The Ultimate Backpacking Guide to Rwanda

Beautiful Rwanda
Beautiful Rwanda | Leah Feiger / © Culture Trip
Leah Feiger

Though increasingly known for luxury travel, Rwanda is also a country perfect for intrepid backpackers. With countless rolling hills, a burgeoning creative scene, plenty of volcanic hikes, and panoramic lake views, Rwanda is one of East Africa’s most fascinating and accessible countries.

The backpacker scene

Rwanda’s backpacking scene, while not as developed or well trodden as that of Southeast Asia, is on the rise. For such a small country, there’s a lot to do. From going on early morning game drives through Akagera National Park in search of lions to hiking through the canopies of Nyungwe Forest and exploring the nearby shores of Lake Kivu, the options are as beautiful as they are diverse.
Quiet travelers will find solace in the well preserved national parks, while those ready to go out can soak up all Kigali’s youthful energy. The mix of late-night dance parties in the capital city and eco retreats in the countryside – full of fresh Rwandan cuisine and stupendous sunrises – takes traveling in this country to the next level. Offering both a mix of calm introspection and raucous partying, Rwanda is still pretty new to the backpacking scene, which makes it all the better.

Rolling hills in the Karongi district

Making the most of it

There’s a lot of information about Rwanda on the internet, but a lot of it only mentions gorilla trekking and the harrowing 1994 genocide. Though climbing a volcano with these impressive primates is unbelievable and learning about Rwanda’s history at the Kigali Genocide Memorial is incredibly important, Rwanda has more to offer. Search through different guidebooks, blogs, and websites to learn about all about this country’s hidden gems and get off the beaten path. Nyungwe National Park, a spectacular green rainforest, is worthy of a visit, as are the sparkling twin lakes just north of Musanze, and Kibuye, the most charming town on Lake Kivu.

Lakeside in Kibuye

Things sometimes move a little slower in Rwanda, and that’s a good thing. Meals take a bit longer to prepare, buses don’t arrive on time, and a random downpour might delay your journey. That’s to be expected, so just make sure to leave space in your schedule when these things do happen.

Though a few things could and should be planned in advance – like a volcano trek to the top of Mount Bisoke or a group safari drive through Akagera National Park – there is no need to meticulously plan every day of the trip. Bus tickets can’t be booked in advance, weather changes all the time, and a new friend at your guesthouse in Kigali might convince you to spontaneously go visit the the southern reaches of Lake Kivu. Rwanda is a small country, and it’s really easy to plan on the fly, so take advantage of that.

Zebras in Akagera National Park

Safety

Rwanda is internationally recognized as one of the safest countries in the world. Voted the 9th safest country by the World Economic Forum and 11th safest country by a 2017 Gallup poll, this is an incredibly stable and safe place.
Tourists are welcome throughout Rwanda, from the smallest of fishing villages to the bustling city of Kigali, and violent crime against foreigners is practically nonexistent. The only thing to really watch out for is road safety. Accidents on motorcycles are unfortunately quite common, and travelers should always wear the provided helmet and make sure their driver is practicing good road etiquette.
Additionally, as in any country, when walking alone at night or in a crowded market, make sure to keep track of your valuables. Though Rwanda’s safety record is almost unparalleled, leaving a phone on the table or a purse on the back of a chair may result in an unhappy evening. That being said, Rwanda still rivals the rest of the world on its track record when it comes to overall safety.

Food and accommodation

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – Rwandan food is delicious. Brochettes (grilled meat or fish on a stick), fried sambaza (small lake fish), and ubunyobwa (a creamy peanut sauce served at lunch buffets) are all treats that can’t be missed. Big fish, another spectacular and classic Rwandan meal found most frequently in the colorful neighborhood of Nyamirambo in Kigali, is a grilled tilapia stuffed with vegetables and spices and big enough to serve three. The country’s offerings also include a whole host of spicy chili oils, fried plantains, and rich vegetable stews, making every meal a true foodie excursion.

Brochettes on the grill

International options, including pizza, sushi, and even artisanal ice cream, are also on offer, but unlike the majority of Rwandan food, these dishes can generally only be found in Kigali. That’s okay though, because you won’t want to miss out on the flavorful local cuisine while traversing the country anyway.
In terms of accommodation, there are plenty of options to suit every budget. Hostels, offering beds for as low as US$8, are available only in a few cities. However, unlike other countries on the tourist map, guesthouses are the places to be. Budget private rooms range from US$12 to US$20, and generally include breakfast as well as a lovely local ambiance. Luxury and midrange hotels (for when you really want to splurge) are also available, though prices start at around US$50 and climb all the way up to US$1,500.

Views from Home St. Jean

Making friends

Making friends in Rwanda is all about being a friendly go-getter. Chat someone up on the bus, at a bar, or at a cafe – Rwandans are notoriously friendly and usually quite happy to grab a beer or coffee with a chatty stranger. For this purpose, definitely learn a few essential Kinyarwanda phrases. This effort will go a long way to show your respect for the country and its customs.
Meeting other travelers will generally happen in Kigali at popular hostels or guesthouses. As backpacking is still new to Rwanda, there isn’t really a set trail around the country (or official pub crawls, for that matter) to hand you a group of friends right off the bat. Regardless, and possibly because the scene is still growing, the people you do meet along the way will be just as passionate and excited about exploring Rwanda as you are.

View of Kigali

Money, money, money

Rwandan Francs (RWF) are Rwanda’s main currency, though US dollars are accepted at large hotels and tourist operations in the country.
In April 2018, the exchange rate was 865 RWF to 1 US Dollar.
Though Rwanda is trying to become more credit card friendly, cash is still king outside the big cities. Credit cards are generally accepted at Kigali’s premier restaurants and hotels, though only if the machines are working and the electricity is on. ATMs are available throughout, and for those exchanging US dollars or other currencies, make sure that your bills are crisp and printed after 2009.

A meal: US$2 to US$30 (depending on what you order and where you go).
A beer: US$0.80 to US$3 (a local bar versus an international hotel).
One night at a backpacker hostel or guesthouse: US$8 to US$25.
Cheap mode of transport for inner-city travel: US$0.60 to US$2.
One hygiene/medical essential at a local shop or pharmacy: US$2 to US$5.
One affordable experience (e.g. boat ride on Lake Kivu): US$15 to US$30.

Where to go

Kigali: Rwanda’s capital city is full of life, color, and energy. Spend your time hopping between the city’s art galleries and happy hours, taking in the land of a thousand hills from the top of Mount Kigali, and exploring the vibrant markets.
Musanze: Located in the northwest of Rwanda, Musanze district is home to the twin lakes, gorilla trekking, and plenty of volcano hikes. Though the actual city is nothing to write home about, Musanze is Rwanda’s adventure capital.

Mountain gorilla

Lake Kivu: Set against lush green hills, and shared with the Democratic Republic of Congo, sparkling Lake Kivu is Rwanda’s largest lake. Take some time to kayak up the coast, hike the Congo Nile trail, or just hang out in the coastal towns of Kibuye and Gisenyi.
Akagera National Park: As Rwanda’s only big-five game park, a visit to Akagera is recommended for any first-time visitor to the region. Plus, it’s easily the cheapest park in East Africa, and camping and self-drive safaris are encouraged.
Nyungwe National Park: This spectacular rainforest is a must-see. Families of chimpanzees and many other primate species call this park home, and the bird watching opportunities are equally enticing. A variety of accommodation options are available around the park, and booking activities is very straightforward.

Rwanda’s impressive Nyungwe National Park

Bucket list experiences

Gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park: There’s nothing quite like coming face to face with this country’s beloved (and endangered) mountain gorillas. Though Rwanda’s mountain gorilla trekking might be a little out of budget for some travelers, don’t let that stop you – just pop over to neighboring Uganda or Democratic Republic of Congo for a quick overnight and cheap alternative.
Sunsets in Kibuye: Spectacular orange, pink, and red streaks light up the sky almost every night on Lake Kivu. Grab a beer, a few friends, and a patch of grass to enjoy Rwanda’s most simple pleasures by the Kibuye lakeshore. Watch the night fishermen go out just before sunset, singing traditional fishing songs and lighting gas lamps on their way to the center of the lake.
Rainforest walks in Nyungwe: Nyungwe National Park has plenty of activities, the best of which include canopy walks, waterfall hikes, and chimpanzee treks. Walking through Nyungwe, Central Africa’s largest montane rainforest, is akin to going back in time – the trees, greenery, and even the animals look almost prehistoric.

The canopy walk over the rainforest is one of the park’s highlights

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