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
Rwanda Visa and Passport Requirements
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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 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.
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.
Visa on arrival/single-entry visa: 30 days; multiple-entry/tourist visa: 90 days; East Africa tourist visa: multiple entries within three months.
Transit visas are valid for 72 hours.
Consulate (or consular section at embassy/high commission) or online via www.migration.gov.rw.
Allow three days for visa processing.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.