Understandably, one of your first big questions when considering a safari trip to Rwanda may very well be...is it safe? Although any mention of the East African country of Rwanda may conjure up images of the violent 1994 Genocide of the Tutsi and Hutu, Peter Brooks assures us that there’s been a robust reconstruction of the country since then, along with political stability of the Rwandan government, community growth, and economic innovation under the leadership of President Paul Kagame.
“I’ve never felt more comfortable in a place,” says Brooks, who has visited the East African country several times. “I can walk through every street, and friends from female perspectives have echoed that sentiment as well. The business community here has really led the improvements over the past 20+ years, and today it’s one of the most progressive, safest, fastest-growing cities and countries that I’ve been to.”
And it has the record to back it up.
In 2017, the World Economic Forum ranked Rwanda as the ninth safest country in the world ahead of Portugal, New Zealand, Austria, Sweden, Spain, Netherlands, and Canada. The rankings consider common crime, violence, terrorism, and the extent to which police services can be relied upon to provide crime protection.
A year prior, in 2016, a Gallup Global Law and Order report ranked Rwanda 11th globally and second in Africa on its list of the safest countries, with consideration for people’s sense of personal security and experiences with law enforcement.
Continue reading for a full guide to safety, along with tips and advice for travelers to this small, landlocked country in East Africa that borders the Democratic Republic of The Congo (DRC), Burundi, Tanzania, and Uganda.
Crime is relatively low in Rwanda, although petty theft via pickpockets may be active in crowded places such as markets. Overall, violent crimes against travelers are extremely rare, and locals have a reputation for being incredibly warm and welcoming.
“When I go for my runs, people will come up to me and ask to talk,” Brooks tells us, “and pre-COVID, when I would just walk around, everyone would wave to me. Once I got lost and so many people offered to help me. In terms of hospitality, I’ve never seen anything like this. It feels like the Twilight Zone.”
Rwanda is known for having one of the lowest corruption scores on the continent with a zero tolerance policy for any form of attempted bribery or harassment. If you do encounter this, you’re advised to contact the Rwanda National Police hotline at 116.
When it comes to public transportation, Rwanda has a well-established and reliable shared minibus network that connects major towns, cities, and neighboring countries. Be sure to purchase your ticket from the official bus company counters to avoid scammers. The buses operate on a smart card system, Tap&Go.
Like at most major airports, there are taxis that linger outside of Kigali International Airport, which are perfectly safe to take. Just be sure to choose an official taxi (white with an orange stripe and roof sign). All taxis should have a meter, but if by chance it doesn’t, be sure to negotiate and agree upon the fare before you enter the car.
- Drug possession, use, and trafficking is illegal in Rwanda
- Photography of military and government buildings, along with border crossing points, is strictly prohibited
- Using a cell phone while driving is illegal
- Inappropriate talk promoting divisive ideas about the Rwandan Genocide (based on ethnic, regional, racial, religious, or other differences) can result in financial penalties (100,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandan francs) and, in severe cases, imprisonment under the umbrella of “public incitement of genocide ideology.”
Homosexuality isn’t illegal in Rwanda; however, it is still not widely accepted—despite the fact that there are a few gay-friendly spots in Kigali. The country is fairly conservative and, while the prejudice against LGBTQ+ travelers isn’t as severe as other African countries, it is still advised to remain discreet at all times.
Gorilla trekking safety
Armed military guides accompany every gorilla trekking group through their experience in Volcanoes National Park or Nyungwe Forest National Park to ensure safety.
“Mountain gorillas are THE marquee experience in Rwanda,” explains Brooks. “And while the neighboring countries also have gorillas, many people choose Rwanda because of how safe it is. It just makes it so much more appealing to come here.”
Note that if you travel during the rainy season (April - June and October - December), the tracks may be muddy and slippery.
Although most of Rwanda sits at too high of an elevation for malaria to be a major concern, the disease is present, so it’s advised to take prophylactic drugs before/during your visit and use ample mosquito repellent during your trip. Fortunately, all safari lodges in the country are required to provide mosquito nets.
Before traveling, visitors should consult with their doctor and/or the CDC for information on the required vaccines for Hepatitis A, B, and typhoid. Note that the Government of Rwanda requires certification of a yellow fever vaccination in order to enter.
Many vaccinations take time to provide complete protection, so be sure to handle this well before you leave.
Travelers to Rwanda are advised not to drink tap water. Instead, stick to bottled mineral water with an intact seal, which can easily be found in all towns and cities.
“Rwanda is on top of the COVID situation,” Brooks tells us. “Their process is amazing, and it’s all due to infrastructure that’s backed by the tech scene."
With just one doctor for every 10,0000 people (compared to 26 in the US), it makes sense that they’ve executed one of the continent’s most aggressive strategies on coronavirus containment. And it’s worked. They began COVID screening in January, were the first African nation to impose a full lockdown (and border closure) in March, and have since deployed upwards of 10,000 field workers for contact tracing efforts. 4,800 cases have been registered, with just 29 deaths. And to date, Rwanda is only one of 11 countries worldwide (and the only one in Africa) that the EU considers a “safe travel destination.”
As of August 1, 2020, Rwanda has opened to international travel for visitors arriving by scheduled commercial flights. However, “you have to have a test done within a five-day period before you fly out,” explains Brooks. “All that information needs to be uploaded to the government’s platform, and you need to book a hotel. When you get into the country, you hop on a shuttle that takes you to a pre-booked hotel for quarantine. Once you’re at the hotel, you have another COVID test. My results came back in seven hours, and everything is electronically done.”
Once you’re in Rwanda:
There’s a strictly-enforced curfew (9PM), which has rendered the nightlife scene “pretty dormant,” says Brooks. The government has installed portable washing stations throughout the city and at every large establishment for people to wash their hands, and you’ll often hear COVID prevention guidelines blaring through loudspeakers fitted onto drones hovering over congested areas of the city.
Additionally, there’s a country-wide mask mandate that everyone, for the most part, adheres to and takes seriously.
“There’s a level of precaution here that you don’t see in the states,” argues Brooks.
According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, Rwanda is also employing technology in medical facilities to minimize contact between patients and health workers via human-sized robots that relay messages about patients’ conditions to doctors, take their temperature, deliver messages, and even detect if they’re not wearing a mask.
It is essential to secure international travel/health insurance for medical coverage and financial protection during your time in Africa—so much so that many safari tour operators mandate that you purchase a plan as a prerequisite to reserving a package. When selecting a plan (which Journy helps you out with and includes in the total price of the package), there are a few things to look for:
- Emergency evacuation coverage
- Ambulance coverage (land and air)
- Repatriation coverage
- Multi-country coverage, if applicable
- Activity coverage, if applicable, for scuba diving, bungee-jumping, balloon safari, high altitude trekking, etc.
- Trip cancellation coverage
- High coverage limit for medical expenses
The best plans aren’t cheap, but we can assure you they’re worth it.
For a full guide on Brooks' top things to do throughout the country—including the Kigali Genocide Memorial, Lake Kivu, Akagera National Park, and more—refer to our complete Rwanda guide.
Thinking about a multi-country trip and not sure where to start? This African safari guide will help.