Given its turbulent recent history, the question everyone asked before I set off for Rwanda, was "is it safe?" I'll get this answered straight away - YES. Our foreign office now confirms this and, over the past year, British visitors to Rwanda grew 21% to 16,000.
The introduction of RwandAir flights from London to Kigali has been a major boost, alongside the £30 million 'Visit Rwanda' sponsorship deal with the Arsenal football team. It’s an emerging destination which passionately welcomes visitors.
I was lucky enough to spend a whole week travelling around Rwanda, also known as the 'Land of a Thousand Hills'. If you like wildlife, adventure and culture, it’s definitely for you. I was curious to discover if Rwanda is about more than the endangered mountain gorillas, so we spent the first five days of our trip on a circular journey from Kigali to Lake Kivu, discovering what else Rwanda travel has to offer.
I also wanted to understand how Rwanda is now set up for tourism. I already knew about the exclusive luxury lodges (upwards of USD$1,000 a night), but how about visitors looking to for somewhere mid-range? What about family-friendly options?
As we disembarked from our excellent RwandAir flight, we were met on arrival at Kigali airport. Leaving the airport, the first thing which struck us was how clean it was. I mean 'Singapore clean' - just a little more rustic. Plastic bags are already illegal in Rwanda, and plastic bottles are soon to follow. There is an enormous focus on conservation and keeping the natural environment pristine. Straight away, I felt massively inspired.
A Kigali stopover is a great way to settle into a Rwanda holiday. With our brilliant guide Eric, we visited the hustle and bustle of a local market, a milk bar where locals take their containers for a refill and an excellent coffee demo by local brewers. We also stopped by an amazing project called Azizi Life, which supports local artists and craftspeople.
In Kigali, we also visited the incredibly moving Genocide Memorial. In the space of just 100 days in 1994, over a million Tutsi people were slaughtered. It’s an unimaginably awful part of Rwanda’s history. The memorial will help you understand what happened and appreciate the remarkable journey that Rwanda has been on ever since.
We stayed at the delightful 'Heaven', a boutique hotel with an incredible restaurant that recruits, trains and supports local people in a variety of careers. There’s a refreshing pool to splash about in, as well as a jacuzzi and spa. It was a lovely place to start the trip.
Leaving Kigali, we were quickly into rural Rwanda. As a lucky coincidence, we were travelling over 'Umuganda', a post-genocide celebration in the spirit of reconciliation and rebuilding. On Umuganda Day, whole communities come together to work on a specific project instigated by community leaders. This can be anything from repairing houses and building bridges to simply working the land. As we travelled, we saw hundreds of people at work. We even saw president Paul Kagame was getting stuck into Umuganda!
We took a break on our stunning 5-hour drive to the chimpanzees of Nyungwe National Park (where - remarkably - we didn’t see another tourist!) at the Kitabi Eco Centre for lunch. After a bite to eat, we stopped again at the new Nyungwe Forest Canopy Walk. Not for the faint-hearted, this fabulous 200-metre canopy walkway is set within the Nyungwe forest. The views are spectacular, and it's hard to imagine taking a fresher breath of air.
Despite the major draw of chimpanzees, the accommodation near Nyungwe is limited. We stayed in Gisakura at the quirky 'Top View Hotel', with magnificent views over the hills to Lake Kivu and, in the distance, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The next morning, we made an early start for our chimpanzee trek, which requires a reasonable level of fitness and a decent walking kit. We had a guide, walking sticks and a porter to carry our day packs ($10 per bag - well worth it to support a local family).
This trek took us down thin and often steep, slippery pathways. The troop can move quite quickly, so it's inevitable that you'll need to go a bit 'off-piste' to see them. Further ahead of us in the forest, local trackers with machetes cut a path and sent radio messages to our guide, telling him where to go. After an hour and a half, we spotted our first chimpanzees chilling up a tree. Wow!
Next, we travelled to Karongi, on the shore of Lake Kivu. I can’t recall a more spectacular or heart-warming drive. We opened the roof of our Safari Landcruiser and stood up, waving at the locals as we passed. It was clear from their smiles that the people were thrilled to see us. For me, this journey was a totally unexpected highlight of the trip.
Arriving at Kivu Lodge at sunset, we heard the local fishermen singing as they went to catch sambaza (like sardines) on the lake. At Kivu Lodge, there’s a refreshing infinity pool and terrace for sundowners overlooking the lake. Bliss.
Lake Kivu, like the rest of Rwanda, is beautifully clean. It's full of uninhabited little islands packed with wildlife, so the next morning, we got up early to kayak in the calm waters. It’s a bit like New Zealand's Bay of Islands, just without any people - a gorgeous way to spend a Monday!
Moving up the Eastern shore of Lake Kivu, we arrived at Paradis Malahide, a small, mid-range and very Rwandan property with a particularly excellent restaurant and bar area. From here, it’s possible to head out in the kayaks among the singing fishermen as they begin their work for the night. This stuff isn’t staged for the tourists - it's an incredibly authentic and brilliant African experience.
This was my favourite day of our whole trip. We headed to the lovely 5 Volcanoes Hotel in Musanze (Ruhengeri) for a morning coffee and, from here, we hopped on some excellent mountain bikes that we'd pre-organised via our local operator. After a short bit of uphill pedalling, we cycled on dusty tracks through rural communities.
Again we were the only travellers here, and we waved at hundreds of locals on the way. At the same time, smiley Rwandan kids ran alongside us. I must have 'high fived' around 250 kids that morning. Every now and then, we stopped to park up our bikes, and friendly locals would inquisitively gather to chat with us. Visitors are seen as a blessing in Rwandan culture, so you’ll find a warm welcome wherever you go.
After a quick bite at Virunga Lodge, with breath-taking views of the 5 volcanoes and lakes in the North of Rwanda, we took a gentle canoeing trip down the Mukungwa River. On the way, we spotted exotic birdlife and waved at the locals working the land. Making this peaceful journey at sunset was blissful.
Before our Rwanda Gorilla Trek, I was fortunate enough to stay in the outstanding Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, just outside Volcanoes National Park. It's cooler up here and the evening log fires made it feel incredibly homely. It was easily the most expensive place I stayed on this trip (over $1,000 a night) but it was truly exceptional, with stunning volcano views.
Recently, the Rwanda Development Bureau doubled the price of gorilla trekking permits from $750 (similar to neighbouring Uganda) to $1500. Why? The answer is simple - all permit money is used to protect this magnificent species and help local communities (and to deter the rise of wealthier travellers from snapping up all the permits for a ‘private’ trek). There are only 96 permits per day with 8 people maximum in each trek. Each permit allows a maximum of 1 hour of gorilla interaction, but that hour is packed with 'once in a lifetime’ magic. It’s worth every penny.
At the time of writing this (November 2018), the gorilla permits can be reduced to $1050 if visiting Rwanda’s other National Parks (Akagera or Nungwe) between November and May. This is well worth knowing! We travelled to Rwanda in November. Officially, this is the wet season and, while we did see a little rain, we had plenty of sunshine too and the temperature was lovely.
This was utterly mind-blowing. We were accompanied by an excellent guide and we each paid $10 for a porter to carry our daypacks. There were several trackers up ahead, looking out for the gorillas. You can choose an easy, medium or hard trek, depending on your mobility and fitness. We opted for an easy to medium trek, which was about an hour and a half.
Our trackers hacked a path, and there was a bit of crawling (which felt like a proper adventure!) before spotting our first gorilla. We arrived at feeding time, so the gorillas we were tracking were on the move. Our guide took us closer, through more undergrowth that led to a small clearing. What happened next will stay with me forever…
Suddenly, two baby gorillas came into the clearing with their mums, followed by an enormous silverback. The babies played around, and the silverback sat upright, protecting his clan. The gorillas were only 2-3 metres away, and clearly comfortable with our presence. We sat very still with our mouths open in complete awe (and – yes - there were a few tears in the group!).
Never has a destination exceeded my expectations as much as Rwanda. I have never felt such warmth, trust and happiness from the local people. So is there more to Rwanda than gorillas? Absolutely! The scenery is spectacular, and there’s an abundance of culture and wildlife (including a 'big 5' safari in Akagera National Park which I would also enjoy next time!).
In terms of accommodation, there are plenty of luxury ‘high end’ options in Rwanda. However, I also unearthed some more affordable mid-range gems and family-friendly lodges.
We’ll hand-pick accommodation to create an amazing tailor-made itinerary that matches your budget. This can include all accommodation, National Park fees, trekking permits, drivers, vehicles, guides, excursions (e.g. kayaking and mountain biking) and most meals along the way.
It’s also possible to combine Rwanda with other destinations. If you're after a simple beach extension, why not ask us about including some time in Zanzibar? For longer trips, we can include Rwanda on any multi-stop flight route or Round the World itinerary. To plan a trip that includes Rwanda, call us on +44 1273320580 or request a quote by email.