Rwanda – a tiny, landlocked country in the heart of Africa giving us a peek into an entire continent’s future.
In the decades following the ’94 genocide, Rwanda has become synonymous with progress & development in sub-Saharan Africa.
A stable government, new infrastructure, and unity amongst its citizens has sparked a transformation without precedent on the continent.
However, much of this change is out of the public eye and far from being common knowledge.
So what you’re probably wondering is:
“Is it worth my time and money to travel to Rwanda?”
Rwanda doesn’t have Thailand’s beaches or Paris’s monumental attractions, and it doesn’t need them.
The land of 1000 hills lives up to its billing as a natural wonder of the world – one of the 3 countries on Earth mountain gorillas still call home, with trekkable bamboo forests in the shadow of the Virunga volcanoes and the tranquil waters of Lake Kivu just scratching the surface of what adventurers have to discover here.
The country that was forever changed by the 1994 genocide is no longer defined by it, and in 2012 Rwanda showed the world just how far it had come when it broke the million-tourist mark for the first time.
Tourism is a burgeoning industry in the country, seeing services for travelers expand and become more affordable, while at the same time not being over-saturated to the point where excursions are soulless and contrived ventures into a traveler’s pocketbook.
Those looking for authentic cultural experiences, awe-inspiring unspoiled environments, and to be a part of a great African success story should definitely consider Rwanda as a travel destination.
And regarding that success story, I have a personal reason to urge you invest your travel budget in Rwanda:
I used to volunteer at an organization involved with helping victims of the genocide and the construction of schools in Kigali, the capital. Rwanda has used foreign aid with relative success – actually serving its population by improving infrastructure and providing social programs. But foreign aid is not a sustainable long term growth plan. Tourism can help the country become self-sufficient.
In a region infamous for its lethargic pace of growth and development, Rwanda stands out. Good ideas have always spread: democracy, giving women the right to vote, the abolishment of slavery. Rwanda embodies a ton of good ideas that with the right impetus, could spread throughout the region.
Rwanda is situated in the very heart of Africa. Though technically a part of Eastern Africa, it lies a mere 121 km (75 miles) south of the equator, 1416 kilometers (880 miles) west of the Indian Ocean & 1250 km (777 miles) east of the Atlantic Ocean, putting it right in the center of the continent.
Rwanda is bordered by Uganda to the north, Tanzania to the east, Burundi to the south and the Democratic Republic of Congo & Lake Kivu to the west.
The capital, Kigali, is located more or less in the center of the country, which consists of 5 regions:
Currency: Rwandan Franc (RWF). Notes come in 100, 500, 1000, 5000 and 10,000 denominations. Coins come in denominations of 10, 20 and 50.
Here are the exchange rates at the time of this writing:
See today’s exchange rate here.
Official Languages: Kinyarwanda (spoken by most of the native population), English, French.
Population: Just over 12 million.
Climate: Temperate, due to relatively high elevation. In fact, the lowest point in the country is 950 meters (3,117 ft) above sea level! Expect highs in the mid-high twenties (or 80 °F) all year round and lows around 12°C (54 °F).
There are 2 rainy seasons from February to June and September to December, which alternate with dry seasons.
Area: 26,338 sq km – about the size of Haiti or the US state of Maryland.
Here are some interesting facts about Rwanda you probably didn’t know:
Outside of the African continent, there is a short list of countries that receives a 30-day visa on arrival in Rwanda, including The UK, The United States, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and Sweden. Visas are $30 and usually obtained at the Kigali International Airport.
If entering by land, you need to apply online first, and then bring a copy of your acceptance letter with you to the border, where you’ll pay the $30 fee. Not the most convenient way to get in as it means you’ll have to find a printer.
You can see the full visa requirements for your nationality here.
However, as a testament to the progress the region has seen in the last several decades, it’s now possible to get a 90-day, multi-entry East African Tourist Visa, which will let you move freely between Rwanda, Kenya, and Uganda. It costs $100 and you must activate the visa by entering the country that issued it.
Rwanda has made a lot of progress combating dangerous viruses and diseases since the 1994 genocide (such as reducing deaths from malaria from 477,000 in 2005 to 11,450 people in 2012), but it remains in the equatorial hot zone for tropical diseases and requires we prepare accordingly.
As a general rule, you should get vaccinations 4-6 weeks before heading into Rwanda or other countries in the region.
The Rwandan government itself demands proof of yellow fever vaccination in order to enter the country. The Center for Disease Control recommends additional vaccinations or precautions, including:
By taking these precautions you’ll be ensuring that your time in Rwanda is focused on the right things: experiencing the culture, exploring nature, and enjoying this small but inspiring African nation.
Your packing list is going to look a different depending on whether you plan on doing a bunch of safaris and other outdoor activities or stick to Kigali and other urban centers.
Here are the essentials you’ll want to have.
My friend Greg who operates Amahoro Tours passed on an important tip to me: Don’t wear any camouflage-patterned clothing, illegal due to the fact that it’s the style worn by local military!
Tans, browns, greens are all perfect for safaris, and bright colors should be avoided. Of course, if you’re not venturing off the beaten track the colors you wear are up to you (minus the camo of course).
Since Rwanda is basically on the equator, the sun really beats down, even if the temperatures are not extreme. Don’t let this fool you. During peak sunshine hours (from about 11am-3pm) make sure you’re protecting your neck, face and arms by covering up with a hat, bandanna or shemagh, scarf, a long sleeved shirt, or other forms of sun protection you prefer.
And finally, you’ll want to be sure that your clothing is as mosquito-proof as possible if you’re going to be outside the big cities. That means covering your neck, ankles, making your shoes don’t have any holes (seriously) etc.
If you’re flying into Rwanda you’ll be arriving at Kigali International Airport. As it’s not far from the most trafficked airport in Africa, Nairobi Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, it doesn’t receive nearly as much attention from flight carriers.
Flights operating to KIA include RwandAir, SN Brussels, Qatar Airways, KLM, Kenya Airways, South African Airways, Turkish Airlines, Ethiopian Airways and AirUganda.
Domestic flights are also available through Akagera Aviation and Rwandair.
One of the best ways to get a cheap flight to Kigali is via connecting flights in Dubai and/or Mombasa (Kenya), though this will depend where you’re flying from.
Getting into town:
Kigali International Airport is only 10 km from Kigali’s city center. To get into town you basically have two options: Taxi…or moto taxi.
A taxi from the airport will run you somewhere around 10,000 RWF, around $15. Not outrageous so far as taxis go, but we can do way better.
As if I haven’t espoused enough times the merits of packing light and leaving your lucky bowling ball at home, by walking out of the terminal where all the taxis are hawking for tourists, you can get a moto taxi just outside the main gates for 1/10th the cost – and get into town for 1,000 RWF, roughly $1.50.
How’s that for an easy win?
Overland entry to Rwanda is fairly convenient due to good road infrastructure on the Rwandan side of international borders. Bus service runs daily to and from Kampala, Uganda; Nairobi, Kenya; and Bujumbura, Burundi.
For instance, you can get between the Ugandan capital of Uganda, Kampala, and Musanze in northwestern Rwanda for $20 on Horizon coaches. Not a bad price for a 500km journey.
While it is possible to get between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of The Congo by land, no major bus lines run. Your only option is to take a shared taxi (more like a mini bus – with reasonable rates).
Very few Rwandan establishments accept credit cards, and outside the capital it can be hard – if not impossible – to find an ATM.
Therefore you should probably get all the cash you’ll need for your excursions outside Kigali before leaving, as to not end up stranded.
Many bank branches in Kigali have ATMs, but many expats have noted that they’re not always working. In such cases, you’ll have to go inside the bank, show your passport, and pay a small fee to access your funds. However, you’ll almost certainly do better with exchange rates here than at the airport exchange centers.
Getting cheap accommodation in Rwanda isn’t the easiest thing to do, as the tourism industry sector is still growing and budget travelers tend to be considered later in a the industry’s development.
But we can still find some big wins in this area to free up our budget for other things – like any of the incredible excursions on tap in all 4 corners of the land.
With a combination of hostels, bead & breakfasts, and campsites, you should be able to find a place to stay just about anywhere in Rwanda for $15-25.
Where to Look for Accommodation in Rwanda Online:
The growth of the tourism industry has finally seen many Rwandan establishments put their room listings online. While the pickings are more slim than most European nations or Southeast Asia, there’s enough – and that’s all that matters. Here’s where to search:
Lonely Planet Hotels – LP has listings all over the price map, as well as the literal map. We don’t normally think of them as a hotel expert, but I found a bunch of great listings here or cheaper than on other booking sites.
Jovago.com – If you’ve never heard of this website, that’s because it was created to specifically serve the African market. Very thorough and has great prices.
HotelsCombined – A hotel aggregate site that searches all the top hotel sites: Booking.com, Agoda, HostelWorld, and HostelBookers are all included here. My new favorite booking site.
And what sort of deals can we actually unearth here? Here are some gems you can take advantage of:
Kigali: Mamba Rwanda Club House with dorm beds from $15.35/night.
Gisenyi: (north west, on the banks of Lake Kivu): Discover Rwanda Gisenyi Beach has private rooms from $16/night.
Ruhengeri (north): Red Rocks Rwanda has camping grounds available for $20/night.
Kayonza (eastern province): Discover Rwanda Kayonza Eco Lodge has dorms from $17.50/night.
Kibue City (west, on the bank of Lake Kivu): Home Saint John has twins rooms from $25/night.
If you want further savings you can call the hotel directly and ask for a discount. Hotels usually have some wiggle room, but once you’re there in person they have little reason to offer a discount. Even if you’re standing right outside the building, it’s better to phone.
CouchSurfing in Rwanda
In Kigali there is a small but healthy CS community of just over 400 people. Much more than providing a free place to stay, CouchSurfing is a great way to get immersed in the local experience by spending time with someone who knows all the hidden gems of their region.
Road infrastructure is one of the many things the Rwandan government has gotten more-or-less correct since the 1994 genocide. The ease and safety of getting around the country is tops in a region that’s usually notorious for dangerous roads and dangerous drivers. But paving major transport lines, improving the police force, enforcing seal belt use, and public education programs have won Rwanda accolades from the likes of the World Health Organization.
Getting around Rwanda is a usually matter of choosing what sort of bus or car you want to take, as there is no railway system.
Note that RwandAir used to fly to Rwanda’s 2nd airport in Kamembe, but service seems to have been discontinued
One of the interesting things that first time travelers to this part of Africa will note is a phenomenon common to the region, and quite different than “western” countries: If it’s got wheels and a motor and there’s empty space, you can get a ride on it. Whether you’re on an state run bus or hopping on a farmer’s cart on his way to market, you’ll rarely be stuck for a ride.
Rwanda has about 12,000 km of roadways, only 1000 km of which are paved. The rest are dirt roads which may be anywhere from impeccable to impassible except with 4-wheel drive and a bit of luck.
That being said, from Kigali you can head in any direction on paved highway. So whether you’re heading north towards Uganda to find some mountain gorillas, west towards Lake Kivu and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, south towards Burundi, or east towards Tanzania, you won’t have to worry about road conditions.
Bus transport is basically how everyone in Rwanda gets about, and there are essentially 2 forms to choose from:
Stopping Taxis are minibuses which can carry up to 18 people. These are generally owned by private individuals, and run a predetermined route between two points, stopping along the way to pick up and drop off passengers. A drawback of this form of transport is the driver will usually often wait until his vehicle is full before departing, leading to undetermined waiting times.
Express Taxis are a new phenomenon in Rwanda. These are company owned and run minibuses (also seating 18) with a set timetable between major cities and towns. They do not stop on route except to let off passengers.
For these taxis you need to purchase tickets in advance from a ticket office (usually at the bus terminal itself), and their popularity makes these harder to get at the last minute. Note that you’ll pay the full fare even if you’re getting off part way. Fares are comparable to stopping taxis
Getting around the country is a breeze. For less than the cost of simply sitting in a taxi in Western Europe you can travel almost anywhere in the country. This is wonderful, as a lot of what makes Rwanda so inviting are the myriad of outdoor activities spread across the country.
Hitchhiking: Yes, believe it or not, you can hitchhike in Rwanda. Inga, a Norwegian expat who has been living in Kigali since 2009 has done so frequently. While local transport will hardly burn a hole in your budget, this is a way for intrepid travelers to cut down on costs and spend some quality time with a local.
As you can cross the entire country for $10 or so, it’s hard for me to even recommend hitching as a money saving technique. Transport prices in Rwanda are the sort of minutiae that I consider a waste of mental energy better spent on finding a cheap flight into the country or negotiating the price at your hotel. If you’re the kind of person that loves hitchhiking, go for it, otherwise save the time and energy for hiking or something.
In practice, the line between hitching and taxiing in Rwanda is blurred, as many people with extra space are happy to pick someone up along their route in exchange for a couple bucks.
Distances in most of Rwandas cities can be covered on foot if you’re interested, but otherwise there’s a colorful and convenient range of inexpensive transport options.
Velo-taxi: A simple bike that you can hope on the back of while the driver pedals you to your destination. Expect to pay a buck or two.
Moto-taxi: While taking a moto-taxi might sound like a dangerous death trap at first glance, in Rwanda it is surprisingly safe. The system is regulated, and drivers are members of a union, have ID numbers, are insured against accidents, and are obligated to provide you with a helmet. Kristi from LivingInKigali.com has some great advice for staying safe with moto-taxis. Look to spend $0.50 to $2 depending on your destination.
Local Buses: Most of these are the same sorts of stopping taxis that do inter-city routes, though there are larger buses which carry up to 30 people. Buses handle the majority of public transport in Kigali and other big cities. In Kigali, there are over 600 buses on the road during normal working hours, operated by 19 different companies. How’s that for free-market capitalism?
Taxi: These are relatively difficult to find, and rarely necessary unless you’re transporting a group. The most expensive option by far.
Rwanda isn’t exactly known for its food. I mean let’s be real – you’re probably coming for the amazing outdoors activities and a bit of cultural tourism, not the Michelin-star sporting restaurants (hint: you won’t find one). Being a small landlocked country only decades removed from turmoil and still experiencing much poverty (44.9% in 2011, down from 56.7% in 2006) a great culinary tradition hasn’t really had an opportunity to form.
That being said, there’s no need to be discouraged. With the price of food being relatively low, there’s no reason you shouldn’t eat well while you’re here.
If I’m not in a huge rush to get from place to place, my personal preference has always been to eat breakfast and dinner at home, and eat out during lunch from time to time to take advantage of lunch specials/lunch menus.
Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule but a general guideline to maximize how far my money goes while still getting a full appreciation for local fare. I’d say I stick to it 80-90% of the time, and thus my budget goes 50% farther than most travelers without having to keep track of anything.
Of course you can eat out 3x a day if you don’t care how much you spend – but over half the emails I get from readers are about how they don’t have the money to travel, so somehow I doubt you’re happy just letting the bucks fly willy nilly.
So let this system do the work s you can enjoy your travels more while spending less.
For instance, by going to markets in Rwanda, you’re looking at $0.50 per kg for potatoes, tomatoes are under $1/kg, and 12 eggs are $1.75 or less. And don’t forget the huge variety of fruit that’s locally available at good prices.
Congratulations, you just cut your food bill in half. And that’s accounting for the days you go out on an excursion and circumstance dictates that you eat out for dinner too.
So now that you have a winning plan in your hands, let’s look at what you’ll be eating when you do go out.
Rwandan dishes are often based around a starch such as sweet potatoes or rice, beans, and bananas – combined with chicken or fish for those who can afford it. Fruits such as papayas, mangoes, and avocados are also abundant, and you’ll find yourself encountering them in dishes or eating them as snacks often enough.
Also, Rwanda also doesn’t have street food, at least not yet. So you’ll be heading inside to eat. Daniel & Audrey from Uncornered Market found that their meals took an exorbitant amount of time to arrive, which brings us to one of the big dilemmas about Rwandan fare: You get to pick between fast or fresh.
Buffet Lunches: Our fast option is the classic lunch buffet, which is ubiquitous in Rwanda. However, Rwandans do buffets differently than the rest of the world. You only get to fill your plate up once. Watch the locals to develop your food-stacking techniques and make the most of your one-pass. The pricing system tends to be on your side here: expect to pay up to $10 (though often prices won’t be listed, so be sure to ask beforehand).
Entrees: Entree or buffet? That’s the question. Unless you’re an expert plate stacker, an entree will end up being more food – and very well might be more than you can eat. Thank goodness, Rwanda is a country where portion size is not a problem – at least if you’ve got as ravenous an appetite as me. Wait times may make you wish you’d chosen the buffet though.
Traditional Rwandan dishes are called invange – meaning “mixed food” – often including beans, green bananas, onions, various veggies, peanut soup, and corn flour.
Brochettes: Rwanda’s national meat-on-a-stick option is the brochette, classically from goat meat, though it’s easy enough to find fish, beef, or chicken. These really are ubiquitous. Hang around for a few days and you’ll probably find a place that does them just how you want.
Mizuzu: Fried plantains. Almost as ubiquitous as brochettes.
Ugali: A porridge-like food made from a mix of maize flour or cassava and water. Typically eaten dipping a ball of it into sauce. This is actually a staple you can find all throughout this part of the continent, and not just Rwanda – though the name seems to be unique to each region.
If I were on the tourism board of directors in Rwanda I’d consider a slogan like “Rwanda – come for the 1000 hills, stay for the 1000 outdoor activities.” Rwanda is bustling with options for the outdoor enthusiast – which I am admittedly biased towards. There’s also city site seeing for those that prefer the hustle and bustle of urban centers.
Let’s start in the capital, Kigali:
Rwandan Genocide Memorial (Kigali) – The top rated “must do” activity on Trip Advisor is a heart wrenching reminder of humanity’s darker capabilities, as well as appreciate the inspiring turnaround the country has made since that time. This memorial of the 1994 genocide is built on a site where over 250,000 people are buried. There is no entry fee; donations accepted. A visit will also help one appreciate the incredible resilience of Rwandans and the progress the country has made since that time.
Tongo Art Gallery (Kigali) – Tongo is a small contemporary art gallery offering unique professional paintings and stylish jewelry and accessories with an African flair. If you’ve never immersed yourself in art from this region, here’s your chance.
Volcanoes National Park: The oldest national park on the content and one of the few places where you can go on world-famous gorilla treks (discussed below). You can also go hiking through the region’s bamboo forests, take a day hike up to Bisoke cater (Mt. Bisoke – 3,711m), or even an overnight hike with camping to Mt. Karisimbi (4,507m).
Mountain Gorillas: Rwanda is one of only 3 countries on Earth where mountain gorillas can be found, and they are one of the primary attractions of the region. According to National Geographic, there are only about 700 of the animals left. Due to their endangered status, there are some fairly strict limits on visits. In Volcanoes National Park, visitors are capped at 80/day. No matter where you go to see gorillas, you’ll have to pay for a permit ($750), and children under 15 are not permitted.
According to Rwanda’s tourism board, there has been a 26.3% increase in gorilla population since the last census in 2010. This success has been due to a combination of tourism dollars and strong conservation programs. So while gorilla trekking is expensive, it’s not just an investment in your experience, but in this ancient and endangered species.
You can go gorilla trekking with my friend Greg from Amahoro Tours.
Kwita Izina (gorilla naming) Ceremony: A national festival based on a centuries-old Rwandan tradition naming newborn gorillas. Since 2005, 173 baby gorillas have been named.
Canopy Walk: Located in Nyungwe National Park, from a height of 70 meters you’ll get a bird’s eye view of the spectacular rainforest canopy. The canopy walkway is only 200m long, so fairly pricey at $60.
Bird Watching: Rwanda is home to over 700 different bird species. Rare and beautiful species on Rwanda’s bird checklist encompass 1/3 of all bird species in the continent (27 of which are endemic to Rwanda). The nation boasts one of the highest concentrations of birds per square kilometer in Africa! Nyungwe National Park is named “the most important site for biodiversity conservation in Rwanda” by Birdlife International.
Lake Kivu: Lake Kivu is a rare phenomenon in this part of the world in that it is safe for swimming. That is: no crocodiles, hippos, or other dangerous creatures inhabit its waters, which are a pleasantly warm 23-27°C year round.
As a result, it’s also possible to enjoy other aquatic activities such as kayaking, wind surfing, riding a catamaran and jet-skiing. Hire equipment at Kivu Serena in Gisenyi or Moriah Hills in Kibuye.
Game Viewing: Lost amongst the gorillas and other outdoor adventures is that you can go on a classic big game safari here too. In Akagera National Park on the North-Eastern side of the country offers up the “big 5″ (lion, elephant, cape buffalo, leopard, rhino).
The list really goes on and on. By now you should have some idea of what’s on tap in Rwanda. Here are some other options that might inspire:
Activities in Northwestern Rwanda – Amaharo Tours. A variety of budget activities from $10-$40.
Rwanda – List of Activities – RwandaTourism.com. Many activities from around the country.
70 Things to Do In Rwanda – TripAdvisor.com. A truly extensive list of activities.
Now that you know what to expect from Rwanda, it’s time to answer the big question: How to do it on a budget?
In fact, I’d rate Rwanda as a fairly easy country to travel around on a budget. If you’ve got the established standard of $1,500 a month or $50 per day, even by following the advice set out in this guide badly you’re probably going to end up nicely under that mark.
In fact, if you have good travel insurance that covers your vaccinations, there aren’t any big hits you’ll take unless you fly in. An overland bus will run you maybe $10 or $20 depending on your point of origin.
Let’s look at some other costs for argument’s sake:
Of course your budget could very easily go one way or another depending if you’re an extreme saver or prefer a more luxurious experience. CouchSurf all month and your low end budget immediately drops to $420.10 with other savings still to be had. This isn’t cannon. It’s just sound, principled decision making that can help you have your vacation on your budget.
Whatever your budget is, with these targets in mind you can plan accordingly, as on any trip the big budget question mark is excursions and activities, which may be as little as a $10-20 hiking trip or top-dollar luxury-budget safaris.
If you take a normal range of activities and not super high-end tours you’re looking between $10 and $80 much of the time. Say you do something really special 2x a week, or 8x a month, you’re probably looking around $400. But this is a wild estimate as most travelers probably won’t stay a month, and those that don’t will cram maybe 3-4 activities into a shorter time frame.
Main Takeaways: If you want to make your budget go further in Rwanda so you can go on more eye-opening excursions, focus on getting good deals on your accommodation. As we’ve seen it will be about 50% of your base budget in normal circumstances.
So yes, in a continent in which it’s notoriously difficult to travel well on a budget, it’s definitely possible in Rwanda.
And whether Rwanda is you’re first stop in Africa or your next stop, I’d highly recommend going and experiencing it for yourself. Who knows, maybe I’ll see you there.