If there is one thing you’ll find in abundance in Rwanda, it’s pleasant, laid back towns. Perhaps so laid back , you might have to dig deep to find something to do. There is a fine line between chilling and being bored and that was my general state of mind in Rwanda; I was never sure if I was relaxing or slightly bored. Chances are, I’m just spoiled.
As I’ve mentioned in my previous article about Rwanda, it’s a country worth visiting, but maybe not as a main destination. If you’re in the area for gorilla trekking or volcano hiking, I highly recommend you swing by the lake side town of Gisenyi. Though I might be a little biased, having spent a few years of my childhood there, I think it may be Rwanda’s best town to hang out it in. 24 hours would suffice to sample the vibe. Add an extra day or two if you need some downtime.
This is how I would spend 24 hours in Gisenyi
Check in at Paradise Malahide hotel.
This popular hotel houses a staff that tries their hardest to make you feel at home. Clean small bungalows with an African inspired interior serve as rooms, all facing the hotel’s tiny beach. It’s located quite far from the centre of town so if you don’t have your own set of wheels, you’ll have to take the motor taxi which is an adventure in itself. It’s the right place to be if you’re looking for a peaceful stay. Rooms are quite pricey, but most accommodation in Rwanda is.
Have dinner in a local bar
If there is one dish Rwandans are great at, it’s BBQ’ed meat and fish. Go to a local bar and order some “brochettes and frites” with your beer. Bam, you’ve integrated in the local culture. The fries are served with mayonnaise -the good kind- something every Belgian will rejoice himself of.
We walked to an open air bar/restaurant right next to Paradise Malahide hotel and feasted on grilled beef skewers, fries and beer while enjoying the sun setting in the lake.
Breakfast in Paradise
Even if you haven’t spent the night in Malahide, it’s worth stopping by for breakfast. The presentation combined with the setting make their breakfast feel like such a treat. Again, it comes with a price tag but you get used to that in Rwanda.
Head to the market
It’s basically your average big bustling African market, but if you’re anything like me and find all markets fun and interesting, you’ll want to hit this one too. It’s a great place to buy local fabric, which you can have tailored into a fashionable piece of clothing right on the spot. Bring an existing piece to have copied or have them make you a local statement piece. Rwandans are known throughout the region to be excellent tailors.
Stop at ‘Atelier des Poupée’
This organisation was founded by a French nun in the 80’s. Her goals was to provide widows with sowing skills and an opportunity to make an income. The atelier has been in the same place in Gisenyi ever since. The women make dolls with African skin tones, bags, wallets, and stuffed animals. All with recycled fabric. Every single item is made by hand and you can get a bag or doll custom made for a reasonable price. It’s small initiatives like these that I love to support.
Buffet for lunch
Buffets are the prefered dining style in Rwanda… And they should be! You get to load up your plate as much as you can and sample all the different dishes for a fixed price. There are plenty of hotels and restaurants offering buffets for lunch. Ask around to find out which ones are popular. Try Sambaza if you get the chance; literally meaning “small fish”, they are indeed tiny fish, usually deep fried and served with lemon and pili pili. A typical Kivu lake snack.
Afternoon and sunset at the beach
Though Rwanda is landlocked, Gisenyi has a decent beach by the shores of Lake Kivu. In the afternoons and during the weekends, the public beach is animated with children coming for an after school dip, showing off their salto skills. The calm lake is perfect for a swim and a lay in the sand. Some places rent out jet ski’s and motorboats; ideal if you need a little more action. Bring a Frisbee or a beach ball; you’ll make new friends instantly. Stay for sunset and you’ll see swarms of bats leaving their nests to start their evening hunt.
Catch a traditional dance show in a big tourist hotel
I know how this sounds; cheesy and ‘unauthentic’. But if you want to see the tall black men with blond hair do their traditional dance, these are the only places you will find them. These dances are hardly ever found in modern Rwandese society unless it’s for a wedding, birthday or as an opening act of an official event. The dancers are hired to put on a traditional show for parties and for visitors. It is still part of the culture but not so much in a spontaneous way.
We were lucky to see a show for free in our hotel. Though I found it quite impressive, I wouldn’t necessarily have paid for it or have changed my itinerary to see it. But that’s just me, I’m not particularly fond of cultural dances.
For the party animals: clubbing at White Rock
In my experience, travel in Africa leaves you dead beat at the end of the day. I rarely have any energy left to go clubbing, unless I’m staying in the same place for a week or so.
Loosing my edge? Maybe.
If you’re still feeling energised at the end of the day, white rock is probably the best place to shake your booty to the beat of Nigerian pop and American hip hop. There are several other places that will cater to your dancing needs. Things can change quite fast so ask locals which is the current ‘happening’ club.
A morning and lunch at Serena hotel
Whether you want to splash around in the pool or want to hit the gym, the Serena hotel is the place to be. They charge 10$ to spend a day at the pool included towels and a drink. The hotel is not just a glitzy place for a swim, it’s also of historical significance. It briefly served as the headquarters of the interim government that presided over the genocide of ’94.
Since you’re already paying for entrance, you might as well stay a little longer and have lunch on the terrace or by the pool. Get the grilled tilapia, it is incredible. The fish comes straight out of the lake on to your plate. The hotel restaurant offers many other dishes I wasn’t able to taste but judging from the other guests’ reactions as they took a bite of their dish, the food here is delicious.
Leading up to the hotel is the ‘Avenue de la coopération’ perfect for a long stroll to digest the food and check out some of the crafts on sale along the way.