Nyungwe Forest is a great option for a weekend trip from Kigali – easy to organize, beautiful scenery, and relatively affordable. The windy drive through the park is stunning (if you can take your eyes off the potholed road) as you drive on the ridge among huge trees and lush canopy forests, with views out over deep valleys. And the well-maintained hikes take you down into the forest canopy, which gives the aura of being prehistoric and remote. It’s a good bet that someone in your group will make a Fern Gully reference.
Nyungwe is wide – over an hour to drive from one end to the other – so take that into account for planning hikes and accommodations. The near end is about an hour and half from Butare (4 hours from Kigali), and the far end is almost to Cyangugu and the DRC border. There are a couple lodging options for different price ranges, including a campsite area among trees and monkeys.
Driving through the park, we saw plenty of baboons and black-and-white mountain monkeys, along with some interesting birds. We didn’t see nearly as much wildlife during our hikes, as supposedly it’s harder to see things when you’re under the tall canopy. But we did have monkeys around our campsite in the morning, including an unknown evil-looking grey monkey and two mountain monkeys getting monkey-busy.
One word of advice: this is a RAIN forest! We went in mid-June, leaving sunny Kigali in shorts and t-shirts. It ended up dumping rain throughout one of our hikes and also most of the night, and we were soaked.
Over halfway through the park (coming from Kigali) is the Uwinka visitor centre, with some forest info and where you can book hikes and activities. The campsite is also here, with a number of sites set in small private clearings. We were the only people camping on a Saturday and opted for a remote site a couple hundred meters down a dirt path. Each site has a covered concrete hut for a cooking fire and eating, and they’ll even send a guy to start your fire in the evening and morning. There’s also a decent bathroom, and I think they offered to warm up water for showers if we wanted. The camping fee is $30 per person per night if you’re also paying for hikes ($20 for residents), and $50 ($30 for residents) otherwise.
The 2 other lodging (and eating) options are a couple kilometres outside the park on the west side, 30 minutes from Uwinka. The new Nyungwe Forest Lodge, in the middle of a tea plantation, looks super nice and gets good reviews. But rooms are $175 a night per person (I’ll never get this per person charging policy) including all meals. 2 km west is the ORTPN Resthouse (aka Gisakura Guesthouse), which seemed basic with shared bathrooms, but decent and only $50 a night for a room with a double bed. This ends up being cheaper than camping – but it’s a lot less character building than sleeping in a puddle in a leaky tent. Right next door is the other visitor centre where hikes can be arranged.
There are different hike options from the Uwinka and Gisakura visitor centres, and you pay by the hike distance. The best option for a weekend trip is two hikes for $70 per person ($55 for residents). You are required to take a guide and someone to watch your car on each hike, which is included in the cost. Most start a few kms from the visitor centres and they don’t have their own transportation, so we had to cram five of us + guide + car watcher into our rented RAV 4 to get to the trailhead.
From Uwinka, there are a number of hikes of different lengths that used be named after colours but have been renamed. There’s also a sketchy-looking canopy walk high above a valley, but it’ll set you back $60. We arrived to Uwinka Saturday at 1pm and immediately set off on the Umugote (blue) hike, which is supposed to have the highest chance of seeing monkeys and birds. Unfortunately, it started pouring right when we set out and never let up, so we got drenched and the animals were in hiding. But it’s a really nice hike through dense forest with a ton of ferns. It took about 3.5 hours to do the loop and 1.5 hours to dry out blasting the car heater.
After camping Saturday night, we drove to the Gisakura visitor centre in the morning to do the highly recommended 4-hour Waterfall Trail. Despite seeing little wildlife, it’s got spectacular views of hidden valleys and the trees of the canopy, and the 14-meter waterfall didn’t disappoint.
You can also do chimp tracking for $90 ($70 for residents), but you need to leave around 5 am and they cautioned us that it’s not guaranteed to catch up to these hyper chimps.
The drive from Kigali is straightforward – the only turn is a right at a small sign just before Butare. The road is paved the whole way, but the potholes start from Butare and get worse and worse as you go west through the park. We got a flat on a nasty pothole, so make sure you have a spare tire.
The trip looks like it can be coupled with Kibuye/Gisenyi/Ruhengeri by driving up the road bordering Lake Kivu, but it would be a mission because that road is really bad.
Taking the bus actually seems doable, but you’d be limited on your hike options. You could take the Cyangugu bus all the way to the Gitarama visitor centre, start the waterfall hike from there (an extra 30 minutes walk through the tea plantation to get to the trailhead), and then stay at one of the 2 lodges. Or, get off at Uwinka, do one of the hikes near there, and camp. For the bus back, best to buy a seat in Kigali for the Sotra Tours Cyangugu-Kigali bus, and then wait on the side of the road at the right time to try to flag it down.