We hiked the first half of the Congo Nile Trail (From Rubavu/Gisenyi to Kibuye) and this was one of our favorite parts of our Rwanda vacation. I contacted Joseph at the Gisenyi office of the RDB (Rwanda Development Board tourism office) about a month in advance and scheduled/reserved a guide and two porters for the Congo Nile Trail, (as well as the farm to cup coffee experience and night fishing). The costs were really reasonable: 50./day for a guide and 30./day for each porter (plus we gave them substantial tips at the end because we really appreciated them). It seemed extravagant to us at first to have porters (Caesar & Germaine) to carry our packs, but it was SO nice to just be able to walk and experience and not think about our heavy packs (plus we didn't have time to train with our packs so we were not in good enough shape to carry them anyway). Plus, it was nice to have additional help on the trail besides just our guide, Robert Walker, who was wonderful and helped make the whole experience a great one. I highly recommend at least getting a guide. Without a guide, it would be very difficult to know which way to go (it is rarely marked) and you would not be able to communicate with the locals since most speak only kinyarwanda. The only other tourists walking the trail in the direction we were heading didn't have a guide and they ended up walking on the main road more instead of on the really cool little trails that actually make up the Congo Nile Trail and go through fields and smaller villages. With a guide you learn a lot more and can communicate with the local people you meet who are walking the trail to take their goods to sell or get from one village to another or whatnot.
It was unclear from the website how the accommodations along the trail worked. I thought we could choose what type of accommodations we wanted, but that was not always the case. In most base camps you could camp, but not always. We chose to stay in guesthouses & at one base camp the only option was camping or homestay, so we did homestay.
We stayed at Cyimbili Base Camp guesthouse the first night. They have camping facilities there as well (though we got a room in the guesthouse for about $7./night plus food) and it is located right on the lake with lovely views and you can swim in the lake (we did not). This was the only location in all of Rwanda where there were a significant number of mosquitos, so we mostly stayed indoors after dusk. The African dinner was absolutely delicious, although was not ready until about 9pm, which seems to be relatively typical in Rwanda since that was the case at other guesthouses as well.
Our guide paid for everything along the trail and then we paid him back for everything at the end, which made everything easier and although i feared the bill would be high, it only ended up costing around 200. for EVERYTHING lodging, food, transport, water, etc. along the trail, which we felt was really reasonable....probably more reasonable than if we had been paying for it since he was able to negotiate in shops and with motorbike drivers and such.
The Trail goes through different types of vegetation and rural areas. The first day was many coffee fields, the second day was more banana fields and the third day had some marshy areas and the forth day had a mix. There are many times you are within fields and inland up and down hills, but then you return back closer to the lake and have stunning views, and at other times you are walking down close to the lake and see people boating, playing in the water, or using the lake for washing.
There are many children along the route (especially since they were on holiday break) and they all come running when they see a 'Mzungu' (white person) and come greet us with the English they learn at school: "good morning. how are you? what is your name?" The kids have fantastic home-made toys and they get excited if you take photos/video (ask first) and then show them their picture/video. Our guide advised us not to give them money or sweets, which is always good advice as doing so can create a negative, dependent culture in which they will harass future tourists. Our guides frequently had to tell children to stop following us so that they did not get too far from home. The kids are just curious and looking for something to do. They are cute and in no way malicious. If you hang out long enough in a village, even all the adults will come out and stare at you and giggle if you take photos of your surroundings. Always ask before taking a picture of people, however, as some do not like to have their picture taken.
Our second night we stayed at the Kinunu Base Camp (Kinunu Guesthouse & Coffee Washing Station). We stayed there two nights because we scheduled a rest day on Christmas (thank goodness because the trail is challenging with a lot of up and down and stabilizing your footing as you go). We had a tour of the coffee washing station, which was interesting. The first night at Kinunu guesthouse, our room was not great, the toilet didn't flush and the shower didn't have any pressure. The second night, we were in the main complex of the guesthouse and the accommodations were basic but lovely. We even had some warm water. The meals were each delicious, especially the abundance of local fruits. This was the most expensive accommodation. With meals, it was around 50.USD a night. The couple that owns the property were really interesting and we got to know a bit of the history from their son who was visiting for Christmas and works for the UN. His father, who is an economist and retired professor had fled Kinunu in the 60s (i think) after his father was killed on that land, and he didn't return to Rwanda until 3 years after the Genocide, to teach at the university. He and his wife returned to Kinunu for retirement and opened the guesthouse and coffee washing station. They are a strong and proud, smart & educated couple who have done a lot of good in the community. Don't try to negotiate price or anything, as that will not likely go well. The two female travelers who were there one night wanted to camp and the owner would not allow it, so just be aware that camping may not be an option at Kinunu base camp. Our guide & one porter were allowed to camp, so perhaps it is how you approach the owner or perhaps she was keeping the ladies safe by not allowing camping, since there was a large party down the road that created a lot of (drunken) traffic in the area that evening. Regardless, we enjoyed our stay.
The next night we were in Musasa, but not at the 'base camp' that is printed on the sign, but at a homestay, which our guide said was the best option. It was the only kind of more difficult night. We met the family of the homestay when we arrived but didn't see them again until we left. This was mainly a place to stay, not a homestay cultural experience. The room was very simple with a mattress on the floor. We were glad we brought a sleeping bag for warmth/covers. There was a cow outside that was on a moo-ing binge, but she did go to sleep about the time that we did. The restrooms were....rustic....an authentic experience. Our guide & porters made us dinner and breakfast. It was adequate, but not necessarily comfortable. One night of that was fine, but we were glad we were not doing homestays the whole time.
Throughout the trail, we ate lunch that was food we bought before we left Gisenyi (primarily) and the porters carried with us. This was primarily fruit, breads, cheese, hardboiled eggs, and various packaged cookies. I require a ton of water, so i brought purification tablets, but for most people with normal water needs, you will have enough opportunities to buy bottled water. You might still want to take purification tablets just in case.
The day we walked for a full day and reached a location where we got motorbikes to take us to Rubengera and from there we took a bus into Kibuye. If you are walking the first half of the trail in 4 days, this is the best option for that last day, as it would be too long otherwise. I had booked ahead to stay at Home Saint Jean in Kibuye which we took motorbikes too from the bus stop. Home Saint Jean is a GREAT place to stay at the end of the hike as they had hot water for showers, good food, and an amazing view of the hills we had just covered....and for the incredible value of only 25USD a night for a double!
We kept thinking as we were walking...why aren't we seeing more tourists here? This is incredible! The Congo Nile Trail provides access not only to scenic beauty, but also to the real rural culture that makes up most of Rwanda. It gives you a chance to interact with rural people and see things you would not otherwise (people beating dry pole beans to remove the beans, then sifting them, people chopping off sugarcane and chewing on it, kids playing hopscotch or riding a home made scooter, etc, etc.). Go walk this trail NOW before too many tourists discover it!
Be sure to plan for rain and sun (If you are light completion, be sure to take lots of 50+proof sunscreen. You need good waterproof jacket and rain pants (not cheap ones, you want the good waterproofing) and above all, good waterproof hiking boots with good tread. You will likely be walking in some rain, though usually showers come and go during the afternoon. Take a lot of hand sanitizer as well. And listen to your guide if s/he tells you to get various items, be sure to do so. We learned quickly that they really know what they are talking about and we should just listen and not try to argue because they always knew best. Read, train a bit, and be prepared, then go an enjoy!