Rwanda is located in Central and East Africa and is one of the smallest countries on the African mainland. Bordered by Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda is in the African Great Lakes region and is highly elevated; its geography is dominated by mountains in the west and savanna to the east, with numerous lakes throughout the country.
Rwanda is unlike other African countries. It is refreshingly different – a progressive Africa that is quickly moving forward, that is considerate of the environment and conservation, that values the expression of arts and culture and where things are going well.
You can forget the raw, authentic and traditional Africa. The roads are impeccably maintained, rubbish is nearly non-existent and the feeling of safety is strong.
Ever since the 1994 genocide, Rwanda has moved forward in leaps and bounds. Not only in reconciliation and forgiveness from that fateful event, but in development and conservation.
The name Rwanda literally means ‘expanding’, and its capital city, Kigali, takes meaning from something large, fitting for a country that has grown so much in the past 24 years and continues to propel forward.
Known as the “land of a thousand hills”, green is a word that best describes Rwanda. Not only green in colour, with the rich rolling hills that are ever present on the horizon, but green on sustainability and conservation.
Single-use plastic bags are illegal in the entire country and will be confiscated upon arrival. Dubbed the Singapore of Africa, you can clearly see why the moment you arrive in Kigali – it is astonishingly clean by any standards.
Who goes to Rwanda
Rwanda is a destination that attracts adventure travellers, those who are keen to trek with gorillas and hike mountains. It is fast becoming a destination to watch for luxury travel also, so couples will find a romantic escape to Africa experience in Rwanda. The country is safe and well-developed so families and solo travellers can travel around the country with ease and peace of mind.
How to get to Rwanda
Kigali International Airport, but sometimes referred to as Kanombe International Airport, is the main airport serving Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Air access from Australia can be tricky with lengthy connections. The most popular routes from Australia are with South African Airways via Johannesburg, Qatar airways via Doha and Etihad Airways via Abu Dhabi with limited transits. Other airlines like Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways and the national airline Rwandair fly from East Africa to Kigali.
Top things to do and see in Rwanda
A land of a thousand hills, Rwanda also has a thousand experiences to be had. Here are some of the must-do and see experiences in Rwanda.
Today nearly half of the world’s 1000 remaining mountain gorillas live at the intersection of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the Virunga Mountains of central Africa. The best place to witness these mountain gorillas is on a trek in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. Consisting of 125 km2 of mountain forest and the six Virunga Volcanoes, the lush forested slopes of the mountains form an appropriately dramatic natural setting for what is arguably the most poignant and memorable wildlife experience in the world: gorilla trekking. A permit with set you back USD$1500, of which the money is put straight back into the protection and conservation of the gorillas. It is advisable to hire a porter (cost USD$15) for your trek, not only for the unfailing assistance as your trek and climb, but to help fund a living for the once poachers that pilfered the national park. It gives them the incentive to stay on the anti-poaching path.
Spot Big 5 in Akagera National Park
Located in North Eastern Rwanda, at the country’s border with Tanzania, is Akagera National Park. A common view around Rwanda, the mountainous scenery surrounding Akagera National Park is quite simply beautiful. The landscape inside the park ranges from low, wide, plains dominated by grass and cactus-like Euphorbia candelabra shrub that morphs into both thick and thin forests amongst rugged terrain that is so characteristic of Rwanda. It is here you can experience the Big 5, and more, in Rwanda. The game drive experience is a scenic one, with wildlife like elephants, rhinos, buffalos and antelope species including; elands and topis. There are also Maasai giraffes, monkeys, savannah birds, civets, leopards, hyenas, as well as serval cats. While you can self-drive around the park (staying on the designated roads), it is recommended you hire a guide who is so knowledgeable about the flora and fauna that is found in the park.
Learn about the country’s history at the Kigali Genocide Memorial
A visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial provides a better insight into Rwanda’s harrowing past. The memorial is the final resting place for more than 250,000 victims of the Genocide against the Tutsi. It is a place for remembrance and learning. While there are several memorials around the country, the Kigali Genocide Museum is the most popular to visit. A tour of the entire memorial takes approximately one hour and thirty minutes. The memorial is open seven days a week, however, on the last Saturday of every month, the memorial is open from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm due to Umuganda, when all Rwandans meet to undertake community work. The Kigali Genocide Memorial is a guided experience. Visitors can choose to be guided by one of the staff witnesses or purchase the KGM digital guide which provides an audio-visual tour of the memorial. Costs start from USD$15.
Get communal at Red Rocks
Red Rocks Rwanda is a place that is all about the community, and beyond this, promoting sustainable tourism through community and conservation programs. They bring under-served communities into the tourism supply chain and support community development projects that help people help themselves through the Red Rocks Initiative. Here you can truly delve into the local life of Rwandans by getting hands-on making banana beer, learning the local dances, creating some artwork and so much more. You can even stay on a little longer in the budget accommodation ranging from a hostel room and an ample tranquil campsite.
Hiking in Nyungwe Forest National Park
The largest tropical afro Montane rainforest in east or central Africa, Nyungwe forest is probably the most preserved forest in Africa. Nyungwe Forest National Park was established as a national park in 2004 and some say it is the most important site for biodiversity in Rwanda. It is home to over 1000 species of creation after all. Nyungwe is located near Cyangugu town in Southwestern Rwanda, about 225km and a 4-5 hour drive from Kigali. It is bordered by the Rwanda-Burundi border in the South. Lake Kivu and the Democratic Republic of Congo lie on the west side of the park. It covers an area of about 1020 sq. km and has an elevation of 1600-2950m above sea level. Roads that wind over hills and through tea plantations lead you to Nyungwe forest national park. Here you can experience Kamiranzovu swamp, hiking trails throughout, the forest canopy walk, birding, primate tracking and more.
Pick Tea in Gisenyi
Visiting a tea plantation may not be the most obvious of things to do in Rwanda, but in the province of Gisenyi, one of the best activities to partake in is just this. During the rainy season, Pfunda plantation‘s tea production is in full swing, and a tour of the premises allows visitors to amble amongst the surrounding crop fields and soak in some knowledge on the art of tea making, from picking and drying, to cutting and shipping. Pfunda is one of the most sustainable tea companies in the region, employing local community members to ensure that the region feels the direct benefits of the business.
Hear the Singing Fishermen of Lake Kivu
Lake Kivu is Rwanda’s largest lake and is located on the country’s western border. The atmosphere around the lake is relaxed and communal. The two biggest towns on the Rwandan side of the lake are Kibuye and Gisenyi, and both are excellent locations for solo excursions. Gisenyi, the bigger of the two towns, shares a border with the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and thus has a larger selection of restaurants, bars, and general activities. However, kayaking, hikes, boat rides, and more are available from both towns. Buses run from Kigali to Kibuye and Gisenyi fifteen times a day, leaving from the Nyabugogo Bus Terminal every thirty minutes starting at 7 am. It is here you can see the famous Singing Fishermen of Lake Kivu as they head out in their three-hulled fishing boats. With characteristic long poles attached to their bows and sterns, these fascinating boats become slowly silhouetted against the darkening sky. In small groups, they seek the deep water a few kilometres out into the lake from where they cast their nets and fish throughout the night.
Have a cultural experience at Gorilla Guardians Village
In Musanze you will find the Gorilla Guardian Village
(formerly known as Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village), an award-winning venture that
was founded in 2004 and is owned entirely by local communities.
Since its inception, the Gorilla Guardian Village has significantly helped in improving the livelihoods of communities living near the Volcanoes National Park, which houses the mountain gorillas. The venture offers employment to hundreds of former poachers and potential poachers, thereby curtailing human pressure on the Volcanoes National Park. Set in a replica of the traditional Rwandan palace, here you’ll be regaled by Rwandan Intore dancers and drummers, Batwa pygmies will showcase their bow and arrow skills, while a little village walk will introduce you to the local community’s way of life.
Visit the Palace and the King’s Cows
The King’s Palace, located in Rwanda’s Nyanza ya Butare district, was the traditional seat of Rwanda’s kingdom. This historical location was of key importance during the colonial era. The ancient palace has been reconstructed in Rukari and visitors can now explore the replica King’s Palace, built using traditional materials and methods. Learn about the evolution of farming and building through the centuries, and then venture into the grounds to meet the long-horned cows, known as Inyambo. They’re beautiful to look at, with a stately elegance you don’t generally expect from cows, until you learn they’re part of the royal heritage, used in many important ceremonies. You can find out about the breeding techniques and listen to the amahamba songs the shepherds sing as part of the grooming process.
Make friends with locals
At first the Rwandan people appear shy and withdrawn, but if you open up and talk to them you will find a friendly and often cheeky nature with them. The best way to immerse yourself in a country is to talk to the people who live there. Try and learn some of the local lingo, which helps and impresses when you can greet people in their own language.
Where to stay
Rwanda has a varied array of accommodation offerings ranging from budget and backpackers to five-star luxury. When travelling around the country, here are some suggested hotels to consider.
Kigali Serena Hotel
On a boulevard in the heart of Kigali, Rwanda, in a secure location just a five-minute walk from the CBD, lies Kigali Serena Hotel. The 5-star property boast features you have come to expect from the Serena Hotels Group mixed with a rich blend of Rwandan heritage, art and culture. The 148 sophisticated rooms and suites at Kigali Serena Hotel provides a private and peaceful retreat with a host of leisure amenities. Location is key at the Kigali Serena Hotel, in the city’s business and social epicentre. The hotel is a five-minute walk from the Central Business District and ten kilometres from Kigali International Airport. It is a short walk into the town centre which is a buzz with shopping, restaurants and bars.
Magashi Camp in Akagera National Park
Magashi Camp is a part of Wilderness, a company with over 40 camps in seven countries that exist to protect wilderness areas and the fauna and flora they support. You get a sense of this responsibility the moment you enter the camp. The camp is the only exclusive-use area in Akagera, which means guests are the only ones who will be on game drives and wildlife viewing activities in the area. There is an abundance of plains game and a healthy population of lions, which were re-introduced into the park in 2015 after a 20-year absence. Black rhinos were also re-introduced in 2017. My sightings rounded out the ‘Big 5’ with two leopards, elephants and buffalo.
Classic Lodge Musanze
Classic Lodge is located in Musanze in the Northern part of Rwanda, with easy access to the gorilla trekking base at Volcanoes National Park. It is only 50 minutes away from Rubavu and 2 hours drive from Kigali, making it an ideal choice of stay for those just arriving to explore the Virunga Volcano National Park and the Northern Province. Enjoy unique, breathtaking views to the Virunga Volcano National Park from the lodge’s main area. Due to the size, Classic Lodge can cater for events and conferences with a number of breakout areas. There is a restaurant and bar for relaxing, a large swimming pool with bar area and sports facilities like a soccer pitch and basketball court. There is also a spa center, nearby night club and a gym for those who like to keep their fitness regime when on holidays. The staff are welcoming and happy to assist with making your stay as comfortable as possible.
Moriah Hill Resort
Away from the city hustle, where you can sit back and relax in your own quiet space is the Moriah Hill Resort. Located in Rwanda’s west in a town called Kibuye on the shores of Lake Kivu, the resort is about 200 kilometres from Kigali and at only 1 kilometre from Karongi town. Perched on the hillside overlooking Lake Kivu, the hotel utilises the space well, so the views and surrounding scenery compliments the property. The Moriah Hill Resort makes a great base to explore the lake via boat, Karongi town and beyond. Enjoy swimming in Lake Kivu or take a wooden boat out on the lake at sunset for a cruise. Take a walk around the lake or for the extra adventurous, climb the hill, before coming back to relax in the private sauna. Nearby, guests can enjoy the Gisovu tea plantation, which is one of the biggest tea plantations in Rwanda, or climb Karongi mountain, the highest in Karongi district.
For more on Rwanda visit www.visitrwanda.com