A Thousand Hills: Travel Guide Rwanda

Hands down, Rwanda is one of my favorite countries. Warm people and beautiful landscapes. Safe, clean, and efficient. Economically and environmentally-minded. Seriously, Where Am I?

Rwanda will change how you think about Africa. Independent travel is easy. Since friends and local recommendations are always the key to real experiences, here are mine.

Travel Basics 

If gorilla trekking is a Rwanda highlight, reserving gorilla trekking permits is step one. There are a limited number issued daily (Rwanda Development Board doubled the fee in 2017 to $1500/day) so check availability first.

While you can book a full pre-packaged Rwanda trip, a la carte travel planning is easy and cost effective. Rwanda Safari Africa can help with gorilla permits and transport from Kigali to Volcanos National Park (in 2015, we paid $180-200 each way for car transport). Email info@rwandasafariafrica.com. You can book lodging separately.

Volcanos National Park  While Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge is the highest-end of convenient park lodges, I’d recommend Mountain Gorilla View Lodge. Expect friendly staff (ask to meet Isaiah, the delightful food & beverage manager) and huge rooms with mountain views and a fireplace. Even though you are close to the park, you’ll need to book a car and driver for your gorilla treks. We were quoted the best rates by our lodge ($150/day). Inquire at info@3bhotels.com.

Kigali  Flame Tree Village is also part of the 3B Hotels group. A spotless compound in Kigali’s quiet Nyarutarama neighborhood, you’ll combine convenience and peacefulness– dips in the swimming pool between city excursions and early evenings on the shady lanai. Want an even more local experience for less money? Consider AirBnB. I stayed for a week in the Kigali neighborhood of Kimihurura with two American women (AirBnB listing). My host told me all about her experiences as an expat, local restaurants were a 5 minute walk, and transport was a breeze. Speaking of transport, motor taxis (“motos”) are a huge part of Kigali daily life. Raise your arm, and one will pull over. Name your location, agree on price, don a helmet, and jump on. You’ll zip around the city inconspicuously, and there’s no better way to feel like a local.

Must-Do Experiences

Azizi Life  Your chance to immerse in a local Rwandan community. I spent a day doing everyday activities with a women’s cooperative in rural Rwanda– tending the garden, walking to the well to fetch water, and trying my hand at basket weaving. I left feeling part of a sisterhood. Don’t forget to check out the quality woven goods at the gift shop before you leave (there’s also a shop at Heaven Restaurant). Contact Chantal at experiences@azizilife.com.

Inema Arts Center  Emmanuel Nkuranga is an amazing artist, and he and his brother Innocent co-own this thriving artist hub. Drop by the Inema Arts Center anytime, or check out their website for cool social gatherings. You might also stumble upon their side gallery at Heaven Restaurant, or see Emmanuel’s eye-catching artwork around Kigali. Check out this great video profile on Inema on CNN Africa!

Kigali Genocide Memorial  A must for every visitor. Through masterful storytelling, the museum explains Rwanda’s 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, and explores other past genocides. I also recommend hiring a driver and visiting genocide memorial sites outside of Kigali (Nyamata Church and Ntarama Church). These are not light experiences, but necessary.

Librarie Ikirezi Bookshop  Rwanda prides itself on being a tech epicenter, so I love the irony of my recommending a bookstore. You can enjoy the great wifi while also soaking up the intellectual vibe of Ikirezi. There’s tea and pastry, or a late afternoon glass of wine with a great English book or magazine. It makes for a great meeting spot (open 8am-8pm).

Umuganda  A mandatory day of community service reintroduced in 1998 as part of efforts to rebuild and reunite the country after the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi. It takes place from 8-11am on the last Saturday of the month. Every Rwandan household with members age 18-65 must participate (or risk fine or arrest). Since businesses are closed and the streets are empty, it’s a great morning to take a walk. You’ll see neighbors cleaning parks, planting trees or crops, building schools, and leveling local dirt roads (read The Last Saturday). It’s an experience you’ll want to wrap up and take home.

Go Kigali Tours  Americans Xavier Curtis and Eliza Richman founded Go Addis Tours (Ethiopia’s #1 Ranked Tour). In 2016, they moved to Kigali to build a similar food tour experience. Trust me, you’ll want to eat your way through the city with them (info@gokigalitours.com).

Kigali Restaurants

Brachetto  Recommended to me by Emmanuel Nkuranga from Inema Arts (a few of his pieces are in the restaurant), savor gourmet Mediterranean cuisine and wine in an intimate, romantic outdoor setting. Located in Kacyiru, near the U.S. embassy.

Heaven  Heaven is more than a restaurant–it’s a social enterprise. The outdoor deck is gorgeous day or night. Make sure to try the Tree Tomato Cosmo. And read “A Thousand Hills to Heaven” to put it all in context. Heaven also boasts a 20-room boutique hotel (and I’m told the rooms are fabulous!).

Khana Khazana  Barbara Bylenga, founder of SHE-CAN, claims that this is her favorite Indian restaurant in the world! It’s one of the top restaurants in Kigali. Expect authentic Indian cuisine, warm service and reasonable prices.

Beyond Tourism 

Education is a priority in Rwanda– it is 16% of the Rwandan national budget, and girls are a particular focus. SHE-CAN (“Supporting Her Education Changes A Nation”) connects young female leaders in Rwanda with professional mentors and college scholarships in the U.S. I was so impressed with the SHE-CAN scholars I met during my visit that I became a mentor!

If you are interested in reading more about Rwanda before and after your trip, I recommend “Left to Tell” and “A Thousand Hills to Heaven,” both on my Reading List

Finally, I hope my blog posts Where Am I?The Last Saturday, The Social Network, and Moving Past the Single Narrative provide some unique insights into why this land of a thousand hills is so very special.

 

 

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