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Spending a few days in Rwanda: Africa’s not so hidden gem

January 17, 2022 4 Comments

Spending a few days in Rwanda will challenge any preconceived notions or subconscious biases you may have had about African countries beacuse:

In fact, in addition to the above factors, Rwanda is what I want the rest of Africa to become- a high-cost low-volume tourism destination. Furthermore, those that want their frances to have a positive impact on the country and communities they visit, will find Rwanda to be one of the best destinations for ecotourism and sustainability.

While most people come to Rwanda to do the gorilla trekking (and if you’re a citizen of the African Union you should do it here as it’s the cheapest place for us), we had done our trek in Uganda and just wanted to relax. Rwanda was the perfect place for that. 

I found Rwandan people to be extremely helpful- perhaps the most friendly of all the places I have been to- towards strangers. I never felt that we were being unfairly cheated or swindled in any way simply because we were not local. People actually went over and above to help us numerous times for which I am extremely grateful. From the police to the people in villages, I could not imagine spending a few days in Rwanda without the kindness of strangers.

Language 

Before my trip I thought I would struggle as I knew that Rwanda was a former  Belgian colony, and that for many years Kinyarwanda and French were the official languages of Rwanda. 

But upon arrival, I was surprised to learn that in 2008, the government flipped the education system on its head, dropping French as the official language and forcing all schools and universities to instruct students in English.

While I get it- every country wants to distance itself from their former colonizer- I can’t help but think of the poor teachers who one day were just expected to start teaching in English.

Nevertheless, every person I spoke to was able to communicate with me in English so there was no language barrier.

In this post I will outline my time spending a few days in Rwanda. We would’ve had longer but sadly we went to Rwanda at a time when a mandatory hotel quarantine was in place. I strongly recommend visiting when this phase has ended as it led to a lot of stress and headache which you can read about here

If you’re looking for other destinations I travelled to during the pandemic, you may want to consider my posts on Russia, Georgia, Egypt, Cyprus & Zanzibar.

Note: The flights, accommodation and activities mentioned in this post were NOT sponsored/discounted/gifted. Here is a summary of our expenses for spending a few days in Rwanda:

FIRST IT’S TIME FOR A BRIEF PPG (PANDA’S PROGRESSIVE GEOGRAPHY) LESSON!

Rwanda has been occupied by its indigenous people for as long as records have been found. In 1894, a German named Count Von Goetzen was the first European to visit Rwanda. Sadly, in 1899 the Rwandan kings agreed to become a German protectorate state. A few years later in 1915, Belgium took control of the country, because you know one colonizer just isn’t enough to rule an African country.

Based on the concept of ‘divide and conquer’, the Belgians (backed by the Germans), created an arbitrary system of classification based on how many cows a person owned. No, you read it correctly. By creating this nonsensical categorisation, they created two groups- the Hutus and the Tutsis. Through propaganda and messages from the Belgian colonial powers, the Tutsis were taught to believe that they were superior to the Hutus and for many years, were antagonistic towards their fellow countrymen. This created tension between the two African groups, which led to massive violence even before Rwanda gained its independence in July, 1962. 

The Hutu majority eventually overthrew the Tutsis- forcing many of them into exile. It seemed that their envetula goal was an ethnical cleancing i.e. genocide of the Tutsi people. In 1994, Hutu-controlled government launched propaganda through radio stations to encourage ordinary Rwandan civilians to take part in extremist killings in an attempt to wipe out the entire Tutsi people. Participants were armed with guns, grenades, machetes, clubs, knives, and other weapons, and were often given incentives and rewards (such as food and money, even land ownership) for every Tutsi that they could kill. It was wild. People were slaughtered for no reason.

It was a dark time not just for Rwanda but for the world. When you are spending a few days in Rwanda, please remember that their country was essentially decimated by this genocide and that they have worked extremely hard to get to where they are now. 

The airport code is KIG (Kigali International Airport) and they drive on the right side of the road (like the USA). 

PREPARING FOR TRAVELLING TO Rwanda

Great news: As of 1st January 2018, nationals of all countries receive a visa on arrival at Kigali International Airport and all land borders. A single entry tourist visa costs US $50 and it is valid for 30 days. You can apply and pay online if you prefer through this link.

Citizens of countries that are members to the following international organisations do not pay the visa fee and can stay for 30 days: African Union, Commonwealth and La Francophonie – 

Albania, Algeria, Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Armenia, Australia, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Belgium, Botswana, Brunei Darussalam, Burkina Faso, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Canada, Cape Verde, Cambodia, Comoros, Congo, Cyprus, Dominica, Djibouti, Egypt, Eswatini, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Fiji, France, Gabon, Grenada, Greece, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, India, Kiribati, Jamaica, Laos, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Malaysia, Malta, Mauritania, Maldives, Monaco, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Nauru, New Zealand, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Romania, Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Switzerland, Togo, Tunisia, The Bahamas, The Gambia, Tonga, Tuvalu, Trinidad and Tobago, Saint Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, United Kingdom, Vietnam, Vanuatu, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

 In addition, citizens from the following countries can stay for 90 days without having to pay the visa fee-

Angola, Benin, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic republic of Congo, The Federation of Saint Christopher and Nevis, Ghana, Guinea, Indonesia, Haiti, Mauritius, Philippines, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Sao Tome and Principe, Singapore and the State of Qatar.

Spending a few days in Rwanda is very accessible to all travellers with a valid passport!

Currency 

There are 3 forms of payment in Rwanda:

-Cash in Rwandan Francs

-Cash in US dollars

-Card payments

The vast majority of places within Kigali accepted and welcomed card payments. An exception to this was Kimironko Market but the vendors there accepted US dollars on a 1USD=100RWF basis. I also felt that there was an abundance of ATMs if you needed to withdraw, even out of the city. 

Important Covid Requirements:

Every accommodation requires a negative covid test result issued within 72 hours. This was largely annoying because that meant you had to get tested every 3 days either by PCR or Rapid Antigen. This is the same rules for any hikes at any of the national parks. It can get expensive real quick unless you budget for it.

To eat in any restaurant in Kigali, we were asked to produce our vaccination certificate against covid-19. So carry a digital or physical one with you.  Both were accepted.

DAY BY DAY ITINERARY

As I mentioned, we did spend 3 nights in hotel quarantine. But once that was over, everything mentioned below was things we did do when spending a few days in Rwanda and can personally vouch for.  I strongly recommend renting your own vehicle!

Day One 

Cooking Class at Nyamirambo Women’s Center

This was the first thing we did in Rwanda and it turned out to be my favourite. We booked our cooking class via Whatsapp (everything is via Whatsapp in East Africa) and made our way to the location. The centre is in the Nyamirambo neighbourhood, a lively area where most of the city’s Muslims live. The old district is dotted with mosques and colourful houses.

 Nyamirambo Women’s Center was founded in 2007 by women in Kigali who decided they were more socially and economically powerful together in cooperation than individually.  Now serving more a whole community, The Women’s Center addresses gender-based violence and inequality by providing women with capacity development and employment, promoting cooperation, and engaging in community-based sales and tourism.  They sell gorgeous, handmade clothes and accessories and offer a walking tour of the neighborhood in addition to their cooking class.

This experience provided something that’s rare in international travel:  a chance to meet people in their own homes, to learn from them, and to talk about each other’s lives and experiences. 

The experience kicked off with a visit to a local shop where all the vegetables were purchased. Then we headed to our chef’s home where we were taught how to cook a feast of Rwandan foods.  Chef Aminatha expertly peeled, chopped, and prepped vegetables, and she did it grandma-style: no cutting boards, no chef’s knives or gadgets; I was, without my creature comforts- embarrassingly slow and awkward at peeling a plantain.  But there was no judgement.  We sauteed, boiled, and seared perfectly, all over the flames she stoked in a charcoal brazier.  

At the end, members from the community tour came over to join our 7 dish vegetarian feast. Our lives, our cultures, human history, really, is made up of small moments like these when we share our hopes, fears, and joys, as we peel the cassava, mash the potatoes, and boil the rice that will nourish us all.

Cost: 15,000RWF each (can pay by card or cash)

Tip: Purchase from the store at the women’s centre- they have lovely, reasonably priced handmade items that make great gifts. 

Dinner at Repub Lounge

I was recommended this place by a local and it didn’t disappoint. Their large and diverse menu features grills and specialty dishes that showcase the best of East African food. They also have a lovely view overlooking Kigali so ask to sit outside. 

Day Two 

Drive to Nyungwe National Park 

We drove 5 hours to get to Gisakura Reception which was the starting point for our hike. Please note:

If you want to do a hike at Nyungwe National Park, it needs to be arranged in advance.

You can peruse their website here and reach out to them via email discussing which one you want to do (they can also make recommendations). 

We paid in advance via bank transfer before spending a few days in Rwanda but I know you can also pay onsite with your card (no cash). 

Once your booking is confirmed, they will email you to let you know which is the starting point for your hike. There are 2 and they are around 1 hour away from each other so make sure you know where you’re going! 

The route we took to Nyungwe passed by stunning scenery and Lake Kivu. Leave early because you will be stopping for photos.

We also had multiple mechanical failures in our rental car so we were glad we left extra early. In tru Rwanda fashion, many people stopped to assist us on the road and once we contacted the rental company, they sent someone to fix the car while we went on our hike.

Hike to see Ndambarare Waterfall

We had chosen to see this waterfall and so we started our hike after showing our proof of payment and negative covid result. 

You start by walking through a local tea plantation and then head into what looks like an enchanted forest. The walk to the waterfall is deceptively easy and the waterfall itself is stunning. Take a wide lens to really capture its beauty in its entirety. 

Coming back was the real challenge- steep hills one after the other. The good thing is that at nyungwe, you get your own guide and so they go at your pace. 

Total distance- 9.3kms

Total time- 3 hours round trip

Cost: $50USD each

Stay at Nyungwe Nziza Lodge

One of the standout properties we stayed at when spending a few days in Rwanda was Nyungwe Nziza Lodge. Set atop a hill overlooking the forest, the view here was spectacular. Service was excellent, the rooms were comfy and the hot shower was amazing. We splurged and went for the superior chalet, I suggest you do the same!

Day Three

Drive back to Kigali

In our newly fixed car, we made the drive back to Kigali. There are numerous petrol stations along the way for bathroom breaks as well as a few eating establishments. We did stop at one local place to eat breakfast; local dishes were on offer and we paid a whopping 1000RWF (1USD) for a large breakfast. 

Quick stop at Kimironko Market

Kimironko Market is not your stereotypical African market. First of all, there’s a place to park your vehicle and it’s in a clean indoor structure. There were no live animals (that I could see) or anything like that. Everyone spoke English and were extremely happy to assist us. I commissioned some dresses and hats to be made and they told me to come pick it up in the evening (we got there at 1pm). 

When ‘bartering’ over the price please bear in mind that the seller might accept a price below its cost price because they need cash to feed their family, so don’t push too much just to save yourself a few coins. Stay calm, be reasonable and keep a smile on your face. It’s meant to be fun!

If you need names and numbers of specific vendors, please message me on Instagram, I would be happy to share details with you (I am still in contact with the guys I met at this market!)

Genocide Memorial Center

If you do nothing else in Kigali spending a few days in Rwanda, please make this a priority. Its free to visit- you just donate an amount of your choosing which goes to genocide survivors- and will teach you so much about Rwanda. You will begin to understand the country. Just a little.

Opened a decade after the genocide, the memorial is a solemn, tear-inducing museum. With giant wall displays, archival documents, photos, video footage and weapons encased in glass, the indoor exhibit sheds light on the Rwandan genocide, as well its pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial roots. The room filled with human skulls and bones was chilling but most heart-wrenching was the children’s memorial. 

Visitors learn about the horrific policies that subjugated people, whose human rights were stripped away, and ultimately about their deaths, without losing sight of the essential fact that we are discussing fellow humans rather than just a catastrophic event.  Men hacked with machetes like cattle at the butcher. Women forced to kill their husbands before being raped and killed themselves. Children clubbed to death. You learn about it all. And it is heartbreaking.

One of the museum’s other exhibits covers various other genocides. This exhibit is not meant so much for international visitors, because there are other museums that better dedicated to those genocides. Instead, the exhibit is intended to show Rwandans that they are not alone in the experience of genocide. Other cultures and people have survived similar horrors. This is a powerful message in the fight against people’s belief of being alone in their experience, which so many survivors feel. 

Surrounding the centre are peaceful gardens for quiet reflection, created as if the developers knew visitors would need to recompose themselves after such a core-rattling experience. We ended our visit in the cafe on site to get something to eat and discuss what we had seen. Don’t miss this; it’s perhaps the most important site in Rwanda you will see.

Back to Kimironko Market

We headed for a quick stop back at the market to collect my goods (which were all ready by the way). I wish I had time to make more outfits for myself! 

Something to note is that plastic bags are banned in Rwanda, so you should take a strong bag with you to carry any shopping you may purchase. When you arrive at Kigali airport you are greeted by a sign that says: “the use of non-biodegradable polythene bags is prohibited” and any plastic bags you have in your luggage will be confiscated. Rwanda is looking to ban other types of plastic and is even hinting at the possibility of becoming the world’s first plastic-free nation. I ended up buying a large colourful odd shaped bag to put all my goods in and boy did it look weird when I saw it going around the luggage carousel in Doha! 

Caplaki Craft Village

The last stop on our itinerary was to visit this series of stores which sold handmade artisanal items from local artists. If you’re looking for souvenirs when spending a few days in Rwanda, this is THE place to shop (although you can get a few things at Kimironko, there’s not as much). One thing to note is that they only accept cash here as it goes directly to the artist (but they do accept USD). 

Kigali Airport

Our last day ended with us heading to the airport to board our Rwandair flight back to Doha. There are a lot of lengthy security checks at this airport so give yourself enough time to get there. 

Today Rwanda is known as a clean, developed country with a strong infrastructure, modern buildings and well-paved roads. There is no garbage on the streets, no dilapidated buildings, and no chaos on the roads. And it isn’t just the capital, the trend carries beyond the urban population and into the countryside. Motorcycle taxi drivers wear helmets and safety vests. Hotting was almost non-existent. There was none of the frenzy of humanity and movement we’d become accustomed to in Uganda. I felt at peace. 

There is a strong sense of community and kinship in a country that has been to hell & back in their not so recent past. I am in awe and hope that other African countries can follow suit. 

If you’re on the fence about spending a few days in Rwanda then I hope this blog post changes your mind. It’s a place I can see myself returning to time and time again. With relaxed visa policies, lush forests, never-ending rolling hills, a multitude of activities on offer and the warmest people I have encountered, Rwanda truly has my heart. 

The fact that Rwanda is relatively unexplored is yet another one of the things to make it so appealing. Lastly, I have a wealth of information on my Instagram especially in the Rwanda highlight and my reels. Do have a look. If you enjoyed this post about spending a few days in Rwanda, please pin it using the pin below:

If you have any questions about spending a few days in Rwanda, please leave them in the comments below!

expatpanda

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4 Comments

  • Diana January 19, 2022 at 6:45 am

    I’m enamored with the idea of visiting Africa so I’m really enjoying all of your recent posts! I’m learning a lot about the continent and things I might want to see and do when I’m there. Thanks!

  • higgledypiggledymom January 20, 2022 at 12:04 am

    Thanks again for letting me travel with you! The blog was beautifully photographed, narrated and I appreciated the history reminder. Sometimes colonies and former histories of them are difficult to follow but your succinct explanation was great. Stay well and safe!

  • Oliver February 19, 2022 at 4:45 pm

    Thank you for your blog. I am Rwandan who resides in India for now. You blog made me miss Rwanda more. You can come back anytime.

    • expatpanda February 20, 2022 at 6:49 am

      I hope to visit again one day. Thank you for reading 💛

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