Burundi is a lovely small country set on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. It is bordered by Rwanda to the north, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to the west, and Tanzania to the south. The country of Zambia also has a Lake Tanganyika coastline, although Zambia and Burundi do not share a border. The lake is the second largest by volume and second deepest in the world (after Lake Baikal in Russia).
Lake Victoria (located to the northeast and bordered by Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda) is the most commercially important lake in this Rift Valley region known as Africa's Great Lakes region. However, Lake Tanganyika is vital to the economy of all these countries, providing an estimated 25 to 40 percent of the protein in the diet of approximately 1 million people. The lake is used not only for commercial fishing, but also for travel to Burundi via cargo and commercial fishing ships, smaller traditional boats, and ferry service.
It is important to appreciate the history of the country and the region from the early 1990s until the present in order to understand the tourism possibilities and attractions that can be enjoyed today. Travel to Burundi as a tourist destination was undertaken only by a handful of adventure travel companies during the 1980s and early 1990s. Before that, the country was almost never visited by tourists. These itineraries (virtually always rough camping) generally followed the northern safari circuit in Tanzania (Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti, Lake Manyara and Tarangire National Park) before heading overland to Tanzania's Gombe National Park where Jane Goodall has been conducting chimpanzee research since the 1960s. The little country of Burundi was essentially a rest stop on the way north to Rwanda and what was then Zaire where participants would track mountain gorillas in the lush Virungu Mountains. Usually, an overnight stop was made for a welcome rest in a hotel in the capital city of Bujumbura so that weary campers could spend some time on beautiful lakeside beaches and enjoy a real bed and a hot shower.
Burundi shares ethnic and cultural heritage with Rwanda and the DRC (formerly the country of Zaire, until 1997). The borders of these countries are artificial, drawn by the colonial powers of Belgium, France, the UK, and Germany. The indigenous Twa, Hutu, and Tutsi peoples are spread across all the borders, and conflict between the groups erupted in one of the worst cases of modern genocide in 1994. Tourism in these countries came to a complete stop, and ethnic clashes and civil unrest continued in Burundi until 2006. A bombardment of Bujumbura by the rebel FLN occurred as late as 2008.
Given this background, you may think that travel to Burundi should be avoided. But this little country, which has been peaceful and stable since 2008, has stunning mountains, lush forests, and other wonderful attractions that can only become more beautiful and rewarding as peace continues.
First is the lake, and Burundi has some of the lake's most beautiful beaches. Only a couple miles north of the capital city is Saga Beach where there is a beach resort that is luxurious by Burundi standards. The Saga Nyanza Beach Resort is closer to a two-star property, but is it comfortable, safe, and there is a bar, restaurant, and often local music. The waters are crystal clear and clean, the sand sugary fine and white, and there are safe comfortable modest lodgings and a surprising number of beach bars as well as couple cool discos.
If staying in the capital itself, you will find a vibrant city with grand colonial architecture and wide boulevards side-by-side with poverty. Here, you should only take taxis if going out at night. There are a number of hotels catering to tourists, and business and government travelers. None can be considered luxury hotels, but the Novotel and Source du Nil can be considered solid three-star properties. In the countryside, you will find a number of small national parks and wildlife refuges that protect hippos and buffalos, a plethora of primates (including chimpanzees), bird species, and the rare sitatunga antelope. K/p>
In spite of all these attractions, Burundi is not a destination for every tourist. It is for travelers who want to explore remote places and support a small country in its efforts to emerge from generations of conflict. Travel to Burundi can be extremely rewarding, but you would be well-advised to monitor current events carefully before and during your trip. This is especially true if you plan to travel in rural areas.
You can fly into Bujumbura from several African countries as well as from Belgium in Europe. It is also possible to drive in from another country or to arrive by water. The ferry Liemba operates in each direction between Kigoma (Tanzania) and Mpulungu (Zambia) once every two weeks. There are docks at Kasanga, Tanzania on the lakeshore a bit north of Mpulungu, where the ferry makes a stop. Passengers must tender in by small boat at other places along the way. The small city of Kigoma is located just south of the Burundi border, and the ferry is a commonly used form of transportation for those intrepid travelers who venture on their own to this remote and little-visited part of East Africa. You can book a first- or second-class cabin or third-class (seating-only) passage.
The Liemba boasts a storied history. She began life as the Graf von Goetzen, a German passenger and cargo vessel, in 1913 when what is now Tanzania was German East Africa. She was outfitted as a war ship during World War I, and is the German warship romantically portrayed in the famous Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn film The African Queen. While a great deal of literary license was used in the film, the real Graf von Goetzen was an active warship intentionally scuttled by the Germans in 1916. She remained on the bottom of Lake Tanganyika until she was raised in 1924. She was put back in service in 1927, and has been carrying passengers and cargo around the lake ever since.