The Volcanoes National Park also known as Parc National de Volcans (PNV) is a hub for some of the best tourism activities in Rwanda. The park itself is located in the Northen Province of Rwanda and sits on an area covering 160 Sq Km. The Volcanoes National Park was turned into a major plant and wildlife conservation areas in the early 1920’s at the same time as the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Mgahinga National Park in Uganda. The three parks together form what is known as the Virunga conservation region for the main purpose of protecting the endangered mountain gorillas. The arrival of Dian Fossey in the park in 1967 and establishment of the Karisoke Research Center brought more publicity to the park and led to the reduction of severe poaching. Her efforts attracted greater funding for gorilla conservation programmes and ensured the survival of the giant apes.
The Volcanoes National park has been made famous because of the endangered mountain gorillas but the mountainous landscape, green forests, lakes, rivers and a sizeable population of other wildlife also makes the park stand out. Four major volcanoes can be found in the Volcanoes National Park. They include Bisoke (3,711m), Karisimbi (4,507m), Gahinga (3,474m), Sabyinyo (3,634m) and Muhabura (4,127m). Because of the high altitudes, volcanoes and low laying areas, the park has four types of vegetation cover consisting of Bamboo on the lower slopes, Hypericum / Hagenia on the higher altitudes below 3,300m, sub-alpine vegetation at altitudes above 3,300m and Afro alpine vegetation above 4,000m.
Apart from hosting 30% of the remaining population of mountain gorillas that feed on bamboo shoots and other lower altitude vegetation cover, another endangered species inhabiting the parks lower altitudes are the beautiful golden monkeys. There are also clans of wild chimpanzees and other small primates that call the park home. Larger mammals like forest Elephants and Buffaloes can be found but in small groups. The park has leopards, Duikers, Bush Pigs, Forest Hogs and the Spotted Hyena. Birdwatching is increasingly becoming popular in the park considering the numerous species found in the park, top of which are the beautiful Francolins and the Rwenzori Turaco.
Activities and attractions at the volcanoes national park
Although gorilla trekking is the dominant activity in the volcanoes national park, there are several other incredible activities to choose from for potential visitors. Visitors may be spoilt for choice and wish they had more time to complete all the activities in the Volcanoes National Park. The major attractions include gorilla trekking, golden monkey trekking, visiting the grave of Dian Fossey, mountain hiking, touring the lakes Ruhondo and Burera. Let’s look at the activities in more detail.
Mountain Gorilla Tracking: The Volcanoes National Park is one of the 4 national parks where mountain gorillas can be sighted. The others are Virunga in Congo, Mgahinga and Bwindi in Uganda. 10 habituated Rwanda gorilla groups are available for tracking under the guidance of experienced and motivated rangers. It is important to be in good shape before embarking on an activity that can prove demanding depending on the gorilla group you are assigned. Trackers can hire the services of a porter to help with extra luggage at a cost of about $15. A gorilla permits in Rwanda cost $1500 with part of it going to the local communities and infrastructural developments around the park. The Permits can be obtained directly from the Rwanda Development Board or more conveniently through the services of a tour operator. The dress code during gorilla trekking consists of long sleeve shirts and trousers, hand gloves, rain jackets and hiking shoes.
Tracking Golden monkeys: Tracking golden monkeys has gained popularity over the years and is now second only to watching the gorillas. Spotting the endangered monkeys feed, groom and swing from one bamboo tree to another costs $100. A group can consist of nearly 100 individuals and is usually led by a dominant male. Golden Monkey tracking can be done before or after gorilla trekking. Tracking the Golden Monkeys is less strenuous than the gorillas because they don’t go to high altitudes in search of fresh food like the gorillas. They prefer to feed on the Bamboo shoots that grow at the base of the volcanoes. Golden monkey permits don’t need to be booked in advance like that of the gorillas but we recommended early booking just in case.
Visiting the Tomb of Dian Fossey: Dian Fossey is one of the greatest primatologists of all time. Because of her courage and determination, poaching of animals and particularly mountain gorillas was greatly reduced in the Volcanoes National Park. Without her efforts, mountain gorillas would probably be extinct by now. She is also credited for introducing new ways of making gorillas comfortable around human presence by imitating their sounds and gaining the acceptance/trust of the dominant male. Today hundreds of visitors go to pay homage to this great conservationist by visiting her grave and former Karisoke Research Center located between Mount Karisimbi and Mount Bisoke. The guided hike lasts about 3 hours and costs $75. As one climbs the volcanoes to her former base, they will get to experience what she had to go through, her determination and the passion she had for the gorillas.
Hiking Mount Karisimbi Volcano: Mount Karisimbi is an extinct Volcano that reaches a height of about 4,507m. It is the fifth highest in Africa and thus requires mental and physical preparation in order to ensure the 2 day hike. The hike involves navigating through thick forests before stopping at an altitude of 3700m for the first stop, rest and overnight. Hikers than continue hiking the last steep section early in the morning and up to the top of the summit. The summit rewards hikers with great views of the Volcanoes National Park, the whitened snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains, Mount Nyiragongo and all the volcanoes within the Virunga region.
Mount Bisoke Hike: Mount Bisoke is an extinct Vocano that forms part of the wider Virunga range of Mountains. It takes 3 hours of driving to reach the foot of the mountain from the capital Kigali. Hiking mount Bisoke takes one day and is relatively easier compared to Karisimbi. However, hikers still need to be reasonably fit to complete the activity. The hiking permit costs $75 and like all activities in the park, everything starts with briefing at the park headquarters before heading out to the starting point. The roads from the park headquarters to the head trail can be muddy with stones and requires a four wheel drive car. For those with heavy luggage, porters are available for hire at a cost of about $15 at the starting point.
Mount Muhabura Hike: Mount Muhabura is one of the most interesting and adventurous Volcanos to climb while visiting the Volcanoes National Park. At 4,127m, it is the third highest mountain within the Virunga ranges. The hike starts at a height of 1200m and by the time one reaches the summit, they would have passed through beautiful green forests and marveled at the other volcanoes within the wider Virunga region.
Visiting the Twin Lakes Ruhondo and Burera: After carrying out one of the major activities like gorilla trekking, one way to relax is to visit the twin Lakes of Ruhondo and Burera. A boat cruise through the deep waters of these two lakes will reward you with beautiful sights of birds and the vast hilly landscape with waterfalls. Visiting the lake islands gives you time to mingle with the locals to learn about their rich heritage and culture that defines them and makes them different from the other tribes in Rwanda.
How to get to the Volcanoes National Park
The Volcanoes National Park is easily accessible from Kigali. It takes only two hours of driving from Kigali to reach Musanze District in the Northern province of Rwanda. This implies that one can do gorilla trekking in one day if they can start the journey at 4am from Kigali. A traveler can use public means of transport from Kigali or Gisenyi to Musanze and then hire a private car to the park headquarters. The best alternative is to hire the services of a Tour operator who will arrange to pick you up from the Airport and to the Park Headquarters in Kinigi where briefings for the various activities are done. Those travelling from Uganda to the Volcanoes National Park will have to endure a longer drive of about 10 hours from Entebbe Airport through Mbarara and Kisoro and finally to the Border crossing area.
Best time to visit the Volcanoes National Park
Regardless of which activity you choose to do in the Volcanoes National Park, you can be sure to find it arranged throughout the year. However, most visitors prefer visiting the park during the drier periods and months. The drier months fall between June to Mid September and December to February. This is usually the best time to go to the park because the mountain slopes are easier to hike. The months of March through to May and October to November are characterized by heavy rainfall that makes the major hiking and trekking trails slippery and full of mud. Photographers and nature lovers should come to the park during the rainy season to marvel at the lush scenery.
Accommodation while visiting the Volcanoes National Park
The accommodation facilities found around the Volcanoes National Park are divided into three categories – Luxury, Mid-range and budget. The choice of which hotel to select depends entirely on a travelers budget. The hotels are of good quality regardless of which category you choose. They typically offer room services, a lounge, a restaurant, a bar and much more. Let’s look at some of the hotel/lodge facilities worth contacting:
Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge: The Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge is located 3km away from the Volcanoes National Park headquarters at the foot of one of the Volcanoes. It is owned by SACOLA, a community-Trust. The lodge’s strategic location rewards residents with entire views of the beautiful farmlands and Virunga volcanoes towering at a distance. The rooms have friendly staffs that are available 24/7. Other services and facilities found in the budget rooms include general sitting areas, bathrooms, fire places, a general dining room and games room. There is even a souvenir, library and awareness room.
The Virunga hotel: The hotel is located at the heart of Musanze and It only takes 15 minutes to drive from the Hotal to the Park headquarters. The hotel has 25 self contained rooms that are furnished with en-suite bathrooms, free internet access, a fridge, telephone landlines and satellite TV.
La Palm Hotel: La Palm Hotel is a 3 star hotel offering a range of quality services at an affordable rate. The hotel offers both local and international dishes. Breakfast and all meals can be served in your room on order. The hotel bar is stocked with different varieties of wine, soft drinks and beer. Other services include free Airport pickups, free WiFi, a room telephone, two conference rooms and a large parking space.
Five Volcanoes Hotel: Five Volcanoes Hotel is a luxurious hotel that is located in a quiet and peaceful area of Musanze along the main road leading to Kinigi. The hotel is relatively new and offers VIP Cottages, Deluxe Double rooms, Family Suites and Standard rooms. The rooms are all self contained and include a fridge, flat screen TV, kettles, a mini bar, a restaurant, laundry services and private parking. Security is assured and smoke detectors have been installed.
N.B: Apart from the above hotels, there are many other high quality hotels and lodges to contact like the Mountain Gorilla View Hotel, Le Bambou Gorilla Lodge, Kinigi Guest House, Jack Hanna Cottages and Villa Gorilla Lodge.