The “Land of a Thousand Hills” has a third of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas.
Known as the “Land of a Thousand Hills,” Rwanda rests just below the equator and its size, while small—about the size of Maryland—has a rich geography with mountains, savannas, and many lakes. This landlocked nation is at a high altitude. It also has one of the 20 deepest lakes in the world, Lake Kivu.
In some ways, Rwanda is still recovering from its tribal conflicts and 1994 genocide. With few natural resources, the economy is based on subsistence agriculture, where farmers grow just enough food to feed their families. Coffee and tea are cash crops and one of the country’s biggest exports thanks to the high altitudes, steep slopes, and volcanic soils.
Tourism is one of the fastest-growing sectors because Rwanda is fortunate to be one of only two countries where tourists can visit the endangered mountain gorillas safely. There are seven mountain gorilla families that tourists can visit, including Susa, the largest group with 41 mountain gorillas that also have rare 5-year-old twins. Besides gorillas, Rwanda has more than 700 kinds of birds.
There are three national parks and most of the large mammals are found here, including the Ruwenzori colobus arboreal monkeys. They have the biggest troop size of any primate in Africa and can move in groups of up to 400.
Rwanda is one of the world’s most densely populated countries. The country is divided by great peaks of up to 3, 000m(9,842ft) which run across the country from north to south. To feed the people, almost every available piece of land is under cultivation, expect for parts of the Akagera (along the border with Tanzania) and the higher slopes of the volcanoes. Since most of the country is mountainous, this involves a good deal of terracing. The virunga volcanoes, rising steeply from Lake Kivu in the west, slope down first to hilly central plateau and further eastwards to an area of marshy lakes around the upper reaches of the Akagera River, where the Akagera National Park is situated.
The country’s scenery is much mountainous and the Karisimbi is regarded as the highest peak at 4,507on the Virunga Volcanic ranges and the lowest point in Rwanda is the Ruzizi River, at 950 m (3,117 ft) above sea level. Lake Kivu is the country’s largest main fresh water body. And Ruzizi river valley forms the western boundary with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) and constitute part of the Great Rift Valley. There also other small lakes and Rivers such as Ruhondo, Burera, Muhazi, Ihema, Mugesera and River Akagera. Rwanda is also located on the eastern edge of the Albertine Rift which is a western wing of the Great Rift Valley and all these places attract a number of travelers’ whole over the world to Rwanda to explore more about the country.
Even though Rwanda is located only two degrees south of the equator, Rwanda’s high elevation makes the climate temperate. The average daily temperature is near Lake Kivu; at an altitude of 4,800 feet (1,463 m) is 73 °F (22.8 °C). The average day time temperature is 24oc with a possible maximum of 300c. There are four noticeable seasons, the long dry season is from mid-may to September, and the long dry season is from mid-may to September, the short rains from October to mid December to mid-march. Heavy downpours occur almost daily, alternating with sunny weather. Rainfall is generally heavier in the western and northwestern mountains than in the eastern savannas. The summit of Karisimbi (4507m), the highest of these volcanoes, is often covered with hail or snow
Culture & people of Rwanda
Rwanda is a country of mainly three groups of people these are the Hutu, Tutsi, and the Twa. The Hutu dominates other groups with over 84%, the Tutsi with 15% and the Twa 1%. The culture of Rwanda is varied. Unlike many countries in Africa, Rwanda has been a unified state since pre-colonial times, populated by the Banyarwanda people who share a single language and cultural heritage. Music and dance are an essential part of Rwandan ceremonies, celebration, social gatherings and storytelling. The most well-known traditional dance is the umushagiriro, or cow dance, performed by women, the or dance of heroes, performed by men, and the drumming, also traditionally performed by men, on drums known as ingoma. Music is transmitted orally, with styles varying between the social groups. Rwanda’s most known dance group is the National Ballet, and this dance was acknowledged by President Habyarimana in 1974, and it’s majorly performed during the nationally and internationally tradition, music is conveyed orally, with styles varying between the social groups. Drums are of great importance; the royal drummers enjoyed high status within the court of the King (MwamiDrummers and the dance is usually played between seven and nine in number. Although the country has a growing popular music industry with very many musicians most of them are influenced by East African, Congolese, and American music. The most popular genre is hip hop, with a blend of rap, ragga, R&B and dance-pop.
Art & Craft are produced throughout the country, while most originated as functional items rather than purely for adornment. Woven baskets and bowls are especially common and women are the most gifted under this field and they normally use Imigongo, a unique cow dung art, it is produced in the southeast of Rwanda, with a history dating back to when the region was part of the independent Gisaka kingdom. The dung is mixed up with natural soils of various colors and painted into gorgeous ridges to form arithmetical shapes. Other locally made items include crafts made include pottery and wood carving. Customary housing styles which are made of locally available materials. The government has initiated a program to replace these with more modern materials such as corrugated iron, and many modern houses with good building materials has put in place can easily be seen in most big towns of Rwanda thanks to the government of Rwanda under the president Paul Kagame
Rwanda Travel Information
Passport and Visas:
A valid passport with visa is mandatory. In view of the bilateral agreements, nationals of the following countries may visit Rwanda without visa for a period up to 90 days: USA, UK, Germany, Canada, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sweden, Mauritius, South Africa and Hong Kong. Please consult the Rwanda consulate or embassy nearest you for visa requirements to enter Rwanda. If a visa is required, you are responsible for obtaining it. The Rwanda Visa can be applied for online or bought upon arrival.
When to Visit Rwanda:
Rwanda can be visited throughout the year. Gorilla trekking and other forest walks are less demanding during the drier months. The European winter is the best time for birds, as Palaearctic migrants supplement resident species. The rainy season is from March to April and from October to November, but the gorilla’s habitat is in the rain forests and it can often rain at any time of year. Travel can be slower in the rainy season but the views are often better. Gorilla tracking can be muddier, but not impassable. In the mountainous areas it is much colder than on the plains and the rainfall is greater. Just don’t be too rigid on this and you should go when it is most convenient, as the rain which is often for short periods, is part of the great experience.
“Also read about Things to do in Rwanda”
Rwanda has an excellent cell phone network covering almost the entire country. International phone calls can be made easily. Appropriate SIM cards for the network are readily available everywhere, even in remote towns. Cell phones can be purchased or rented from major shops in Kigali. Most towns have several Internet cafes and computer centres. Common Kinyarwanda words are: Amafaranga meaning Money, Amakuru yawe meaning How are you?, Ni Meza meaning Fine, Mwaramutse meaning Good morning, Murakoze meaning Thank you, Mwirirwe meaning Good afternoon/evening, Muramuke meaning Good night , Oya meaning No and Yego meaning Yes
All international flights arrive at Kigali International Airport, just 10 Km from central Kigali. International carriers to Kigali (Kanombe, the main airport) include; SN Brussels, Kenya Airways, South African Airways, Ethiopian Airlines, Air Burundi and Rwandair Express.
1 January (New Year’s Day), 1 February (National Heroes Day), 7 April (Genocide Memorial Day), 1 May (Labour Day), 1 July (Independence Day), 4 July (National Liberation Day), 15 August (Assumption Day), 1 October (Patriotism Day), 25 December (Christmas Day), 26 December (Boxing Day)
NB: Good Friday and Easter Monday are also recognized in Rwanda though they fall on variable dates.
Places to Visit
Akagera National Park
Named after the Akagera River running along its eastern boundary, Akagera NP is warm and low-lying with undulating plains supporting a cover of dense broad leafed trees with acacia woodlands and grasslands.
The park harbours over 20 mammal species. The eastern side is wet and it is known to harbour almost the largest number of hippos is Africa. Other animals to view on the lakes on the eastern side are crocodiles, Lions, leopards and black rhinos which are present in small numbers. You can go for boat trips on Lake Ihema to view some of these animals. For birders this is another paradise on earth, the birdlife is extraordinary: not only the rarities that will have passionate birdwatchers in ecstasy but also Africa’s most inspiring concentration of big waterbirds. A visit in this park is truly rewarding.
It is a montane forest that is remarkably rich in biodiversity with 75 mammal species, 120 butterflies, 275 birds and over 100 varieties of orchids. The forest is well known for its primates and chimpanzee tracking can be arranged at a short notice and at small fee. Other primates in this forest include several other monkeys L’Hoest monkeys. The roads to the forest are good and with excellent rent houses and campsite to provide the necessary services to you while in the forest. A nature walk through this forest can be truly rewarding.
Volcanoes national Park
The Volcanoes National Park is a forested area in the Virunga Mountains that border Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This is Rwanda’s premier tourist attraction, with the mist-covered volcanoes of the Virungas being one of only two locations in the world where you can track a habituated family group of mountain gorillas (the other is Bwindi National Park in Uganda). It was here that Dian Fossey lived and died studying and protecting the gorillas, her efforts made famous in the film ‘Gorillas in the Mist’. The opportunity to trek to a gorilla family and spend an hour in close proximity observing these remarkable creatures is one of the most thrilling wildlife experiences on Earth. Currently seven of the park’s gorilla groups are habituated to tourists with eight permits available for each group every day. The park is also home to 75 other mammal species including elephant, buffalo and the endangered endemic Golden Monkey, a troop of which has also been habituated and can be tracked in the bamboo forests on the lower volcano slopes.
Musanze is believed to have been constructed by a local king and that it has been used a refugee on several histories whereas during the 1994 Massacre it was used as a killing site and recently the place is still littered with human remains. Musanze the now Bat colony is located in Ruhengeri 2 Km from the Gisenyi road. It has an entrance a large as a cathedral. The entrance is littered with marked black volcanic rubble and at the opposite end there lies a natural bridge formed from the lava flow from one of the Virunga Mountains.
Located in the Albertine rift and apart of the Great Rift Valley, Kivu is a large fresh water deposit that marks the western border with DR Congo. This lake is a tourist’s centre with fresh waters safe to swim. It has nice beaches with splendid landscapes and the sunset is usually astounding. You can spend a weekend on one of the beaches.
The main attraction for visitors to the Virunga Volcanoes is the chance to track mountain gorillas. However there are also several excellent trekking options here with several of the volcanoes being opened to hikes. Mount Visoke at 3711 metres is topped by a beautiful crater lake with a trek to the top and back taking 6-8 hours. Further west on the border with the DRC is Mount Karisimbi, Rwanda’s highest mountain at 4507 metres, a tough overnight trek through several vegetation zones. Between these two volcanoes lies the ruins of the Karisoke Research Centre, the research site and burial place of Dian Fossey and some of her favourite gorillas. Further south just across the border from Rubavu/Gisenyi in the DRC lies the active volcano of Nyiragongo, a challenging overnight trek which offers the chance to walk along the volcano rim staring at the huge lava pot below. Treks can be arranged though tour companies in Kigali or Musanze/Ruhengeri.
Rwanda’s capital city doesn’t have much in the way of tourist attractions but is an attractive city and its central location makes it a great base from which to explore the rest of the country. Built across several of Rwanda’s thousand hills, Kigali is a modern and scrupulously clean city with many fine cafes, bars and restaurants as well as markets and handicrafts shops. In addition to the Genocide Memorial, Kigali’s other attractions include Nyarytarama Lake and the bohemian Nyamirambo district.
The southern city of Huye, formerly known as Butare, is the intellectual capital of Rwanda, being home to the National University, the Institute of Scientific Research and the National Museum which contains some excellent ethnographic collections and provides insights into Rwandan culture and history. Once the largest colonial settlement in Rwanda, today it is a sleepy, attractive town renowned for its colonial buildings and terrace cafes.
Though the national museum of Rwanda (today’s Ethnographic Museum) was only established in 1989, the country’s network of compelling museums has expanded rapidly since then, and today there are six sites all across the country administered by the Institute of National Museums (www.museum.gov.rw). From ethnography to environment and art to architecture, the national museums of Rwanda are among the finest in East Africa, and with locations around the country, it’s easy to fit at least one of these fascinating spots into any Rwanda itinerary.
Ethnographic Museum (Huye): Rwanda’s first museum, this beautiful space sits in wide, tranquil gardens at the edge of Huye city and was built here in 1989. It covers an impressive array of topics on almost anything about Rwanda you can imagine: banana beer, basketry, geology, cosmology, farming, cattle, music, dance, poetry, history, tools, and transport are all profiled here, and there’s a highly regarded craft centre on site as well. If you see one museum in Rwanda, this should be it.
National Art Gallery (Nyanza): Set in a wide colonial building atop the gorgeous Rwesero Hill and just outside the small agricultural town of Nyanza, the National Art Gallery is a fantastic surprise—it’s not very often you find such a cultivated selection of artwork on a lovely green hilltop out in the countryside! Still, here it is, and it has been showcasing both traditional and contemporary Rwandan artists for nearly a decade now. They host a variety of rotating temporary exhibitions as well, and many international artists have exhibited here.
King’s Palace Museum (Nyanza): On another fantastic hilltop just opposite the National Art Gallery, this is the former palace of King Mutara III (also known as Rudahigwa), who built his palace here in the 1930’s. Today, visitors can tour an impressive and historically accurate reconstruction of the royal compound and marvel at the intricacies of the traditional architecture. A colonial building which was also used as the palace for a time sits next door and contains a series of exhibits on the monarchy and court customs that history buffs won’t want to miss.
Presidential Palace Museum (Kigali): While today it’s no longer home to any presidents, both Juvenal Habyarimana and Pasteur Bizimungu called this home for almost three decades from the 1970’s to the year 2000. Today, it’s a fascinating window into Rwanda’s modern history, and the remains of President Habyarimana’s plane, shot down in 1994 just before the genocide, can be seen in chunks on the lawn. There are whole rooms of preserved presidential furnishings, and cultural exhibits as well.
Natural History Museum (Kigali): In a 1900’s building named for Richard Kandt, the German naturalist and once-governor of Rwanda, this new museum sits in a leafy garden with impressive views over Kigali. Inside you’ll find a number of historical exhibits and photographs of the early settlement of Kigali, along with numerous displays on Rwanda’s endemic species of flora and fauna, as well as information on the physical and geological history of the country. Relics from the German – British battles of WWI that took place in Rwanda are also to be found here.
Museum of the Environment (Karongi): Scheduled to open any day now, Karongi’s eagerly anticipated Museum of the Environment is set to be the only museum of its kind anywhere on the African continent. Focusing on the Rwandan climate and environment, the museum will feature a rooftop garden of medicinal plants, and a number of exhibits on Rwandan resources, including energy and its production. Visitors will also gain an understanding of climate change and its impacts, and what we, no matter what country we live in, can do to mitigate its negative effects.
Dating back to colonial times and translated from Kinyarwanda as “coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome”, Umuganda is when Rwandans from all walks of life come together to work for the good of their neighbourhoods and their nation as a whole. The last Saturday of every month, shops are closed, buses stop running, traffic disappears from the roads, and Rwandans set aside their personal business for the morning and contribute their efforts to public works projects around the country, which can include litter cleanup, tree planting, building houses for the vulnerable, and more. The social and economic benefits of umuganda are easy for all to see (Rwanda isn’t the cleanest country in Africa by accident!), and whether or not you have special skills to contribute, all visitors are warmly invited to take part; given the range of projects addressed through umuganda, you’re sure to find one to fit your interests.
The genocide memorial in Kigali is included on every city tour and is a must-see. Rwanda’s painful past has haunted the country for years; however, their impressive recovery story has turned them into an inspiration. The genocide memorial acts as a humbling reminder to those present and honors those lost. This is a worthwhile visit for travelers who want to gain insight into the history of genocide in Rwanda, it will also help travelers appreciate how far Rwanda has come. The memorial Center is open every day from 8am to 5pm, but the last entrance is at 4pm. It opens at 2pm on Umuganda Saturdays (the last Saturday of every month when Rwandans get together for community clean up). There is no fee to enter, however, audio guides are available. The Center is located in Gisozi.
While the largest memorial is in Kigali, the genocide touched all corners of Rwanda, and as such there are many emotionally charged memorials located throughout the country. Some are as simple as a quiet garden space for contemplation, while others are larger and hold relics, remains, and exhibits on the genocide itself. Beyond the main memorial centre in Kigali, a few of the memorials that belong on any Rwandan itinerary include:
Nyanza Genocide Memorial: This site, in the grounds of Kigali’s Ecole Technique Officielle, holds the graves of more than 10,000 Tutsis who were massacred here during the genocide. Today several concrete memorials mark the spot, and it’s been used as a main site for genocide anniversary commemorations.
Ntarama Genocide Memorial: Set in a village south of Kigali where more than 5,000 people were killed in the grounds of a church, the site today has been turned into a memorial garden, and the interior of the church holds the personal belongings and skeletons of hundreds of the victims, including everything from clothing, to toys, to identification. Guided visits are available.
Nyamata Genocide Memorial: Along the main road south of Kigali, this is another church where people sought protection but were ultimately slaughtered. 10,000 people were killed here in 1994, and today their personal effects fill the church. Two crypts underneath the grounds hold tens of thousands of bodies, and guided visits are available.
Murambi Genocide Memorial: Set in a former technical school just north of Nyamagabe in Rwanda’s southwest, the Murambi memorial is perhaps the most significant, and most wrenching of all of Rwanda’s genocide memorials. Up to 50,000 people were murdered here, and the mass graves so large, that the heat of the surrounding decomposition preserved many of the bodies, which now populate the bare dormitories of the school. To better explain the events leading up to the massacre, an interpretive centre was opened here in 2011.
A distinctively Rwandan craft is the Imigongo or cow dung paintings that are produced by a local co-operative in the village of Nyakarambi near the border with Tanzania. Dominated by black, brown and white whirls and other geometric shapes, these unique and earthy works can be bought in craft markets throughout the country.
Weaving and basket making is a traditional art still used today to make dry containers for storing food and medicines. These are also known as peace pots and had traditional values such as to commemorate weddings or as a welcome gift.
Pottery is one of the oldest forms of art in Rwanda and can still be seen in many towns today using traditional Batwa techniques. Known for its good quality clay these potteries are still widely used for cooking and storing liquids.
The finest displays of Rwanda’s dynamic traditional musical and dance styles are performed by the Intore Dance Troupes. Founded several centuries ago, the Intore, (The Chosen Ones) who performed exclusively for the Royal Court, were given military training and taught the technique of jumping which forms a significant part of the dance. Performed wearing grass wigs and clutching spears this dance is a true spectacle of Rwanda.
Live dance performances can be seen at cultural villages, museums and as entertainment at many lodges and hotels across Rwanda. The Iby’ Iwacu cultural village in Musanze, and the National Museum of Rwanda have regular performances and daily dances occur at the RDB office at Kinigi, Volcanoes National Park.