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Rwanda Travel Advice

Geography

Rwanda is a landlocked republic in Equatorial Africa, situates on the eastern rim of the Albertine Rift, a western armour the Great Rift Valley, on the watershed between Africa’s two largest river systems: the Nile and the Congo.

Much of the country’s 26,338 sq. km is dramatically mountainous, the highest peak being Karisimbi at 4,507m in the volcanic Virunga chain protected by the Volcanoes National Park. The largest body of water is Lake Kivu, but numerous other lakes are dotted around the country, notably Burera, Ruhondo, Muhanzi and Mugasera, all of which have erratic shapes following  the contours of the steep mountains that enclose them.

Climate - When to Go

Rwanda can be visited throughout the year. Gorilla tracking and other forest walks are less demanding during the drier months of July to September. The European winter is the best time for birds, as Palaearctic migrants supplement resident species.

A combination of tropical location and high altitude ensures that most of Rwanda has a temperate year-round climate. Temperatures rarely stray above 30 degrees celsius by day or below 15 degrees celsius at night throughout the year. The exceptions are the chilly upper slopes of the Virunga Mountains, and the hot low-lying Tanzania border area protected in Akagera National Park.

Throughout the country, seasonal variations in temperature are relatively insignificant. Most parts of the country receive in excess of 1,000mm of precipitation annually, with the driest months being July to September and the wettest months being February to May.

Dry seasons: Rains ease during the long dry (mid-May to September) and short dry (mid-December to mid-March).

The long rains: Although often wet from mid-March to mid-May, travel is still possible.

Language

Rwanda’s official languages are Kinyarwanda, English and French. Kiswahili, spoken throughout East Africa is also widely spoken throughout the country.

Economy

Primarily a subsistence agriculture economy, Rwanda nonetheless produces and exports some of the finest tea and coffee in the world. Other industries include sugar, fishing and cut flower export.

Getting There

Rwanda is served regionally and internationally by several airlines including:

  • RwandaAir
  • Kenya Airways
  • KLM
  • Qatar Airlines
  • Emirates Air
  • Etihad Airlines
  • Fly Dubai
  • Turkish Air
  • South Africa Airways
  • Brussels Airlines
  • Ethiopian Airlines

All international flights arrive at Kigali International Airpot, 10km from central Kigali.

Passport and Visas

A valid passport is mandatory.

Visa rules changed in late 2014. Before that date visas were not required for nationals of Germany, South Africa, Sweden, UK, USA, DRC and other East African countries as well as one or two others.

After October 2014 everyone except nationals of East African countries and the DRC required visas.

For Germans, Israeli, South Africans, Swedish, British and Americans visas are now available on arrival for US$30.

Everyone else needs to apply for a visa in their country of residence at a Rwandan embassy or high commission. These visas (called class T2) cost US$50, are valid for 90 days and are good for multiple entries within that time.

If Rwanda isn’t represented in your country then you need to register online at Rwanda Immigration before you travel. The website is a little confusing, but once you’ve submitted the online form you’ll receive your letter of entitlement within three days. Present this letter at the border along with the US$30 fee to obtain a single-entry, 30-day visa (called a V1 visa).

Multiple entry V1 visas are US$60. It is no longer possible to obtain a visa on arrival without first obtaining the aforementioned letter of entitlement.

Points to note: Firstly due to the changing nature of Rwandan tourist visas double check the above information carefully before travelling.

Secondly, although the online form asks you to attach a letter of invitation this is not a compulsory prerequisite and it’s fine to skip this section.

Thirdly, if things go awry you’ll have a devil of a time trying to make contact with Rwanda Immigration.

Rwanda is one of the countries covered by the new East Africa Tourist Visa, and for those also visiting Kenya and Uganda on the same trip it is a cheaper alternative. The visa costs US$100, is valid for 90 days and is multiple entry – it is available upon arrival or from embassies abroad.

If acquiring the visa before travel, your first port-of-call must be the country through which you applied for the visa.

Visa Extensions

If you’ve arrived on a T2 visa and need to extend it, you must do so at Rwanda Immigration in Kigali’s Kacyiru district, about 7 km northeast of the city centre near the American Embassy. Bring the appropriate form (available online), a passport-sized photo, your passport, a letter of introduction or a letter addressed to the Director of Immigration explaining why you require a visa, and RFr30,000. Extensions take five days to issue. V1 visas cannot be extended.

Health Care and Vaccinations, Health Insurance

Yellow-fever vaccination certificates are compulsory for entry.

Make sure your health insurance covers you while overseas and consider supplemental insurance that includes medical evacuation. Medical and dental facilities are limited, and some medicines are in short supply or unavailable; you should carry your own supply of medications in their original packaging to cover your entire stay. There are some Western-trained physicians but many are locally trained.

There are very few emergency municipal response services. Ambulances are available in Kigali through the Service d'Aide médicale d'Urgence (Emergency Medical Service, SAMU) by calling 912 from any mobile phone, or through King Faisal Hospital at 078-830-9003. Ambulance service is basic and works solely as transportation, usually with no medical treatment involved. Ambulance companies expect payment either up front or upon delivery. They charge an initial 5,000 Rwandan Francs (RWF), and then an additional amount per kilometre traveled. Ambulances are extremely scarce outside of Kigali.

In Kigali is King Faisal Hospital, a private hospital that offers 24-hour assistance with physicians and nurses on duty in the emergency room. Hospitals supported by U.S. organisations with some surgical facilities can be found in Kibagora, in southwestern Rwanda; in Ruhengeri, near the gorilla trekking area; and in Rwinkwavu, near the entrance to Akagera National Park. The National Teaching Hospital of the University of Rwanda is located in Huye (formerly Butare).

Disease Outbreaks: Mosquito borne illnesses such as malaria and yellow fever are a major problem throughout the country. Prevention of bites and proper immunisations are important for all areas. Use mosquito repellents containing at least 20 percent DEET or Picaridin and sleep under insecticide-impregnated mosquito nets if possible. Malaria prophylactic medication should be initiated prior to entry. Many malaria prophylactic medicines are not available in Rwanda and, because of possible counterfeit of anti-malarial medications, should be obtained from a reliable pharmaceutical source before arrival.

Be up-to-date on all childhood vaccinations. In addition, there are periodic outbreaks of meningitis in Rwanda, and the meningitis vaccine is recommended if travel will be taken during the dry season, May-October. Rabies is common in Rwanda; all animal bites, scratches, and licks should be immediately washed with soap and water and evaluated to determine if further rabies immunisation is warranted. Pre-exposure rabies immunisation is recommended for long-term travellers and adventure travellers who will be more than 24 hours away from reliable post-exposure treatment. Post-exposure treatment for rabies is not always available.

Schistosomaisis, otherwise known as bilharzia, a parasite that lives in fresh water and enters the body through intact skin is present in the country. If you do swim in lake Kivu, then source the treatment - a drug called Praziquantel - locally and take it six weeks to three months after your return. Alternatively you can be tested at a tropical medicine centre on your return.

Food and Drink

Good western food with a Belgian influence s served in tourist- oriented restaurants and hotel in all centers. Rwandan  favourites include goat kebabs, grilled tilapia (a lake fish), ugali (a stiff maize porridge), matoke (cooked banana) and potatoes.

Food is generally safe to eat if well-cooked and hot. If in doubt, veer towards larger restaurants in cities and those aimed at tourists, which will have undergone government safety checks. Avoid buying food from the side of the road and don’t drink tap water. Use bottled water or otherwise boil or sterilise. Milk is unpasteurised and should be boiled. Powdered or tinned milk is available and is advised. Avoid dairy products that are likely to have been made from unboiled milk. Only eat well-cooked meat and fish, preferably served hot. Vegetables should be cooked and fruit peeled.

Money Matters

Travellers should expect to pay for most expenses, including airplane tickets, in cash. Most Rwandan banks and businesses do not accept traveler’s checks. The Rwandan franc is easily exchangeable for hard currencies in banks and cash exchange bureaus. The US dollar is the hard currency of preference, but also Euros and British pound sterling are also widely accepted.

Most banks and exchange bureaus will not accept U.S. currency printed before 2006 so travel with newer U.S. currency notes. Additionally, many exchange bureaus offer preferential rates for $100 bills and hotels or exchange bureaus may refuse to accept smaller bills.

International ATMs are increasingly available in every major city in Rwanda. ATMs in Rwanda accept only Visa cards; MasterCard cards may be used for cash withdrawals for a fee at Access Bank locations co-located with Western Union offices. Beware of ATM skimmers at some ATMs which can steal card data for fraudulent use. Several banks in Kigali and Western Union branches can handle wire transfers from U.S. banks.

Credit cards are accepted at hotels, restaurants, and large grocery stores in Kigali, and to a lesser extent at some hotels and restaurants in other cities. Be sure to confirm the available method of payment with businesses in advance.

Most banks, shops and offices are open from 8am to 5pm on weekdays, with a lunch break being taken between noon and 2pm. Banks are open from 8am to noon on Saturdays.

Road Travel

Rwanda shares its borders with Uganda to the north, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to the east, Burundi to the south and Tanzania to the west. There are roads from all four countries, although the best route is considered to be through Uganda. Although the route into Rwanda from Goma is considered safe, the DRC is still best avoided due to internal conflicts.

Jaguar Executive Coaches (tel: +256 782 811 128, in Uganda) runs regular services to Kampala, while Yahoo Car Express (tel: +250 0830 5334) has services to Bujumbura. Travelling to Tanzania is a little more tricky as there are few major towns on the northeastern side of the country.

Driving Yourself

If you are driving your own vehicle you need to buy an entry permit and insurance at the border. You can drive using a your driving licence or an International Driving Permit for up to 1 year, after which you should apply for a Rwandan license. To apply for a local driving licence, you need to write a letter of application to the Commissioner Traffic and Road Safety attaching your existing licence and a copy of your visa or Foreign Resident ID card, and pay a fee.

Third-party insurance is required and will cover any damage from involvement in an accident resulting in injuries, if the driver is found not to have been at fault. The driver’s license of individuals determined to have caused an accident may be confiscated for three months.

Causing a fatal accident could result in up to eight years imprisonment. Drunk drivers are jailed for 24 hours and fined up to $400.

Nighttime driving, particularly outside major cities, is hazardous and is discouraged. Often, roadways are not marked and lack streetlights and shoulders. Many sections have deteriorated surfaces. Police may stop travellers at roadblocks throughout the country and search the vehicle and luggage.

Wear seat belts and drive with care and patience at all times. Exercise caution at traffic circles and traffic lights, as drivers do not always respect the right-of-way. Drivers tend to speed and pass other cars with little discretion. Some streets in Kigali have sidewalks or sufficient space for pedestrian traffic, while others do not, and pedestrians are forced to walk along the roadway. Street lighting is limited and drivers often have difficulty seeing pedestrians, cyclists, and livestock.

In the event of an emergency, local police may be reached at 311 from any mobile phone.

Rwandan traffic laws prohibit the use of mobile phones while driving and, if apprehended, the driver will be fined 10,000 RWF (about $15). Hands-free devices may be used. After-market tinted window treatments are prohibited on all vehicles; those ticketed for this offence will be required to remove them.

Roads from Kigali to all major towns are good but during the rainy season many side roads are passable only with four-wheel drive vehicles. Service stations are available along main roads. Due to possible language barriers and lack of roadside assistance, receiving help may be difficult.

Public and Urban Travel Information

Try to use only official Kigali city buses, most of which are owned and operated by Kigali Bus Service, and established taxi or car services.

Bicycles and motorbike taxis are also a very common form of public transport within towns and around the country. However, they are also the most vulnerable to accidents.

Regulated sedan auto taxis (which have a coloured stripe along the doors) are safer, but fares should be negotiated before passengers embark.

Communications

Telephone communication to and from Rwanda is generally reliable. Cellular telephones are available for purchase in many large towns and cellular service is reliable along most major routes in Rwanda. There are three main cellular providers: MTN, Tigo and Airtel. Internet service is increasingly available throughout Rwanda, but high-speed connections are often unavailable or unreliable and expensive.

International phone calls can be made easily. Appropriate sim cards for local networks can easily be bought from shops at the airport and major towns across the country, as is airtime top up.

Crime

Levels of crime remain relatively low in Rwanda, but there have been reports of increased instances of burglary, theft and mugging in Kigali in recent months. Incidents of bag snatching, mugging and stealing from vehicles in traffic jams targeting foreigners have been reported in recent months.

You should take sensible precautions. Take care when walking at night. Pre-arrange transport. Lock car doors when driving, don’t leave valuables in cars when parked and don’t leave cars unsupervised in the town centre. Don’t carry large amounts of money or other valuables.

Some off-limits military zones in Kigali may not be well-lit or signposted. You should take extra care when walking around less populated zones, particularly at night time.

Victims of Crime

If you or someone you know becomes the victim of a crime in Rwanda, you should contact the local police and the nearest of your respective embassy or consulate.

The Rwandan equivalent to a “911” emergency telephone line can be reached by dialling 112, though emergency calls to this number may go unanswered. For non-emergency situations, contact local police by dialling 112, 113 for traffic accident, and 3511 for abuse by a police officer (including attempts at bribery).

LGBT Rights

There are no laws that criminalise sexual orientation or consensual same-sex sexual relations. There is absolutely no issues if lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals restrain their public display of intimacy.  They might however face societal discrimination and abuse if they show-off deep intimacy in public.

Accessibility

While in Rwanda, individuals with disabilities may find accessibility and accommodation very different from is found in the United States. Persons with disabilities face limited access to transportation and public buildings though newly-constructed buildings have improved access and facilities. While sidewalks are ubiquitous along major routes in Kigali, they are not found in most other cities and they do not include curb-cuts.

Tipping

Like when travelling anywhere, it is helpful to be aware of tipping etiquette and culture.  In Rwanda, two areas were tipping considerations should be made regard transportation and restaurants, where practices are quite different.

Taxis, taxi-vans and motorbike taxis (if you are brave enough) generally don't expect tips, and always get a quoted price up front for your trip.

At local restaurants, most servers will be happy with a 5-10% tip in cash Rwanda Francs or USD. However, if you liked the server and plan on going returning to that establishment again, go ahead. This will increase the odds of you having similar or even better service when you dine at the establishment again.

Tour guides are normally tipped as per the level of service but mostly from $10-$20 per day given at the end of the tour.

Local tour guides are often tipped $5 per trip.

Electricity

What Types of Electric Sockets are Used in Rwanda?

In Rwanda, the electrical sockets (outlets) used are the “Type C” Euro-plug and the “Type E” and “Type F” Schuko. Often times we advise our guests to travel with plug adapters since many of our guests to Rwanda end up crossing to Uganda as well where the sockets are also different.

The Rwanda electrical sockets (outlets) supply electricity at between 220 and 240 volts AC. If you are to plug in an appliance that was built for 220-240 volt electrical input, or an appliance that is compatible with multiple voltages, then you need an adapter.

Travel plug adapters do not change the voltage.  The electric current coming through the adapter has to be the same 220-240 volts the socket is supplying. United States of American sockets supply electricity at between 110 and 120 volts, far much lower than in most of parts of the world.

NB: Only the ticked sockets are supported in Rwanda.

What Should be Packed While Travelling for a Rwanda Safari
  • Long trousers/pants - to avoid stinging nettles please do not wear short parks when tracking gorillas. The trousers must be strong enough to withstand occasional pulls from thorns.
  • Long sleeved shirts/t-shirts. To avoid stinging nettles.
  • Gloves - not such a big necessity but you may need them to avoid injury to your hands. Remember the grounds are wet and slippery.  To avoid injury from thorny bushes and objects on ground.
  • Hiking boots - Please bring average waterproof sturdy walking boots reaching ankle level not mountain climbing boots. Something light and hardy will do.
  • Warm cardigan- the hills can get extremely cold. A warm cardigan is required to keep off cold.
  • Long sleeved rain coat or anorak - it can rain anytime in Volcanoes National Park even on hot days.  The downpours are heavy and extremely cold.
  • Water proof container for your cameras.  Yes I know there are waterproof cameras but even them to be sure just put them in a waterproof container.  When you are slipping and falling in muddy grounds you do not want your precious photos damaged or do you?
  • If you desire headgear (hats), a baseball cap is recommended as gorillas are familiar to them.
  • A camera.
  • If you are interested in birds, you can bring a field guide to birds of East Africa by Fanshawe and a pair of binoculars.
  • Sunscreen.
  • Insect repellent with DEET.
  • Small day pack.
  • Kleenex tissues.
  • Sunglasses with neck strap.
  • Flashlight.
  • Binocular.
  • Extra batteries.
  • Small notebook.
  • First Aid Kit with anti-diarrhea, motion sickness pills, rehydration sachets, medicine, aspirin, cold medication, antiseptic cream, band-aids, lip balm, eye drops and personal medication.