Rwanda, The Land Of A Thousand Hills
Rwanda is fast rising from the shadows cast by its recent history to become one of the most exciting tourist destinations in Africa. Efforts by the Rwandan government to revive the nation’s tourism industry seem to be paying off, with tourism having emerged as Rwanda’s top foreign currency earner. Rwanda is rich in wildlife, attracting visitors from all over the world. Its three major national parks and reserves, Akagera, Volcanoes and Nyungwe, are a must-see. To add to its appeal, Rwanda lies in the African Great Lakes region, and its high elevation means that the climate is temperate to subtropical, with slight variance depending on location. Indeed, there is more to this mountainous East African nation than meets the eye.
People and Culture
Rwandans are known for their hospitality and industry. The total population is estimated at about 12 million, with Christianity being the majority religion. Music and dance are very important in Rwandan culture. Particularly significant is the intore dance, with its precise and intricate movements usually accompanied by the beating of the ingoma drums. Rwandans are also known for the unique Imigongo cow dung art which originated here.
Kinyarwanda is the most widely spoken language in Rwanda, with English and French also quite commonly spoken outside of the rural areas. Three ethnic groups make up the Rwandan nation – Tutsi, Hutu and Twa. The nation was devastated by a civil war, caused by ethnic tensions between majority ethnic groups Tutsi and Hutu, between 1990 to 1994, with the horrific Rwandan genocide occurring in 1994. However, the nation has been steadily rebuilding. With a low crime rate within and outside of its urban centres, and evidence of urbanisation and development, Rwanda is well on its way to recovery.
Major Cities and Towns
Located in the heart of Rwanda, Kigali is the nation’s capital and largest city. The city was founded in 1907 as a German settlement and became the Rwandan capital after independence in 1962. Kigali offers an enchanting mix of urban and country dwelling, with picturesque views of the hilly terrain that the nation is known for. Kigali offers top dining and relaxation destinations, with restaurants and bars serving local delicacies as well as international foods. Popular tourist destinations in Kigali include the sobering Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, the Muslim Quarter, and the crafts market where you can find an array of locally made crafts that depict Rwanda’s rich culture. One other great thing about Kigali: it is known to be one of the cleanest cities in Africa and the world.
Butare, popularly known as the intellectual and cultural centre of the country, is located 135km south of Kigali. This sedate, peaceful town was the largest and most important city in Rwanda, until the more centrally located Kigali was chosen as the nation’s capital. Still Butare remains significant, being home to several academic institutions, the well-known National Museum, which holds some of East Africa’s finest art collections, and the largest cathedral in Rwanda.
Gisenyi, which lies on the shores of Lake Kivu, is an important tourist destination. Drawn by the beach resorts that line the shores of Lake Kivu, hoards of visitors come to Gisenyi to experience the many water sports on offer, and to enjoy the serenity and amazing views.
Best Time to Visit
Rwanda is a great place to visit all year round due to its pleasant temperate weather. However, if you intend to track mountain gorillas during your visit, the best time to travel would be in the dry season, from mid May to mid October.
Getting to Rwanda
Visitors to Rwanda would typically require a tourist visa. However, nationals of the following countries are allowed into Rwanda without visas for a period of 90 days: USA, Germany, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda, Mauritius, South Africa, Kenya, Great Britain, Sweden, Singapore, Hong Kong and Burundi. In addition, nationals of African countries are allowed to acquire Rwandan visas at valid entry points into the country.
Flights into Rwanda land at Gregoire Kayibanda International Airport at Kanombe, 10km east of Kigali centre. A number of airlines connect Kigali with Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Bujumbura (Burundi), Entebbe (Uganda), Nairobi (Kenya), Johannesburg (South Africa) and Brussels (Belgium). Land entry is possible from Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Places to Stay
Rwanda has a range of accommodation options catering to various needs and budgets. Visitors to Nyungwe will be delighted to find the Nyungwe Forest Lodge, the first five-star establishment in the region, which was built in unobtrusive fashion to blend in with the surroundings. Other options in Nyungwe include Gisakura Guesthouse and Nyungwe Top View Hill Hotel.
Following a trip to Akagera National Park, visitors can wind down for the night at Ruzizi Tented Lodge, on the shore of Lake Ihema. This intimate lodge has seven tents that allow for a maximum of 14 guests at a time. Ruzizi is not just a simple camp site; each tent has en-suite shower and toilet facilities, queen or twin beds and is completely solar powered. The Akagera Game Lodge is a more luxurious lodging option in Akagera, with sweeping views of Lake Ihema, a swimming pool, tennis court, conference facilities, satellite TV, and suites designed in exquisite afrocentric style.
The capital city of Kigali has excellent lodging options including the five-star Kigali Serena Hotel, and Stipp Hotel, Kigali, which is a short distance from the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre.
Places to Visit
Volcanoes National Park was the first to be created in Africa in 1925, to protect gorillas from poaching. As the name suggests, there are a number of Volcanoes in the area surrounding the park, most of which are dormant. The park is home to an array of wildlife, most prominently gorillas, and you can enjoy watching these fascinating creatures in their natural habitat. Besides gorilla watching, you can also explore the caves in the area, participate in one of the many cultural and community tourism initiatives with the locals, or bring along a pair of binoculars for bird watching – the Volcanoes National Park is a great spot for this. Sports enthusiasts can hike or cycle along the trails of the breathtaking Virunga Mountains and take in the stunning views, or go boating on the Twin Lakes.
Akagera National Park
Akagera National Park is set in a large area with a diverse landscape consisting of vast acacia woodland, grassland, rolling hills, thick forests, and swamps and lakes. If you are interested in tracking or watching big game, then Akagera is ideal for you. Large herds of buffalo, giraffe and zebras roam free in Akagera, and once in a while a fortunate visitor might spot a herd of elephants as they come to drink. Also in Akagera, you will find a variety of antelope species, including the impala, oribi, bushbuck and topi. Take a night drive around Akagera and you are almost certain to spot nocturnal creatures like hyenas and leopards. You can also go on a boating adventure on Lake Ihema, Akagera’s largest lake, and experience the thrill of watching crocodiles, hippos and exotic birdlife. With over 525 documented species of birds, Akagera is a birdwatcher’s paradise.
Nyungwe National Park
Nyungwe National Park is Africa’s largest protected mountain rainforest. The park is also one of Africa’s most important and still largely unexplored bird watching destinations. Visit Nyungwe and discover the about 310 recorded bird species, 26 of which are endemic to the area. Also in Nyungwe, you will find one of Africa’s greatest concentrations of chimpanzees, and once in a while you might spot colonies of Ruwenzori colobus and Lhotse’s monkeys. Hiking and camping facilities are widely available in Nyungwe, where there are as many as 13 hiking trails. While you are at it, experience the breathtaking sights from Nyungwe’s canopy walk, the only one in the whole of East Africa.
The beautiful but often overlooked twin lakes, Burera and Ruhondo, are also ideal locations for bird watching. In addition, you can experience an authentic traditional fishing outing organised by certain tour companies in collaboration with locals. These fishing expeditions are usually done on handmade canoes carved out of a single piece of wood. You can also visit one of the islands in the lake area, and have a leisurely picnic lunch as you take in the scenery and bird life.
The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre
Located in the capital city of Kigali, the Genocide Memorial Centre, which opened in 2004, was built to commemorate the tragic 100-day genocide that occurred in Rwanda in 1994 and which the country is still recovering from. The centre also explores other genocides that occurred around the world, and calls on individuals to reflect on our past, present and future, and on our common humanity. Entry into the centre is free of charge, and a full tour of the centre takes about one hour.
Lake Kivu is the perfect relaxation and leisure spot, with a few resort towns along its shores. One of the favourite resort towns for visitors, less than an hour’s drive from Volcanoes National Park, is Gisenyi, a beach town with an impeccable beach and modern hotels. Go swimming, take a boat ride or enjoy a variety of water sports like wind surfing and kayaking.
Things To Do
Rwanda is home to some of Africa’s most promising and hidden bird watching locations, including the Twin Lakes, Akagera National Park and Volcanoes National Park. Species to be found here include the Great Blu Turaco, the Crowned Hornbill, the Blue-Headed Sunbird and several others.
Karisimbi Volcano Hike
For the super-adventurous visitor to Rwanda, the Karisimbi Mountain presents an alluring challenge. This mountain, whose name means ‘white shell’, in reference to the clouds at its summit, is the fifth highest in Africa. It is a strenuous two-day hike to the summit, and overnight camping is required.
Spend time tracking your choice of Nyungwe’s 13 primate species, which include chimpanzees, owl-faced guenons and Angolan black and white colobus monkeys.
Experience the Congo Nile Trail
Take this fascinating ten-day adventure on the Congo Nile Trail, which covers attractions on the shore of Lake Kivu. Apart from the stunning scenery from Lake Kivu and its surroundings, the trail offers the absolute best coffee and tea tasting experiences. There are eight base camps along the trail and it usually takes five days to complete if cycling and three if driving.
Discover Rwandan culture and history
Learn about Rwandan culture and history by exploring the country’s museums and monuments. Some of the most popular are the Genocide Memorial Centre in Kigali and the State House Museum, also in Kigali, which was the former presidential palace. The State House Museum has a number of intricate nooks holding some delightful exhibits. Also at the State House Museum you can see part of the wreckage from Juvenal Habyarimama’s plane where it was shot down over the garden wall. The Museum of Natural History is another great place to visit to learn about the local flora and fauna found in Rwanda. The building housing the museum is said to be the former home of explorer Richard Kandt and the first building in Rwanda. The National Museum of Rwanda is another must-see. Located in the town of Bature, it is one of the leading ethnographic museums in Africa.