Imagine embarking on an unforgettable journey through the captivating landscapes of Rwanda. From the heart-wrenching stories of the past to the awe-inspiring encounters with wildlife, this trip was truly a remarkable experience. My husband and I were blessed to do a 10-day trip to this magnificent country. Our first trip ever to Africa! When we told people in Rwanda that it was our first time in Africa, they were truly shocked that we chose their country to visit first. Most people head south for Safari and to see the masses of wild animals. What they don’t know is this hidden gem of 1,000 hills has it all and more! Safaris, luxury accommodations, relaxation on the water, amazing culinary treats, and Gorillas! One of only 3 countries in the world where you can see them! Read on to hear about all of our magical encounters!
Day 1: Arrival in Kigali – Before even being allowed to disembark the plane, our stewardess told us that if we had any plastic bags, we were to leave them behind on the plane. Rwanda banned single-use plastic bags in 2006. Upon arriving in the vibrant capital of Rwanda, we were greeted by our guide to help us through the express line for customs. While we waited in the lounge to get our visas, we marveled that we were about to embark on this journey. We checked into our hotel, the Kigali Marriott Hotel, which would become a home base where we would be welcomed back each time. Eager to begin our exploration of this culturally rich country, we finally settled down to get some sleep.
Day 2: A Journey Through History and Wildlife - To truly understand the essence of Rwanda, we started our day with a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. It was a poignant reminder of the resilience and unity of the Rwandan people. I grabbed an African coffee at the Memorial cafe, where I was treated to beautiful latte art on my coffee! Trust me, you must try African coffee when in Rwanda. We then embarked on a three-hour drive to Akagera National Park.
Akagera National Park welcomed us with open arms or rather baboons! They were everywhere and happy to sit in the middle of the road. Our first adventure was a safari boat ride on the tranquil Lake Ihema. As we sailed through the waters, our eyes widened at the sight of the largest crocodile we had ever seen as it meandered off the bank and dipped into the water just in front of our boat! We also encountered majestic elephants, graceful cape buffalo, hippos, and an array of vibrant bird species. Rwanda's birdlife is truly awe-inspiring, with over 700 different types of birds, including 30 species endemic to the country.
As the sun began to set, we checked into Akagera Game Lodge, a tranquil retreat nestled within the park. After a delectable dinner, we embarked on a night drive guided by a skilled spotter. The darkness enveloped us as we ventured deeper into the wilderness. The spotter's flashlight illuminated pairs of glowing eyes, revealing the presence of nocturnal creatures. We were captivated by the cape buffalo up close and right next to our vehicle and the exhilarating encounter with a lone elephant blocking our path. Having to change course since the elephant would not let us pass, we stumbled upon a leopard stealthily hunting its prey. Hidden in the tall grass, it blended seamlessly into its surroundings. The tension in the air was palpable as we witnessed the leopard stalking a herd of Impalas. Just when we were getting ready to leave the leopard, we saw the hyenas start to move in, slowly pushing the Impalas closer to the waiting leopard. As the clock ticked towards 8:30 pm, we reluctantly had to bid farewell to the wilderness as we had to be off the road by 8:30. Our hearts were filled with a sense of gratitude for the incredible wildlife encounters and the natural wonders we had witnessed.
Day 3: A Journey to the Northern part of Akagera National Park - On day three, we embarked on a game drive to the northernmost part of Akagera National Park, which is known for its stunning landscapes and diverse wildlife. Typically, visitors would spend the night in this area due to its remote location, but we decided to venture up and back in a day. On our way, we stopped to see hippos cooling in the water and watched two young ones annoy their mom, just like in real life! As we pulled away and rounded a corner we were stopped by a herd of elephants. As they slowly came towards us we watched as the herd moved to surround the babies, protecting them from our view.
Our destination was Karenge Bush Camp, a tented camp boasting breathtaking views of the plains, including from the bathrooms themselves (there are no doors, just you and nature)!
As we descended from the bush camp into the vast expanse of the plain, an incredible sight awaited us. We came across three magnificent male lions lounging lazily under the African sun. Witnessing these majestic creatures rise, stretch, and then flop down next to their companions was a true spectacle of nature's grandeur.
Day 4: Exploring Akagera from Behind the Scenes - Day four offered us a unique opportunity to go behind the scenes and learn more about the park service at Akagera. We experienced firsthand how the dedicated rangers track and monitor the park's wildlife, ensuring their well-being and protecting them from potential threats such as poaching. We were also treated to a demonstration by the K-9 unit, showcasing the exceptional skills of their trained dogs in safeguarding the park's treasured animals.
As our time in Akagera National Park came to a close, we embarked on a remarkable drive through the park's magnificent landscapes. Akagera is renowned for being part of the "big five" safari experience, which includes the lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and African buffalo. Remarkably, we encountered all of these magnificent creatures except the elusive rhino, making our safari an incredibly lucky and memorable experience.
Day 5: Exploring history - On day five, we set our sights on exploring the vibrant history and culture of Rwanda. Our first stop was the King's Palace Museum in Nyanza, where we were warmly greeted and shown around by our knowledgeable guide. Here, we delved into the stories and traditions of Rwanda's past, exploring life through the lens of the country's kings. Here, we also got to meet the Inyambo cows. These cows hold cultural and historical significance in Rwanda as they were traditionally kept by kings. Known for their impressive horns and rhythmic dancing displays, they showcased the splendor and authority of the monarchy during traditional ceremonies and state occasions.
Originally, we had planned to visit Nyungwe National Park for a thrilling canopy tour, but the rain had a different plan for us. Adapting to the unpredictable weather, we decided to check into One and Only Nyungwe, a heavenly retreat. The staff beats traditional African drums as you drive up to the resort to welcome you. This resort is luxury at its finest. Set on the rolling hills of a working tea plantation, the staff pampers you. One thing we were told was not to leave our patio doors open as the monkeys come in to try to steal the fruit. We could see them jumping from tree to tree from our balcony!
We embarked on a crop-to-cup tour, discovering how to pick the best tea leaves, the secrets of tea production, and tasting different varieties. The highlight of our visit was the performance by the Intore dancers—a vibrant group of mothers and children whose infectious smiles and graceful moves left us in awe. They graciously invited us to join in the dance, creating unforgettable memories.
One thing that a lot of people do from this location is to go Chimpanzee trekking. We did not have enough time for this, but will definitely be back to do it! It's a very early morning wake-up call as you set off normally around 4 am. If you have time, it is worth adding this to your itinerary!
Day 6: A view from the tree tops – On day six, we started with breakfast in the Tea Garden at One and Only Nyungwe. With the mist rising around us, we relaxed as the weather finally cleared, allowing us to embark on our eagerly awaited canopy tour in Nyungwe National Park. The views from the hanging bridge were breathtaking, and the moderate hike amongst the verdant canopy immersed us in the splendor of Rwanda's natural wonder. We also got a special surprise as we were hiking out: a group of Silver Monkeys jumped across our path!
Our journey then took us to Volcanoes National Park, where we checked into Five Volcanoes Hotel, a true gem. The hotel's inviting main lodge brought together travelers from around the world, where we listened to stories of their thrilling gorilla trekking adventures. Let me tell you, the food here was so delicious, if I could ever get a recipe book from here, I would! As there was a bit of a chill in the air they would bring coal heaters placed around the dining room to keep us toasty! We were happy, well-fed, and all set to experience a close encounter with these magnificent creatures.
Day 7: Gorilla Trekking Adventure - Gorilla trekking is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that offers a rare glimpse into the world of these gentle giants. Rwanda has taken measures to protect its gorillas while also helping the communities around them. When gorilla trekking, you have the option to take a porter. Typically, everyone does hire a porter. These are locals, and a typical tip is $10-$15. They will carry your backpack or help you if you need assistance. For those who can’t make the trek, you can even hire porters to carry you on a stretcher! These porters have gone through training and know the areas well. Your tips help feed their families and have decreased poaching. Gorilla trekking in Rwanda is not cheap at $1,500 per person. They allow 8 people in each trekking group, and there are 12 families currently to visit. That’s it, 96 permits a day. Each group gets to spend 1 hour with their gorilla group once they hike to find them (you may hike for a few hours). This is to protect the gorillas and not constantly disturb them.
Accompanied by our experienced guides and porters, we set out on a thrilling trek through the lush forests of Volcanoes National Park. The anticipation grew as we climbed over and under bamboo and brush, making our way closer to the gorilla family. And then, there they were—gorillas in their natural habitat, going about their daily routines, completely unfazed by our presence! The connection we felt in that close proximity was indescribable, a pinch-me moment, as they say. Every minute of the hour we spent with them I kept saying I can’t believe I’m here. Honestly, they were SO close! We watched the Sousa family of gorillas resting after their morning meal. As I stood there, a mom with a baby on her back started walking towards me. Our guide instructed me to back up, and the mom walked right in front of me where I had just been standing as the baby curiously looked at me! Our adventure wasn’t over yet, though! As we moved back into position to continue to soak up this moment there was a rustling to our right. Slowly, a Silverback emerged out of the jungle and stood mere feet from us. Our guide told us to form a straight line so that he could go into the clearing and join the rest of the family. However, he had other ideas and wanted to check on the gorillas behind us. As he started to move towards us our guide told us to split our line, 4 on one side and 4 on the other. My husband turned to make a hole for him, and he brushed right past him! This hour went by so fast, but also was made up of all these mini moments that I will never forget. Watching the babies wrestle and play, watching the gorillas walk past us, the unique faces and expressions of each gorilla are seared into my mind as I sat in that moment,
thankful for this amazing experience.
Day 8: Golden Monkey Trekking - Another Unforgettable Encounter On day eight of our Rwandan adventure, we had the incredible opportunity to embark on a golden monkey trekking experience. These lively and playful primates are so accustomed to human presence that they go about their daily activities with no fear or hesitation. The encounter with the golden monkeys was nothing short of magical. Our tour began with a short hike to the forest, guided by our knowledgeable and experienced trekking guide, Patience. As we ventured deeper into their territory, a sense of anticipation and excitement filled the air. And then, a sudden burst of commotion ensued. The mischievous monkeys had inadvertently disturbed a bees' nest, causing a frenzied buzz and prompting our guide to quickly shout, "Run!" Laughter mingled with the adrenaline rush as we dashed to safety, experiencing a unique blend of adventure and a lesson in avoiding nature's little surprises. Thankfully, none of us were harmed, and it only added to the thrill and camaraderie of the trekking experience.
Once the chaos settled, we regrouped and resumed our exploration of the mesmerizing golden monkeys. They playfully darted around us, sometimes passing right by our legs or perching on nearby branches, oblivious to our presence. Observing their lively interactions in a 360-degree environment where you were surrounded by the sight and sound of monkeys and the jungle was a movie moment. As the trek came to an end, we couldn't help but feel a sense of gratitude for a trekking experience that was yet again another unforgettable chapter in our Rwandan adventure.
Day 9: Exploring Eco-Friendly Resorts and Engaging Conversations - On our ninth day in Rwanda, we embarked on a unique tour of different hotels that showcased the country's commitment to sustainability, conservation, and community engagement. Our first stop was Bisate Lodge, an eco-friendly resort that exemplifies Rwanda's dedication to protecting its resources. Nestled in the captivating foothills of the Virunga Mountains, it offers a luxurious and immersive experience for its guests. What sets Bisate Lodge apart is its commitment to environmental sustainability and the preservation of Rwanda's critically endangered Mountain Gorillas. The lodge incorporates innovative design and construction techniques that minimize its ecological footprint while providing a high level of comfort and luxury. The lodge also plays a significant role in gorilla conservation efforts, working closely with local communities and authorities to ensure the protection and well-being of these magnificent creatures.
Our next stop on the hotel tour was Amakoro Songa Lodge, another exceptional establishment that combines luxury with sustainability. Amakoro Songa Lodge is renowned for its commitment to conservation and community empowerment. As we explored the grounds, we learned about their innovative approach to responsible tourism and conservation projects.
Amakoro Songa Lodge strives to create meaningful connections between guests and the local communities, leaving them with lifelong memories and a sense of cultural appreciation. Guests are invited to plant a tree as part of their stay, contributing to reforestation efforts and creating a lasting positive impact on the environment. We were honored to be invited to plant a tree. Everyone names their tree, and they keep a record of all the trees planted, guests, and the tree names. We named our "Murungo," which means home because this was quickly becoming a place that felt like home. It was such a rewarding experience to feel like we had given back on this incredible trip.
Our hotel tour continued with a visit to Bishop House, a boutique hotel, where we unexpectedly had the opportunity to engage in a meaningful conversation with a general from the Rwandan army. It was an extraordinary encounter that reflected the warmth and hospitality of the Rwandan people. The general's genuine interest in our background, perspectives, and thoughts on the country left a lasting impression, showcasing the openness and approachability of Rwandans.
As we concluded our tour of the fascinating hotels, we were inspired by how these establishments exemplify Rwanda's commitment to responsible tourism and serve as beacons of hope for a brighter, more sustainable future.
Day 10: A Culinary Adventure and Cultural Exploration - On our tenth day in Rwanda, we embarked on a culinary journey courtesy of the Nyamirambo Women's Center, an organization that aims to empower local women and promote social change. Our guide for the day, Aminatha, warmly welcomed us into her world and introduced us to the vibrant essence of Rwandan cuisine. Our first stop was the local market, where we joined Aminatha in selecting fresh ingredients for our cooking adventure. Potatoes, dodo, carrots, Inyamunyo (plantains), and onions. It was a captivating experience to engage with the local vendors, learn about their products, and see stores in a different way while soaking in the lively ambiance of the market.
With our baskets full of ingredients, we continued to Aminatha's home, where we eagerly began our culinary preparations. Traditional coal stoves awaited us in the charming courtyard, offering a unique and authentic cooking experience. Together, we chopped, sliced, diced, and stirred, guided by Aminatha's expertise and passion for the flavors of Rwanda.
The air was filled with the smells of our feast. The best part was knowing that the delicious meal we were preparing would eventually be shared with other friends and families in the community, embodying the spirit of togetherness and generosity.
The Nyamirambo Women's Center's mission serves as a platform for empowering Rwandan women, specifically those from marginalized communities. Through various programs and initiatives, the center provides education, vocational training, and support in entrepreneurship to help women gain financial independence and elevate their status within society. The center also acts as a cultural hub, offering immersive experiences that allow visitors to interact with local women and learn about the rich culture and traditions of Rwanda. Aminatha is a great example of this as this has helped her achieve being able to put her children through school by offering these cooking classes.
After our cooking class, we embarked on a visit to the bustling Kimironko Market, known as one of the largest markets in Rwanda. Here, we wandered through hundreds of stalls offering an array of food, traditional crafts, textiles, and other unique souvenirs. It was the perfect opportunity to find special gifts for our loved ones back home.
To further enrich our cultural exploration, we visited an intriguing art installation, immersing ourselves in the creative expression of local Rwandan artists. The captivating displays and thought-provoking pieces provided an insight into the country's thriving art scene and its ability to convey stories, emotions, and societal messages.
To conclude our remarkable day, we enjoyed a delightful dinner, savoring the flavors of Rwanda once again. Our wonderful friends and guide graciously accompanied us and ensured we were well taken care of until the very end. As they bid us farewell, we felt a deep sense of gratitude for the remarkable experiences and memories we had collected throughout our Rwandan adventure.
As we embarked on our journey back home, we carried with us not only the souvenirs we purchased but also the profound connections we made with the people, culture, and beauty of Rwanda. It was a transformative experience that will forever hold a special place in our hearts.