The Republic of Burundi, a tiny country with both soaring mountains and lovely lakeside beaches, has been plagued for many years by a gruesome civil war. Though the country’s current peace is fragile, things are looking up for Burundians. Recent years have brought advances in health care, a spike in coffee and tea exports, and other important economic developments. For the first time in years, a visit to Burundi is a viable and alluring prospect for tourists. Whether you prefer lounging on the beaches of the enormous Lake Tanganyika or bird watching in one of the country's many national parks, Burundi just might be your ideal vacation spot.
1. Chutes de la Kagera: Near Rutana, in the southeastern part of the country, you’ll find some spectacular waterfalls, which are especially breathtaking from October to January. There’s no public transportation to the area, so charter a private taxi for the day.
2. Saga Beach: This remote beach along Lake Tanganyika boasts miles of powdery, white sand and clear, turquoise waters. It’s thought to be one of the best beaches in East Africa.
3. Source du Nil: It may look unimpressive, but to Burundians this little spring, high on the slopes of Mount Kikizi, is known as the southernmost source of the Nile. (Ugandans dispute that claim, insisting that the source is on their land.) At Bujumbura hotels, ask about arranging a trip to the sight.
4. Musée Vivant: One of the few still-operating museums in Burundi, the Musée Vivant, in Bujumbura, is both a reconstructed traditional Burundian village and a small zoo stocked with local fish, birds, and snakes.
5. Rusizi National Park: Animals of all kinds, including hippos, antelope, and monkeys, roam this park near Bujumbura, but it’s probably best known as the place where Gustave, the world’s largest man-eating Nile crocodile, can often be found.
6. Bujumbura: Burundi’s capital city, lined with palm trees and Art Déco buildings, has long been a place where Burundians could go to forget their troubles, and that tradition remains strong. Sample the French- and Belgian-inspired fare at the city’s many excellent restaurants, and boogie down at the famously late nightclubs.
7. Kibira National Park: Just south of the Rwanda border, this idyllic park is home to chimpanzees, baboons, rare golden monkeys, and other animals.
8. La Pierre de Livingstone et Stanley: This large rock, about three miles south of Bujumbura, allegedly marks the spot where the New York reporter Henry Morton Stanley met the missionary and explorer David Livingstone and uttered the words “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
9. Les Tambourinaires de Burundi: Seek out a performance of the country’s most famous, high-energy drumming troupe, which has traveled to places as distant as New York and Berlin.
10. Rurubu National Park: Stretching from the Tanzanian border, in northeastern Burundi, to the center of the country, Burundi’s largest park is an excellent place for bird watching. More than 200 species of birds, including many endangered breeds, have been spotted here.
The climate in Burundi varies depending more on where you go in the country than on the particular season. Throughout the hot and humid lowlands, in the southwestern part of the country, temperatures average 86 degrees Fahrenheit; in the mountainous north, temperatures are lower, hovering at about 68 degrees. It’s useful to know, however, that the country has two wet seasons—February to May and September to November.
Visas: A passport valid for six months and proof of immunization against yellow fever are required for entry into Burundi. Travelers are no longer able to obtain entry visas upon arrival at the airport. You must apply for a visa from a Burundian embassy or consulate before traveling.
Transportation: Flights from Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia all fly into Bujumbura International Airport, which is less than ten miles from the city center. The best way to travel to Burundi by land is through Rwanda. Scheduled bus services operate daily between Bujumbura, Burundi, and Kigali, Rwanda.
Mobile Phones: You can use a GSM mobile phone in Burundi; consider buying a prepaid SIM card at the airport if you don’t have an international plan.
Because of Burundi’s recent civil war and its overall political instability, the U.S. State Department warns travelers against visiting the country. Tourists should avoid political rallies and demonstrations and always remain aware of their surroundings; crime committed by street children and armed bandits is often directed at foreigners. It’s best not to travel beyond the capital city at night.
The Mo Ibrahim Foundation has created a security ratings system called the Ibrahim Index, wherein scores are based on each country’s quality of government. Before traveling to Burundi or anywhere on the continent, check the index and do your research.
For centuries the Hutu, who are Bantu in origin, and the Tutsi, who are Hamitic, have lived together in Burundi and Rwanda. Historically—though Hutu represent the majority of the population—Tutsi have been politically and economically dominant. During Belgium’s occupation of the two countries (then called Ruanda-Urundi), from 1923 to 1962, the Belgians administered the territory through indirect rule, bolstering the pre-existing Tutsi-dominated aristocratic hierarchy.
After Burundi achieved its independence, the Tutsi king Mwambutsa IV created a constitutional monarchy composed of both Hutu and Tutsi, but the 1965 assassination of the Hutu prime minister, which led to a series Hutu revolts and subsequent government repression, squelched any hope for national reconciliation or peace. The following ten years brought rebellion, coups, and the displacement of thousands of Burundians. In 1976, Col. Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, a Tutsi, seized power in a bloodless coup, promising reform and unity between Tutsi and Hutu. Yet, after Bagaza was formally elected head of state, he changed his tune and began suppressing oppositional views. In 1987, Maj. Pierre Buyoya, a Tutsi, overthrew Bagaza and abolished opposition parties.
Over the next several years, rising tensions between the army, the Hutu opposition, and Tutsi hardliners led to the deaths of an estimated 150,000 and the displacement of thousands of Burundians. In 1993, after Buyoya approved a constitution that provided for a multiethnic government, Burundi’s first Hutu president, Melchior Mdadaye, was elected, only to be assassinated shortly after that by Tutsi forces. A full-blown civil war ensued that soon spread to Rwanda, prompting waves of genocide. The civil war came to an end in 2006 with a South Africa–backed ceasefire.
In the country’s recent elections, which many hoped would signal a new era of peace, old divisions once again became apparent. Opposition parties withdrew, claiming foul play (observers from the European Union and civil-liberties groups insist the election was fair), and the incumbent, Pierre Nkurunziza, a Hutu and one of Africa’s youngest leaders, won in a landslide. At this point, the future is unclear for Burundi, a tiny country with more than 40 political parties, but a pattern of civil unrest is proving difficult to break.
1. Situated slightly south of the equator, Burundi is bordered by Rwanda to the north, Tanzania to the east and south, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west. The small, mountainous country is roughly the same size as the state of Maryland and is split into 17 provinces—Bubanza, Bujumbura Mairie, Bujumbura Rural, Bururi, Cankuzo, Cibitoke, Gitega, Karuzi, Kayanza, Kirundo, Makamba, Muravya, Muyinga, Mwaro, Ngozi, Rutana, and Ruyigi.
2. Burundi francs (BIF) are the local currency. One U.S. dollar is equal to approximately 1,215 BIF.
3. Owing to Burundi’s volatile political climate, the country’s media outlets are sometimes censored, yet, a range of political views, including oppositional viewpoints, is still published. The major publications are the government-owned Le Renouveau, which is published three times a week, Ndongozi, which was founded by the Catholic Church, Arc-en-ciel, a private, French-language weekly, and Ubumwe, a government-owned weekly.
4. Burundi’s official languages are Kirundi (a Bantu language also known as Rundi) and French; Swahili is commonly spoken along Lake Tanganyika and in the Bujumbura area.
5. Smoking is permitted in public places throughout Burundi.