"What's Rwanda Like?"
Everyone Kim and I talked to about visiting Rwanda asked us the same question, "What's Rwanda like?"
Our short answer: Lush, peaceful, and populated.
Lush because the whole country looks like a deep green garden grown in a steamy greenhouse back home. Peaceful because the roads are relaxed, chaos is minimal, and safety is complete. And populated because, aside from the few national parks, every one of Rwanda's 1,000 hills is heavily hutted.
"But is Rwanda worth visiting?"
That takes longer to answer. And it depends.
Here's our honest opinion on the pros and cons of visiting Rwanda to help decide for yourself.
Pros and Cons of Visiting Rwanda
✓ Pro: Gorillas
Let's get this out of the way first.
The chance to hang with mountain gorillas is, of course, the main reason people decide visiting Rwanda's worth it. Even if you prefer to pay $600 to see them in Uganda or $450 in the DRC rather than $1,500 in Rwanda, Rwanda's so close that it's worth tacking onto your trip.
✗ Con: Rwandan Food
Let's just say Kim was in no hurry to buy a Rwandan recipe book after our trip.
Unless we went very high end or stayed in Kigali, we found that the great ingredients from all the gardens we saw had yet to make their way onto restaurant plates.
Not only that, the food takes forever. Waits of over an hour for a la carte orders are commonplace. One restaurant in Kibuye even arranged its menu by how long you should expect to wait.
✓ Pro: Great Coffee
Before visiting, we knew coffee was one of Rwanda's top exports, but we didn't think it was Colombia or anything…
And then we had our first sip at our hotel in Kigali.
It tasted like Rwanda looks: lush, fruity, colorful. From then on, we looked forward to and looked out for cafés all along our road trip. And we brought four bags of beans back home to Cape Town.
The only downside is cups of coffee are inexplicably expensive. They cost nearly as much as they do in the countries Rwanda exports its beans to: 1,500 to 3000 RWF (1.50 to 3 USD). The exception is Café Connexion in Huye, which is on the admirable mission to get Rwandan people drinking Rwandan coffee and only charges 500 RWF.
✓ Pro: Cleanliness
Maybe it's party due to the plastic bag ban that's been in effect since 2006. And maybe Umuganda, the obligatory community service (mostly cleaning) that all Rwandans have to participate in on the last Saturday of each month, plays a role.
Whatever the reason, Rwandans keep their country spic and span. It's the rare African country that will meet the cleanliness standards of most neat freaks and germaphobes.
To give you an idea of how fastidious Rwandans are, we regularly saw women bent over at the waist (as they do in the country rather than bend their knees) picking debris out of the gravel alongside the highways.
✗ Con: Maybe Too Sterile
This blog post by Travel Cake sums it up well:
"The disappointed travellers I spoke to were looking for something Rwanda is not. They were looking for the raw, authentic, traditional Africa. They found Rwanda too clean, too sterile, too modern and too Westernised. Although these things are true, I found it rather refreshing to see a different Africa! A progressive Africa that is quickly moving forward, that is considerate towards the environment, that values expression through art, where things are going well- at least on the surface."
✓ Pro: Quality Arts and Crafts
Just about every town we went through had an arts and crafts cooperative where you can peruse and purchase handmade imigongo cow dung art, Rwanda's most famous traditional artwork, ceramics, weaving, paintings, and carvings. And you can watch them making it.
✓ Pro: An Ideal South Africa Visa Run Destination
This is a niche reason to visit Rwanda, but for people like us who want to stay in South Africa for more than 90 days, it's an important one.
No matter what you end up thinking about Rwanda, a quick holiday there's much more pleasurable than going through the uncertain and extensive rigamarole of extending your South African tourist visa like we did last year.
RwandAir flights from Cape Town are reasonably-priced and direct(-ish. They stop over in Harare, but you stay in the plane.) Rwanda's small size makes it easy to explore in a week (see our itinerary advice). And, most crucially, immigration agents didn't bat an eye before giving us 90 more days when we returned to South Africa.
✓ Pro/✗ Con: The Weather
We went during the supposed short dry season in January and broke out our rain jackets (4 times) infinitely more times than our sunscreen (0 times). The misty and wet weather didn't slow us down too much, but hikes were muddy and we never got a crystal clear view of the horizons of hills and volcanoes Rwanda's famous for.
But if you go during the actual dry season of June through August, Rwandan residents told us you can be pretty sure to enjoy great weather. And because much of the country is around a mile above sea level, it doesn't get too uncomfortably hot despite its proximity to the equator.
✓ Pro: Fresh Water Beaches
We were surprised to find some holiday-worthy beach resorts along the shores of Lake Kivu. If the weather's nice, you could easily spend a few relaxing days sitting under a beach umbrella, fishing, boating, and enjoying sunsets.
Even better, it's freshwater so you don't have to shower after going swimming (though maybe it's a good idea to wash off foreign bacteria).
✗ Con: A Lot is Overpriced
Rwanda's backpacker scene is unfriendly by design.
The national tourism agency, the RDB, has made the strategic decision to target low quantities of high-paying tourists and repel high quantities of low-paying ones. Park entry fees are premium-priced, even basic accommodation can cost 100 USD a night, and budget travel infrastructure barely exists.
You can pull off a semi-budget trip. It just won't be as easy and you won't meet as many fellow backpackers as in Kenya or South Africa, for example. And it doesn't come close to competing with Asia or Latin America.
P.S. See our best countries to visit for various unique types of trips for ratings on affordability, ease, and more of our favorite countries around the world.)
✓ Pro: Your Money Goes to a Good Cause
Rwanda's one of the least corrupt countries in Africa, so the upside to paying hefty park fees at Volcanoes, Akagera, and Nyungwe is knowing your money will be put to good use. And at camps like Ruzizi and Karenge in Akagera, all the profits go to supporting the protection and continued rehabilitation of the park.
✓ Pro: Low Hassle
Aside from the odd lackadaisical tip requests from parking attendants, half-hearted entreaties from boat captains on Lake Kivu, and "give me money" demands from a few kids who've learned the bad habit, we rarely felt like Mr. and Mrs. Moneybags during our Rwanda visit.
The police did wave us down a few occasions while driving around the country. But they didn't shake us down. As soon as they saw we were tourists and had our papers in order, they sent us back on our way, wishing us a good trip.
✓ Pro: Digestible Size
Rwanda didn't usurp our pick for the best country in the world to visit for a one-week trip, but it's a solid choice if you're set on going somewhere in Africa.
We were able to comfortably explore a solid chunk of the country in eight days because it's only about the size of Maryland, or half the size of Switzerland, and has good quality roads. And while it's no Namibia, there was enough variety of geographical attractions—lakes, savannah, jungle, mountains—to keep us from getting bored.
✓ Pro: People Watching
Rwanda's roads have few cars but a steady stream of pedestrians, day and night. Watching them makes the despairingly low speed limits, often 40km/h, tolerable.
We never got tired of:
- Admiring the women who carry incredible stacks of avocados atop their heads (or sometimes a single shoe or a water bottle)
- Wondering how the men manage to load and push such huge loads of cabbage, bananas, water, and wood (or their families) on their bikes
- Smiling and waving at the free-range kids who play, wander, and work without supervision
- Wondering what random individuals walking from one middle-of-nowhere spot to another are up to.
And since Rwanda has so few mzungus (white people), you best believe Rwandans people-watch right back at you!
✗ Con: The People Are Hard to Connect With
We're sorry if this ruffles some feathers, but the honest truth is we felt it was more difficult to connect with people in Rwanda than in just about any other country we've visited.
It's not that they were unfriendly. Not at all. We just felt something was missing in our interactions. It was flatter and more humorless.
We don't blame them for it. The genocide no doubt plays a role. So too does the heavy hand of the government, with the ominously omnipresent police and army.
Language barriers were high, too. Rwanda only adopted English as the national teaching language in 2008, and teachers weren't prepared to teach it, so we rarely met people we could fully communicate with. We tried French too, but that was even more of a lost cause.
On the bright side are the kids. Rwanda has A LOT of kids. And they exude exuberance.
In one unforgettable moment, as we walked along a dirt road near Kibuye, one kid across the valley spotted us started chanting, "A.. a… abazungu! A… a… abazungu!" (White people! White people!) Then another kid who we couldn't see joined in. Then more kids chimed in. Soon enough, the valley echoed with a chorus of kids calling out to us light-skinned visitors. And some of those kids who dared to chat with us had surprisingly good English, so the future is bright.
✓ Pro: Life-Affirming and Anger-Abating
Learning about the 1994 genocide, feeling the horror at the memorials, talking with survivors, and observing how Rwandans have somehow managed to live together and move on made us appreciate how lucky we are and how pointless our anger and petty feuds back home are.
Our Verdict on Visiting Rwanda
We were glad we chose to visit Rwanda for our visa run from South Africa, but we don't feel much desire to return anytime soon. Mostly because of a combination of bad luck with the weather and difficulty in connecting with the people there, it didn't exceed our expectations.
But that doesn't mean your experience will be the same. Some people we met love Rwanda so much that they return every year.
What's Your Verdict?
Please let us know in the comments if your experiences or opinions on visiting Rwanda differed from ours, or if you have any questions. We love hearing from fellow travelers and other readers would benefit from your thoughts, too.