The first question people always asked me when I said I was going to Rwanda was , “Why?”. Well, in this blog post, you’ll see why Rwanda should be on your list of destinations to visit. I have written this post to serve as a guide of what you can expect from a four-day trip to Rwanda. Initially I consulted Rwanda Eco Tours and Safaris, but with the exception of the permits for gorilla trekking and Mount Bisoke, I booked everything else myself.
I had to take a PCR test within 72 hours of travel to Rwanda. I then had to complete the Travel Locator Form, https://travel.rbc.gov.rw/. This allowed me to create an online record, the details of which were used for my Covid test on arrival. You can also pay for the second PCR test online (USD 60).
I flew with Rwandair, and on arrival at the airport, I had to take a second PCR test. You can pay for this online when completing the passenger locator form, or you can pay USD60 cash on arrival. You will then have to quarantine in the hotel on arrival, until the results of the Covid test are out. Your results will be sent via text to the number you put on the passenger locator form. If you are like me, and you make a mistake on your phone number, you can see your results here. I arrived at 6am, and had my results by 3pm the same day. I also opted to work remotely from Kigali, so that I didn’t waste a vacation day in quarantine.
You have the option to work with a tour operator who can arrange transport for you, or to rent a car. I found the average prices of tour companies was $200 to $300 per day for transport, including their driver who also doubled as a guide. For car rentals, I spent $80 a day for a Pajero. I booked my car with Universal Ventures Rwanda. However, read on so you see why I would not use this company! You can use Google Maps to get to all the destinations. Now, as much as this seems like a no brainer, renting a car comes with several risks.
In less than 24 hours, the car battery died. The guide we were with knew the owner of the company, and made him buy us a new battery. This took an hour out of my day! Fortunately we were still in the city. Later on, that same day, our tyre burst! It turned out the owner had bought a second-hand tyre, which had a hot patch (that clearly wasn’t patched well)! So we spent another half-hour putting on a spare tyre.
We were driving out to Volcanoes National Park the next day, so we told the owner to get us a spare tyre. Because we returned from our day’s activities just before curfew, he came to set up our spare tyre at 4am, when curfew is lifted. Somehow, he locked our car keys in the car! So we had to take his car with us to Volcanoes National Park. When his office opened, he got the spare key, then he followed us to bring our car to Volcanoes National Park. The time lost and stress that came with the whole experience, really made me question whether it was worth doing it all on my own!
For the stay in Kigali, we opted for Marriott Kigali. It looked more modern, and we wanted to make use of my friend’s points. For the gorilla trekking and Mount Bisoke hike, we stayed at Tiloreza Lodge. We negotiated USD 150 for full board. The last hotel we stayed in, was Lake Kivu Serena in Gisenyi. This made it easy for us to get to the coffee tour. All hotels can be booked on Booking.com. However, if you call the property directly, you can negotiate a better rate as businesses desperately need guests.
The Genocide Memorial – Kigali
Once you’re free to roam the streets, I highly recommend dedicating a morning or afternoon to visiting the Genocide memorial. If you are not familiar with the history of Rwanda, this is something you should not miss. If you are somewhat familiar with their history, then you will be amazed at how much more there is to the history than you thought you knew.
The genocide lasted for 3 months, and in that time, over 1 million lives were lost. To have gone through such a gruesome experience, and for the nation to rise as a beacon of Africa, is an impressive feat you really must learn about. There is no entrance fee, however you are encouraged to leave a donation. The tour around the memorial is self-guided. My recommendation though, is that in order to get the most of the experience, get an audio guide for USD 15 at reception. Lastly, have some tissue handy. It’s a very emotional experience.
The King’s Palace – Nyanza
After spending the morning in Kigali, we spent two and half hours driving to King’s Palace. Rwanda is the country of a thousand hills, so the journey is long because you are driving through curved roads in the mountains. Your speed will therefore be low, which is what makes the drive long. The entrance fee is USD 10.
On arrival, you can expect to see a recreation of the traditional king’s palace. I loved learning about the creative use of plants to make their fabrics. It was also intriguing to learn about the role beauty, virginity and family name played in earning the right to serve milk and beer to guests. What I did like, was that the expectations applied to both boys and girls at the royal residence. And, be sure to ask your guide about the singers that were responsible for entertaining the king all night long. They called it the room of secrets for a reason!
You will also get to visit the royal kraal. Seeing cows usually isn’t something I look forward to doing. However, I had never seen such large, majestic horns on cows before. They are the Watusi breed, and a bWatusi bull can cost up to USD 25 000. Only royalty can own these cows. No commoner can buy them (apparently). From the kraal, you then move over to the modern palace. Now, a lot of the furniture and artefacts were stolen during the genocide. However, you can still see how the king used to live prior to 1994. Many photographs are still there as well, so you can get a sense of how the modern royal family lived, before the genocide.
Gorilla Trekking – Volcanoes National Park
The highlight of my time in Rwanda, was definitely the gorilla trekking. There are just over a thousand mountain gorillas left in the world, and Rwanda is one of three countries in the world where you can see them. From Kigali, we drove 3 hours to Volcanoes National Park. You need to pay for a gorilla trekking permit in advance. The price for international visitors is USD 1500. However, they had a special for African residents for USD 500. It was because of this special that I decided now was a good time to go to Rwanda. But check this site for updates on the permit costs.
You need to arrive at the park by 7am, so you have time for registration and coffee. You are randomly assigned to a gorilla family, and so on your trek you will follow your assigned gorilla family in the mountain. There are 20 families in the mountains, so the number of permits issued per day are limited, as there are only so many people per group of gorillas. In peak season, you want to ensure you book in advance. From the park office you will drive to the starting point of the trek. You have to have a 4×4 for this. And if you take any other car, you will not make it to the start.
Having proper hiking boots is essential. The mountain is covered in nettles, so you also want to have a long-sleeved top and jacket, as well as long pants. Gloves and gaters are available for rent at the park office (for RWF 5000 each), and you’ll need these to protect your hands and ankles from nettles. If you have never been stung by nettles, trust me, you don’t want to find out what it’s like whilst on that mountain!
The duration of the trek depends on how far your gorilla family is. I was pretty lucky mine was just an hour away, and the trek was not too steep. We spent an hour with the gorillas, which is more than enough time. Cameras are allowed, as long as your flash is off. The USD 500 I paid for the experience was worth it. I felt privileged to have seen the gorillas in person, and I walked away feeling gratified.
Mount Bisoke Hike – Volcanoes National Park
After gorilla trekking, I went to Tiloreza Mountain Lodge, which was our base for the night. We were going right back to Mount Bisoke the following day, which starts at the exact same place as the gorilla trek. This full-day hike is popular because the crater of the volcano is now a lake, as in the picture above. The permit for the Mount Bisoke Hike was USD 75, and the start time is exactly the same as for the gorilla trekking.
You will drive up to the start point, however you head in a different direction. Let me tell you, this is a difficult hike. You need to ensure you have the right shoes, and enough water and snacks. You might also want to rent a raincoat (RWF 5000), as it was pouring when I did the hike. Why I opted to continue the hike in the rain is a conversation for another day! You will take three hours on average in each direction. I took a bit longer than that! But we won’t dwell too much on my fitness levels! The view at the top of the volcano is gorgeous, apparently! I didn’t see it because it was raining and overcast when I made it to the top. But I still encourage you to do this hike.
Coffee Plantation Tour – Lake Kivu, Gisenyi
Rwanda is known for its coffee, so it’s only fitting that one visits a coffee plantation. From Volcanoes National Park, we drove for three hours to Gisenyi. During the time we travelled, we had to apply for a pass here, in order to be allowed past the police road block into Gisenyi. We then received an SMS confirming that we had been cleared by the police. You have to have a local number in order to receive this pass via SMS. Without this pass, you cannot proceed to the next town. A negative PCR test and hotel booking confirmation will be submitted along with your completed form.
From the Lake Kivu Serena Hotel, we drove 15 minutes to the start point of our one-hour boat ride across Lake Kivu to the coffee plantation. The experience cost USD 100, including the boat ride. We spent about 2 hours exploring the plantation. Now, I’ll admit, I don’t actually drink coffee. But I did want to learn, and my friend was interested in the commercial side of things. It was an informative experience, which took us from how coffee is grown, right up to the grinding and packaging. Apparently the coffee was good too! I won’t give my opinion, as I’m not a coffee drinker.
There is a lot to do in Rwanda. I do feel 3 or 4 days are sufficient to explore this country. The experience was unique, and worth everything I spent. Their story is one we can all learn from, and they truly are a beacon for the rest of Africa.
If you are interested in travelling on a group trip to an African country, check out my company www.tingu.africa . We have some great trips lined up!