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Popularly known as the 'Land of a Thousand Hills' (Pays de Mille Collines), Rwanda is a small, lush central African country of misty hills dotted with tea plantations, rugged peaks 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.
Fortunately, 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 some of the friendliest people in Africa. The world is finally catching on to the allure 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 country's real appeal lies 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 as one of the most profound and thrilling wildlife experiences in the world.
A picturesque country with an incredible people and interesting history, Rwanda will captivate its visitors and spark a passion for African travel.
Rwanda is certainly a nature lover's paradise, and the focus of its tourism is mostly eco-centered. It is an incredible country with a rich history, and a wildlife heritage unlike any other.
The world's largest population of mountain gorillas inhabits Rwanda's spectacular Volcanoes National Park, and these burly primates are by far the country's most popular tourist attraction. Accordingly, gorilla tracking is very much on every park visitor's to-do list. It doesn't come cheap though, and the park is careful to regulate visitors to avoid overtourism.
Nyungwe Forest National Park's residents include 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 game roam the archetypal African savannahs, 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 be illuminating, and leave visitors in awe of a country that has come far in its efforts to become the peaceful and beautiful destination it is today.
Lake Kivu is renowned as one of the continent's seven Great Lakes. Surrounded by verdant hills and spread over 1,040 square miles (2,700 sq km) on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the lake's shimmering emerald-green surface is a jewel in the centre of Africa. The towns of Cyangugu, Kibuye and Rubavu (formerly known as Gisenyi) lie on its shores and are becoming increasingly popular with tourists, given the ample opportunities they offer for water sports, island excursions, bird watching, and hiking through mint-scented clusters of eucalyptus trees. Travellers will also have no trouble finding bars to enjoy lakeside sundowners.
Akagera National Park lies on the border with Tanzania and 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 and a huge variety of antelope. Camping alongside the lakes is a good way to spot birds such as 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 Karisimbi 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, whereas Kigali is considered the political hub. 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 Ethnographic 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 and site of the restored 19th-century Royal Palace. Most of the palace's furniture and gifts from foreign dignitaries were stolen during the genocide, but it is still worth visiting.
Tea is a major product of Rwanda's economy, with thousands of tons exported each year, thanks to the country's temperate climate and rich volcanic soil. The government is slowly privatising plantations into cooperatives and 'Tea Societies', thereby empowering local farmers. Many visitors to Rwanda will enjoy exploring the plantations with their dramatically-sloped fields and panoramic vistas. Locally-produced varieties of tea can be sampled and taken back as souvenirs. Plantations near Lake Kivu and Nyungwe Forest are especially popular as package tour excursions. Visitors relish the experience of sipping tea while experts guide them through the different flavour profiles.
Mount Karisimbi sticks out above the other seven major mountains of the Virunga range that divide Rwanda from the Democratic Republic of Congo. With a name meaning 'white shell' in Kinyarwanda for the snow that caps Karisimbi during the dry season, the inactive volcano provides phenomenal hiking and overnight trekking opportunities for those in search of gorillas. The climb can be a demanding but rewarding experience, as it traverses a majestic landscape of steep slopes, dense forest and stunning volcanic features.Visitors can trek to 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 that 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 among 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 such as chimpanzees, colobus monkeys, vervet monkeys, owl-faced monkeys and olive baboons. Wildlife enthusiasts should note that Nyungwe's trekking trails offer different experiences. By way of a rough guide, bird-watchers should choose the Waterfall Trail, monkey trekkers will appreciate the Gisakura Tea Estate Trail, and elephant spotters ought to walk the Kamiranzovu Trail. We recommend visitors to Nyungwe National Park pack appropriate wet weather gear, 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. Banks throughout Rwanda can exchange US Dollars or Euros, and middle to top-tier tourist hotels and restaurants are increasingly accepting credit cards.
Kinyarwanda, French, Swahili and English are the official languages. French is widely spoken, but English is limited to a few people in the tourist centres.
The 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 over the age of one, and inoculation is also recommended for travellers who will be staying for a long time, or will be heavily exposed to mosquitoes. A hepatitis A vaccination is also recommended, as well as a polio booster for those who have not had one as an adult. 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.
Although services charges are usually added to the bill, tipping has become common in the country's cities. A five to 10 percent tip for decent restaurant service is standard, and guides generally receive $10 per day.
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, though there are reports of random grenade attacks 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 an increasing number of cafes, restaurants and budget hotels.
Passengers older than 18 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: +250 727 775 170 or www.visitrwanda.com/
Rwanda Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 232 2882.
Rwandan High Commission, London, United Kingdom (also responsible for Ireland): +44 (0)20 7224 9832.
Rwanda High Commission, Ottawa, Canada: (613) 569 5420.
Rwandan Honorary Consulate General, Melbourne, Australia: +61 (0) 401 099 115.
Rwandan High Commission, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 (0)12 342 6536.
United States Embassy, Kigali: +250 596 400.
British High Commission, 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 High Commission, 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 flagship nature reserve in Rwanda, Volcanoes National Park (known locally as Parc National des Volcans) is located in northwestern Rwanda, not far from Kigali. A haven for 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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