Nyungwe Forest National Park, Rwanda: The Complete Guide

Chimpanzee mother and infant in Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda
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Nyungwe Forest National Park

Address
KN6, Rusizi, Rwanda
Phone +250 780 870 670

For nature lovers, Rwanda has become synonymous with gorillas; for this reason, most visitors flock to Volcanoes National Park in the northwest. However, those who wish to take the road less traveled—and in doing so, come face-to-face with the country’s other charismatic primates—should be sure to add Nyungwe Forest National Park to their itinerary as well. Located south of Lake Kivu on the border with Burundi (where it is contiguous with Kibira National Park), Nyungwe was founded in 2005 to protect one of the oldest forest ecosystems on the African continent. 

Comprising 393 square miles, it is dominated by dense, mist-drenched tracts of montane forest that seem to stretch on forever. Together with bamboo thickets, wetland swamps, and fertile grassland, Nyungwe makes up a mysterious and exotic landscape for once-in-a-lifetime wildlife encounters. Above all, the national park is famous for its habituated chimpanzee troops. Here, you can come within a few yards of man’s closest living relative, while also keeping an eye out for a full cast of other species, many of which are endemic to the Albertine Rift. 

Things to Do

Nyungwe Forest National Park is renowned for its incredible biodiversity. Chimpanzees are the stars of the show, and guided tracking adventures take visitors to observe them at close quarters in their natural environment. The park is also home to 12 other primate species. This includes the L’Hoest’s monkey (an Albertine Rift endemic), the Ruwenzori colobus, the endangered golden monkey, and the incredibly rare Hamlyn’s monkey. Nyungwe is the only place in Rwanda where the latter can be spotted. In total, the national park provides a refuge for 75 mammal species, ranging from Congo clawless otters to elusive leopards and serval cats. 

Birders are also in for a treat, with 322 recorded species residing here. Of particular interest are 29 Albertine Rift endemics, including all of those present in Rwanda. In particular, look out for the red-collared babbler, the Rockefeller’s sunbird, and rarest of all, the Shelley’s crimsonwing. If you’re more into butterflies than birds, there are 120 different types in Nyungwe; meanwhile, botanists have the opportunity to discover 1,068 plant species, including 140 unique kinds of orchids. 

Unlike traditional safari parks, Nyungwe does not have an extensive road network and is, therefore, best explored on foot. There are 15 marked hiking trails to choose from. Of these, the Imbaranga, Umuyove, and Igishigishigi trails provide access to the Canopy Walk suspension bridge—a must-see attraction that traverses 230 feet above a forested ravine, giving hikers the chance to spot canopy-dwelling mammals, birds, and butterflies at close range. Nyungwe also has plenty of scenic waterfalls, while its hilly surroundings provide the ideal climate for growing tea. Plantations at Gisovu and Gisakura offer guided tours and tastings. 

Chimpanzee Tracking

With two troops habituated for human encounters, Nyungwe Forest National Park is the best place in Rwanda for chimpanzee encounters. These fascinating primates, which share 98.8 percent of our genetic code, live in extended family groups and maintain a nomadic lifestyle, foraging continuously throughout the day and building nests in the trees each night. Because they are always on the move, it is difficult to predict how long it will take to locate them; as such, chimpanzee tracking tours can take anywhere from one hour to several. Once the troop is located, you will have up to an hour to observe them grooming, playing, and interacting with each other. 

A good level of fitness is required for this activity, since trails are often steep and almost always slippery. Permits must be booked well in advance. This can be done online, via a licensed tour operator, or at any Rwanda Development Board (RDB) office. 

Best Hikes & Trails

There are 15 hiking trails for visitors to Nyungwe Forest National Park, ranging from some suitable for novices to those for the very fit only. Here are a few of our favorites: 

  • Igishigishigi Trail: At approximately 1.3 miles in length, Igishigishigi is not a particularly challenging trail. However, it is one of the park’s most popular for its impressive wildflower scenery and incorporation of the suspended Canopy Walkway. 
  • Karamba Trail: An easy route of just under 4 miles, Karamba is fringed with fern trees and therefore the top choice for those wishing to spot Nyungwe’s diverse birdlife. It’s also the site of an old gold mine and army camp, making it of interest to historians as well. 
  • Umuyove Trail: This majestic 3.5-mile trail is renowned not only for its tall trees and spectacular waterfall, but also as the jumping off point for several of the park’s most rewarding chimpanzee tracking routes. 
  • Imbaraga Trail: A great option for those with plenty of stamina, Imbaraga takes hikers on a 6-mile adventure into the heart of Nyungwe. Along the way, you’ll have the opportunity to stop for a swim at one of four spectacular waterfalls. 
  • Bigugu Trail: One of the park’s most strenuous hikes at over 8 miles, Bigugu takes visitors up the highest peak in the park, where astonishing panoramas of Lake Kivu and the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo await. Be sure to pick a clear day for the best views.

Where to Camp 

The park features a series of very basic campsites, the most developed of which can be found at Uwinka Reception Center, where tents and other camping equipment may be rented and food and drink can be purchased from a small café. For true adventure seekers, there are also wilderness camps on the Congo Nile Trail, and at the summit of Mount Bigugu. Both require campers to bring all of their own equipment, including tents, firewood, food, and water. 

Where to Stay Nearby

Since the only options for accommodation within the park are campsites, the vast majority of visitors choose to stay in lodges on the park’s periphery. From the handful of places available, here are our favorites for luxury and mid-range travelers. 

  • One&Only Nyungwe House: Located on the western edge of the park amid the tea plantations of Gisakura, this 5-star lodge offers a series of luxury rooms and a two-bedroom suite. All options are built overlooking the canopy and have a private balcony or deck. In addition, guests can benefit from a jungle spa and gourmet restaurant, with all meals, selected beverages, and two daily activities included in the rate. Experiences range from guided nature hikes and chimpanzee tracking tours to tea plantation visits. 
  • Nyungwe Top View Hill Hotel: Also located just outside Gisakura, this mid-range option impresses with stunning hilltop views of the park and nearby Lake Kivu. Accommodation is provided by a collection of comfortable cottages, while the circular main building—designed in traditional Rwandan style—includes a large deck, restaurant, and bar. The hotel offers guided Canopy Walk and forest hikes, and regularly hosts fireside cultural dancing shows.

How to Get There 

The Huye-Cyangugu road bisects Nyungwe Forest National Park, proving an entry point at Kitabi in the east or Gisakura in the west. The park is roughly 140 miles from Kigali International Airport (KGL), the main port of entry for international visitors. Most will travel from the airport to the park by road, with a hired driver and 4x4. The drive takes roughly five hours. Alternatively, Rwandair offers a 40-minute daily scheduled flight from Kigali to Kamembe Airport (KME), which is just over an hour’s drive from Nyungwe. If you’ve plenty of room in your budget, Akagera Aviation also offers private helicopter transfers to the national park from various destinations across Rwanda.

Accessibility 

Unfortunately, due to its remote nature and the fact that the park is explored mostly on foot, Nyungwe Forest National Park is not accessible for wheelchair users or those with reduced mobility. However, there are still possibilities for those who wish to encounter Rwanda’s famous primates. Gorilla tracking tours for the disabled are available in Volcanoes National Park, whereby explorers are carried in a sedan chair to look for habituated troops. 

Tips for Your Visit

  • Nyungwe Forest National Park is open all year round. Its equatorial location means that temperatures remain consistent regardless of the season, with a daytime average of around 68 degrees F. Nights can be significantly cooler. The park sees more than 80 inches of rain annually and can be wet at any time. June, July, and August are the driest months, however, and traditionally considered the best time to travel for optimum hiking conditions. 
  • Whenever you travel, pack plenty of layers, lightweight rain gear, and suitable footwear with good traction for slippery terrain. 
  • Each activity in Nyungwe Forest National Park is priced differently. For foreign visitors, some of these include guided chimpanzee tracking ($90 per person), tracking of other primates ($60 per person), and guided nature walks ($40 per person). Children under 7 years of age are not charged, and discounts are available for foreign residents, EAC nationals, and Rwandan citizens. 
  • Age limits apply for certain activities, including chimpanzee tracking (15 years minimum) and other primate tracking (12 years minimum). 
  • Malaria medication is recommended for travelers to all areas of Rwanda. Be sure to notify your doctor of your destination, since chloroquine is not effective in this region. 
  • If you are traveling to Rwanda from a yellow fever country, you will need to provide proof of vaccination before being allowed to enter. The CDC recommends a number of other vaccinations for travel to Rwanda, including hepatitis A and B, rabies, and typhoid. 
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Nyungwe Forest National Park, Rwanda: The Complete Guide