Gorillas and Coffee Bars? The Transformation of Rwanda

It’s 7:30 a.m. on a sparkling January morning at the Kinigi headquarters of Volcanoes National Park and shadows are slipping off the mountains, rendering them candy-apple green in the sunlight. In a clearing, a troupe of dancers sways to pounding drums. Small groups of people decked out in bush hats and hiking boots clutch steaming mugs of locally-grown coffee and tea, a last moment of calm to mark the adventure that many in the crowd have awaited their whole lives: the trek to see the Virunga mountain gorillas.

Despite the peaceful scenario, the air is electric with anticipation, nowhere more so than at park headquarters, in the office of Chief Tourism Warden Anaclet Budahera, who fields a barrage of questions from the trackers and guides. His gentle and studious demeanor makes it easy to forget that, as gatekeeper to the mountain gorilla experience — the cornerstone of Rwanda’s burgeoning tourist industry — he may be one of the most powerful men in the country.

“You won’t find these primates in any other ecosystem in the world except the Virunga Range,” he says, referring to the swath of land that straddles Uganda, the DRC, and Rwanda. “Our aim is to make sure we meet everyone’s expectations.”


A silverback gorilla from the Hirwa Group in the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. (Photo: Mone Loe/Flickr)

A few years prior, on my first trip to Rwanda, I made my way east from Kigali to venture into the bamboo forest. There, I witnessed the Hirwa family (one of 10 gorilla families), which included a rare set of newborn twins that bounced between their siblings and their amused Silverback father. The experience far surpassed my own hopes. The day was life-changing not simply because of the astonishing vision of these glorious beasts in their remote habitat. Even more remarkable were the intangibles of my trek: perfect logistics, generous guides, and the sensation of being looked-after and utterly safe in a spectacularly beautiful place.

It crystallized a quality in Rwanda that I’ve come to love and crave; the country is permanently under my skin. I first arrived there with a heap of assumptions that seemed reasonable so soon post-tragedy. Four years and five trips later, almost every one of them has been discarded, and Rwanda is at pains to do away with the misunderstandings many in the west still hold.

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Kigali has become a quickly expanding urban center, with chic hotels, coffee bars, and shopping centers. (Photo: Michael Runkel/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis)

Though Rwanda is permanently scarred by the 1994 genocide, the country is on its way to building one of Africa’s most economically-successful societies. There is far to go, but the country’s progress, particularly in education, health care, electrification and poverty reduction under the strict authoritarian rule of former Tutsi rebel President Paul Kagame has been exponential. But Kagame tolerates no political dissent in the press or in his circle, and since any public gathering may be perceived as a potential threat, even small crowds are dispersed by police. Littering is illegal, as are plastic bags, but the result of those policies is a capital city that almost gleams.

From coffee bars and splashy hotels in Kigali (including a Kempinski, a Serena, and soon, a Marriott) to chic eco resorts near Virunga and on Lake Kivu’s beaches, there is a palpable, forward-moving hum that reverberates throughout this tiny east African country roughly the size of Maryland.


A skyline view at Kigali’s Hôtel des Mille Collines by Kempinski. (Photo: Hôtel des Mille Collines by Kempinski)

What is most unusual here is the concentration and diversity of geographical riches and the opportunity for a complete one-stop African adventure. “What is unique is that you can see mountain primates and all kinds of amazing nature and wildlife,” says author and hotel owner Eugene Rutaragama, one of the leaders of the environmental movement in post-genocide Rwanda and the former director of Nyungwe National Park in the country’s southwest. “You can see rainforest, you can see savanna, you can see lakes and mountains and experience our the stable society that we built out of our recent history. The roads are good. The hotels are good. The Internet works everywhere. What more do you want?”


From rain forests to savannas to lakes and beaches, Rwanda has an incredible amount of of eco-diversity for its small size. (Photo: iStock)

And, you can see all of it in four days, with an itinerary that winds through Rwanda’s mesmerizing landscape of lush forests, farms, coffee plantations, and lakeside sandy beaches. Rwanda has repeatedly shown me to be one of the safest and most easily navigated countries I’ve visited, all the more remarkable because of its dark history, which is honored at countless genocide memorials and shrines.

I always begin in Kigali, where I usually bunk down at Heaven Boutique Hotel and Restaurant, which sits atop of one of Kigali’s many hills in the leafy Kiyovu neighborhood. Heaven was conceived by Josh and Alissa Ruxin, two American social entrepreneurs, who a decade ago, made the leap from Manhattan to Kigali. The story is chronicled in Josh’s memoir A Thousand Hills to Heaven: Love, Hope and a Restaurant in Rwanda.

Over a plate of pumpkin risotto and a glass of South African Chardonnay, Josh sums up what is singular — and surprising — about his adopted country. “People can come to Rwanda and have the comforts and security and walk the streets like they would at home,” he says. “At the same time it is dramatically different from anywhere they have ever been and yet is also totally accessible.”

Related: Why I Spent Thanksgiving in Rwanda


A l'Hoest’s monkey in Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda. (Photo: The Africa Image Library / Alamy Stock Photo)

The gorilla trek is the 10-karat diamond in Rwanda’s tourism crown, but two other lesser-known places shine with equal brightness. Together, this trifecta represents the best of Africa — without hordes of Land Rovers and fellow tourists snapping cameras. Nyungwe National Park is an abundant emerald-green rainforest, which contains the largest and oldest afromontane (high altitude) forest in all of Africa as well as the most distant source of the Nile. It is lined with trails that descend to isolated waterfalls and along paths dense with 275 species of birds, 140 species of orchids, and 13 varieties of primates, including the more elusive chimpanzees, which I was thrilled to see (and hear — they are very loud) one drenched early morning on an organized trek through the jungle.


The exterior of Nyungwe Forest Lodge. (Photo: Nyungwe Forest Lodge)

There is also a staggeringly chic hotel, Nyungwe Forest Lodge, perched dead-center in a working tea plantation. If it seems odd to dine on the terrace while workers harvest tea, consider Rwanda’s tourist strategy, devised in 1999 under President Kagame.

After the genocide, when the country was desperate for revenue, conservationists and international consultants pressured the government to leverage the nation’s geographical treasures as a key to poverty alleviation. If the government pledged to conserve its resources, the reasoning went, then tourists would pay a lot to see them in their pristine state, which they knew was unique for Africa. But in order to be truly environmentally responsible, they couldn’t open up to low-budget travelers.

“If too many people came in, it would ultimately destroy what we have. So we decided that the only way to keep green while still attracting tourists was to go high end,” says Rica Rwigamba, the former minister of tourism. For example, the government issues a scant 80 gorilla permits a day at Volcanoes National Park, but charges $750 a piece.


The tea plantation at Nyungwe Forest Lodge. (Photo: Marcia DeSanctis)

This all leads back to the social piece of the puzzle. The state decided to involve surrounding communities in the strategy, where poverty has traditionally induced poaching or illegal entry into the parks for water or firewood. The communities were offered five percent of all tourist revenue as an incentive to protect their surroundings.

“Conservation, tourism and poverty alleviation are 100 percent linked in Rwanda,” says Rwigamba. “We say, if you don’t help preserve the parks, we don’t get the tourists, and then you won’t get the five percent.”

Hence, tea workers bustling around a decidedly first-world hotel at Nyungwe National Park.


Male giraffe in the western sector of Akagera National Park, Rwanda. (Photo: Marcell Claassen/Demotix/Corbis)

Under this government directive, Akagera National Park — clear on the other side of Rwanda, but no more than a half day’s drive from Nyungwe — has evolved from a shattered post-conflict wasteland to a pristine savanna and game reserve, which includes the largest protected wetland in central Africa.


A deck at the new Ruzizi Tented Lodge. (Photo: Ruzizi Tented Lodge/Facebook)

Dust fills my car while winding through the park, where I spot giraffe, hippos, zebra, crocodiles, two elephants, hundreds of impala and baboons, crocodile, water buffalo, Technicolor birds — even a rare leopard. On the shore of Lake Ihema, the Ruzizi Tented Lodge recently opened, with elegant but simple tents and a sultry view onto the water.

Related: Mud, Sweat, and (Joyful) Tears: A Gorilla Trek in Rwanda


The Virungas towering over the Rwanda landscape. (Photo: Novarc Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

On this November day, there is literally no other vehicle in the park. What always strikes me here, and elsewhere in Rwanda, is this rare chance to experience a disappearing Africa. This sensation was perhaps most profound on my second visit to the Virunga Range. This time, I made the treacherous climb up Mount Bisoke, one of the five dormant volcanoes in the park. On the way down, sliding through ankle-deep mud, our guide stopped suddenly and whispered, “Please keep your voices down.” We had bumped into a family of gorillas, not one of those tracked daily for tourists. Two females and four of their young were hanging in the trees no more than five feet from me.

This is what brings me back to Rwanda again and again. That, and the courage of a people who are infused with hope, who have risen from the ashes and wish now to let the world in.

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