Never have I been so wet. And cold. I hate myself for only bringing a light cardigan sweater with me for my weeklong vacation in Croatia. The cardigan is so soaked through that it now feels like it’s a part of my skin. The only jeans I brought are covered in mud, as are my Converse. I had to buy a poncho at the gift shop. Needless to say, I’m not looking my best today. In my experience, being wet and cold means only one thing: I am miserable. But today that isn’t the case because I’ve just spent the day in a place whose beauty the most talented artist in the world couldn’t even conceive: Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Up until last week, I had never heard of Plitvice Lakes. Then my sister Brittnee posted a picture of them on my Facebook page, and I decided to skip a day in Zagreb (sorry, Zagreb. I’m sure you’re a very cool and happening city. Next time, OK?) for the pristine beauty I saw in that photo and in the many that followed my Google Images search. All I can say after seeing the park in person is that pictures do not do it justice. From every angle, the park looks like a postcard.
Plitvice National Park is home to 16 lakes and Croatia’s highest waterfall, Veliki slap (about 256 feet). It sounds cheesy, but as you make your way through the park, the beauty takes your breath away, and you constantly think, “It can’t get any better than this.” And then you continue on the path and you come across another lake whose blue is even more ethereal or more turquoise than the last. The water is so clear you can see fish from several feet away. You can explore the park through the various hiking trails. Sadly, at least in the beginning of June when I went, you are never exactly alone on the path. The park is enormous, so to get from one to the other, you have to take a ferry, which is included in the price. Even in the summer, I’d recommend a windbreaker because that ferry ride can get very cold.
When to go
There’s really never a bad time to go, although each season has its pros and cons. In the winter, the snow-covered falls and frozen lakes are said to be stunning, but walking around for hours outside in the cold might not be very inviting to weather pansies (I include myself in that group.) In autumn, the changing leaves and the fewer numbers of fellow tourists would leave you with a serene experience, but again, you’ll have to bring a heavy jacket with a hood because it will probably rain. In the spring, the park is wet, but that didn’t stop me and it shouldn’t stop you either. If you go in the beginning of spring, you’ll see the snow melt to pump even more gorgeous water into the 16 lakes. In the summer, the weather is sure to be ideal for hiking, but it’ll be overloaded with tourists, July and August being the park’s peak months. I recommend going to Plitvice during any other season, but the downside to not going in the summer is the hordes of school groups that pass through the park, ignorant of the universal rule of civilized societies: In a crowd, we walk single file on the right hand side so as to let others pass. These children, and many adults here too, seem to have missed this important life lesson.
How to get there
The park is located about 118 miles south of Zagreb, but it’s still possible to go as a day trip. Each way is about two hours and fifteen minutes, although that depends on the bus company, as does the price (usually around 85-100 kuna or around $16-$19). For the shortest trip, try Croatia Bus since it makes fewer stops than the other companies and it’s a bit more obvious when you should get off. (Hint: Do not expect the bus drivers to speak English well.) There are many buses to choose from per day, but if you’re thinking about just doing a day trip, you’ll need to get a bus early in the morning to see as much as possible. The latest bus goes back at 6:40pm, although the buses don’t run as frequently throughout the year. You can also get to Plitvice from Zadar, which is about 99 miles south of the park. Day trips are possible, although the buses don’t run as frequently as the ones to Zagreb.
Where to stay
I went to Plitvice as a day trip from Zagreb, where I stayed at a hostel in the center of town for a decent price, but alternatively you can extend your view of the lakes a few days and stay in one of the many hotels the park and the surrounding areas offer. A quick search on Hostelworld.com and Hostelbookers.com shows private rooms to be around $25-$30 per person. Don’t expect a youth hostel experience. Shared rooms do not seem to be an option and as far as I could tell from my brief trip, there are no bars in sight.
Final words of wisdom
If you’re a vegetarian, bring your own food or the only thing you’ll be eating will be a pastry filled with cheese and lots and lots of French fries. Do not wear high heels. You’d think that would be obvious, but it wasn’t to many women I saw who nearly twisted their ankles. Bring cash. You can pay your entrance fee (80 kuna, or $15.60, for students) with a card but no bus, not even at the station, will accept anything other than cash.
Plitvice Lakes isn’t exactly a trip on a budget, but back at the hostel, everyone who had been there agreed that it was far from a waste of money. If you have to, eat $1.50 slices of pizzas for a week to finance your trip because seriously, of all the places I’ve been in my life, I’ve never seen anything as beautiful as Plitvice Lakes National Park.