Traveling to Rwanda: What You Need to Know to Plan an Unforgettable Trip
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From the lush forests that are home to the endangered mountain gorillas to the scenic shores of Lake Kivu, Rwanda offers delightful beauty and diversity in both scenery and wildlife.
A small country in Central-Eastern Africa, the ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’ packs a lot of interesting activities to do and places to explore.
But when you get down to planning, between making sure you obtain the gorilla trekking permit on time and you travel during the best time of the year, there are many variables to consider when embarking on a wildlife tour in Rwanda.
That’s why, in this article, we are sharing useful information to help you plan your unforgettable trip to Rwanda and make the best out of it!
What is the best time to visit Rwanda?
The best time to visit Rwanda depends much on what you plan to do during your visit.
Located just south of the equator, the country’s high altitude provides a pleasant tropical highland climate. But keep in mind that this may also come with quite a lot of rain.
The long rainy season lasts from March to May, when the rain is heavy and persistent.
From June to mid-September, Rwanda enjoys a long dry season.
The short rainy season occurs from October to November. Whereas the short dry season happens from December to February.
Do note that even during the dry seasons, there’s some light cloud cover, which helps with keeping the temperatures moderate. However, it may also bring occasional rains. The two dry seasons are the best choice if you plan for a gorilla trekking tour in Rwanda.
However, if you plan to go chimpanzee trekking in Nyungwe, it’s best to plan your trip during the two rainy seasons since it is easier to locate the apes as food is easier to find now. During the dry season, they tend to scatter into the woods to find food.
Unfortunately, due to climate change, Rwanda’s weather patterns – just like in the rest of Africa – have become quite unpredictable.
What can I do in Rwanda?
Rwanda is famous for being one of the best places in the world to go on a gorilla trekking tour. But, aside from spotting these magnificent apes, you can also catch a glimpse of chimpanzees and other species of primates, hike on active volcanoes, embark on amazing biking, hiking, or kayaking, and explore the country’s capital of Kigali.
Photo credit: Volcanoes National Park
Volcanoes National Park runs along the border with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is home to the Rwandan part of the Virunga Mountain Range, which protects about half of the 900 mountain gorillas left in the wild.
Although gorilla trekking permits are expensive to obtain (you’ll be parting with USD 1500) the experience is quite rewarding. Plus. the fee helps to protect the species from extinction.
The price – which doubled in the past years – has made Rwanda a luxury destination for gorilla trekking. In Uganda, a permit will set you back USD 600, whereas in Congo, they only cost USD 400.
Kindly note that gorilla trekking should be bought at least three months in advance from a trusted travel agency or the Rwandan development board. They are issued on a first-come-first-served basis and demand is high. In the case of no-show, the traveler is refunded 50% of the fee.
Volcanoes National Park was where the famous conservationist Dian Fossey worked tirelessly to safeguard the gorillas from extinction. You can hike to her grave but do know it is a steep hike, which takes about five hours.
The national park is also home to some active volcanoes so if you hike any of them, there is a good chance you’d be spotting the gorillas on your own. However, you are not allowed to spend any time with them unless you have a permit to do so.
There are also troops of habituated golden monkeys, which can be great fun to watch. They are also endangered, and a permit is required to trek them.
Photo credit: Justin Raycraft via Flickr
Nyungwe Forest National Park protects the largest single tract of montane forest in East and Central Africa. The stars of the park may be the 13 species of primates that live here, but the rainforest is also home to birds, butterflies, and enchanting orchids.
The park is known for the great chimpanzee trekking. As opposed to gorilla trekking when you are only allowed an hour of observation, there’s no limit when you go chimpanzee trekking. But the challenge is keeping up with them since chimps move at high speeds, jumping from tree to tree.
Permits are required and they cost USD 100. Make sure to book in advance as only 8 people per day can go chimpanzee trekking.
Should you prefer to just embark on hiking to enjoy the scenery, there are well-maintained trails through the lush valleys of the rainforest.
Photo credit: John Cooke via Flickr
Akagera National Park is located in eastern Rwanda, where the tropical forests give way to the dry savannahs.
The wetlands and wooded grasslands are home to the “classic” African safari animals: elephant, buffalo, leopard, giraffe, hippo, zebra, baboon, various species of antelopes, and 490 bird species. All members of the Big Five animals have also been slowly reintroduced in the area.
Keep in mind that you can only visit the park from a vehicle or a boat. Self-driving is allowed but it’s recommended to hire a guide.
At the western border of Rwanda, you can find Lake Kivu. It is a massive lake surrounded by green hills, home to excellent hiking, chimp trekking, canopy walks, and birdwatching.
If you enjoy water sports, you can also go kayaking or boating here.
Is Rwanda suitable for a family vacation?
Rwanda offers much more than just gorilla and chimpanzee tracking. A leading ecotourism destination, it is home to three national parks, spectacular mountain scenery, diverse wildlife, and bustling capital.
There are many opportunities to engage with the locals and learn about their culture.
However, because trekking permits are only issued for adults or children age 15 or over, Rwanda is not an ideal destination for a family with younger children.
Malaria medication is also required but toddlers and babies don’t react well to it. Hence, you may want to only choose Rwanda as a family destination when traveling with teens.
Is Rwanda expensive?
Rwanda is known to have consciously chosen to attract low-volume, upscale tourists, making this African country one of the best luxury destinations on the continent.
Budget options are very limited, and you’d also likely need to skip gorilla trekking in favor of chimp trekking if aim to minimize costs.
Photo credit: Kubwa Five Safaris
Accommodation in Rwanda is a big part of the whole experience. The standards for the options vary according to location so you should to do your research to choose what best fits your needs.
There are plenty of eco-friendly options and you may find mid-range accommodation close to the parks.
Should you aim for a more budget experience, head to Lake Kivu and Akagera National Park. Whereas Volcanoes National Park is mostly aimed at travelers who prefer an eco-luxury experience.
Photo credit: Rumara Safaris (SMC) Ltd.
When it comes to activities in Rwanda, most people think about gorilla trekking. Indeed, trekking gorillas in the wild is a life-changing experience you should experience in this region.
However, there are other things to do in Rwanda, which are also as rewarding.
If you love apes, then why not go chimpanzee trekking in Nyungwe Forest National Park? And although Volcanoes National Park is popular for the gorilla trekking, you can also trek golden monkeys here (and the permits cost only USD 100).
In Rwanda, you can also enjoy a wildlife safari or a birding tour. Just head to Akagera National Park where you may be rewarded with spotting the rare shoebill stork.
Travelers to Rwanda need to have their passport valid for at least six months after their planned return date.
As of January 2018, citiznes of all countries receive a visa on arrival, whether they entry by land or air. A single-entry tourist visa costs USD 30 and is valid for 30 days.
Should you be visiting other countries in East Africa, the East African Tourist Visa (EATV) costs USD 100, covers Rwanda, Kenya, and Uganda, and is valid for 90 days.
You can apply for a visa online, before departure, with the option to pay online or at arrival.
Malaria is common in Rwanda, while yellow fever is a risk.
It is highly recommended that all visitors over the age of 9 months receive the yellow fever vaccine. You should also take malaria medication.
Unfortunately, limited medical facilities are available in the country so in the event of a major emergency, evacuation by air to Kenya or South Africa may be required. Make sure to purchase travel insurance which includes this protection.
The unit currency in Rwanda is the Rwandan franc (RFr). The exchange rate is pretty stable.
Most banks in larger towns have ATMs but not all foreign cards work. Some large banks work with both Visa and MasterCard.
You can also use (debit and credit) cards at most hotels but note that you may pay a steep fee.
You may bring US Dollars. Most activities can be paid in US Dollars, so you don’t need to change them. Just make sure you have new notes (2004 or newer) that are crisp and unsoiled.
What to pack for a safari in Rwanda?
Packing for a safari is different than packing for any other kind of trip. More so, should you plan to go gorilla or chimpanzee trekking, you need to make sure that all essentials travel with you.
It’s most often easy to remember to pack our smartphone, cameras, passport, and the chargers. But other items may fall through the crack.
Here is a checklist that includes the essential items to pack for a worry-free Rwandan adventure:
- Lightweight and waterproof hiking boots
- Garden gloves
- Rain jacket
- Quick-dry long-sleeve blouse and long trousers
- Lightweight fleece sweater
- Hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen
- Trekking gaiters and lightweight long socks
- Water bottle
- Small and light day pack
- Medicine (malaria pills, Aspirin, ibuprofen, and Tylenol) and insect repellant.
Keep in mind that if you travel by air in Rwanda, your luggage must not weigh more than 15kg / 33 pounds (the allowance is fixed for each passenger).
If you travel by road, you may bring up to 20kg /44 pounds in soft bags.
Excited to discover the interesting lives of gorillas, chimps, and other apes? Then go primate trekking in Rwanda and let yourself be amazed by the best of what this country has to offer.