Rwanda is renowned for its rare mountain gorillas, and rightly so. Some 400 of our primate cousins roam the rainforests of Volcanoes National Park, with ten groups available for tracking. But this tiny country has so much more to see. Known as the "Land of a Thousand Hills", it’s rich with beautiful mountains, valleys and lakes, with a gleaming capital city, abundant wildlife and resilient and gracious people. Here are ten reasons to explore further.
If you prefer two feet to two wheels, Rwanda offers some fabulous treks. Nyungwe Forest has an extensive network of trails covering over 130km that take between two hours to four days. In Volcanoes National Park, head for Mount Bisoke with its beautiful crater lake at the summit or try the two-day trek of Mount Karisimbi, Rwanda’s highest peak at 4507m. Just beware the cold and the altitude.
A landlocked country, Rwanda’s answer to a beach is the shores of Lake Kivu. The sixth largest lake in Africa, it spans 90km along the border with the Democractic Republic of Congo, with beautiful reflections of hills covered with patchworks of vivid green crops and terracotta-coloured earth. The prettiest town on the lake is Karongi, from where boats can take you to Napoleon Island to see the fruit bats or head to Rubavu for water sports and cool beach bars.
Rwanda’s capital Kigali is almost squeaky clean with shiny shopping malls, trendy coffee shops and gleaming office blocks. For some true African vibe, take a tour of Nyamirambo, the city’s oldest and most vibrant neighbourhood, with Marie-Aimee Umugeni from the local Women’s Centre, visiting markets and shops and sampling local food. You’ll be supporting the centre’s work in education and empowerment.
Aside from gorillas, Rwanda is most famous for the horrific genocide that devastated the country in 1994, when almost a million people, mostly Tutsis, were murdered by the Hutu majority. Today, there is little ethnic division: everyone is Rwandan, and the grace and fortitude of the people in moving on from this tragedy is astounding. Visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial in the capital to understand the history behind the horror – it’s a surprisingly peaceful haven with sweet-scented rose gardens representing unity and reconciliation.
The fabulously-named Igishigishigi Trail in Nyungwe Forest National Park features the Uwinka Overlook, a stomach-churning suspension bridge that sways 50m high above the rainforest. Look down if you dare and you’ll see nothing but trees panning out like gigantic broccoli florets and fantastical ferns after which the trail is named. All you can hear is birdsong, distant waterfalls and the occasional monkey squealing in the forest below.
Rwanda’s traditional cuisine is fairly unadventurous. Meat (particularly goat) is usually served as brochettes, fish is often sardines or small tilapia and the staple food is ugali, a porridge-like paste made of cassava flour. But vegetarians are in for a treat: try matoke (fried green bananas), ibihaza (boiled pumpkin with beans), roasted sweet potatoes, veggie stews and dodo, a garlicky spinach-like dish with plenty of groundnuts and chillies.
Managed by conservation organisation African Parks since 2010, Akagera’s once depleted wildlife is now thriving. Elephants, buffalo, giraffe and plenty of antelope can easily be seen, while lions (relocated here in 2015) and leopards are more elusive. Rhinos will soon be introduced too, making the 1120 square kilometre reserve a Big Five destination. One of Africa’s prettiest national parks, Akagera merits a visit regardless of its wildlife, with lakes and papyrus swamps, vast savannah plains and undulating highlands in shades of green and gold.
Rwanda is primate paradise: a staggering 13 species live in Nyungwe Forest alone. Track the grey-cheeked mangabey or the colobus monkeys that look like ageing hippies with long white manes and beards. Catch chimpanzees leaving their nests in Cyamudongo Forest. Cutest of all are the playful golden monkeys, with reddish-gold coats and gorgeous expressive faces, that cavort around the bamboo forests of Volcanoes National Park.
Rwanda’s traditional dance is exhilarating. Historically performed for the Rwandan mwami (kings), they tell the story of warriors returning successfully from battle. The ground positively thumps with passion and energy as groups of dancers jump to drumbeats and singing. Women look demure in traditional colourful dresses while men wear headdresses of long white grasses that swirl frenetically as they toss their heads. Check out the King’s Palace Museum at Nyanza or the SACOLA Cultural Centre in Kinigi for some great performances.
Keen cyclists will love this rare opportunity to ride with members of Rwanda’s national team. Using top-of-the-range race or mountain bikes, they’ll take you on a half-day training ride from their base in Musanze, teaching techniques and trying different terrains along the way. You can even have a guided multi-day tour with a team member. But you’ll need to be fit – Rwanda is known as The Land of a Thousand Hills for good reason…