“The Switzerland Of Africa”
Itinerary And Time Of The Visit
In January 2017, I spent 2 weeks in Rwanda. Of course I went to the Parc National des Volcans & Tracked Mountain Gorillas – This was one of my motivations for returning to Uganda & discovering Rwanda.
I also visited 4 different Memorials of the Genocide, one of the darkest episodes in Human History, each actually showing a different aspect of those horrid events: Kigali Memorial Center, Nyamata Genocide Memorial (near Kigali), Murambi Genocide Memorial (near Butare / Huye) and Bisesero Genocide Memorial (near Kibuye / Karongi).
But there are various other aspects of the country that really deserve your attention and at least a few extra days! I also discovered:
- Kigali & Nyamata;
- Nyanza, Huye (Butare) and Nyamagabe in the South;
- Musanze (Ruhengeri) & the Volcanoes National Park in the North;
- And last but not least scenic Lake Kivu to the West, especially Karongi (Kibuye) and Rubavu (Gisenyi), conveniently linked by a ferry that covers this route twice a week in each direction.
Why Travel To Rwanda? Highlights Of The Trip
Let’s start with the big concern many people have. YES, traveling in Rwanda is safe, very safe! Actually, Rwanda is one of the safest countries in Africa, as far as I can tell. The Genocide happened 23 years ago and the country has recovered from this very dark period and is now absolutely stable.
Rwanda is actually the easiest country to travel in Africa I have experienced so far. There are good reasons why the country is known as “The Switzerland of Africa”. Yes, Rwanda could be considered the ideal “Africa for Beginners”.
Of course you will go there for the Mountain Gorillas. It is a very expensive undertaking, but it is also one of the most stunning Wild Life experiences I ever had, an experience of a lifetime. Rwanda is without a doubt the place where both the National Park & the Gorillas are the easiest to reach and where it is also the easiest to secure a Gorilla Permit, especially since you do not need an agency!
A trip would not be complete if you do not confront one of the darkest moments in Human History, and visit one or several Memorials of the Genocide. It is a haunting experience, but one that is definitely necessary.
Apart from those aspects, Rwanda do not offer real “Highlights”, things that you will rave about for years when back home. Nonetheless, there are numbers of aspects of the country that deserve your attention and a few days of your time:
- Scenic Lake Kivu: Relaxed Kibuye / Karongi, Resort-Town Gisenyi / Rubavu, and last but not least the Boat-Ride from Kibuye to Gisenyi
- Discovering Rwanda’s Culture & History, like the Ethnographic Museum of Butare (Huye), the Royal Palace Of Nyanza, and why not one of the Cultural Walks near Musanze
- Buzzy African Markets: once you have reached a Market in Rwanda, you know that you are indeed in Africa…
Challenges Organizing The Trip – What Would I Have Wished To Know?
It is very easy to organize a trip to Rwanda, and you actually do not need any booking ahead but for the Gorilla Permit (especially during European School Holidays), that you should secure weeks, if not months in advance in the peak season. There are a few points you should not overlook before you go, though:
- It is close to impossible to find fellow travelers to cut costs, except maybe on the shores of Lake Kivu. Most tours are extremely pricey, so beware that you will have to either ignore those tours, or to dish out significant amounts of cash.
- Most tours on offer are actually not that special. No matter if a boat tour in Kibuye / Karongi, if a tour to the twin lakes in Musanze… This is mostly poor value for money. Focus more on discovering the country and the way of life. “Cultural Walks” are much better priced, though, and definitely interesting!
- Be ready to be the only tourist if you go “deeper” in the country (actually away from Lake Kivu & Musanze). It is a great experience to be the only foreigner in town, but it can be a lonely experience, too!
- Note that I haven’t visited any of the National Parks in Rwanda (except Gorilla Tracking), as Uganda apparently offers a much better experience for Chimpanzees and for Game Viewing (though for a “traditional Safari”, I would consider other countries like neighboring Kenya or Tanzania).
How To Go Off The Beaten Track?
Well, Rwanda is Off The Beaten Track… True, both the shores of Lake Kivu and the area of Musanze & the Parc National des Volcans are popular places, but do not await the crowds there! And once I had left these two areas, I was the only “Mzungu” in miles!
And this is actually what I came here for: finally experiencing some Off The Beaten Track Africa. In Nyamagabe, Huye, Nyanza or Nyamata in the south, I was the only foreign visitor on that day. Strolling the streets and markets of Kigali or even Musanze, I did not spot any other “Mzungu” (near the Parc National des Volcans, tourists obviously congregate around Kinigi and in Musanze itself only stop for lunch at La Paillotte, a nice restaurant).
In many places, I was hence very quickly the center of much attention, and my very moves and acts were scrutinized by a small or large crowd…
What Will I Especially Remember?
- Clean – In Kigali, in the most remote village, simply everywhere! None of the usual plastic litter – Rwanda banned plastic bags in 2008. Yes, it works!
- Punctual – Bus schedules are taken seriously: if your transport is scheduled to leave at 08:30, it does so, even if it’s not full – The first time I experienced this in Africa…
- Orderly – Receipts are given for most purchases and services. Almost no beggars, no pushy street vendors, none of the usual sights of Africa…
- Safe – Only in few countries in the world did I feel so safe! Don’t be reckless though, accidents can always happen…
- Law abiding – Never ever will you see a Moto-driver or his passenger without a helmet! Speeding? Forget about it! Police is checking the traffic on overland roads.
- Expensive – As soon as you do any touristic activity, you will pay Western prices… Difficult to grasp, especially in a country where you actually pay for a double room in a mid-range guesthouse one month (or more) of local salary!
- Apparently Friendly – Locals love to chat with “Mzungus”, at least those who speak some English or French. Beware nonetheless, most of these seemingly innocent chatter quickly end-up with someone begging for (financial) help (at least younger people)…
What Would I Do Differently / Things I Didn’t Like?
- There are only 2 ferries per week on Lake Kivu, and they enable you to avoid very long bus drives on dusty roads (the only area of the country where that would be the case). Therefore plan accordingly, so that you are not blocked in one of the cities for several days waiting for the next boat!
- I personally truly enjoy chatting with locals on buses, at markets, on the streets… In Rwanda, I had the bad surprise to see that quite a few young people would engage a conversation in good English, and relatively quickly start asking for money to help pay for school or medical fees for the mother / grand-mother or whatever reason… It was extremely challenging having a conversation that is not based on a commercial relation (buying any kind of product or service) or on an interest in receiving some money…
Best Time To Visit Rwanda
Rwanda’s relatively high altitude provides it with a remarkably pleasant tropical highland climate, albeit also with plenty of rain, as the country almost lies on the Equator. Temperatures vary considerably between locations depending on their altitude, but very little from month to month in the same place.
Rwanda’s long rainy season lasts from March to May, when the rain is heavy and persistent. The long dry season runs from June to mid-September and is the best time to visit the country, but also the busiest (European School Holidays). October & November is a shorter rainy season and it’s followed by a short dry season from December to February (which is actually much drier then the long dry season), also a very good time to visit the country.
Communication (Language Barrier?)
Communication is relatively easy in Rwanda, as English in now widely spoken, at least in larger cities. In more remote areas, I always finally found someone who knew a few words of English or French, and who could give me some basic information…
Getting Around In Rwanda
Rwanda is a small country with an overall excellent road & transport infrastructure. Transport times are hence relatively low, and it is easy to crisscross the country. Rwanda is actually the easiest country to move (on public transports) around I have experienced in Africa, by far!
Bus schedules are taken seriously: if your transport is scheduled to leave at 08:30, it does so, even if it’s not full (and each passenger has a sit) – The first time I experienced this in Africa…
Within cities or for shorter distances, you can also take a moto-taxi, whose driver will always offer you a helmet.
On Lake Kivu, a Ferry is now running on schedule from Gisenyi to Cyangugu via Kibuye and back:
- On Sunday & Thursday, it runs North to South (Gisenyi at 07:00 am, Kibuye at 10:30 am, arriving at Cyangugu at 04:00 pm).
- On Monday and Friday, it runs South to North (Cyangugu at 07:00 am, Kibuye at 13:00 am, arriving in Gisenyi at 05:00 pm).
- The boat is crowded and not everyone gets on board, so be at the pier approx. 1 hour ahead of time and immediately register and join the line. When I took the boat, a special line was made for “Mzungus”, to insure that all foreigners (we were approx. 10 “Mzungus”) would get on board…
- The cabin is very crowded, so rather choose to stand on the narrow decks and enjoy the views on Lake Kivu…
|From||To||Via||Type of Transport||Distance
100 km (€)
|Kigali||Nyamata||& Back||Bus||52||3,00||€ 2,41||€ 4,64|
|Kigali||Musanze||Bus||96||2,25||€ 2,06||€ 2,15|
|Musanze||Butare||Kigali||Bus||232||4,50||€ 7,07||€ 3,05|
|Butare||Nyamagabe||& Back||Bus||58||1,00||€ 1,18||€ 2,03|
|Butare||Kibuye||Nyanza||Bus||165||5,00||€ 3,66||€ 2,22|
|Kibuye||Bisesero||& Back||Moto||60||3,00||€ 8,24||€ 13,74|
|Kibuye||Gisenyi||Boat||100||3,00||€ 2,94||€ 2,94|
|Bus||211||4,50||€ 8,28||€ 3,93|
Citizens from the European Union and North America need a Visa for Rwanda. The application can be done Online with a payment with Credit Card upon arrival at the airport. The process is quick and straightforward.
If you consider also visiting Uganda and / or Kenya on the same trip, you can apply for an East African Visa that covers multiple entries for the 3 countries for up to 90 days and cost 100 USD. This can also be done Online, with a payment with Credit Card upon arrival at the airport. The process is quick and straightforward. Beware that you must apply in the first country of arrival, though: if you travel to Rwanda and then Uganda, then you must apply in Rwanda; if you start with Kenya, then you must apply in Kenya…
Photography In Rwanda: A Real Challenge
Rwanda turned out to be both really challenging and quite disappointing from a Photographer’s point of view:
- It is quite challenging to take pictures of people, as most are not willing to pose. Most of the time, if you want to take a picture of someone, you will be asked for money – which I only very rarely do.
- The atmosphere is mostly hazy and decent landscape photography is hence almost impossible.
- There are all in all not many scenic “Highlights”. It is therefore quite challenging to find places for the “great shot”.
- Of course you have Mountain Gorillas… Beware that it is technically quite challenging, as you will have very little light in the Rain Forest. You will need:
- A Full Frame camera to be able to go up with the ISO (at least 640, and most of the time far above 800).
- Optic that enables you to have a completely open Aperture, at least 4.0 and ideally 2.8, which turns quite expensive for tele-lenses.
- Ideally 2 cameras, one with a tele-lens (200mm or even more) and one regular lens (for instance 24-105), as you will be partly far away, partly close from the Mountain Gorillas.
Best & Most Inspiring Travel Blogs For Rwanda
There are only very few blogs with current and reliable information about Rwanda… If you want an example of how to travel on a much lower budget in Rwanda, check the excellent blog of Sonia & Ainara. At least Africa is written in English (other parts are in Spanish)…
Audrey & Dan from Uncornered Market also wrote an excellent overview of their experience in Rwanda.
Conclusion About Rwanda…
I come back from Rwanda with mixed feelings about this country:
- On the one hand, I truly enjoyed the Off The Beaten Track experience I had there, being more often than not the only “Mzungu” in the place or even the town I was visiting. Moreover, Rwanda is a country that is very easy and very safe to travel, so you do not need to rough it, which you more often than not need when going Off The Beaten Track…
- On the other hand, Rwanda offers few “Highlights” (apart from the Mountain Gorillas, an experience of a lifetime), making it difficult to recommend taking an expensive intercontinental flight.
Therefore, I would recommend combining 2 countries, splitting the time between Rwanda & for instance Uganda or Kenya or Tanzania, depending on the target of your trip. Nonetheless, I would not limit Rwanda to Tracking the Mountain Gorillas, and take enough time to venture deeper into this country.