Why you should care
Because greenery this green needs to be seen.
Rwanda’s sprawling tea fields are a particular shade of green. Not exactly emerald, a hair lighter than jade, but still green. Tea green. The Kivu Belt road, situated between the towns of Gisenyi and Cyangugu, stretches 190 kilometers through the iridescent plantations as well as other terraced farmlands, making for a spectacular drive along sparkling Lake Kivu.
Starting in the northwest Rubavu district and finishing in the southern Rusizi district, the Kivu Belt road takes approximately five hours to drive. One of Rwanda’s secret road trip gems, the road was paved only in late 2015, saving about 10 hours of travel between the districts. It’s a development that Belise Kariza, chief tourism officer at the Rwanda Development Board, believes will encourage tourism to Lake Kivu, which she calls “literally a paradise on earth.”
Though the drive can now be completed in a day, travelers with more time should split up the trip into a few days, making sure to spend time in the charming towns along the way. Starting in the north, wind your way through Gisenyi, with a view of the striking Virunga volcanoes. This bustling beachside town is home to variety of bars, restaurants and public beaches. Calafia Café offers salads, sandwiches and fresh smoothies, and drinking a cold Skol lager at the lakeside Tam-Tam bar is the best way to watch the sun go down. Nat Hollands, one of Calafia Café’s co-owners, credits the paved road with attracting more tourists to the area.
The drive to Kibuye, the road trip’s midpoint, sees the color of the earth change from volcanic black to a rusty red.
Next, drive out of town and along the palm-tree-lined boulevard parallel to the beach. Here you might share the road with bicyclists loaded up with firewood and steel canisters of milk, as well as packed passenger buses speeding around the winding turns. On a clear day, the last glimpse of Gisenyi provides views of the smoking Nyiragongo volcano and the expansive city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The drive to Kibuye, the road trip’s midpoint, sees the color of the earth change from volcanic black to a rusty red. The weather gets better the further south you go, as the mountainous effect from the north slowly ebbs away. Possibly Rwanda’s most picturesque town, Kibuye greets visitors with sweeping views of lush islands surrounded by water that turns a light turquoise in the sunlight. Chirping birds set the soundtrack to a slow afternoon lunch at Cormoran Lodge, where day-trippers and overnight guests alike gather to play Scrabble on the wooden porch or gaze at the glittering lakefront.
From Kibuye, it’s approximately another two and a half hours to Cyangugu, capital of the Rusizi district. The road passes the turnoff for Nyungwe National Park and Gishwati Forest, curving around lakeside inlets and lagoons.
As you drive through Nyamasheke, you’ll see schoolchildren running alongside the road in the late afternoon, with motorcycles and buses slowing down to avoid them. Stop at a local bar along the way to dig into samosas, meat brochettes and grilled potatoes, with the food accompanied by some classic Celine Dion (a Rwandan favorite).
This is where Rwandan daily life occurs — the Kivu Belt meanders through plenty of towns, sectors, districts and a whole host of climates. Schools are located every few kilometers, as are restaurants, bars and colorful markets. Though parts of the road can feel isolated, you’re never alone for too long.
After passing banana plantations at every turn, finish the trip at Emeraude Lodge in the town of Cyangugu. Brush the red dust from your hair and settle in for some good people-watching with a mug of green tea. Resist the urge to turn right back around and do the drive once more.
Go There: The Drive Along Lake Kivu
Road-trippers should consider spending the night in Kibuye, Cyangugu and Gisenyi. For those with more time, check out the Rutsiro district.
Where to Stay:
- Palm Garden Lodge (Gisenyi): A lakefront lodge with lovely interiors.
- Rushel Kivu Lodge (Kinunu): Take a boat ride or try the brochettes.
- Cormoran Lodge (Kibuye): A lakefront lodge with gorgeous wooden treehouse rooms. Kayak trips and boat rides are available.
- Emeraude Lodge (Cyangugu): A lakefront lodge with beach access via a steep hill.
Where to Eat:
- Calafia Café (Gisenyi): California vibes, cute art, great (and healthful) food for good prices.
- Tam-Tam Bar (Gisenyi): Classic Rwandan lakeside bar, packed with locals on the weekends. Good for brochettes and cold beer.
- Cormoran Lodge (Kibuye): Pizzas, burgers and fish brochettes, plus French-influenced dishes.
- Emeraude Lodge (Cyangugu): Go for the grilled meat. Also serves pasta and sandwiches.