Rwanda has made a remarkable recovery from the 1994 genocide which saw more than 800,000 people killed at the hands of Hutu extremists and much of its infrastructure collapse. The country is now leading the way in using tourism for sustainable development and conservation.
The bamboo and mid-altitude forests of the Volcanoes National Park in the north are home to the rare mountain gorilla and the high-altitude Nyungwe Forest in the south, one of the largest remaining rainforests in Africa, is home to 13 primates, including chimpanzees and colobus monkeys, rare orchids and nearly 300 different species of bird.
A landlocked country, Rwanda makes up for this with the stunning Lake Kivu, with beaches at Gisenyi and inlets and coves at Kibuye. Out in a kayak, you can paddle around forested islands and nod hello to the fishermen in dug-out canoes.
Things to see and do
A'Kagera National Park
Get close to some of Rwanda's fantastic wildlife. The A'Kagera National Park covers over 2,500 sq km (1,000 sq miles) of savannah to the west of the A' Kagera River (the frontier with Tanzania). The park has a variety of wildlife and is a habitat for over 500 species of birds.
The major point of access is Kabarando. Safaris can also be undertaken at Kabarando; the park is devoted to game preservation and has lions, zebras, antelopes, hippos, buffalos, leopards, apes, impalas, crested herons, fish eagles, cormorants, giraffes, elephants, elands and warthogs.
The intellectual capital of the country, Butare is home to Rwanda’s national university. The most prominent tourist attraction here is the superb National Museum, which houses perhaps the finest ethnographic collection in East Africa.
Absorbing displays of traditional artefacts are illuminated by a selection of turn-of-the-century monochrome photographs, providing insight not only into pre-colonial lifestyles, but also into the subsequent development of Rwanda as a modern African state. Butare also boasts craft shops and a botanical garden.
North of Butare is Gitarama, which has a good art museum; nearby is the cathedral town of Kabgayi; and at Mushubati, the grottoes of Bihongori.
Cards From Africa, Kigali
This organisation was set up to help provide jobs for orphans of the genocide and those whose parents have died from Aids. You can visit to watch each stage of the process, from pulping recycled paper, to pressing it, drying it, dying it, cutting it and eventually crafting into beautiful greetings cards that are shipped to the UK and US. There is also a shop on site.
Chimpanzee and Colobus monkey trek
Nyungwe forest national park is one of the largest remaining high-altitude rainforests in Africa and is home to the world’s largest troop of colobus monkeys, which have a distinctive black and white colouring. A trek to spot them could have you surrounded by literally hundreds of them.
You will be warned that you might not see the chimps first time around, although the trackers are pretty good and know which trees they feed on. You are most likely to catch them perched in a ficus tree and might spot Mona monkeys too.
Dian Fossey’s grave, Volcanoes National Park
The American researcher Dian Fossey set up a research centre high in the Virunga volcanic mountains midway between Karisimbi and Bisoke, naming it the Karisoke Research centre. Now all that remains are some foundation stones and signs detailing what was there. She is buried there next to her beloved mountain gorilla digit. A guide leads the strenuous three-hour trek. You will need a good six hours to do the round trip, allowing time to explore.
Genocide memorial centre, Kigali
In 1994 nearly 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in 100 days of planned genocide. This excellent museum is laid out in three sections. The first contextualises the Rwandan genocide, detailing the events leading up to it and the international response. The second section brings it into the wider context of genocide in other countries and the third is a heartbreaking tribute to the children that died.
Gisenyi is a bustling market town on the edge of Lake Kivu and not far from the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo (worth a wander to if you have a spare half hour to see the bustle of truckers and coaches sorting out visas to cross into or from Goma). There are hot springs just out of town and also the major brewery that brews the local Primus beer and has a licence to brew Guinness. You can visit on weekdays by prior arrangement.
Golden monkey trek, Volcanoes National Park
These elusive cheeky creatures hang out quite low down in the park, so are a good warm up for the gorillas. At $100 a permit they are also considerably cheaper. You will get a guide to accompany you and tell you facts about their habitat and habits.
Embark on a gorilla trek at the Parc National des Volcans. This is Rwanda’s biggest tourist attraction, and at $500 for one hour with the gorillas it is also a substantial earner. You need to book your permit in advance as there are only 62 issued each day.
The Office Rwandais du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux (ORTPN) bureau and some private companies in Kigali can organise guided tours or gorilla tracking for small parties. On the day you will be assigned a group depending on your fitness - some groups stay higher up the forest than others.
Military units currently guard the park and ensure the safety of visitors, particularly from poachers. This park is one of the last sanctuaries of the mountain gorilla and it is here that the well-known Diane Fossey spent 18 years studying them prior to her murder in 1985.
Kibungu (Umutara), in the east of the country, is in the centre of a region of lakes and waterfalls, including Lake Mungesera and the Rusumo Falls. Gisenyi is the main centre for excursions in the Parc des Volcans. Plane trips can be made from here to view the craters. Situated on the north of Lake Kivu, it also offers many opportunities for watersports or for excursions on the lake.
Kibuye, further south, is another lakeside resort. Near Cyangugu, on the southern shores of the lake, are the spectacular grottoes of Kaboza and Nyenji, and the thermal waters at Nyakabuye. Nearby, the Rugege Forest is the home of many rare species of wildlife.
Visit this idyllic lakeside resort where steep forested slopes rise from crystal clear water dotted with dug-out canoes and fishing boats. The town itself is characterful with a lively market, and there are a range of hotels and restaurants right on the lake shore. A great place for kayaking around the myriad islands in the lake.
Visit the Nyamirambo district in Kigali. This was where the first Muslims settled in Kigali after they had been picked up as porters on the coast of Kenya and Tanzania and decided to remain. It is one of the most characterful areas to walk around. Shops selling pretty much everything, much of it second hand, are painted in bright colours, making it a good place to take photographs of street life.
Nyungwe Forest canopy walk
Opened in late 2010, this canopy walk constructed by a Canadian firm is the first of its kind in the region. A hair-raising 50m (164ft) above ground level and a shaky 90m-(295ft) long, this is not for the faint hearted, but does offer superb views across the rainforest canopy and if you’re lucky you might come face to face with monkeys or rare birds.
Rwanda National Ballet
Watch a performance of the Rwanda National Ballet, famous for its traditional dancing and singing.
Climb the Virunga Volcanoes between Ruhengeri and Gisenyi. Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo is the most commonly climbed volcano from Gisenyi. The Parc National des Volcans region is composed of volcanic mountains, of which two, Nyamuragira and Nyiragongo, across the frontier in the Democratic Republic of Congo, are still active. These are best trekked rather than climbed, and are still for the intrepid.