There I was in the middle of my trek, my lungs were burning and my legs were aching, and yet all I could think of was how lucky I was for stumbling upon this brilliance.
The Plitvice Lakes National Park is Croatia’s best kept secret. It’s a string of sixteen blue-green lakes, with an accompaniment of forests, meadows, caves and waterfalls, across the Mala Kapela and Pljesevica Mountain ranges. For its colors alone, the park deserves its UNESCO World Heritage status.
We’ve driven up from Zagreb, a two-hour trip past colorful villages and towns oscillating between single lane roads and highway. Road markers keep us on track, counting down the kilometers to a sight they promise we’ll never forget. Soon enough, farmlands and petite church spires are replaced by dark green. The sun peers through past out-stretched branches and robust leaves. The sound of rushing water fills the air as we see the welcome sign.
At the ticketing counter, which is appropriately housed in a chocolate brown log cabin, an official informs us of the number of hikes available; each designed to take you around the park within an allotted time frame. With a whole day at our disposal, she suggests the second longest route – one that will keep us on our feet for 4-6 hours. She reads the questions forming on my face and offers an explanation, “The smaller routes take you through the must-see points of the park, but this is an experience.”
We’re sold. We collect our tickets and head for the park bus, past the hotels that stand at the periphery of the park. It’s five minutes to the trailhead; five minutes that I spend tracing the long hike with my finger. The length seems exhausting. I’m the ‘curl up with a book’ type, and such long treks rarely end well; I’d lie if I said I wasn’t worried.
But as I get off the bus, all worries melt away. The park spares no efforts at making a fantastic first impression. We enter a symphony of walkways, carpeted in the colors of the season, leaping over jade green lakes and hiking trails that bow near thundering waterfalls. I’m already in a trance.
The park is geographically divided into the Upper Lakes and the Lower Lakes. We start at the Upper Lakes. Following the route marker, wooden boards that point you in the right direction, we begin. The Upper Lakes lie on a dolomite valley; as a result the entire region is blanketed in thick forest cover. Never-ending trees form a natural winding archway. When you least expect it, they curl around a thundering waterfall or soar over bright meadows.