" by locals, are cheap and can get you to your destination quickly without burning much gas, but they are notoriously dangerous. Boda boda drivers almost always value speed above safety. That said, you may be able to negotiate a daily rate with a driver if you are able to find one who is (reasonably) safe on the roads.
Shared taxis and mini-buses are the next options. Environmentally minded travelers might appreciate the fact that these vehicles carry more than one passenger at a time, making for less carbon emissions per person. However, rides in these vehicles can be claustrophobic, with most drivers squeezing as many fares as possible into their car or van. Private taxis, called “special hires” colloquially, might be a more comfortable, albeit less green, option.
There is a good selection of vegetarian options in the city. Most are run by and cater to the Indian population of Kampala.
If you really want locally grown food, the city's markets are the best choice (Owino Market and Nakasero Market are the largest). The mix of sights and smells at these centers of commerce can be heady, especially for someone not familiar with the continent or with developing world travel. In addition to plenty of local and vegetarian-friendly foods, these markets offer an amazing insight into everyday life in the city.
Kampala began as an agricultural town. As it progressed into a major city, farming gave way to other industries. A new movement aims to bring urban agriculture back to the city. New regulations and initiatives have made it possible for residents to farm. For many Kampalans, this means tending gardens and harvesting food that they will use themselves. However, some people engage in urban farming for commercial purposes. Fish farming in Lake Victoria is also benefiting from government initiatives. Much of the food grown, raised or caught in the city ends up in local markets.
Visitors shouldn't shy away from street food in Kampala. Basics like rice dishes and roasted corn are healthy and simple. A plantain-based dish called matoke is ubiquitous in Kampala.
The Owino Market is a buzzing (but fire-prone) central market that is similar in atmosphere and energy to other major urban markets around the world. This is the largest market in the city and there are plenty of locally made crafts (some quite ingenious), homegrown foods and even secondhand clothing bought from charities in America who collect used clothes to fund their organization.
Uganda is, of course, well known for its nature, including its famous gorilla population. It is also the home to the headwaters of the Nile River. Travelers can book their Nile trip in Kampala and then start paddling (in raft or kayak), or take a boat, from the nearby town of Jinja, where the famous river starts.
The Mpanga Forest Ecotourism Site is a short distance from Kampala. This natural area has been used for ecological research for more than 50 years. It boasts a network of trails that lead past the site's flora and fauna. Red tailed monkeys, native birds like the common hornbill, colorful butterflies and unique species of trees are among the living attractions at Mpanga. It is possible to camp and picnic at the park as well. There is also a visitor’s center with exhibitions that explain how the local drum trees are used to make traditional instruments.
The 118-square-mile Mabira Central Forest Reserve is another convenient eco-tourism destination for day-trippers based in the city. The preserve contains thousands of plant and tree species, including several plants that have potent medicinal properties. There are also hundreds of butterfly and moth species, hundreds of bird species and a large population of primates.
Ngamba Island, halfway between Kampala and the gateway city of Entebbe, is home to the Chimpanzee Island Sanctuary. The personable primates roam free in a protected environment. They receive supplementary food from sanctuary staff twice per day. The population is made up of orphaned chimps that have been rescued and brought to the island. Raised walkways allow visitors to get an up-close look at the animals without having to trudge through dense foliage.
The Lutoboka and Bujanzi Central Forest Reserves are located on islands in Lake Victoria near Entebbe. They can be reached by ferry. These isolated ecosystems are part of the chain of Ssese Islands. For those who are willing to venture into the interior of the islands, there are primates, butterflies, birds and unique plant life. The shores of the islands are popular with water-sports fans and there are plenty of fishing and swimming spots. An impressive collection of hotels and resorts makes it possible to spend multiple days on the islands.
Kampala is a pleasant and safe city by African standards. It is arguably one of the best places for novice African travelers to get their introduction to urban tourism on the continent. Even hardcore eco-tourists will find the city to be a good base camp for their expeditions into the surrounding natural areas. Socially conscious travelers will find it easy to support the local economy and small businesspeople of Kampala.
Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.
Thumbnail photo: Joy of Seth/Flickr