Rwanda Travel Guide

sabrina must rwanda travel guide

If ever asked to go to Rwanda, you say, “YES!” Always say yes. In summer 2007, when I was 21, I found myself in Rwanda for 2 weeks, exploring cities, villages, and the backcountry, searching for all the magic of a country that was divided decades before. Join me on an adventure. Here’s my Rwanda Travel Guide!

ARRIVAL

Airplane

  • The Kigali International Airport will most likely be your main port of entry. If you’re coming from the States or Europe, be prepared for a long arduous journey! The airport is relatively small; customs was a breeze for me.

Car

  • If you’re not flying but instead driving across borders, be sure to travel with a local who both speaks the language and knows the roads. Border crossings can definitely get a bit sketchy in certain areas. Obviously always keep your passport very secure.

KIGALI

The capital is the most metropolitan city in Rwanda. It’s not what you might picture Africa would look like. Stay for a couple days so you can check out historic monuments.  Obviously, due to its history of genocide, my travel suggestions in Kigali lean toward visiting many of these historic sites. While yes, you’ll experience a lot of emotion and it may not be your idea of fun, seeing firsthand the genocide memorials will make it that much more real. When we can touch and feel something, we connect that much deeper. Hopefully these experiences are a chilling reminder to avoid conflict and violence at all costs. Here are my top 3 must-sees:

Ntarama Church
ntmara church rwanda

  • Ntarama Church is where approximately 5,000 people were murdered, their clothing and bones decorating the walls—an eerie dedication to their lives and deaths. It’s raw and heart-wrenching. The church is about a 45-minute drive from Kigali.

 Ntmara Church Rwanda genocide
Kigali Genocide Memorial

  • The Genocide Memorial is a tribute to all those murdered and those who survived. It reminds me of the half dozen Holocaust memorial centers I’ve visited—the torch burning for eternity in the front, zigzagging through dark hallways, photos, weapons, human bones, clothing and plaques ordaining the walls.  No explanation is needed—it’s all here, the history, the need to always remember and never let this happen again.

Hotel Rwanda

  • The film “Hotel Rwanda” tells the story of a hotel manager who harbored and saved over 1,000 people at Hôtel des Mille Collines during the Hutu-Tutsi conflict. You can stay at the hotel or simply go for lunch or dinner (like I did). Always nice to see where history unfolded!


RUHENGERI

Ruhengeri is a 2.5-hour drive from Kigali.  The road, financed and built by the Chinese government, winds and cuts the terrain through the mountains in switchbacks.  Leave the hustle and bustle of the small, populous city for Ruhengeri where the calmness of the farmland, small villages, and nature overtakes its landscape.
Ruhengeri itself is tiny. It only takes about 10 minutes to drive through. Bearing anything from a basket of bananas to a tree trunk on their heads, pedestrians mostly occupy its well-paved streets with occasional SUVs zipping by. Here are my top 3 must-dos and sees in Ruhengeri!


Mountain Gorillas

Rwanda mountain gorillas

  • Most know Ruhengeri as where you come to hike to the mountain gorillas. Hiking to them is unlike anything you’ll experience! With only around 700 left in the world, these endangered animals must be protected! Poachers are their main threat, but fortunately various organizations, including the tourism bureaus of Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania—where the gorillas mostly live—help protect them. You book a tour through one of them or a travel agency. Local, well-trained guides lead you through the dense forest up and over the valleys and mountains to where different families are each day. Sometimes you get lucky and the gorillas are easy to find; other times they are a bit harder to locate. Be prepared for a super intense hike. Bring snacks and water! A single hike can cost you upwards of $1500. When I went it was around $700. So of course I understand that it may not be doable, but if you can afford it, I highly recommend the trip! (I was there to write a report for a veterinary project, so all my finances were fortunately covered.) In terms of what to wear, make sure you hike in long pants/spandex and long shirts. You’ll be bushwhacking a lot, so protect your body. Also, dress in layers as it will be cool in the morning and quickly heat up as the sun rises!

Pygmy Community
pygmy sabrina must

  • On the outskirts of town, down dirt roads, a pygmy community lives. Visiting these people was one of the highlights of my trip! Welcoming, kind, exuberant, they and their lifestyle was a great reminder of how simple life really should be: laugh, smile, love, celebrate! I highly recommend driving out to them for an afternoon of socializing, singing, and dancing.

City Market
ruhengeri market

  • Like any city, Ruhengeri has a local market for produce, meats, and goods. I loved it because it wasn’t completely overrun with tourists. Rwanda is still relatively untouched by Western culture, so locals, especially merchants, will not bombard you but instead be friendly and easy going. That was at least my experience in 2007.

AKAGERA NATIONAL PARK

Safari

sabrina must akagera national park

  • Nothing says Africa quite like a safari! The Akagera National Park was everything I hoped it’d be. Elephants, lions, giraffes, gazelles, hippos, bald eagles…we saw it all! Lucky for me, because I was part of the veterinary group, we were allowed off the trail to get way closer to the animals than most ever are. The 1,200-square-kilometer park covers a wide range of habitats. I highly suggest driving into the savannah lookout at sunset for epic shots like the one at the top of this post, as well as exploring both during the day and at night. Different species come alive at different times. But be mindful of how close you get to wildlife. A 5-ton elephant doesn’t look so cute when she’s charging you! (Yes, that happened to us! That moment pictured above.) Day passes will run you around $35. Definitely hire a tour guide. Also, check out the Akagera Game Lodge, a luxurious hotel in the middle of the park. Mind-blowing views from your room’s patio. But as signs warn, look out for wildlife at night!

TRIP PREPARATION

Like any time you travel to a foreign country, your body is exposed to unknown species and disease. Certain vaccines are necessary, especially in Africa for Americans, because the environment can be so different. While I didn’t get any vaccinations before Asia (though many others highly recommend that), I did get the entire list before I flew to Africa, including Yellow Fever which hurt like a motherf***er! Here is more information from the CDC.

Did I miss anything? Comment below!

Be sure to check out this video I made of my trip!

Return to the Travel Homepage for more awesome, enlightening travel guides and tips!

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