Rwanda is not just the land of a thousand hills, it’s also the rising star of African eco-tourism. Nestled between the Congo, Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi, this pint-sized country is the perfect introduction to the sheer majesty of Africa’s landscape. Unlike its bigger neighbors or old favorite Kenya, which stretch for thousands of miles, Rwanda packs in lush rainforest, golden savannas, lakeside beaches and mist-veiled mountains in an area just a bit bigger than Wales. We’ve put together the best Rwanda travel tips for a two- to three week vacation. Read on and start planning!

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The environment comes first

Rwandans coming together for "umuganda"

Rwanda boasts unique flora and fauna and the people quickly realized that it’s worth protecting it. In fact, you’ll notice just how environmentally conscious the country is as soon as you step off the plane. For instance, plastic bags are banned and eagle-eyed airport guards stand ready to confiscate them, and, in 2016, the government created the country’s fourth national park, Gishwati-Mukura, home to golden monkeys and chimpanzees. Furthermore, they have pledged to increase the protected buffer zones around the well-visited Volcanoes National Park.

The government has also stood firm on the number of gorilla treks and small group numbers – limited to eight people and one hour – despite high demand. Consider booking a few activities through sustainable tour operators. Rwanda Eco-Tours Agency donates 20% of its profits back into local communities, while Gorilla Guardians, an NGO that helps reformed poachers and communities near the Volcanoes National Park find sustainable ways of living, organizes authentic village homestays.

Another initiative that contributes towards Rwanda’s sustainability program is “umuganda”. The word can be translated as  “coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome”.

“Umuganda” dates back to the 1960s and was introduced as a measure of individual contribution towards nation building. In 1998, in the aftermath of the genocide, it was reintroduced in order to reconstruct the country. Each citizen between 18 and 65 is obliged to participate in a wide variety of activities for three hours every last Saturday of the month. Activities often include work spanning infrastructure development and environmental protection – from building schools and hydroelectric plants to rehabilitating wetlands and creating highly productive agricultural plots. Tourists don’t have to take part but are encouraged to participate alongside locals.

Kigali – a friendly capital

Visiting an African capital usually includes choked traffic jams, polluted air and charmless, sprawling suburbs. Yet in Kigali’s case, this cannot be further away from the truth. Clean and calm with wide avenues shaded by flowering hibiscus trees and a growing cosmopolitan cafe scene, Kigali could probably scoop the top spot for being one of the safest capitals in East Africa.

For a taste of Kigali’s nascent cafe culture, visit Schokola Cafe. Located on the top floor of the public library, it’s as popular with travelers as it is with local students. Sink into the comfy sofas as you enjoy a freshly-made salad and smoothie, and browse around the art exhibits on display.

Discover one of Kigali’s most vibrant neighborhoods – Nyamirambo. A melting pot of different cultures, this neighborhood is home to most of the city’s working class and Muslim population, and you’ll find a wide array of bars, shops, hair salons and roadside vendors.

Book a walking tour offered by the Nyamirambo Women’s Center, an NGO started by 18 Rwandese women living in the area, and explore the area like a local. You’ll visit a women’s hairdressing salon (where you can get a free braid), followed by a stop into a family compound to pound cassava leaves and an introduction to local fabrics at a tailor shop. The tour ends with a delicious lunch made and served in the home of Aminatha, the center’s cook.

Nothing has shaped contemporary Rwandan society more than the tragic genocide in which one million people were killed in just 100 days. It’s a sobering start to a holiday but a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial is essential to grasping the sheer enormity of what happened and the collective trauma of this now peaceful nation.

A guide or audio tour informatively traces the political events leading up to the massacres, telling the heartbreaking stories of the victims. As well as offering a place of remembrance for survivors, the gardens are a final resting place for some 250,000 individuals killed during the genocide.

Where to stay in Kigali

The budget-friendly Five to Five Hotel, located a 10-minute drive from the airport, is clean and modern with a pleasant garden and outdoor terrace. For those looking for a bit more luxury, say access to a swimming pool and a spa, the Manor Hotel might be the right spot.

Check availability at Five to Five Hotel
Check availability at the Manor Hotel

Gorillas in the mist – Volcanoes National Park

Rwanda is one of the few places left in the world where the awe-inspiring, exhilarating and utterly humbling experience of seeing mountain gorillas in the wild is still possible. It’s hard to find the words to describe the feeling when you step into a forest clearing to see a family of 20 gorillas playing, eating, napping or simply lazing around.

Organize your tour through the Rwanda Development Board and be sure to book months in advance as spaces are limited. The treks depart daily from Musanze (a two-hour drive from Kigali), a lively market town with plenty of hostels and restaurants, making it a great base for other hikes in the area.

At $1650/person, gorilla trekking is definitely not cheap. Think of it not only as an investment towards your ‘bucket list’, but one that goes directly to the conservation of the park and the gorillas, more at risk than ever to the threat of poachers.

Lake Kivu – a tranquil escape by the water

Just an hour south of Volcanoes National Park is the town of Gisenyi (also known as Rubavu). Located on the shores of Lake Kivu, the second smallest of the African Great Lakes, and in the shadow of Nyiragongo, an active volcano just across the border in the Congo which glows red at night (yes, really!), Gisenyi is the perfect place to while away a few days on the waterfront and let your aching muscles recover from all the hiking. Stay at the Inzu Lodge, a boutique hotel with stone chalets and tented lodges dotted around its garden, all decorated with colorful waxed fabric and zen-inducing views of the lake. Sip a drink at one of the beach bars, and gaze at the fishermen rowing out in traditional wooden boats at sunset, fishing by candlelight throughout the night.

Check availability at Inzu Lodge

Nyungwe Forest – Rwanda’s biodiverse heaven

Head southwest, driving through the neatly clipped hills covered in bright green tea shrubs until you see the dense, dark forest of Nyungwe rise up. Said to be one of the best-preserved montane rainforests in Central Africa, the Nyungwe Forest National Park packs in 13 species of primates, a whopping 120 species of butterflies, birds and orchids as well as waterfalls and 80 miles of hiking trails.

To get a sense of the dizzying heights and rolling expansiveness of the forest, set from the Uwinka Reception Center and hike to the canopy walkway where, 165 feet above ground, you could find yourself eye to eye with a golden monkey. On the northwestern edge of the forest, you’ll find the Gisakura Tea Estate. Tea is Rwanda’s number one export and a visit to the plantation will uncover how tea is harvested, processed and how it’s brought to taste sweet.

Where to stay in Nyungwe

Stay at the Nyungwe Top View Hotel or, for more luxurious tastes, the exclusive Nyungwe Forest Lodge.

Check availability at the Nyungwe Top View Hill Hotel

Spot the “big five” in Akagera Safari Park

It’s time for a change of scenery. From the green, mountainous terrain of the south, head northeast to the dry savannas and swamp lakes of Akagera. Akagera National Park has all the ‘big five’ since lions and rhinoceros were reintroduced a few years ago. It may well be a relatively small safari park compared to other East African countries, but that will only boost your chances of spotting leopards, elephants, buffalo, zebras and hippos – to name but a few.

At $40 per person, it’s also much cheaper than other safari destinations and has several accommodation options on the grounds – from a tranquil lakeside lodge to a budget campsite.

Safety tip: stick to the marked roads and stay in your vehicle to avoid any unwanted encounters with the park’s Big Five.

Practical tips

When to go: the June to mid-September dry season is the ideal time to go as you’ll experience pleasant temperatures for hiking. Rwanda’s two rainy seasons usually fall in October-November and March-May.

Safety tips: Rwanda is generally a safe country with low crime levels, but you should still take some precautions. Refrain from carrying large amounts of cash on you, avoid walking around unknown areas at night and try not to drive after dark if possible.

Apart from Kigali and the central areas of larger cities, street lighting is close to zero so carry a flashlight with you, ready for the fast-falling equatorial nights. If you’re planning on visiting neighboring countries Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi make sure to check the foreign travel advice of your country before the trip.

Money and transport: there is an ATM in Kigali airport where you can withdraw Rwandan Francs, but not all the ATMs in the capital accept foreign credit cards. While credit cards are increasingly accepted in bars and restaurants, don’t count on it outside of Kigali.

Public minibuses are a cheap ‘n’ cheerful way to delve into Rwandan life. Most of them run on less rigorous schedule and won’t leave until completely full. If you’re pushed for time during your trip, you can rent a jeep for around $70/day.

Food: the food is simple, wholesome and tasty, and while it can be carb-heavy, the ubiquitous ‘Rwandan buffet’ is varied enough to keep everyone (including vegetarians) happy. Think fried green banana, rice and vegetables, beans, peanut or chilli sauce, roasted goat and fried fish. Some of the dishes you’ll get to taste are: umutsima (a dish of cassava and corn), isombe (cassava leaves with eggplant and spinach) and mizuzu (fried plantains). If you find yourself close to a lake, you’ll find fish like tilapia and sambaza (a type of sardine typically found in Lake Kivu) on the menu as well.

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About the author

Olivia BurcheaDie-hard bookworm and relaxation whiz – meet Olivia, one of our Content Editors. Growing up, Olivia spent most of her time reading literature and visiting bookshops. If she’s not buried in some novel, you’ll find her sipping coffee, riding her bike or planning a new getaway to Europe’s many cities and East Asia. Next on her list: Japan and Italy.

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