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'Land of a Thousand Hills' ( ), as it is popularly known, Rwanda is a small, lush country in central Africa. Rwanda's misty hills are dotted with tea plantations, rugged mountains, and towering volcanoes. Despite being landlocked, Rwanda has several 'beaches' along Lake Kivu to the west, one of Africa's largest bodies of water.
Sadly, this beautiful country is best known for the horrific genocide of 1994, when nearly one million Rwandans were slaughtered in the space of about three months. This massacre was the result of long-standing ethnic tension between the minority Tutsis and the Hutus. Rwanda has recovered wonderfully from its tragic past, and is now a peaceful, unspoilt holiday destination that is rich in culture and wildlife, boasting fine food and one of the friendliest welcomes in Africa. Luckily the world is catching on to the advantages of this African gem and tourism is on the rise. The rapidly growing city of Kigali, situated at Rwanda's geographical heart, is not only the capital but also the country's most important business centre and the main point of entry. While it is not a tourist hot spot, it contains some first-rate sites and is worth a quick exploration for travellers arriving from overseas.
However, the real appeal of the country is outside the city, in the magnificent national parks. The most popular activity for tourists in Rwanda is gorilla trekking. Meeting these gentle giants in their natural habitat is widely acknowledged to be one of the most profound wildlife experiences in the world.
A picturesque country with an incredible people and interesting history, Rwanda is one of the most fascinating travel destinations in Africa.
Rwanda is certainly a nature lover's paradise, and its focus is mainly ecotourism. It is an incredible country with a rich history and a scenery and wildlife unlike any other.
Home to the world's largest population of mountain gorillas within the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda's gorillas are certainly the country's most popular tourist attraction. Gorilla tracking is very much on every visitor's to-do list. Nyungwe Forest National Park is home to a large number of smaller primates, as well as more than 275 bird species, while Akagera National Park is big game country where herds of elephants and buffalo, lions, hippos and plains animals inhabit the archetypal African savannah landscape set among a web of swamps and lakes. The waters of Lake Kivu are enclosed by green terraced hills that give way to beaches, inlets and the resort towns of Gisenyi, Kibuye and Cyangugu, which also make for popular tourist sites.
For those looking to delve into Rwanda's sobering history, a trip to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre will enlighten visitors, and leave them in awe of a nation that has come far in its efforts to become the peaceful and beautiful country it is today.
One of the African Great Lakes, Lake Kivu covers 1,040 square miles (2,700 sq km) on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Three lakeside towns, Cyangugu, Kibuye, and Gisenyi, are increasing in popularity with tourists with their oppertunities water sports, island excursions, bird watching, and hiking.
Located on the Rwandan border with Tanzania, Akagera National Park encompasses savannah, mountain and swamp ecoregions across its 463 square miles (1,200 sq km) of territory. Named after the Akagera River that flows through it, the park is made up of forests, swamps, volcanic mountains, and vast savannah plains. The plains are the most popular for safaris, with an abundance of big game including lions, leopard, elephants, zebra, buffalo, giraffe, oribi, and impala. Camping alongside the lakes is a good way to spot birds like fish eagles, papyrus gonolek, and the elusive shoebill stork.
American zoologist Dian Fossey became famous for her dedication to studying and protecting endangered mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Her 18-year study inspired the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist, and promoted primate conservation worldwide. She was murdered in 1985, and buried at Karisoke, a gravesite she had constructed for gorillas. The Karisoke Research Camp that was her base, sits between two volcanoes, Mt Visoke, and Mt Karisimibi and stands at an altitude of 3,000m (9,000ft). The journey to her grave involves a five-hour trek, and though the cabins and buildings are gone, visitors may glimpse buffalo, elephants, and even gorillas.
Once Rwanda's largest city, Butare (also known as Huye) is considered the intellectual capital of the country in contrast to Kigali's political supremacy. It is home to several important Rwandan landmarks, including the Christian Cathedral and the national University of Rwanda. The two most popular attractions in Butare, however, are the National Museum of Rwanda, which chronicles the cultural history of the region through displays of photos and traditional artefacts; and Nyanza, the traditional seat of Rwanda's feudal monarchy, site of the restored 19th-century Royal Palace. The palace at Nyanza is home to the Rwesero Art Museum, Olympic Academy, Sport Museum, Cultural Centre, and stadiums of various sports.
Tea is a major product of Rwanda's economy, with thousands of tons exported each year. The government is slowly privatising plantations into cooperatives and 'Tea Societies', empowering local farmers. Many visitors to Rwanda will enjoy seeing the plantations with their dramatically-sloped fields and panoramic vistas. Locally-produced varieties of tea can be sampled and taken back as souvenirs from Rwanda. Plantations near Lake Kivu and Nyungwe Forest are especially popular as package tour excursions.
With a name meaning 'white shell' is Kinyarwanda, Mount Karisimbi sticks out above the other seven major mountains of the Virunga range that divide Rwanda from the Democratic Republic of Congo. An inactive volcano, Karisimbi provides hiking and overnight trekking opportunities for those in search of gorillas. Visitors can visit the former site of Dian Fossey's research station, only a few hours away from the mountain.
Opened on the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre is a sobering museum dedicated to the nearly one million people who lost their lives in the conflict. More than 250,000 people are buried at the centre, which has become an educational site with museums and exhibits dedicated to preventing genocides around the world. The genocide which saw 800,000 men, women, and children killed receives a meaningful and tasteful tribute with three permanent exhibitions, including the Education Centre, Memorial Gardens, and National Documentation Centre of the Genocide.
Situated amongst tea plantations, the Nyungwe National Park is a high-altitude rainforest reserve in the Rwandan section of the Albertine Rift. Known for its extreme biodiversity, Nyungwe is home to thousands of species, including primates like chimpanzees, colobus monkeys, vervet monkeys, owl-faced monkeys, and olive baboons, among others.
There are several good trekking trails in Nyungwe, including the Waterfall Trail for bird-watchers, the Gisakura Tea Estate Trail for monkey-lovers, and the Kamiranzovu Trail for elephant spotters. Visitors to Nyungwe National park should be prepared to get wet, as the rainforest receives more than 79 inches (2,000mm) of rain each year.
Kigali experiences a pleasant, tropical highland climate with temperatures that vary depending on altitude, but vary little from month to month in the same location. There are two wet seasons and two dry seasons; a long and a short one. The wettest time of year is between March and May, while the driest months are July to September. There is also rain between October and November. Temperatures rarely go above 86°F (30°C) during the day or drop below 59°F (15°C).
Rwanda experiences a pleasant, tropical highland climate with temperatures that vary depending on altitude, but vary little from month to month in the same location. There are two wet seasons and two dry seasons; a long and a short one. The wettest time of year is between March and May, while the driest months are July to September. There is also rain between October and November. Temperatures rarely go above 86°F (30°C) during the day or drop below 59°F (15°C), except on the upper slopes of the Virunga Mountains where frosty conditions are possible.
The official currency is the Rwanda Franc (RWF), which is divided into 100 centimes. The US Dollar is the hard currency of preference. Credit cards are only accepted at the major hotels and restaurants in Kigali.
Kinyarwanda, French, and English are the official languages. French is widely spoken, but English is limited to a few people in the tourist centres.
Electrical current is 230-240 volts, 50Hz. European two-pin plugs are the most commonly used.
US nationals: US nationals require a passport valid for six months beyond arrival date. A visa is required and can be aquired upon arrival for a stay of up to 30 days for a fee. Visitors can apply to extend their visa within 15 days of arrival.
UK nationals: UK nationals require a passport valid for six months beyond arrival date. A visa can be aquired on arrival for up to 30 days for a fee. Visitors can apply to extend their visa within 15 days of arrival.
CA nationals: Canadians require a passport valid for six months beyond arrival date. A visa on arrival can be obtained for stays of up to 30 days for a fee. Visitors can apply to extend their visa.
AU nationals: Australians require a passport valid for six months beyond arrival date, visas can be obtained on arrival for stays of up to 30 days for a fee. Visitors can apply to extend their visa.
ZA nationals: South Africans require a passport valid for six months beyond arrival date. Visas can be obtained on arrival for stays of up to 30 days for a fee. Visitors can apply to extend their visa within 15 days of arrival.
IR nationals: Irish nationals require a passport valid for six months beyond arrival date. A visa can be obtained on arrival for a maximum of 30 days for a fee. Visitors can apply to extend their visa.
NZ nationals: New Zealand nationals require a passport valid for six months beyond arrival date. Visas can be obtained on arrival for stays of up to 30 days for a fee. Visitors can apply to extend their visa.
Passport and/or passport replacing documents must be valid for at least six months beyond arrival in Rwanda for all nationalities. It is always highly recommended that passports have at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. E-visas can be obtained before departure at www.migration.gov.rw . Passengers must have a printed e-visa confirmation. A valid "East African Tourist Visa" issued by Kenya or Uganda is accepted, if having first entered the country that issued the visa. The visa is valid for 90 days and multiple entries/re-entries. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
There is a year-round risk of malaria throughout Rwanda and travellers are advised to take a course of prophylactics. A yellow fever certificate is required by all visitors and inoculation is also recommended. Hepatitis A and Meningococcus vaccinations are also recommended, as well as a polio booster for those who have not had one as an adult. Cholera outbreaks are not uncommon. Bottled drinking water is available in all towns. Medical facilities are limited and medical supplies may be unavailable, although hospitals are located in all major towns. Comprehensive medical insurance is advised.
Tipping is not customary in most places in Rwanda, although it is appreciated. Guides on gorilla treks expect to be well tipped; amounts vary, but 10 percent is common.
Crime levels are relatively low in Rwanda, although tourists should be alert to bag snatching and incidents of petty theft. Travel to the border areas with Burundi and the DRC is not advised. Trips to see the gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park should only be undertaken as part of a guided trek. Rwanda is considered a low threat for terrorism, however there are reports of random grenade attacks as recently as March 2012 and travellers should be vigilant at bus stops and other public areas. The roads in major towns are good, however travel after dark is not advisable; landslides are common during the rainy season (late spring to early autumn).
Photography of government buildings is prohibited in Rwanda. Plastic bags have been banned for environmental reasons and will be confiscated on arrival at the airport. It is considered impolite to ask someone about their ethnic origin.
A handshake is the normal form of greeting. A knowledge of French is useful as English is not widely spoken; interpreters may be required. Culturally, a direct 'no' to a proposal is rare, and negotiations are often lengthy. Lightweight suits are suitable attire for meetings, which need to be arranged in advance.
The international dialling code for Rwanda is +250. Prepaid local SIM cards can be purchased as a cheaper alternative to using international roaming. Free wifi is available at most upscale hotels and there are some internet cafes in Kigali.
Passengers older than 16 years may bring 250g of tobacco products, one litre of spirits, two litres of wine, and 500ml of perfume into the country without incurring import duties.
Rwanda Development Board, Kigali: +250 72 777 5170 or www.rwandatourism.com
Rwanda Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 232 2882.
Rwanda Embassy, London, United Kingdom (also responsible for Ireland): +44 (0)20 7224 9832.
Rwanda High Commission, Ottawa, Canada: (613) 569 5420
Rwanda Embassy, Melbourne, Australia: +61 (0) 401 099 115.
Rwanda Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 (0)12 342 6536.
Rwandan Consulate, Dublin, Ireland: (+353) 1 490 5647.
United States Embassy, Kigali: +250 596 400.
British Embassy, Kigali: +250 252 556 000.
Canadian High Commission, Kigali, Rwanda: +250 252 573 210.
Australian High Commission, Nairobi, Kenya (also responsible for Rwanda): +254 (0)20 427 7100.
South African Embassy, Kigali: +250 252 551 300.
Irish Embassy, Kampala, Uganda (also responsible for Rwanda): +256 (0)41 7713 000.
Taxis are available in town. Motorcycle taxis are a cheaper option for direct travel, but the high speeds are not for the faint of heart. The cheapest way to get around Kigali is by matatus, the ubiquitous minibus taxis, which stop at any point along set routes. Rental vehicles are available, but not recommended for first time visitors as the roads around the country are in poor condition. Coach companies are available from Kigali for certain locations throughout Rwanda.
Often considered the best nature park in Rwanda, Volcanoes National Park (known locally as Parc National des Volcans) is located in northwestern Rwanda, not far from Kigali. A haven for the elusive and fascinating primates, the park encompasses the Virunga Mountains and is the best place in Rwanda to see mountain gorillas, golden monkeys, and other animals. Popular trips include climbing the Karisimbi and Bisoke volcanoes, touring the lakes and caves of the park, and visiting the tomb of famous gorilla researcher Dian Fossey. The market town of Musanze is located at the base of the Virungas, and makes a good base from which to explore the park.
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