Rwanda in CNN Travel top destinations for 2023, here is why it should be in your vacation plans too!

It is that time of the year, CNN Travel publishes the list of destinations to think about for those planning travels in the year, 2023.

And guess what! Rwanda is on the list of 23 destinations that CNN Travel ranks as the best destinations in the world to visit in this new year 2023.

This is beautiful news for Rwanda travel but it is well earned as the Land of Thousand Hills and Mountain Gorillas has done so much to create arguably the best environment on the continent for travelers coming to discover the amazing landscape of rolling hills and volcanic mountains, abundant wildlife, and a beautiful culture all in this tiny country found in the heart of Africa.

This is why you should consider adding Rwanda to your trip to Africa in 2023

Best covid response: Rwanda had one of the best covid responses to tame the covid spread, including instituting lockdowns. And when the vaccines became available, Rwanda was one of the first countries on the continent to access them and vaccinate her people. Most of the population is fully vaccinated and all those working in the hospitality and tourism sector were fully vaccinated. Your safety from covid infection is almost guaranteed in Rwanda

Relaxed covid restrictions: Covid restrictions such as mandatory testing on arrival and quarantine have been dropped in Rwanda. Only remaining restriction is the requirement to take a PCR test if visiting the primates such as gorillas and chimpanzees, and a rapid test for other activities in the parks. This is to protect the wildlife, especially the primates, that share DNA with humans from contracting the virus.

Visa on arrival for all countries: Rwanda has an open-door policy; everyone can get their visas on arrival. Wake up today and want to see the gorillas tomorrow, just book your flight to Rwanda already!!

An oasis of security and safety: Rwanda’s proximity to Eastern Congo and the volatile neighboring countries is often a concern for visitors from across the world. However, the country understands best its position and has beautiful a robust security and intelligence system that has made the Rwanda one of safest countries in the world. The city Kigali is almost an eutopia in Africa with almost no crime on the streets. You walk any time and anywhere without the worry of being mugged or assaulted by goons.

Cleanest and most organized country: Rwanda and the capital Kigali almost seems misplaced in sub-Saharan Africa. The city and country are so clean and organized you will be left speechless. No single person is above the law and every citizen knows his or her role in keeping order and cleanliness. This has been engrained in the soul of the common Rwandan as a tradition.

Abundance of reputed hotels: Several international brands have set up shop in the capital Kigali and across the country. Some of these include Serena, Mariott, Sheraton, Radisson, etc…

Gorillas and other top things to see and do in Rwanda

Gorilla trekking: Gorilla trekking is the most popular tour in Rwanda. The country is home to a third of the world’s remaining mountain gorilla population found in Volcanoes National Park, a part of the Virunga Mountain chain share with Uganda and Congo. The gorilla tracking permit costs $1500

Chimpanzee tracking: If you can, do not miss the chimpanzee trekking, an exciting adventure in Rwanda’s Nyungwe forest that will bring you into a community of chimps in their natural habitat. Getting up-close with our closest relatives is one of the most thrilling wildlife encounters. The chimpanzee trek is also much cheaper than the gorilla trek, a chimp tracking ticket costs no more than $150.

See the Big five in Akagera National Park: Rwanda is slowly building a reputation beyond the gorillas to become a big game country too. Lions and Rhinos, the only missing member of the “big five”, were introduced in Akagera National Park, the only savanna park in the mountainous country. You can therefore enjoy a wildlife safari with all the big five in addition to seeing the gorillas, all this in as few as 3 days in Rwanda!

Lake Kivu: Riding in canoe and fishing on the most scenic lake in central Africa will complete your vacation in Rwanda. Lake Kivu is Rwanda’s biggest lake located along the Rwanda – Congo border and is set in one of the most idyllic of places in the rolling hills of the Albertine rift valley and the sprawling Virunga Mountain ranges. Active travelers can take on the multi-day hiking and biking trail – the Congo-Nile trail along the Lake Kivu.

Ticking off endemic birds in the Albertine Rift valley: Rwanda is a heaven for birdwatchers, with more than 700 bird species in a such a small territory but mostly the endemic birds of the Albertine rift valley found in montane forests in the west of the country make birding in Rwanda a matter of when and not if.

Kigali City tour: Kigali is eutopia in Africa or an experiment to prove that black Africans are capable of building modern safe cities devoid chaos that is characterized by most cities in Africa. A day tour of Kigali City will include a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial where you learn about the horrors of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, as well as other genocides that have happened around the world. It is a place to reflect about the consequences of blind hate leaving you different.

Amazing people with a vibrant culture: The genocide cast a dark shadow on what Rwandans truly are, they are friendly and beautiful people with strong cultures and traditions including the iconic intore dance. You can visit an organized cultural village where Rwanda cultures and traditions are showcased. Once such is the Gorilla Guardians Cultural Village near the mountain gorillas.

Night walks introduced in Nyungwe Forest National Park

Finally, our prayers have been answered! In addition to the amazing day experiences in Nyungwe National Park such as the chimpanzee trekking, canopy walk and nature walks, tourists can now do a night walk in Nyungwe Forest National Park to look for the nocturnal life and experience the hair-raising and adrenaline inducing night atmosphere of this rich mountain jungle – a 2021 candidate for the UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Nyungwe Forest National Park, protecting an ancient and diverse mountain forest in the Albertine rift region that keeps a lot of unique wildlife & amazing sights is the best place in Rwanda for one to experience the African forest and discover several species of monkeys and primates, track chimpanzees, see birds and rare plants, reptiles, insects, etc…

Nyungwe has many walking trails available for nature enthusiast to explore this amazing forest, however all of these had been limited to the day, leaving many nature lovers wondering what life comes alive in this jungle when the night falls and how it feels being there at night. In fact, a lot is left unseen when night falls and this night walk will provide a beautiful opportunity to see creatures such as the bush baby and potto.

The night walk has been a big answered prayer for the birdwatchers who have always wanted to tick off the nocturnal birds of this forest. Therefore, birders planning a birding tour in Rwanda, it is now possible to do night birding in Nyungwe and should not miss it on the itinerary for a chance to tick off especially the Albertine rift endemic nocturnal birds; the Ruwenzori Nightjar and Albertine Owlet.

When do the night walks start in Nyungwe national park

The night walk in Nyungwe is scheduled to start at 5.30pm, which is sunset and darkness is falling over the forest. The night walk ends around 8pm – 9m.

The park guide/s shall have torchlight/spotlight so you may not need to carry one, however I do advise you carry one that you believe will provide the best illumination for you not to miss sightings (birdwatchers especially should carry a spotlight).

All the night walks are guided by the park.

How long are the night walks in Nyungwe national park

The night walk is about 3 hours long. One can decide to return at any time they feel like within this time.

Book this 3 day Nyungwe forest tour and request for the night walk as part of the activities

What is the best time to visit Masai Mara?

The Masai Mara National Reserve or simply The Mara, is Kenya’s most popular destination for safaris and tours attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists every year to enjoy the African savannah and see lots of animals, and for many to witness the Great Migration

The time you decide for the safari trip to the Mara will affect the kind of wildlife experience you will have in the Mara. Depending on what you want to experience or see, it is important to know the best time to go.

Below I will discuss points to consider when deciding the best time for you visit the Mara…

So, what is the best time to visit the Masai Mara for your best safari & bush experience?

The great migration season (June – Oct)

The great migration time is probably the best time for a safari in the Mara. During the migration season, a stampede of millions of animals comprising of wildebeest, zebra, and antelopes cross over from the Serengeti of Tanzania into the Masai Mara in Kenya

The migration starts arriving into the Mara in June with a few numbers trickling, and the numbers keep swelling well through July and by August the entire landscape of the migration route is covered by wildebeests and zebras. It is such a sight!

If your target is the migration, then June – October is the best time to visit the Mara, July – August sees the biggest numbers of the animals but this is also the peak tourism season with lots of tourists in the park.

Best time to see the big cats in the Mara (Cats are better seen after migration)

Masai Mara is rich in big cats including lions, leopard, hyena, and cheetah. It is probably the best place to see lions and leopards in Kenya..

Are lions best seen during the migration?

There is the assumption that the lions and other cats can best be seen during the great migration because there is easy prey for them. True, there is easy prey for them and so they do not struggle to find what to eat. However, this also means they do not move widely in search for prey. They find prey easily, and have their stomachs full most of the time and so spend the days lazing under thickets with less movements… Sneaking on idle lions tucked away under thickets is not probably your ideal lion sighting?

Best time to see cats is not during the migration

When the migration is gone from the Mara there is a reduced amount of prey for the cats which forces the lions and other cats to move widely and actively to hunt the remnant zebras, wildebeest and antelope. The lions will also try their luck on the big animals such as the giraffes and elephants. It is therefore easier to find lions in action or on the move in the Mara when there is scarcity of prey.

Want that once in a lifetime opportunity to see lions stalking and taking on a buffalo or an antelope? Well, the best chance could be that time with less prey in the Mara when the migration is long gone.

Elephants are displaced by the migration

The Mara has massive herds of elephants and seeing them match through the plains is quite satisfying. If your favorite animal is the elephant and wish for the best sightings of the massive tuskers and their little ones, then it is best to visit the Mara after the migration has left.

The Elephants are irritated by the constant “groaning” sound of the wildebeests and therefore will try to keep as far away from them as possible. Elephants move to the hills and the thickets where they can enjoy peace away from the noise of the migration ‘horde’.

However, note that you can’t see miss elephant sightings on any day including during the migration, but the best sightings is without the migration in the Mara.

Wet season vs Dry season

When planning to visit Masai Mara it is important to know whether it will be a wet/rainy season or dry season in Kenya.

The dry season is June, July, August and September. During this time the days are sunny with little chances of rainfall. The dry season is also the great migration season which is a good coincidence. The advantage of the dry season is you will enjoy the warmth of the sun. The drive tracks are dry and therefore you can easily cover all the corners of the park even without a 4X4 jeep. The disadvantage is that there are huge crowds of tourists in the park that causes competition at sightings. The drive tracks are also dusty which can lead to flue and lung infections for those with sensitive breathing systems.

Note that July is the coldest month of the year with very chilly mornings. If you want warmer weather you may not visit in July.

The wet season is from October to May. The most rains though are experienced in March, April & May with nearly daily rains. The wet season brings challenges in covering the park especially during the long rains of March to April. But the scenery is at its best with lush green plains  and hills. Animals are also less mobile providing great sightings. The cats that tuck away under thickets during the dry season to shelter from the sun are now out in the open yearning for warmth. The rivers are filled with gushing water and if you are staying at a lodge/camp along a river your experience will be enhanced. The wet season also sees fewer tourists which is a good time if you want less competition at sightings.

Is Amboseli Kenya the best place to see the Kilimanjaro Mountain of Tanzania

View of Kili from Amboseli

Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro Mountain is popularly referred to as the “Roof of Africa” because it is the tallest mountain in Africa reaching a height of 5,895m (19,341ft) above sea level. It is also the tallest free-standing mountain in the world.

Kilimanjaro is the most popular mountain hiking and climbing destination in Africa attracting tens of thousands of hiking enthusiasts every year who take on the challenge of trekking to the highest spot in Africa, the snowcapped Uhuru peak.

Many who cannot hike Kili look forward to catching a glimpse of the roof of Africa and taking this iconic photo during their safari trip, and, indeed the world’s tallest free-standing mountain is quite a sight to behold, as this massive conic structure with a white crest (snow) elevates above the African plains that are home to the big five and towers through the floating clouds pushed by the monsoon winds blowing from the coastal Indian Ocean.

The controversy of the best place to see Mount Kilimanjaro…

The Kilimanjaro is located in Tanzania near the border with Kenya. Therefore, you can see the Kilimanjaro Mountain from Kenya as well. One of the places in Kenya that will give you a brilliant view of the mountain is the Amboseli National Park, so much so that Kenyans have convinced travelers that Kenya is the best place to see the Mount Kilimanjaro, of course to the ire of the Tanzanians who have the mountain.

But, is it true that you will get the best views of Mt. Kilimanjaro from Kenya/Amboseli? Well to appreciate this question you need to know the two sides (or call them faces) of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Understanding the two sides of Kilimanjaro Mountain..

There is the windward side of mountain Kilimanjaro which receives more rain because the winds blow from this side. This side of the mountain is very lush with heavy vegetation and forests. This windward side faces Tanzanian mainland.

Meanwhile the other side of the mountain is the leeward side or rain shadow that receives less rains because the winds loose most of the moisture on the windward side before reaching the leeward side. The land on the leeward side is therefore largely of dry semi-arid plains. This is the side of the mountain that faces Kenya mainland and the epitome of its effect is the Amboseli national park which is a dusty plain in the foothills below the Kilimanjaro

The windward side in Tanzania does not provide the clearest views of the whole mountain due to the vegetation, while the leeward side provides sweeping views of the Kili.

Amboseli in Kenya is arguably the best place to see the roof Africa.

Comparing Masai Mara and Amboseli National Park– which is better for safaris in Kenya

Comparing the safari experience of Masai Mara National Reserve and the Amboseli National Park may seem like a farfetched idea, but it is not, at least not for someone who has explored these two amazing parks many times across different seasons.

But, if you ask most safari goers fresh from a safari trip to Kenya, that, which is the best place to visit for the safari tour in Kenya? Most if not all, will tell you in an instant it is only Masai Mara and nowhere else, but chances are they went to just that one park or they visited Kenya during the great migration season (June – Oct) and were simply blown away by this natural phenomenon in the Mara.

So, in this article I attempt to compare these two parks that seem incomparable. However, it is not because I want to create a bias in you for one of the two parks, but simply try to make you appreciate both parks.

So, the question again, how does Masai Mara and Amboseli compare when it comes to game and wildlife experiences? Which destination would give you the best safari in Kenya?

Game drives and other activities for seeing animals

The game drive or safari drive is the main activity for exploring the African bush to see animals and other wildlife in the parks. All game drives are done in safari cars which can be a jeep/truck or van, and both of them basically have a popup roof for you to stand in the car and have a 360 view of the bush so that you will not miss anything.

So, how do the games in Masai Mara and Amboseli compare?

The Mara is quite vast and much bigger than Amboseli, and is made of vast grasslands which are not hard to explore. The drive tracks in the Mara are longer and cover nearly all corners of the park. So you can have many game drives in the Mara and not get tired and each day would bring a new experience with different sightings. If you want to spend more time in the African bush and not get bored it is therefore the best park in Kenya.

On the other hand, Amboseli National Park is a small park and most animals concentrate around marshes and wetlands, especially during the dry season. It is therefore much easier to find and see most animals in Amboseli as the drive tracks go along the marshes where the animals are a few meters from you. Amboseli being small means it is easier to explore than Masai Mara and in a single day can cover all parts. If you want a quick safari in Kenya to see as much wildlife as possible then Amboseli is a better option than the Mara.

Additional activities to do

Apart from the game drive, additional activities you can do in Masai Mara to improve your game experience include the balloon safaris offered throughout the reserve and in conservancies, walking safaris which are offered in the private conservancies around the Mara, horseback riding also offered in some conservancies

Meanwhile, additional activities in Amboseli include the balloon safaris.

Amount of wildlife you can tick off during the safari

The Mara has a bigger volume of wildlife, but because of the vastness of the plains and migration which displaces some wildlife, you might miss seeing some wildlife unless if you stay longer in the reserve.
On the other hand, animals in Amboseli concentrate around the marshes which makes spotting more wildlife in the shortest period of life.

Which park gives the best sightings of lions?

lion in Mara
A lion in the shade of a shrub a few feet away in the Mara

The Mara by far is the best place to see lions in Kenya. There is no chance of missing lions in Masai Mara, in fact, the Mara is all about how many prides you have spotted by the end of the day. You can see as many as 5 prides on a single day’s safari drive. You will see lions under a thicket hiding from the scotching sun, in the plains scanning for prey, under a tree or shrub tearing up a kill, or by the river banks taking a sip in the water after feasting on a delicious antelope.

Meanwhile Amboseli too offers high chances of sighting lions but there is also a possibility of missing them because they tend to hide in the bushes around the marshes. Or the views may be a bit distant. But also, on a good day you can get the best up-close views of the lions if you are lucky to find them just by the edge of a swamp or lake.

Best sightings of other big cats – leopard, hyena, cheetah

Hyenas in Amboseli
Amboseli is hyena country

Leopard – Leopards are difficult to find everywhere because of their solitary nature. The Mara offers the best chances of seeing them. Unlikely to see on in Amboseli
Hyena – Amboseli is Hyena country! You can’t miss them. Due to the vastness of the Mara plains you will need a bit of luck to encounter a hyena pride.
Cheetah – The Mara provides good chances of seeing cheetahs. It is actually easier to see cheetahs than leopards in the Mara. Meanwhile I am not even sure there are cheetahs in the Amboseli.

Birds and birding

The Mara and Amboseli are excellent birding destinations hosting many species. Either park may be a favorite for you depending on which species you are looking forward. The Mara is great for grassland birds, and especially birds of prey. Meanwhile Amboseli’s marshes and swamps provide great water birding in addition to other habitats.

On a birding outing where you want to tick off as many birds as possible, Amboseli is simply a birding haven! The Marshes and swamps provide such up-close views of so many wetland birds from a few meters away. In addition to the wetlands, the savannah and woodlands of Amboseli provide may special birds of the semi-arid region. Amboseli provides the best chances of sighting the Taveta Golden Weaver, an East African endemic.

Scenery

View of Kili from Amboseli

The dry dusty plain of the Amboseli, strolled by huge herds of elephants marching towards a water source in one of the many wetlands fed with water by underground rivers originating from the towering Kilimanjaro mountains in the background covered with white snow, is a sight to behold! The scenery of Amboseli is surreal and cannot be experienced anywhere else.