Rwanda’s Congo Nile Trail: Hiking or Biking Adventure on the Shores of Lake Kivu

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The Congo Nile Trail is a rare adventure travel gem. Nowhere else in sub-saharan Africa have I found (yet) a route so beautiful, so remote feeling, and yet so accessible to independent travelers.

The beautiful network of local roads and trails runs along the shore of Lake Kivu in the East African country of Rwanda.  It’s growing more popular by the year, but currently offers just the right mix of accessible infrastructure and off-the-beaten-track spontaneity. 

If you like exploring beautiful countryside and tiny villages, waking up on the shore of an island-studded lake, falling asleep to the aftermath of a thunderstorm, and sharing leisurely pantomime exchanges with curious locals, you’ll find your adventure on the Congo Nile Trail. 

I hiked the trail in five days, solo and without a guide, in March of 2018 as part of a five month trip through seven African countries. It still stands out as a unique and memorable experience among the many awesome parts of that trip.  If you’re considering the Congo Nile Trail for your next dose of adventure travel, read on for all the details about how to prepare and what to expect.

Fishing village on Congo Nile Trail
Fishing village on the Congo Nile Trail

Congo Nile Trail At A Glance

  • Time: 2-10 days
  • Mode of transportation: hiking or mountain biking
  • Guide: optional
  • Accommodation: guesthouses or camping 
  • Food: buy meals and basic snacks along the way
  • Highlights: gorgeous scenery, interesting villages, helpful locals
  • Challenges: heat, hills, intense attention from locals

Rwanda Travel Overview

Rwanda is one of the easier African countries to travel in, relatively speaking. There’s plenty of information out there to help you prepare for Rwanda in general, but here’s a quick overview before we get down to details of the trail.

Visas and getting in: Starting January 2018 Rwanda made it easier than ever to visit.  Anyone from any country can get a 30 day visa on arrival without prior application.

When to go: Rwanda is not quite as hot as many of its neighbors, but it does get plenty of rain, so avoiding the wet season is your main concern unless you love being constantly soggy.  Aim for June to September for drier (not totally dry) weather, or December to February as a next choice.  Days can feel quite humid.  Depending on where you are, nights can be chilly.  

Getting there: You’ll probably arrive by plane at Kigali airport. Clean and comfortable buses also run from neighboring countries, such as the comfy 12 hour overnight bus I took from Kampala, Uganda.

Language: You can definitely get by with mostly just English, as I did.  Some basic French will serve you well too.  Among Rwandans who have gone to school, the older ones often speak French since it was previously the language taught to students.  In 2008 the government changed the language of schools to English, so younger educated people and current students typically speak some English. 

Rwandans who work in the tourist industry usually speak English, French, or both reasonably well, but most others don’t.  Most people you meet on the Congo Nile Trail as you travel through their villages will speak Kinyarwanda and maybe just a word or two of English or French.  Be prepared to mix pantomiming and smiling with a blend of broken, extra-simple English and French.  You’ll make people really happy if you learn a few words in Kinyarwanda.   One of my fondest memories from the trail is of walking for miles with a local boy who wanted to practice his English.  We “talked” in the simplest possible words from three different languages, plus hand gestures and smiles, as we traversed the hills together.

Culture and religion: The vast majority of Rwandans are Christian, somewhat evenly split between Catholic and Protestant.  The culture is not overly conservative as far as African countries go, but certainly more conservative than most western countries, so it pays dress conservatively especially outside of the capital city of Kigali.  Female tourists can certainly wear pants, though most local woman wear skirts.  Tight-fitting pants or skirts above the knee might be seen as strange or disrespectful, especially in rural areas. 

While the impact may not be obvious to most visitors, it’s important to understand that every Rwandan you meet over the age of 24 has lived through a genocide.  During three months in 1994, an estimated 1 million Rwandans died brutal deaths at the hands of their neighbors in an ethnically motivated genocide spearheaded by the government.  That’s 14% of Rwanda’s population at the time.  People usually don’t talk about it, so my recommendation would be to not ask unless you know someone quite well or they indicate willingness to discuss.  The genocide memorial museum in Kigali is definitely worth a visit if you want to understand more about the contrast between Rwanda’s dark history and the clean, orderly, community-focused country you see today.

Money: The Rwandan Franc is used as currency for most things, though some tour operators take payment in USD especially for larger amounts.  At the time of this writing (Sept 2018) the conversion rate is around 880 RF to 1 USD.  Credit cards and ATMs are not widely used especially in smaller towns (and definitely not on the Congo Nile Trail), so you will want to have plenty of cash (carried safely in a money belt or internal pocket).  US dollars and Euros are easily changed to Rwandan Francs at banks and forex bureaus.

Health: Research this one thoroughly, starting with the CDC website and a travel doctor.  You’ll likely need some vaccinations and malaria prophylactic pills.  While you’re there, either drink bottled water or purify all drinking water with chlorine dioxide or another method that is effective against bacteria, parasites, AND viruses (most basic backpacking water filters sold in North America don’t meet this last criteria).

Safety: Rwanda currently has a well-deserved reputation as a safe country with very low crime rates.  This matched my experience, though I was only there for less than two weeks.  Nevertheless, it’s always smart to think about guidelines for staying safe when wandering around in an unfamiliar place. 

Transportation can be the biggest risk most travelers take in many African countries.  Be cautious when choosing a motorbike and driver, and stay off the roads after dark.

In the west, where the Congo Nile Trail is, there is a standing travel warning from some western governments because of the area’s close proximity to ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Read up on this before you go to make sure things haven’t escalated, but in recent years this has not been an issue on the Rwandan side.

Female travelers: During my solo trip through seven different African countries, Rwanda was the only one where I experienced basically zero of the usual benign but unwanted male attention (marriage proposals and the like).  Rwandans were respectful and reserved, and I felt quite comfortable as a solo female traveler. 

As in many other sub-Saharan African countries, it’s useful to understand that womens’ upper legs are often seen as more sexual than breasts, which explains why shorts will get you odd looks yet the local women bathe topless in the rivers.  I typically wore loose fitting pants and a t-shirt or wide-strapped tank top and never felt awkward

Congo Nile Trail Overview

The full Congo Nile Trail is a 227 km (141 mile) route stretching along the shore of Lake Kivu in western Rwanda, from Gisenyi / Rubavu in the north to Cyangugu in the south.  It was originally designed to be traveled as a roughly 10 day hike or a 5 day bike ride, though fewer people complete the full route these days because the southern half has been paved.  

Since 2014 when the southern half, from Kibuye to Cyangugu, was paved, it’s more common to only travel the northern half.  This can be done in 4-5 days of hiking or 2-3 days of biking.  For those still interested in traveling the entire route, it can certainly be done, but hiking the paved road would be considerably less interesting and pleasant than the dirt paths and roads in the northern half.  On a bicycle I suppose the paved portion might be more appealing.

The Congo Nile Trail is not actually as much of a trail as it is a route patched together from local roads by the Rwanda Tourism Board.  Not that this makes it any less of a worthy stretch of dirt to walk, in my opinion. Just don’t expect unbroken singletrack trail like you may be picturing when you think of, say, the Appalachian Trail in America. Also don’t expect solitude – the route passes through a populated area and there will almost always be people within sight or at least earshot (often yelling “Helloooo!” from their unseen perch on the hillside).

The majority of the route is single-lane dirt road that winds along the shore of Lake Kivu, sometimes close enough to touch the water, most of the time high enough to enjoy a lovely view of it.  You’ll be walking through villages, alongside farmland, and down roads used by the locals as they go about their daily business.

The route signage seems to still be a work in progress, with shiny new signs in the beginning that peter out to sometimes contradictory directions from locals by the end.  Perfect for easing into that sense of adventure!  Most people travel the trail from north to south, which currently makes the most sense since the northern section is more developed and an easier start.

I don’t have official numbers, but I believe the trail sees a handful of visitors most days during the dry season.  I met two other couples traveling on the same schedule as me, and saw a handful of other groups, both guided and unguided, on similar itineraries.  

Congo Nile Trail transport

Should you hike or bike the Congo Nile Trail?

For bikepacking and mountain biking enthusiasts I’m sure the Congo Nile Trail is a fabulous cycling trip.  However, for the rest of us I believe hiking is probably the best way to see the trail. There are a few reasons:

The hills are steep! Granted, I hiked this trail before I became obsessed with bicycle touring and bikepacking, but if I’d cycled the Congo Nile Trail I would have spent many hours pushing my bike up steep rutted roads.  I appreciated the freedom to trudge as slowly as needed on foot when encountering these long hot climbs.

Walking pace was perfect for interacting with locals.  Most other people on the roads are on foot, and traveling at their pace lowered barriers and allowed me to easily fall into step with people I met. Sometimes we would walk together for miles, conversing in some rough combination of English, French, Kinyarwanda and pantomime. It’s hard to imagine this happening as often while speeding by on a bicycle (except maybe on the uphills).

Bicycles are logistically more difficult to arrange if you go without a guide.  As of 2018 I’m not aware of any company in western Rwanda that rents bikes without requiring a guide service, so you would need to bring your own or possibly rent one in Kigali. This was what finally made my decision to hike, since I wanted to travel independently and without too much hassle, and in hindsight I’m thankful for it.

Related Reading: Intro to Bikepacking

Do you need a guide for the Congo Nile Trail?

Your choice.  The route is well enough documented and developed to navigate independently, and you’ll enjoy a sense of adventure and interaction that is harder to find with a guide. On the other hand, a guide can make your day easier in many ways. If you just want to focus on the scenery and not worry about getting lost or how to deal with a swarm of local kids, guided may be the better option for you.

If you want to bike the trail and aren’t bringing your own bike, you may find it harder to travel independently.  When I contacted the only local tour operator I could find, Rwandan Adventures, they told me (as of 2018) that they no longer rent bikes to clients who don’t also hire a guide. It’s possible you could rent a bike in Kigali and bring it with you on the bus, but I didn’t look into this option.

I hiked solo without a guide and felt happy with my choice. Of the half dozen or so major hikes I’ve done on the African continent (such as this), this is the only one I felt comfortable tackling without a guide, which made it a great opportunity to push the edges of my comfort zone in a foreign yet relatively safe environment.  That said, I have lots of experience with long distance hiking, so long hot days and uncertain distances didn’t add too much to my stress when navigating a culturally unfamiliar environment.  

If multi-day hiking or biking in general is new to you, or you just don’t want to deal with being on top of logistics all the time, it would be wise to team up with a guide.  A good guide can enhance your experience on the trail, show you places independent travelers don’t find, and teach you a lot about the communities you’ll pass though.  Rwandan Adventures seems to be commonly recommended.

Navigation and Maps

Signed junction on Congo Nile Trail
Well marked junction early on the trail

It’s definitely possible to find your way on the Congo Nile Trail without a guide.  However, don’t expect it to be easy. This is part of the fun though!

First of all, carry a map. You can pick one up, or at least take a picture of one, at the tourist center (also known as Green Hills Eco Tours) in Gisenyi.  Or, you can find one on this helpful blog post. It’s helpful for planning where you’ll spend each night and for knowing the names of villages along the way, but it’s absolutely not complete or even totally accurate, and the route continues to change with time.

My best advice for navigation: ask the locals. The section near Gisenyi is reasonably well signed, but by the end you’ll be relying on local advice potentially dozens of times a day.  This is a great way to meet people, and lends a certain sense of adventure that I really enjoyed.

Here’s the process: at an unsigned junction, point one way or the other and say your day’s destination in a questioning tone to anyone around.  Ideally pick an adult, but children can be helpful too. I found most people were used to foreigners doing this and managed to decode my mangled pronunciation of their village names without too much trouble.  If you’re getting blank stares try the name of another nearby village or the next night’s destination, as sometimes people are more familiar with one destination or another.

Sometimes locals accompany their directions with elaborate hand motions, which I eventually realized were quite accurate.  They move their hand as if following along the route, showing turns, climbs and dips as the road traverses the contours of the land.  When I learned to pay attention to this, navigation got even easier.

Where to stay on the Congo Nile Trail

There is lodging of various quality spaced out at reasonable points along the route.  You can pitch a tent on the grounds of a guesthouse each night, or sleep in a real bedroom, or some of each depending on your budget or preference.

Reservations aren’t necessary, and I never had trouble arriving without one when I hiked in early March. But, if your itinerary is set in stone it might be nice to stop by the tourist office in Gisenyi and let them pre-book the guesthouses of your choice. This way you’ll know exactly where you’re headed, and the guesthouse staff will be able to prepare your room and make sure they have ingredients on hand for your meals.

Regardless of whether you pitch a tent or take a room, everywhere I stayed had fairly reliable electricity (with the exception of during thunderstorms) for charging electronics.  You’ll have access to a wall socket in a common area if pitching a tent. All lodging options also sell water and soda, most sell beer, and all offer good quality breakfast and dinner for an additional charge.

Camping

Big Sky Designs Soul Tent on Rwanda's Congo Nile Trail
Big Sky Designs Soul Tent on Rwanda’s Congo Nile Trail with a view of Lake Kivu.

If you pitch your own tent on guesthouse grounds, expect to pay 5000 RF (about $5.70) per night everywhere except Kinunu, which was 10,000 RF.  You’ll have access to a shared bathroom, shower, and common areas, which makes this quite a good deal.

Rwanda in March was one of the rainier places on my trip through 7 different African countries, with impressive and powerful thunderstorms passing through almost every day.  They’re amazing to watch, but no joke when it comes to wind and water. Make sure your tent can handle substantial rain and wind or you will end up wanting to book a room anyway.

Guesthouse Rooms

Rooms with bed and bathroom ranged from 10,000 RF at basic home stays and guesthouses to upwards of $40 at the nice lodge in Kinunu.  I didn’t actually stay in any, preferring to pitch my tent instead, but they all looked comfy and clean enough.

Food and Water

An absolutely amazing breakfast at the Musasa Homestay
An absolutely amazing breakfast at the Musasa Homestay

Meals: With the exception of one or two basic camping areas I heard about but didn’t stay at, all lodging options can provide dinner and the next morning’s breakfast. Most dinners were hearty portions of good local food such as beans, goat brochettes, French fries or chips (frites), or sometimes fish from Lake Kivu.  Breakfast was usually some combination of eggs, bread, and fruit.  A basic meal might cost around 3000 RF, while the more international menu at the fancier Kinunu Lodge can run 8000 RF or more.

Water: All guesthouses sell bottled water, though I often opted to fill an old bottle with tap water and purify it with chlorine dioxide since I was on a longer trip and watching my budget.   Some smaller villages along the trail sell bottled water but it’s not always easy to find, so stock up when you leave in the morning, especially if you’re not equipped to purify your own water from other sources.

Drinks:  Most, but not all, guesthouses sell beer from around 500-1000 RF.  My personal favorite was Turbo King, but Primus and Skol are also common.  Guesthouses and many small shops also sell Fanta and other soda, which can taste great on a long hot day.

Snacks: For your time on the trail each day, you’ll want to either bring some snacks with you or buy them at villages along the way.  If you choose the latter I hope you like bananas and fried biscuits. Personally I got a little tired of these by the end, but they are ubiquitous and even the smallest communities you pass through will be happy to sell you some for cheap.  You may also be able to find some simple lunches of rice and beans if you ask around, but these tiny “restaurants” are not easy to find.

Frankly, sometimes this diet felt neither satisfying nor nutritious, but it got me through the hike.  I liked relying on food I could find locally instead of the fancy protein bars I would have brought from home, plus I hadn’t been home for over 2 months by the time I did this hike.  Also, every time I bought something from a local shop was a chance to meet a shopkeeper and potentially have a chat, which was important to me since I was hiking solo. But if you are on a shorter trip and can easily bring higher quality snacks, you might be glad you did.

Interacting with the Locals

Kids on the Congo Nile Trail
Curious kids on the Congo Nile Trail

I found Rwandans in general to be lovely people, as are most people the world over.  Most people I met there were kind, curious, and when I needed help they were generous with it. 

However, I will say that out of the seven countries I visited in sub-Saharan Africa, Rwanda was the only one where I felt some mild tension between locals and tourists.  This showed up mostly in the form of relentless requests for money, sensitivity to being in pictures, and a more reserved reaction to foreigners passing through.  While there may be other cultural factors at work that I don’t understand, my theory is that Rwanda’s tourist industry is just big enough to invite some of these issues.  Its reputation as a beautiful and safe country is attracting more tourists than many other sub-Saharan countries, yet a majority of the population still lives in poverty.  This seems to contribute to an uncomfortable dynamic where tourists are no longer a rare curiosity but neither are they well understood.   

You don’t need to let this negatively impact your trip overly much though.  Here are four tips to smooth your interactions with the people whose backyards and neighborhoods you’ll be wandering through on the Congo Nile Trail.

1) Greet people warmly and respectfully and they will return the gesture.

Coming to Rwanda from Uganda, at first I found Rwandans very reserved.  My first few hours on the Congo Nile Trail were filled with dozens of blank stares in response to my attempt at a polite but non-intrusive greeting, usually a head nod and small smile.  

With locals passing by constantly on the trail, and no guide or travel companions to distract me, this got awkward fast.   But what to do?

As an experiment, I changed my greeting style.  When I saw someone coming I would smile big, wave, and say hello in the most respectful and cheerful tone I could manage. As an introvert this does not come naturally to me.  You can imagine my relief when all those wary stares cracked into wide grins, greetings in multiple languages, and sometimes a lovely two-handed wave that I have never seen anywhere except Rwanda. Once I figured out this trick, my time on the trail got a lot more pleasant.

2) Be respectful when taking pictures of people.

With a handful of camera-toting tourists on the trail every day, it’s understandable that the local people don’t want to feel like scenery in our photo albums.  It’s always important to take pictures respectfully when traveling, but I found people living alongside the Congo Nile Trail to be especially sensitive.  For example, a group of fishermen granted me permission to take photos of their boats but not of them, and a woman who caught me taking a picture of the trail with her on it (from rather far away) teased me and asked for money.  

Unless you’re taking a very wide shot from far away, it’s best to ask permission before taking pictures of people.

It’s best to not give in to groups of children who will ask you to take their picture and then request money for it.  This is a form of begging and is potentially destructive for the children (see next point). 

3) Prepare to gracefully decline requests for money, food, water, even the clothes off your back.

This was the only thing I didn’t love about Rwanda.  Frequent requests for money, food, water, pens, school books, and even the clothes I was wearing became tiresome quickly.  The tourism industry in Rwanda, and the Congo Nile Trail area especially, has unfortunately developed to the point where foreign visitors can sometimes feel like walking ATMs. 

It helps to employ as much compassion and humor as you can in these situations.  After all, through the eyes of villagers who can barely afford to travel to the next town, we foreign visitors are billionaires by comparison.  Coupled with a culture that values sharing with those in need, it’s understandable that locals would feel justified asking for handouts. 

It’s generally agreed upon that giving into these requests can be harmful and exacerbates the negative effects of tourism in poor areas, and I follow this advice by declining as gracefully as I can.  Here are some techniques I used to say no, depending on my mood and the approach of the person asking:

  • Smile, wave, say hello, and pretend not to understand the request.  There is enough of a language barrier in Rwanda that this often works, though if they are persistent it can get awkward.
  • Engage them in a different conversation, or if the language barrier is too great, simply talk to them anyway with a positive tone of voice.  I found that people, especially kids, liked the attention even if they couldn’t understand a word I said.  Sometimes I explained to them why I couldn’t give them anything, which was cathartic for me, and amusing for them even though they couldn’t understand.
  • Say no with humor.  This worked especially well with little kids who simply ran up and demanded money.  A petulant “No!” in a tone that matched theirs often elicited laughter, reminding me that this is something of a game to them and easing my frustration and guilt.
  • Ask for something from them.  When one boy demanded “Give me money,” I simply pointed at the stack of school books he carried and said “Give me book.”  I was hoping to communicate that such demands were not polite, but instead I was loaned his geography notebook to peruse as we walked together, chatting pleasantly in broken English, for the next mile or so.

4) Say goodbye to your personal space.

Despite the fact that tourists pass through nearly every day now, the locals in the Congo Nile Trail area still seem extremely curious about visitors.  Especially the children, many of whom relish the chance to practice their limited English (you’ll get used to hearing “good morning!” chanted from the hillsides at all hours of the day).  Sometimes it’s fun to interact with them, but when you’re tired and hungry and thirsty and just want a quiet place to eat a banana without 20 kids asking for a piece of it, it can be quite frustrating. 

Be mentally prepared to be the center of attention, and take advantage of any quiet solitary moments you find, because they won’t last long.  There is always someone else waiting to pop out of the banana trees and say hello.  The positive side is that I had many pleasant “conversations,” or sometimes simply walking together and sharing our only couple common words, with locals who kept me company along various parts of the trail.  

Locals carrying desks from the school to the church for Sunday service
Locals carrying desks from the school to the church for Sunday service

How to pack for the Congo Nile Trail

You’ll benefit in general from a light load on those steep hills, which can mean leaving some belongings in Gisenyi as I did if you don’t want to carry them all.  

A general minimalist setup for camping and off-the-beaten-track travel – the type of stuff I detail in this list of my favorite travel gear for Africa – will serve you well on the Congo Nile Trail.  

If you plan to camp, a tent and sleeping pad are essential, and make sure the tent can stand up to a stiff rainstorm.  

I traveled without a sleeping bag to save weight, instead combining a silk sleeping bag liner and a metallic emergency bivy (two of my favorite pieces of outdoorsy travel gear) with warm clothes for slightly cool nights.  This worked just fine for me in Rwanda in March, and I’m generally a cold sleeper.

You may have already heard that Rwanda has banned plastic bags.  If you’ve traveled elsewhere in Africa you know what a smart decision this is, and how much it contributes to the country’s unusual cleanliness.  They’re mainly concerned about the type of plastic bag you get at markets or grocery stores.  No one seemed bothered by the ziplock bags I used to organize some of my belongings, though I did cross at a land border in the middle of the night, so your mileage may vary.  The customs official considered confiscating a plastic kitchen trash bag that was holding my muddy hiking shoes, but upon seeing what was in it, she took pity on me and let me keep it.  My advice would be to avoid plastic grocery bags and use ziplocks sparingly.  If they do find something they don’t like, there’s no fine or punishment, but you’ll be made to remove the contents and give up the bag.

Congo Nile Trail Route Overview

This is a report of the itinerary I took, which also was followed by two other couples I met on the trail and seemed to be very common. There are some alternative options though, especially in the southern half, so look around for details on those if you’re interested.

Starting in Gisenyi

Clean streets in Gisenyi, Rwanda
Tidy streets in Gisenyi, Rwanda

The typical starting point is Gisenyi (sometimes referred to as Rubavu, which is adjacent), right across the border from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Gisenyi is easy to reach by bus in a few hours from Kigali.  I came on the bus directly from Uganda and wow, did Gisenyi feel like a clean and tidy and well developed town by comparison.  I was immediately struck by the cleanliness and the attention to cosmetic details, like flower gardens and decorative construction, that I had not seen in Uganda.

If you have the time, I suggest spending one day wandering Gisenyi before starting the trail.  Walk over to the official border crossing with Goma, DRC, which is essentially part of the same town that has been split down the middle by an international border.  Marvel at the steady flow of foot traffic as market women carry produce on their heads between one of Africa’s most peaceful countries and one of the most conflict-ridden. Walk the small dirt lanes where one country turns into another with no more fanfare than a soldier stationed at each intersection, as if daring you to go ask permission to step one foot across into DRC (I didn’t have the nerve to try).  Eat brochettes (they’re probably goat, in case your farm animal charades are as unsuccessful as mine) and fried potatoes at a small roadside bar and restaurant. Walk along the beach or just admire the tidy houses. Buy biscuits and bananas from the women and kids.

Stop by the tourist information office (associated with Green Hills Ecotours) on Avenue de Independence and pick up a map, or just ask for directions.  They only had one map when I was there, so I took a picture of it and left it for the next tourist.  You should be able to pre-book accommodation from here too, though it’s not required if you want to keep your itinerary flexible.

If you didn’t come in that way, you might want to find the gare (taxi / bus park) on the main road that leads to the DRC, just a few blocks from the Petite Barriere (main border crossing).  This is where you can find public transport to the start of the trail, and also a bus back to Kigali if that’s your plan.

Gisenyi has plenty of places to stay.  I stayed at the Planet (also spelled Planette) Motel, which was quite a good value and the owners were extremely helpful and kind.  They gladly held some of my luggage for me while I hiked the trail, and had a nice restaurant on site.  Beware that Google Maps shows the Planette as centrally located by the beach, but in reality it’s several kilometers up the Ruhengeri-Gisenyi Road.  You’ll need to take a motorbike or shared taxi to get to and from the main area of town.  To get there from the main gare, ask around until you find a motorbike driver who knows the location or is willing (like mine) to drive around asking other people until he figures it out. 

Busy neighborhood in Gisenyi
Busy neighborhood in Gisenyi

Day 1: Gisenyi to Cyimbiri

The trail starts at the brasserie (brewery).  Hire a motorbike taxi to get there, or for a cheaper ride head to the central gare (taxi park) and ask anyone for the vehicle that goes to the “brasserie.”  This inexpensive option should cost about 300 RF. Ask the driver or another passenger to tell you which stop to get off at.

Walk through the brewery, then turn right onto a dirt road.  You’re now on the Congo Nile Trail! Enjoy the view of Gisenyi’s harbor as you climb into the hills.

This early part of the route is fairly well marked, with signs pointing the way at each junction.  I only encountered one unmarked junction on day 1, and the locals directed me to take the sharp left.  If in doubt, simply point down the road and ask anyone you see “Cyimbiri?” (pronounced chim-beer-ee) or “Kinunu?” (day two’s destination) and the locals will set you straight.

To end your first day, turn right at the sign for Cyimbiri Base Camp.  Then turn left at an unmarked junction (right goes down the hill to the hydro station).  You’ll encounter a school, which you should walk through. On the far side there is a small, unmarked gate on the right that leads to the guesthouse.  Students or locals will probably point you to it before you even have a chance to ask.

The guesthouse is a cozy place right on the lake with the option of a simple room for 10,000 RF, or you can pitch your tent on the lawn (and still use the common room and bathroom, including a cold shower) for 5000 RF.  When I was there, dinner was 5000 RF and breakfast 2000 RF, both consisting of tasty and plentiful local food. They sold water and soda, but no beer.

Day 2: Cyimbiri to Kinunu

Green paths on Congo Nile Trail

Ask at the Cyimbiri guesthouse before you leave for directions to the “short cut” along the lake.  It’s beautiful, one of the only sections of singletrack trail on the whole route, and avoids some uphill backtracking.

In Kinunu there are at least two options (that I saw) for lodging.  Both looked a bit more upmarket than the Cyimbiri guesthouse. They are well signed and both slightly off the main road.  I believe the Kinunu Guesthouse, closer to the main road, would have been cheaper, but I found no one there to check me in.  So I headed left to the more expensive Rushel Kivu Loadge, about 3km off the main road.

Compared to the more rustic Cyimbiri guesthouse, Rushel Kivu Lodge feels like a regular hotel, and a bit more “touristy.”  You’ll find other hikers there, but also people who arrived in nice air conditioned vehicles. When I was there, a yoga retreat was in progress and a couple ladies were complaining that the beer wasn’t cold enough.  But, it is right on the lake, has good wifi, tasty but expensive food, and very pretty grounds.

I pitched my tent on the lawn for a rather pricey 10,000 RF, which was as low as I could negotiate.   I enjoyed a bathroom with nice warm shower and a couple beers on their deck with a lovely view of the lake.  They definitely have rooms available, probably nice ones, but they were certainly above my price range so I didn’t even check.  More information is available on their website.

View from my tent in Kinunu
View from my tent in Kinunu

Day 3: Kinunu to Musasa

Day 3 starts with a mandatory backtrack up the steep hill from the lake.  I found this day to be challenging, long and a bit confusing in terms of the route.  There are lots of unmarked junctions and if you are traveling without a guide you’ll need to ask locals for help many times.  But hey, if it were easy, it wouldn’t be a proper adventure, right?

My advice for this section: ask for directions often.  At any junction, point to one direction or the other and ask “Musasa?”  Once you think you are on the right road it doesn’t hurt to point straight ahead and ask someone else the same thing.  A couple times I got conflicting directions, and I suspect there are at least a couple routes that go to the same place.

Around the time I expected to find the guesthouse / homestay in Musasa, I found a sign saying “Musasa Base Camp.”  It seemed to indicate a right turn into a coffee plantation, but locals there directed me back to the road and onward in the direction I had been heading.  I heard reports of a simple campsite there, but I never found it, and instead continued confused while a little boy walked wordlessly with me and assured me I should continue.  Finally, at the top of a hill I found the Musasa Homestay on the right.

Note: there is also a town called Bumba where some hikers stay during this stretch of the Congo Nile Trail.  For part of the day both Bumba and Musasa are in the same direction, but there is an unmarked junction where the routes diverge and you will need to carefully ask the locals for the one you want specifically.

I was the only guest at the Musasa homestay, but they had several rooms available for 10,000 RF and also offered me camping space anywhere on their small property for 5000 RF.  There is a spot to pitch a tent right out front, but if you’re craving a break from the staring eyes of dozens of children, I recommend setting up your tent in the enclosed courtyard.  There is a pit toilet and a bathing room where you can wash off with a bucket of warm water.

It’s not exactly a homestay in the sense that no family lives there.  At the time it was staffed by a young man and woman who were not a couple and only live there during their work shifts.  But the building is house-like and the staff are unusually welcoming, which I’ll admit gave it a homestay-like feel.

The two staff members were friendly and kind and joined me for dinner, which cost 5000 RF but seemed negotiable.  They had water, beer and soda available to buy. Breakfast the next morning was hands down the best meal I’d had in months, including some homemade bread that was to die for.  In fact, it was during this breakfast that I decided to spend my extra day – I had budgeted five for the trail – at this most rustic of lodging options.

Day 4: Optional Rest Day at Musasa

Cooling off in Lake Kivu while hiking the Congo Nile Trail in Rwanda
Cooling off in Lake Kivu while hiking the Congo Nile Trail in Rwanda

I’d allowed five days for the trail and chose to spend my extra day at the rustic home stay in Musasa.  Maybe I just got lucky because I was the only tourist at the time, but both staff members locked up the place and walked with me for a mile or two down to the shores of lake Kivu. We watched fishermen working on their wooden boats and chatted about life in our respective countries.  I suppose you could do this alone but it was much nicer to spend the time talking with these articulate and educated local hosts, who I learned a lot from.  I also got the sense the fishermen didn’t welcome tourists wandering through their place of work without the cultural guidance of the homestay staff.

Back at the homestay I hung out on the front step, did some reading and writing, and then hung out with one of the couples I’d met earlier on the trail who arrived later in the day.  We watched an epic thunderstorm rage through the hills and then fell asleep in our tents in the courtyard to the patter of a light drizzle.

Day 5: Musasa to Mushubati (and on to Kibuye)

If you’ve had enough it’s apparently possible to skip this day by catching a motorbike from Mushubati to the main road, or walking to Bumba and then the main road from there. However, I really enjoyed this day of hiking.  It had a different feel from the others, more remote and less well-defined, maybe because fewer tourists make it all the way without opting for the motorbike shortcut.

If you decide to walk all the way to Rubengera junction, you’ll need to ask locals for directions because the route is not marked at all.  Ask for Mushubati, which seemed more well understood than the name of the junction itself. I suggest leaving plenty of time for this day so you can navigate the road section at the end and arrive in town well before dark.

At Rubengera junction your tired feet will meet pavement for the first time in days.  You can buy a snack and find motorbike drivers ready to take you into town, or you can walk along the nicely paved and sparsely trafficked road for about 2 hours to the junction for Kibuye (pronounced something like chi-boo-yi).  If you’re opting to not continue on the paved route south, this is the end of your trip.

From Rubengera junction I recommend taking a motorbike taxi into Kibuye.  I somehow thought this section was shorter than it was and attempted to walk, but after two hours gave in and flagged down a moto taxi to finish what would have been another 2+ hours of walking in the rain.

Finishing in Kibuye

Kibuye is where guidebooks tell you to expect beach lounging and boat rides on the lake to help you recover from your hike.  I think this depends a lot on your budget. Kibuye does indeed have some very nice hotels on the water, but they are expensive.

I stayed in town at the Kivu Plaza Motel, conveniently near the taxi park, because my moto taxi driver took me there when I asked for a room in the 5000-10000 RF price range.  They had rooms with shared bathrooms for 5000, rooms with bathrooms for 8000, and nicer bigger rooms for 15000 RF. The water worked only sporadically and the restaurant had so-so meals for around 3500 RF.   You can find cheaper and better food elsewhere if you explore a bit. After days on the trail you’ll enjoy shopping for snacks in the few basic “supermarkets” nearby.

Though I wasn’t staying right on the lake, I spent a pleasant day walking out to and around the hilly peninsula.  By chance I found a local guide who took me on an hour long canoe ride out to an island. I’d guess any of the larger hotels could hook you up with something similar if you drop in.  The canoe trip was pleasant, but I had to negotiate hard and explain that I wasn’t staying at one of the expensive hotels and wouldn’t pay him more than a single night’s lodging for an hour in his boat.  

Onward Transportation

If you’re returning to Gisenyi to pick up luggage or hike volcanoes or for other reasons, Kivu Belt company runs vans / buses from the Kibuye taxi park starting at 5am and continuing at 6:30am, 7:30am, and every hour after that through the morning and possibly later.  Schedules change so I’d recommend stopping by the taxi park when you first arrive in town to verify with the drivers there.

From Gisenyi you can easily find a bus in the morning to Kigali. There are many companies running identical services for identical prices, and lots of aggressive touts that will try to convince you theirs is the best / fastest / leaving right this minute.  Just relax and choose whichever one you want.

If you’re heading straight from Kibuye to Kigali you should be able to find buses from the taxi park as well, though I don’t know the schedule so best to go and ask.

Other things to do in Rwanda

My time in Rwanda was limited to the Congo Nile Trail and a few extra days in Gisenyi and Kigali.  However, there are many other things to do there that I wish I’d had time for. Here are a few ideas to guide your research:

Kigali

Chances are you’ll pass through the capital city at least once on your trip to Rwanda.  It’s a pleasant city to walk around in, relatively clean and safe by African city standards. 

If you’re in Kigali I would recommend spending a few hours at the Genocide Memorial Museum.  If you can stomach it, it offers a powerful sense of perspective that will help you better understand this country where most adults have lost friends and family to a genocide that is still fresh in their memories.  I found that Rwandans don’t talk much about the genocide, so unless you know someone will be comfortable with it, it’s probably best not to bring it up.  The museum, which seems to be respected by both visitors and locals, is a good opportunity to learn about it.  Entrance is free, though I’m surely not the first person moved to donate a bit after viewing the heart-wrenching exhibits.

Volcano Trekking

If I’d had more time, next on my list would have been a guided trek up Mt. Karisimbi (overnight with camping) or Mt. Bisoke (day hike).  These volcanoes lie in the northwest corner of Rwanda in Volcanoes National Park, near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo in the Virunga Mountains.   

Mountain Gorilla Tracking

Extremely popular with tourists and also extremely expensive, a few hours with these captivating and rare creatures will cost you $1500.  That said, I’ve talked to visitors who found it worthwhile.  More information is available on the Rwanda Tourism Board website.

Other Resources

While planning my trip I appreciated resources written by others, including:

Detailed blog post about the trail from Responsible Nomad.  Includes pictures of maps.  Note that a few things have changed since this post was written, for example Rwandan Adventures no longer rents bicycles without a guide as explained above.

Useful details about lodging on the Bradt travel guide site.

Bikepacking route description and trip report, for those interested in seeing the trail on wheels.

The government-run Rwanda Development Board website has an overview of the trail, but is light on actual information.

I hope this guide has helped you plan bit, though in my opinion part of the Congo Nile Trail’s charm is its resistance to over-preparation.  I highly recommend you just get out there and figure it out as you go along.  The infrastructure is there and the helpful locals won’t let you down.  Happy trails!

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Pictures of Lake Kivu and village with text: Congo Nile Trail, Rwanda
Pictures of Rwandan villages with text: Rwanda's Congo Nile Trail: Hiking and Biking Guide

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6 thoughts on “Rwanda’s Congo Nile Trail: Hiking or Biking Adventure on the Shores of Lake Kivu”

  • We are just about to do the Congo Nile Trail, in a week or so. We found your blog really helpful – the best one we had seen. Thank you. Our own blog is a bit like yours, but we tend to be rather more ironical in tone. Some people like it, others don’t find it serious enough. If you like our sense of humour then do follow it. We have done three ‘wanders’ – the Cathar Way in France, the Indigenous People’s Trail in Nepal and now we are doing the Congo Nile Trail. We also share these blogs and photos in a public group on Facebook, entitled (surprise, surprise) the Congo Nile Trail: the ‘Rwandawander’. It is open and public so anyone interested can join. Please feel free to do so.

    Cheers

    Wanderingman and Rose (Dave and John)

  • THanks Dear Alissa,
    we’re glad for the information you provided helping people to explore the Congo-Nile Trail.
    At Green Hills Ecotours we are always available to offer any assistance ; Tours and Information for those traveling Rwanda, Uganda and DRCongo. Visit our office in Gisenyi or on our instagram page(Greenhillsecotours) Thanks. Innocent

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