Beyond the Gorillas: 9 Other Travel Attractions in Rwanda

Attractions in RwandaWill a rise in gorilla trek permits send travellers across the border?  Or are there enough attractions in Rwanda to keep it growing in popularity as a top travel destination?

The opportunity to sit in close proximity to a critically endangered mountain gorilla is the undisputable highlight of a visit to Rwanda. Mountain gorilla trekking is the top tourism attraction of this small land-locked country and has elevated Rwanda’s status as a travel destination.

But a recently announced increase in the price of gorilla trekking permits threatens the country’s growing popularity with travellers.

A permit that is already more expensive than those offered in neighbouring Uganda and Congo has increased, effective immediately, from $750 to $1,500 (and outrageously from $36 to $1,500 for locals). Officials believe the higher earnings will help sustain conservation initiatives, enhance the trekking experience for travellers and increase the distribution of tourism income to local communities in the area.

But the reality is this: the move towards a ‘high end tourism strategy’ and a shift in focus towards the ‘wealthy traveller’ makes mountain gorilla trekking in Rwanda an unattainable dream for most people.

The impact of this decision remains to be seen, but the expected result is an increased demand for trekking permits across the border in Uganda. And if travellers are not coming to Rwanda for it’s main tourist attraction, will they come at all? Rwanda isn’t just competing with Uganda for gorilla trekking, it’s competing with all of East Africa for tourism.

Tips for mountain gorilla trekking in Rwanda-2And this saddens me. Not only will travellers miss out on what I believe is one of the best travel destinations in Africa, the local tourism industry outside of Volcanoes National Park may suffer, impacting the livelihood of many people. This price increase feels in conflict with the spirit of the country I experienced during my time there earlier this year.

There is more to Rwanda than tracking the world’s largest primate. Many travellers who visit Volcanoes National Park as a short add-on to an East African travel itinerary wish they could stay longer. And many of them return – like I did earlier this year – to travel beyond the gorillas and learn more about the country.

I discovered that Rwanda is now considered one of Africa’s safest and most peaceful countries, as it sheds the negative perception of a divisive past that culminated in the horrific genocide in 1994.

I met friendly locals, energised and excited about their future.

And I felt inspired by the character of a nation that is embracing forgiveness and remorse to drive reconciliation and progression.

I travelled through spectacular landscapes, enjoyed incredible wildlife encounters and noticed a strong emphasis on conservation and eco-tourism. With a small land area of 26,338 sq km I was able to cover most of the country’s main attractions in a two-week period. And whilst I never felt rushed, I could easily have stayed longer.

But whilst there is no doubt that Rwanda’s attractions extend beyond the mountain gorillas, there is also no doubt that tracking the gorillas remains the highlight. It’s an unforgettable encounter that keeps Rwanda on the tourist map and it’s the number one reason most people choose the country as a travel destination.

Rwanda Postcards_Kellie Netherwood-14What do you think? Will travellers abandon Rwanda as they seek a more affordable gorilla trekking experience in neighbouring Uganda? Will the country’s shift in focus towards the ‘wealthier traveller’ spread to other attractions in the country? Will this decrease the country’s popularity with travellers who look to other East African destinations offering more value for their dollar?

Or do you think – like I hope – that Rwanda has enough attractions beyond the gorillas to continue building its reputation as a travel highlight of Africa?

Time will tell, but as Rwanda remains one of my favourite travel destinations in the world, I really hope more travellers get to experience these attractions that made my time in the country so enjoyable and memorable.

 

9 Other Travel Attractions in Rwanda

1. Nyungwe National Park

Located in the southwest corner of the country, Nyungwe is one of Africa’s oldest and most diverse forests (having stayed green during the ice age) and covers more than 1,000 square km’s. The beautiful lush terrain can be explored on the ground via a number of hiking trails or from above on a spectacular canopy walkway. It is home to more than 300 bird and 13 primate species, with large troops of chimpanzees and black and white colobus monkeys being the main attractions.

Most visitors spend 2-3 nights to enjoy the guided wildlife treks, but hikers, photographers and lovers of the great outdoors could easily spend longer in what was my favourite destination in Rwanda.

TIP: If you have room in the budget, this is the place to treat yourself with a stay at Nyungwe Forest Lodge. Located on a working tea plantation on the edge of the national park, it is simply stunning, offering the perfect balance of comfort and tranquillity.

Nyungwe_Rwanda_Collage_KellieNetherwood

 2. Kigali

I first visited Kigali in 2009 and found it almost unrecognisable when I returned this year. Clean and safe with tree-lined streets, green inner-city parks, a vibrant nightlife and attractive architecture, the country’s capital offers a number of attractions warranting a multi-night stay.

But arguably the most important – and difficult – site to visit in Kigali is the Genocide Museum. Located at Gisozi where 259,000 victims have been buried, it’s a memorial to those who lost their lives and a place of reflection for those impacted by the atrocities of the genocide. It also has a museum that serves to educate future generations about the events that lead to the atrocities in both Rwanda and other countries, in the hope it leads to it never happening again.

It’s a heart-breaking and difficult museum to visit, but understanding the events that led to the genocide, the extent of the brutality and the personal tales of betrayal are important for any traveller in Rwanda – not only to respect the country’s history but to appreciate the spirit of a nation that is reconciling, reunifying and rebuilding at an inspiring rate.

TIP: If possible, visit the museum at the start of your trip instead of the end, to appreciate how far Rwanda has progressed and the challenges it still faces as you travel through the country.

Kigali_Rwanda_KellieNetherwood

 3. Akagera National Park

Rwanda’s only savannah reserve is located in the north east of the country, alongside the border with Tanzania. Years of war and poaching, followed by the re-allocation of land to returning refugees, contributed to a devastating decline in the park’s wildlife. But a joint venture with African Parks has seen a shift in focus to conservation initiatives in the past decade. And with the recent re-introduction of lions and rhino, Akagera is East Africa’s newest Big 5 destination.

It would unreasonable to compare wildlife viewing in Akagera with some of the more popular safari destinations in East Africa, but it can certainly lay claim to being one of the most scenic. The combination of lakes, forests, mountains, swamps and savannah plains is spectacular and provides the opportunity to search for wildlife on both land and water.

TIP: Hiring a local guide for the day is optional, but as these guides are freelancers who live in neighbouring communities and are being trained by African Parks, it’s a great way to contribute to the conservation and sustainability of Akagera.

Akagera National Park_Rwanda_Kellie Netherwood

4. Golden Monkey Trek

Golden Monkey Tracking_Rwanda_Kellie NetherwoodAlthough the mountain gorillas are the main stars of Volcanoes National Park, there are a number of other treks and activities available. One of the most popular – and one of my favourite activities during my visit – is the golden monkey trek. Endangered and almost endemic to the Virunga volcanoes, the opportunity to observe these playful troops with their bright orange bodies is both rare and rewarding. Golden Monkey Tracking_Rwanda_Kellie Netherwood-2

5. Lake Kivu

Lake Kivu’s location provides the perfect stopover between Nyungwe and Volcanoes National Park, but it deserves more than one night, with the lakeside towns of Karongi and Gisenyi providing a number of scenic accommodation options by the water.

With the beginning of the Congo Nile Trail nearby, there are a number of biking and hiking trails for active travellers. Whilst those looking to relax can enjoy a boat trip or other water-based activities, visit one of the nearby tea and coffee plantations or simply relax and enjoy the breath-taking views of the peaceful lake and surrounding mountains.

TIP: Find a quiet spot by the lake at sunset and relax with a drink listening to the melodic tunes of local fisherman drift across the lake, as they head out for the night on their traditional fishing boats.

Lake Kivu_Rwanda_Collage_KellieNetherwood

6. Iby’lwacu Cultural Village

Iby’lwacu Cultural Village_Rwanda_Kellie NetherwoodLocated just outside Virunga Volcanoes National Park, this cultural village takes visitors back in time in a fun and interactive setting, with demonstrations of traditional rituals and cultural activities taking place in front of the imposing Sabyinyo Volcano. Visitors enter the living museum under a sign introducing the “gorilla guardians village” as friendly locals welcome them with drumming, singing and dancing.

Run by local communities for local communities, the village was the brainchild of Edwin Sabuhoro who has been recognised as a ‘CNN Hero’ for his efforts in gorilla conservation and transforming the lives of communities who previously relied on poaching as a desperate source of income for their families. Concerned by the level of poaching in the area, he left his job as a gorilla tracker in 2004 to pose as a buyer for a kidnapped baby gorilla. Not only did he find the perpetrators, he spent time with them to understand their motives and work with them to identify alternative income streams. More than a decade on, these ex-poachers now refer to themselves as “guardians of the gorillas” and one such alternative income is the cultural village.

TIP: If you visit the cultural village and book your gorilla trekking permit through Rwanda Eco Tours, they include a ‘goat for gorilla’ option, where part of your fee pays for a goat that it distributed to a family within the local community, reinforcing the ‘gorillas brings tourists, tourists bring income, lets protect the gorillas’ message.

Iby’lwacu Cultural Village_Rwanda_Kellie Netherwood-2

7. Birds

Rwanda is rated as one of the top five destinations in the world for bird watching and has one of the highest bird counts on the continent. More than 700 species have been recorded in Rwanda with many of these endemic to the country.

Birds_Rwanda_Collage_Kellie Netherwood 

8. Twin Lakes of Burera and Ruhondo

Twin Lakes_Rwanda_KellieNetherwood-2Located between Musanze and the Ugandan border, Lake Burera and Lake Ruhonda lie beside each other in an area of stunning natural beauty. Travellers with deep pockets can be rewarded with exclusive views of the lake from exclusive Virunga Lodge that sits on a quiet hilltop that also offers panoramic views of the Virunga Volcanoes.

Others can easily fill a day exploring the area, especially bird watchers. I detoured via the lakes on my way back to Kigali from Musanze. The spectacular view from Virunga Lodge was rewarding, but just as enjoyable was the picturesque drive along countryside roads, through the small villages in the area.

TIP: If you can’t afford the overnight stay, visiting Virunga Lodge for a drink on a clear day offers the same views and is well worth the detour.

Twin Lakes_Rwanda_KellieNetherwood 

 9. The Journey Within

The roads linking the attractions of Rwanda are a highlight within themselves. Those on foot outnumber vehicles and the roads and countryside are full of life with children pushing old tyres along the road with sticks, women in vibrant coloured dress balancing bundles of grass on their heads with ease, farmers working in rice fields, vendors selling brightly coloured fruits on road-side stalls, young men on motorbikes transporting neighbours from market to home, tethered cows and goats chewing on grass, powerful cyclists pushing themselves through the ‘land of a thousand hills’…

And above all – a friendly wave and a smile from some of the friendliest people you will meet in the world.

Roads_Rwanda_Collage_Kellie Netherwood

 

I travelled as a solo traveller with RWANDA ECO-TOURS and highly recommend them. My trip was not sponsored or supplemented in any way and all views in my Rwanda blog posts are completely independent based on my own experiences in the country.

 

Kellie Netherwood Travel and Photography

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Kellie is a traveller and photographer who is most at home when exploring the world beyond it. Through the intersection of her travel, writing and photography passions, she shares her experiences to inspire others to create there own. The desire to live life instead of existing through it has introduced Kellie to inspirational locations throughout seven continents and from this a passion for landscape and wildlife photography has evolved. She feels a particular connection to the polar regions and Africa. You can see more of her photography at www.kellienetherwoodphotography.com

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Tips for Mountain Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda