I always have this internal battle with myself when I discover lesser known destinations like the Bulgarian Rila Lakes. On one hand, I want to share the love and tell the world how great and uncharted the location is so they can experience it themselves, on the other hand, I want to keep it my little secret so it doesn’t get overhauled by tourists. The struggle is real.
Bulgaria is probably not the top of the list for European backpackers, but after my recent trip there, I’m here to sell you on it.
I booked a flight to Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia for a long weekend in mid-June and packed my bags for a cheap city break. I had budgeted £160 all-in for the whole weekend and managed to be under budget! Score!
I Googled adventure activities in Sofia and discovered the Seven Rila Lakes hike in the Rila Mountains, less than 2 hours away from the capital. I.became.OBSESSED. Take a second to go and do a quick Google for yourself … I’ll wait.
Beautiful, isn’t it?
I found a lovely trekking guide named, Ivo through a highly rated company called, Bul Guides, to take us on a two-day overnight hiking expedition through the highest mountain range in the Balkans. We left on a Thursday after work and after some flight delays (RyanAir *eye roll*), we finally arrived in Sofia to Hostel Mostel at nearly 3am, with a 6am wake up call to start our 9-hour adventure. K
We took an hour-long bus ride to Dupnica, followed by a short cab ride to the base of the mountain and started our ascent. The beginning of the trail starts in lush forest with natural springs running under the ground. At one point, there’s a giant evergreen tree which has an underground stream flowing through it and a cup attached to a string where you can take a sip of the freshest water you’ll ever taste. We all stopped for a quick drink!
After a few hours of hiking, we arrived at the first mountain hut called Skakavitsa, where we stopped for lunch. Lunch consisted of local herbal tea, coffee (caffeine = needed), bread, lentil soup, and kebapcheta, which is a Bulgarian kebab; all of which cost about £5 – bargain! Then we wandered behind the hut and looked at the beautiful waterfall with the same name, which was cascading overtop the mountain side and plummeting to a small pool and forest clearing below.
THE SEVEN LAKES, BULGARIA
Back to the trails as we climbed up and up to the main highlight: the 7 Rila Lakes! I’m not going to lie, it did seem to take forever before we actually saw any of the lakes (and my calves were burning), but that’s because our guide took us on the path less travelled, which routed us farther around the main path and away from the tourists. We came at the perfect time of year because there were hardly any tourists around, only locals checking out the scenery. Our guide said in the peak of summer there’s thousands on the trail each day. I don’t think I would have wanted to be there then.
The minute you see the first lake, called Lower Lake, you’re stopped in your tracks by its beauty. An excitement grows inside you because you know there’s still six more to come! On to the next one, the Fish Lake, the mountains’ snow topped reflection mirrors into the lake – postcard perfect. Up a bit more and we finally reached the summit, 2,500m in the air. All seven lakes are fully visible and I felt on top of the world! The skies opened up and the sun shone down illumining the whole Rila Mountain valley, just for us; we had the whole viewing platform to ourselves.
All 7 lakes are appropriately named in accordance to their characteristics. From lowest to highest they are:
- The Lower Lake 2,095 m – the lowest one.
- The Fish Lake 2,184 m – the shallowest one and used to be the only one with fish in it.
- The Trefoil 2,216 m – looks like a tree.
- The Twin 2,243 m – the largest one with two mini lakes attached together.
- The Kidney 2,282 m – in the shape of a kidney, and my personal favourite
- The Eye 2,440 m– the deepest one (depth of 37.5m), almost in the shape of a perfect oval.
- The Tear 2,535 m – the highest one and looks like a teardrop.
The descent was much easier and equally as beautiful. As we carefully maneuvered down the mountain, we watched as a string of wild horses grazed on the adjacent mountain ridge. We continued until we reached our destination for the night, the Ivan Vazov Hut. It’s no-frills accommodation, but kept in great condition and managed by a very kind, non-English speaking Bulgarian.
Day 2 was an early rise, and we immediately noticed the obvious difference a day can make: we were spoilt by the good weather we had the day previous; now it was grey, foggy, cold and the ripple of thunder and anticipation of rain was in the distance. Not ideal conditions, but we didn’t have much of a choice. We set off praying to Mother Nature to spare us, but our prayers were not answered… about 20 minutes in, it started drizzling, which turned into rain, which turned into the heavens opening up and absolutely drenching us.
After five hours of hiking through covered forest, open fields, and rocky mountain sides, we arrived at our destination, and to me, the perfect way to cap off the weekend; the incredibly beautiful UNESCO site of the Rila Monastery. The orthodox monastery is reminiscent of something from Candy Land with its’ pink, black and white stripped exterior and its original and vibrant frescos guarding the main entrance, this is a building unlike any you’ve seen before. I was blown away by the quality and intensity of the colours on the icons considering the building was built in the 10th century.
For a small entrance fee, you can visit the museum where you’ll find Rafail’s Cross, a solid wood crucifix no bigger than your arm, with 104 religious scenes and 650 miniature figures carved in it. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen and took 12 years to complete.
Beautiful Bulgaria and the Rila Lakes are the Balkans hidden gem and a place I will return to, if not for the nature but for the kindness of the people. Be sure to add it to your list, but shhh, don’t tell anyone else.