environment

Krka National Park – Croatia

The Krka River from above.

The Krka River from above.

So I’ve taken a not-so-brief hiatus since returning home. But between much job hunting and interviewing, and finally job accepting (at a travel company, very exciting!) and moving to Burlington, Vermont, I’ve let the end of my Eastern European travel documenting fall by the wayside.

However, it doesn’t feel right to begin another adventure without completing the last one, so I’m going to finish off with the last few days of Croatia, starting with Krka National Park.

Looking down on the Krka River from the walking path.

Looking down on the Krka River from the walking path.

While not quite as popular as Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes National Park (coming up next), Krka offers similar unbelievably blue water and has little waterfalls flowing everywhere you look along with an added bonus – you can actually swim in the water, not just look.

It was this fact that persuaded Chris and I to take the long bus trip from Zadar to Krka and back again via Šibenik, and I don’t regret it for an instant. Although you would never predict it from the hours of arid coast and foothills the bus ride passes through, the end result is a lush, jungle-like valley with a surprisingly blue river running through the center.

Wooden walkways like this lead visitors through the park without disrupting the delicate ecosystem.

Wooden walkways like this lead visitors through the park without disrupting the delicate ecosystem.

After descending into the valley by foot or by bus, visitors can follow wooden pathways through the greenery as water flows in all directions underneath. Trees, bushes and rocks force the water into tiny pools and falls everywhere you look, making for an unreal and unique setting.

Tiny sections of the river form miniature waterfalls as they run through trees and plants.

Tiny sections of the river form miniature waterfalls as they run through trees and plants.

I think this may be the best place on earth to be a fish.

I think this may be the best place on earth to be a fish.

After about a mile or so of wooden walkways, you come to the main event – a huge, multi-tiered waterfall that visitors can swim beneath. The combination of the cool, clean water, the scorching late-June heat and the awesome scenery made for one of the most refreshing swims of my life. The strong current made it a little more difficult to get close to the falls than I thought, but once you reach the line keeping swimmers from getting too close you can just hang on and enjoy the sound of the rushing water.

The swimming area at the end of the path is definitely the highlight of the journey.

The swimming area at the end of the path is definitely the highlight of the journey.

Somehow we managed to get a picture without any of the crowds.

Somehow we managed to get a picture without any of the crowds.

Although most of the backpackers we met along the way skipped over Krka in favor of Plitvice, I would say if you have time to do both, you shouldn’t miss it. Just be sure to bring some kind of water-friendly shoes as the rocks beneath the water in the swimming area are sharp and uneven (I found this out the hard way), and don’t be afraid to utilize the smaller vans driven by locals between Šibenik and Krka as they were faster, cheaper and more frequent. Finally make sure to get an early start if you want to spend any significant amount of time in the park, because the last bus back to Šibenik leaves at 5:00 p.m.

The falls from the final bridge.

The falls from the final bridge.

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Kayaking on Lake Bohinj

Ideal setting.

Ideal setting in Lake Bohinj.

Slovenia is an outdoor-lover’s Mecca. Rafting, canyoning, paragliding, hiking, rock climbing, kayaking, caving, horseback riding…you name it, Slovenia probably has it. With this in mind, I had a long, long list of all of the activities we had to do while we were there.

Unfortunately, the usual suspects time and money gave me a big slap in the face and reminded me that I had to be careful about how we would fill our limited schedule. For time, we only had less than four days in Slovenia, and as for money, let’s just say we weren’t above stooping over for any Euro cents we found lying around.

Although there were some really great multi-sport tours offered by the various tour companies in Lake Bled, we didn’t feel we could dedicate a whole day to an organized trip when we wanted to do so much independent exploring. After seeing some amazing pictures of kayaking on the Soča River, I was sold on a kayaking excursion, but was turned off by the €50 price tag and eventually found it wasn’t running anymore for lack of interest, which was absolutely wild in my opinion. (Apparently it’s also not really something you can organize yourself in a day without a car.)

Since our kayaking expedition seemed to be a no-go, Chris, our new friend Rodney and I chose to go visit the nearby Lake Bohinj. I had read before that Bohinj was even more stunning than Bled, but was skeptical after seeing Slovenia’s most famous lake with my own eyes. However, after taking the 40-minute public bus ride out to the much less-developed Bohinj, I can honestly say this was even more my kind of place.

The mountains are bigger. The lake is even bluer. The town – if you can even call it that – is smaller. It’s really a cluster of restaurants, hotels and outdoor stores at the tip of the lake. The area is just so natural, rugged and undisturbed. Best of all, it is surrounded by hiking trails (which you’ll hear about in the next post) and, fortunately for us, also has lakeside boat and kayak rental facilities.

Bohinj's unassuming park not far from its unassuming town.

Bohinj’s unassuming park not far from its unassuming town.

So, instead of emptying our wallets for three hours of guided kayaking, Chris, Rodney and I rented kayaks for €10 a piece. The woman at the lakeside rental shop was friendly, helpful and delightfully relaxed while setting us up with our boats. One name and hostel address on a piece of paper and we were off with three great kayaks and a couple of waterproof bags, not-so-gracefully making our way across the lake. (Apparently none of us were as skilled as we had remembered and informed the kayak rental attendant that we were. Oops.)

I was wary about pulling my camera out on the water, but some risks are worth the reward.

I was wary about pulling my camera out on the water, but some risks are worth the reward.

My noble companions.

My noble companions.

Rodney demonstrating his skills.

Rodney demonstrating his skills.

I don't know why I bothered with the waterproof bag when I took shots like this anyways.

I don’t know why I bothered with the waterproof bag when I took shots like this anyways.

The water's warm... as long as you don't go in deeper than two feet.

The water’s warm… as long as you don’t go in deeper than two feet.

Private beach.

Private beach.

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Paradise Revisited

Last November I paid an unexpected visit to Slovak Paradise, or Slovenský Raj, if you will, with a pretty cool collection of people from The Ginger Monkey Hostel. The hike, which took us past one of the most spectacular lookout points in Slovakia, alongside and occasionally right over the edge of the Hornad River and up a waterfall-filled gorge, is definitely a contender for the top spot on my Slovak highlight list.

However, ever since I took that hike, I’d been a little bummed out that Chris, who I’ve been traveling with the majority of my time in Slovakia, hadn’t been there. As a fellow hiking enthusiast and one of the biggest waterfall lovers I know, I felt he completely missed out on one of the best experiences an outdoor lover can have in Slovakia. And so, when we were passing by Spišská Nová Ves, just a stone’s throw from the park, I was ecstatic to be able to give the loop another go with Chris and our friend Jack.

A cliff near Tomášovský výhľad in November.

A cliff near Tomášovský Výhľad in November.

Chris and Jack looking out near

Chris and Jack looking out from the same spot in May.

Slightly senior portrait-esque, but the setting redeems it.

Slightly senior portrait-esque, but the setting redeems it.

Close to the edge at  Tomášovský výhľad.

Close to the edge at Tomášovský Výhľad.

And from the same cliff in November.

And from the same cliff in November.

My maiden journey through Slovensky Raj had been guided by someone familiar with the park, so I was basically on autopilot, gaping at scenery the whole time. Since I would be the veteran this time, I took it upon myself to find the route we took before, worried that any other path might not live up to the hype I’d been creating.

Information about the trail wasn’t hard to find. Although we barely saw another soul during our mid-November hike, it is allegedly the most popular trail in the park and is packed beyond belief in the high season of July and August. (We were lucky enough to bypass the only other large group early on this time around.)

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Categories: environment, fitness, hiking, nature, science, TEFL | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Spectacular Not-So-Swiss Czech Switzerland

Panoramic view of Pravčická Brána (Pravčice Gate), Europe’s largest rock arch.

I have fallen in love with almost every country I have ever been to. But, after a detour to Zurich on a family trip to Germany, a semester on the shores of Lake Lugano and a ski trip to the majestic Alps of Davos, Switzerland securely holds the spot of my favorite place in the world.  Between the mountains, the meadows, the lakes, the chocolate, and of course, the cheese, it has almost everything I love in one place. So of course, when I found myself teaching in the north of Czech Republic, just two hours from České Švýcarsko, or Bohemian Switzerland National Park, there would no questions that I would check it out.

I had sort of hoped the name had drawn its inspiration from some little-known mountain range that I didn’t know about, but with an elevation under 200 meters, this is clearly not the case. It turns out, the name Czech or Bohemian Switzerland refers to two Swiss Romantic artists who moved here from Dresden after being enchanted by its painting potential as well as the slightly Swiss characteristics of the chalets and cabins in the area. Even though you aren’t likely to see any cows with big bells in the pastures or old men yodeling off the non-existent mountain peaks, the park has some unique features of its own. With the largest sandstone arch in Europe, a crop of rock formations known as “The Sandstone Rocks of Labe,” a other-worldly gorge complete with boat rides and thick forests and meadows as far as the eye to see, I’d say Czech Switzerland is pretty darn impressive itself.

My intended route through the park.

The walking tour I took through the park (minus some additional detours).

The park is easily accessible by bus from Děčín. I chose a route through the park that would take me past a few of the major attractions, including the rock arch and a boat ride through the Kamenice River Gorge. I was advised to get off the bus at the first main stop in Hrensko for this route, but I would recommend taking it a few kilometers further into the park to avoid a half-hour walk along a heavily travelled road, and more importantly, the touristy Vietnamese stands along the Hrensko streets selling nothing that is remotely Swiss, or Czech for that matter. From the trailhead (you can’t miss the red markers leading you to it on the road), a fairly leisurely 2 km walk takes you up to the giant rock arch, Pravčická Brána. Upon reaching it, you can walk far enough up the switch-backed path to snap a photo without paying the 3 € entrance fee, but the buying your way in gives you access to some pretty amazing lookout points. (So amazing in fact, I stooped to snapping a few selfies. When you are solo hiking to epic rock arches, what else is a girl to do?) Not only can you see the arch and the other rock towers, but there is an alternating light and dark green forest stretching as far as the eye can see, unspoiled by any distant smokestacks or apartment blocks. You learn to appreciate this as a rare thing in this part of the world.

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Impromptu rock sculptures along the path.

A rock tower near the rock bridge lookout.

A rock tower near the rock bridge lookout.

Rocky cliffs

Rocky cliffs jut out of the forest.

Pretty prime picnicking spots under the rock bridge.

Pretty prime picnicking spots under the rock bridge.

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Categories: environment, hiking, nature, photography, tourism, travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Aviarios Sloth Sanctuary: Slow is Beautiful

As the girlfriend of an admitted sloth obsessive, the Aviarios Sloth Sanctuary, on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, was a non-negotiable visit. While it may not have otherwise topped my list, my visit here has been the most unique event of my Costa Rican trip so far.

Happiest camper of all time

A Mecca for lovers of these adorably slow creatures, the sanctuary is home to around 150 sloths of both the two and three-toed variety. Experts conduct a two-hour tour (leaving on the hour between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.) filled with all of the sloth knowledge you would ever need to know, and then some. Everything is extremely interesting and the tour includes a canoe ride in a river running through the sanctuary, but it’s the actual face-to-face sloth time that makes the $25 dollar cost seem much more worthwhile.

Happy sloth stare

Throughout the tour we met around 10 different sloths (including babies) and got to see them up close and personal.  While you can’t hold the sloths for their own safety, seeing their surprisingly human faces up-close was absolutely amazing. Each sloth’s unique personality shines through when you meet them personally.  The most personable of all of the sloths is the grand dame of the Sanctuary, Buttercup.  This friendly lady is the sanctuary’s founding sloth, as it began with three young girls dropping her off at Judy, the sloth whisperer’s, door.  Judy nursed her back to health and has since done the same with hundreds of injured or sick sloths. Now Buttercup makes you feel welcome from the hanging basket where she holds court as soon as you step into the room.

Buttercup, the Grand Dame of the Sanctuary

The sanctuary is about 15 minutes north of Cahuita or 45 minutes north of the popular destination of Puerto Viejo (which I would highly recommend.)  From either destination, just hop on the hourly bus that heads north on Highway 36 until you reach the sloth crossing signs.  The ticket costs less than $2 each way.

Buttercup checking out her surroundings

The Sloth Sanctuary should not be missed by any sloth fans. However, if you are just casually interested, note between travel time and waiting for the tour to begin you may be in for close to five hours from Puerto Viejo.  But for anyone who wants a guaranteed sloth sighting, especially a close-up encounter, this place is a must-see.  If anyone needs inspiration, check out these Animal Planet “Too Cute” clips, filmed on-site.

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