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The Heart of Africa: Explore History and Wildlife in Rwanda

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There are few places in the world as life-changing to visit as Rwanda. Located in Central Africa, the nation is a primate paradise — for gorillas, monkeys, chimpanzees, and humans, too. For a country the size of Maryland, it’s astounding how much there is to see and do — and we’re not even talking about safaris. Rwanda’s culture and heritage are fascinating and inspiring, with customs dating earlier than the 11th century (some historians estimate as early as the 5th century). What makes Rwanda so special are the people and the history. Read on to discover why Rwanda is known as the heart of Africa.

Kigali

Kigali skyline

(Image of Kigali provided by Adobe Stock)

Due to Rwanda’s relatively small size — it’s the smallest landlocked country on the continent — it’s wonderful to explore via road trip. What Rwanda lacks in sprawl, it makes up for in height: the country is famous for being the land of 1,000 hills, and you will want to get used to some bumpy back roads — what’s known in Rwanda as an “African massage.” Rwanda consists of four provinces — Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Western — and the city of Kigali, located right in the center of the country. A 10-day road trip allows you to visit all four provinces, But first, start your journey in the capital of Kigali. 

Though Rwanda may be one of the smaller nations in Africa, it has a population of more than 11 million people, and it’s important to visit the capital city when you arrive, also known as “the Singapore of Africa” for its cleanliness. 

The city is extremely safe for travelers. Book a stay at the Kigali Marriott. Traveler’s tip: Take out cash from the ATM on the property, as it can be difficult to withdraw money from other ATMs around the country. You will want to carry cash to tip your porters on treks and purchase local arts and crafts, as many vendors do not take credit cards. 

Speaking of artwork, visit the Go Kigali Boutique on-property to peruse an array of handmade jewelry, art, and decor. Each item has a card detailing the backstory of the item’s creator and helps to support local artisans. 

A trip to the Kigali Genocide Memorial is an absolute must-visit for all travelers. The memorial commemorates and honors victims of the 1994 genocide and is home to over 250,000 graves. The museum’s exhibits trace the root of the conflict and feature powerful survivor testimony. It’s nothing short of astounding to see how much the country has grown back stronger than ever in the past 30 years. 

The memorial is also home to over 2,000 taped interviews with survivors, who showcase the hard-earned wisdom such hardship has taught the population: “We all have good and bad in our hearts. If we cultivate hatred, hate will grow. If we cultivate love, love will grow.” 

The memorial’s mission is echoed in the words of another survivor: “The Memorial teaches children not to grow up thinking about ethnicity, but to think of themselves as Rwandans.” 

Be sure to purchase art from the gift shop, as well, as the products are created by a local cooperative of widows from the genocide, and each purchase supports these artisans.

It’s astonishing to see how much the city has evolved. Later that night, head to dinner at the Hotel des Milles Collines, the site of the famous Hotel Rwanda, where refugees were housed and protected during the genocide. Today, it remains a major establishment in the capital city. Order a Milles Collines cocktail and shrimp salad on the Legacy Terrace and enjoy spectacular views of the city below while enjoying live music amidst a lovely poolside ambiance among the property’s manicured gardens.

Akagera

Giraffes at Akagera National Park

(Image of Akagera provided by Visit Rwanda)

On your drive from Kigali in the Eastern Province, pay a visit to the Imigongo Art Center & Cafe, located alongside the road in Kayonza. Order a passion fruit mojito from the cafe and check out the gallery. The passion fruit mojitos in Rwanda are reliably fresh and delicious, but the concoction created at this local cafe is among the nation’s best. Equally impressive is the gallery of African artists and the collection of traditional Imigongo cow dung art that originated in the local area. 

Continue your drive northeast towards Akagera National Park, the largest protected wetlands in Central Africa and one of Rwanda’s hidden gems. Though renowned for the gorilla treks in the nation’s northern mountaintops, the grasslands of Rwanda’s eastern savannah remain under the radar. Stay at Akagera Game Lodge, as the property is the most luxurious place to stay in the park — and boasts a gorgeous sunrise over Lake Ihema.

While travelers are quick to think of gorillas when considering Rwanda, it's lesser-known that the country is also a Big Five destination — unsurprising, considering the area where these animals can be found shares a border with Tanzania. Set out for a game drive to spot elephants, baboons, black rhinos, buffalos, lions, and elephants in the wild. Head out for a boat safari on Lake Ihema to spot local birds, hippos, and Nile crocodiles. 

"Tanzania is a tourism destination, Rwanda is a conservation destination," says Akagera research manager Drew Bantlin.

Thanks to the park’s relatively under-the-radar status, Akagera is crowd-free, and there’s no shortage of wildlife to be viewed while enjoying the surrounding serenity. Akagera is a member of the African Parks Network, as is our next destination, Nyungwe.  Many of the park’s guards are from the local area and are former poachers turned conservationists — a feat replicated across the nation. 

“The only way this park can be protected for a long time is if Rwandans themselves believe in that — we need future generations to protect that,” says Ian Munyankindi, tourism and hospitality manager at Akagera.

Munkankindi’s approach is emblematic of the attitude favored in National Parks throughout the country, where the focus is on community empowerment. The emphasis on conservation is remarkable as Rwanda has become an example of what works well across the continent.

Nyungwe

Chimpanzee in Nyungwe National Park

(Image of chimpanzee provided by Visit Rwanda)

Next on the road trip is a journey to the southwest, where the savannah of Akagera transitions is replaced by lush rainforest and tea plantations. A stopover at King's Palace Museum in the Nyanza District of the Southern Province is a must-visit for travelers seeking a greater understanding of Rwandan history. Visitors trace hundreds of years of history on guided tours that provide indelible insight into the cultural customs of Rwanda. Travelers are also introduced to the majestic Inyambo, the long-horned royal cow that was the sacred property of kings. 

From there, you will head to the Western Province to stay on the shores of Lake Kivu at the Mantis Kivu Marina Bay Hotel in Kamembe. Africa’s eighth-largest lake, Lake Kivu, is located on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the western branch of the East African Rift.

Head out to the gorgeous Nyungwe Forest National Park in nearby Rusizi. Nyungwe is one of the oldest rainforests on the continent and one of the few remaining forests to escape the Ice Age. The forest extends beyond the Burundi border, where it becomes Kibira National Park and is one of the largest protected mountain rainforests in Africa. 

There’s no shortage of outdoor adventures for visitors to the park — we recommend hiking to Ndambare Waterfall and trekking across the Canopy Walk, a suspended bridge over 230 feet high. Nyungwe is also one of the only places you can spot chimpanzees in their native habitat — as such, a chimpanzee trek is a must-do for every visitor. Just remember to wear hiking boots and clothing you don't mind getting covered with the mud and leaves of the forest. And be sure to enlist a local porter to assist you on the adventure — it's far more challenging than your average hike, but the reward of spotting these playful primates in the wild is more than worth it. 

Head to the One & Only Nyungwe House for lunch and enjoy a tea tasting of the local flavors grown on the surrounding plantation. One of two One & Only Resorts in Rwanda, the boutique property is decorated in elegant Rwandan decor and features an infinity pool, as well as a restorative spa specializing in African treatments.

From there, head north to Kibuye for an overnight stay at the Cleo Lake Kivu Hotel, a 14-room boutique hotel with sweeping views of Lake Kivu. The next morning, take a boat ride out to Kinunu Wonders plantation, where Boneza Coffee is grown, and guest houses are available for adventurers hiking along the Congo-Nile Trail. 

Afterward, head to nearby Rushel Kivu Resort for a beachside lunch of fresh fish and local beer. We suggest the Nile Perch, chased with Virunga Beer, a homegrown brew advertised by gorillas stomping across the jungle (where you’re headed for the final portion of the trip). 

Heading north from Lake Kivu, travelers should pay a visit to Gishwati Mukura National Park. Gishwati is one of the youngest National Parks on the continent, and your final stop in the Western Province. The fourth National Park in Rwanda is also the newest, located on the Congo-Nile divide in western Rwanda. Opt for a bird walk through the forest, as the park is home to over 200 species of birds, and the bird-watching in Rwanda is a paradise for avian aficionados. 

And, in the manner of all the conservation efforts in Rwanda, there’s an emphasis on community involvement:

“The local community must be involved in conservation for it to be a win-win,” explains Placide Nkurunziza, the community conservation warden at Gishwati Mukura. “We must share revenues from tourism activities with the community. When they see tourists coming to visit the animals, they know they will benefit.”

Volcanoes

Volcano at sunset

(Image of volcano provided by Visit Rwanda)

The last stop on your trip is the Northern Province, home to the legendary Virunga Mountains and its world-famous mountain gorillas. Book the Cabana for the ultimate mountain hideaway at Tiloreza Volcanoes Ecolodge, where the tropical environs are reflected in the chic decor of the ultra-boutique hotel. Sustainability is a priority at the Kinigi property, and it’s the perfect place to sip cocktails poolside post-gorilla trek. 

Another chic hideaway is the 10-room Virunga Lodge. Perched atop a hill in Musanze, the luxurious retreat features five rooms overlooking Bulera Lake and five rooms gazing upon the nearby volcanoes. The property is part of Volcanoes Safaris, pioneers in eco-tourism in Rwanda and Uganda for nearly thirty years.

The next day, set out on a trek to commune with the last remaining mountain gorillas in the world in Volcanoes National Park. This once-in-a-lifetime experience offers an awe-inspiring opportunity to spend time in the presence of magnificent creatures that feel both eerily familiar and similar to us, yet also massively intimidating in size.

The chief park warden of Volcanoes National Park, Prosper Uwingeli, concurs: “You observe how similar we are, how crazy we are. That's what makes spending time with gorillas so special."

The limited daily permits, as well as the expertise of the park employees, are crucial to preserving this magical experience. The trackers and guards interpret the gorilla's body language, grunts, and sounds to ensure safety for both the gorillas and the hikers. 

“Gorillas are very special animals; we have to be able to protect them so they can live forever and people can see them in the wild,” says Jean Paul Hirwa, gorilla program manager at the Karisoke Research Center. “Even though the trekking can be challenging or hard, when you reach the gorillas, you feel relaxed.”

Gorilla conservation was first spearheaded by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in 1967 and is one of the rare runaway success stories today. Once nearing complete extinction, the mountain gorilla population has continuously grown in recent decades. Thanks to dedicated researchers and a community-focused approach, what was once a population of 250 in the 1980s is now close to 1,000. 

And the recent unveiling of the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund enhances the experience for conservationists on the ground and tourists visiting from afar.  

“For decades, passionate conservationists have been working to protect the mountain gorillas, and their habitat — the opening of this institute is a testament to that,” says Prime Minister Edouard Ngirente. “I would like to invite the world to come here and be inspired.” 

The center provides educational resources for visitors and enhanced research capabilities for African scientists, who will be able to conduct more intensive studies on African soil rather than outsource material to labs in Europe and elsewhere abroad. 

“Our mission is about saving gorillas and helping people,” says Tara Soinski, president and CEO of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. The newly-opened campus is momentous for the initiative. “This has been a twenty-year dream for us to have a permanent home in Rwanda.”

Musanze

Musanze skyline

(Image of Musanze provided by Adobe Stock)

There’s more to see in the Northern Province of Rwanda than just gorillas. (Though they are spectacular). Equally spectacular? The region’s storied history and the inspiring story of how preservation efforts developed across the nation. Nowhere else is this on such perfect display than at the Gorilla Guardians Village, a community of former poachers who have now become conservationists. Visit the village to learn more about Rwandan history and culture and support the local community — the tourism profits have eliminated the need for hunting in the forest (once necessary for survival). 

“Our tradition is our treasure” is the motto of the village, and guests can drink banana beer, practice traditional dances, and learn about the history of the kingdom of Rwanda in a single afternoon.

Spend an afternoon gallery-hopping to discover traditional and modern Rwandan arts and crafts at the Inshuti Arts and Culture Center,  MASHA (Musanze Arts Studio Hub Adventure), Red Rocks Art Center, and the Kigali Community Commercial Complex. Other options include grabbing a cocktail at the hotel bar at Best View and dining at Migano Cafe in the Migano Hotel in Ruhengeri.

Make a stop by the Northern Creative Corner, an Image Rwanda initiative showcasing the work of local photographers. The gallery is adjacent to an outdoor bar and is the perfect spot for happy hour or post-trek cocktails, where you can combine cultural education with a laid-back ambiance. 

The current exhibit, Sweet Like Honey, showcases depictions of daily life in Rwanda by local artists and is the brainchild of Innocent Ishimwe, who was keen on providing a fuller portrait of his home country to the world at large. 

The CEO of Image Rwanda, Ishimwe, hopes to expand to all four provinces to showcase the full spectrum of Rwandan life as it is today.

“When I Googled Rwanda, 80% of the pictures were of the genocide. And we were known for that, but we have moved past that. A lot has happened since 1994. There’s more to Rwanda. I thought: How can I change the narrative? That's why I became a photographer. Only photography can capture what life is truly like,” says Ishimwe.

Ishimwe’s goal is to train over 100 photographers in each province, and a visit to his first outpost in Musanze is a must-visit for every traveler drawn to the region for the gorillas. 

The Heart of Africa

Virunga mountains

(Image of Virunga Lodge provided by Visit Rwanda)

Rwanda is an unmissable destination for 2023, as it offers the most singular wildlife encounter in the world — communing with mountain gorillas in the wild in Rwanda. It is also a rapidly changing destination, and the story behind Rwanda’s development of its tourism products — gorilla and chimp trekking, hiking the nation’s 1,000 hills — reflects how travel can be a force for good. 

Whether you’re interested in history and culture, breathtaking nature, or thrilling wildlife encounters, there is something for everyone in Rwanda. And, unlike other bucket-list destinations across the globe, Rwanda is remarkably easy to navigate for all types of travelers. Whether you’re a solo adventurer or taking a trip with family or friends, visitors will encounter clean and safe cities and find the countryside teeming with breathtaking surprises (every corner offers a view across the nation’s valleys and hilltops).

The four national languages in Rwanda are Kinyarwanda, Swahili, English, and French, and visitors will be delighted to learn that most people they encounter will be fluent in English. The Rwandan franc is the national currency, but the US dollar is also widely accepted. 

But beyond the gorillas in the Virunga Mountains or the giraffes of Akagera, the people are the real reason to visit Rwanda. To witness a country that is so resilient, that has overcome such tragedy to develop into the beautiful, safe nation it is today, is nothing short of awe-inspiring. And the warmth of the people is as uplifting and infectious as the gorgeous pink sunrise hanging above the savannas and forests every morning. From the mountains to the cities, Rwanda is alive with adventure. So, what are you waiting for? Book your next trip and be prepared to be amazed by remarkable Rwanda.

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