Visit Rwanda

Rwanda Travel & Conservation: Part 1

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” T.S. Eliot

Rwanda, Land of A Thousand Hills, is a small country in Central/East Africa.  While it may ring a bell as the scene of a tragic genocide in 1994, this beautiful country has made remarkable progress and has so much to offer. The Rwanda I know is full of kind-hearted and welcoming people, magnificent animals, and beautiful landscapes. Kigali, the bustling capital, is a testament to how far the country has recovered and rebuilt from just 25 years ago. It boasts an impressive Convention Center that opened in 2016 that features all of the modern technologies while acknowledging tradition through design. The lights on the outside of the dome are a spectacle at night and represent the threads of a woven basket. There are a variety of international restaurants to discover in an around the city center.  New-age fitness centers are popping up around town. There are also several areas to find great nightlife complete with live music and dancing.

Rwanda also has national parks and lakes that offer a variety of activities. Akagera National Park lies in the east and is Rwanda’s only Big 5 park. Here you can do a self-guided or guided safari and take a helicopter tour. The park offers a variety of accommodations. Nyungwe Forest National Park in the southwest offers chimpanzee treks, waterfall hikes, and other opportunities to explore the Rainforest and its inhabitants. Volcanoes National Park lies in the northwest and offers a once in a lifetime, up close and personal experience observing the natural behaviors and social interactions of critically-endangered mountain gorillas. The park also offers the chance to track other primates and has several hiking opportunities. Lake Kivu in the west offers relaxing getaways, good dining, swimming, and kayaking. Gishwati-Mukura National Park is Rwanda’s newest park proclaimed in 2015.  It is not far from Lake Kivu. I have not visited yet but you can bet it is on my list of things to do on my next trip! The park’s website will give you all of the information needed to plan your visit. The best part yet is by exploring what the national parks have to offer you will be supporting preservation of delicate habitats, endangered species, and supporting the livelihood of local communities.

Below I have organized by region exciting opportunities to explore as well as some suggestions for accommodation and transportation. I have also included some dining recommendations based on personal experience.

Helpful Tips:


Driving: I would not recommend driving in Rwanda on your first visit. Roads can be rather chaotic and dangerous especially with motos zigging in and out and no clear distinction of lanes. It is possible to drive once you understand how things work depending on your comfort level thereafter.

Public Restrooms: Toilets in businesses in Kigali are up to international standards. Toilets at bus/rest stops and around gas stations, especially in rural areas are minimal/sometimes questionable and I recommend carrying toilet paper with you and if you are female bring along your Tinkle Belle.

https://thetinklebelle.com.

Special Gear: If you plan on exploring one of the national parks you will want to either tuck your pants into your socks (so wear socks that are long enough), bring a pair of gaiters that cover the bottom of your pants, or borrow/rent a pair from your hotel. If you go to Nyungwe, especially in the rainy season, take rain gear. You can also rent rain gear once there.

Central: Kigali & Surrounding Areas

View from Remera. Kigali April 2019. By Laura Peirson.

Where to Stay

Chez Lando Hotel: Offers different room types and has a bar area with a pool table that serves food as well as a fancier restaurant upstairs. I usually eat in the bar area as the menu has plenty of options including vegetarian and I enjoy the laid back atmosphere. The included comprehensive breakfast buffet is something I have always looked forward to! There is a great gift shop on the premises which sells locally crafted goods.

https://www.chezlando.com/

Umubano Hotel – 4 Star: Offers a Sunday brunch that includes use of the swimming pool The pool is getting a face-lift this year but was open in April 2019 when I last visited so check the website for updates! The egg salad baguettes and strawberry tarts at the onsite bakery are scrumptious.

Airbnb:

Enat House: Home Away From Home. I am so glad I found this place as it felt so much like home that I am excited to go back. It is in Remera and you can find everything you are looking for within walking distance. There is a lovely green space just across the street and plenty of roads to run on (I prefer the dirt roads through the neighborhood to the main paved roads).

Use this link to get 15% off your booking up to $400 plus $15 towards an experience worth $50 or more.

https://www.airbnb.com/c/lpeirson?currency=USD

Kigali Marriott Hotel – 5-star: Offers a sparkling pool and posh brunch with an incredible spread. You can upgrade to the Champagne brunch and I highly recommend doing so!

What to Do

Kigali Genocide Memorial: You will need time to pull yourself together a bit after visiting so plan your day accordingly.

Rwanda Art Museum: This is the site of the old presidential palace.

Music/Nightlife: Remera is a prime location with several venues to choose from on KG 18 Ave such as 514 Club & Rosty Club. Kimihurura also offers music. Lavana is a restaurant that also offers regular events including music, game nights, showings of movies and series such as Game of Thrones, and hosts talent shows.

Shopping: Kigali Heights offers a variety of shops as well as restaurants and cafes. I am not that into shopping but there is a store with amazing art on the first floor. I bought 2 paintings from here that were both colorful oil paintings of wildlife.

Sunday brunch/swimming: See Kigali Marriott Hotel and Umubano Hotel under Where to Stay.

Mamba Club: This place has bowling lanes, a sand volleyball court, a swimming pool, bar, and serves food.

Coming Soon! – Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association’s Umusambi Village: Providing opportunities for guests to observe and learn about endangered grey crowned cranes in a natural habitat facility along with RWCA’s other conservation efforts in Rwanda.

Where to Eat

  • Sole Luna – great italian food and of course wine!
  • Monmartsé- Korean – come hungry!
  • Legend Chinese Restaurant
  • Meze Fresh – Mexican (Chipotle style)
  • Asian Kitchen – tasty and fresh Thai cuisine
  • Question Coffee – great spot with all of your favorites and a cute deck
  • Lavana – the pizza is very good as they have a wood burning oven
  • Lalibela – Ethiopian, note they were only taking cash when I visited

Getting Around

Walk: I typically stay in the Remera area and can get everywhere I want to go on foot.

Taxi: This is the best/safest option and not expensive. Agree on a price first and show them where you want to go on a map. You can find a taxi outside of hotels or busy restaurants, bars, and other businesses.

Moto: This is an inexpensive option. Take precautions and ask the driver to go slow. Agree on a price first and show them where you want to go on a map. Make sure they give you a helmet that fits and snaps correctly. They are available literally everywhere.

Bus: Probably the least expensive option, crowded as they wait until the whole bus is packed before departing but a good option. Bus stops are obvious as you will see benches and a crowd of people and there are also larger bus stations that offer national routes such as Nyabugogo.

West

Lake Kivu

Gisenyi Beach House. Lake Kivu April 2019. By Laura Peirson.

Where to Stay

Gisenyi: This is the most developed area on the Rwanda side of Lake Kivu.

Lake Kivu Serena Hotel: While too expensive for my budget to stay overnight, I have paid to use the pool while indulging in a delicious lunch washed down with a cold beer. The pool over looks the hotel’s beach on Lake Kivu.

Airbnb: Offers many great choices!

Gisenyi Beach House. This is where we stayed. It was perfect and dreamy with access to a private beach.

Use this link to get 15% off your booking up to $400 plus $15 towards an experience worth $50 or more.

https://www.airbnb.com/c/lpeirson?currency=USD

What to Do

Swim: Our Airbnb was right on a small sandy beach that only serviced a few residences and we had it to ourselves the whole time.

Take a boat ride

Kayak

Mountain Bike

Unwind

Getting There: See Akagera National Park options below.

Northeast

Hippos in Lake Ihema. Akagera National Park. April 2019. By Alex Cortellesi

Akagera National Park

Where to Stay

Akagera Game Lodge: This is where I have stayed on my four visits to Akagera. The rooms are lovely and the beds are dreamy. While there in 2019 the lodge was actively making improvements as well. There is a refreshing and clean pool with beautiful views. There is also a bar for poolside service and they have towels for you to use. There is a main bar and restaurant. The restaurant offers a great breakfast buffet which is included with your stay ($100USD/night as of April 2019). They also serve lunch and dinner and offer a dinner buffet option. The food is good.

Other Accommodations: You may also choose from the Akagera Tented Lodge, Karenge Bush Camp, and three basic campgrounds. While I have not explored these options the park’s website will provide general information.

What to Do

Game Drives: Self-guided or hire a guide. Akagera is Rwanda’s only Big 5 park and you will have the chance to see a lot of wildlife!

Wildlife Safaris: Multi-day game drives

Boat ride: Take a motor boat ride out onto Lake Ihema. You will have the chance to see wildlife on the water’s edge such as hippos, elephants, and crocodiles.

Cultural Tours

Swim at the lodge

Getting There

Tour operator: Using a tour operator will likely be the easiest way to organize your trip especially if you plan to visit multiple destinations. I can recommend Amahoro Tours in Rwanda as they organized a trip for my partner and I in which we also crossed into DRC. They did a fantastic job taking care of visas and permits and organizing accommodations within our budget.

https://www.amahoro-tours.com/

Hire a driver: If you have friends or colleagues in Rwanda they may be able to recommend a local driver who will not only get you to and from your destination but drive you around once there. We used a driver who happened to be best friend’s with a local colleague of mine. We paid 100,000 Rwandan francs/day which covered his accommodation and meals.

Bus: You can catch a national bus from the Nyabugogo Bus Station in Kigali to various destinations. The national bus stations typically have larger swarms of people and can seem overwhelming but you will find people very helpful. I took a bus from Nyabugogo to Musanze and searched for kiosks that said Kigali-Musanze. Just confirm when you board the bus that you are indeed in the right place. Perhaps take some cash with you if you will be travelling through the countryside. The buses will stop at suitable rest areas where you will find toilets and stands selling food. Refer to my helpful tip on public restrooms!

Northwest & West

Gorilla Trek. (DRC 2016). By Alex Cortellesi.

Volcanoes National Park

Where to Stay

Lodges: You will find several lodges to choose from on their website. I have yet to stay here so I cannot give your personal recommendations.

What to Do

Mountain Gorilla Trekking: This is an incredible opportunity to observe while getting very close to critically-endangered mountain gorillas. While I had my amazing encounter in DRC, very close friends have organized their treks through Volcanoes and were very happy with the experience. You will need to book a permit ahead of time which you can obtain through a tour operator or by contacting the Rwanda Development Board who is the governing body of tourism. The price is $1,500USD (2019) though you can get a 30% discount depending on when you visit and if you are planning to visit other parks in Rwanda. See the park’s website for details.

Note: This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and one not to be missed!

Golden Monkey Tracking: I have yet to experience but I have heard from colleagues that this was a very good experience.

Hiking: Visit the website to see the many options.

Getting There – See Akagera National Park options.

Note: We used Amahoro tours the first year we went to Rwanda to do gorilla trekking in the DRC and they organized everything for us. They worked with contacts in DRC to help with border crossing, accommodation, park permits, and transportation. 

We did our gorilla trek in DRC in Virunga National Park in 2016 on a recommendation and as it was much cheaper. However, due to the political climate in DRC I am unable to make a personal recommendation. Please gather as much information as you can regarding safety and use your best judgement.

Gishwati Mukura National Park

It looks as thought there are many species of birds, trees, and primates to observe. At this point I would recommend using the contact form on their website to obtain further information.

Southwest

Imbaraga Hike. Nyungwe Forest National Park May 2019. By Alex Cortellesi.

Nyungwe Forest National Park

Where to Stay

Lodges: The park’s website has information on surrounding accommodation options. While we didn’t stay here, we visited the Nyungwe Top View Hotel and had a beer while admiring the breathtaking views. It was definitely worth visiting and why not invite your driver to join you.

The Gisakura Guest House: We stayed here when we visited Nyungwe. It was affordable, comfortable, offered free WiFi, and had a restaurant that accommodated our vegetarian requests.

What to Do

Chimpanzee Trek: Our Chimpanzee trek was fast paced and exciting. You move with the troop once you find them. Our guides managed to get us so close that we were under the trees where the chimps were eating. They all decided to come down and make a lot of intimidating noises while doing so. It is of course important to respect their space and listen to your guides.

Primates of Nyungwe: There are opportunities to see many other species of primates in the park including the endangered Rwenzori Colobus which I would have loved to see. I guess that means I will need to go back!

Hiking: The park offers multiple trails. The Canopy Walk is one of the most popular (though I have never done it). My favorite so far is the Isumo Waterfall Trail as the hike was beautiful and the waterfall was powerful and spectacular. The Imbarago Trail was also beautiful as you pass 4 different waterfalls though it was just a bit harder for me as I tend to have difficulty breathing at higher elevations.

Gisakura Tea Estate: You may visit the Gisakura Tea Estate as well. If you do the Isumo Waterfall Trail then you will go through the tea plantation first.

Getting There: See Akagera National Park options.

Rwanda Travel & Conservation: Part 2 :

Saving Grey Crowned Cranes

I hope you found this post to be informative and inspiring! Rwanda is a must on your to do list. Please leave comments with any questions and let me know what information I might have missed that would be beneficial.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where I share how I fell in love with Rwanda and her endangered grey crowned cranes and the amazing work being done to protect them.

Thank you for reading!

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