Rwanda – a tiny landlocked nation in East Africa that most people would have trouble pointing out on a map, let alone consider as a tourist destination.
Yet, if we take a moment to look past the surface of this country that was rocked by genocide within living memory, we’ll see that there are plenty of reasons to visit Rwanda.
Rwanda isn’t as “off the beaten track” as you might initially expect. It has been a quietly popular travel destination for years amongst adventurers interested in seeing some of the world’s last moutain gorillas.
And of course, the 1994 Rwandan genocide has a prominent place in the country’s collective memory. Many foreigners come to learn more about the events that took place and to volunteer for one of the many worthy charities and NGOs in the region.
While it’s impossible to deny the importance of these points of interest – they can end up overshadowing the other interesting things that make a country such as Rwanda so inspiring, and so worth visiting.
The Interesting, Surprising, and Unlikely
Collective Clean Up Day (“Umuganda”)
The last Saturday of each month is clean up day for the entire country. Roads are closed and citizens are obligated to chip in, removing any stray refuse along roadsides and in other public areas.
It’s worked too. Entering Rwanda from any of the surrounding regions is almost like entering another world. Meet Africa’s response to Singapore or Switzerland.
Plastic Bag Ban
Rwanda was the first country on Earth to completely ban plastic bags. How’s that for leading the green movement forward with bold governmental action?
They’re serious about the ban too. Your typical airport search for liquids, sharp objects, and narcotics? In Rwanda you can add plastic bags to the list, which will be confiscated if found on your person.
Rwanda’s road system may not be worthy of worldwide reknown just yet, but sometimes there’s no shame in simply being good. From the capital of Kigali, you can head in any direction on paved highway, which is something of a godsend if you’ve been traveling dirt roads in a minibus for the last week or month.
There’s also been a lot of social support to improve safety conditions, which have gone from terrible around the time of the genocide, to respectable.
In Kigali and other large cities, the moto-taxi is one of the most convenient and interesting forms of transport – anywhere.
Rides are extremely affordable ($0.50-$2), but more importantly – important safety concerns have been addressed: Riders are members of a regulated union, insured against acidents, and obligated to provide passengers with a helmet.
While Rwanda is near the equator, and we’d expect swealtering temperatures that the desert regions to the north, due to the fact that the entire country is located at rather high altitude, temperatures are quite comfortable.
In fact, in the capital of Kigali, the average high ranges from 25°C to 28°C (77°F to 82°F) and the average low between 15°C and 16°C (59°F to 61°F) all year round, with the only difference being the alternation between wet and dry seasons.
People & Culture
Traditional music and dance routines are performed by Intore Dance Troupes. Historically, these groups were given military training and performed exclusively for the Royal Court. But now their routines – complete with grass wigs and spears – are on display nightly at various locations around the country.
The Genocide Memorial in Kigali
The genocide memorial in Kigali gives visitors insight into the tragedy that occured in 1994, as well as the remarkable progress Rwanda has made since that time. It is also the burial site of 250,000 of the genocide’s victims. Such a visit may be difficult, particularly when one is on vacation, but it is an essential part of understanding Rwanda and Rwandan culture. Entry is free.
Rwanda has the highest population density on the continent – of birds that is. With over 700 different bird species, it’s little wonder Nyungwe National Park is a bird-watcher’s paradise.
Lake Kivu is the largest of 5 volcanic lakes in western Rwanda – along the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Swimming in the lakes of centeral Africa usually isn’t a recipe for a long & healthy life. Crocodiles, hippos, and a hoast of smaller creepy-crawlies make the prospect of such swims anywhere from undesirable to impossible.
Lake Kivu is different. A pleasantly warm 23-27 °C all year long, it’s safe for swimming and a wide variety of aquatic activities, including kayaking, wind surfing, and jet skiing.
Overshadowed by their mountain gorilla cousins, trekking for golden monkeys in the bamboo forests of Volcanoes National Park is an adventure of its own.
Plus you don’t have to spring for the $750 gorilla tracking permit.
Hippos & More at Akagera National Park
Located a mere 2 hours from the capital of Kigali, Akagera National Park is home to one of the largest hippo populations in East Africa. The park is much more “classic safari” savannah than the “land of 1000 hills” that Rwanda bills itself as – which means it’s prime territory for viewing giraffes, elephants, zebras, buffalo, hyenas, and crocodiles.
The Congo Nile Trail
The Congo Nile Trail runs along the shores of Lake Kivu for 227 km (141 miles). This makes for a scenic 5 day bike trip or 10 day hike in the land of 1000 hills and along the beautiful waterfront.
A region Rwanda shares with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, the Virunga mountains boast 8 dormant or extinct volcanoes. It is a hugely popular region for trekking with a wide variety of routes and different wildlife excursions (including world-renowned gorilla treks).
One such route takes intrepid explorers up Mount Visoke, which rises to 3,711 meters above sea level and feautres a spectacular crater lake near the summit.
Home to almost half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas, gorilla trekking is one half of the classic Rwanda tourist track. It’s not for everybody, but those who do it tend to love it.
You can learn all about gorilla trekking with A First-Timer’s Guide to Gorilla Trekking
If you want to find out more about how to travel to Rwanda, check out our definitive Rwanda travel guide.
You can also check out 31 Fun Things to do in Kigali by Kirsty, a Canadian expat.
And if you’re looking for even more things to do in Rwanda, here’s what my friend Greg Bakunzi, a Rwandandan resident, has to suggest.