The morning of our departure we left our stay in Rwanda to hire a motorcycle taxi just two kilometers to the border. We had a sense of excitement but anxiety at the same time. We didn’t know what to expect. We were entering the Congo. We get to the border post, Grand Barrier. We exit Rwanda, paperwork in hand, all set for our trip to Virunga National Park, or so we thought.
Already receiving an exit stamp from Rwanda, we walk across the border, go through a security checkpoint and wait in line for entry to the Democratic Republic of Congo. A soldier comes up to us, rifle in hand asking for our papers. We hand him our visa’s. He asks for our yellow fever cards, those yellow cards proving your vaccinated. Silence. Yana and I look at each other with dry throats. Paranoia rushes in instantly. We forgot our yellow fever cards.
We explain we left the certificates at our hotel in Rwanda with most of our belongings. Blank stares are returned to us. Two words were exchanged to us, not knowing our fate. “Go Fetch.” Running like a banshee, I return to Rwanda. I yell for the first moto taxi available and rush back to our hotel. Minutes later, my paranoia turns into instant fear. I just realized, never going back to the Rwanda entry stamp, I am technically in Rwanda illegally. With some tension between Rwanda and D.R.C., my mind wanders about what could possibly happen if I were to be questioned on the Rwandan side when I return. I quickly grab our yellow fever cards and return to the border. Only fifteen minutes past, but it felt like an hour.
At the border, I don’t make eye contact with any Rwandan military officers. I walk directly to the border. A police officer from Rwanda stops me at the last border post and asks for my passport. He flips through my passport, sees the original exit stamp I received earlier, and hands me back my passport. Disaster diverted. I enter Congo. Twice. This time documents and everything goes smoothly. After a panic attack or two, and a two hour process, we finally made it. We are in the Congo.
Congo, officially known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, has always had a mysteriousness about it. This war-torn country has always been in the dark shadow’s of Africa, where every few years a rebel group threaten the safety of locals and tourists in the DRC. Just across the border from Rwanda in the quiet lakeside town of Gisenyi, Congo bustles to life. Men stand with guns at every street corner. The U.N. has more soldiers in Congo than anywhere else in the World. Goma alone has 8,000 troops. While it is actually very safe (at the moment), we still had this slight feeling of discomfort in the back of our minds, questioning ourselves, “is it really safe?”
Very few tourists come to Congo. When tourists do come to Congo, they typically attain a Visa to come see the Mountain Gorilla’s or to see the Nyiragongo Volcano. Rarely do they stay for extra days or decide to stay in Goma. We stayed for two days. Goma has become accustomed to life surrounded by U.N. soldiers and NGO Workers. Goma surprisingly was very safe and you could even walk at night in the center of the city, unlike most of Africa. While there still is a civil war and rebels are in Congo, Goma and Virunga are very safe and at the moment there is little risk. However, due to prior instability and rebel takeovers, this could quickly change. Please make sure to know the current climate before you go to ensure your safety.
The D.R.C. has their own currency called the Congolese Franc, however everywhere in Congo prices and accepts US dollars. Banks also distribute USD. Goma is surprisingly more expensive than East Africa. Budget lunch buffet costs $5 USD per person. Beer cost $1.70 to $3. Dinner costs $5 to $12 per person. Budget accommodation starts from $20 for a self contained room. A good budget stay in the center of town is Tony’s Guesthouse, with rooms from $20 USD up to $35.
Cost is $100 for a 14-day visa. You can obtain Visa’s from the Government directly at https://dr-congo.travisa.com/ or through Virunga where they will handle it for you at https://visitvirunga.org/visa/. Visa process should take 2 to 3 days to process.
Food is very similar to Rwanda, where during the day you can find several lunch buffet options. For $5, you can have an enormous plate of rice, potatoes, cooked plantains, French fries, spinach and one meat option, typically with goat. Restaurants are commonly priced between $5 and $12 for a meal.
There are two main activities when going to Goma and visiting Virunga National Park. Virunga has the World’s largest lava lake at Nyiragongo Volcano. You can trek to the top of the Volcano and stay the evening in a basic hut for an evening you will never forget.
In the Congo basin on the Eastern part of the country is the Virunga Mountains, where there are several Volcanoes, large lakes and rainforests. This is the only place in the World where Mountain Gorilla’s remain, either within the D.R.C, in Rwanda or Uganda, all in the same mountain range of Virunga. Virunga has 9 families consisting of 153 total Mountain Gorillas in the wild. Congo is the cheapest place in the World to see Gorillas at $400 USD. Check out the full article on “How to Pick a Gorilla Trek in Africa” for more details on Virunga.
The Nyiragongo is one of five active volcano’s in the World with a permanent Lava lake. The others are Kilauea in Hawaii, Ambrym in Vanuatu, Erta Ale in Ethiopia, and Mount Erebus in Antarctica. Nyiragongo has the largest lava lake of the five, and sits only 12 kilometers from the city of Goma, home to 1 million people. These two activities alone bring in a stream of some tourists brave enough to come to the Congo, walking away with some amazing memories. Read the full article on the Nyiragongo Volcano Trek.
Getting to Goma:
Cross into Goma, D.R.C. through Gisenyi, Rwanda. You can take direct buses from Kampala as well as Kigali. When staying in Gisenyi, enjoy a day at the lake where you can hire a kayak ($15) for a couple hours on the lake, hire a bike ($60) for the day to ride on the Congo Nile Trail, or visit the natural hot springs just outside town (600 Francs round trip by moto-taxi). Eat at Calafia Cafe on the Avenue de la Revolution near the Border Post for amazing sandwiches and salad’s.