There were three of us so we eschewed a traditional hotel in favor of a bed and breakfast-type accommodation. Pili Pili was perfectly delightful – although as a popular restaurant/club, it was also quite loud on some nights. Still, we appreciated the amenities and it was convenient to pop in for breakfast or a snack when we were too pressed for time to go anywhere else.
For a country that was devastated by political turmoil and genocide less than 30 years ago, Rwanda’s capital is remarkably well-maintained. The roads are clean, the people are friendly, and the city is so safe that you might even call it boring. The vibe almost reminded me of another capital city that is so safe and clean that my love for the absurd and peculiar felt like a stain against a sterile backdrop; so maybe Kigali is the Ottawa of Africa (speaking as someone who has been to precisely two African countries).
It’s not to say that the merits of creative expression are lost on Rwandans. Our first stop was at Inema Arts Center, a gallery and workspace founded by two brothers and self-taught painters. It’s a beautiful space full of contemporary art and even garnered enough interest to warrant coverage by the New York Times.
As a compulsive shopper living in an increasingly overflowing box that I call home, the purchase of souvenirs is out of the question, but I allow myself a painting here and a sculpture there while travelling. This was one of the many times in Rwanda that I wished my suitcase was infinitely larger so that I could bring a few pieces back with me.
Lunch was at Heaven, a restaurant and boutique hotel opened by an American couple who wanted to create a business that also provided vocational training and employment for young adults in Rwanda. There’s a lot of social enterprise in Kigali – it was my reason for being there too.
I haven’t quite finished dismantling the mess of mittens and Sorels from our Thanksgiving trip to the Canadian Rockies and now it’s time to pack again for much warmer weather in Kigali, Rwanda. This will be my second time to Africa.
My first time was just last year – to South Africa – which I’m sure many people would not consider to be an accurate representation of the continent (if any one country could ever be). South Africa was (erroneously) never on the top of my list but the opportunity was too perfect to pass up. For months, I had been planning a trip across 15+ countries with two people I had never met for dozens of people who I had also never met. It sounds strange, I know. The point is, there was finally an opportunity to meet one of my fellow tour planners because he was the local guide for the South Africa leg of the tour.
We packed a lot into eight days but this post is about the middle three days, which was spent on safari in Kruger National Park. At over 7500 square miles, it’s about half the size of Switzerland, making Kruger one of the largest game reserves in Africa.
It was June, the beginning of winter in South Africa and the perfect time to spot wildlife, since much of the vegetation that animals normally use for camouflage had died. It didn’t take long for us to spot the big five (lion, buffalo, elephant, rhinoceros, leopard).
We caught an early morning flight from New York to Panama City, landing around 3:00pm. It was an easy Uber to reach our accommodations – by the way, Uber Panama has an option to select an English-speaking driver for a marginally higher price but don’t bother – you’ll be waiting for Godot.
We resisted the shiny new city center and opted to stay in Casco Viejo, the historic district. A two-bedroom suite at La Isabela housed the three of us comfortably with room to spare. I would happily stay there again.
Glitzy hotels with brands you’d recognize are plentiful in the city center and surprisingly, much more cost-efficient than options in Casco Viejo. However, after visiting the city center, I stand by our choice to stay in the historic district. Alongside the Waldorf and Hilton, the city center hosts grey office buildings and American clichés like the Hard Rock Café and Hooters. The area lacked Casco Viejo’s charm and elegance. Plus, all the nightlife is in the old part of town.
After checking in, we had dinner at Caliope, which was only a few minutes walk from La Isabela – that’s the other great thing about Casco Viejo, everything is concentrated in one corner so we never walked more than five minutes to get to our next destination. The food was exquisite and the atmosphere even better. Would highly recommend making a reservation.
We were there on a Tuesday so the nightlife wasn’t exactly at its peak. But we checked out a few spots if only to familiarize ourselves with the area. First, we stopped at Casa Casco, a rooftop bar so chic that you’ll feel like the glass elevator is actually teleporting you to Miami. Next, we went to Gatto Blanco, which turned out to be a bit much if you’re pushing 30 and it’s a weeknight. Right next door to Gatto Blanco is Tantalo, the perfect medium between hip and handsome.