Rwanda: What to do and see

Rwanda, popularly known as The Land of A Thousand Hills is located in East Africa sharing borders with Uganda to the northwest, Tanzania to the east, DR Congo to the west and Burundi to the south.

Rwanda has evolved to become one of the best tourist destinations in Africa after overcoming her dark history of civil wars and the gruesome genocide of 1994.

Rwanda is now stable and welcoming visitors to explore her amazing attractions which range from wildlife and adventure to cultural ad historical tours.

Geography and wildlife

The country encompasses spectacular mountainous terrain including 3 of 8 Virunga massifs which are Karisimbi, Bisoke and Sabinyo located within Volcanoes National Park a habitat for endangered mountain gorillas. The Afromontane Nyungwe Forest in the Albertine Rift Valley, also, is famous for harboring 12 primate species including chimpanzees, L’hoest monkeys, black and white colobus monkeys and over 300 species of birds of which 16 are Albertine Rift Endemics. In this regard, Rwanda has become very popular for primate tours including gorilla safaris, chimpanzee tracking, golden monkey tracking and colobus monkeys.

An increase in wildlife tourism especially mountain gorilla trekking safaris along with chimpanzees and Big 5 safari in Akagera National Park has been a stimulus for economic recovery from the dark history which is well documented at Kigali Genocide Memorial.

Rwanda also has a variety of water bodies which include River Akagera, Lake Kivu the largest water body in Rwanda and one of the 7 African Great Lakes among others such as Lake Muhazi, twin lakes of Burera and Ruhondo.

Reconciliation and Economic Development

Efforts to bring justice and reconciliation among the ethnic Tutsi and Hutus to live in harmony have helped the country to stabilize and embark on economic development. This is evidenced by the country’s good performance in the Global Peace Index where it was ranked 83rd in 2021.

Public investment spending in Rwanda was ranked the third highest in the world according to the Global Competitiveness Index (GCI) 2016. Major infrastructural developments in Rwanda include Kigali Convention Center (KCC) and several international hotel brands such as Marriot and Radisson Blu. These have positioned Kigali capital city as one of the leading centres for meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions., (MICE).

Rwanda has a strong environmental conservation policy including “Umuganda” a community initiative where Rwandans join together to clean up litter and garbage across the country every last Saturday of the month. This has made Kigali one of the cleanest urban centers in Sub-Saharan Africa especially in Nyarugenge district the heart of the city.

Covid-19 Tests

In regard to measures put in place to prevent covid-19, all travelers (fully vaccinated or not) arriving and departing from Rwanda must fill the passenger locator form must be filled online. present SARS-CoV 2 Real Time Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) performed within 72-hours. The Rapid Diagnostics Test (RDTs) are not accepted. Children under 5 years and not subject to covid-19 testing. Second tests are taken upon arrival and self-isolate at own cost and designated hotel until results are out within 24 hours. Additional PCR test will conducted on the third day from the arrival date at own cost. The covid-19 test cost is $50 with additional $10 medical service fee.

Rwanda Safari Destinations

Rwanda has four protected areas including Volcanoes National Park, Akagera National Park, Nyungwe National Park and Gishwati Mukura National Park. Each park has unique ecosystems that support rich biodiversity including 700 species of birds, Big 5 mammals, mountain gorillas, golden monkeys and 12 primate species including chimpanzees, L’hoest monkeys, black and white colobus monkeys, red colobus monkeys, red-tailed monkeys, Hamlyn’s monkeys among others.

Rwandan national parks offer adventure and wildlife safari including gorilla trekking, golden monkeys and chimpanzee trekking, hiking, bird watching, game drives and boat cruises, sport fishing among others. Travel itinerary for safari in Rwanda can include all the parks among other natural and cultural heritage sites including Kigali capital city, Nyanza king’s palace, Lake Kivu, Muhanga Sacred Forest Park, twin lakes of Burera and Ruhondo.

Volcanoes National Park

Volcanoes National Park is 116 (2-hour drive) north of Kigali capital city in Musanze district Northern Province. The park can also be reached by road from Lake Bunyonyi in south-western Uganda via Cyanika border of Rwanda. Extending for 168, the protected area and forms part of the Virunga Mountain Range a chain of 8 volcanoes of which 3 are found in Rwanda including Karisimbi the tallest (4507 m), Bisoke (3711 m) and Muhabura (4127m).

Virunga Area is a habitat for 604 endangered mountain gorilla population and Rwanda has 10 gorilla families in Volcanoes National Park which offers an opportunity for gorilla trekking safari. Dian Fossey lived in the park while studying mountain gorillas and established Karisoke Research Center in 1967. Fossey was murdered in 1983 and you can look forward to read her novel or watch the movie “Gorillas in the Mist”. The Dian Fossey Hike is available in the park for those interested to walk in her footsteps.

After gorilla trekking, the Gorilla Guardian’s village offers several activities including traditional Rwandan dance performances, visiting a traditional herbalist for his stunning metaphysics, preparation of local food and playing roles of king and queen in front of a hut for photoshoot. In addition to gorillas, the park is home to golden monkeys and 178 species of birds of which 13 are Albertine Rift Endemics including Rwenzori turaco and purple-breasted sunbird among others such as double-collared sunbird.

Golden monkey tracking is available in Volcanoes National Park and offers a chance to visit the critically endangered primates. Rwanda golden monkey tracking permit cost is $100 per person available for booking through Rwanda Development Board or tour operator. Other than primates, Volcanoes National Park offers volcano hiking and spectacular scenery with 3 of 8 Virunga mountains including Karisimbi and Bisoke volcanoes. Bisoke volcano has a crater lake on its summit at 3711 meters and is a day hike from Kinigi park headquarters. The elevation of Mt. Karisimbi is 4507 m and hiking takes 2 days including camping on the volcano.

Akagera National Park

Akagera National Park

Akagera National Park is situated 143 (3-hour drive) east of Kigali capital city and can also be accessed by air through Akagera Aviation. The protected area covers 1122 including Akagera River which forms a large wetland system with several lakes that provide water and habitat for a variety of wildlife including Big 5 mammals, over 8 antelope species including eland, impala, topi, klipspringer, water bucks and over 500 species of birds.

The park is one of the East African safari destinations to spot the Big 5 including lions, leopards, African elephants, Cape buffalo, eastern black and southern white rhinos. Other wildlife encounters expected in the park include hippos, Masai giraffe, plains zebra, Nile crocodiles, spotted hyenas, sitatunga swamp dwelling antelope and a variety of water birds including shoebill stork, papyrus gonolek, red-faced swamp warbler, red-faced barbet and African fish eagle among others.

A 4×4 vehicle is preferable for those intending to do self-drive safari and the park entry fees are charged per 24 hour stay. There are several activities available in Akagera National Park including day and night game drives, launch trips on Lake Ihema, sport fishing on Lake Shakani, bird watching, guided bush and community walks.

The park visitor center offers a “Behind-the-scenes” glimpse of the African Parks Network (AP) conservation efforts including law enforcement such as the canine anti-poaching unit, helicopter surveillance and community development. This has helped to enable the re-introduction and recovery of lions and black rhinos that went extinct during the Rwandan genocide of 1994.  

In 2010, the Rwandan Development Board (RDB) and African Parks Network (a non-profit organisation that takes on direct responsibility for the rehabilitation and long-term management of protected areas across Africa) partnered to manage Akagera National Park. The organisation has helped to transform the park into one of the best African safari destinations to spot Big Five mammals.

Wildlife safaris in Rwanda are now creating away for a sustainable source of income for the communities living around the park. Visiting the park supports conservation of the restored wildlife.

Nyungwe Forest National Park

Situated 239 (6-hour drive) south-west of Kigali capital city and 56 (1 hour drive) east of Cyangugu city Kamembe airport, Nyungwe Forest National Park is the largest protected and water catchment area in Rwanda. The park covers 970 (375 sq. Miles) of Afromontane tropical rainforests which occurs at high altitude between 1600 m – 3000 meters.

The protected area is rich in biodiversity including 12 primate species including chimpanzees, L’hoest monkeys, Hamlyn’s monkeys, black and colobus monkeys, red colobus monkeys, red-tailed monkeys, velvet monkeys. Others include olive baboons and 310 species of birds of which 16 are Albertine Rift Endemics. These include red-faced woodland warbler, stripe-breasted tit, strange weaver, Rwenzori turaco, northern double collared sunbird, purple-breasted sunbird, short-tailed warbler and Archer’s robin chat.

Nyungwe Forest National Park has three visitor centers including Uwinka in the middle of the forest, Gisakura in the west and Kitabi eco-co center in the southern corner of the park. Chimpanzee trekking begins at Uwinka and Gisakura centers with briefing on the location of the primates.

Chimpanzees in Nyungwe Forest move frequently during the dry season (June to September) which requires early confirmation of the trekking location and own vehicle for convenient transportation. Spotting the chimpanzees can be challenging due to nature of terrain especially in the wet season during the months of April to May and October to November. Physical strength is needed and what to wear including long pants and socks to prevent crawling safari ants, hiking boots, insect repellant, drinking water and packed lunch.

In addition to chimps, Nyungwe Forest also boasts of harboring the largest single troop of black and white colobus monkeys. The territorial primates live in social groups of 3 to 15 individuals. New observations indicate that there’s a single troop of 400 colobus monkeys in Nyungwe Forest which provides an opportunity for colobus monkey tracking.

The primate tracking safari activity involves little difficulty during hiking given that the primates preferably inhabit secondary forests and wooded grasslands where they can be easily spotted. Once you have tracked the primates in the morning, the afternoon time offers a chance to go for canopy walk. The canopy walk in Nyungwe Forest is 200 meters long with a maximum height of 50 – 70 meters above the ground.

The age limit to participate in the canopy walk in Rwanda is 6 years given that the walkways are opaque and doesn’t scare children. The canopy walk starts at Uwinka visitor center with 1 hour hike along Igishigishi trail which offers a chance for birding and spectacular aerial views of the forest for keen photographers.

Ardent birders intending to explore the deeper part of the forest can choose among the several hiking trails in Nyungwe Forest including Igishigishi, Imbaraga, Mount Bigugu, Kamiranzovu waterfalls which offer a chance to spot Albertine Rift Endemics. These include red-faced woodland warbler, Chapin’s flycatcher, stripe-breasted tit, purple-breasted sunbird, short-tailed warbler and Archer’s robin chat. Others include montane masked apalis, Kungwe apalis, red-throated alethe, Grauer’s swamp warbler among others.

Hiking is also available in the communities around the park including Banda village for those intending to enjoy a taste of Rwandan cultural dance performances, Kitabi Eco-tourism center which offers African hut-style accommodation and Gisakura green tea plantations for tea experience.

Gishwati Mukura National Park and Biosphere Reserve

Gishwati Mukura National Park is 168 (4-hour drive) north-west of Kigali capital city, 76 (1-hour drive) north of Karongi and 26 south of Rubavu (Gisenyi) resort towns on the northern shores of Lake Kivu. The protected area was gazetted in 2016 by joining two forest reserves (Gishwati: and Mukura: forming a total area of 35 at the edge of Albertine Rift Valley in Rutsiro district north-western Rwanda.

Even though the two reserves were degraded due to human encroachment, the Rwanda forest restoration program is upholding conservation efforts to protect flora and fauna and boost rural tourism in Rwanda. The mountainous tropical forest (2000 to 3000 meters above sea level) is rich in biodiversity including chimpanzees, golden monkeys, small mammal species including African civet, side-striped jackals, serval cats and over 120 species of birds among other attractions such as waterfalls.

The park is in a rural region of Rwanda and offers community based tourism activities including tea experience, visiting a traditional herbalist for his stunning metaphysics, farm stay and live cultural dance performances.

Lake Kivu

Lake Kivu

Lake Kivu the largest freshwater body in Rwanda is 99 (2-hour drive) west of Kigali capital city. Situated between Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo, Lake Kivu is one of the 7 African Great Lakes with rich biodiversity including 200 species of birds, 28 tropical fish species and endangered fruit-eating bats.

The lake provides water, fish and is a source of renewable energy (methane gas power) for the growing population in the surrounding Rwandan towns including Karongi (Kibuye), Rubavu (Gisenyi) and Cyangugu (Rusizi) which are linked to Eastern DR Congo’s Goma city and Bukavu town. Lake Kivu is one of the multicultural beach destinations in East Africa given that it attracts people across East and central Africa.

Rubavu (Gisenyi) the largest town on the northern shores of Lake Kivu is 52 south-west of Musanze town making easy to access after gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park. The urban center offers Rubavu public beach, a variety of nightlife spots and accommodations including hostels, restaurants, lodges and resorts with private swimming pools.

The boat cruises from Gisenyi offer opportunity to visit Napoleon Island to watch the endangered fruit eating bat colonies. Karongi town formerly known as Kubuye is 135 (3-hour drive) west of Kigali capital city. With several islands including Amahoro and Ndaba rock and waterfalls, the town boasts spectacular view of Lake Kivu.

There’s no public beach instead Karongi offers 3 star hotels and camping sites with lakeside view and recreational activities including volleyball. Outside the town, visitors can visit the National Environment Museum with exhibits about African herbal medicine, conservation and sustainable energy including methane gas which is extracted from Lake Kivu. Visitors can also take part in night fishing trip with a guide. The local fishermen sing and chant after catching their favourite Sambaza one of the tropical fish species.