Valleys and Hilltops
Rwanda is a land of contrasts and although there is plenty to experience in its valleys, heading for hilltops offers perspective. From up high, you’ll understand why the country is referred to as “The Land of a Thousand Hills.” A lush carpet of green in a myriad of shades covers the undulating peaks. Rooftops and banana trees fill in any gaps between the tea plantations and bright blue skies. Capturing it in photos is only the beginning. Travelers should give in to the temptation of a hike, bike ride or stroll, with enough time to breathe deeply and pause often.
Forests and National Parks
A decision to explore Rwanda’s forests is no small endeavour. With more than 430,000 forested hectares and four national parks, people looking for opportunities to escape into nature will find enough to fill their itinerary and warrant a return visit. Guided hikes are encouraged and help distinguish between the flora and fauna found in the Rift Valley. See it in every light: the pink of dawn, the bright white of a midday sun and the orange glow that comes with dusk.
Estimated to cover more than 17,000 hectares of the country’s hillsides, Rwanda’s tea plantations may be the world’s most beautiful crop. Laid against the rolling Virunga Mountain ranges, the country’s most important export takes advantage of the volcanic soil and moderate climate to produce some of the world’s best. Travelers shouldn’t miss the chance to indulge in a cup whether at a local hotel, or during a plantation tour. Savour every sip knowing that each of the leaves in the cup was likely hand-picked by a local.
Nyungwe Forest Canopy Walkway
On the 1.2-mile (2km) roundtrip route to the Nyungwe Forest Canopy Walkway, guides point out tree-clinging orchids and mimic the calls of the brightly colored birds, who serenade from the surrounding dense foliage. As you climb, the perspective switches. Standing more than 60 meters above the forest floor, the air is fresher, the skies closer and the views breathtaking. From this perch, you can see the shadowed pastel silhouettes of the mountains and volcanoes in the distance, and appreciate the full height of the trees below.Walk the full 170-meter length of the Canopy Walkway, before returning to the guide station at Uwinka Reception Center, where a small exhibit helps explain how these lands, once roamed by elephants, are making a conservation comeback.
Listen: you’ll hear the waterfalls long before you see them. The power of water falling 50 meters through the rocks and trees is one you’ll recognize immediately, but don’t rush. The six-mile (10km) hike to Kamiranzovu waterfalls is beautiful, and working your way slowly along the natural trail through the rainforest offers the chance to take it all in. Expect a soft forest floor and birdsong accompaniment as you make your way to the site of the 50-meter drop. The tough hike is popular. Along with other travelers and guides, you may spot black and white colobus monkeys, blue monkeys and even chimpanzees making the most of the surrounds.
Chimpanzees in Nyungwe National Park
Inside one of the oldest protected mountain rainforests in Africa, much of the action happens high above the forest floor. That’s where the chimpanzees sleep. The primates rest overnight in nests, but it’s about the only time they’re quiet. From the moment they rise at dawn, they’re on the move, making their way through Nyungwe National Park and laughing as they go. To see them, you’ll need an early start and a trained guide. If you’re lucky, you’ll come across one of the more than 500 chimps who call the area home.
Chimpanzee trekking requires a permit and a guide, and within moments of being in the forest you’ll understand why. Moving through the brush isn’t for the amateur. Good hiking boots, lots of water and stamina for the trek–that can last for more than three hours–is a must. You’ll have lots of help, though. Trackers, dressed in camouflage gear, have been keeping a watchful eye on the animals’ movements, and now use machetes to cut back the thick foliage and carve footholds in the mud for you to join them. If you’re keen and quick, you’ll be rewarded with the ultimate prize: that unforgettable sight of two eyes looking back at you as if to ask, “What took you so long?”
The blue-green waters of Lake Kivu run along much of Rwanda’s western edge and mark its border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. On coastal drives, it’s a 56-mile-long, fresh-water, ever-present temptation, beckoning you to pull over and take a closer look. Find a safe spot and do so. The contrasts between the emerald hills and the clear waters is breathtaking. You’ll be tempted to make plans as you stand there–to head towards the towns that get you closer to the water, or to cruise the waters themselves. For now, resist. Instead, take a few moments to bask in the majesty of the place from your spot, high above it all.
The "Singing Fishermen" of Lake Kivu
Board a small tour boat on Lake Kivu before sunset to hear the famous “Singing Fishermen”. The songs, sung in a mix of deep baritones and high-pitched chants, are a part of the nightly ritual of these men, who will spend about 12 hours on the water. The rhythm of the songs guides their paddle strokes, as they move a trio of large, wooden boats across the lake. When they’ve found a fishing spot, the singing stops. Then, the nine men will work together to use the boat’s long poles to cast a wide net between them, set up kerosene lamps to attract the fish, and wait. At dawn, the voices of the men as they sing their way home carries on the wind to the hotels along the water’s edge.
Kayaking, Lake Kivu
Three Rwandan towns make their home along Lake Kivu. Spending time in each is an opportunity to enjoy beachfront accommodations, waterfront views, and active adventures that take advantage of land and water. A kayak tour can get you closer to the uninhabited–except for a colony of bats–islands that run down the lake’s center. Calm waters (one of the safest on the continent with neither hippos nor crocodiles calling it home) can carry you between Rubavu (Gisenyi), Karongi (Kibuye) and Rusizi (Cyangugu) on an exploration of the East African Rift Valley from a unique perspective. Or rent a bike, hop on the 141-mile (227km) Congo Nile Trail, and enjoy rest stops with a stunning view of the waters.