Rwanda

Embrace the Land of a Thousand Hills

Rwanda Travel Guide

Known as the ‘land of a thousand hills’, Rwanda is making the headlines again – and this time, it’s for all the right reasons. With the devastating genocide behind it, this small, landlocked nation has emerged as one of Africa’s most exciting destinations. A tangible sense of optimism resonates from its towns, cities and colourful villages, which welcome foreign visitors with wide smiles and open arms.

The transformation of this country has been remarkable. In 1994 nearly one million inhabitants were slaughtered senselessly in their homes, churches and streets. It was one of the darkest days in modern African history and, at the time, it was almost unthinkable that Rwanda could bounce back.

But is has. In fact the country has even blazed a trail for others to follow, particularly when it comes to gender equality (in 2014 there were more women in parliament here than anywhere else in the world) and conservation.

Indeed the country is a pioneer in eco tourism, which it has used to fund conservation projects such as mountain gorilla protection in the steamy forests of Volcanoes National Park. Trekking to see these endangered primates is the main attraction in Rwanda, where the famous zoologist, Dian Fossey, studied the great apes and inspired the Hollywood film Gorillas in the Mist.

It’s not all about gorillas, though. Nyungwe Forest is one of the largest remaining rainforests in Africa and is home to 13 primates, including chimpanzees and colobus monkeys, as well as rare orchids and nearly 300 species of bird. And, although landlocked, Rwanda still manages to serve up a coastal vibe on the shores of Lake Kivu, with beaches at Gisenyi and coves at Kibuye.

It’s also worth spending a few days in the capital, Kigali: a cool, calm and cosmopolitan city, whose rising skyline reflects the country’s lofty ambitions. Join hip young things in Hillywood, the beating heart of Kigali’s fledgling film industry, or imbibe the vibe in the city’s burgeoning collection of bars, restaurants and hotels, which are helping put this country back on the map.

Rwanda History, Language and Culture

History of Rwanda

To set Rwanda’s recent history in a context, you need to go as far back as the late 13th century when pastoral Tutsi tribes arrived from the south and conquered the Hutu and Twa inhabitants of Rwanda, establishing a feudal kingdom.

The Rwandan population was originally made up of 18 different tribes and the terms Bahutu, Batutsi and Batwa were largely socio-economic groupings with the Tutsis as the wealthiest, the Hutus as the farmers and the Batwa pygmies as the marginalised group.

A unified state was established by King Kigeri Rwabuguri during the 19th century, but this lasted only until 1890 when Rwanda was annexed as a province of German East Africa. When the Belgians came in the 1920s (after what turned out to be a brief occupation by Germany) they embarked on an aggressive campaign to divide the population into three different groups.

In an act that helped sow the seeds of genocide, the Belgians sponsored the dominance of the Tutsi minority at the expense of the Hutu, but were forced, in the 1960s, to concede independence under majority Hutu rule. Violence between Hutus and Tutsis started to flare up, culminating in the Rwandan Genocide of 1994: a 100 days of carnage during which some one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered, while the international community looked on.

Nowadays, peace prevails in Rwanda. The distinctions between Hutus and Tutsis have been resigned to the history books: everyone is simply Rwandan. Rather than being haunted by its bloody past, Rwanda has moved on to become one of Africa’s most progressive nations. In 2013 there were more women in parliament here than any other county on Earth and the country is embarking on a series pioneering conservation and environmental initiatives.

Justice is still being served. UN war tribunals are still bringing the architects of the genocide to justice, while an intense programme of education continues to ensure ethnic violence never occurs here again.

Did you know?
• Once a month Rwandans participate in Umuganda – a day of national housekeeping where everyone, including the president, cleans the streets.
• Rwanda was one of the first countries in the world to ban plastic bags.
Lions were successfully reintroduced to the country in 2015 after an absence of 16 years.

Rwanda Culture

Religion:

Roman Catholic 57%, Protestant 26%, Adventist 11%, Islam 5%, indigenous beliefs 0.1%, none 2%

Language in Rwanda

The official languages are Kinyarwanda, French and English. Kiswahili is used for trade and commerce.

Rwanda Weather, climate and geography

Weather & climate

Best time to visit:

Despite its proximity to the equator, due to the high altitude of most of the country, Rwanda has a temperate climate with temperatures not often climbing above 25C. The long dry season is from June to September and there are two annual rainy seasons, the first from mid-March until the beginning of June and small rains from mid-September to December. The best time for gorilla and monkey tracking is the dry season – if only to spare you getting drenched (you can still see them in the rain, they just get a bit grumpy). The dry season is also good if you want to see game in Akagera National Park because thirst will draw the animals to the watering holes. You will also find at this time the roads are less dangerous and the risk of malaria is lower. The rainy season is the best time to see chimpanzees and is also the time when the place is at its most lush and green.

Required clothing:

Lightweights are required for most of the year with warmer clothes for cooler upland evenings. Rainwear is advisable.

Geography

Rwanda is a small mountainous country in central Africa, bordered to the north by Uganda, to the east by Tanzania, to the south by Burundi and to the west by the Democratic Republic of Congo. The country is divided by great peaks of up to 3,000m (9,842ft), which run across the country from north to south. The Virunga volcanoes, rising steeply from Lake Kivu in the west, slope down first to a hilly central plateau and further eastwards to an area of marshy lakes around the upper reaches of the A’Kagera River, where the A’Kagera National Park is situated.

Area:

26,338 sq km (10,169 sq miles).

Population:

12.7 million (2015).

Population density:

480.7 per sq km.

Capital:

Kigali.

Government:

Republic.

Head of state:

President Paul Kagame since 2000.

Head of government:

Prime Minister Anastase Murekezi since 2014.

Electricity:

230 volts AC, 50Hz. European-style plugs with two round pins are most commonly used.

Rwanda Visa and Passport Requirements

  Passport required Return ticket required Visa required
Australian Yes Yes Yes
British Yes Yes Yes
Canadian Yes Yes Yes
Other EU Yes Yes Yes
USA Yes Yes Yes

 

Passports: 

A passport valid for six months from the date of entry is required by all nationals referred to in the chart above to enter Rwanda.

Visas: 

Visas for Rwanda are required by all nationals referred to in the chart above. Nationals of Australia, Germany, Sweden, the UK and the USA can purchase a visa on arrival. All other nationals listed in the chart must obtain a visa in advance.

All travellers require a yellow fever vaccination certificate.

Travellers who are also visiting Kenya and Uganda may find it more useful to apply for an East Africa cross-border joint visa which allows entry into all three countries on a single visa.

Nationals not referred to in the chart are advised to contact the embassy to check visa requirements for Rwanda.

 

Visa note: 

A single-entry visa on arrival is also available to nationals who do not have a Rwandan embassy or consulate in their country. If this applies to you, visit www.migration.gov.rw to request a visa online.

Types and cost: 

Visa on arrival (if eligible): US$30.

Single-entry visa: £23; multiple-entry visa: £40; tourist visa: £40; East African tourist visa: £77.

Validity: 

Visa on arrival/single-entry visa: 30 days; multiple-entry/tourist visa: 90 days; East Africa tourist visa: multiple entries within three months.

Transit: 

Transit visas are valid for 72 hours.

Application to: 

Consulate (or consular section at embassy/high commission) or online via www.migration.gov.rw.

Working days: 

Allow three days for visa processing.

Sufficient funds: 

All visa applicants must be able to show proof of sufficient funds to cover their stay.

Extension of stay: 

If you wish to extend your visa, you must apply to the Directorate General of Immigration and Emigration in Kigali before your current visa expires. You are given a period of grace whereby you can leave the country up to five days after your visa expires without penalty. Beyond five days, you risk paying a fine and being refused a further visa.

Embassies and tourist offices

British High Commission in Rwanda

Telephone: 2525 56000.Website: http://www.gov.uk/government/world/rwandaOpening times: Mon-Thurs 0800-1200 and 1300-1700; Fri 0800-1200.

Embassy of the Republic of Rwanda in the USA

Telephone: (202) 232 2882.Website: http://www.rwandaembassy.org

Rwanda High Commission in the UK

Telephone: (020) 722 49 832.Website: http://www.rwandahc.org

Rwanda Health Care and Vaccinations

Title Special precautions
Diphtheria Yes
Hepatitis A Yes
Malaria Yes
Rabies Sometimes
Tetanus Yes
Typhoid Yes
Yellow Fever Yes

 

Medical facilities are severely limited and extremely overburdened. Almost all medical facilities in Kigali were destroyed during the civil war, but the situation is now improving and most hospitals function to an acceptable level. However, medical insurance, including cover for emergency repatriation, is essential. Visitors are advised to bring their own personal medication. In emergency dial 912 for an ambulance.

Food and drink

Food is generally safe to eat if well-cooked and hot. If in doubt, veer towards larger restaurants in cities and those aimed at tourists, which will have undergone government safety checks. Avoid buying food from the side of the road and don’t drink tap water. Use bottled water or otherwise boil or sterilise. Milk is unpasteurised and should be boiled. Powdered or tinned milk is available and is advised. Avoid dairy products that are likely to have been made from unboiled milk. Only eat well-cooked meat and fish, preferably served hot. Vegetables should be cooked and fruit peeled.

Other risks

Schistosomaisis, otherwise known as bilharzia, a parasite that lives in fresh water and enters the body through intact skin is present in the country. If you do swim in lake Kivu, then source the treatment – a drug called Praziquantel – locally and take it six weeks to three months after your return. Alternatively you can be tested at a tropical medicine centre on your return.

Things to see and do

Attend the Rwanda Film Festival

Founded in 2004, the Rwanda Film Festival is held every July at locations across the country. Most of the screenings take place in venues around Kigali, but, as part of a drive to bring culture to the farthest corners of this country, pop-up cinemas are erected in rural Rwanda, showing everything from Hollywood blockbusters to contemporary African documentaries. A highlight in the country’s calendar.

Chill out in Kibuye

Located on the limpid shores of Lake Kivu, this idyllic resort is a perfect place to unwind. It’s also unremittingly beautiful: steep, forested slopes rise from crystalline waters, which are dotted with canoes and fishing boats. The town itself is full of characterful, with a lively market, and there are a burgeoning range of hotels and restaurants right on the shore. It’s a great place for swimming, kayaking or just kicking back.

Explore Rwanda’s cool capital, Kigali

Far from being haunted by its tumultuous past, Kigali is quietly getting on with it. Rwanda’s capital is abuzz with hip new bars, restaurants and hotels. Clean and composed, Kigali is very safe city and its rising skyline reflects the country’s lofty ambitions. Head to Hillywood, where talented moviemakers are helping shape Rwanda’s burgeoning film industry, and visit Nyamirambo, where colourful shops sell second hand gear and offer an authentic slice of local life.

Feed your brain in Butare

The intellectual capital of the country, Butare is home to Rwanda’s national university. The most prominent tourist attraction here is the superb National Museum, which houses perhaps the finest ethnographic collection in East Africa. Absorbing displays of traditional artefacts are illuminated by a selection of turn-of-the-century monochrome photographs, providing insight not only into pre-colonial lifestyles, but also into the subsequent development of Rwanda as a modern African state. Butare also boasts craft shops and a botanical garden.

Go gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park

Gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park is Rwanda’s biggest tourist attraction – and tops many a nature lover’s bucket list. Permits must be booked in advance (only 80 are issued daily) and cost $750, which does price many people out of the trek, alas. Those lucky enough to obtain permits are assigned guides and armed guards (to protect them from marauding buffalo) and get to spend an incredible hour observing one of the habituated gorilla families.

Hit the beach in sunny Gisenyi

Rwanda may be landlocked, but you can still hit the beach in Gisenyi: a pretty market town on the edge of Lake Kivu. As well as fine slithers of golden sand, the town lays claim to a large brewery, which proudly produces Rwanda’s celebrated beer: Primus. Bustling Gisenyi is on the border with neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (the frontier is an attraction in itself) and boasts hot springs nearby.

Look for golden monkeys in Volcanoes National Park

Volcanoes National Park is best known for its mountain gorillas, but visitors can also go in search of golden monkeys, which are also endangered. These elusive creatures hang out quite low down in the vertiginous national park, so are a good warm up for their loftier-living cousins. A permit to see them is also considerably cheaper than it is for the gorillas.

Pay your respects at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre

In 1994 approximately one million Tutsis and scores of Hutus – the two main groups in Rwanda – were murdered during the ghastly Rwandan Genocide. The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre pays tribute to these victims (many of who are buried in a mass grave outside), and chronicles the events that led to the slaughter. It’s heart breaking, of course, but there are uplifting tales amongst the bleakness.

Seek chimpanzees and colobus monkeys in Nyungwe Forest

Nyungwe Forest National Park is one of the largest remaining high-altitude rainforests in Africa and is home to the world’s largest troop of colobus monkeys, which have a distinctive black and white colouring. A trek to spot them could have you surrounded by hundreds of the pretty primates, as well as chimpanzees, which are often perched high up in ficus trees. If you’re really lucky, guides might even show you the local mona monkeys too.

Take a safari in Akagera National Park

After the genocide Akagera National Park was overrun by returning refugees and much of the wildlife was wiped out. But the Rwandan government, with the help of Africa Parks, has rehomed these displaced people and begun restoring Akagera to its former glory – its biggest success to date came in 2015 with the reintroduced of lions. Big cats are the star attraction, but visitors also have the chance to see elephants, leopards, crocodiles, hippos, giraffes, apes and some 500 species of bird.

Trek to Dian Fossey’s grave in Volcanoes National Park

Perhaps nobody has done more to conserve mountain gorillas than Dian Fossey, an American zoologist who gave up her life to study the primates in Rwanda. Fossey moved to Volcanoes National Park in 1967, where she fought tooth and nail to protect the critically endangered species. She succeeded, but was murdered in the process by an unknown assailant. Her gravestone has become a pilgrimage site for naturalists, who trek four-hours through the steamy forest to pay their respects. Guides are essential.

Walk in the clouds in Nyungwe Forest

Opened in 2010, this lofty canopy walk is the first of its kind in the region. Hovering a hair-raising 50m (164ft) above the forest floor, this swaying walkway is not for the faint hearted, but it does offer superb views across the rainforest canopy and, if you’re lucky, you might come face to face with rare birds and monkeys.