Rwanda is just one degree, 120 kilometres, south of the equator. Most of the country is over 1,500 metres above sea level. The high altitude means a temperate climate with regular rainfall and lush green vegetation. Most of the land is mountainous with grassy uplands and hills. In the Northwest, the volcanic Virunga Mountain Range includes the highest peak, Mount Karisimbi (4,507 metres). The land slopes down from these mountains to a hilly central plateau. Further east, it becomes an area of swamps and lakes bordering the upper Kagera River.

Rwanda is landlocked with no access to the sea. The biggest lake is Lake Kivu, on the border with The Democratic Republic of Congo. Most of the rivers are on the eastern side of the mountains. The Kagera River forms the boundary between Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania.

Rwanda is famous for its mountain gorilla sanctuaries in the Virunga Mountains, where Dian Fossey studied them for 13 years. The Akagera National Park has a wide range of animals such as buffalo, zebras, antelope, warthogs, chimpanzees, lions, elephants, rhinoceroses and hippopotamuses. Rare species found here include the giant pangolin (a type of anteater).

The best volcanic soils are in the Northwest, long considered the breadbasket of Rwanda, and in the bottom of the river valleys. Elsewhere the soil is poor quality. Heavy rainfall and deforestation have caused extreme soil erosion. Since most of the country is mountainous, people terrace the hills for cultivating. Coffee and tea plantations take up large areas of land.