Rwanda, a country no larger than the size of Maryland, is often referred to as the land of a thousand hills and is located in East Africa. Best known for its gorilla population, Rwanda has a lush terrain of rainforests and farmland, spotted with microclimates of misty haze that hang over the hills like a mystical dream until streams of sunlight break through the grey clouds, exposing a magnificently green landscape that can be viewed from its thousand hilltops. Rwanda shares a border with Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and is the second safest country in all of Africa. Rwanda is a country with a painful past and colorful yet complicated history, and the people of Rwanda are deeply connected to each other, having lived through a trauma that left both visible and invisible wounds that will continue to be felt for generations to come. I’ll go into further detail about the Rwandan genocide when I cover things to do in Rwanda, but the most notable highlight of my experience in Rwanda was the joyful hope and resilience that exuded from every Rwandan’s infectious smile. With Micato Safaris, a leading tour operator in Africa for 30+ years and one of Diego Travel’s top travel partners, we are able to plan an unforgettable trip to Rwanda that will change the way you see the world.
Perfect For: Adventure & Thrill Seekers | Destination Weddings | Luxury Honeymoon | Couples Groups | Multi-Generational Families with Older Children | Anniversary Trips | Those Who Have Already Done Safari | Teens Ages 15+
Getting to Rwanda isn’t easy, and my total travel time from Miami exceeded 24 hours, but the trip is well worth it. Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, has several non-stop flights from major European airports.
Once in Kigali, I recommend a minimum one night in Kigali in order to visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial and acclimate to the time change. Unless your time is seriously limited, then you could take a private helicopter from Kigali airport onto One and Only Nyungwe House. One & Only Resorts, a Diego Travel preferred partner, has the perfect pairing of resorts in Rwanda that I cannot recommend enough. You can find out more about my stays under Where To Stay in Rwanda. When you utilize Diego Travel’s trip planning service, we handle all of the logistics of travel to the Rwanda, taking into consideration the number of nights you have, your budget, and facts you may not even be aware of that might add a roadblock to your trip unless you utilize someone in-the-know.
Dian Fossey was a leading researcher of gorillas and conservationist who spent two decades studying and protecting the gorillas, until her death in 1985. Her research and activism against the poaching of gorillas was what led to their continued growth, and to this day, Rwanda has the strictest rules in place to protect the gorilla population. The Ellen Degeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is made up of three buildings – an interactive museum for the general public where you can learn about gorillas, their behaviors and habitat, and also learn about the life of Dian Fossey.
The second building is home to a cafeteria for the many schools of children who come through to learn about gorillas, as well as classrooms and lecture halls where future generations can participate in the continued conservation of the species.
The final building on campus houses labs and office space for primatologists and university research students, who study things such as gorilla stressors which they are able to do by measuring cortisol levels in fecal samples, knowing exactly what the gorillas were doing at the moment the fecal sample was collected. When I asked if exposure to tourists affects the gorillas stress level, Veronica, the modern day Dian Fossey and director of the campus who has spent the last 30 years of her life with the gorillas, smiled and replied, “Happily not. They are unaffected by tourism because we maintain tight control of their exposure.“
As a Diego Travel client, you can get an insider’s tour of the areas that aren’t open to the public, as well as access to the rooftop viewing deck, where you can sip cocktails and munch on canapés with gorgeous volcano vistas in the background. The campus also has meeting space, so if your company is thinking of a destination for a small work retreat, Rwanda is ideal and Diego Travel can help you plan it.
Following the tour of the campus, the main highlight and life-changing experience of your trip to Rwanda will be the gorilla trekking. There are currently 12 gorilla families that you can observe, all named after the leading silverback gorilla of the group. Permits to see the gorillas cost $1500 USD per person, with a minimum age of 15 years old. There is a daily maximum of 90 tourists allowed to enter the national park, broken up into groups of 6 people or less, and accompanied by 1-2 guides. Once the gorillas are spotted, the group has exactly 60 minutes to observe them. This guarantees that each gorilla family is exposed to humans for no more than 1 hour on any given day.
Gorilla trackers who sleep in the national park forest communicate with the guides via walkie-talkie, providing an estimated location of each gorilla family. Given the gorillas’ location at time of the tourist group’s departure, they can predict whether a trek will be easy, medium or hard, allowing you to choose your difficulty level. However, because gorillas can quickly change course, it is oftentimes unpredictable, as was the case on one of my treks.
Porters will also accompany each group, providing someone to carry your backpack and help you climb what can be a very steep incline. The guides will lead the group with machetes, creating a hiking path as you cut through what can be thick bush full of stinging nettles. I highly recommend wearing thicker canvas-type pants, knee-high hiking socks, and ankle hiking boots, and the hotels I recommend for my clients provide gators to protect the lower part of your legs. Even if you feel that you don’t need a porter, for just $10, you’re providing a salary and supporting the community by utilizing them. Many of today’s porters are also ex-poachers, who have been retrained to earn a living in a sustainable way that supports wildlife instead of harming it.
I’ll discuss my personal experience of the gorilla trekking under the summary of my trip, but going just once wasn’t enough for me. After falling in love with the experience, I returned the following day for a second trek. Each trek experience was completely different from the other, and I’m so grateful that I had the chance to do two gorilla treks.
Chimpanzee trekking means a 4 AM wakeup call because catching the chimps just as they’re waking up is key to a good experience. The chimpanzees were my first foray into seeing the true wildlife in Africa, and to describe the sound of the rainforest at sunrise, with heavy rains falling around us, would be fruitless. You just have to experience it.
As a city girl, I was very poorly equipped to hike in heavy rainfall. At 4:30 AM, I groggily stumbled into the hotel’s reception to grab a to-go breakfast and a cup of coffee from the beautifully set up station, only to be given the up and down from a gorgeous South African woman, dressed appropriately in head-to-toe Patagonia gear. “Don’t you have any other pants? Those are awfully baggy and will be soaked within minutes,” she told me. I shook my head and self-consciously nibbled on my gluten-free lemon poppyseed muffin as I silently pondered how in the world I got it all wrong.
Because the majority of the land in Rwanda is farmland, a highlight of your trip will be the farm-to-table dining. Aside from food, the artisans of Rwanda gather and build co-ops or communities where they sell handwoven baskets, hand-carved gorilla statues, and Imigongo painted traditional artwork, using terracotta, black and earthy color tones with the primary ingredient being cow dung. We had a chance to create our own, and let’s just say I’m not going to quit my day job. I did, however, do enough shopping to fill the handy Tumi Just In Case bag I always pack.
The genocide of Rwanda was a mass ethnic killing of an estimated 1 million Tutsi. The division of ethnicities within Rwanda was not based on facts, but rather an invention of the Belgian colonialists since the 1940s, who divided the Rwandans into three groups based on physical traits. Their plan to divide the population and ultimately rule over them was a slowly seeping process of infiltrating hatred amongst Rwandans. In 1994, following a series of events that created a perfect storm, there was a 3-month period in which neighbors and friends turned on each other and brutally murdered the entire population of the Tutsi people, or anyone who was associated with them.
A visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial is a crucial first stop on your trip to Rwanda. It creates context for your entire vacation, and will allow you to have a 360 degree understanding of who the Rwandan people are, where they came from, and how far they have come.
While not easy, I am definitely going to recommend a visit to all of my clients at the start of their trip. The memorial was set up as a place to honorably bury about 250,000 Rwandans who died during the genocide, but also allows families a place to visit and reflect, and honor those who died during this tragedy.
While the 1994 genocide is a stain on Rwanda’s history, present-day Rwanda is a state of security and unity. I have never felt so safe while traveling, as hotels require several security checkpoints, and even to enter the airport area requires everyone to get out of the vehicle while it is driven through a security scanner. All the hotels and national forests were patrolled by armed security, making a stay in Rwanda very safe.
One of the best destinations in Africa for a truly luxury and exclusive experience is in Rwanda. While there are many beautiful properties around the world and luxury hotels and accommodations, it is the staff at the One and Only hotels and resorts that will make your stay so special.
One and Only Nyungwe House, pronounced young-way with an ’n’ on the front, is perfect for honeymooners, anniversary trips, bucket list trips, and even great for families. The property allows children about 10 years and older, but keep in mind that they will not be able to visit the chimps and gorillas until 15-years-old. One and Only Nyungwe House is 23 rooms and suites set on a 10 hectare working tea plantation.
When we arrived after a 30-minute commercial flight from Kigali, and about a 45-minute safari jeep ride to the property, we were greeted by drummers and dancers, and just like the song of the chimpanzees in the rainforest, their song brought on a wave of emotion that instantly filled my heart with joy and my eyes with tears. I cannot describe the experience in any other way, but I know that I never wanted it to end.
Dee, the property’s South African general manager, greeted us with a hand held over her heart, as the rest of the staff lined up with the same gesture and handing us a damp hotel towel and welcome ginger tea. Dee welcomed us into their ‘home’ where she explained that between our two stays, “Nyungwe House is the heart, whereas Gorilla’s Nest is the arms and legs.”
As we were led on a tour of the property’s spa, library, pool, and rooms, Dee’s infectious laugh was sprinkled between stories as she described the Nyungwe experience. This unique gem of a property certainly felt like a peaceful sanctuary of treehouses nestled into the edge of the forest, where you commonly see Colobus and Mangobee monkeys visiting your terrace.
I’ll discuss some activities we did on property in the summary of our stay, but as a general rule, I would recommend a minimum of 3-nights at Nyungwe House, especially if you plan on doing the chimpanzee tour and really relaxing on the property. For more time for relaxation after your long journey, you’ll really need 4 nights for the adventure + relaxation pieces.
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Diego Travel Recommends One&Only Nyungwe House For: Honeymooners | Small Destination Weddings | Couples Groups | Multi-Generational Families with Older Children | Anniversary Trips | Adventure Seekers | Incentive Trips
One and Only Gorillas Nest is my favorite hotel in the world. There, I said it! Everyone always asks me that question and before visiting this property, I truly didn’t have a favorite. “Well, it depends on what style,” I’d say. Or I’d ask, “For a boutique hotel or a resort?” For One and Only Gorilla’s Nest, it doesn’t matter who you are or what your taste is, I can pretty much guarantee you’re going to love it and never want to leave.
We landed by helicopter on the property’s helipad after a 40-minute helicopter ride from One and Only Nyungwe House, again greeted by tear-inducing African dancers and drummers with the staff impeccably dressed in suits with their hands held over their hearts. If there ever was a moment when I felt like a celebrity or the President of the United States, this was it. Speaking of celebrities, Bill Gates was one of the property’s first guests, which speaks to the calibre and privacy that the resort offers.
The owner of One and Only Gorillas Nest is from Dubai and literally spared no expense to perfect every detail in a way that I have never seen before. Craig, the area manager who oversees both Rwandan properties, gave us a tour of the locker rooms at Club One, the main pool, gym, and spa amenities area, and I commented how even the men’s locker room used dark wood while the ladies’ locker room was white and bright. He paused and raised an eyebrow, saying, “Funny you should mention that. There’s a story behind it actually.” He went on to tell us that after the installation of the locker rooms was complete, the owner was visiting and realized that the location of the ladies’ room would require them to walk on a pathway with no overhang (for a total distance of about 15 feet). He didn’t like the idea of the ladies getting wet in the rain, so swapped the men’s and women’s rooms, which required a complete de-installation of cabinetry from each room.
The interior decorator, Hurburtus Feit, who lives in Paris and primarily does residential projects, incorporated different patterns and textures throughout the hotel and purposely gave it the residential feel for which he is so well-known, creating a cozy retreat that makes you feel like you’ll never want to leave.
Initially the idea for the resort was to build 42 rooms, but after considering that the property lends itself to privacy and exclusivity, they decided to build just 21, allowing for a sense of place within each space. The entry level room cannot even be considered entry level, as all rooms have a sitting area with fireplace, great outdoor deck, and outdoor shower. Some of my favorite details about the Forest View Lodge, where I stayed, was the view, the best bed sheets I’ve ever slept in (I looked at the tag and unfortunately they are made exclusively for Gorilla’s Nest) and the design details like the gorilla doorstop and hand-carved pen, the gluten-free snacks especially made for me and left at the self-serve bar, fully stocked with the finest china and glassware, and the heated bathroom floors. They even have a Dyson hairdryer in the bathrooms, and speaking from experience, I know that many of my clients will love that!
Aside from the Forest Lodge, they also have a Double Queen room, which is essentially a 2-bedroom with shared bathroom and living room. The second bedroom has a powder room off it as well, which would be perfect for older kids. The property has 5 Virunga suites, with one being in a cluster of 3 rooms, perfect for a family or group traveling together. The Virunga Suites are gorgeous, and would be a better option if you need more common space. Finally, the Silverback Suite is the top suite on property, with a full outdoor pool looking over the best view on property. It also has a kitchen that can accommodate a kosher diet, or for someone who needs to eat their meals in villa, a private chef can prepare their food there.
What makes One&Only Gorillas Nest so special though is not the property itself, but rather the people and the experiences that they provide. Everyone is so kind and genuinely happy for you to be there, that every moment, word and action is made with such heartfelt intention. The staff addresses you by name, and offers a subtle bow with the signature hand over heart as they smile and ask if you need anything. When the sun goes down and the chilly evening settles in, they pick you up in a golf cart, a heated water bottle wrapped in beautiful African fabric is placed over your lap as they wrap your shoulders in a soft wool blanket. Post-trek you’ll be met at the reception as they seat you on a bench where they remove your boots and dirty socks to replace them with your choice of African slides or white flip-flops. By that evening, your hiking boots magically appear in your room, looking as clean as the day that you bought them.
One final note about One and Only Gorillas Nest: we stayed 3 nights but I secretly inquired with Micato Safaris about staying on a 4th night. There are commercial flights that run to Kigali, but unfortunately there wasn’t any running the day that I needed it; 3 nights was not enough, especially considering that I did two gorilla treks, so when we plan your vacation to Rwanda, I highly recommend staying on 4 nights if you plan on doing the second gorilla trek.
Book with Diego Travel to Receive the Following One&Only Preferred Partner Amenities:
One of my favorite hidden gems of the trip was The Retreat in Kigali, a boutique hotel built by two American ex-pats, Alisa and Josh Ruxin, who work with local non-profits and started this project to create a hospitality training program for organizations such as Orphans of Rwanda. They currently employ a staff of 145 for just 20 rooms, that range from an entry-level Deluxe Room to a Luxury Pool Villa, with rates starting around $300 USD per night. This quaint property is the 5 star version of its sister hotel next door called Heaven. A restaurant with excellent food and some more 3.5-4 star accommodations, Heaven is a great option for the more budget-minded traveler.
The commercial flight into Nyungwe was not as easy as I would have thought. The Rwandan processing is slow, whether it’s through security checkpoints or checking into hotels. As we were traveling with Micato Safaris, they did a fantastic job of keeping our documents in order and because they provided each destination with our documentation in advance, there was less wait time than what one would typically experience. Some things are unpredictable though, such as our bags taking an hour to get unloaded from the plane upon arrival into Nyungwe, so my advice is to pack your patience when traveling to Africa.
I already spoke about the arrival to Nyungwe House, but the emotion that overcame me I can neither put into words or ever forget it. The sense of being in Rwanda makes you somehow feel at home, even though you are worlds away.
Much of your stay will be had around the dining table or around a fire. While I started off the trip a complete stranger to all of my travel industry companions, I left feeling more connected to them because of this. We shared conversation, we shared great food, but most importantly we shared the unique experience of witnessing these magnificent animals in the wild together.
To return to the experience of the gorilla trek, since that is the sole reason why most people visit Rwanda, I would like to explain a little bit more about the process so you know what to expect. The allowed hour felt like a blip, and Craig recommend to us, over the glow of the fireplace the night before, to allow ourselves 15 minutes to take photos and video, but then to just set it aside and be present with the animals. This was the best advice I could have gotten, even though it was definitely hard to do. While the permit cost is very expensive, it’s important to note that it’s meant to keep the number of tourists to a minimum and a portion of the proceeds goes toward the conservation of the national parks and the gorillas. For example, 5% goes toward the farmers who surround the national park, as sometimes the gorillas will escape the wall of the national forest and destroy the bamboo or farm crops. This 5% covers that cost to maintain or repair any damage, so that locals are incentivized not to harm them.
As I mentioned I did two treks, and while I don’t want to go into huge detail about them, as it was such a special experience that I want to selfishly keep some things for myself, I will say that the two treks were completely different. The first was about a 3 hour hike up steep inclines of thick mud and stinging nettles. When we arrived to the Sabinyo gorilla family, we were in tight quarters with them, all huddled together on the side of the mountain. The proximity was so close that a baby, a mother and the silverback, Sabinyo, all brushed beside me as they made their way through. On my second trek, it could not have been more different. The gorilla family this time was Mahowza, and as we were approaching the national park, the family was migrating down directly toward us. We took about 20 steps inside the wall and there they were. The guides told us to hand over our backpacks and walking sticks to the porters, as poachers used to beat them with sticks and so the sight of them still makes them defensive. Since the backpacks contain food, you keep that away from them as well. We then followed them as they formed a line of about 18 gorillas, who proceeded to walk out of the national park and onto the farmland, where they happily destroyed a field of bamboo, clawing and gnawing and licking it as they rolled, climbed, and played with each other.
Aside from the gorilla trekking, the properties arranged other activities so that we could experience it all, such as archery, drum circle, and spear throwing. Have you ever thrown an African spear? It’s not as easy as it looks, and God knows how they ever killed any animals using that method. We painted, we took a course on tea picking and tasting, we had yoga class and massages. While both places were amazing, Delice at One and Only Gorillas Nest was the best massage I’ve ever had in my life, so much so that I asked her if I could take her home with me.
There was one waiter, Jean, at One and Only Nyungwe House whose excitement and happiness was so contagious, you couldn’t help but fall in love with him. Josh, a travel companion, asked him, “Do you love your job?” He beamed ear-to-ear with his wide vibrant smile and said, “I love it too much!” Being there with people like that just made your heart melt, and made me realize that while they have so little, they have more than we will ever know. The key to happiness, or that sense of being that all of us eternally long for yet never attain, belongs to the people of Rwanda. Jean, the Patricks, Esperanz, T, and so many more, have kept a piece of my heart with them. Someday I’ll return to experience it again.
If you are ready for your trip to Rwanda, please contact me here to begin planning your incredible life-changing journey. Book your next Micato Safari with Diego Travel to receive a $200 per person gift credit to the Micato online safari store towards the purchase of apparel and gear.