Rwanda: A Travel Guide
If you were captivated by the Disney film Big Joe Young, the fascinating documentary, Chimpanzee, or have been a King Kong fan since you were a kid, there’s one African country you really should go on safari to and that’s Rwanda. While Rwanda may be one of the smallest countries in Africa, and apart from a few elephants, rhinos and giraffes, almost devoid of the major big game species, Rwanda one of the best places in Africa to travel to see mountain gorillas and chimpanzees in their natural habitat. You can also check out the Namibia travel guide in case you wish to explore more of Africa.
Rwanda is called the land of a thousand hills and is situated in the central eastern section of the African continent and covers just over ten thousand square miles of terrain that varies from forested mountains to savannah and swamps. It’s possible to drive the width of the country from east to west in less than eight hours which means you can cram an awful lot of your Rwanda travel into one vacation. The capital, Kigali, with its high-rise Central Business District and extensive urban spread is a lively city of stark contrasts and full of interesting places to visit. There are museums, art galleries, colorful markets as well as artisan craft centres to browse around when you travel to Rwanda.
Kigali’s geographically central position also makes it a great base from where to set out and explore the rest of the country. Believe it, there’s a lot you won’t want to miss seeing. Not only is Rwanda home to some amazing primates, it’s also where the Virunga Mountains, some of the most incredible volcanoes in the world, are located. The Akagera National Park in the east of Rwanda is a paradise on earth for bird and wildlife spotters while the Nyungwe National Forest in the west is home for more species of monkeys than you could have imagined even existed.
In the Volcanoes National Park, you can follow in the footsteps of the famous conservationist, Dianne Fossey, and come face to face with a gorilla troop after trekking along trails winding up the sides of the rainforest-covered mountains. If you’re looking for an unbeatable African adventure, Rwanda should be at the very top of your list. Go there and you’ll have a once in a lifetime experience you will never forget and have the photos to prove it.
When To Travel To Rwanda
The annual climate in Rwanda is divided into four seasons. Two wet and two dry during both of those temperatures tend to maintain a relatively constant level with average highs of around 25°C. The wet seasons run from February through to mid-June and from September to mid-December. The two dry seasons fall between mid-June to the end of August and then again from mid-December to the end of January which is ideally when you should travel to Rwanda.
The best time of the year to go gorilla trekking in Rwanda is during either of the dry seasons when the conditions are easier to tolerate. It’s not much fun hiking up mountain tracks in torrential downpours plus the gorillas don’t like the rain much either and have a tendency to stay hidden in the undergrowth.
Typical Food Of Rwanda
You’re more likely to find a vegetarian meal than one containing meat being served on the tables of most Rwandan homes. Common ingredients in the traditional food of Rwanda are fibrous root vegetables such as the cassava, bananas and their more savory cousin plantains, plus pulses like lentils, beans and chickpeas. While Rwandan cuisine might not be the most varied or elegant in its presentation, it is tasty, filling and very nutritious.
A frequent accompaniment to many meals in Rwanda and a staple all over Africa is ugali, a stodgy white dough made from cornmeal. Sweet potatoes and potatoes also feature heavily in typical dishes. Goat, beef or lamb might be served only a few times a month in most Rwandan homes while fish makes a more regular appearance on the plates of families living in lakeside locations. In the cities like Kigali, you’ll be able to dine out on all types of international cuisine as well as at restaurants specializing in the traditional food of Rwanda.
Language & Religion
Rwanda has four official languages. Kinyarwanda, a Rwanda-Rundi dialect, which is the most widely spoken. The second most spoken language is English followed by French and Swahili.
The most celebrated religion in Rwanda is Christianity and around forty-five percent of the population are worshiping Roman Catholics, forty percent follow the Protestant church and just over ten percent are Seventh Adventists. Muslim worshippers are in the minority with most following the Sunni movement of the religion.
Currency, ATMs & Credit Cards
The currency used in Rwanda is the Rwandan Franc – RWF. There are four denominations of bank note – 500 RWF, 1000 RWF, 2000 RWF and 5000 RWF. 100 RWF, 50 RWF, 20 RWF are represented with coins as are the smaller quantities of 1, 2 5 and 10 francs. The Rwandan franc has a low value and one hundred francs (100 RWF) is approximately equivalent to ten cents (0.10 USD). Dollars can be exchanged for francs at any of the many foreign exchange bureaus and in the banking facilities.
You’ll find there are ATMs in the major cities in Rwanda where you can withdraw cash in the local currency though be aware that not all of the cash machines accept foreign credit or debit cards. There are also various different daily withdrawal limits on the cash machines depending on which bank is providing the service. Most smaller commercial enterprises will expect to be paid in cash in Rwandan Francs while some hotels and safari companies accept card payments as do the national parks if there is a decent enough cell phone signal to complete the transaction.
Network & SIM Cards
There are three telecommunications companies operating in Rwanda – Airtel, Tigo and MTN. Prepaid SIM cards for all three can be purchased from official kiosks and street vendors for just over 1 USD as well as scratch cards to charge the card with. Connections may well be a lot slower than what you’re used to and in some remote areas of the country practically non-existent.
There have been several serious incidents of civil unrest in the north of Rwanda along the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Anyone travelling to the region to visit the Volcanoes National Park and the Nyungwe Forest National Park should be aware of the disturbances and take precautionary measures to avoid putting themselves at risk. There has also been unrest along the border between Rwanda and Burundi.
While visiting public places in Kigali it’s wise to exercise caution and be vigilant of the people around you to prevent theft by pickpocketing as well as avoiding the danger of any possible grenade attack some of which have occurred previously in these areas. Rwanda, in general, has a low crime rate though it’s advisable not to leave any valuables in the vehicle if you hire a car and keep the doors locked when driving or are stopped at traffic lights. You must take necessary precautions while you travel in Rwanda.
Places To See In Rwanda
Fly into Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, and you’ll be arriving in the central hub of the country. Kigali in itself isn’t a major tourist destination but more of a stopping off point for visitors travelling on to go gorilla trekking or exploring the hinterlands of the national parks. Even if you only stay there for a couple of days, you’ll find plenty to do. Kigali is a city still recovering from the devastating mass genocides suffered there two and a half decades ago. Get an insight into what happened through the exhibitions at the Kigali Genocide Museum whose main aim is to help prevent further similar atrocities happening anywhere in the world.
To see the city from a different angle, head up to the Fazenda Sengha Outdoor Recreation Center on Mount Kigali in the suburbs of Kigali. There you can mount a horse and ride along trails with incredible views that reach as far as the Virunga Mountains in the north of the country. At the center you can also zipline, bungee jump on a trampoline or just enjoy a chill-out drink while admiring the scenery on their sky-high terrace. Shop for souvenirs at the lively and colorful Kimironko Market and you’ll be inundated with the sounds and smells of a real African market. Browse stall after stall of vibrantly patterned textiles, traditional handicrafts from woven baskets to plaited hair braids as well as all kinds of local produce. Discover the artworks at the Inema Art Center and you’ll be amazed how diverse they are. There some great examples of contemporary ethnic art at the center run by two brothers as well as sculptures, handmade jewellery and leatherworks. Get some sporting action by watching a top league game of basketball at the Kigali Basketball Arena. The newly opened arena seats ten thousand people and is the biggest indoor sports arena in East Africa and is a must-see when you travel to Rwanda.
Best Places To Eat & Go Out In Kigali
For a superb meal of traditional Rwandan food with an international appeal book a table at The Hut. The wooden shack-style restaurant has tables on a terrace by the swimming pool for outdoor dining as well as inside the main building. Try the fish tacos, vegetarian burger or beef skewers with peanut sauce. They are all delicious. Dine on the patio of Pili-Pili and you’ll wowed not only by the food but by the sensational views. It’s the perfect spot in Kigali to see an incredible sunset while feasting on succulent grilled meat or fish. Ride the elevator up to the fifth floor of the Kigali City Tower in the CBD and you’ll be able to enjoy a great Chinese meal in the Bamboo Rooftop Restaurant while viewing the city by night through the amazing panoramic windows. Have an end of the day chill-out drink at the Legacy Lounge and Wine Bar. The sophisticated lavender-colored décor will have you starting to relax before you’ve even had a sip of your first glass of wine.
Best Places To Stay In Kigali
Stay at the conveniently located Radisson Blu Hotel and Conference Center in Kigali and you’ll have every luxury imaginable right at your fingertips. Work out in the fitness centre or swim in the outdoor pool, eat at either of the two in-house restaurants or partake of the last drink of the day in the Lounge Bar before heading to your room. If you enjoy small and friendly accommodation, you’ll love the Beausejour Hotel. The rooms are spacious, have balconies with city views and there’s a good buffet breakfast served daily. If you’re travelling to Rwanda on a budget, check out the Rainbow Hotel. There you’ll find the service is good, the rooms adequate and the prices very pocket-friendly.
Akagera National Park
If you want to see a variety of wildlife on your vacation in Rwanda, the Akagera National Park is the best place to go. The park covers over one thousand square miles along the Rwandan border with Tanzania. It’s a landscape of open savannahs, wetlands and lakes with small herds of giraffes and elephants. The Akagera national park cannot be missed when you travel to Rwanda. The eastern black rhino and several lions have been reintroduced into the parklands along with leopards and cheetahs in the hope of increasing their population and aiding conservation efforts in the park.
Best Way To See Akagera National Park
There are several ways to get the most out of your trip to the Akagera National Park. The park is only two and a half hour’s drive from Kigali and many full day safaris operate from the city. You can also hire a car and self-drive through the park. To get a more intimate look at the park, take a seven kilometer walk along the perimeter fence with one of the official fence attendants, go on a night game drive organised by the park rangers or take a boat ride across Lake Ihema to see the hippos, crocodiles and birdlife.
Entrance Fee: $50 USD
Safari Price: $160 to $460 depending on how many people are on the safari. It’s more economical to travel as a group so team up with friends or others in your hotel and you’ll make a big saving.
Stay At Akagera National Park
There are three options of accommodation with Akagera National Park itself. Stay in the eco-camp, Ruzizi Lodge and you’ll be sleeping in a tent covered with a thatched dome roof by the side of a swimming pool. At the Akagera Game Lodge, you’ll have solid walls and a roof over your head while sleeping in a basic but comfortable room. There’s a pool at the lodge as well as a restaurant, bar and tennis court. If you’re brave enough to give it a try, you can sleep out in the open under canvas at one of the park’s campsite though but there’ll be nothing between you and the animals or the naughty baboons that are fond of running off with people’s gear.
Volcanoes National Park
If you want to see one of the most powerful and impressive animals in existence close up, you’ll need to head up to the north-west of Rwanda and the Volcanoes National Park. The park sits on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, covers over sixty square miles and within its boundaries are five of the eight volcanoes of the Virunga Mountain Range. It’s one of the few remaining natural habitats for mountain gorillas and the place where Diane Fossey carried out her incredible conservation work.
There are so many things to do in the Volcanoes National Park, you may well want to plan spending a few days in the area. It’s an incredible place to explore, but you’ll have to be prepared to do pretty much most of it on foot as the park’s best features, including the gorillas, can only be reached by hiking. Seeing wild gorillas is one of life’s privileges that doesn’t come without cost both physical and financial, but it is one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll probably ever have in your lifetime.
Gorilla Trekking In The Volcanoes National Park
Going gorilla trekking in the Volcanoes National Park isn’t just a case of hiking up a hillside and hoping to see a silverback come crashing out of the rainforest. It’s something which requires organization, permits and a trained guide. The gorillas are an endangered species and gorilla safaris are controlled by strict regulations to avoid stressing the animals or inadvertently causing damage to their environment.
Each group of trekkers are assigned to just one gorilla family that their guide will track for them. It can take anywhere between one to eight hours to find the designated primate troop and once sighted, viewings are limited to a maximum of one hour. Some treks to see the gorillas are more difficult than others and the fitness of the hiker is taken into consideration when the relevant permit is being prepared. The permit must be booked in advance either by email through the website of the Rwanda Development Board or a reputable Rwandan travel agency.
There are only ten families of gorillas that visitors to the park can view and each individual trek is limited to eight people so once the maximum eighty permits per day have been issued there are no more places available. The permit fee is inclusive of the park entrance fee and qualified guide though not of any travel expenses you may incur or of a porter if you require assistance in carrying your backpack.
Cost Of Gorilla Trekking Permit: $1500
Gorilla Safari Price: Gorilla Trekking Safaris that start in Kigali and are priced from $250 to $450 do not include the permit fee. Transport to and from the city plus overnight accommodation in a hotel near the park as well as all food is included on the higher priced two-day tours.
Park Entrance Fee: $55
Other Things To Do In Volcanoes National Park
The Volcanoes National Park is a hiker’s paradise. Make the six-hour hike up the stratovolcano, Mount Karisimbi and while it is strenuous, you’ll be able to boast you’ve climbed to the summit of the highest mountain in the Virunga Mountain Range and the fifth highest mountain in Africa. Somewhat easier on the legs but just as impressive an achievement is to make the four-hour trek up the smaller Mount Bisoke. Take a hike through the rainforests to the Karisoke Research Camp where Dianne Fossey carried out her work and you’ll be able to see her tomb and the house where she lived. Head underground at the Musanze Caves to get a look at Rwanda’s subterranean world. The immense cavern is draped with dangling vines and resembles a fantasy world film set or a location used to film a Tarzan movie. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and a must visit when you travel to Rwanda. If your vacation budget doesn’t extend to covering the cost of a gorilla trekking permit or if you want to see more endangered primates, go Golden Monkey Trekking. The day-long safaris are organised by the park officials who lead you into the bamboo plantations around the base of the volcanoes where the monkeys live.
Golden Monkey Trekking Permit: $100 – includes park entrance fee, official guide and tax.
Places To Stay Volcanoes National Park
The Volcanoes National Park is Rwanda’s touristic hotspot so there’s lots of excellent accommodation close to the park which will save you time on travelling and leave you more time for trekking. Stay at the surreal Bisate Lodge and while it may be in the Rwandan rainforest, it’s truly out of this world. Like something from a science fiction film, but still remaining totally ethnic, the wooden stilt-supported domes sit high up in the tree coverage inside a volcanic crater. Luxuriously decorated internally, they have all the home comforts you need to recover from a day of hiking. At the Jack Hannah Lodge you’ll be sleeping in cottage-style accommodation with a fireplace to stave off any chill in the air. Set in a tranquil location surrounded by Eucalyptus trees, the cottages have beautiful views of the hillside and with two independent bedrooms are ideal for families or friends travelling together.
Nyungwe Forest National Park
If walking through the canopy of a rainforest high-up on a level with abundant bird and primate life is one of your ambitions, go to the Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda and your dream will become a reality. The one-thousand square kilometers of rainforest in the south-west of Rwanda lays along the country’s borders with Burundi and the DRC, is home to more than a dozen types of primate, almost three-hundred species of birds and innumerable smaller mammals and reptiles.The Nyungwe Forest National Park is a must see when you travel to Rwanda.
Best Way To See The Nyungwe Forest
After a short briefing head out into the forest to go chimpanzee trekking. The Nyungwe Forest is inhabited by large colonies of the primates which are a lot easier to find than the gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park. That said, chimpanzee trekking still requires a permit though at a much lower cost than a permit for seeing gorillas. In the forest there is a two-hundred meter long canopy walk sixty meters above the forest floor from where you will get panoramic views of not just the treetops but the stunning volcanic peaks of the Virunga Mountains. Hike along forest paths to the stunning Isumo Waterfall or anyone of many other forest trails though be aware that during all walks or hikes you’ll need to be accompanied by a guide which incurs a different charge for each one undertaken including the canopy walk. All charges include the park entry fee.
Chimpanzee Trekking Permit Cost: $90
Other Primates Trekking Fee: $60
Nyungwe Guided Nature Walk Fee: $60
Nyungwe Birdwatching Fee: $50
Nyungwe Canopy Walk Fee: $60
Guided Waterfall Hike Fee: $50
Best Places To Stay Nyungwe Forest National Park
Enjoy some five star Colonial-style luxury at the Nyungwe Forest Lodge. Nestled among the acres of a sprawling tea plantation just outside of the park boundaries, the lodge has superb rooms as well as presidential suites with a private jacuzzi. On-site there’s a swimming pool, fitness center, restaurant and a tea lounge. For a more budget friendly option try the Gisakura Family Hostel. The small and friendly accommodation offers their guests a comfortable en suite room with views over the forest. The property, which is only a short distance from the park entrance gates, has a bar and cafeteria.