Many people, especially females, seem to find Africa as a dangerous and unfriendly travel destination. When I was telling my friends that I’m heading to Kigali for a student conference, the most common reaction was “Aren’t you afraid?!” or “Isn’t it too dangerous?!”. Not to mention the fact, that Rwanda is often associated only with the genocide in 1994…
After my previous trip to Africa, I was also pondering a lot with registration for the congress. While Africa was my love at first sight, in bigger cities and even on Zanzibar I wasn’t feeling very comfortable as a white girl. After all the nagging, begging for money and hitting on me, I was really surprised when I saw Rwanda on several “best solo female travel destination” lists. Now, after a 2-week stay, I totally agree that it is a perfect destination for the first solo trip to Africa.
Basic facts about Rwanda
- Capital: Kigali
- Currency: Rwandan franc (RWF) (1 euro = ~1000 RWF)
- Area: 26,338 km2
- Population: 11,262,564 (859 332 in Kigali)
- Language: English, Kinyarwanda, French, Swahili
Rwanda is in the rankings the 2nd smallest and the safest country in Africa (according to WEF ranking from 2017 also 9th in the world!). Moreover, thanks to banning the non-biodegradable plastic in 2008 and implementing Umuganda (Community Work Day on every last Saturday of the month) it is also the cleanest country on the continent.
How to stay in touch?
Rwanda is not only safe and clean but also has very good internet accessibility. You can register a SIM card in one of the mobile operators (MTN is probably the most recommended one) and later buy recharges in the small street stands. I decided on the 4G internet-only card (7 000 RWF for 1 month) and had connection everywhere in Kigali and almost around the whole country (besides some depths of National Parks, although it worked on the top of Mt. Bisoke).
It’s worth to invest in the SIM card, as not every restaurant/cafe offers free wi-fi. Also in the hotels, we’ve experienced some problems with connection and data transfer rate.
How to move around Kigali?
Our hotel was just around 1km from the conference venue, so most of the time we were moving on foot. During that 15min walk, no one ever bothered us (two, young European girls) and thanks to small traffic and lack of crowds the theft risk was very small. Not to mention armed guards on every bigger intersection. The locals were either just bypassing us, or leaving a friendly “Hi, how are you?” without stopping. Even during the night – on the empty side streets and going back from the gala night in evening dresses – we felt totally safe and comfortable.
But of course, you can’t walk everywhere. Especially as Kigali is located on hills and your way is rarely flat. While, as in every big city, there are quite expensive taxis, we used them only to get from and to the airport (too much luggage…).
The alternative is “moto-taxi”, that quickly became my favorite mean of public transport. You can find lots of articles about how dangerous they are and about all the risks, which are mostly connected with speeding and breaking the road rules. My friend was always asking the driver to go slowly, but I’ve noticed that in general, they were driving more carefully with us, than with the locals. The funny fact is that most of the motos have broken speedometers, so you’re never sure how fast you’re going.
If you’re not sure about the driver’s reliability, you can order your moto with the mobile app. I was catching them just from the street, choosing only the ones wearing the red vest with the driver’s number. On the main streets, after waving at the moto at least 2-3 of them stop next to you – you can not only choose your driver but also travel with friends on separate motos. Another important matter is the price. You can get literally everywhere for 200-1000 RWF, some drivers may try to charge you more and it’s okay to bargain a bit.
Rwanda is a very small country and Kigali is located just in its center. Taking advantage of that you can reach every National Park in 2-5 hours, even the one-day tours can be easily organized from the capital. If you’re worried about using the long-distance buses or renting a car (roads can be in a very terrible condition) it’s always possible to book a tour with pick up from the hotel.
There are also public buses, but I haven’t tried them. I’ve often seen people standing in lines to get to the bus, also inside they looked really crowded. Hence, I doubt that it could be a comfortable mean of transport for travelers.
What to do?
Learn about Rwanda’s history
While in Kigali, a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial is a must. You can’t fully understand Rwanda and its people without learning more about the tragedy that affected them all. What’s more, the Memorial not only casts a broad perspective on the Genocide against the Tutsi, that happened in 1994 but also sets it in the context of other genocides that took place around the world.
The Kigali Genocide Memorial is not only a museum but above the all a memorial site and resting place of over 250 000 victims. The entrance fee is donation-based and the place is open 365 days a year from 8 am to 5 pm.
Visit the Kigali Convention Center
Another not-to-miss place and Kigali’s landmark is the Kigali Convention Center. Even if you’re not planning to stay in the Radisson Blu Hotel or attend a conference, don’t miss a first and largest Convention Center in the East Africa region, opened in 2016. The main building, imitating the King’s Palace hut is a perfect mix of the Rwandan history with modernity. Especially beautifully lit after dusk.
Take a coffee/tea break
Rwanda is famous not only for gorillas and tragic history. It is also a paradise for lovers of hot drinks. The quality of Rwandan teas and coffee beans is among the best on the world! Take a break in one of the numerous cafes and enjoy your delicious drink. If you’re more interested in the process of its production, consider a one-day trip to one of the Rwandan tea/coffee plantations.
Support the community
Gisimba Memorial Center
While I’ve never approved giving money to the beggars, it’s worth to do something good for the community. Instead of giving gifts to random kids on the street (you don’t see many of them in Kigali), visit the Gisimba Memorial Center. The former orphanage is helping vulnerable children from the surrounding community. Implementing a childhood development care, providing sports, arts and music classes and empowering them to become fully active citizens.
Nyamirambo Women’s Center
Another way to support the local community is by visiting the Nyamirambo Women’s Center. The NGO which’s main mission is promoting and empowering women offers a range of interesting activities for tourist. We finally skipped the highly recommended Walking Tour of Nyamirambo, as we didn’t have enough time to fit it in our schedule. However, our friends took part in the Cooking Classes and w
If you don’t mind crowds and peoples attention, pay a visit to Kimironko Market. The place where you can buy literally everything, including tailor-made cloths from the choosen material. The problem is that, its a typical african market – lots of people, smells and everyone wanting to sell or show you something. Not to mention the lack of fixed-prices.
Enjoy the views
Rwanda not without reason is called the Country of a Thousand Hills. Even in its biggest city, you can easily immerse yourself in some amazing views. Take a short walk around the hotel or hop on the moto-taxi and enjoy the extensive landscapes full of nature and colorful houses.
Explore the country
As I’ve mentioned before, Kigali is a perfect gateway for the trips to other Rwandan cities and National Parks. You can easily do a one-day tour to visit a coffee/tea plantation, do a safari or go hiking. Only the Volcanoes National Park (gorilla tracking and volcano hiking) requires a sleepover, as the hikes set off early in the morning.
Interested in the activities that can be done outside Kigali? Check my next article (coming soon)!