Rwanda Tours and Travel Guide
Rwanda Attractions & Landmarks Guide
Mountainous and land-locked, little Rwanda – about the size of the state of Maryland – is becoming a big draw for safari-goers in central Africa. Its national parks harbor endangered mountain gorillas as well as chimpanzees and other primates who live among the rainforests. Guided safaris are essential when tracking these magnificent and elusive creatures.
Rwanda first burst into world news in 1994, when some 800,000 of its citizens died in a three-month mass genocidal slaughter ignited by long-simmering ethnic hostilities between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes.
It was further inflamed by the Hutu government, which urged Hutus to kill all Tutsis – even their friends and neighbors. After the Tutsis fought back and a coalition government was negotiated, the tiny country has since been at peace, and is now emerging as a prime safari destination – most notably for tracking rare and elusive mountain gorillas found in its Volcanoes National Park.
Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda
As one of the most popular tour options in Rwanda, gorilla trekking is a thrilling, challenging, and rewarding way to explore the Rwandan rainforests and observe their gentle giant residents up close.
Guided tours of these gorilla habitats are required, as there are important permits that must be attained beforehand as well as strict regulations that are followed.
There are only a small number of viewing permits available daily, the price of which varies by tour. This is a result of the critically endangered status of mountain gorillas and golden monkeys, who are under the vigilant care of park rangers.
While travelers may feel a bit hesitant to come up-close and personal with the gorillas and their families, they are habituated and therefore used to human interactions. Even still, viewing them from a comfortable distance is usually the best course of action, although guides will make allowances as they see fit.
Given the arduous hiking through bamboo forests that are required to reach the gorillas’ habitats, it is recommended that travelers wear pants, long-sleeved shirts, and hiking boots. Cameras will be useful for photographing the gorilla families or taking portrait photos. Since the national parks that protect these gorillas are highly regulated, visitors are constantly monitored by rangers to ensure both their safety and that of the animals.
While travelers may wish to spend days amongst the primate families, guided tours are limited to one hour in groups of 10 or less. Therefore, in order to ensure that you are able to partake in this unforgettable experience, book a guided tour of Rwanda’s rainforests in advance.
Wildlife in Rwanda
From plains to rainforests, and rivers in between, Rwanda is gifted with not only several hundred endangered species of birds, but also populations of critically endangered mammals and reptiles. The country’s elevation of 3,000 kilometers above sea level provides unique habitats for a variety of animals, some of which are only found in a handful of places outside of Rwanda’s national parks.
Travelers to Rwanda’s Akagera National Park are able to view lion prides, zebras, giraffes, and elephants. Hippopotamuses and crocodiles make their homes in the Kagera River and other ones that run through Rwanda while rhinoceroses and antelopes roam the surrounding plains.
Guided safari tours, which include gorilla trekking opportunities are widely available in Rwanda. June - September is considered to be the best time to undertake one of these tours, as it is when the country is experiencing its long dry season. For those interested in botanical life, Rwanda also boasts various species of grassland savannah flowers and trees.
While the country’s rainforested national parks host the majority of its wildlife and plants, even they are becoming threatened as Rwanda’s population continues to swell. Conservation efforts are underway to maintain the space needed for Rwanda’s wildlife, but it is still crucial to respect all guidelines on tours, especially those given by park rangers.
Disturbances or destruction of wildlife habitats is taken very seriously by Rwandans, a fact that is important for travelers to remember as they explore its vast biodiversity.
Birding Tours in Rwanda
While many travelers to Rwanda look forward to gorilla trekking, birding tours in Rwanda are not to be overlooked. As Rwanda has over 600 species of birds, some of which are critically endangered, it is no surprise that guided tours of Akagera and Nyungwe national parks will emphasize the importance of looking up while on the trails.
Whether or not you are a birding expert, the brilliant colors and unique calls will highlight the majesty of the land that these animals have made their homes in. It is imperative that travelers follow the observation rules set by the parks and their tour guides in order to maximize the potential of seeing birds.
Note that guided tour groups are usually small, as this minimizes the possibility of birds being scared away. This means that booking a guided tour in advance is necessary, as it ensures a spot in the limited groups.
In the same way, travelers will be asked to remain on the designated paths with their groups in order to protect the habitat they are viewing, as any disturbances of it will be felt by the animals that live within in.
That being said, when flushing birds in order to view them, it should not be done frequently or without the help of tour guides. Touching birds or their eggs are expressly prohibited, but taking pictures to convey their natural beauty to others is highly recommended.
Top National Parks in Rwanda
Although Rwanda is not an especially large country, it does have its fair share of national parks that have gained world recognition for their conservation efforts. Volcanoes National Park is home to five of the eight volcanoes that Rwanda hosts, making it a prime location for the mountain gorilla families that are protected within its borders.
Travelers can also enjoy exploring Musanze Caves at the feet of these colossal volcanoes after they finish a gorilla trekking tour or before they start. Hiking trails lead travelers to flooded craters, which make for stunning lake-side photos.
At Nyungwe Forest National Park, mountain gorillas are nowhere to be found but various species of monkeys, birds, and chimpanzees instead make their homes among the rainforests. As one of the largest protected swathes of untouched rainforest in Rwanda, visitors are relegated to specific hiking paths.
However, this does not dampen the fun and adventure that comes with visiting Nyungwe Forest National Park, as the Igishigishigi Trail is the highest one in East Africa. Located in the canopy level of the rainforest, the suspension bridge leads to the highest mountain in the national park, making it a very handy way to examine and transverse the surrounding biodiversity.
Akagera National Park consists of not only swamps and savannahs, but also forests, making it habitable for creatures of all sizes. While hippopotamuses and crocodiles swim in the rivers, are bird species fly above lion prides and giraffe and elephant herds.
Travelers can participate in safari or river excursions through guided tours that extend into all aspects of the park, including its renowned accommodation options. When visiting Rwanda, the hardest decision you may have will be deciding which national park to visit first.
Rwandan cultural activities
As a country that has seen many political and social changes, Rwanda is unique for its maintenance of old traditions amidst the rise of new ones. Beyond the gorilla trekking tours in the mountains are visits to collections of art, traditions, as well as genocide memorial sites.
For those in Kigali, a guided tour of the Kigali Genocide Memorial is a way to engage with the past tragedies of Rwanda. Visitors to this site, along with Nyamata Church, are able to pay respects to the victims as well as understand the history behind the genocide that devastated the world.
In the same city, travelers can view contemporary African art at Inema Arts Centre. While there are also workshops for resident artists in the building, travelers can view the many different art installations on the property. Exhibits alter with the artist, but the museum maintains a high variety of mediums and international sponsorships.
In the same way, the Niyo Cultural Centre works to showcase the art of primarily Rwandan artists. Guided tours of the museum, as well as the educational dance and drumming classes, may be arranged in advance.
Further from the capital is the King’s Palace in Nyanza. Guided tours of this site will not only reveal the meaning behind the artwork that depicts European and Rwandan interactions over the years, but also the many ancient traditions that are still continued today. These include singing to the ornately decorated and well-cared for Inyambo cattle that live behind the domed complex.
For Rwandans, it is common to have a light, simpler breakfast, followed by a similarly light lunch. Dinners are the heaviest meals and are the ones most likely to have meat if they do at all.
A refusal to partake in a meal that is offered to you in considered to be a serious insult, which is a cultural value that travelers should consider as they explore Rwanda. A staple of Rwandan cuisine is vegetables, with minimal emphasis on animal products. This means that most meals are made with local ingredients, especially ones that can be grown year-round such as potatoes.
Plantains, as well as cassava leaves or tubers, are traditionally found in at least one if not two meals a day. Between meals, Rwandans will often snack on tropical fruits which are abundant in the country. What meat is consumed is oftentimes fish, especially along the lakes or rivers where tilapia is popular.
Beef and chicken are also widely available, although they are less likely to be consumed than fish. Travelers will oftentimes see meat-skewers, locally known as brochettes at street vendors or offered at restaurants.
Marinated in various spices and sauces, goat meat or beef skewered and cooked over a charcoal grill, providing a tasty meal option no matter the time of day.
The Capital: Kigali
Travelers to Kigali, the national capital, will be happy to find themselves amidst clean streets and well-repaired roads. This is because, even as coffee shops and other modern conveniences continue to spring up throughout the country, Rwandans still practice “Umuganda” Day.
With roots in traditional small agricultural communities, Umuganda Day compels Rwandans across the country to close shops and clean, fix, or act to benefit their neighborhood. Therefore, while Kigali is one of the busiest cities in Rwanda, it also serves as a model for how small community efforts can have large-scale, positive impacts.
In the same way, Kigali hosts the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which is both a museum and mass burial site for nearly 250,000 victims. The memorial’s museum details not just the events leading up to the genocide, but also what occurred during it, with emphasis on prevention of similar atrocities in the future.
The Niyo Art Gallery and the Inema Arts Center are also located in the capital city. While the Niyo Art Gallery focuses on artists and dancers from Rwanda, the Inema Arts Center showcases a much more expansive, contemporary African art collection. At the Kimironko Market, travelers can not only find fresh fruits and vegetables, but also authentic handicrafts. This makes it an ideal location for souvenir-searches, new additions to wardrobes, or even a traditional Rwandan meal.
What to Expect From Accommodations in Rwanda
Although Rwanda is still in the process of expanding its tourism industry, travel accommodations are still plentiful. The Radisson Blu and Marriott hotel chains have locations in Kigali and are very popular with travelers for their international fame. However, travelers may opt to stay in the Kigali Serena Hotel or Heaven Boutique Hotel as well, both of which are locally owned and geared towards improving Rwanda’s reputation in tourism.
All hotels in Rwanda are equipped with the conveniences usually found in other hotels, including pools, gyms, and air-conditioning. Rooms tend to be smaller, which is important for travelers to consider when making accommodation plans with their guided tour groups. When engaged in gorilla trekking or birding tours, travelers in Rwanda can expect to stay in lodges or hostels near the sites they are exploring.
While this may not sound appealing to some travelers, Rwanda has worked hard to provide travelers with the same luxury accommodations and modern conveniences that they find in cities. Therefore, many of the hotels and lodges found in national parks have not just spas and delicious food options, but also stunning views and close proximity to Rwanda’s famous biodiversity.
TV and internet are found in all luxury hotels and lodges, which is useful for travelers who wish to plan their next guided tour through Rwanda’s urban and natural landscapes.
Things to Know Before You Go
Common Rwanda Tour Routes
Although Rwanda is a small county, there are various ways to traverse its landscape. Travelers who wish to emphasize the cultural aspect of their trip, with less physical exertion may opt to spend more days in major cities and see fewer national parks.
However, it is also possible to see all major cities and all of the nature and wildlife which Rwanda protects within the borders of its four national parks. Traveling between national parks is possible to do by both airplane and car, although the latter option requires more planning. (Another reason to visit Rwanda on a guided tour).
Since Kigali is the only international airport in Rwanda, most travelers begin their journey there. From there, travelers can make their way south to the small town of Huye, where the Ethnographic Museum is located. Heading west, travelers will enter directly into Nyungwe National Park, which has hiking trails of various height and physicality.
Chimpanzee trekking and birding are popular activities here, along with crossing the famous canopy Igishigishigi Trail. Missing a stop at one of the many resort towns along Lake Kivu is not recommended, as it is a perfect location for relaxation on boat rides or at spas.
Travelers may choose to stop at the small, Gishwati-Mukura National Park, or continue further north to the famous Volcanoes National Park. Here, families of endangered mountain gorillas and golden monkeys make their homes and may be tracked by travelers.
From there, travelers may choose to end their trip by heading straight to Kigali or complete a circuit of Rwanda’s National Parks by exploring Akagera National Park. While it is more out of the way than other national parks, the guided safari tours and boat trips there make it well worth the effort.
Is Rwanda Safe?
Given its international recognition as the site of genocide in 1994, many travelers assume Rwanda to be unsafe. However, this is not the case. Rwandan locals are very friendly to international travelers, oftentimes welcoming them into their communities and sharing food.
While petty crime is a prevalent issue in Rwanda, very little violent crime is reported amongst international travelers.
It is important to keep the issues of neighboring countries in mind, as surrounding instability can lead to increased crime in Rwanda. Out of respect for the Rwandan emphasis on being well-dressed, travelers are advised to dress modestly and avoid wearing shorts.
When it comes to public transportation, Rwanda’s system is well-designed and far-reaching. Travelers are still cautioned against traveling alone, as this minimizes the potential of becoming lost or experiencing crime.
Rental cars are also available, but can sometimes become targets for robbery. All considerations for personal safety must be maintained, as common sense is oftentimes the best defense while traveling internationally.
What to Pack for Traveling in Rwanda
The many different terrains that Rwanda spans, which can make packing for it a bit different than other vacations. Remember that plastic bags of any kind are banned by law in Rwanda and baggage will be searched for them upon entering the country.
Since Rwanda is usually humid during the day, dri-fit short-sleeve shirts are important to bring. Slacks, long skirts or dresses, and other cotton-based clothes will help minimize discomfort from heat, especially when on safari tours.
Bringing insect repellent, sun-screen, and a bathing suit is very important when hiking or visiting pools. Some travelers opt to bring sun-hats as well to prevent painful sunburns. Wearing layers is useful, especially since it can be chilly in the nights and early mornings when some guided tours begin.
Having water-resistant hiking pants and long-sleeve shirts are especially important when gorilla or monkey trekking, as rainforests not only have many types of plants but also bugs of all sizes. Travelers should consider bringing malaria tablets as well as a first aid kit.
All proper identification paperwork and passports are required in Rwanda, as well as on any other guided tours of the surrounding countries. 30-day visas may be purchased upon arrival to the country and visitors are required to travel with it.
Best Time to Visit Rwanda
While the weather is Rwanda is consistently hot and humid, there are still dry and wet seasons to consider when planning guided tours. For chimpanzee trekking, the rainy seasons of February to June and September to December are the best times. This is because their food is plentiful during these seasons, making it easier to spot the troops in the forest.
The opposite goes for gorilla trekking, during which the best time to go is usually December to February and June to September. These times are when hiking conditions are the most stable and malaria risk is at the lowest point. It is likely that any birding tours in Rwanda will also be included on chimpanzee or gorilla trekking excursions, as they are offered in the same locations in the national parks.
Luxury travel is a common way that tourists explore Rwanda, a fact which the country has made significant efforts to cater towards. In Kigali, the national capital, travelers can not only stay in high-end Radisson Blu and Marriott locations but also the Kigali Serena Hotel. All of these options offer private rooms, pools, spas, and central locations to begin an exploration of the city.
Modern amenities such as air-conditioning and internet are provided in each room. Travelers are also encouraged to dine at the many famous restaurants located within the hotels, as they provide options for both authentic Rwandan cuisine and other items that may be found back home.
Travelers on Rwanda guided tours may opt to have private cars arranged for themselves to take them from their hotels to itinerary locations. For sites that are far from urban centers, international flights may be booked as they are provided daily.
Each national park in Rwanda has different lodges and hotels to stay at. Some are more famous than others, but all offer the same amenities and conveniences that their counterparts in the cities have.
What makes them different is the view of the expansive natural landscape that surrounds them, their prime locations amidst Rwanda’s biodiversity, and the high level of comfort that they provide their guests with. Travelers should speak with their tour company about which luxury hotels or lodges they will be staying at while exploring.
Budget Travel in Rwanda
Budget travel in Rwanda is possible, but severely limits the range of activities which travelers can engage in. Since gorilla and chimpanzee tracking is a highly regulated activity, it very expensive. Therefore, travelers on a budget in Rwanda may opt to avoid these guided tours and instead choose ones which explore the park but do not have specific subjects.
This means that travelers will only have to pay the price of admission into the park along with their food and lodging costs (some of which are included in the tours themselves). Instead of safari tours, travelers on a budget may choose to investigate Rwanda’s booming art scene and the coffee industry.
Both the Niyo Art Gallery and Inema Art Centre are open to travelers and only cost the price of admission to enter. Collections change as new artists are introduced, allowing travelers to see different African and international art trends as they emerge. Similarly, the Kigali Genocide Memorial, Nyamata Church, and other museums are usually found on guided city tours.
These options cost both the admission price as well as any public transportation costs which may arise in getting to them. Hostels are scattered throughout Rwanda but may require more research than hotels or lodges.
When it comes to food, restaurants are relatively inexpensive, but travelers may also opt to visit local markets or food stands for meals on the go. Some guided tours have meals built into the original cost, which helps narrow down food options and save money.
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