I Went to Rwanda With My 'Travel Fam' to Celebrate All of Our 40th Birthdays — Here's What It Was Like

How one writer came to find her "Travel Fam" of seven women who barely knew each other.

A group of women wearing face masks posing in front of a gorilla in Rwanda

Alisandra Puliti

If you were given the opportunity to go on a trip of a lifetime, but you didn’t know the other attendees, would you go? That's how my travel pod (we call ourselves the "Travel Fam") came to be. It started with my two best friends, Ashley and Cassie, who had only met a couple of times. We started planning an international trip — to Milan and Lake Como — in 2019, and suddenly, we had seven people on the trip. The one catch? I was the only one who had met every attendee.

Ashley’s friend, Lauren, was going to be in London for business, so she asked to join. Cassie’s friend, Sarah, was itching for a Euro trip and did the same. Ultimately, three became seven, and the Travel Fam was born. We are a group of dynamic women from different backgrounds and cities across the country, at different stages of life. But on that first vacation in Italy, a bond was formed so deep it solidified our travel pod. We decided, on that trip, that these Travel Fam vacations would be for only the seven of us — no additions, no substitutions. To accommodate everyone’s availability (kids, spouses, and work make scheduling these trips tricky) and to give us each time to save for the extravagant trips, we pick dates well in advance.

Since Italy, we have skied (or après-skied) in Deer Valley, Utah, ate and drank our way through California's Napa Valley, chartered a yacht in the Bahamas, and dominated the downtown music scene in Nashville. In Nashville, Ashley brought up gorilla trekking in Rwanda. It wasn't her first time pitching this trip, but I'd always been hesitant (nervous to meet the gorillas and overwhelmed by the travel logistics).

A group of women around a table celebrating their 40th birthdays in Rwanda

Alisandra Puliti

But she made an excellent point: five of us would be turning 40 in 2023, so our next trip “needed to be epic.” We committed to Rwanda. She immediately emailed her longtime travel agent and our Travel Fam fairy godmother, Annette Sordoni of Protravel International, to sketch out some preliminary details. Five months later, Sordoni mapped out our entire plan; our deposits were sent, and at the end of January 2023, I touched down in Africa for the first time.

Upon landing in Kigali, we were met by a greeter, who helped us with our visas and PCR tests — even at 1:30 a.m. (You have to test for COVID-19 before seeing the gorillas to ensure you don't spread illness to them.)

Once we were tested and all set with the visas, we met our guide Patrick, who was with us for our entire trip, and checked in to The Retreat in Kigali so we could get a few hours of sleep before driving the three hours to Volcanoes National Park. This hotel was an oasis in Rwanda’s largest city and was visited last year by then Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall and, more recently, Camila Cabello after her gorilla trek.  

In the morning, we set out for Singita’s Kwitonda Lodge where we had booked the private on-site villa, Kataza House. Aimee, Gabriel, Eric, and the rest of the house staff made our four nights there so special. They were so accommodating and their attention to detail was spectacular; Each night there would be freshly brewed tea and honey as well as small gifts left for us in our rooms.

Every meal was served family style, and while they were all memorable, it was our first lunch that will forever be a trip highlight for me. After a light rain shower, we sat outside looking at Volcanoes National Park in the distance and breathing in the fresh air, and a rainbow emerged. We couldn't have asked for a better welcome.

A rainbow in front of mountains in Rwanda

Alisandra Puliti

The rest of our days at Kataza House were spent lounging, staring at the landscape, and learning about Rwandan culture and its people. The Singita also threw in some surprises that touched us so deeply. There was cake to kick off the 40th celebrations for Cassie, Ashley, Lauren, Lyndsay, and me during our wine tasting in the garden. And upon hearing of our plan to surprise Andi with a little pre-wedding celebration, Aimee, with the help of the Singita team, also organized a traditional Rwandan shower that had us all in tears.  

On our first gorilla-trekking morning, we woke up at 6 a.m. to attend a quick informational session about gorilla safety and etiquette (DO get low to the ground to show you are nonthreatening; DON’T touch them even if they touch you). We also learned all about the conservation efforts being made for the mountain gorillas, who can live to be 35 to 40 years old, and how the cost of the permits ($1,500 per person) goes toward supporting the surrounding communities.

A woman posing in front of a gorilla in a tree in Rwanda

Alisandra Puliti

The porters who work in this gorilla habitat volunteer their time. A group of eight porters is assigned to one of 12 gorilla families. After hiking an hour to reach the gorillas, we had one hour to observe them in their natural habitat before returning to camp.

Our guides for the day were Francois, who was Dian Fossey’s porter and has been working with the park since 1981, and Felicien, whose calmness kept my nerves at bay for our two-hour trek to the 18-member Kwitonda gorilla family. Our first introduction to the mountain gorillas was meeting 31-year-old chief silverback Akarevuro, who was taking a morning nap.

A baby gorilla seen in Rwanda

Alisandra Puliti

We then came across an adult female with her baby, who crawled toward us curiously. Meanwhile, two black-backs (adolescent males) picked a playful fight with each other. Toward the end of our hour, we met Akarevuro again as he enjoyed a meal of eucalyptus leaves. The great chief finished and chose to walk right between Sarah and me. Francois and Felicien both had such ease with the gorillas, and explained they are not aggressive and will always give a warning if they plan to attack.

Once Akarevuro took his leave, so did we. As we made our descent back through the forest, I couldn’t stop saying, “Did we just do that?” over and over. I'd pushed myself out of my comfort zone and got to live this one-of-a-kind experience with my Travel Fam.

A mother and baby Golden Monkey spotted in Rwanda

Alisandra Puliti

During the rest of our time in Volcanoes National Park, Cassie and I trekked to see golden monkeys, who have the most exquisite coloring, while the other ladies took a helicopter to Akagera National Park for a day safari. When we left Musanze town for Kigali on our final day, we had lunch at Repub Lounge, followed by a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where we learned more about Rwanda’s history and how it has overcome such loss and trauma.

This small African country has now left a huge mark on my heart. I am grateful to have been able to witness its beauty and am in awe of this country's resilience. Murakoze cyane (thank you), Rwanda, for a trip I will never forget.

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