It was in 2016 that we (Seb and Brighde -that’s me!) and our good friends Colleen Patrick-Goudreau and hubby David, headed to Rwanda for what we thought would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I have to admit I didn’t know much about the country at all. Like many, I knew a little about the horrible 1994 genocide and that there was a population of mountain gorillas there, but that was pretty much it. I let my travel partners plan everything and just jumped in for the ride. Oh, and what a ride it was!
Incredibly, Rwanda has come out of the ashes of its terrible past to become a beacon of hope, not only in Africa but the entire world. Incredibly clean and safe, and populated by the friendliest people on earth, Rwanda is opened once again to the world, and offers one of the most fascinating, beautiful and rewarding travel destination on earth!
The experience was so overwhelming and truly life-changing that in 2019, we returned with more than 50 fellow vegans on two different group tour that we organized via our travel company, World Vegan Travel. It was a massive success and we'd be lying if we said we weren't already dreaming of (and maybe planning?) the next trips!
So after countless hours of research and a total of about 2 months in total in the country, here are, in no particular order, our top 7 reasons (we could easily do 100!) why Rwanda is awesome... especially for vegans!
Of course, seeing the gorillas is a no-brainer. It’s the reason why most people come to Rwanda as tourists. Volcanoes National Park and the neighboring parks in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are the only places in the world to see the mountain gorilla.
Yes, it is expensive, with the current price of permits at a whopping USD 1500$ for a one-hour visit with the gorillas, but one second into your visit you'll be convinced this was the best purchase ever! The Rwanda Development Board increased the price to help with the gorillas’ conservation and also look after the significant numbers of people who live around the park including providing the children that live there with education. Visiting the gorillas does mean you are helping the gorillas and the people around the park also.
An entire article could be written on this truly life-changing experience (we may very well have to write it!) but ultimately nothing you read or watch about it can prepare you for the surge of emotions when coming face-to-face with our distant cousins. This truly is one of the world's great adventure, and should be high up on everyone's bucket list.
Below is a short video we made of our clients experiencing the gorillas for the first time. Enjoy!
VISIT DIAN FOSSEY'S GRAVE
Despite her flaws, Dian Fossey is undoubtedly a hero to many vegans. She introduced the mountain gorillas to the world and was was fiercely protective of them. Her refusal to make compromises probably led to her murder, which to this day remains unsolved. Her legacy is clearly visible today in the growing gorilla population, which is sadly one of the few conservancy success-story in the world.
For many, a pilgrimage to her grave is a must. But it's everything but easy! The trek to the grave and research center is uphill, hard, and depending on the time of year, incredibly muddy. The hardship is worth it though. It really brings to life what Dian herself went through to set up her Karisoke camp and how remote it truly was.
The arrival at the grave is quite emotional, as you pay your respect to Dian and some of her gorillas that are buried alongside her, including her favorite Digit. For a more in-depth look at her life, this wonderful documentary series sheds light on Dian and her work, as well as why she might have been murdered.
You can only visit this area with the support of a local guide, registering in advance and paying a fee.
KIGALI GENOCIDE MEMORIAL
For many, mentioning "Rwanda" brings back fleeting memories of the terrible 1994 genocide, when ~800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in only 100 days. There are actually many memorials all over the country, with many staffed by knowledgeable guides (often witnesses and victimes themselves) ready to show you around and educate you on the history of the genocide.
The main museum and memorial is located in the capital Kigali and is absolutely world-class in its standards, education and quality of the exhibits. It is also the resting place for 250,000 victims who were killed (often by friends and neighbors) with many more remains being brought here each year.
A visit here is not easy. It's extremely emotional and sad and you will not be left unscathed. But it is important and a must-see. The only way we can hope to ensure these events don't happen again is to bare witness. As vegans, I think we can all relate to this feeling.
DIAN FOSSEY RESEARCH CENTRE
Yes, we're back to Dian Fossey! Well, kind of. The Karisoke Research Center, in the town of Musanze (the closest town to Volcanoes National Park) is home to a small museum with great information on the area, Dian Fossey and the gorillas. The tour is self-guided (about 1 hour) and very much worth the visit. You can see a reconstruction of Dian Fossey’s office (with her original desk!), check out a 3D map of the gorilla's home, learn more about the ongoing conservancy projects and much more. If your schedule and budget allow, you can even book a special behind-the-scene visit with one of the scientists (~$500 for a group) that take you around the labs and provide more hands-on information about the amazing work they do.
AKAGERA NATIONAL PARK
Rwanda is not just gorillas. In the east of the country, Akagera National Park allows you to go on a real African safari! While it's now home to the "Big Five", it's not always been that way. After the 1994 genocide, the park basically became the home for many refugees and returnees, and as a consequence many animals were sadly killed by the people that lived in the area in order to protect their livestock.
The situation at the park was looking very bleak indeed but, like the rest of the country, things turned around. For Akagera, it began when African Parks took over the management of the park. They instituted a number of conservancy policies, involved the neighboring communities, hired ex-poachers as security and park rangers, and began to re-introduce animals like lions and rhinos.
Akagera may not be quite as diverse or spectacular as some other parks in surrounding countries, but it is definitely one of the more interesting one based on the amazing work done here. A must-do is the "behind-the-scenes" tour where you'll meet with the Rangers and learn about the history of the park and the great efforts and lengths they've gone to to protect the park. While many of the information shared will sit very well with vegans, some other, such as the sustainable fishing projects they are working on and the canine protection project, might not do as well. Still, they are truly doing the best they can with the ressources they have, and this opportunity to delve a little deeper into the real complexity of conversation is not to be missed.
Nobody that's visited Rwanda is left untouched by the friendliness of the people. Your days will be spent constantly waving hello to children, and you'll never be without someone to converse for very long (English is an official language in Rwanda). There are also many opportunities to delve a little more into the culture and communities though a variety of homegrown tours and activities.
The Nyamirambo Women's Center offers a number of short tours that are a lot of fun for travelers to participate in. We did the walking tour of Nyamirambo and we enjoyed being shown around the local community. Some might feel this is a bit voyeuristic, and we certainly understand that. We definitely appreciated that we were not taken into any schools to interact with children and distract them from their schoolwork, something that often happen in these kinds of tours. They also offer Sisal Basket Weaving Workshop and a Traditional Cooking Class. Do mention you're vegan and they will focus on vegetables and plant-based dishes. Vegans will need to ask them to skip the visit to the milk bar!
Finally, when planning your trip to Rwanda, make sure to absolutely be there on the last Saturday of the month, as this is when one of the most incredible thing anywhere happens: umuganda. From 8:00am to 11:00am, businesses will close and traffic will halt as every Rwandan (and lucky visitors) come together in every neighborhood, pick up shovels, hoes, paint brush, you-name-it, and participate in a variety of community-based projects, such as street cleanup, ditch draining, school building and much, much more. Everyone has to participate (it's the law), even the President! For the visitor, there is no greater chance to rub elbows with the locals and this is certainly something that shouldn't be missed!
NYUNGWE NATIONAL PARK
The third Rwandan national park is incredible. Located in the south of the country, Nyungwe National Park is synonymous with chimpanzee tracking. The feeling of a hard hike through dense rainforest only to suddenly be welcomed by the distinct cries of the chimps high up in the trees is indescribable. Be ready to slip over the rough and steep terrain as you leave at the crack of dawn in search of our closest living relative.
We highly recommend hiring a porter for the trek because as soon as you hear your first chimp you'll be running around the forest trying to get a better peek. Binoculars are an absolute must and be prepared to have a sore neck from all the looking-up!
Nyungwe is also incredibly rich in biodiversity and spectacularly beautiful. The mountainous region is teaming with wildlife, as well as 12 other species of primate, including the L’Hoest’s monkey endemic to the Albertine Rift. There are amazing variery of birds, several gorgeous hikes and even a suspension bridge to check out. Nyungwe National Park definitely goes on the "do not miss' list!
Now, we'd love to hear from you! Have you been to Rwanda? Considering a visit? Let's have a discussion in the comments below. We'd love to hear from you!