The east African country of Rwanda is located in the centre of the Albertine Rift in the western section of Africa’s Rift Valley. The undulating hilly and mountainous terrain has earned it the nickname “Land of a Thousand Hills”. It is a tiny, landlocked country with rainforest on the western heights and heavily cultivated fields in the valleys below. From the centre, the land slopes away to the savanna and marshes of the east. The legendary Virunga Mountains in the north east are home to volcanoes, swathes of cloud forest and half the world’s total population of critically endangered mountain gorillas. To the west lies Lake Kivu, one of the world’s deepest lakes, with a depth of 475 metres (1 558 ft).

For many people, Rwanda’s name often evokes memories of the horrific genocide that brutalised the country in 1994, but today the country is a world-away from the nightmare that engulfed it. This beautiful African country is the premiere destination for gorilla tracking; its cities are vibrant with a charming small-town feel about them, smart lodges are cropping up in the mountainous national parks and the safari scene is still gloriously under-the-radar.

Rwanda's Climate

Rwanda is located just south of the Equator and thus a pleasantly warm climate is enjoyed all year round. This means that it can be visited and enjoyed any time of the year. Because most of the country is located on a plateau, around 1 500 metres (5 000 feet) above sea level, cool nights are to be expected. The altitude decreases below one thousand metres (3 300 feet) only in the westernmost part, along the Rusizi River, and is, therefore, the only area where it can get hot, and the temperature can sometimes reach 35°C (95°F). On average the temperatures are around 24°C (75°F), except for in the higher mountain areas where it ranges from 10°C to 15°C (50°F to 60°F).

Rwanda’s dry season is from mid-May to mid-October and is the best time to track, hike and mountain climb. The rainy season takes place the rest of the year from mid-October to mid-May. The Northeast has a lot more rain due to the volcanoes being covered in rainforest. Karisimbi (the highest peak in Rwanda at 2,507 meters) is usually covered with snow.

  • Impressive diversity Conservation of endemic fauna and flora play a major role in the Volcanoes, Akagera and Nyungwe National Parks. Aside from more than a thousand plant species, 670 bird species and myriad reptiles and amphibians, Rwanda boasts some 151 mammal species, amongst which 15 are primates.
  • Kigali’s charm The vibrant capital of Rwanda, located near the nation's geographic centre, has a charming, small-town feel where people still find the time to stop and chat on street corners. Also a great treat for foodies who want to try out the local market produce.
  • Akagera National Park Enjoy the resurgence of wildlife like zebras, impalas, topis, giraffes, masses of hippos, crocodiles and even elephants, lions and rhinos.
  • Gorilla Tracking Track and observe family groups of Mountain Gorillas of the Virunga Massif, overseen by massive silverbacks, for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
  • Cultural experiences Visit Iby’iwacu Cultural Village – a non-profit organisation aimed at improving the lives of communities around Volcanos National Park. This is a great opportunity to engage with and understand Rwandan traditions and culture.
  • Primate Tracking Additional tracking opportunities are available, see three more species of primate: chimpanzees, black-and-white colobus monkeys as well as the endangered Golden Monkey.
  • The Congo Nile Trail For an “off the beaten path adventure”, hike or bike along 227 km (141 miles) of beautiful landscapes, including rolling hills and the clear water of Lake Kivu.
  • Lake Kivu Visit one of a string of huge freshwater lakes which are known as Africa’s Great Lakes of the African Rift Valley.
  • Time for Tea, or coffee Tea is Rwanda’s largest export and a visit to a tea plantation makes for a great family trip to view tea leaves covering the mountains. Alternatively for coffee lovers, there's the harvest season between February and May to look out for when the coffee cherries blush a deep cranberry red, ready for picking.
  • Great for bird enthusiasts Rwanda is amongst Africa's most excellent birding destinations with over 701 bird species, of which 27 are Albertine Rift endemics. This includes the Red-Faced Barbet, Shoebill Stork, Bennett’s Woodpecker, Papyrus Gonolek and the Miombo Wren-Warblers.
  • Capital: Kigali
  • Language: The three official languages are Kinyarwanda, French and English.
  • Currency: Rwandan franc. There are ATMs throughout Kigali which are accessible to visitors. Credit cards are accepted in some upper-market restaurants and hotels, but it is best to confirm prior to ordering.
  • Electricity: Electricity in Rwanda is 230 Volts. If you have a device that does not accept 230 Volts at 50 Hertz, you will need a voltage converter. Plugs in Rwanda generally have two round pins.
  • Airports: Kigali International Airport is located at Kanombe which is 10 km east of Kigali's city centre. Given its small size, Rwanda is well connected to other major transport hubs in Africa (Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Entebbe, Bujumbura, Kilimanjaro, Brazzaville, Douala, Libreville, Mombasa, Mwanza, Dar es Salaam, Juba, Lagos, Lusaka), as well as a few European capitals including Brussels and Amsterdam. RwandAir, Rwanda's national carrier, flies to/from Accra (Ghana), Brussels (Belgium), Bujumbura (Burundi), Brazzaville (Congo), Cotonou (Benin), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Douala (Cameroon), Dubai (UAE), Entebbe (Uganda), Harare (Zimbabwe), Johannesburg (South Africa), Juba (South Sudan), Kilimanjaro (Tanzania), Lagos (Nigeria), Libreville (Gabon), London (UK), Lusaka (Zambia), Mombasa (Kenya), Mumbai (India) and Nairobi (Kenya). It has a good safety record.

    When to go: June and July are the best months to go as they are the driest. For Gorilla Tracking: June to August and mid-December to mid-March is the perfect climate to head to the national parks and for gorilla/chimp tracking. These periods offer the easiest hiking conditions and the lowest malaria risk. September is a good month to go hiking and to experience the Kwita Izina ceremony when the baby gorillas are named. April to May can be rainy, but few travellers mean that gorilla permits are easier to obtain. For Chimpanzee trekking: Mid-February to early June and mid-September to mid-December is the best time to see chimpanzees in Nyungwe, and then they are easier to locate. Food is harder to find in the dry season and the chimp families often range far into the forest interior.

    What to wear: In winter between June and August, wear clothes suitable for spring/autumn i.e. light during the day, with a sweater and/or jacket for the evening. A sun hat and hiking shoes are essential. As for the rest of the year: spring/autumn clothes should be worn as above, i.e. light clothing during the day, with a sweatshirt, raincoat, hiking shoes, and a light jacket for the evening above 1 500 metres (5 000 feet). For the Virunga Mountains, warm clothes, down jacket, hat and gloves should be worn.
  • Area: Rwanda is a landlocked East African country with a total land area of 26 338 km2 (10 169 sq. miles) and is considered the most densely populated country in Africa. Its green, mountainous landscape has earned it the nickname “Land of a Thousand Hills.” Located in the centre of the Albertine Rift on the western section of Africa’s Rift Valley means the country supports amazing diversity and endemism, from scenery and habitats to fauna and flora. Most of the country is located on a plateau, around 1 500 metres (5 000 feet) above sea level. The altitude decreases below one thousand metres (3,300 feet) only in the westernmost part, along the Rusizi River. It borders Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Tanzania. Rwanda rises from relatively flat plains in the east along the Tanzania border to steep mountains in the west along the continental divide between the Congo and Nile rivers. From the continental divide, the land drops sharply to the shores of Lake Kivu, which forms most of Rwanda's border with Congo. A range of high volcanoes forms Rwanda's northwest border.

    Getting Around: Car hire isn’t well established in Rwanda, but there are plenty of small local agencies in Kigali that can organise something. The road network is good by African standards and cars are suitable for most of the country’s main roads. You will need a 4x4 if you are planning to explore Akagera National Park. Taxis are only really necessary in Kigali, though taxis are available in most other major towns. Most towns are compact enough to walk around, but otherwise, a moto-taxi is a good bet. They’re generally fast but safe, and there’s nearly always a helmet for the passenger. Cycling is possible and common amongst locals, but bear in mind that Rwanda is an exceptionally hilly country. Rwanda has efficient and reliable public transport. Privately run buses cover the entire country and, with scheduled departure times, you won’t find yourself waiting for hours while the driver scouts for more passengers. Tickets are bought in advance from a ticket office, which is usually the point of departure. You will also find plenty of well-maintained, modern minibuses serving all the main routes. Head to the bus stand in any town between dawn and about 3 pm and it is quite easy to find one heading to Kigali and nearby towns. Destinations are displayed in the front window and the fares are fixed.
  • Kigali The capital of Rwanda, has a central location making it a great base from which to explore the rest of the country. It has a population of about 1 million and is popularly known as “Africa’s cleanest city”. It lies at 1 500 metres (5 000 feet) above sea level, and was built across several of Rwanda's thousand hills. It is notable for its cleanliness, orderliness and hospitality, and has many fine cafes, bars and restaurants, as well as markets and handicrafts shops.

    Akagera National Park The park provides a traditional East African safari in a Rwandan setting. It is located around 1 300 metres (4 200 feet) above sea level in the savannah landscape along the country's eastern border with Tanzania. The park was severely battered during the 1990s genocide, but since then has been amazingly rescued from oblivion. They have successfully reintroduced lion and black rhino.

    Other wildlife include zebra, elephant, hippos and a range of antelope like chestnut-coated impala, oribi, topi and eland. With over 500 bird species, including the bizarre shoebill stork and red-faced barbets, this is a birder’s paradise. The area is still virgin safari territory with very few other vehicles around at any one time.

    Rusizi Formerly Cyangugu, this city in the south is the most remote and least-visited port town.

    Karongi Formerly known as Kibuye, Karongi is located towards the centre of the lake district and has steep hills that fall into the deep green waters and the indented shoreline, and is an extremely picturesque city.

    Rubavu Formerly known as Gisenyi, Rubavu, is on the northern shores and is one of Rwanda's loveliest spots and the closest this landlocked country has to a beach resort. It has stunning views of the Virunga volcanoes and is unsurprisingly a popular destination for wealthy Rwandans, expats and independent travellers alike. For adventure-seekers, go on a boat tour, take a kayak excursion or hit the Congo Nile Trail on foot or bicycle.

    Lake Kivu The lake runs for 100 km along Rwanda's western border with the Congo and is Africa's highest lake at 1 460 m. It is also one of the deepest bodies of fresh water in the world and one of the enormous East African Great Lakes that line the Great Rift Valley. The lakeside towns of Rubavu, Karongi and Rusizi are popular places for rest and recreation between safaris and trekking.
  • Volcanoes National Park At 16 000 hectares / 40 000 acres, the park, also known locally as PNV (Parc National des Volcans) lies in the north-west of the country along the Virunga Mountains. It is part of the Virunga Massif (44 800 hectare/110 000 acre) - which is home to six towering extinct volcanoes - and makes up a conservation area that is a World Heritage Site. The area is home to some 480 mountain gorillas and is Rwanda’s premier tourist attraction. People come from far and wide for the thrill to trek to a gorilla family living in the cloud forests of the Virunga volcanoes, and spend time in close proximity observing these remarkable creatures. Interestingly enough, gorillas are vegans and they eat leaves, flowers, shoots and stems. Much of their time is spent grazing and a big male needs to consume around 34 kg / 75 lbs a day.

    The landscape is dramatic and offers thrilling hiking, including the possibility of a day hike to Karisoke Research Station and Dian Fossey’s grave. Fossey (1932 - 1985) was an American zoologist, a legendary scientist and a gorilla advocate who lived and died studying and protecting the gorillas. She lies buried next to her favourite gorilla, Digit.

    For wildlife enthusiasts, there is also tracking to see the endangered Golden monkeys from the Volcanoes national park. There are two habituated golden monkeys’ troops that are available for visiting both of which make about 80 members.

    Nyungwe Forest National Park The park is in the southwest of the country, covering an area of around 102 000 hectares (252 047 acres) and is Rwanda’s most important area of biodiversity. There exist no fewer than 1 000 plant species (including orchids), 75 mammal species, over 300 species of birds and an astounding 120 species of butterflies. Primates are the main attraction here, with some 13 species identified swinging through its branches. These include mona monkeys, silver monkeys, a huge troop of colobus, secretive owl-faced monkeys (which haunt the bamboo groves in the south), and L’Hoest’s monkeys, whose mature males are blessed with bright-blue testicles.

    Nyungwe's strongest drawcard is the chance to track chimpanzees, which have been habituated over the years to human visits. Another highlight is the simple pleasure of hiking along well-maintained trails over the lush, green valleys of the equatorial rainforest. Nyungwe has been rated the highest priority for forest conservation in Africa and its protected area covers one of the oldest rainforests in Africa.

Destinations in Rwanda