Our guide to
Thick, lush forests the colour of emeralds and sparkling lakes like sapphires.
Mountain gorilla trekking is the primary attraction on Rwanda safaris, taking place in Volcanoes National Park at the foot of the Virunga mountains that sprawl towards the Congo and Ugandan borders, and form part of the Albertine Rift. Thanks to Dian Fossey, the endangered mountain gorillas are well protected. Fossey dedicated her life to the study and protection of these primates, and her grave can be visited on a hike up the mountain slopes. Gorilla trekking is a true bucket-list experience, and even if you only spend an hour in the company of these gentle giants, it’s a wildlife interaction that you’ll never forget.
Rwanda is an extraordinary country that plays an internationally important role in protecting the endangered mountain gorillas. But a trip here can offer so much more than a breathtaking chance to get up-close with these magnificent primates. You can visit Nyungwe National Park, which stretches out across 970 square kilometres of Rwanda’s south east and is one of the most ancient forests on the planet, dating back to before the Ice Age.
It’s home to a remarkable 25% of African primates including chimpanzees, colobus monkeys, olive baboons and silver, golden and red-tailed monkeys, plus 85 mammal species, hundreds of bird species and more than 1,000 plant species, not to mention countless amphibians and reptiles.
Rwanda safaris also allow you to see one of the Great African Lakes, Lake Kivu, where you can spend a relaxing time lazing on the shore, swimming and boating in the waters. To the east is Akagera National Park, a wildlife and wilderness area that may be in its infancy, but is already in demand thanks to its remarkable ecosystem encompassing mountains and savannah, lakes and swamps. Akagera is also a place where you can see the Big Five.
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Facts and figures are not for everyone. So we will keep this brief and interesting, mixing up some statistics and our take on Rwanda.
Where is it and what should one expect?
The small, landlocked country of Rwanda borders Uganda on the north, Burundi in the South, Tanzania in the east and Congo in the west. Affectionately known as ‘land of a thousand hills’, Rwanda is made up of deep valleys and steep mountains with the average elevation of its central plateau around 1,700 metres.
Rwanda’s unforgettable history
Rwanda was for many years a mysterious kingdom with a legendary military force that protected it from Arab traders and the many great Nile expedition parties. Colonisation took place, followed by a new cycle of ethnic conflict that eventually led to civil war and, finally, the genocide in the early 1990s during which almost a million people were killed.
An overwhelming sense of healing has taken place in such a short time and these days Rwanda is a nation of great pride, with humble people hopeful about their future and comfortable talking about this period of time that dominated the world’s press and devastated the country. Visit the Ethnographic Museum (formerly the National Museum of Rwanda) in Butare for a great insight into Rwanda’s rich cultural history, and the Kigali Genocide Memorial in the country’s capital for a greater understanding of the ethnic conflict and political power struggle. You will leave with not only a greater understanding of the history, but also compassion in your heart for those who suffered.
A remarkable Rwanda safari has so much on offer, from gorilla tracking and chimpanzee tracking to birding safaris, wildlife safaris and cultural experiences. Find out more about its wilderness areas below.
Akagera National Park Safari
Akagera, established in 1934, is named after the Akagera River that flows along the eastern boundary of the park, feeding into a labyrinth of lakes dominated by Lake Ihema. It has been through a great deal with land encroachment and poaching, but since 2010, a joint venture with African Parks has seen Akagera return to its former glory.
This is one of the largest protected wetlands in central Africa and it offers a safari component to your Rwanda holiday in a unique ecosystem filled with forest-fringed lakes, savannah plains, rolling highlands and papyrus swamps.
Notable wildlife includes the sitatunga, the sought-after shoebill stork, elephant, buffalo, topi, zebra, waterbuck, roan antelope, eland, baboons and monkeys. Predators here include jackal, leopard, hyena and lion, and the park is also home to nearly 500 bird species.
Hiking and climbing in Rwanda
There’s a number of fantastic climbs and hikes in Rwanda – and they don’t all involve a trek to see the mountain gorillas!
Mount Bisoke, also known as Visoke, is an extinct volcano in the Virunga Mountains. Standing 3,500 metres tall, it offers a tough hike along steep slopes that are covered with dense equatorial rainforest and alpine meadows. The excursion, which takes five-to-six hours, is worth every moment. The summit is often shrouded in fog and when it clears, the views of Mount Bisoke’s crater lake are phenomenal.
Another fantastic hike – albeit quite challenging due to its steepness in parts – takes you to Dian Fossey’s grave. Allow five hours to to reach the site, located deep in the mountains.
Rwanda primate safaris
Experience exceptional private viewing on a Rwanda safari.
Volcanoes National Park offers one of the most rewarding wildlife experiences, trekking through rainforest to get up-close to mountain gorillas in serene mountainous surrounds. Tracking the gorillas can be done all year-round in Rwanda, but there’s a limited number of permits so it’s worth booking early. You don’t need to be physically fit to hike; it’s a slow and steady pace as the forest is quite thick.
Another prime adventure on a Rwanda safari holiday is trekking to see chimpanzees in Nyungwe Forest. This tree-covered paradise offers the opportunity to see 13 different primate species, including the most famous of them all, the chimpanzees. They live in two habituated groups in a region that’s difficult to access, but perfect for travellers seeking a challenge.
It’s essential to book in advance in order to secure a highly qualified local guide and ranger, who will escort you and your fellow primate enthusiasts.
Aside from the forest’s flora and fauna, Nyungwe boasts the most stunning waterfalls in Rwanda. They are accessible via a 10-kilometre trail through the heart of the rainforest. Also worth doing is the Canopy Walk, which has been built in the Nyungwe Forest Park some 50 metres above the ground. From this 90-metre-long platform you can enjoy views of the deep valleys and massive forests.
Whatever primate safari you’re lucky enough to experience, we recommend you take good walking shoes, gardening gloves and a waterproof jacket, as you often get muddy and wet. Don’t forget a small waterproof backpack for your camera.
Kickstart your Rwanda safari in Kigali. The nation’s capital is quite the cosmopolitan city and buzzes with energy. The pace is overwhelming, and yet it’s impressive just how relaxed everybody is.
Serviced by an efficient international airport, Kigali boasts a range of hotels catering to all tastes and budgets, and an assortment of restaurants with international flavours. Despite such concessions to modernity, Kigali retains the feel of a garden city, with a satisfyingly organic shape dictated by the verdant slopes over which it sprawls. The compact, low-rise city centre surrounds a busy, colourful market, and is studded with souvenir stalls displaying a wide range of lovingly executed local crafts.
The atmospheric Muslim quarter abutting the city centre is well worth a visit, and one can also explore the network of leafy avenues that wind out of the town centre into the surrounding residential suburbs. Among the safest and friendliest of African capitals, Kigali is blessed with a moderate, high-altitude climate that belies its tropical location, and is conveniently located within three hours’ drive of the main tourist sites. The Rwandan capital provides both a comfortable and welcoming introduction to this land of a thousand hills.
Some of our Kigali favourites
- Getting a sense of everyday life at one of the local markets
- Looking at local advertising campaigns on giant billboards (like the one pictured)
- Eating at the appropriately named restaurant, Heaven, which specialises in seriously decadent cuisine
- Walking the local streets, checking out the stalls and chatting with locals
- Visiting Kigali Genocide Memorial for a truly moving, highly emotional few hours
Lake Kivu holidays
Lake Kivu is the country’s largest body of water and takes up about half of Rwanda’s western border. It actually lies on the border between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda, and is in the Albertine (western) Rift, a part of the Great Rift Valley. There are three main towns along the lakeshore – Cyangugu in the south, Kibuye in the middle and Gisenyi to the north. A visit to the lake is a welcome respite after a gorilla trek and time in hiking in the Rwanda mountains.
As the lake attracts a number of tourists and Rwandan holidaymakers, the level of accommodation here is generally of a better standard than in the national parks. The views from many hotels and guesthouses across the palm-fringed lake are lovely, with little sandy beaches and grassy banks leading down to the shore.
The best time
to visit Rwanda
Rwanda safaris can be enjoyed year-round. If your sole purpose is to gorilla trek, then the short dry season from December to February is ideal. There’s also a long dry season (June to mid-September), a long rainy season (March to May), and a short rainy season (October to November). Rainy seasons sometimes bring persistent heavy rains, particularly from March to May, which is the only time of year to avoid if you don’t want to trek to see gorillas in the rain. Located just south of the equator, Rwanda’s high elevation means you can expect a pleasant, tropical-highlands climate with average daily temperatures of 21°C. It gets cool in the mountains, especially in the early morning and late afternoon.
Rwanda safaris feedback
From those who have ventured
Rwanda was a great holiday, we were sad to leave. Thanks Encompass Africa once again for organising such a great trip. Getting so close to the gorillas is certainly a tick on our very long Africa safari bucket list.
Rwanda gorilla experience – The SmithsRead more
Our holiday exceeded our expectations, It was absolutely fantastic!!!