Planning to cross the border between Rwanda and DR Congo and visit the gorillas of Virunga or Kahuzi Biega? Don’t worry. We got you covered.
Despite recent political unrest, The Democratic Republic of Congo remains one of the jewels in the crown of central Africa. Its breathtaking scenery offers a variety of wondrous experiences, such as gorilla trekking, volcano hikes, and nature walks for the intrepid traveler.
Even though DR Congo still endures regular armed conflict and insurgency, being careful while planning your trip and following the advice from local experts and guides can help you move around the country trouble-free.
I visited DR Congo last Spring after traveling all across East Africa. In this article, I will explain how to cross the overland border from Rwanda into DRC, a route commonly taken by locals and adventurous travelers. – Relax. It is easier than it looks.
Crossing the border
There are two key borders between Rwanda and the DRC, one at Gisenyi leading to the Congolese city of Goma (the closest entry point to Virunga National Park), and one at Cyangugu leading to the city of Bukavu (the nearest entry point to Kahuzi Biega National Park).
Traveling from Kigali to either Gisenyi or Cyangugu is fairly straightforward. While renting a car with a driver is the most convenient option (the price should be around 150 USD for up to three people), bus services are cheap and very regular for those on a budget.
The journey to Gisenyi using public transportation takes around 4 hours and costs less than 5 USD. The trip to Cyangugu using public transport takes approximately 6.5 hours and costs around 10 USD. Many local bus services operate on these routes, including Virunga Express, Kigali Coach, Fidelity, and Ritco. Booking online in advance is not possible, to buy a ticket it is usually necessary to visit the company’s office.
Read more: What are the best things to do in Kigali
Another more straightforward choice is to drop by the Nyabugogo Taxi Park in Kigali and ask for information. This is Kigali’s largest bus station, and most mini-buses traveling across the country depart from here.
While the Rwandan side is relatively easy to travel around, Congo is not. Security is a big concern once you travel across the border, and my recommendation for a smooth journey is to hire the services of a driver or tour operator while you’re in Congo. Having a tour guide beforehand also makes paperwork and crossing borders smoother.
Border officials can be difficult for travelers – especially those who don’t speak French – and there have been incidents of travelers being detained without reason for hours. This can be prevented by having someone with local knowledge accompanying you, whether a driver or local tour operator. The official advice of many embassies is to expect your documents to be checked thoroughly at the border, so ensure to have them in order on arrival, and to be courteous and straightforward with border officials.
Traveling around DR Congo
On entering Goma or Bukavu, travelers will find themselves in a bustling urban environment. Unfortunately, due to the current political situation and the lack of tourism in the area, prices in these cities can be relatively high, even for Westerners. Basic double rooms at hotels can be around 80-100 USD, and a meal at a hotel restaurant costs about 15-20 USD. Private travel outside the cities can only be done with a 4×4 vehicle, rental of which typically starts at 100-150 USD per day.
All ATMs in Congo give USD – Local currency is mainly used for small transactions – there is no need to change beforehand in Rwanda, which will usually be for a bad exchange rate. If you still have Rwandan money when reaching the border, don’t worry – officials there will exchange it for you at a decent rate.
Both Bukavu and Goma are considered safe by locals. Still, extreme precaution is necessary. During my stay in Congo, I never saw a foreigner walking alone on the streets (even in daylight). The few UN and Aid workers move only using private transportation and avoid crowded places like markets or busy bars.
I found Bukavu relatively safe when taking the proper precautions. Don’t carry expensive belongings, be aware of your surroundings at all times, and don’t walk alone at night. When visiting the city market, go only with a local and avoid public transportation.
Unfortunately, once outside the cities, the rural environments in DR Congo can result in mortal danger if unaccompanied – we highly recommend only doing so with a private driver or as part of a tour.
INSIDER TIP: If you plan to visit Burundi afterward, take USD in cash from DR Congo. Due to the current inflation, the rate in Burundi for cash gives you anything between 10-15% more.
Traveling between Goma and Bukavu
A ferry service is available between Goma and Bukavu, the most picturesque route between the two cities, taking in beautiful scenery on Lake Kivu along the way. Journey times vary; the smallest boats can take around two hours, while larger vessels can take six or seven. Services operate daily. A three-hour trip on a ship of 50 passengers costs 50 USD with a 10-kilo luggage allowance; each extra 5 kilos costs 3.5 USD. A soft drink and sandwich are often included in the fare! Despite traveling within DRC, expect passports to be checked on departure and arrival.
Until today, access to the Virunga National Park is completely closed due to militias occupying the territory. This means seeing the volcano and the mountain gorillas of Virunga is currently not an option; however, travelers wanting to see gorillas can still do so at the Kahuzi Biega National Park next to Bukavu. Tour companies would also not accept any offer to visit Virunga. KEEP IN MIND! Traveling to Virunga independently and without a guide can easily result in a kidnapping. – Right now, this is one of the most volatile regions in the world, and the situation won’t change anytime soon.
Most nationalities will require a visa to enter DRC, which should be applied for before traveling there. The standard tourist visa can be relatively expensive for many Western nationalities, around 200 USD for the minimum stay of a month. The price consists of an Embassy Fee and a Service or processing Fee. We recommend checking your own embassy’s website for exact pricing.
These visa applications can take up to two months to process. However, they can be expedited if you submit a formal letter of invitation from a person or organization you visit in DRC. The visa requirements for DRC include full proof of travel itinerary and booked accommodation, as well as a passport valid for at least 6 months from the prospective date of entry.
The Kivu Tourist visa – a visa to see gorillas and hike volcanos
One alternative option to the standard tourist visa that we recommend is the Kivu Tourist Visa. There is not much information about this type of visa online, and the best way to confirm the information I provide here is by talking to your guide in DR Congo.
The Kivu Tourist visa is a new option from the Congolese government to promote tourism in this region. Due to its proximity to Uganda and Rwanda, the government wants to motivate travelers to travel to Congo and see the gorillas. Compared to Rwanda and Uganda, DR Congo has the least expensive gorilla permits in the region.
- Uganda – 700 USD
- Rwanda – 1500 USD
- Congo – 400 USD – 200 USD if you are a student from any university around the world).
Read more: How to plan a gorilla trekking in Rwanda
This visa can be applied “online” (you send your documents via WhatsApp) using a local operator, and the process takes only 7 days and costs 100 USD.
For this visa, you just need to contact a DR Congo tour operator, book a tour with this organization, send a copy of your passport, and that’s it. You will get an official paper approving your visa (pay attention that they spelled your name correctly), and you will pay after crossing the border and arriving on the Congolese side – it can’t be easier.
Unlike the standard tourist visa for DR Congo, travelers with the Kivu visa can only travel in Kivu, and they can only get it with the condition that they book any activity inside one of the national parks (Virunga or Kahuzi Biega).
Even though local guides will tell you this visa only applies for the expensive gorilla trekking tours, travelers can also get this visa if they do nature walks (50 USD) or a volcano hike (350 USD). The Kivu visa of DR Congo lasts only 14 days (it can’t be extended as far as I know), and it will let you transfer to DR Congo’s capital, Kinshasa.
Additionally, I heard stories that if you arrive in Kinshasa with a Kivu Visa, you would still be able to leave the airport and explore this city without problems.
Planning a trip to DR Congo independently is fun. However, if you want to arrange everything with tour operators beforehand from the comfort of your home. SafariBookings is the best platform for it.
They have the largest database of tour operators in Africa and you can simply send a request and negotiate a tour and a price directly with the operator. You don’t have to pay any additional fees.
These are some of the most popular tours in DR Congo at SafariBookings