A Fresh Perspective on Rwanda
This blog post of Rwanda travel tips shares what we didn't know before we came and learned along the way.
Since we only visited for eight nights, we're far from Rwanda travel experts. But sometimes fresh tips from a fellow novice can be handier than stale ones from a jaded expert, right? Sometimes?
Here's hoping you'll find one or two (or all twenty-seven!) of these Rwanda travel tips to be useful.
And if you come up with any tips of your own, please share them in the comments.
Tips for your Trip
These Rwanda travel tips are split into five sections. Jump to directly to any by clicking these shortcut links:
Before Going to Rwanda
✓ Get and read the Bradt guidebook
Put it this way: If Bradt decided to transform all the info from its Rwanda guidebook into a blog, you wouldn't need to read this post or any other.
It had all the information we needed for our trip—much more than you'll find anywhere online—plus bonus sections with stories and background on specific topics that added color to what we saw.
Get a copy from a friend who's been to Rwanda and has a copy, a library, your local bookstore, or Amazon.
✓ Read up (or watch up)
I was glad to have read Road Trip Rwanda (a lighter read) and We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families (dense and heavy) before visiting. And I had hoped to get through A Thousand Hills to better understand Paul Kagame and what happened after the genocide, but had a thousand other things to do before our trip and ran out of time.
✓ Understand the confusing city name situation
When it comes to the names of Rwanda's cities, you have to be kind of bilingual. (Bi-nom-ual?)
That's because in 2006 the Rwandan government got rid of its old provincial lines, redrew four new ones (North, South, East, and West), and renamed many of its cities.
Some of those city names, like Musanze over Ruhengeri close to Volcanoes National Park, have been embraced. Most others have not. For example, you're more likely to see and hear Kibuye (old) over Karongi (new) or Gisenyi (old) over Rubavu (new). For Butare (old) / Huye (new), we heard an equal mix of both.
✓ Note the exchange rate
Our hotel tried to pull a fast one on us and charge us 20 USD for a shuttle from the airport that they'd quoted us 15,000 RWF on. They said it's "approximately" the equivalent. Yeah right. At the time, 1 USD was worth 950 RWF so 15,000 RWF actually equals 15.75 USD. They overcharged us by approximately 27%.
✓ Check the travel advisories
Rwanda's as safe as everyone says but it's got a couple of unruly neighbors. And some say Rwanda's hiding some stuff in its basement that could get nasty if it got out, too.
✓ If you decide to rent a car
As far as we could tell, the only international rental car company in Rwanda is Europcar. It's overpriced and overburdened with policies like mileage limits and damage deposits.
Rent from a Rwandan company instead.
- Google "Rwanda car rental" to get the email addresses of a few companies.
- Email them for quotes. Better yet, ask them if they'll rent to you a self-drive Rav4 or equivalent for 30 USD a day. This includes additional drivers, unlimited mileage, and insurance.
- Pick whichever company offers the best rate and get their WhatsApp contact to coordinate.
- When you arrive, they'll bring the car to you. Give it a quick test drive and pay. Cash only.
- Fill it up at the nearest gas station because they'll deliver it with fumes in the tank.
- Explore Rwanda.
- Return the car in one piece and with an empty tank. Since it's a cash transaction, there's no inspection or charges for scratches or dings.
Shoutouts to Jeannine from Car Self Drive Rwanda, firstname.lastname@example.org. We had a zero-fuss experience renting from her.
✓ Pack these items
- A few hundred USD. For paying for your rental car and for emergencies.
- Water bottle. You can't drink the tap water and Rwanda's anti-plastic, so fill up your water bottle at your hotels every morning. If you're on the market for a new water bottle, get the CamelBak chute, one the rare things I'd I'd immediately buy again if I lost it.
- Clothing that covers your knees for women. Not only is this respectful, but the chances you'll be bitten by malarial mosquitos also will far lower.
- Duty-free wine. Especially if, like us, you're coming from South Africa. Wine's way overpriced in Rwanda. Even if you don't drink it makes for a good gift for your hosts.
- More warm clothes than you think. While Rwanda's just south of the equator, much of it's a mile or more above sea level and it's often misty or rainy.
- The regular stuff. See my always-evolving 57-item packing list and Kim's 15 travel essentials for more ideas on what to pack.
✓ Stay somewhere with good showers and laundry for Volcanoes National Park
After a messy adventure up and down Mount Bisoke in Volcanoes National Park were grateful our guesthouse, La Locanda, had strong warm showers, staff that offered to wash our clothes before we took off the next day, a fireplace to warm up at and dry our shoes by, and a tasty on-site restaurant.
You'll likely be grateful for the same whether you go gorilla or golden monkey trekking, hike to the Dian Fossey memorial, or up and down the volcano.
✓ Don't let Rwanda's small size fool you
With its "thousand hills," Rwanda's like a bunched up sheet of tin foil; if you were to flatten it out, it'd cover a much larger area. And the indirect roads that swerve through the hills combined with painfully slow 40km/hr speed limits make it seem bigger.
✓ Use our honest itinerary tips to decide what to squeeze in
Our Rwanda itinerary tips blog post shares our opinions on the pros and cons of the country's main areas, plus advice on what to do and where to stay in each.
Upon Arrival in Rwanda
✓ Dump your plastic bags (or hide them)
Any skeptics who claim plastic bag bans are worse for the environment should visit Rwanda, which has been bag-free since 2006. The country's lack of trash and cleanliness may just change their mind.
Rwanda takes its bag ban seriously. Agents at the airport's baggage carousels are on the lookout to confiscate whatever they can. They even took the duty-free bag our wine was in.
But they don't have plastic bag smelling dogs yet. I managed to smuggle one inside my jacket pocket, which I wanted to use for what I expected to be extremely dirty clothing after our Mount Bisoke hike in Volcanoes National Park.
✓ Get a SIM card
MTN has a booth beside the parking lot outside the arrivals terminal of the airport. If you prefer to be a bit contrarian, there's an Airtel around the corner. A SIM card costs 1,500 RWF and 1 GB of 4G data costs 1,000 RWF.
Cell reception is reliably strong just about everywhere in the country.
✓ Withdraw cash
Get cash from the ATMs outside the airport because smaller businesses in Rwanda, and even some gas stations, don't take credit cards. Or their machines "are out of batteries."
You might have to make two withdrawals because the limit is 200,000 RWF (~200 USD).
While in Rwanda
✓ Adjust your internal clock
You're going to have to wake up early for trekking in Volcanoes and Nyungwe and safaris in Akagera, so you might as well get used to it. Try to go to bed early to wake up by 6 a.m. In doing so, you'll be rewarded with more bird sightings, beautiful sunrises, longer days, and more sun (as the rain tends to arrive in the afternoon).
✓ Choose wisely between RWF and USD to save some money
Whenever you have the option of paying in Rwandan francs or US dollars, ask for the price in both currencies and pay whichever is cheaper.
For example, the park fees for our two nights in Akagera were 212 USD (50 per person per night, plus 12 for the car) or 194,000 RWF. At the true exchange rate our travel credit card uses, 194,000 RWF was only 202 USD at the time, so paying in RWF instead of USD saved us 10 bucks.
✓ Tip appropriately
The tipping situation in Rwanda is less cut-and-dry than anywhere we've traveled. There is no default rule of X% or $Y for doing Z. So we're not 100% sure about this travel tip, but you can't sue us so we'll share it anyway.
We decided to go "old school." If the service was really good, we were tipped generously. If was terrible, nothing. And, since people in Rwanda could use our money better than us, we erred on the side of generosity—But not so generously that they'd start expecting big bucks from every tourist they serve.
✓ Use Yego to know how much to pay for motorcycle taxis
To avoid paying muzungu prices for motorcycle taxis, use the Yego app to get the true price, show it to the driver if they try to overcharge you, and don't pay any more than what it says.
✓ If you're going on an Akagera safari
- Fill up before getting into the park. There are no gas stations inside.
- Drive out the north exit. It's an all-day drive from the south entrance to the north exit, but we found more animals in the open savannah up north than in the dense bush down south.
- Hire a guide. Our guide Samuel didn't have the best English and wasn't eagle-eyed (he actually had a lazy eye), but he knew a heck of a lot more than us about wildlife and could tell us where to go in the gigantic park. Hiring Samuel also gave us the chance to chat with a Rwandan for a full day. His story of surviving the genocide as a 2-year-old (his mom hid him under his shirt when she was murdered), then struggling to make it as an orphan was more memorable than any animal sighting. And the 40 USD does him and the park a lot more good than whatever we'd fritter it away on otherwise.
- Stay a night or two. Ruzizi Tented Lodge and Karenge Bush Camp let us bloggers stay for free, and they're not cheap otherwise, so our opinion may be biased, but we honestly think the experience of staying a night or two in Akagera is worth it. It gives you the chance to see more animals when they're most active in the twilight hours, the camps have beautiful settings, the staff and food's outstanding, and the sunrises, sunsets, and stars are stunning.
✓ Ask how long the food will take before ordering at restaurants
Some dishes can take well over an hour to prepare at Rwandan restaurants. If you rather not wait, ask which ones are relatively speedier. Or pre-order your meals earlier in the day at your hotel's restaurant.
✓ If you like spicy food, try the Akabanga
Akabanga is a super spicy sauce that comes in an eyedropper bottle. It's as omnipresent as salt atop Rwanda's restaurant tables and has made a one-time street vendor named Sina Gerard one of Rwanda's richest men.
Stop by Akabanga's birthplace, Nyirangarama, to get your own bottles (500 RWF) on your way between Kigali and Volcanoes National Park.
They sell Rwandan wine (7,000 RWF) and canned banana beer (1,000 RWF) there, too. We advise against wasting money on the wine and recommend getting just one can of banana beer. It may satisfy your curiosity but almost certainly won't satisfy your taste buds.
✓ Ask for avocado
Avocados abounded when we visited Rwanda in January/February. Even at a mzungu premium, we got them for 100 RWF each.
Unfortunately for us avocado fans, most of the restaurants we went to didn't offer avocado on their menus. They didn't seem to understand how much we enjoy them. But if we asked they were often able to add them to our orders.
Things Not to Do
✗ Don't drive at night
We did it once—after losing track of time post-Mount Bisoke hike—and never again.
Oncoming cars and trucks veered into our lane as if our car didn't exist and the cyclists and pedestrians on the roadside didn't seem to realize they're barely visible at night. It was terrifying.
✗ Don't speed
We learned this the hard way. We got a 25,000 RWF fine within our first hour on the road.
The speed limits change from 80 km/h to 40 to 60 with no rhyme or reason, so keep an eye on the signs. And even when it seems unreasonable to go 40 km/h, abide by the limit or pay the consequences. Speed traps are everywhere. So are children, cyclists, and other pedestrians on the street.
✗ Don't arrive in Rwanda on umuganda
Umuganda happens on the morning of the last Saturday of every month. All Rwandan citizens aged 18 to 65 are required to participate in community service and everything else closes and grinds to a halt.
It's nice to see and great for driving around because the streets are empty, but, take it from us, it's a hassle if you've just arrived in Rwanda and are trying to sort things out.
✗ Don't dig up nightmarish memories
It's hard not to be curious about what people's experiences were during the genocide, but many understandably prefer not to talk about it. Wait for them to bring it up and go to the genocide memorials around the country to learn from the displays and staff there.
✗ Don't be concerned about being the only mzungu
If you don't look Rwandan, you'll be the center of attention any time you show your face in just about any town outside of Kigali. Adults will stare. Children will sing "Ah… ah… abuzungu" ("White people!) and rush towards you. And some brave people will mosey on up to your car to peek inside.
Be a good ambassador for all of us foreigners. Wave, smile, ignore any requests for money, and say, "Muraho" ("Hello" in Kinyarwanda. Pronounced like mor-ah-ho with a Spanish-style r flip).
✓ Head to the airport 15 minutes earlier than normal
Kigali's airport has heavy security. To enter the grounds, you need to empty your vehicle, put it on a conveyor belt scanner, and go through a detector yourself.
If you happen to be flying out at a busy time, there might be a lineup. Plan accordingly, just in case.
✓ Buy some coffee and crafts
Having lived in Colombia, done professional cuppings in Kenya, and blind taste tests of coffee in Vancouver, Cape Town, and Costa Rica, we've tried a lot of coffee. And the brews we had in Rwanda are right up there with the very best. Question Coffee, whose café is in Kigali, was Kim's favorite. Pick some freshly-roasted beans up before you return home.
Help us improve these Rwanda travel tips and help other readers by leaving a comment. Ask questions we didn't answer, challenge our tips, or share your own. Don't be shy. We want to hear from you.
Have a great trip! (And don't forget to check out our three other Rwanda blog posts—links below!)