Whenever people ask us about our favorite places we've traveled, we struggle to narrow it down to a short, concise answer. But for adventure seekers with a passion for nature and wildlife, Rwanda offers a host of unique experiences, many of which are far off the mass tourism track.
“The land of a thousand hills” is best known for the endangered Mountain Gorillas of Volcanoes National Park, which were made famous by late primatologist Dian Fossey (and the biopic of her life, Gorillas in the Mist).
But it's hardly the country's only wildlife-centered attraction. From tracking Chimpanzees and several species of monkeys in Nyungwe Forest National Park to a more traditional Big 5 wildlife safari in Akagera National Park, Rwanda has numerous options for nature and wildlife lovers. And since the country is still emerging as an ecotourism hotspot, you’re almost certain to have some of these pristine attractions all to yourself!
1. GET A HISTORY LESSON AT THE KIGALI GENOCIDE MEMORIAL CENTER
Most people know Rwanda for its 1994 genocide (famously depicted in Hotel Rwanda), in which around 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were killed by Hutu extremists over a 100-day period.
These days community-focused tourism is helping Rwanda reinvent itself as an eco-adventure destination. If you want to appreciate how far the country has come over the past 24 years, you must visit this gut-wrenching memorial in order to understand how those tragic events came to pass. But its brutal truths are not for the faint of heart.
Opened in 2004 on the site where 250,000 victims of the Rwanda genocide were buried in mass graves, the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center offers an eye-opening overview of 100+ years of Rwanda history. It starts with the country’s colonization as part of German East Africa in 1884, and continues with the 40 years of Belgian rule that began during World War I. You’ll learn how the Belgians divided the wealthier Tutsi and more impoverished Hutu along class lines, with the latter treated as second-class citizens.
By the time you get through the exhibits on the mid-20th century civil war and the heartbreaking events that led to the 1994 genocide, you’ll understand just how impressive Rwanda’s radical transformation is. And you’ll see why the peaceful, progressive country is determined to never led such a tragedy happen again.
2. LEARN ABOUT RWANDAN CULTURE AT IBY’IWACU CULTURAL VILLAGE
Because ecotourism must benefit both the ecology and the economy of a place in order to be truly sustainable, we believe that community-focused tourism is the answer to the overtourism issues currently plaguing much of Europe. Run by the Gorilla Guardians non-profit and part of a larger community development strategy, Rwanda’s Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village is a great example of these principles in action.
Founded by CNN Hero Edwin Sabuhoro, the former game warden at Volcanoes National Park, this entertaining introduction to Rwanda’s traditional cultures provides alternative employment opportunities for ex-poachers and their families. Located in close proximity to the world-famous gorilla-trekking park, the village gives visitors a chance to be king/queen for a day, practice archery, grind grains, participate in a mock traditional wedding, and more.
The program has been so successful in aiding mountain gorilla conservation, it inspired Rwanda President Paul Kagame to dedicate 5% of all tourism revenue from Volcanoes National Park to infrastructure development in the villages surrounding the park. There are new schools, new hospitals, better roads, and lots of local business start-ups transforming this impoverished region.
3. PAY TRIBUTE TO PRIMATOLOGIST DIAN FOSSEY
Rwanda’s mountain gorillas would likely be extinct today were it not for the work of Dian Fossey, the legendary primatologist who was murdered in her sleep on December 26, 1985. With funding provided by the National Geographic Society, Fossey’s 18 years of research led to remarkable discoveries about mountain gorillas, and wildlife conservation tactics still being used today.
It was Fossey who graduated habituated the gorilla groups in Volcanoes National Park to human presence. She also trained locals in what she called “Active Conservation” techniques– patrolling wildlife areas to destroy poaching equipment, enforcing anti-poaching laws that had largely been ignored for 40+ years, taking census counts, and lobbying for the expansion of protected habitat.
Travelers can visit the site of her scientific base (called Karisoke because it’s located in the saddle between Mount Karisimbi and Mount Visoke), where Fossey’s final resting place is noted by a simple marker and surrounded by the graves of her beloved gorillas. The arduous trek takes 3-4 hours, which gives you a greater appreciation for her trailblazing work high in the Virungas.
You can also visit the new, modern Karisoke Research Center in Musanze, where the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund continues her work. The center employs 100+ locals in gorilla research and monitoring, as well as education, health, and economic development programs.
4. TREK TO SEE MOUNTAIN GORILLAS
Since reaching a low of around 250 individuals in the mid-‘80s, the mountain gorilla population has nearly quadrupled over the past 30 years. More than a third of them live in Volcanoes National Park, Africa’s first national park, which is home to five of the eight volcanoes in the Virunga Mountain range.
Thanks largely to the work of Dian Fossey, there are 10 habituated mountain gorilla families in Volcanoes National Park that are open to tourist visits. Trekking permits are limited to just 80 per day, and the price of those permits was doubled to $1500 in 2017. But the 60 minutes you get to spend with these gentle giants is absolutely priceless.
Hikes are moderate to difficult depending on distance and terrain, with treks ranging from 1-3 hours each way. But the rush of adrenaline you feel once your trackers lead you to a clearing in the dense bamboo forests, where you find yourself surrounded by mamas, babies and massive Silverback gorillas, is an experience you’ll never forget.
You can also arrange a trek to see endangered golden monkeys, watching up close as social groups of up to 30 feast on bamboo shoots and scamper through the treetops.
5. PRIMATE SAFARI IN NYUNGWE FOREST NATIONAL PARK
The gorillas (and, to a lesser degree, golden monkeys) of Volcanoes National Park tend to get most of the attention from nature lovers visiting Rwanda. And deservedly so! But Nyungwe Forest National Park, tucked away in the country’s southwest corner (bordering Burundi), is a little-visited gem in the heart of one of the world’s most pristine mountain rainforests.
The main attraction for us was the fact that is one of the only places where you can see habituated chimpanzees in the wild. Nothing can prepare you for the awe-inspiring sight of chimps swinging through trees or cuddling cute babies on the ground. But they’re just one of 13 different primate species found within the forest, including a troop of some 400 Ruwenzori black & white colobus monkeys.
Birdwatchers will also find lots to love here. The rainforest is home to over 300 avian species, 16 of which are endemic. There are also around 75 species of mammals found within the park.
There are also numerous excellent hiking trails in Nyungwe. The best include the Igishigishigi Trail, which leads to the Canopy Walkway– a high suspension bridge that provides incredible views of the valley and surrounding forests. Another great trail runs to the Kamiranzovu Marsh, which boasts abundant birdlife, beautiful orchids, and a waterfall.
6. VISIT THE ETHNOGRAPHIC MUSEUM
Formerly known as the National Museum of Rwanda, the Ethnographic Museum is located in Butare, about 80 miles south of Kigali. It makes for a great stop en route from the capital city to Nyungwe Forest.
The museum– one of six that make up the Institute of National Museums of Rwanda– was built in 1989 (with help from the Belgian government) to celebrate 25 years of independence. It now ranks among the finest ethnographic collections in all of Africa, providing a rare glimpse into the traditional cultures of Rwanda as it was before the era of colonialism.
The museum’s seven galleries feature a treasure trove of photos, artwork, archaeological artifacts, and cultural items. From geological displays and an exhibit on pre-colonial housing to traditional clothing, instruments, pottery, and woodwork, it’s an eye-opening look at 500 years of Rwanda history.
For around $58, the museum can also arrange a performance by the Intore dancers and drummers. If you’ve never heard traditional Rwandan music, it’s worth every penny!
7. WILDLIFE SAFARI AT AKAGERA NATIONAL PARK
Located in eastern Rwanda on the border with Tanzania, Akagera National Park is home to central Africa’s largest protected wetland. It’s also the country’s last refuge for Africa’s “Big 5” and other savannah species, as well as boasting the mountain landscapes for which Rwanda is known.
Established in 1934, the 463 square mile park fell victim to the Rwandan Civil War in the early ‘90s. Much of its savannah was settled by refugees returning home after the end of the war, and many of its animals were poached (some to local extinction). The park was reduced in size, with much of the original land allocated as farms.
But ever since the African Parks Network took over co-management in 2009, Akagera has made an extraordinary comeback. It began with a $10 million investment in increasing security (including a 74-mile fence and anti-poaching measures) and reintroducing key species. In the summer of 2015, seven lions from South Africa were introduced into the park, which hadn’t had any lions in 15 years. Two years later they introduced around 20 black rhinos, which hadn’t been seen in Akagera in more than a decade.
The result is an exceptional wildlife-viewing experience: We saw dozens of elephants, giraffes, hippos, zebras, buffalo, monkeys, birds, and even a leopard during our one-day visit in 2015. What we didn’t see was many other tourists, as Akagera is arguably the least crowded safari park we’ve ever visited. –Bret Love
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 25 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.