Destination Kivu Belt

Rubavu, Rwanda’s resort town on the shores of Lake Kivu

Rubavu, also known as Gisenyi is a town on the shores of Lake Kivu in Northwestern of Rwanda, about an hour’s drive from the mountain gorillas of Volcanoes National Park and Musanze. The town is best known for its beaches, lakeside resorts and beach bars. The most famous and only public beach in Rwanda can be found in Rubavu. Rubavu Public Beach or Gisenyi Beach on the town’s lakefront is a few hundred meters long and hardly ever crowded. The public beach is separated from the street outside by a fence and a short hedge. This together with the lush trees, gives a sense of seclusion and privacy from the buzzle of the town. 
Rubavu Beach
Rubavu Beach

Rubavu Town

Central Rubavu is a large and lively place with strong influences and many vendors from Congo. Most necessities can be found in town if you know where to look. This can be quite hard as most shops are small and specialized. People are generally friendly and if you ask someone about a service you are looking for they will generally accompany you and show you where the shop is located. Most things can be found in the central open-air market and there are several supermarkets with imported groceries. The largest supermarket in Rubavu, Habibu which also bakes fresh bread is located across the street from the central market.

There are three different areas of Rubavu Town. The city center is always busy, and you will find just about any shop and services here. The Petit Barriere is the area around the small border used to cross over to DRC on foot. Several shops selling hardware and plastic are located here. There are several butcheries here as well as the new cross-border mall which is mostly a market for meat and vegetables. Down by the lake is a smaller shopping area with crafts some bars, a wine shop and a small super market. This is also where most of the hotels and beach bars can be found.

One of the main streets in central town, commonly referred to as “Banking Street” is lined with a number of banks and ATMs. You will also find the MTN office here. For an ATM outside of the city center, you will find Bank of Kigali close to Gorillas Hotel a short walk from the public beach. 

Rubavu
Central Rubavu with Mt. Nyiragongo in the Background

Getting to Rubavu and away

Rubavu is very well connected to the rest of Rwanda by bus. The main bus station in Rubavu is found near the Petit Barriére at the end of town. The main bus station has ticket offices for all the mayor bus companies and is also the end of most journeys. The bus station is a bit outside central town and a moto, bike or taxi ride is needed to go into town or down to the lake front where most hotels are located. These will be available from the bus station at any time of day. Most of the buses, including Ritco will also stop at a smaller bus stop in front of the mosque in town. Tickets can be bought on the bus with mobile money or cash.

The large and reliably long-distance bus company Ritco departs from Rubavu every 15 minutes towards Kigali and Musanze and every hour towards Karongi and Rusizi. For journeys along Lake Kivu, to places outside of larger towns the Kivu Belt Express or Nile Express can be used.

For shorter journeys within Rubavu town or to one of the lakeside resorts there will always be someone available with a bike or moto to give you a ride for a small fee. There are several taxi stations in central town, notably by the central market and by the central Engen gas station. As you are outside of Kigali, don’t expect transportation to be organized or for anyone to have a proper meter and prices generally need to be negotiated. 

Lakeside Beach Bars

Rubavu is generally a lively place, well known for its party atmosphere. Rwanda is rather relaxed and Rwandans are known for their timid and gentle demeanor. Their western neighbor Congo is known for the opposite. Congolese are known for their love of parties, music and dancing. As Rubavu is a border town of Congo, the atmosphere has spread across the border.

A short walk from Rubavu Public Beach, across the Sebeya River by the shore of the lake, is a stretch of beach bars. These bars are especially lively during weekends when visitors from Kigali and DRC mix over drinks with locals. The most famous is New Tam Tam Beach. New Tam Tam Beach is the first beach bar you will come across when coming from the side of Rubavu town and has a relaxed atmosphere with outside seating directly on the sand by the lake. New Tam Tam offers simple food and drinks with possibility of swimming and is a must when visiting Rubavu. Next door to Tam Tam is Saga Bay, formerly known as Sun N Sand. This place has recently gone through a facelift and has a terrace right on the edge of the water offering simple food and drinks on with a nice view. Further down you will find 1 Degree South Bar & Grill, a place with slightly higher ambition. 21 degrees offers a covered dining area with a bar and an open beach area with sunbeds. At the end of the stretch of beach bars is Little Paris Beach. This place is rather lively, especially on weekends and is a fun place to go for a genuine local vibe. There is a roofed terrace at the edge of the lake with wonderful views of the sunset and the water and a decent menu offering the usual Rwandan cuisine. 

Rubavu
Boats near Tam Tam Beach Bar in Gisenyi

Resorts and Rubavu Riviera

For those who are not fans of live music and vibrant nightlife, Rubavu also has a more relaxed and gentle side. Apart from the public beach in town, there are a multitude of lakeside resorts, some of which have private beaches and gardens leading down to the lake. There are also several hiking and biking trails in the surrounding hills.

Close to Rubavu town, you will find Serena Kivu Resort which has a nice pool and a garden which stretches down to the private beach. Even though Serena is rather pricy, it rarely disappoints and sipping on a cocktail in the garden or lounging on one of the sunbeds on the beach can be a nice way to spend an afternoon.

Along the palm-lined Avenue de la Cooperation which runs along the entire beach and Rubavu Public Beach, you will find several hotels and hostels to accommodate all tastes and wallets. In an old colonial villa right across the road from the beach, you will find Discover Rwanda Gisenyi Beach. This place which was originally built as the private home of a Belgian doctor in the 40’s, has seen its former glory days but offers price-worthy accommodation in shared or private rooms. Further down is the Hill View Hotel, a business oriented hotel with a pool and conference facilities. The name is misleading as it is located next to the lake, but Hill View offers a pool next to the parking and an outside pool bar.  Gorillas Lake Kivu is situated on at the end of Rubavu Public Beach by the gardens of the public events area. Gorillas holds high standards for a three star hotel in Rwanda and is popular amongst international visitors and tour operators with its pool and lush gardens.

A few kilometers outside of Rubavu town, along the newly paved road leading to Bralirwa Brewery, you will find a range of resort style hotels, bars and restaurants all of which offer good food and drinks with a view of Lake Kivu. This area has been transformed into a local Lake Kivu riviera over the past years. Most locals will refer to this area as “by the brasserie” or “by the brewery”. The brasserie they are referring to is the local Sous le Soleil Brasserie, one of the first places to pop up by the lake in the area. It is easy to get here by car, taxi or moto. Since the construction of the new paved road, it is now possible to bike, and part of the new road also has a side walk making it possible to walk even though it is several kilometers from town.

Perched on the hillside overlooking the Bralirwa Bay is Nirvana Heights Resort and Spa. The name is a little misleading as there is no spa. The main attraction of the hotel is the infinity pool with views over the lake and the poolside restaurant and bar. Nirvana Heights sometimes organizes pool parties and other events by the which can be quite interesting. On the shores below Nirvana heights you will find Palm Beach Resort, a hotel with an ambition and a nice garden and private beach. With its palms and lush gardens, it has a tropical feeling a real ocean resort vibe. Accommodation is offered in the form of secluded stone bungalows, each with a private terrace and lake views. There is an outside bar and tables in the garden at the water’s edge offering a nice selection of food and drinks. Further down, closer to Bralirwa Brewery is the charming Paradise Malahide. This resort offers simple, but good bungalows and a covered African style bar and seating area. There are also tables outside by the water even though the garden is little more than gravel. Paradise Malahide also owns the private Akeza Island in the bay which has nice gardens and beaches. The island can be visited for a day or a stay-over in a tent can be organized through Paradise Malahide. Wedged in the middle of the bay is the Hakuna Matata Lodge. This lodge is more of a hotel-style building with a restaurant offering nice views of the lake. 

Rubavu
Lakefront at Serena Kivu Lodge in Rubavu

Boat Rides, Hot springs and tea

A visit to Rubavu is not complete without a boat ride. At just about any hotel, bar or restaurant close to the lake there will be offers of boat rides. Be prepared to be offered a boat ride at any time you are close to the lake, especially if you look somewhat like a foreigner or not from the area. Most, if not all boats around Rubavu look the same. They are wooden boats with a 15hp outboard engine and a simple home-made wooden roof offering protection for the sun and rain. Life vests are mandatory by law and will always be offered. The seats are padded benches and each boat can accommodate between 8 and 10 passengers. The main departure point of boat rides in Rubavu is from the jetty at Rubavu Public Beach, but boats depart from just about any place. As many Rwandans are experiencing travelling for the first time and it might be the first time they have been to lake Kivu or seen a boat, a boat ride in Rubavu is set up to be exactly that; a boat ride. Do not expect a tour with a planned itinerary, drinks, food or interesting sights apart from nice views and perhaps a sunset. If this is what you are after, then rather go for the night fishing experience or go on a boat ride somewhere else in the lake, like Karongi. If you want to go somewhere during your boat ride in Rubavu, then ask to be taken to the Hot springs on the Rubona Peninsula.

The Rubavu or Nyamyumba hotsprings on the Rubona Peninsula about 7 kms outside Rubavu town are interesting to visit. Unfortunately, they are poorly managed and lack investments at the moment. The springs are genuine, with hot water coming out from underground in two places. One spring is slightly hotter that the other and the clay is said to have healing properties. The local community have made several pools where the water is collected and where you can enjoy a hot bath. The Government has highlighted the whole peninsula as an investment prospect for a spa hotel. Until an investor comes along and decides to invest, or the government changes their plans, the hot springs will remain in their current state under the management of a local cooperative. Some of the current staff of at the Rubavu hot springs have been professionally trained abroad and offer treatments of mud baths and massages. The trained staff together with some genuine African ingenuity makes the Rubavu hot springs an interesting place well worth a visit. Be prepared for a treatment unlike anything else you have ever experienced. Don’t forget to bring a towel and bathing suit.

For a more organized experience, the nearby Pfunda Tea Cooperative takes on visitors through tea tours. A tea tour is organized through a tea cooperative who have trained some of the workers as guides to take on visitors. A tour at Pfunda generally starts with a ride on the back of a truck to the tea plantation along the other workers in the morning. At the tea plantation you will join your guide and the others to pick tea. The tour then continues in the factory where you will learn how tea is processed from the bush all the way to a cup of fresh tea. 

Rwanda Tea Tour
Tea picking at Pfunda

Hiking in and around Rubavu

I you are a bit more adventurous and would like to get out into the nature around Rubavu, then there are some great hiking options around Rubavu town. Mount Rubavu next to central town is uninhabited and offers some nice hikes with scenery of  Lake Kivu, town and Goma, including the active volcano Mt. Nyiragongo. The hiking trails at Mount Rubavu are managed by a local cooperative who also operate a small restaurant offering food and drinks at the start of the hiking trail. The hiking trail starts a short distance from central town behind the Restoration Church.

If you are looking for a more challenging hike, then you will find Mount Muhungwe, a 15-minute drive from Rubavu town more suitable. Mount Muhungwe is the 5th highest non-volcanic peak in Rwanda at 2928 m. The mountain rain forest on the mountain has partially been saved from destruction, even though most of the animals apart from birdlife has been wiped out. Mount Muhungwe has two peaks and there are two hiking trails through the dense forest to the top.

Even more challenging than Mt. Muhungwe is the famous Congo Nile Trail. The Congo Nile Trail is a hiking and biking trail along the entire shoreline of Lake Kivu from Rubavu to Rusizi. The trail takes several days to complete and is dotted with genuine experiences, guest houses and nice views of Lake Kivu and the surrounding hills.

Around 40 minutes’ drive from Rubavu you will find Gishwati Forest, the latest of Rwanda’s National Parks and one of the last remaining Central African mountain forests. The forest is one of the last refuges of the Eastern Chimpanzee. Gishwati Forest was nearly wiped out due to the need of farm lands after the genocide, but a small part of the forest, inhabiting a group of chimpanzees was saved. A large area surrounding the remaining forest was declared a national park in 2019. An ambitious reforestation program is in place to let the original vast forests regrow which will enlarge todays forest by tenfold. Gishwati is a popular place for hiking, birding and chimpanzee trekking.

For those looking for the ultimate adventure, the active volcano of Nyiragongo is the place to go. The volcano can be found a few kilometers from Rubavu in Virunga National Park in Democratic Republic of Congo. Nyiragongo is active and had an eruption as late as 2021 causing havoc in the area. Today the crater holds the world’s largest lava lake. It is possible to see Mt. Nyiragongo from central Rubavu and at night the red glowing lava lake lets out an orange glow. It is possible to hike to the top of the crater and spend the night on the rim with views over the red lava lake. As Congo is unstable this needs to be organized through a local tour operator. An operator such as Green Hills Ecotours in Rubavu will be able to organize such a trip which also includes a security escort from the border. Beware that this is a risky activity and the current security situation of the Nord Kivu Region and the current activity of Mt. Nyiragongo should be research in detail before such an activity.  

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