As our plane flew south over Africa’s vast Sahara Desert, I wondered what to expect of the small landlocked country in which we would land. Rwanda, after all, has been through hell and back.

Many years ago, I learned of the Mountain Gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) that inhabit a small area in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo. These are the gorillas made famous by the late Dian Fossey. Since then, it has been my dream to observe these beautiful yet elusive primates in the wild. A milestone birthday provided the excuse to make this dream a reality, so we headed to Rwanda, which is known for its well-organized gorilla trekking programs in the mountainous region of Volcanoes National Park.

Our landing in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali was one of the smoothest we've ever experienced, thanks to a skilled KLM pilot. It was dark, so we had no real aerial views of this city which is often cited as the cleanest in Africa. Kigali sits at 1,567 m (5,141 ft), so for those of us who live at sea level, the first day or two in the country may require some an "altitude" adjustment.

Kigali Skyline

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View from Kigali's Hotel des Milles Collines - the real life "Hotel Rwanda"

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In 1994, escalating racial and political tensions in Rwanda resulted in a genocide that lasted for 100 days. During this short period, an estimated 800,000 people, including women and children, were brutally murdered. If you travel to Rwanda and wish to understand its people and culture, a visit to the Rwanda Genocide Memorial in Kigali is of critical importance. It’s heavy, it’s solemn, it’s gut-wrenching and it will bring tears to your eyes. Yet understanding the past is the key to understanding the present, as well as the key to avoiding scenarios in which dark periods of history repeat themselves.

As we continued exploring Kigali on its well-paved city streets, we watched as mothers balanced both the swaddled babies on their backs and the heavy baskets of fruit, crops or other items they skillfully carried on their heads. Captivating fragrances emanated from the abundance of trees and flowers lining the roads and hillsides, and proud people draped in colorful clothes and fabrics went about their daily routines. We saw not one piece of litter, nor any discarded beer bottles or food containers on the ground. In each place we stopped, we were welcomed by friendly faces, kind greetings and genuine warmth from the Rwandan people. This was a country that had not only persevered but learned to thrive. And while there is still work to do, Rwanda is a heartwarming story of the power of the human spirit to overcome the most brutal of histories.

Kigali from a Distance

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