If you are seeking a traditional African experience – raw, chaotic and unhinged – you won’t find that in Rwanda. It is safe, clean, has a reliable nationwide public transit system, a myriad of attractions, gorgeous scenery, and friendly locals.
You will not find any trouble in moving around the country and experiencing all it has to offer. The local Rwandans are very friendly and always willing to help. It is safe to travel alone, although you will be quick to find new friends around every corner.
Where to go
For a small country, Rwanda really has a lot to offer solo travellers. Made up of thirty districts, the country is well connected. If not relying on local public transport, you can easily hire a car and self-drive yourself. The roads are impeccable, well signed, and safe to drive even at night.
Rwanda’s capital is Kigali and where you will land if flying into the country. It is one of East Africa’s most vibrant and developing cities with a multitude of restaurants, art galleries, and fascinating neighbourhoods. Spend some time exploring the Kimironko Market, colourful Nyamirambo neighbourhood, and chaotic city centre, and be sure to visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial museum.
Musanze, Rwanda’s second largest city, is home to gorilla trekking, the twin lakes, and several gorgeous volcanoes. There is a bus from Kigali’s Nyabugogo bus terminal that takes you to Musanze. Yes, the gorilla trekking is one of the most expensive activities in the country, but it is well worth the price tag. Gorilla trekking permits will set you back USD$1500 per person and gives you 1 hour with the gorillas once you reach them.
Other activities in the area include a hike of Mt. Bisoke for the possibility of seeing mountain gorillas and the crystal-clear crater lake at the summit. Journey outside of Musanze for a visit to the twin lakes, camping on Ile de Cyuza, a gorgeous island in the centre of Lake Burera. Days are quiet here, with the easy lap of the lakeshore and caw of fish eagles making up most of the din. Motorcycles, taxis, and public buses render Musanze one of Rwanda’s best-connected districts.
Akagera National Park
It is here you will find Rwanda’s only big five safari experience. Getting to Akagera National Park will require your own transport and for the adventurous solo traveller, be sure to rent a 4×4 and journey through Africa’s largest protected wetland and camp underneath some of the country’s best stars. Campsites are available throughout the park as well as Akagera Game Lodge, and safari permits are easily purchased without reservation at Akagera’s southern gates. It is recommended that you hire a guide for USD$40 per day as they are knowledgeable and will make the game drive experience much more rewarding. Visit the Freelance Guides Page here for more information.
Lake Kivu is Rwanda’s largest lake and located on the country’s western border. The atmosphere around the lake is relaxed and communal. The two biggest towns on the Rwandan side of the lake are Kibuye and Gisenyi, and both are excellent locations for solo excursions. Gisenyi, the bigger of the two towns, shares a border with the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and thus has a larger selection of restaurants, bars, and general activities. However, kayaking, hikes, boat rides, and more are available from both towns. Buses run from Kigali to Kibuye and Gisenyi fifteen times a day, leaving from the Nyabugogo Bus Terminal every thirty minutes starting at 7 am. It is here you can see the famous Singing Fishermen of Lake Kivu as they head out in their three-hulled fishing boats. With characteristic long poles attached to their bows and sterns, these fascinating boats become slowly silhouetted against the darkening sky. In small groups, they seek the deep water a few kilometres out into the lake from where they cast their nets and fish throughout the night.
Where to stay
There are plenty of accommodation options available across Rwanda, with offerings accounting for different tastes and budgets. Although Rwanda is not particularly known for its hostels, there are plenty of budget options for travellers attempting to travel on the cheap. On the other hand, Rwanda is also becoming known as a luxury destination, and has a lot to offer the upmarket solo adventurer. For solo travellers who want to feel welcomed into the community, you can’t go past Red Rocks Rwanda, a community focused accommodation offering which ranges from fixed campsites to traditional hut lodges.
What to eat
Rwandan food is neither spicy nor hot. People eat simple meals made with locally grown ingredients. Dishes consist mainly of sweet potatoes, beans, corn, peas, millet, plantains, cassava, and fruit. Umutsima (a dish of cassava and corn), isombe (cassava leaves with Eggplant and spinach) and mizuzu (fried plantains) are common dishes. There is an abundance of fruits including avocados, bananas, mangos, pineapple, and papaya.
What to do
There are so many activities and things to experience in Rwanda, you need more than just a week. Two weeks would be just right to get around and experience it all. If you are pressed for time however, these are some of the must do activities.
Gorilla trekking permits will set you back USD$1500 (price at 2020) per person and gives you 1 hour with the gorillas once you reach them. Critically endangered and currently numbering just over 1,000 individuals (according to the 2019 census results), the mountain gorillas can only be found in two places in the world: the Virunga Massif, a volcanic range that straddles Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda.
After equipping yourselves with the essential gorilla trekking gear (hiking boots, long trousers, gloves, etc), the park’s head ranger will divide you and other trekkers into different groups basing on your fitness. Usually, the more physically fit track gorilla groups that require a shorter, less strenuous trek while the fit ones can scour the forest for a longer time, and at a relatively higher altitude.
The mountain gorillas you will be allowed to view are families that have been habituated. As the excursion progresses deeper into the forest, your guide will point out signs of previous gorilla activity – dung, nests, chewed bamboo shoots, etc. Once you find them, you will be allowed to stay with them for one hour. And despite their intimidating, massive size, don’t fret! Habituated gorillas are not aggressive; they’ll just stare at you blankly.
The volcanic peaks of Bisoke, Sabinyo, Gahinga, Muhabura, and Karisimbi offer some of the region’s best day or overnight hikes, with booking available through the Rwandan Development Board website or licensed tour operators. Most of the volcanoes are in the Musanze district (just like gorilla trekking) and offer just spectacular views.
Shop your way through Kigali
Though fantastic markets are dotted throughout the country, the best shopping is in Kigali. Spend your days picking out handwoven baskets and colourful kitenge fabrics, before searching out some handmade candles, jewellery, and haute couture.
See Big 5 in Akagera National Park
Located in North Eastern Rwanda, at the country’s border with Tanzania, is Akagera National Park. Named after River Kagera, this National Park is dominated by swamps and small lakes that flow in the wake of River Kagera. These water sources create a spectacular backdrop for the rolling hills and is quite a remarkable eco-system. A common view around Rwanda, the mountainous scenery surrounding Akagera National Park is quite simply beautiful. The landscape inside the park ranges from low, wide, plains dominated by grass and cactus-like Euphorbia candelabra shrub that morphs into both thick and thin forests amongst rugged terrain that is so characteristic of Rwanda.
It is here you can experience the Big 5, and more, in Rwanda. The game drive experience is a scenic one, with wildlife like elephants, rhino, buffalos, and antelope species including elands and topis. There are also Maasai giraffes, monkeys, savannah birds, civets, leopards, hyenas, as well as serval cats. While you can self-drive around the park (staying on the designated roads), it is recommended you hire a guide who is so knowledgeable about the flora and the fauna that is found in the park.
Visit the lakes
Rwanda is home to many lakes, many of which offer idyllic retreats and quiet getaways. Laze a weekend away on Lake Kivu, Lake Muhazi, or the the twin lakes, enjoying a classic Rwandan landscape and a selection of hikes, kayaking trips, and boat rides.
Get amongst the locals
Red Rocks is a spacious and friendly backpacker hostel, campsite, and cultural center situated in a picturesque valley surrounded by rolling hills with a spectacular view of Volcanoes National Park. It is the perfect place to base yourself for the amazing wildlife experience of gorilla trekking.
At Red Rocks, the community comes first. Part of the bigger social enterprise, Red Rocks Initiative, Red Rocks believe in responsible tourism that directly serves local people, providing them with opportunity and empowerment by sharing their unique culture.
Everywhere you look at Red Rocks, it oozes Rwanda culture. The walls are covered with colourful artworks by talented resident artist Zulu. Accommodation comes in the form of a bed in the private rooms (single, twin and double) big safari tents or a campsite with tents available for hire. Bathrooms are shared and include hot showers, soap and towels are provided free of charge.
Rwanda’s ancient traditions of honour and hospitality run strong and anybody who takes the time to discover Rwandan culture for themselves will find a proud and unique people, happy to welcome you into their lives and introduce you to their traditions. A visit to Gorilla Guardians Village which is located adjacent to Parc National des Volcans in Nyabigoma, Kinigi, Musanze district Northern Province will give great insight into the Rwanda traditions and way of life. The village also helps locals who were once poachers in the National Park, to have a better way of life to earn a living. Here you can share with local people home and heritage treasures including lifestyles, activities, artifacts, and ways of living of local people. Gorilla guardians Village is committed at demonstrating the ways of living, traditional lifestyles, and dances to tourists.
Tips for travelling alone in Rwanda
From 1st Jan 2018, Nationals of all countries receive visa on arrival at Kigali International Airport and all land borders. The visa costs USD$30 and it is recommended you have this in cash on arrival as EFTPOS facilities are not always available. Your passport must have at least 6 months validity past the date of entry and an onward ticket from the country is required.
USD are widely accepted throughout Rwanda and most of your accommodation and activities are booked with USD. Rwandan Francs are good to have also for smaller purchases locally like coffees, taxi fares and snacks. ATMs and banks are hard to find outside of Kigali so make sure you get the money you need when in town.
Public buses, motorcycles-for-hire, and private taxis are the general modes of transit in Rwanda. Negotiations are necessary with both taxis and motorcycles (referred to as ‘motos’ in Rwanda), with prices for motos rarely going beyond 1,000 Rwandan Francs ($1.5 U.S.D.) and taxis depending on distance and time. Rwanda’s bus system is reliable and clean, with all buses in Kigali originating at the Nyabugogo bus terminal.
Health and safety
Do not drink the tap water in Rwanda and try to avoid ice as well. Unfortunately, although the country is impressively clean and environmentally friendly, water-borne diseases are still common. Make sure to consult your doctor before travelling, keeping an eye on malaria, typhoid, and bilharzia prevention. If necessary, King Faisal hospital in the Kacyiru neighbourhood of Kigali and the Polyclinic in Kiyovu are open twenty-four hours a day. While Rwanda is considered one of the safest countries in the world it is still advised to be cautious so still pay attention to your surroundings and belongings.
English is widely spoken in Kigali and Musanze, though use of it lessens outside of the major cities. French, Kinyarwanda, and Swahili are used almost everywhere, although it generally is easy to communicate regardless of location or language. WiFi is generally unreliable throughout the country, and investing in a local SIM card (Tigo, MTN, or Airtel are the best) for data usage is recommended.
For more visit www.visitrwanda.com
Disclosure: The writer explored Rwanda with assistance from Visit Rwanda
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