13 Life-changing Experiences You Must Have in Rwanda
There are at least as many meaningful experiences you can have in Rwanda as there are people who call it home. You’re as likely to find tourists in Rwanda searching for a luxury experience as those roughing it in campsites or seeking out the country’s famous mountain gorillas and chimpanzees–and that only scratches the surface.
Rwanda is full of promise and wonder, from historical museums that inspire to testing the culinary delights of Kigali’s celebrated chefs high above the city’s flashing lights below.
Exploring its vacation experiences will leave you emotional and enlightened. Add these thirteen meaningful experiences to your Rwanda Holiday itinerary to taste the possibilities.
1. Watching Mountain Gorillas in Volcanoes National Park
Watching mountain gorillas in the misty jungles of Volcanoes National Park is one of the most endearing vacation experiences in Rwanda. The half-day excursion takes you the closest to a human-habituated group of mountain gorillas, allowing you to exchange mutual glances.
The gorillas’ sight, hearing, and sense of smell are similar to humans, and they live as we do in identical social groups with essentially permanent family relationships. They walk around on the ground as we do, though they are immensely more powerful than we are.
If ever you want to get away from the human condition and live imaginatively in a giant ape’s world, it must be silently sitting in Rwanda’s mountain forests with gorillas. It is one of the primary reasons tourists visit Rwanda.
From Kigali, you drive about three hours northwest of the capital and spend a night in one of the forest lodges on the edge of the National Park in Kiningi. You’ll be up early the following day to make it to the visitor centre by 7:30 and start your gorilla experience.
The experience of bush-whacking through a thick jungle and sitting silently next to a 400-pound dark-furred silverback with his 15-strong family in the middle of a rainforest is immense. Imagine looking into his deep brown eyes that validate human evolution. Its quiet grunts and mysterious snufflings, the moist gnawings sounds, and the chomp of its teeth. The heaviness of its breath a few feet away from where it can smell your irrational fear caused by the belief that he is dangerous and yet so gentle as nothing you’ve ever seen. The hot flood of adrenaline, that palatable tingling in your spine.
Mountain gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park is an intense experience that will never leave you; it’s a must-do vacation activity in Rwanda.
2. Trekking the chimpanzees in Nyungwe Forest
On Rwanda’s southern frontier highlands is Nyungwe National Park, an ancient biodiversity rainforest famous for protecting chimpanzee troops. Walking in Nyungwe’s eerie jungle feels like wandering on the set of a Jurassic Park and it is one of the most life-changing experiences you will have in Rwanda.
The 394-square-mile park harbours more than a dozen primate species, a dazzling collection of plant and animal species, and an impressive spread of hiking trails. The 100-year-old trees, fern-fringed waterfalls, oversize driver ants and a cacophony of bird calls are an experience to lift the hardest heart.
The park offers one of Africa’s most revered vacation activities on a daily chimpanzee trekking excursion to walk with the charismatic chimp troops. The adventurers hike through its stellar jungles to spend one precious hour with a human-habituated chimpanzee troop.
If walking with primates is not your choice of vacation activity, the park has a network of 13 hiking trails to busy an intrepid traveller. The trails range from the 1.2-mile Karamba Trail — an excellent choice for birders — to the rigorous Mount Bigugu Trail. Vigorous trekkers can take on the four-hour Isumo Trail with gorgeous waterfalls or spend three days camping along the Congo Nile Trail.
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3. Gatecrashing the Annual Kwita Izina Gorilla Naming Festival
If festivals and culture are your kinds of vacation activities, then you’ll love gatecrashing the annual Kwita Izina Gorilla Naming Festival held in September. The festival is steeped in cultural meaning, ancient Kinyaranda customs and traditions of naming babies a few weeks after birth. Attending life-changing experiences in Rwanda as Kwita Izina Festival will give meaning to your travels in Africa.
Rwanda hosts this week-long festival of cultural activities every September to raise wildlife conservation awareness and funds. The festival contributes to protecting the country’s mountain gorillas and expanding the gorilla habitat. It’s one of the world’s most respected conservation and sustainable tourism activities.
Kwita Izina vacation activities that you would enjoy include traditional music, art, gorilla naming ceremony, dancing and performances from local students and artists. The cultural festival attracts thousands of visitors, including rangers, local communities, and conservationists alike. You’ll mingle with international dignitaries, celebrities and the country’s President at the venue near Kinigi Town, at the foothills of the Virunga Massif.
4. Staying in Rwanda’s most luxurious ecolodges
Staying in Rwanda’s most luxurious ecolodges is one of those enchanting experiences in Rwanda that evokes romantic poetry. A stack and seemingly boundless expanse of thick Volcanic hills covered in ranks of bare trees elegantly sprout above the most luxurious lodges in the world.
Endangered mountain gorillas, chimpanzees, and golden monkeys roam the boundless vista of wooded mountains unmarked by the human hand and bursting with fresh, wholesome air. It really could be heaven in Rwanda.
Rwanda’s forest lodges are made for luxury, providing seclusion and serenity while offering vacation experiences that jump off bewilderment. It’s where you can enjoy some of the world’s most famous and unique travel experiences and yet still easily escape the beaten track.
Gorilla Nest, Bisate, Virunga, and Kwitonda lodges will dazzle you with enchanting escapes when you go gorilla trekking in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. These luxury hotels relish creature comforts of the sparkling infinity pools, fresh cuisines inspired by local seasonal produce, and stimulating spas.
Their uber-funky designs portray a touch of glamour with stylish chalets that define Rwandese Afro-chic, setting the tone for Africa’s finest bush vacation resorts.
5. Emotional Tour of the Kigali Genocide Memorial.
Walking through Rwanda’s Genocide Memorial in Kigali is a powerfully emotional yet, ultimately, rewarding experience. If you have the guts for dark tourism, this is where you can begin to grasp the horror and suffering of Rwandese people and, indeed, leave with the desire to learn more about it. One of the life-changing experiences in Rwanda that bring awareness to your being.
Almost 250 000 victims of the gruesome genocide are buried within the grounds of the Memorial. The Memorial tour educates visitors about the genocide horrors through three permanent exhibitions. Also, it serves as a meaningful tribute to those who perished in the 1994 genocide.
Wander around the museum, discover the background to the horrific 100-day genocide, watch moving survivors’ video testimony, and view exhibits of gruesome crimes. The section that pays a poignant tribute to the young children who fell victim to the killers’ machetes is outstanding. Stare at life-sized photos portraying in specific detail the victims’ best toys, last words, favourite food and fight to stay alive.
The Kigali Genocide Museum, and others across the country, feature giant wall displays, photos, archival documents, video footage and weapons encased in glass.
Beautiful and serene rose gardens and cascading fountains surround the centre, providing a haven for those needing time to contemplate and compose themselves after their visit. Mass graves lie peacefully in the lush garden, covered by giant concrete plates.
The Kigali Genocide Memorial is open daily from 8 am to 5 pm, entrance is free for all, but we recommend you leave a donation of at least $10.
6. Marvel at Africa’s big five at Akagera National Park
Experience prime wildlife viewing experiences without a swarm of tourist vehicles disrupting your wilderness moments in Akagera National Park. All the big five, the lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and buffalo, live in Rwanda’s only savannah park. A private safari in Akagera National Park is a life-changing experience all visitors should have.
A safari experience in Akagera is not for the tick-off-the-list traveller but a more laid-back kind of vacation adventure. You’ll easily spot the buffalo and elephants on a game drive. Lions are remarkably relaxed but challenging to spot because of their few numbers, and guided night drives are the best way to spot shy leopards.
There is plenty of other wildlife to view on a guided drive, including zebra, giraffe, warthog, baboon, and half-a-dozen antelope species. The lakes support sizable concentrations of hippos and large crocodiles on the continent.
7. Exploring Rwanda’s Vibrant Markets
Like the rest of East Africa, Rwanda is known for its buzzing, colourful, and unique markets. Whether you’re exploring the countryside cities or within the cosmopolitan Kigali city, you’ll find exploring local markets one of the most life-changing experiences in Rwanda.
Kimironko Market, in the Kigali neighbourhood, is the busiest and most preferred market experience in Rwanda. Here, you’ll find vendors selling produce from all over East Africa and locals from across the country. From fruit and vegetables to fabric, shoes, clothing, and general household necessities.
The Kigali Cultural Village is another vacation experience you shouldn’t miss while in the capital city. The village is a traditional market space where food vendors and local artisans exhibit and trade their stuff. It also hosts regular workshops, events, festivals and music.
8. Active Adventures Along Lake Kivu
Rwanda’s best lakeside adventure activities happen alongside Lake Kivu, including the Congo Nile Trail, which is popular with many cyclists and hikers. The 227-kilometre trail traverses rainforests, bracken fields and bamboo forests, taking about ten days. However, you could walk it in small sections, giving you a chance to explore local meaningful experiences in Rwanda at a comfortable pace.
The trail is an incredible way to soak up daily life in traditional villages, tour a historic church, and swim and paddle on the lakeshore. You can also watch the making of a fresh local cup of coffee and sip some.
With twelve coffee-washing stations, three tea plantations, dozens of villages, three cities, and innumerable beaches, caves, waterfalls, valleys and the winding path of the Congo Nile Trail offers some of the finest hiking anywhere in east and central Africa.
Winding its way along the lake’s fringes via Rwanda’s lush hills, the Congo Nile Trail is as challenging as it is rewarding. It’s a serious workout to boot, with a peak elevation of 2630m.
There are campsites along the route or guesthouses in the towns for those after a bit more comfort. Refreshments are available along the trail, supplied by small shops.
9. Hiking in The Virunga Volcanoes
A range of five extinct volcanoes spanning altitudes of 2,400m to 4,507m stands tall on Rwanda’s northwestern frontier within Volcanoes National Park. The park is famous for tracking gorillas, but also a frontrunner for many meaningful wilderness experiences in Rwanda.
If you’re not up for the summit challenge but want a short off-the-beaten-track challenge, take the scenic hike on Mount Bisoke to Lake Ngezi. The 3-hour adventure experience through the meadow is relatively easy-going with the possibility of bumping into some exciting wildlife. But if you’re keen to summit Mount Bisoke, the 10-hour trail to the crater lake at the top is breathtaking.
The frequently white-capped cloud cover at the 4,507-meter Mount Karisimbi summit is a strenuous yet rewarding hike. It’s a two hike through the gorilla jungle and night camping on the trail.
Another simple hike is along the saddle area between Mount Karisimbi and Mount Bisoke to Karisoke Research Centre and Dian Fossey’s grave. It’s about a 1.5-hour walk with heartful insights into Fossey’s jungle life.
Other exciting hiking experiences in Volcanoes National Park include Mount Muhubura (4,127m), wandering in Buana Eco-Park, the caves in the Buhanga sacred forest, and Mount Kabuye at 2,700 meters.
10. Getting Your Caffeine Fix With Rwandan Coffee
Make sure you taste Rwanda’s unequivocally delicious coffee when you visit. If you’re a fan of Ethiopian and Kenyan single-origin beans, you’ll love Rwandan coffee.
Rwanda is known for its traditionally wet-processed Bourbon coffee with more complex, sweeter flavours. The coffee has bright, citrusy notes with moderate acidity, some spice, and often a rich finish.
When in Kigali, check out Question Coffee, Inzora Rooftop Cafe, and Bourbon Cafe, three coffee spots guaranteed to fix you with some of the country’s best coffee.
Question Coffee has an airy roastery on a huge cast-iron Giesen Roaster, where Question’s faintly caramel, slightly sweet coffee beans are roasted in house. The cafe offers a variety of pour-over and speciality espresso drinks, and also stocks goodies like small-batch distilled liquors made with their own beans.
The Bourbon Cafe serves coffee with a signature sweet taste with heavy overtones of caramel, cane sugar, cloves, and cinnamon. You can also taste lemon, oranges, cherries, grapes, blueberries, and raspberries fruit flavours.
11. Tea Tasting Experience at Rwanda’s Tea Plantations.
Rwanda’s countryside is covered with vast tea plantations covering rolling hills with rich green, contrasting with the blue skies, dirt roads, and sunshine. Nothing can beat a hot mug of tea on a rainy day overlooking the vast lush plantations.
Head to the Gosovu, Gisakura, or Sorwathe Tea Plantation for a guided tour, lunch and a chance to taste some of the region’s best tea. You will discover how tea is harvested, processed, and finally brewed.
12. Flying High To View Rwanda From Above
It’s hard to fully grasp the scope and beauty of Rwanda’s landscape until you’ve seen it from above. The majestic rugged terrain is best appreciated during a memorable helicopter tour above this tiny nation. This is one of those meaningful experiences in Rwanda that will leave you wanting more of the views.
Helicopters can fly much lower and slower in the sky than aeroplanes do, so you can view the landscape from a closer perspective and take in all of the beautiful details. Also, helicopters can hover in one spot, so you can linger at specific points long enough to fully appreciate all that the view offers.
Currently, Akagera Aviation is the only company that provides helicopter tours and transfers, enabling guests to witness a bird’s eye view of Rwanda’s beautiful landscape. Scenic aerial tours range from 30 minutes to two and a half hours.
13. Experiencing Rwanda Through Its Cuisine
Celebrate Rwanda’s rich food scene with its farm-to-fork ethos throughout the country, from heaving roadside stalls and markets to fine-dining restaurants in exclusive five-star lodges. It’s the best way to experience Rwanda’s culture, meet the locals and enjoy dishes unique to this beautiful country.
The best culinary action starts in Kigali, the cultural melting pot with street food. Kigali’s street food is prepared with fresh, simple ingredients and fantastic flavours. Taste the local favourites, ‘rolex’ (an omelette-stuffed chapatti), goat or beef brochettes, samosas, spicy beans, and grilled bananas.
In Rwanda, fine dining chefs work closely with local farmers to get a healthy supply of local ingredients. Lodges near the parks have their on-site plant nursery and vegetable garden, which supply the chef with fresh produce daily and help rehabilitate species endemic to Rwanda. Dishes are packed with flavour and goodness, offering an authentic taste of Rwanda.
Staying at the first-class hotels near the gorillas means incredible food experiences. Menus out here feature options like soups and stews – umufa, a traditional soup of vegetables and beans, is a popular choice.
After a gorilla excursion, guests sip on warm dawa tea, made with local black tea, lemon, ginger, honey, and masala. Taste the family-style sharing menus of local dishes like agatogo stew and bean-based ibishyimbo.
Planning a Holiday Trip to Rwanda?
Are you planning a holiday trip to see mountain gorillas and immerse yourself in some of the life-changing experiences in Rwanda? Since you’re here, look no further for help to help you plan such a trip.
Nkuringo Safaris Ltd, tailor-making holiday journeys in Uganda and Rwanda since 2007, has a reputation for pulling off some of the most highly-rated vacation experiences. Our local consultants plan with you your prefered itinerary using expert ground knowledge. We take care of all the local logistics like permits, accommodation, and transport. And also, manage your entire trip, from start to finish.
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