The opportunity to sit in close proximity to a critically endangered mountain gorilla is the undisputable highlight of a visit to Rwanda. Mountain gorilla trekking is the top tourism attraction of this small land-locked country and has elevated Rwanda’s status as a travel destination. But taking the time to venture beyond the gorillas is a rewarding experience in a country full of natural and cultural highlights.
There is more to Rwanda than tracking the world’s largest primate. Many travellers who visit Volcanoes National Park as a short add-on to an East African travel itinerary wish they could stay longer. And many of them return – like I did – to travel beyond the gorillas and learn more about the country.
I discovered that Rwanda is now considered one of Africa’s safest and most peaceful countries, as it sheds the negative perception of a divisive past that culminated in the horrific genocide in 1994.
I met friendly locals, energised and excited about their future.
And I felt inspired by the character of a nation that is embracing forgiveness and remorse to drive reconciliation and progression.
I travelled through spectacular landscapes, enjoyed incredible wildlife encounters and noticed a strong emphasis on conservation and eco-tourism. With a small land area of 26,338 sq km I was able to cover most of the country’s main attractions in a two-week period. And whilst I never felt rushed, I could easily have stayed longer.
But whilst there is no doubt that Rwanda’s attractions extend beyond the mountain gorillas, there is also no doubt that tracking the gorillas remains the highlight. It’s an unforgettable encounter that keeps Rwanda on the tourist map and it’s the number one reason most people choose the country as a travel destination.
Located in the southwest corner of the country, Nyungwe is one of Africa’s oldest and most diverse forests (having stayed green during the ice age) and covers more than 1,000 square km’s. The beautiful lush terrain can be explored on the ground via a number of hiking trails or from above on a spectacular canopy walkway. It is home to more than 300 bird and 13 primate species, with large troops of chimpanzees and black and white colobus monkeys being the main attractions.
Most visitors spend 2-3 nights to enjoy the guided wildlife treks, but hikers, photographers and lovers of the great outdoors could easily spend longer in what was my favourite destination in Rwanda.
I first visited Kigali in 2009 and found it almost unrecognisable when I returned in 2017. Clean and safe with tree-lined streets, green inner-city parks, a vibrant nightlife and attractive architecture, the country’s capital offers a number of attractions warranting a multi-night stay.
But arguably the most important – and difficult - site to visit in Kigali is the Genocide Museum. Located at Gisozi where 259,000 victims have been buried, it’s a memorial to those who lost their lives and a place of reflection for those impacted by the atrocities of the genocide. It also has a museum that serves to educate future generations about the events that lead to the atrocities in both Rwanda and other countries, in the hope it leads to it never happening again.
It’s a heart-breaking and difficult museum to visit, but understanding the events that led to the genocide, the extent of the brutality and the personal tales of betrayal are important for any traveller in Rwanda – not only to respect the country’s history but to appreciate the spirit of a nation that is reconciling, reunifying and rebuilding at an inspiring rate.
TIP: If possible, visit the museum at the start of your trip instead of the end, to appreciate how far Rwanda has progressed and the challenges it still faces as you travel through the country.
Rwanda’s only savannah reserve is located in the north east of the country, alongside the border with Tanzania. Years of war and poaching, followed by the re-allocation of land to returning refugees, contributed to a devastating decline in the park’s wildlife. But a joint venture with African Parks has seen a shift in focus to conservation initiatives in the past decade. And with the recent re-introduction of lions and rhino, Akagera is East Africa’s newest Big 5 destination.
It would unreasonable to compare wildlife viewing in Akagera with some of the more popular safari destinations in East Africa, but it can certainly lay claim to being one of the most scenic. The combination of lakes, forests, mountains, swamps and savannah plains is spectacular and provides the opportunity to search for wildlife on both land and water.
TIP: Hiring a local guide for the day is optional, but as these guides are freelancers who live in neighbouring communities and are being trained by African Parks, it’s a great way to contribute to the conservation and sustainability of Akagera.
Although the mountain gorillas are the main stars of Volcanoes National Park, there are a number of other treks and activities available. One of the most popular - and one of my favourite activities during my visit – is the golden monkey trek. Endangered and almost endemic to the Virunga volcanoes, the opportunity to observe these playful troops with their bright orange bodies is both rare and rewarding.
Lake Kivu’s location provides the perfect stopover between Nyungwe and Volcanoes National Park, but it deserves more than one night, with the lakeside towns of Karongi and Gisenyi providing a number of scenic accommodation options by the water.
With the beginning of the Congo Nile Trail nearby, there are a number of biking and hiking trails for active travellers. Whilst those looking to relax can enjoy a boat trip or other water-based activities, visit one of the nearby tea and coffee plantations or simply relax and enjoy the breath-taking views of the peaceful lake and surrounding mountains.
TIP: Find a quiet spot by the lake at sunset and relax with a drink listening to the melodic tunes of local fisherman drift across the lake, as they head out for the night on their traditional fishing boats.
Located just outside Virunga Volcanoes National Park, this cultural village takes visitors back in time in a fun and interactive setting, with demonstrations of traditional rituals and cultural activities taking place in front of the imposing Sabyinyo Volcano. Visitors enter the living museum under a sign introducing the “gorilla guardians village” as friendly locals welcome them with drumming, singing and dancing.
Run by local communities for local communities, the village was the brainchild of Edwin Sabuhoro who has been recognised as a ‘CNN Hero’ for his efforts in gorilla conservation and transforming the lives of communities who previously relied on poaching as a desperate source of income for their families. Concerned by the level of poaching in the area, he left his job as a gorilla tracker in 2004 to pose as a buyer for a kidnapped baby gorilla. Not only did he find the perpetrators, he spent time with them to understand their motives and work with them to identify alternative income streams. More than a decade on, these ex-poachers now refer to themselves as “guardians of the gorillas” and one such alternative income is the cultural village.
TIP: If you visit the cultural village and book your gorilla trekking permit through Rwanda Eco Tours, they include a ‘goat for gorilla’ option, where part of your fee pays for a goat that it distributed to a family within the local community, reinforcing the ‘gorillas brings tourists, tourists bring income, lets protect the gorillas’ message.
Rwanda is rated as one of the top five destinations in the world for bird watching and has one of the highest bird counts on the continent. More than 700 species have been recorded in Rwanda with many of these endemic to the country.
Located between Musanze and the Ugandan border, Lake Burera and Lake Ruhonda lie beside each other in an area of stunning natural beauty. Travellers with deep pockets can be rewarded with breathtaking views of the lake from exclusive Virunga Lodge that sits on a quiet hilltop that also offers panoramic views of the Virunga Volcanoes.
Others can easily fill a day exploring the area, especially bird watchers. I detoured via the lakes on my way back to Kigali from Musanze. The spectacular view from Virunga Lodge was rewarding, but just as enjoyable was the picturesque drive along countryside roads, through the small villages in the area.
TIP: If you can’t afford the overnight stay, visiting Virunga Lodge for a drink on a clear day offers the same views and is well worth the detour.
The roads linking the attractions of Rwanda are a highlight within themselves. Those on foot outnumber vehicles and the roads and countryside are full of life with children pushing old tyres along the road with sticks, women in vibrant coloured dress balancing bundles of grass on their heads with ease, farmers working in rice fields, vendors selling brightly coloured fruits on road-side stalls, young men on motorbikes transporting neighbours from market to home, tethered cows and goats chewing on grass, powerful cyclists pushing themselves through the ‘land of a thousand hills’…
And above all – a friendly wave and a smile from some of the friendliest people you will meet in the world.