Rwanda – the land of a thousand hills – it’s so much more than just the country who suffered from a genocide in 1994.
Rwanda is setting itself up as a bona fide tourist destination, ready to compete with its much larger neighbours. This landlocked country is full of hills, volcanoes, lakes, rivers, national parks and is the reputed source of The Nile (White Nile). It’s also home to the majestic mountain gorilla. With only 880 remaining in the world, Rwanda is one of only three places that mountain gorillas are found along with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
One of the highlights of a visit to Rwanda is trekking to visit a group of mountain gorillas, in their own natural habitat in Volcanoes National Park (see my other article about gorilla treks). But there is a lot more to explore before or after your gorilla trek.
I absolutely loved our holiday in Rwanda and I would definitely want to go back for another visit soon. The scenery is incredible, I found Rwandans to be friendly, gentle and kind. In contrast to some of its neighbouring countries I felt very safe in all of the towns and cities and was amazed at how little litter there was. The roads are in good shape and the all of the food and beer I sampled was delicious. When travelling around the winding roads of the country, I found myself exclaiming in awe at every single vista of the beautiful lakes and mountains – truly stunning. Although my hour with the mountain gorillas was the absolute highlight, I enjoyed immensely the canopy walk in Nyungwe and the walking tour in Nyamirambo.
NYUNGWE NATIONAL PARK
Approximately 4 hours drive from Kigali near to the border with Burundi is one of Africa’s oldest forests, Nyungwe. At around 1,000 sq km there is plenty to discover. One of the major draws is that you can track a troop of habituated chimpanzees, but there are no fewer than twelve different species of primates found in the forest.
Treks to the chimpanzees typically start early (around 5:30am) so you can find them before they wake up, as once they are on the move it is very difficult to keep up as they swing through the trees. Treks typically would depart at 5:30 and return around 2pm, the terrain can be steep so a moderate level of fitness is required.
Treks to see Black & White Colobus monkeys are also possible; often this is a shorter and easier trek.
Guided bird watching walks can also be arranged. There are over 300 different bird species in the park, with 16 of them being endemic to the area.
Nyungwe is also home to East Africa’s only canopy walkway; hanging 60m high above the forest floor it is possible to see the forest from a different perspective. It is often possible to spot birds whilst on the canopy walkway plus if you are very lucky you may see some primates too.
I felt safe on the walkway, I was able to hold on with at least one hand at all times and the mesh at the sides makes you feel secure.
Cost is $60 per person and there is a minimum age of 6 years old. Children must be accompanied by adults.
If driving from Kigali to Nyungwe, you may find it convenient to stop in Butare (approx. half way) where there are a number of restaurants and cafes, plus the National Museum of Rwanda.
Accommodation – Nyungwe
We stayed at Nyungwe Forest Lodge, which is a luxurious hotel with beautiful rooms, set in a tea plantation on the edge of Nyungwe National Park. The hotel has a restaurant, a heated swimming pool, free WIFI in the main building, spa treatments and each room backs onto the forest, with a chance of spotting wildlife including primates from your room. We found the service to be excellent, the food – particularly breakfast & dinner – was delicious and the bar stocked imported wines, beers and spirits plus local beers. Spending time relaxing at the lodge right next to the forest was very special. Rooms from $295 pp sharing (full board).
Other accommodation options:
Nyungwe Top View Hill Hotel – Single room $135, double room $200 – bed and breakfast.
Giskura Guest House – Rooms from 23,500 RWF (around $30) for single occupancy and 35,400 RWF (around $45) for double occupancy.
There is a campsite at Uwinka, should you wish to stay in the forest.
The capital of the land of a thousand hills. This high altitude city is home to more than one million people. The city is clean and safe and very welcoming to tourists. It is also conveniently located in the centre of the country, making it easy to travel to visit other areas. Often skipped by some tourists, it is well worth at least twenty four hours of your time.
Things to do
Kigali Genocide Memorial
In 1994 Rwanda suffered a brutal genocide, where it is estimated that up to 1 million people were killed over a 90 day period. Rwanda is now at peace, and there are memorials all over the country to serve as a permanent memorial but also a place where families could bury their loved ones. 259,000 are buried at the Kigali Genocide Memorial.
Although a visit to the memorial is full of sadness, Rwanda wants visitors to know what happened to their country, to understand the warning signs that were missed at the time and their goal is that this awareness should not let it happen again, anywhere in the world. I am glad that we went.
Nyamirambo Walking Tour
This was one of the best things we did in Kigali. Nyamirambo is a busy and lively, multi-cultural area of Kigali. This tour takes you around this part of urban Rwanda, introducing you to the local businesses including hair salons, embroiderers, charcoal sellers, market stalls – everyone is friendly and happy to tell you about their business and show you what they are doing. I even got to have a try at pounding cassava leaves to make a Congolese style sauce, it was hard work! The tour is run by the Nyamirambo Women’s Center, where they have been teaching new skills to the local women, including sewing and weaving – their products are for sale in their shop.
We were guided around by a son of one of the women, he spoke excellent English and as he has grown up in this area he was knowledgeable and was able to answer any questions. The tour took place in the morning and then at lunchtime we were taken to our guide’s house, where his mother had prepared a delicious Rwandan meal for us, including sweet potatoes, a spinach, garlic and carrot dish, a mixed beans dish and some plantain – absolutely divine. It was wonderful to be shown around an authentic urban area of Rwanda and to talk with the people who live there. Highly recommended. Walking tours cost around 15,000 RWF ($20 including lunch).
Inema Art Center
Inema Arts Center shows a collection of work by Rwandan creative artists. Paintings, sculptures, jewellery, leather goods and textiles are all created here, all on show for visitors to both observe and purchase. Three times a week there are performances of the Rwandan traditional dance styles. Classes for visitors are available in painting, Rwandan craft and traditional dance. Open 9am to 7pm.
This Kigali hotel was made famous by the film Hotel Rwanda, based on the true story of 1,268 people taking refuge inside the hotel during the genocide of 1994. It is possible to visit the hotel even if you are not staying there.
We decided to stay at the Hotel Des Milles Collines. It is a large hotel; each room has a balcony and the views of the cityscape and rolling hills are pretty nice. There is a large swimming pool with sun loungers and a bar service.
The food in the restaurants is average, prices are slightly on the high side plus the service is not speedy but the WIFI was good and the staff were pleasant.
Some of the rooms are a little tired but there are refurbishments happening. Rooms from $275 (based on 2 people sharing).
Other accommodation options:
Kigali Serena Hotel – rooms from $290 (based on 2 people sharing)
Urban by CityBlue Kigali – rooms from $150 (based on 2 people sharing)
Five to Five Hotel – rooms from $90 (based on 2 people sharing)
AKAGERA NATIONAL PARK
Akagera National Park is on Rwanda’s border with Tanzania and is one of Africa’s oldest national parks. While the park has suffered from poaching and human encroachment in the past, it is now run by African Parks and the wildlife is making a good recovery with substantial increase in numbers over the past couple of years. The park is approx. 2 to 3 hrs drive from Kigali and doesn’t receive a high volume of visitors, so it could be nice to have the park almost to yourselves. The park also offers a behind the scenes tour of the park headquarters and the management of park. The terrain is similar to the more famous parks of East Africa.
Game drives can be conducted by your own driver-guide and accompanied by a wildlife guide provided by the Rwandan National Parks or you can book a driver and guide through the park management. Self-drive is also possible (you must take a guide). There are frequent sightings of zebra, hippo, impala, buffalo, bushbuck, giraffe, tsessebe, elephant and crocodile. The park is also home to leopard, hyena, side-striped jackal, lion and there are plans to introduce black rhino in the near future too. There are lots of birds including water birds such as marabou stork, fish eagles and cranes.
Akagera Lodge located inside the park. Rooms from $100.
Ruzizi Tented Lodge – $165 per person per night (based on two sharing)
VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK
Aside from the mountain gorilla trekking there are other activities in Volcanoes National Park. (2 hrs drive from Kigali)
There are two habituated troops of golden monkeys. Treks are limited to 8 people per group and they take place daily. Permits are $100 per person. Moderate level of fitness is required.
Visit Dian Fossey’s Tomb
Dian Fossey studied the mountain gorillas in Rwanda for over 18 years. Visits to her house and her grave can be arranged through Volcanoes National Park headquarters – $75pp. The terrain is steep and a moderate level of fitness it required.
Hike Mount Karisimbi or Mount Bisoke
Mount Karisimbi is the fifth highest volcano in Africa – this is a two day hike. You can also visit Dian Fossey’s grave en route.
Mount Bisoke can be hiked in one day. The ascent usually takes approx. 4 hours with a 2 hour descent.
You need a high level of fitness to undertake these activities.
Accommodation – Nearby Volcanoes National Park
We stayed at Virunga Lodge, a deluxe lodge located about 50 mins drive from the gorilla trekking headquarters. The views from the lodge of the volcanoes and the lakes are stunning, the service is first class and the choice of food & beverages was excellent. The main lodge has a cosy fire (you are at altitude so the evenings are chilly) and free WIFI. The lodge provided packed lunches for the gorilla treks, clean your boots on your return plus offer one free massage per person.
I would definitely recommend staying here, the views are absolutely stunning. You must book early as it is extremely popular. Room tariff including all food & beverages is as follows:
High season per person sharing $826 (single occupancy $991)
Low season per person sharing $500 (single occupancy $500)
Other accommodation options:
Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge – close to the park headquarters, ideal for gorilla trekking/other activities in the park. Rooms from $470 – $880 pp per night.
Mountain Gorilla View Lodge – 15 mins drive from the park headquarters. Rooms from $350 (2 persons sharing)
Le Bambou Gorilla Village – situated right next to the park headquarters. Rooms from $250 (2 persons sharing)
Other Information about Rwanda
- Rwanda has a ban on plastic bags – which is why it is one of the cleanest cities in Africa. Recyclable paper bags are used in shops; alternatively people use their own cloth bags. Rwandan’s take a lot of pride in the tidiness of their country; each month there is compulsory community service where all citizens are expected to clean the streets, pick up any (rare) pieces of litter, painting fences and any other nominated chores to keep the country spic and span.
- The local currency is the Rwandan Franc, which at the time of writing is approx. 800 RWF to $1 USD. US Dollars are also widely accepted.
- Kigali is the only international airport in Rwanda and is served by many airlines including: KLM, Kenya Airways, Rwandair, South African Airways, Turkish Airlines and Ethiopian Airlines.
- English and French are official languages of Rwanda; and Kinyarwanda is spoken by most Rwandans.
- Vehicles drive on the right hand side of the road in Rwanda.