Home of the Endangered Mountain Gorilla
Known as the ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’, Rwanda is a small and densely populated country, best known for its mountain gorilla population. Mountain gorillas are one of the rarest animals in the world, with only about 1,000 left in the wild, and gorilla trekking is one of the pinnacle wildlife experiences on Earth. Rwanda has the best and easiest logistics for a high-quality gorilla trekking experience, and because it is a very small country, it is possible to get a lot of flavor for the place during a short visit. Wildlife beyond the gorillas is a point of emphasis for Rwanda’s future, but is not yet compelling for most safari travelers.
Rwanda is forever linked with the tragic genocide that occurred there in 1994. It has rebounded from that turbulent time to become one of Africa’s most progressive countries, and time and again our travelers comment on how friendly, welcoming, and lovely the people are. This creates an awakening opportunity for visitors, as they are struck by the friendly culture and realize how shocking it is that a horrific genocide occurred there, driving home the point that all human cultures are at such risk. There is great national pride, and the country has made the decision to keep the genocide history out there to educate, rather than shrink from it. There is an impressive genocide museum in Kigali, which recounts just how often it has happened in the world.
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Kigali is the capital city of Rwanda and certainly one of the cleanest cities on Earth. It feels very manageable and safe. We typically include a city tour of Kigali for our travelers, including a visit to the genocide museum. Flight logistics often make it necessary to spend a night in Kigali, then the drive to the mountains where the gorillas reside is simple, with just 2 ½ to 3 hours of driving on good-quality roads that wind through scenic mountain areas with terraced farms along the way. Small villages give a glimpse into local culture, and it is possible to visit local businesses or schools to expand your cultural experiences.
Kigali is located near the center of Rwanda with Lake Kivu/Nyungwe, Volcanoes National Park, and Akagera National Park all equidistant from Kigali in differing directions.
Nothing of note; Kigali is a base for travelers en route to wildlife destinations.
Best Times to Go
Kigali is a year-round destination.
One of Africa’s Great Lakes, Lake Kivu is a huge lake dotted with islands, located on the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. It is a nice place to relax after a gorilla trek or break up the drive between Volcanoes National Park and Nyungwe Forest, with red sandy beaches and scenic views of rolling green hills beyond. Activities include boating, kayaking, cycling, birding, and visits to local villages and markets.
Lake Kivu lies along the eastern edge of Rwanda, on the border with Democratic Republic of Congo. It can be used as a stopover between Nyungwe and Volcanoes National Park. The drive is approximately 2 hours from Volcanoes National Park to the northern shores of the lake and another 3 hours or so to reach Nyungwe Forest.
Birding is the highlight here, with endemic aquatic and wetland species like kingfishers and Osprey along with the more common terrestrial species.
Best Times to Go
Year-round. Lake Kivu sits at 4,800 feet above sea level and the temperatures are consistent throughout the year. It receives more consistent rain than other parts of the country, with June, July and August being the driest months.
Volcanoes National Park
Volcanoes National Park (Parc National de Volcans) was the first national park in Africa, gazetted in 1925. Volcanoes National Park lies in the towering Virunga mountains, which reach nearly 15,000 feet above sea level. The park has a variety of montane ecosystems, with bamboo and evergreen forests, open grasslands and swamps.
The mountain gorillas are the star attraction here, and there are a limited number of permits available for trekking on a daily basis, ensuring that you get a very exclusive, intimate experience. Gorilla sightings are almost guaranteed – there is virtually a 100% success rate for finding the gorillas on treks, and you get a full hour with the gorillas once they are located by your guides, when you can observe them at close range as they go about their daily life, feeding, playing, resting, and raising their young. Golden monkeys are also endemic to the park, and treks to visit the golden monkeys are another popular activity. The treks are strenuous but well worth it for the opportunity to see the gorillas.
Volcanoes National Park has a range of accommodations, from simpler lodges to high-end luxury properties, most with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. Outside of gorilla trekking, there are opportunities to climb nearby volcanoes and visit Dian Fossey’s gravesite.
Volcanoes National Park is situated in northwestern Rwanda, bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda; the Virunga mountains straddle the three countries and Mountain gorillas are found in each. It is a 2.5 to 3 hour drive from Kigali on good paved roads.
The park is visited primarily for gorilla trekking and golden monkey trekking. There are lovely birding opportunities in the area as well.
Best Times to Go
Year round. Large swathes of the park are in a cloud forest, with showers occurring throughout the year. June through September sees the least rainfall, with April and May and late October through November being the rainiest.
Akagera National Park
Akagera National Park is spectacularly scenic and quite different than Rwanda’s other mountainous safari destinations, with a large diversity of landscapes in a relatively small area, including sweeping grasslands, rugged acacia woodland, swamps and lakes that follow the Akagera River, the most remote source of the Nile. This is Rwanda’s only general safari wildlife area and is rarely visited; it is still developing and the wildlife viewing is not yet on par with Kenya and Tanzania, although as of recently they can boast that they offer all Big Five species.
The park was nearly lost forever during the 1994 genocide, but it is now a conservation success story, and still a work in progress. Lion and rhino have been successfully reintroduced in the past few years, so the park is once again home to the Big 5, and there have been successful initiatives to curb poaching and increase tourism, leading to employment among the local residents.
Akagera sits on the eastern border of Rwanda, alongside Tanzania. It is only a two hour drive from Kigali.
Akagera National Park is home to the Big 5, plus many antelope species (including some rarer species like sitatunga), hyena, and smaller cats. 482 bird species have been documented, including the rare and prehistoric shoebill which is a real favorite of birders.
Best Times to Go
Seasons in Akagera are similar to most of East Africa, with the best wildlife viewing during the dry season from June-September, when the grasses are shorter.
Nyungwe National Park
Nyungwe Forest is a biodiversity hotspot, with 13 primate species, notably including chimpanzees. Nyungwe National Park is working on habituating the chimpanzees, but the viewing is difficult at this time, with a success rate of only 30-40%. However, the viewing of colobus monkeys, which travel in troops numbering in the hundreds, is excellent. The flora is notable, and the forest has more than 200 different types of trees, giant lobelia, and 140 colourful orchid species.The forest at Nyungwe is extremely ecologically important and has the potential to become a safari jewel in the future, as tourism further develops.
Nyungwe offers a wide variety of activities for travelers, including swamp walks, waterfall hikes, nature walks, and a raised canopy walk.
Nyungwe is in remote southwestern Rwanda, south of Lake Kivu, a 4-hour drive from Kigali.
Primates and birds are the main draws. Some 275 species of birds have been identified in the park.
Best Times to Go
This is another tropical forest destination, with the possibility of rain year-round; however June to September typically offers the driest weather.