A little-known town in the hills outside of Sofia, only accessible by a winding single-lane paved road that carves its way up through the hills in a series of switchbacks, or by hiking up a similar type of trail through the forest, Milanovo is one of those little places you only uncover by going off the beaten path. I was reminded the other day when I was reading some posts from over at Wandering Earl’s website of the beauty of Bulgaria, and some of the little things I miss after being away for a few years. Read More
A group of glacial lakes situated in the northwestern Rila Mountains in Bulgaria, situated between 2,100 and 2,500 meters elevation above sea level, The Seven Rila Lakes are a popular day hike for Bulgarians as well as travelers coming to the country to visit. With spectacular views as well as the Rila Monastery to consider, there’s plenty of reasons to go…although planning your time of year can be crucial since the weather is subject to rapid changes.
Each lake carries a name associated with its most characteristic feature. The highest one is called Salzata (“The Tear”) due to its clear waters that allow visibility in depth. The next one in height carries the name Okoto (“The Eye”) after its almost perfectly oval form. Babreka (“The Kidney”) is the lake with the steepest shores. Bliznaka (“The Twin”) is the largest one by area. Trilistnika (“The Trefoil”) has an irregular shape and low shores. The shallowest lake is Ribnoto Ezero (“The Fish Lake”) and the lowest one is Dolnoto Ezero (“The Lower Lake”), where the waters that flow out of the other lakes are gathered to form the Dzherman River.
June, July and August make up the primary hiking months, right in the prime of summer. The rest of the time the elevations, rising from 7,000 to around 8,200 feet, mean that snow and freezing temperatures are a possibility just about every night of the week, and the storms are legendary throughout Bulgaria for coming up on you completely unannounced. Clear skies one minute, pitch black and whirling winds 15 minutes later.
It’s a bit of a hike if you want to see the whole circuit; 4 to 6 hours is the general time it takes if you want to walk the entire trail to see all seven of the lakes, and it’s not for the faint of heart. There are a few stark, steep passages where you are nearly climbing ladder-like up clefts in the rocks, and that combined with the altitude can make for a difficult climb. The views, however, are well worth it.
Getting up to the start of the trail is fairly easy. You can either hike the 10 kilometers up to the beginning of the main trail, or you can take the Pionerska chair lift, which takes people up from the base parking area all the way up to the top of the first plateau…which from there leads up to the rest of the lakes themselves.
One you hit the top of the chair lift, there’s a bit of a climb up to the next level of plateau, and then from there another bit of a hike before you reach the first of the lakes. But the views are spectacular, the landscape is untainted, undeveloped, and you can see for literal miles in all directions the higher you go.
And it’s not just the tourists that the mountains cater to. The plateau around the lower lakes is holy ground for the White Brotherhood, or Danovites, who show up once a year to celebrate their New Year. The celebration takes place near Kidney Lake and consists of ritual rhythmic unison while dancing in a large circle along lines of white stones that are set permanently to map out their location. For the Danovites, the Rila Mountains are a holy place where thousands of devotees gather every year to greet the dawn.
And while the vast majority of people choose to hike their way up the paths, you can always rent a horse for the day and ride up with the local guides and their pack horses.
By the time you get back down to the bottom of the trail where you started off, at the top of the chair lift, there’s a restaurant with plenty of beer on tap, wash rooms and places to sit down and relax and just enjoy a bit of a break before the final lift back down to the parking area.
As far as accommodations go, you can either sleep at one of the resorts in Panichishte and Sapareva Banya, or you can day-trip it with a rental car out of Sofia. There’s also plenty of guided tours out of Sofia which include transportation and a guide, so there’s always that option if you desire (I went with Bulgarian friends, so was spoiled in that regard; I also lived in Sofia for 2.5 years and made it up regularly).
Great day hike if you can handle the altitude and a good six hour hike. Four hours if you are in top condition and a regular hiker. Don’t forget to wear your hiking boots (no sandals/etc.), pants, and bring along a raincoat or a windbreaker of some kind, because the winds can get nippy really fast and the rain can literally be on you in 15 to 20 minutes. Sunblock and a bottle of water or two are also recommended.
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While I happen to be based out of the Riviera Maya, and there’s certainly no end to the touristy sights and activities here that the government promotes to bring in the English-speaking crowd, if you want to explore the real Mexico you have to go a little deeper inland. In the case of the past weekend, about 12 hours by bus to the towns of Chable, Emiliano Zapata, and the Zona Arqueológica de Reforma y las Cascadas of Tabasco. Chable is a little pueblo straddling the banks of the mighty River Usumacinta, which forms in the highlands of the Sierra de Chama Department of El Quiché , in Guatemala, and eventually works its way north before it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. It’s where Cris was born and where the majority of her family live, and we headed out for a quick getaway last weekend to say hi and just get out of the house for a couple of days. Read More
Backpacking is traveling around the world living the life of a vagabond. It’s surviving in hostels and scrounging up change to pay for street food and whatever local produce you can pick up on the cheap. It’s about sleeping in places without AC, without heat, without hot water, without modern amenities and without creature comforts…sometimes with little creepy, crawly friends who have six or more legs. It’s backpacks and free grass and dreadlocks and pub crawls and hostels and unshaven dudes/chics and LSD and beers and sweaty hostel sex and uncomfortable silences around sofas after a few joints have been passed around and the conversation moves into politics or religion. And while backpacking has become something of a young person’s “journey to prove themselves” before they head off to college, or a lifestyle for the international vagabond who just wants to “get away from it all”, there is a major difference between run-of-the-mill backpackers and professional expats /digital nomads.
Don’t get me wrong. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. You can be a backpacker and still be a digital nomad, but backpackers are rarely professional in the sense that they need certain creature comforts and modern amenities to keep their business rolling. And, most backpackers are rarely interested in making sure they have connectivity, health coverage, backup plans, secondary passports, international investments and establishing long-term networks for business and family reasons. Instead, they are more focused on just “exploring the moment”, even if that means no connectivity and continual hostel (no pun intended) conditions for the length of the backpacking journey.
Backpackers feel at home in hostels, preferring to make their way country to country without any long-term requirements. Professional expats are there for immersion travel, investments, secondary residencies and passports and medical tourism and cheap schools for their kids. They are there to save money, to explore a culture, to experience cultural immersion and see every little nook and cranny a place has to offer. Backpackers stay for a night, or maybe a few nights, before moving onto the next hostel in the next city or country, continually on the go.
While this is nomadic by its very nature, it lacks the structure of a long-term plan. That’s not to say you can’t have a long-term plan and be a backpacker; I’m talking in generalist terms here. Backpackers tend to be those types of people who don’t really have a plan. They are wanderers, vagabonds (not in the criminal sense) without a home, continual nomads who are drifting from place to place without any real purpose other than to “explore”. And that’s certainly one way to see the world.
Professional expats, on the other hand, are looking at long-term apartments where they can get the best bang for their buck; they are looking at how long it will take to get access to the universal healthcare plan, how long until the new passport, how long until they can open up a local bank account, where they can store gold, how they can purchase property, where they can invest and who they can make business deals with. It’s about living an upper middle class or lower upper class existence on the cheap (at least compared to U.S. standards) so that you can reap the most rewards in terms of business.
Before you set out on the road you will have to make a decision as to which type of digital nomad you are going to be: a professional or a backpacker. They both enjoy culture and adventure and travel…they just do it in two very different ways. With that being said…which type of traveler are you, or which type do you want to be when you eventually make the transition into the location independent lifestyle?
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