15 Things to Know About Traveling to Rwanda
The number one reason most people travel to Rwanda is to have the chance to see endangered mountain gorillas in the wild. In fact, Rwanda is only one of 3 countries in the world you’re able to do this. However, a lot of people have reservations about Rwanda and are nervous about their trip, because they believe that like many other places in Africa, Rwanda is unsafe.
It’s true that in any new country, you have to be safe and be aware of certain cultural standards. It’s also true that Rwanda isn’t as developed as many other countries, but this doesn’t mean that you will be risking your life traveling here. In reality, Rwanda is one of the safest countries in Africa to travel to and be in, and it has lots of things to do and places to see. Rwanda is pretty charming in fact, and not only is it often a top destination, at the moment it’s also one of the safest, the cleanest and the cheapest.
Travel to Rwanda doesn’t necessarily have to be difficult. Tourism for the country is getting better and more popular each year, and the infrastructure is improving. As the years go by, it’s getting easier than ever to explore “The Land of a Thousand Hills.”
If you’ve been thinking about taking a trip to Rwanda and aren’t sure what to expect, here are fifteen important traveling tips to know about before you pack your bags.
1) How do You Get a Visa for Rwanda?
In order to get your visa for Rwanda, you’ll not have to apply beforehand irrespective of where you live. You’ll need your passport, your return flight ticket, your hotel reservation and means to pay the visa fee upon arrival; these will all be different, depending on the type of visa you apply for. For travelers, those may be the Rwanda Tourist Visa or the East African Tourist Visa (EATV) which allows you to visit Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda without having to apply for another visa in either of those countries . If you’re already an African national (if for example, you’re from South Africa) you actually don’t apply for a Visa before your trip--you receive one that’s good for thirty days upon your arrival. If you’re like many Africans and would like to avoid the pain of visa paperwork and the waiting, Rwanda is perfect; all nationals either get their visa on arrival, or they may even be visa exempt. The whole process is pretty quick.
When you arrive in Rwanda and have your visa, an immigration official will speak with you for a short period of time. Then, you’re done, and can go ahead and explore the country.
2) Is it Safe in Rwanda?
Absolutely. Did you know that Rwanda is ranked as the safest country in Africa? It’s also the ninth safest country in the entire world. If you’re traveling by yourself or with a partner, your loved ones don’t need to worry. Many people who travel to Rwanda feel completely at ease, whether they’re from Africa or from another continent. It’s also known to be very safe for women, and female travelers have reported that they did not experience any catcalling during their time in the country.
Additionally, Rwanda isn’t known to be homophobic and is much more progressive than many of its neighbors; it’s also ranked to be the most progressive country in all of East Africa. If you do run into any trouble, the police and members of the military are readily available in Rwanda, and you’ll often find policemen patrolling every block. While these policemen and soldiers may look intimidating, they’ll often be some of the most friendly people you’ll ever meet, and usually are more than happy to help.
3) The Tap Water is Unsafe to Drink
Do not drink the tap water in Rwanda. The good thing is, most hostels and hotels you’ll stay at will have a water dispenser you can use for free. One of the most important things to pack for your trip is a reusable water bottle that you can fill up and bring with you as you explore throughout the day.
If you need to buy water as you’re out and about, it’s widely available and cheap; you can find it at any of the supermarkets and shops located throughout the country.
4) What Are the Vaccinations I Need to Travel to Rwanda?
There are certain medications that are recommended that you have as you travel in the country, but they’re not required; this means that you don’t have to have them, and you won’t be denied entry if you don’t. One of these medications is the Yellow Fever vaccine. However, it is a good idea to get these vaccinations anyway if they are recommended, as a means of precaution. After all, you need to be as safe as possible, and you don’t want to be sick for your whole trip.
Whether or not you need certain travel vaccinations also can depend on where exactly you’re coming from. For example, if you’re flying from or to any country that neighbors with Rwanda, such as Uganda or Kenya, you will need to be able to prove you’ve been vaccinated. Rwanda only requires proof of a vaccine such as Yellow Fever if you’re traveling from an at-risk country.
To cover all your bases and be completely sure, it’s recommended you get the appropriate vaccines even if they’re simply recommended.
5) Where to Find Hostels
If you search online with platforms such as Booking.com, you’ll get just a handful of results for hostels in Rwanda. But, this doesn’t mean that’s really all that’s available. In reality, your choices aren’t as limited because most places don’t advertise on booking sites that are online. It’s recommended that you make a reservation for your first night’s stay in the country so you don’t have to worry when you first get there. Then, explore your options and take the time to find hostels on your own once you’re actually in country.
Rwanda’s hostel scene is small, but growing. You’ll find 12-bed dorms and 6-bed dorms, which you might get to yourself as the hostels usually aren’t full. If hostels aren’t your thing, there are plenty of great hotels and guesthouses that offer nice stays and excellent views.
6) Rwanda’s Currency
The official currency in Rwanda is the Rwandan Francs. However, US Dollars are accepted everywhere, and you can pay for a lot of things such as your hotel stay and your car rental in dollars. For smaller purchases such as food, you’ll need Frw. Many places accept both currencies, so you don’t need to worry about it as much as you do in other countries.
7) What the Internet Access is Like
It is not a problem to get online in Rwanda, whether you’re using public WiFi at cafes or have your laptop at the hotel or hostel. It’s not the fastest connection, but you won’t have to wait a long time for your screen to load either.
If you’re not planning on getting a local sim card in order to have data, you may struggle to find internet connection as you’re out and about for the day but today many public buses around Kigali are connected to internet. It may not be the best connection but it is better than nothing. Your best bet for WiFi is the 4G Square in town, cafes such as the one at the Genocide Memorial, however beyond that they are sparse.
8) How to Get a Permit for Hiking and Gorilla Trekking
The number one attraction that Rwanda offers is the chance to see gorillas in the wild. But, it’s important to keep in mind that you can’t just show up, go on a hike, and expect to see a gorilla; you need a permit and a guide. Permits for hiking in national parks as well as permits for gorilla trekking can be purchased at the Tourism Headquarters in RDB, which are in Kigali, or in the offices located outside national parks. They can also be arranged by your preferable tour operator.
Prices for these permits were doubled last year in an effort to ensure sustainability of conservation initiatives and in a bid to enhance visitors experience. One gorilla permit costs USD 1,500 and the availability varies.Certain activities are restricted to a certain number of people per day. This restriction applies the most to gorilla treks. It’s highly recommended that you contact your tour operator or the tourism headquarters to find out what the availability is on the days you’re thinking of in order to cement your plans.
A very important thing to keep in mind is that once the permits have been issued, the dates they are for can’t be changed. If your plans change and it turns out you can’t go, you’ll have to purchase a completely new permit for the day you can.
9) The Best Time to Go Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda
Gorilla trekking can be done all year round but the best time of the year for this is during the dry season. This will make the terrain much easier to navigate, and the gorillas dislike the rain as much as we do; if it’s dry, this will increase the likelihood you’ll get to see gorillas. Even people who complete treks at the very beginning of the rainy season, when it hasn’t quite rained a lot yet, may still find it difficult: there will be steep inclines, mud, and swampy areas you’ll have to get through.
10) What to Wear When You Go Gorilla Trekking
Good shoes: A good, sturdy pair of hiking shoes are absolutely essential. They should protect your ankles, and have great traction.
Gaiters: You can find gaiters that are specifically made for hiking. If you don’t own your own pair, many trek guides can rent them for about $15USD.
Long sleeved clothing: You’ll want long pants and a long-sleeved shirt; this will protect you from stinging nettles and bug bites. You also should pick out clothing that has the most neutral colors possible; this will help you blend in to the background.
Other hiking essentials: If you hike often, you know the drill: bring plenty of water and a small backpack that’s been stocked with lots of snacks, a change of clothes, and lunch. You’ll also need a waterproof jacket. It is recommended not to wear flashy colors as gorillas don’t like those.
11) What the Food is Like
The local food of Rwanda is absolutely delicious. A lot of dishes are focused around meat, so if you’re vegetarian or vegan you may find some difficulty, but there are still plenty of meat-free dishes and people often enjoy anything they encounter.
If you’re traveling as a vegan or have other restrictions on your diet, it’s relatively easy to get ahold of food that fits your needs. There aren’t many restaurants that are specifically vegan or vegetarian, however, it’s easy to find vegetarian options at places or to modify your meal. You’ll have the easiest time with breakfast: a typical Rwandan breakfast involves plates full of fresh fruit.
There are many cooking class tours if you’re interested in learning how to make Rwanda’s famous local dishes yourself. For example, the Nyamirambo Women’s Center offers a cooking class for less than $20. If you take a class through this center, you’ll help vulnerable women in the community make a living, and, you’ll receive an authentic look into how traditional meals are prepared and created. Many of these classes also have vegetarian options that can be made into vegan plates upon request.
If you’re interested in having local food delivered to you, you should know that Jumia Food is the equivalent of Uber Eats in Rwanda. Sometimes, sampling the local food and culture is a great experience, but sometimes, you just want to go to your hostel at the end of the day, eat some comfort food, and have some time to yourself. It’s good to know that you don’t always necessarily have to go out; Jumia Food is fantastic. Simply use the app on your smartphone, as you would Uber Eats, to look at a wide range of cuisine and price ranges that is delivered to the door of your hostel or hotel. There are many Ethiopian restaurants that are worth the splurge, and if you’d like to go cheaper, Chap Chap is a great recommendation.
12) How to Tip in Rwanda
It’s important to note that unless you’re eating at a high-end establishment in Kigali, tipping is not customary. However, there are still some guidelines you should follow: for example, if you complete a guided hike or do a chimpanzee/gorilla trek, it is expected that you tip your guide. How much is debatable, and if you need guidance, ask the company organizing your tour, ask fellow travelers, or ask the staff at your hotel or hostel. Keep in mind that your business helps Rwandan locals to make an ethical living, and the fact that people come from all over the world to look at gorillas keeps the endangered species alive and safer from poaching.
13) The Best Time to Visit Rwanda
Rwanda is most enjoyable during the dry season. This means that from June to September, you’ll have the best chance to complete outdoor activities without any rain ruining your fun. It’s also the best time of year to see the country’s wildlife: the animals that Akagera National Park has, for example, will be easier to spot as they walk to watering holes. During this time, hiking conditions will also be the easiest and you won’t be tramping through endless mud.
The only downside to this is that while this is the best time, many people (and locals) know this fact and it’s also peak tourist season during the dry season. This means that national parks, hostels, and restaurants will be more crowded and hotels, activities, and flights will be more expensive.
If you visit during the rainy season, you’ll have a much cheaper and less crowded trip, but you’ll need to plan for bad weather and your outdoor activities will be less enjoyable and possibly canceled.
14) How to Get Around Rwanda
The easiest way to travel around the country is to book your own car, however, this is expensive. Rwanda does have a public transportation system that is decent and very affordable, so you can get around relatively easily this way as well.
When it comes to the national parks, such as Akagera, you’ll have to either use your own car or join a tour in order to get in and look around. The same thing applies to the Volcanoes National Park. For many parks, you need to hire some wheels not only to explore the park but also to get there, as no public transportation will get you to the entrances.
If you’re planning on just hanging out in the towns and cities of Rwanda, you don’t need to hire a car; dozens of moto-taxis wait on the streets, and they offer reasonable rates. Rwandan drivers don’t haggle or inflate their pricing, so you don’t need to worry about this. However, drivers typically know places by the name of the building rather than the street name. If all you have is a street address, open your destination on Google Maps, show the driver, and check to make sure you’re heading the right way.
15) Understand Rwanda’s History Before You Go
In 1994, Rwanda suffered a genocide and underwent a dark period of time when thousands of Tutsi were murdered in just 100 days. That was a little over 20 years ago, and the memory is still fresh for the country and its people. Something you may encounter a lot as you explore Rwanda is that there are a lot of young people and not many older people. This is because many adults were killed during the genocide against the Tutsi.
Before you travel to Rwanda, read up on this history. There exist several books written about the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda to read in order for you to understand the basics of what led to this tragic event, however it’s important that you do further research as well. There is also a memorial in Kigali that you can- - and should--visit which will help you to understand this event and its impact better.
Visiting Rwanda can be intimidating, as any new country is intimidating. If you follow these tips, you’ll already be well on your way to a rewarding and respectful experience.