If Africa and especially Rwanda, are not the travel destination that first come to mind when you think about relaxation, luxury and “getting away from it all”, you may want to seriously reconsider. The friendly greetings, bustling city and countryside belie the fact of the genocide which occurred in the early nineties. The majority of Rwandans now see themselves as one people and one country. There are an increasing number of tourists descending upon this beautiful lush land of national parks, mountain gorillas and terraced hillsides. Contrasting styles of traditional mud huts and dress are interspersed among paved roads, modern amenities and comfortable accommodations.
Same sex couples walk together on the streets of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda and nobody bats an eye. In fact, it is quite common to see men embracing, putting their foreheads together when greeting one another and walking hand in hand, as they stroll down the streets of the capital or along highways, dirt paths and country roads in one of the few African countries that has no laws against homosexuality. That doesn’t mean that these men are gay (most are probably non-sexual friends), but who knows who is and who isn’t?
Homosexuality is illegal for lesbian women in 20 African countries and for gay men in 29. In Zimbabwe, Uganda, Somalia and Northern Africa you can be prosecuted and imprisoned. South Africa is one of the exceptions, where homosexuality is legal and national legislation bands discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Rwanda doesn’t actively acknowledge homosexuals positively or negatively, but has no laws against it. It follows an unspoken policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell”. There is no kissing displayed in public, by homosexual or heterosexual couples, but other affections are accepted (hugging, touching hands).
The national parks and wildlife are not the only attractions in this lovely country known as the “land of a thousand hills”, as there are also traditional dance performances, art centers, shopping and an active social scene in Kigali and the northern city of Ruhengeri.
Kigali has a large market in the Nyabugogo district where you will be inundated with clothing, both women’s and men’s, as well as household goods and other local merchandise. Expect to bargain until you’re hoarse, as it is expected and part of the experience. One U.S. dollar equals approximately 550 Rwandan Francs. A new shopping center uptown houses a modern shopping center, complete with a Starbucks like coffee house called Bourbon Street, which has free internet access and all the caffeine you can handle. Rwandan’s don’t drink much coffee, as tea is their thing, even though Rwandan coffee has become a thriving export. There is live music at the Cadillac, Abraxis and Planete Club and numerous bars throughout town.
Some very fine hotels in the city include the Chez Lando (near the airport); Hotel Gorillas; Iris Guesthouse; The Presbyterian Guesthouse; and the famous Mille Collines (Hotel Rwanda). Prices range from $50 to $160 per night.
Some area restaurants include an exquisite Indian establishment called Khazana; the Shangh Hai, a Chinese restaurant with great service and food and; Sole Luna, an upscale Italian eatery out towards the airport. You can expect to spend anywhere from $10 to $20 per person for a good meal. People also partake of local Rwandan food at diners and cafes around town, but they can get rather boring, as they consist of the same overcooked vegetables, potatoes and meat, without any spice or seasoning. It is however cheaper than the “foreign” restaurants (about $5 to $10 per meal).
Ruhengeri, the largest city in the north, is the gateway to the Virunga National Park, which borders The Congo and Uganda in Eastern Africa. The scenery from Kigali to Ruhengeri is spectacular and The Gorilla Nest Lodge just outside the park is stunning. Imagine a luxury hotel, superbly crafted from local stone, wood and bamboo, tucked into the jungle at the bottom of a blue-green volcanic range. Top that off with spacious rooms, fine dining and friendly service from people that speak English, French and Kinyarwanda (the national language) and you have a virtual Shangri-la in the middle of Africa. The Hotel Muhabura is reported to be another great place to hang your hat and much less expensive ($35 to $50) than the Mountain Gorilla’s Nest, which charges $100 and up per night.
No matter how beautiful the drive north has been or how luxurious your accommodation, nothing quite prepares you for the magnificent mountain gorillas that reside in the Virunga National Park. Even though tourists are only allowed an hour visit, to protect the gorillas, the $500 fee charged to see them is worth every penny. The funds from the fees (permits) are used to maintain the sanctuary, continue research, guard the gorilla families and support local communities and projects outside the park. These creatures, which have 97 percent of the same DNA as humans, are gentle vegetarian mammals that live in clusters of communal families and alternate between play, sleep and time to enjoy a tasty meal of bamboo, greens and fruit. If you take the time to travel to Rwanda, do not miss the adventure of visiting the mountain gorillas.
The people of Rwanda are as beautiful as their country, which has to rate a ten on the lush green scale of tropical paradises. From smiles and generosity in the cities hotels, shops and fine restaurants, to the lodges and safari’s to see the gorillas, volcanic mountains, game parks and lakeside resorts, this Central African country has moved leaps and bounds beyond their tragic civil war over sixteen years ago. It has literally risen from the ashes and become the “new Eden” of Africa. With a stable government, abundant overseas investment and a pervading sense of hope and reconstruction, Rwanda is now considered one of the safest countries to visit on the continent.
When you go:
Easy access from the U.S. via England to Kenya and from Kenya to Kigali (the capital of Rwanda), makes it an affordable, though lengthy trip. The time spent traveling is well worth the long haul. There may soon be an even quicker route from Atlanta to Kigali, via Johannesburg South Africa.
National language is Kinyarwanda, but many people also speak English or French and there is a big push for everyone to learn English.
You will need up to date vaccinations and malaria precautions.
A great resource for touring Rwanda is: Bizidanny Tours & Safaris B. P. 395 Kigali, Rwanda. Phone 250 08501461. Web Site: www.bizidanny.com
Barbara Jenkins at Rancho Del Mar Travel has been arranging trips to Africa for thirty years. 1327 La Sobrina Court, Solana Beach, CA 92075-2105. Phone: 858-755-7368.
The Rwanda Tourist Board can be contacted at: www.rwandatourism.com.