Tucked away in the heart of the African continent, Rwanda is too often synonymous with the darkest chapter of its history, the 1994 Rwandan genocide that claimed the lives of nearly one million people. Therefore, one might assume that this nation is perpetually embroiled in ethnic conflicts, yet it couldn't be furthest from the truth as Rwanda reinvented itself as a rare African success story, even dubbed by some as the upcoming Singapore of Africa. The recent prosperity made the country a much more appealing destination for tourists, drawn to its majestic national parks and most notably the famed endangered mountain gorillas. Despite the sharp rise in the number of visitors, there are still plenty of lesser-known places to explore, five of which are particularly noteworthy.
Much like Rwanda itself, Gishwati Mukura national park has had somewhat of a troubled past. The area was on the brink of depletion at the end of the twentieth century due to resettlement, livestock farming and illegal mining of the mineral rich land.
The Rwandan government named the area a national park in a bid to redress the balance. It is a stunning ecosystem made of 34 square kilometeres of forest land. The park actually consists of two forests, the Gishwati and the Mukura.
The forest is home to a rich endemic fauna and flora, made up of more than 60 species of trees, while over 230 species of birds have been spotted at Gishwati and 163 at Mukura. The forests sit on the ridge of the Congo and the Nile, serving as a refuge for chimpanzees, blue monkeys and golden monkeys.
Since 2019, several tourist activities for visitors were introduced, including guided park hikes and chimpanzee tracking and tours, as well as local cultural activities on offer such as an authentic home stay, a chance to learn from traditional healers, bee keeping and a tea plantation tour.
photography by: Ministry of Environment - Rwanda
Nestled on the border of Uganda and the Volcanoes national park, Lake Burera is a large, smooth mirror like lake that sits in the shadow of three mighty volcanoes. The volcanoes are green and teaming with life and vegetation. The Deep lake was created by volcanic eruptions which also left behind few islands.
The islands are no less green and lush than the Volcanoes themselves and the inhabitants who live over there cultivate most of their food crops, ultimately incorporated in the local well-renowned cuisine. Surprisingly, the islanders are quite self-sufficient, evidently, the largest of the 6 islands houses 80 families, a primary school, a GP and a postal service.
You might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the islanders, swimming to a nearby village, or offer you some of their homemade beer, brewed from banana leaves.
photography by: Rachel Strohm
Cyamudondo is a small forest area made up of only 19 square kilometers. It is a part of the larger Nyungwe national park although it is fragmented from it. Cyamudondo survived years of deforestation and illegal poaching as the settlers wouldn’t farm the steep hillsides.
This makes the forestry at Cyamudondo darker and thicker than in the rest of Nyungwe Park. The woodland is home to a diverse biome indigenous to the area, including a rare blue orchid that was only discovered a decade ago. Moreover, many of the 320 bird species residing in the jungle are endemic to the region, sharing their forest airspace alongside an array of butterfly species.
The rainforest is surrounded by tea plantations and eucalyptus trees, remaining isolated from the rest of the national park. If you want to venture out to the forest, there are numerous guided tours and hikes, providing a rare close encounter with the chimpanzees that live there.
There are at least 30 chimpanzees living alongside Mona and L’hoest monkeys. You may also be lucky enough to see velvet monkeys and Colobus monkeys. Spotting primates is definitely a mesmerizing thing, yet far from being the only draw of the forest.
Rwanda has many delights to offer travelers, most of which heavily gravitate towards the national parks, the primates and Rwandan cultural performances, often making the average foreign visitor to skip hidden gems that don’t get as much attention.
Nkombo Island is a lesser-known treasure, situated deep in Lake Kivu, 12 kilometers away from town of Kamembe in the country’s Western province. To get into the boats bound to Nkombo you’ll first have to go through a winding dirt road ending at Kamembe’s small and muddy pier.
The boats ferrying passengers to the Island leave punctually at 8am, after the captain ensures that all on board wear lifejackets. This isn’t optional, safety is taken seriously here with patrol boats that run random checks on boats to make sure they aren’t overcrowded or making dangerous maneuvers.
The boat ride to Nkombo Island takes roughly 40 minutes from Kemembe and it’s a breathtaking experience by its own right, as the island resembles an emerald when you approach it. Upon arrival, the first sight you’ll see when you disembark the boat is a lush green banana plantation.
The islanders are constantly busy loading and unloading goods like fish and avocados which they take to sell in the Democratic Republic of Congo, since the DRC is only 5 kilometers from the island. The lack of any avocado crops in the Congolese regions that border Rwanda make the Nkombo’s avocados an exceedingly popular commodity among the neighboring communities in Congo.
There are no vehicles on the island, making the gumboots the only mean of transportation, and this isn’t really optional, simply because the roads and hiking trails are muddy. The Island has schools, a medical center and other infrastructure which make it completely self-sufficient.
Interestingly, the local people speak four languages; Kinyarwanda, Mashi, and Kiswahili, whereas French and English are not commonly spoken here.
The lush green hills and light breeze that blows from the lake add a sense of calm and peaceful tranquility to the Island, making it a truly one of the most worth-visiting hidden gems in Rwanda.
While you are in the area around Lake Kivu, a visit to Nyamyumba hot springs undoubtedly has to be on the cards. They are located near the town of Gisenyi, on the shores of the lake and are known locally for their immune boosting qualities.
The springs are still relatively absent from Rwanda’s tourism map, hence they rarely get overcrowded, providing a calming experience free of touristy nuisances. The springs are practically a mineral rich natural spa, attributed with myriads of healing properties.
The earthy minerals bubble their way to the surface through the cracks between the rocks, ultimately accumulated in natural thermal pools along the banks of Lake Kivu. The springs are said to heal back ache, headache, flu and skin ailments, as well as strengthen weak muscles and remove toxins from the body. Some even believe that oral consumption of the local spring water can cure sore throats, hangovers, constipation and urinary tract infections.
The springs are still a relatively local experience for now but plans are underway to build a $30 million hot springs resort to boost tourism.
photography by: Jule Lumma