Traveling to Rwanda: Travel Tips and Impressions
When people hear about Rwanda, the first thing that often comes to their mind is remembrance of the horrible genocide that happened there in 1994. If you’re planning on taking a trip to this African country and are looking forward to it, you might get some confused looks and be asked why. Just like many countries, Rwanda’s past has some dark events--but that shouldn’t stop you from seeing the country for yourself and experiencing what it has to offer.
Most travelers head to Rwanda to see mountain gorillas in the wild, as it’s only one out of three countries in the world that offers gorilla trekking. There’s a lot more to do than that however--there are beautiful hikes, gorgeous lakes, and snow-capped volcanoes to explore. We shouldn’t forget atrocities and it’s important to be respectful of a country’s history. But Rwanda has proven resilient and it has evolved, with its tourism growing every year. Learning more about the Rwandan genocide and what caused it is essential if you’re going to visit the country, but your focus can also be to understand what Rwanda is currently trying to do and what type of future it aims to build.
To prepare as best as you can for your trip, take a look at these travel tips and impressions that other travelers got when they visited this beautiful country.
Rwanda is “The Switzerland of Africa”
You may have heard Rwanda referred to as “the Switzerland of Africa,” or the “Singapore of Africa.” Whichever analogy is used, it means that Rwanda is known for its cleanliness, calm, order, and enforcement of rules.
Many people report that there’s a completely different feeling to Rwanda than other African countries, and they can feel this as soon as they enter. There’s a widespread sense of calm, and people move slower; the streets are very clean, and trash is picked up. Drivers don’t honk, motorcyclists wear safety vests and helmets, and even in the big cities you won’t find frenzied movement. The urban areas of Rwanda are very clean and maintained as well.
This clean, calm, orderly image of Rwanda is often very different than how most people picture the country, as they still have chaos and genocide in mind. Tourists who have spoken to locals and to others who have lived in Rwanda for a long time realize there’s an emphasis on order, and that security and stability are integral aspects to Rwandan society. This attitude was necessary in order to rebuild the country after such an atrocity, and Rwandans have been working hard for the last twenty years to recover. Often, order and rules are necessary for rebuilding and reconciliation, and there has been a focus on human rights as well.
There Are Many Reminders of the Rwandan Genocide
Throughout the year, there are events of remembrance. Memorial signs can be found everywhere within the country, both in the cities and the towns, that remind locals and tourists that everyone was affected by the genocide.
Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, also has a Genocide Memorial center which you can visit to learn more about the conditions within the country that led up to the possibility of such systematic killing. This center, which is very well made, presents the history and socio-economic background of Rwanda through an explanation of the tensions between the Tutsis and the Hutus. It shows the propaganda that was used, and how Belgian colonial powers played a damaging role as it encouraged the distrust between Hutus and Tutsis. The memorial center also puts a spotlight on how international powers turned a blind eye to what was going on, even though United Nations officials in Rwanda were asking for help. It’s been estimated that if as little as 4,000 U.N. troops had been sent into the country when the trouble began in April 1994, this may have prevented the slaughter that occurred over the next 100 days.
It’s highly recommended that you make a stop at the memorial center if you visit Rwanda. Take as much time as you need at the center, and take in the even-handed message so you understand the important history and cultural aspects of the country you’re visiting. There are other museums and memorials as well, including churches and marked mass graves which you’re also welcome to visit.
There’s More to See than the Mountain Gorillas
Most tourists go to Rwanda to trek with the gorillas. Often, these tourists make a quick stop in Rwanda at the Volcano National Park, and then leave for nearby countries as part of a general trip in this African region. If you don’t take several days to enjoy Rwanda, this is a shame; the country has incredibly beautiful landscapes, and you can swim in lakes and hike volcanoes. This doesn’t include all of the villages and markets.
From the northern Musanze district to the lakeshore town of Kibuye to the capital city of Kigali, there are many things to do in Rwanda, and the country isn’t large, so you can do it all within a relatively short period of time. There’s also national parks such as the Akagera National Park, and the Nyungwe Forest, where you can trek with chimpanzees. If you need a relaxing, enjoyable stay, try the guesthouse Home Saint Jean in Kibuye, which overlooks the lake and is run by the Catholic church. Musanze is where you’ll enter Volcanoes National Park, and if you don’t book a gorilla trek, there’s plenty of hiking options where you can summit volcanoes and see more lakes, as well as explore local villages and towns.
Rwanda was the First Country to Ban Plastic Bags
Rwanda was the first in the world to absolutely and completely ban plastic bags, in 2006, and they take it very seriously. When you enter Rwanda, whether through the border or when your flight lands, you will be asked to open your bags for inspection. This is a common request around the world, as many officials search for drugs, alcohol, and other banned items or substances, but Rwandan officials will look for plastic bags. They’ll go through your backpacks, and if they come across a plastic bag, they make you take out its contents and hand it over so they can remove it.
While this may be an inconvenience for many travelers, it’s not a big deal to forfeit your bags. Rwanda makes sure that it isn’t swamped in plastic, and this philosophy doesn’t just apply to the people who live there; it’s understandable that the country takes this approach. As you explore Rwanda, you’ll notice that it’s remarkably, and beautifully, plastic bag-free. If you purchase something at the store, you’ll receive a woven or paper bag instead. It’s inspirational.
The Head-Carrying Balance is Taken to a New Level
You’ve probably seen pictures of women carrying things balanced on their heads; this isn’t a new aspect, however in Rwanda, this practice is taken to a new level entirely in terms of color and artistry. A common scene on the street is a group of women talking, laughing, walking, and gesturing dramatically, all while keeping baskets of food or tools balanced on their head perfectly and steadily. The strength and beauty of it is incredible.
Expect to Invest a Lot of Time in Eating
In Rwanda, the slow food movement is very literal. The preparation of food and service in restaurants is conducted much more slowly than you’re used to if you live in America; prepare to invest hours in your meals, and you should definitely plan ahead. You should know that there is no “street food” in Rwanda, typically for hygienic reasons, and, it’s not really a part of the country’s culture. Options for getting a “quick bite” to eat will be tough to find.
If you’re going out to eat, you can expect to spend hours in a restaurant ordering items a la carte. The food will appear slowly--sometimes, it’ll take an hour for rice, chicken, or pasta to get to your table. This is a pretty consistent factor, regardless of how fancy the restaurant is that you’re eating at. When you eat in Rwanda, keep an open mind, and try to think outside the parameters of your normal quick and busy lifestyle.
In Rwanda, You’ll Encounter Both French and English
Rwandans who are older tend to speak French, and the younger generation tends to speak English, so knowing how to ask both “Do you speak English?” And “Parlez-vous francais?” will be beneficial to you.
Up until 2008, classes in Rwanda were conducted using the French language. One day, the government declared that English was the country’s official language when it came to education--and that was all it took. There are a lot of reasons for the switch: English is a universal language, and many of the countries that border Rwanda speak English, which lends to better trade and exchange when international businesses speak the same language. The switch also distances the country from its colonial history under France and Belgium’s rule.
Unsurprisingly, the sudden switch created linguistic confusion, and not just for students and teachers; you’ll find a mix of the languages today everywhere in Rwanda. As time goes on, English will become more and more implemented. For now, it’s to your advantage if you’re able to speak at least a little bit of French as well as English as you’re exploring the country.
There are Community Days, or “Umuganda”
On the last Saturday of every month, every Rwandan is called upon for Umuganda, which means “contribution.” This is a national day of mandatory community service; each person is expected to show up to contribute to public projects, to help clean, and to help build. Rwandans who don’t show are heavily fined. These days are meant to help support the country’s focus of being organized and clean, and it strengthens social ties as well: it encourages everyone to work together, and for people to get to know their neighbors as well as their local government officials.
Rwanda’s day of service has already been in practice for more than a century, but currently, it has an especially important role as it promotes cooperation and unity in Rwanda’s society and culture in the years since the genocide. A lot of commitment and leadership has been required in order to maintain this practice.
Rwanda is Heavily Influenced by Foreign Aid
Rwanda definitely stands out when it comes to the level of aid. You’ll find that your trip from the bus station to your hostel can be a unique experience--there are tons of shiny new buildings, each run and owned by an aid organization, whether it’s religious, multinational, or international. You’ll see fresh paint, new fences, and shiny cars.
When the genocide of 1994 was over, the international community helped Rwanda rebuild by contributing heavily. A lot of aid was based on need, however, it can be said that this aid was expended in order to make up for the guilt that many religious and international communities felt when they realized they could have done more to prevent the genocide in the first place. The Rwandan government invests heavily itself in the infrastructure and education of the nation and it aims to become a center for business and trade. However, aid still has a large role in the GDP of the country-- as much as 40% of it in 2011.
The effects of this intense foreign aid are very clear as you travel through the country, in both a good and a bad way. You won’t see shacks or huts; people live in cement homes that have new fences and new tin roofs. Schools and roads are in good condition. However, there is also a lot of expectation from local people that they can indefinitely depend on foreign resources and money. Demanding and begging for money is very common in Rwanda, and you’ll be approached by people who are looking for handouts from foreigners, even from children who have clean, new school uniforms. Over time, this situation will hopefully improve so that Rwanda is able to rely on foreign aid less and less and can focus on its own efforts for development.
The Markets are Bustling and Amazing
The markets of Rwanda are where you can find lots of action, and some lingering aspects of enjoyable chaos. You can find anything and everything at these open air markets, from multi-colored beans to carved pieces of cassava root. It’s easy to converse with the locals about what they’re selling and how to use or consume these items. You’re going to find lots of foods and other items, and fun is sure to ensue.
Budget Travel Recommendations for Rwanda
Typically, many travelers in Rwanda explore the country through packaged tours, and like many others, the country does enjoy hosting travelers who aren’t on a tight budget. It’s understandably tough to travel when you don’t have an endless amount of money, however, Rwanda is a country where it’s definitely possible to travel if you’re on a budget, and there are many things you can arrange on your own rather than opting for a packaged deal. This could take a lot of effort and time though. In order to get the most for your budget, here are some travel tips for the country.
Travel Recommendations for Kigali
For accomodations: Given that Kigali is Rwanda’s capital and a hot spot for people around the world to travel to, you will be hard-pressed to find cheap accomodation options in Kigali if you’re traveling on a budget. For example, a great hostel is the Discover Rwanda Hostel, and it’s $42USD per night for a double room and a shared bathroom, a price that’s a bit high for most people considering the situation.
For food: You’ll find great Indian food at the restaurant at the Blueberry Hotel, which is located in the Nyarutarama neighborhood. The chicken kalimchi and paneer hadee are especially good, and are relatively cheap at about $10 each. The portions are huge as well, so you really get two meals out of it. At many places, you’ll find unusual and long menus, as well as dishes that are spectacular with many levels of flavor. Republika is another recommended eatery if you enjoy grilled meat and carafes of wine.
For travel: The best, and most cheap, way to get around the sprawling capital is to hitch a ride on the back of a motorbike taxi. The drivers will have helmets for themselves and helmets for you to borrow, so you don’t need to worry about being safe. Each ride will cost you just a couple of dollars. However, you can definitely haggle with your driver--the first price you’re given is the mzungu price (or price for a white person).
Travel Recommendations for Lake Kivu
For accomodation: If you’re interested in an area that’s less tourism-focused and more laid back, Kibuye is recommended more than Gisenyi, which are both towns located along the lake. If you’d like to relax, it’s highly recommended that you spend a couple of days in Kibuye. Here, you’ll find Home Saint Jean, a guesthouse that’s run by the Catholic church. It’s located on a hill that overlooks the lake and provides you with spectacular views that have a laid-back feel. Here, you’ll find rooms that fit all types of budgets. A double room with a shared bathroom costs just $12 per night. Larger rooms that overlook the lake or which have their own bathrooms come at a higher rate of $20-$35 per night. The guesthouse also provides meals, so you’ll save on going out to eat as well.
For transportation: Buses go between Kibuye and Kigali on regular intervals. They depart on the half hour every hour, and it takes about two and a half hours to go between the big cities. To get to Gisenyi from Kibuye, you can also take a public boat that departs from a pier located near the Hotel Golf, on Tuesdays and Fridays around one in the afternoon. This boat ride costs roughly $4 and takes about two hours. Many people recommend this great boat instead of taking a long, dusty bus ride.
Travel Recommendations for Musanze/Ruhengeri
The town of Musanze and the area of Ruhengeri are jumping-off points for people who wish to go gorilla trekking and take excursions into Volcano National Park. There’s a good infrastructure for tourism around this area.
For accomodation: A great place to stay is Amahoro Guesthouse, where you’ll spend $30 a night for a double room, and breakfast is included. It’s in a great downtown location, so you can walk everywhere very easily. Muhoozi, who’s the caretaker of the house, is very welcoming and friendly and you will definitely be well taken care of here.
For food: La Paillote is the favorite for many people in town. It has a great menu of stuff you’ll recognize--including pizza, sandwiches, pasta, and fish, all at great prices for $4-$8 a plate. It also has great coffee. If you’re looking for excellent, cheap restaurants, a lot of places in town serve buffets, which are a great budget-friendly choice if you don’t mind your food not being made to order. It’s also very easy to cook your own meal in Musanze: simply visit the market, pick up veggies, rice, and beans, and cook it in the kitchen of your guesthouse. It’s easy to whip up a great, tasty meal using some spices that are locally grown, such as Ethiopian spices or curry.
For day tours: Many tours are offered by Lobelia Tours and can be organized at the guesthouse you’re staying at. For example, you can take a jeep ride out to the twin lakes (Lake Ruhondo and Lake Burera) through communities and villages. This will cost $80 for a half day for a maximum of six people at a time. Or, you can complete a hike along mountain Rugalika. This hike will begin from Red Rocks guesthouse, which is located along the outskirts of Musanze, and occurs for several hours as you hike up the hills, past a school, and through several villages. This is a great walk through rural communities if you’re interested in that aspect for a cost of $20 per person.
For transportation: Musanze is definitely a spot that’s well connected, so you won’t have any problem getting in and out of the town. By bus, it’s about one and a half hours from Gisenyi/Lake Kivu, and two and a half hours from Kigali.
For treks at the Volcanoes National Park: As with any national park, you will need to pay a fee in order to enter the park. There are many guided treks you can complete so you reach the tops of those awesome volcanoes, and each hike will set you back about $75. You will also have to arrange for transportation from wherever you’re staying to the entrance of the park, which will be another (at least) $50 per day. Your guesthouse can help you arrange the transportation and help you book treks.
As you prepare for your trip for Rwanda, you’re now full of travel tips and experiences to seek. If anyone gives you a weird look when you talk about how excited you are to visit Rwanda, just pick out a couple of these things to tell them about.