The landlocked central African country of Rwanda has risen from the ashes of a devastating genocide, becoming a peaceful, remarkably clean nation which is most notably one of only three countries where critically endangered mountain gorillas live. Today, tourists can holiday safely here, visiting a variety of national parks, nature reserves and poignant reminders of an embattled past.
A journey through this small country will reveal thousands of lush green hills dotted with lakes, expanses of forest and rural villages. The undulating landscape - born from the gigantic tectonic movements that formed the Great Rift Valley - varies from altitudes of 900 to 4500 metres above sea level, with extinct volcanoes in the north and the spectacular Lake Kivu in the west.
The mountain gorillas can be found within pockets of high-lying montane forest in the volcanic peaks of the Virunga range in the Volcanoes National Park, reached via a two hour drive along a well-surfaced road leading from the capital of Kigali. About 30 day permits are granted per day for those who wish to see the gorillas, and visitors are required to be in good physical shape to take on the treks through the mountainous terrain and humid climate.
Once tracked down by expert guides, the magnificent primates can be viewed from as close as five metres away, behaving naturally in their tight-knit family groups. The best times to visit Rwanda for a gorilla trek are during the short dry season from mid-December to early February, or over the long dry season months of June to September.
While in the park, visitors can hike up the majestic Karasimbi or Mount Bisoke peaks, where famous naturalist Dian Fossey lived and worked. The challenging Dian Fossey Tomb Trail up Mount Bisoke leads to the grave of Fossey and the sparkling Ngezi Crater Lake. Other attractions include the 65 million year old Musanze Caves, the diverse Buhange EcoPark, as well as airy bamboo forests where elusive Golden Monkeys can be tracked down on tours.
For an interactive taste of Rwanda’s vibrant culture, pay a visit to the Iby’lwacu Cultural Village just outside the park’s borders, a place where the rituals of ancient Rwandan kingdoms can be fully experienced. At the end of the day, travellers can retire to one of several lovely lodges within the park.
In the south west corner of Rwanda, the Nyungwe National Park offers the chance to view thirteen species of primate, including chimpanzees, in one of Africa’s oldest rainforests. The birding is truly spectacular, while the beautiful terrain can be traversed by mountain biking or hiking. Take a breather at one of the several beautiful waterfalls, or embark on the canopy walkway tour which winds through the towering forest trees.
On the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lake Kivu is a place of crystal clear water, small islands and fjords, and is even home to its own palm-fringed beaches. The picturesque lakeside resort town of Kirongi is the perfect place for exploring the lake and indulging in a number of watersports. The epic Congo-Nile Trail winds along the lake for 227 kilometres and can be taken on via a 10 day hike or five day cycle. For an isolated and romantic lakeside experience, visit the smaller Lake Muhazi just east of Kigali.
Kigali is a spotless, orderly city which contains numerous memorial sites and museums that paint a poignant picture of the genocide. Other sites of interest include the Natural History Museum, the former Presidential Palace and a variety of cultural experiences.
Heading north-east to the border of Tanzania, Akagera National Park is one of the most scenic reserves to be found anywhere in Africa, encompassing papyrus swamps, savannah plains, green highlands and forest-fringed lakes. The reserve offers extraordinary game-viewing and more than 500 bird species, adding an outstanding safari element to a stay in beautiful Rwanda.