Most visitors come to Rwanda to see the Mountain Gorillas and maybe have a quick insight of the Genocide at one of the many Memorials across the country (more often than not the Kigali Memorial Center), and then leave the country for some safari experiences in Uganda, Kenya or Tanzania. But there are various other aspects of the country that really deserve your attention and at least a few extra days!
The Switzerland of Africa
Clean, punctual, orderly, safe, law abiding… and yes, expensive! Are you thinking of Switzerland? A few hours in Rwanda and these attributes are all around you…
- 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!
- As a consequence, Rwanda is by far the easiest African country for travelers I have experienced so far. This is surely the best “Africa for beginners” you can imagine. Crossing to Uganda was a real shock, and I had the impression I changed continent… And had arrived back in Africa!
Scenic Lake Kivu
Lake Kivu runs along the Congolese / Rwandan border and is shared by the two countries. With a surface of 3.000 square kilometers, each country gets a good share. Its scenic shores have always attracted the residents of this landlocked country and the tourists alike.
- Relaxed Kibuye / Karongi – There, the lake meanders deep into the green shoreline, creating narrow inlets. These are lined by green hills thick with eucalyptus and pine trees. This is the ideal place to settle down a few days and relax, marveling at the incredible scenery and watching as life slowly goes by. You find there now accommodation that caters for all budgets.
- Resort-Town Gisenyi / Rubavu – If it were not for the lake, Gisenye would be another non-descript African town with dusty streets and battered buildings. At least the very center looks exactly like that. But you come here for the resort-like hotels that dot the lake, either in Gisenyi on the shores of Lake Kivu or in nearby Rubona. This part of the lake is far less scenic, though!
- Boat-Ride from Kibuye to Gisenyi – Twice a week, a ferry runs from Cyangugu (Rusizi) down south to Gisenyi (Rubavu) up north with a stop in Kibuye (Karongi). On top of being an efficient way to move up or down the lake, this is a very African experience, one you should go for if around on the right date. Do not expect any comfort though, and try to secure a place (standing) outside!
Discovering Rwanda’s Culture & History
- The Ethnographic Museum of Butare (Huye) – This large, modern museum, one of the best I actually experienced in Africa, offers a great overview of Rwanda’s history, culture & traditions. Allow several hours to really enjoy the various collections and the many explanations given in English & French.
- The Royal Palace Of Nyanza – Very handsome they were, the kings of Rwanda: tall, lean, fine facial features and self-assured. The numerous photos of the royal family dating back to the 19th Century are the most interesting displays in the new palace built in 1932. It is now part of the Rukali Royal Museum high up on Nyanza Hill. The real attraction, however, is the reconstructed Ancient Royal Palace. What today looks like a gigantic hut was then the centerpiece of the pompous court that even impressed the German colonizers. Until 1899, a permanent royal palace was unknown. That very year, the king decided it was high time to break with the traditions of moving from residence to residence. Thus he had one built a few kilometers from Nyanza.
- Cultural Walks near Musanze – Several reputable agencies offer walks and tours around Musanze, and will take you through local communities, like former poacher communities. At least part of the money you spend will actually go to the communities you visit.
Buzzy African Markets
Once you have reached a Market in Rwanda, you know that you are indeed in Africa… The “Switzerland Feeling” is immediately gone, and the real African life takes over. True, these markets are not as vibrant, colorful, smelly and chaotic as in some other African countries, but are definitely worth the visit though…
Off The Beaten Track Experiences
Both the shores of Lake Kivu and the area of Musanze & the Parc National des Volcans are popular places. But once I had left these two areas, I was the only “Mzungu” in miles!
True, I was very quickly the center of much attention, and my very moves and acts were scrutinized by a small or large crowd. But this is also 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, Mzungus obviously congregate around Kinigi and in Musanze itself only stop for lunch at La Paillotte, a very decent restaurant).
All In All ?
Rwanda offered me a unique combination of a truly relaxed African experience, due to the easiness and safety feeling I permanently had, combined with an Off The beaten Track feeling, being most of the time the only “Mzungu” in town.
True, there are not that many “highlights”, ones that you will rave about for months or years back home (but for the Gorillas, of course!). Nevertheless, take a few extra days for this very special & unique combination, one you will find only in Rwanda!