Biodiverse habitats, gorillas in the wild and plenty of sustainable initiatives – Rwanda is Africa’s newest bucket-list destination. Read on and start planning your next adventure

Rwanda is not just the land of a thousand hills, it’s also the rising star of African eco-tourism. Nestled between the Congo, Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi, this pint-sized country is the perfect introduction to the sheer majesty of Africa’s landscape.

Unlike its bigger neighbors or old favorite Kenya, which stretch for thousands of miles, Rwanda packs in lush rainforest, golden savannas, lakeside beaches and mist-veiled mountains in an area just a bit bigger than Wales. We’ve put together the best Rwanda travel tips for a two- to three week vacation. Read on and start planning!

The environment comes first

Rwanda boasts unique flora and fauna and the people quickly realized that it’s worth protecting it. In fact, you’ll notice just how environmentally conscious the country is as soon as you step off the plane. For instance, plastic bags are banned and eagle-eyed airport guards stand ready to confiscate them, and, in 2016, the government created the country’s fourth national park, Gishwati-Mukura, home to golden monkeys and chimpanzees. Furthermore, they have pledged to increase the protected buffer zones around the well-visited Volcanoes National Park.

The government has also stood firm on the number of gorilla treks and small group numbers – limited to eight people and one hour – despite high demand. Consider booking a few activities through sustainable tour operators. Rwanda Eco-Tours Agency donates 20% of its profits back into local communities, while Gorilla Guardians, an NGO that helps reformed poachers and communities near the Volcanoes National Park find sustainable ways of living, organizes authentic village homestays.

Another initiative that contributes towards Rwanda’s sustainability program is “umuganda”. The word can be translated as  “coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome”.

“Umuganda” dates back to the 1960s and was introduced as a measure of individual contribution towards nation building. In 1998, in the aftermath of the genocide, it was reintroduced in order to reconstruct the country. Each citizen between 18 and 65 is obliged to participate in a wide variety of activities for three hours every last Saturday of the month. Activities often include work spanning infrastructure development and environmental protection – from building schools and hydroelectric plants to rehabilitating wetlands and creating highly productive agricultural plots. Tourists don’t have to take part but are encouraged to participate alongside locals.

Kigali – a friendly capital

Visiting an African capital usually includes choked traffic jams, polluted air and charmless, sprawling suburbs. Yet in Kigali’s case, this cannot be further away from the truth. Clean and calm with wide avenues shaded by flowering hibiscus trees and a growing cosmopolitan cafe scene, Kigali could probably scoop the top spot for being one of the safest capitals in East Africa.

For a taste of Kigali’s nascent cafe culture, visit Schokola Cafe. Located on the top floor of the public library, it’s as popular with travelers as it is with local students. Sink into the comfy sofas as you enjoy a freshly-made salad and smoothie, and browse around the art exhibits on display.

Discover one of Kigali’s most vibrant neighborhoods – Nyamirambo. A melting pot of different cultures, this neighborhood is home to most of the city’s working class and Muslim population, and you’ll find a wide array of bars, shops, hair salons and roadside vendors.

Book a walking tour offered by the Nyamirambo Women’s Center, an NGO started by 18 Rwandese women living in the area, and explore the area like a local. You’ll visit a women’s hairdressing salon (where you can get a free braid), followed by a stop into a family compound to pound cassava leaves and an introduction to local fabrics at a tailor shop. The tour ends with a delicious lunch made and served in the home of Aminatha, the center’s cook.

Nothing has shaped contemporary Rwandan society more than the tragic genocide in which one million people were killed in just 100 days. It’s a sobering start to a holiday but a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial is essential to grasping the sheer enormity of what happened and the collective trauma of this now peaceful nation.

A guide or audio tour informatively traces the political events leading up to the massacres, telling the heartbreaking stories of the victims. As well as offering a place of remembrance for survivors, the gardens are a final resting place for some 250,000 individuals killed during the genocide.

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