Despite the small size of the country relative to those surrounding it, Rwanda is home to some vast and incredibly diverse national parks. Whether youre visiting the mountainous Volcanoes National Park in the north of the country, or the lakes and swamps of Akagera towards the South, you'll be awed by the incredible scenery and fascinating wildlife. Here is a quick rundown of the 4 main National Parks in Rwanda, and what you will find when you visit them.
1. Parc National De Volcans (Volcanoes National Park)
Found in the northwest of Rwanda, Parc National de Volcans (Volcanoes National Park) is one of the few places on earth to catch a glimpse of the elusive mountain gorilla on expert-led gorilla tracking expeditions. Not only home to gorillas, safari goers to the park may get a glimpse of spotted hyenas, golden monkeys, buffalos and black- fronted duikers as well as a recorded 178 bird species. Nestled in the heart of the Virunga Mountains - a stunning chain of volcanoes found in East Africa - Volcanoes National Park is a must-see for anyone with an interest in nature and wildlife.
Aside from being home to incredible wildlife and scenery, the park was once the base of Dian Fossey, the famous primatologist who has spent her life studying and living alongside primates, during her many years of research. The 1988 film ‘Gorillas in the Mist' tells her story. Visitors to the park can visit her grave near her Research Centre as well as some of the graves of gorillas killed by poachers.
Besides the obvious gorilla tracking, there is plenty of adventure to be had in the park, from nature walks and mountain climbing to tracking golden monkeys and opportunities to interact with former poachers who have given up their old ways and become conservation activists.
The town of Ruhengeri lies at the base of the Virungas and is home to a small number of locals who have embraced the uniqueness of their location and even allowed the surrounding volcanoes to influence the design and layout of their bustling town - evidence of which you find on the outskirts of town in the form of a regularly used natural bridge created from solidified lava. The park is worth a visit, and conveniently Ruhengeri isn't lacking in affordable accommodation (although no hotels made of lava).
2. Akagera National Park
In stark contrast to the mountainous landscapes of Volcanoes National Park (and indeed the rest of Rwanda), you'll find Akagera National Park, a flat and wet park bordering Tanzania. However, while the land may be flat, the experience is anything but.
Whereas volcanoes dominated the scenery at Volcanoes National Park, Akagera predominantly consists of swamps and lakes, with over a third of the park underwater. This results in an entirely different experience from that of other parks in Rwanda. Animals like giraffes and elephants can be seen feeding by the water, offering visitors the chance to see these giants in a less frantic environment than they would typically be seen in.
The water is also home to animals that you generally wouldn't find at other Rwandan parks, and it isn't unusual to stumble across large pods of hippopotamus splashing in the water or crocodiles sunbathing on the banks of the water.
It's not just the animals occupying the waters that attract visitors - the skies above Akagera are home to some of the rarest and most sought-after birds in the whole of Africa, many of which can be seen in full flight as they scour the waters beneath them for fish.
3. Nyungwe Forest National Park
Nyungwe Forest National Park is the largest mountain forest in East Africa, extending for more than 1,000 square kilometres over the southeast of Rwanda. The park is a haven for primates, with 13 different species found amongst the trees and greenery. Arguably the species that attracts the most visitors is the chimpanzee, an animal that resembles humans so closely in movement and appearance that seeing it in its natural environment is often cited as a life-changing experience.
Bird watchers have also been known to flock to Nyungwe in the hope of catching a glimpse of one of the 300 different species found amongst the trees, including the stunning Great Blue Turaco, the sight of which in the wild is worth the price of admission alone.
The numerous hiking trails are ideal for primate trackers, botanists and bird lovers. If you can drag your eyes away from the birds and primates occupying the branches above you, you'll notice an alien world of trees and flowers, old mahoganies, ebonies and giant tree ferns with orchids clinging to every branch. Nyungwe is home to more than 200 different types of trees. Walks in the forest last from one to six or seven hours and you can arrange to track chimpanzees.
Another exciting part of a Nyungwe Forest National Park safari is the recently opened canopy walk, the only one of its kind in East Africa. This is a wonderful vantage point to view the incredible biodiversity of this rare forest.
Peaceful waterfalls, well-maintained campsites and stunning wildlife make Nyungwe a great place to visit during your time in Rwanda.
4. Gishwati - Mukura National Park
Nestled in the west of Rwanda, Gishwati Forest lies on the edges of Lake Kivu and between Volcanoes National Park and Nyungwe National Park. It became a National Park in Rwanda in 2015 and was created to help several threatened species in the area. So far the efforts have been a success, with population numbers of animals like chimpanzees and golden monkeys growing steadily since the park was officially created.
The small size of the forests in the park makes it a favourite for bird enthusiasts, as the trees are all relatively compacted together making it far less difficult for birds to hide from view.
Local communities have embraced the arrival of the new park, and have even shown entrepreneurial spirit by offering tours of the park. The Lake Kivu area is a popular holiday destination, set amid a dramatic mountain range with a picturesque shoreline and plenty of opportunities for water sports and boat excursions.
Rwanda's National Parks offer adventurous life-changing experiences for everyone who visits them. Will your next adventure be a safari in Rwanda?