Holidays in Rwanda
Just breathing the name Rwanda evokes visions of the awful genocide the country suffered in 1994. However, these days it’s their gorillas, rather than the guerrillas, making the headlines and these loveable shaggy primates have put Rwanda firmly back on the travel map.
Even though Rwanda’s scars are healing, any visitor should acknowledge its past by paying a visit to Kigali’s poignant Genocide Memorial, as well as enjoying the capital’s thriving art scene while you’re there. The country’s nickname – ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’ – is a nod to its richly diverse landscapes, each blessed with extraordinary beauty. In African terms, Rwanda is pint-sized, so soaking up a selection of places in one unforgettable holiday is easy.
The forests, hippo-filled lakes and fertile plains of Akagera National Park are a conservation success story and home to the Big Five, while the singing fishermen of Lake Kivu never fail to make you grin. Volcanoes National Park and its resident mountain gorillas – made famous by the Dian Fossey-inspired film Gorillas in the Mist – are the big drawcard and a few minutes with them will leave you spellbound. In the south, Nyungwe Forest National Park is another primate paradise, renowned for its chimpanzee tracking but also home to plenty of other species of monkey. It may be called the ‘Land of a Thousands Hills’, but you’ll be leaving Rwanda with a thousand smiles.
Most people don’t bother with Kigali on a holiday to Rwanda but it’s well worth a day or two. Spread across several lush bubble wrap hills, Kigali is one of Africa’s most attractive capitals, as well as being one of the safest and cleanest. This is especially pleasing as it was hit hardest during the genocide and now sleek skyscrapers rub shoulders with historic monuments. The city’s Genocide Memorial is an excellent tribute to those who lost their lives, as well as and shedding light on how Rwanda has recovered since. Speaking of Kigali’s resurgence, the capital is a captivating wander in itself, with buzzing food markets and a burgeoning art scene, with arts centres housing both unique and contemporary works.
Hugging Rwanda’s eastern border, Akagera National Park is a diverse mosaic of landscapes squeezed into an area little over 400 sq miles. Lying within is Rwanda’s only slice of protected savannah, low-lying grasslands, woodland and central and eastern Africa’s largest protected wetlands, with lakes and marshes. This leads to a variety of wildlife experiences, from a game drive spotting lions, black rhinos and the rest of the Big Five to a lake cruise to spy hippos and crocodiles. Birdwatchers will also love it here, with nearly 500 species calling the park home, including the rare shoebill and African fish eagle.
Surrounded by verdant hills and rolling tea plantations, Nyungwe Forest National Park is one of Africa’s oldest rainforests. A thick, steaming tangle of ebonies, mahoganies and giant tree ferns, Nyungwe Forest is an ancient patch of jungle which has laid unchanged for centuries. As you’d probably expect, the biodiversity here is astounding, with over 1,000 plant species – including 200 of orchid alone – and bright flashes of birds flitting in-between the trees. However, the real pull is the large population of chimpanzees, which you can track on foot via tiny jungle trails and spend time observing them. There’s plenty of other primates you can see along the way, including Angolan colobuses, L’Hoest’s monkeys, blue monkeys and many more.
Straddling the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo and one of Africa’s biggest lakes, Lake Kivu is a great place to pit stop if you’re travelling between Nyungwe Forest National Park and Volcanoes National Park. The high levels of methane found within the lake mean there’s no hippos or crocodiles here but its cerulean waters are a gorgeous and peaceful escape away from the exciting animal encounters elsewhere. Water sports are a great way of exploring the lake, with stand-up paddleboarding, canoeing and kayaking available. Head out onto the lake at sunset and you’ll glide past its famous singing fishermen as they pull in their daily catch!
Undoubtedly the star attraction on your Rwanda holiday, Volcanoes National Park is perhaps the best place in the world to see rare mountain gorillas. The location is spectacular in itself, the national park occupying a section of the Virunga Mountains, a chain of volcanoes that are carpeted in emerald rainforest. A guided trek to see the gorillas is the obvious highlight, where you can spend one precious hour in their company to observe a group of them. That’s not all you can see here, however, with over 200 species of bird filling the skies and the chatter of elusive golden monkeys ricocheting around the canopies.
Where to stay in Rwanda
Rwanda is filled with once-in-a-lifetime wildlife experiences, whether it's tracking chimpanzees or spending precious time in the company of mountain gorillas. Luxury lodges hidden among the emerald scenery offer opulent refuges after a thrilling day in Rwanda's wilds, while boutique hotels serve up comfortable city living in the capital, Kigali.
The best time to visit Rwanda
Rwanda has a warm, tropical climate throughout the whole year, with the ‘dry’ seasons from December-February and June-mid October and the rainy seasons from March-May and late October-November.
The long dry season (June-mid October) is the best time to visit Rwanda for spotting gorillas, offering great weather on the whole. However, it is the rainforest, so there’s always the chance of rain. However, this is also the most popular time for gorilla trekking and permits (July-August is also the European and American summer break), lodges and guides can be fully booked up to a year in advance. So, if you’re considering visiting Rwanda at this time of year, be prepared to book well in advance.
Late October to November sees the ‘short rains’ arrive and though showers are more common, it makes the rainforest even greener and more spectacular than usual, the flowering trees and plants bringing rich birdlife with them. The rainy seasons are the best time to go to Rwanda for spotting chimpanzees in Nyungwe, as in the ‘drier’ seasons it’s harder to find food, so they have to head deeper into the forest. A lot of people are put off by the increased rain but it’s worth remembering that it’s expected across the whole year anyway.
It beings to dry up a little from December to February, making it another great window to spot the country’s fabulous wildlife. Forest hiking trails are less slippery, especially in late-January and February, too. However, the high demand and loftier prices increase during the drier months, so please take those factors into account.
March to May sees the ‘long rains’ arrive, which are heavier than the ‘short rains’. The ripening trees again make it a good time to track chimpanzees, enticed to the fruit on the lower branches, while the landscape is beautifully lush and green. Despite the rain, it’s still an excellent time for tracking wildlife, including the gorillas!
Rwanda travel essentials
Hepatitis A, Typhoid, Polio and Tetanus-Diptheria vaccinations are currently recommended. If entering Rwanda from a Yellow Fever zone, you must be in possession of a valid international Yellow Fever inoculation certificate. Please consult your GP at least four to six weeks prior to travel for current advice and medical precautions regarding Malaria.
The time difference is GMT +2 hours.
The fastest flight from London to Kigali is around 11 hours, operated by RwandAir and flying from London Gatwick to Kigali via a short touchdown in Brussels. For another option, you could fly from Gatwick to Kigali via stopovers in Doha or Istanbul.
The currency is the Rwandan franc.
British passport holders need a visa to visit Rwanda, which can be bought on arrival in Kigali. Alternatively, you can arrange one in advance – if you’d like to do so, please visit www.migration.gov.rw.
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