Visiting Burundi. I was one of the first of the plane, and I motored to immigration. An official handed me a slip, which I hastily filled out. I had now assumed pole position and was speeding to get my passport stamped. An official doublechecked my papers and informed me there were two forms, not just one. He produced the other form, and graciously filled in my form on my behalf. When he inquired my hotel’s name, I drew a blank. The official then wrote down a name (he just guessed) on my behalf. I proceeded forward and my passport was stamped. Easy peasy.
The carousel lazily produced my bag and I exited into the general area. My guide, Hypolite, greeted me with a warm Burundian smile, and my trip was about to begin.
The Burundi visa is not cheap or easy to get. I applied to the Burundi Embassy in Washington DC, but I used VISA HQ to process my visa. The embassy fee was $90 in addition to VISA HQ’s fee of $99. Plus the FEDEXing both to and from for another $40. You need to apply in advance, for the embassy states the processing will be from 10-25 days. VISA HQ turned it around in 15 business days. I also recommend VISA HQ, got the job done and good communication.
But it seems there is a much easier way. Fellow travelers were able to attain a Visa On Arrival by using this company for a fee of $25 which can be PayPaled.
Avoid the ATM and the stated rate you’ll see on XE.com. There is a black-market rate, but you don’t have to go into some dark alley to get the better rate. Hypolite brought me to an FX store and I exchanged my money. The black-market rate is $1 USD for 2760 BIF compared to 1807 BIF via the ATM.
Next to the FX store was the mobile phone company. Despite the store just being closed for the day, the door was unlocked and I was escorted in to get a local SIM card. In five minutes, I left with a big smile and new SIM card. For $8 I got 5 GB of data.
Safari Gate has seen better days. It was a bit tired and needed a coat or two of fresh paint. Safari Gate (book this hotel, and I make big money!) overlooked Lake Tanganyika, and in fact I ate my breakfast on the lake at one of the two restaurants. The room was clean and good sized, but with weak Wi-Fi as well as the AC. I ate several meals at the semi-open, rooftop restaurant, La Brise, owned by a woman from Belgium. Good food and good service. The hotel is priced around $75-$100 a night.
The view from the restaurant on the top floor
The Livingstone–Stanley Monument at Mugere in Burundi is located 12 km south of Bujumbura, overlooking Lake Tanganyika, in a local neighborhood. This marks a location where explorer and missionary Dr David Livingstone and journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley met in November of 1871. But this is not where Stanley said “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”, which was stated earlier in Tanzania.
Coffee Authority of Burundi (ARFIC)
I’m not much of a coffee drinker … but when in Burundi, since coffee is the number one export. I stopped in at the Coffee Authority of Burundi, and I was directed into someone’s office and partook in a coffee tasting. And after that, I randomly met with one of the directors in his office. This is one of those odd things that occasionally happens when traveling overseas. I sat with him at his conference table as he quizzed me on marketing strategies on how to break into the coffee market in the US. Guess who knows nothing about breaking into the US coffee market? Me. But yet here I was, sweating and wearing shorts, being quizzed by the director.
Meeting with the Director
Rusizi National Park
The Rusizi National Park is only a few minutes from Bujumbura. I boarded a small boat, thankfully with an awning and began my cruise on Lake Tanganyika. We puttered around some grasslands where I spied a handful of hippos as well as some birdlife. The boat exited the river area and headed into the lake. There was a distinct demarcation point where the mud-brown river, turned blue when entering the lake. We cruised a bit more, noted some local fisherman, and I stared into the distance staring at the cloud covered mountains of the Democratic Republic of Congo which also borders the lake.
We ate lunch on the lake at a nearly empty restaurant. I ate an uninspired margarita pizza combined with some of the slowest service.
The view from the beach restaurant
After lunch we headed to a university on top of a hill with a viewpoint of the city. The university could have been used as a setting for the Walking Dead as I imagined Burundian zombies slowly chasing after me in this dilapidated setting. The university previously was managed by the Jesuits and an odd, bunker-like cement church stood sentry.
Independence Hero Monument
On the hilly drive down from the university we made a pit stop at the monument. An odd thing I noted at several monuments in Bujumbura is that are locked and guarded. There were no visitors here and no locals. Hypolite, my guide, was able to get us in for a visit.
This zoo was a bit sad, but I was treated like a VIP. I had a personal zoo guide who led me around to the animals, providing a brief explanation. More than once, he offered me the option to hold some of the animals, for a small price.
Today was our big roadtrip day as we departed Bujumbura to visit the countryside. We made a short stop to take in the panoramas of tea fields. Burundi is a rural country and it is a pleasant place to drive around, hilly and green.
Source of the Nile
The source of the Nile is marked by a compact pyramid about 115 km from Bujumbura on Mount Kikizi. A German explorer, Burkhart Waldecker, marked this spot in the early 20th century. A brief walk from this point are two pools with water providing the source of the Nile. Make sure you cup your hands and take a sip of this cool water. This is considered the southern source of the White Nile.
Back to the car to drive to Karera Waterfalls located in a park in southeastern Burundi. This was a pleasant enough stop to see a couple of waterfalls in this quiet park. You will get to meet some locals who are also visiting here.
On a hill outside of Gitega, the new capital of Burundi, stands several straw-roofed structures which was formally the palace for the monarchy. The monarchy was disbanded in 1966.
Next to the Royal Palace was the drum sanctuary. The Royal Drummers of Burundi was a powerhouse performance. Over twenty performers beguiled me as they drummed for nearly an hour. A highlight of my trip. Check out my post on the drummers.
Monument and Park
Today was a quiet day with just a couple of stops. We made stops at a monument (locked again) and a nearby park.
We strolled through this local market, beating the rain by minutes. For an African market, this place was somewhat subdued and organized. A good opportunity to meet some locals.
I wasn’t overly excited with my prospective trip to Burundi, but the country exceeded my expectations. There were several reasons for that. First, Hypolite, my guide was a really solid guy who did an excellent job hosting me. Without him, I believe I would have been a bit underwhelmed with the local sights. Second, I was expecting a country under duress, but during my stay I had no safety/corruption issues. And third, the Royal Drum performance really blew me away. That alone made the trip worth it.
Burundi is bereft of tourists. I did not see any tourists during my trip to Burundi. So, you can have the country to yourself.
Also, a thank you to my travel friend Ania, who recommended Hypolite. Check out her blog when you have a moment.