Zakopane, Poland was certainly not a city I'd heard of until about two days before I arrived. As I was wrapping up my time in the Baltics, I was spending some time scouring Google Maps (which is usually how I decide where to go) and noticed a town not to far away from Krakow, my next set date destination where I'd be meeting up with some friends from home for a week. Zakopane is a town located right on the border of Poland and Slovakia up in the Tatra Mountains. I was craving some outdoor activity and figured this would be a perfect place to spend my next two days relaxing and hiking in the mountains.
I arrived to Zakopane on Tuesday afternoon after a LONG day of traveling from Vilnius, Lithuania (two separate 8 hour bus rides with a 3-hour layover in Warsaw). Upon getting off the bus at the main bus station in town, I struggled for a while to figure out which bus to take in order to get to my hostel which was about a 10km walk away. I contemplated walking, then hitch hiking, then ultimately settled on getting some courage up to ask a local how to get to my very unspecified location which no one seemed to know where it was. I finally found someone who spoke enough English to help me out, and she graciously dragged me to a bus, yelled something to the bus driver, and walking away while the bus drove off to my new unknown location. For whatever reason I trusted her, and about twenty minutes later the bus driver yelled at me to get off the bus. Somehow, someway, I was standing in front of my hostel directly across the street. Oh, traveling!
I settled on this particular hostel, MTB Hostel, via Hostelworld.com (yes, that is a sauna and bonfire in the backyard) for the sole reason that it was nestled at the bottom of the mountains near the entrance to several separate hiking trails. I was in need of getting away from the city and this hostel provided just that.
I met a group of fellow travelers right away while I was cooking dinner that night (yes, I do cook almost every night rather than going out to eat...#budgeting). A large group of people were staying at this hostel for the same reason I was, just to get a bit of time away from the busy touristy areas which oftentimes happens while traveling. They all gave me some great recommendations on hikes to do the next couple of days, and I met a couple of girls from Sweden who invited me on their hike the next day to a series of mountain lakes that would be about an 8-hour hike by the end of the day.
We left the next morning on a bus which would take us about an hour outside of Zakopane up into the entrance to the Tatra Mountains National Park. The beginning of the hike was quite underwhelming, with thousands of tourists and locals making the first part of the hike up to the most famous lake in this area, Morskie Oko. It's a pretty easy hike up a paved road, and only takes an hour and a half to get to. Though busy, the short hike was worth it and I can completely see why so many people take this route.
After making it to Morskie Oko many hikers turn back and head to the exit, only seeking a three-to-four hour hiking day. There are some though, us included, who decided to continue the remaining six hours up into the adjacent valley where five additional lakes waited for us. Most of this hike was straight up, but the views along the way were breathtaking, and the lakes at the end made it very worth the time and energy it took to get this far. These lakes continue in a chain from high up in the mountains and ultimately lead down to the river near where we entered the park via a waterfall about halfway down the mountain. All-in-all, this day of hiking was a great success and I was happy to have had some great company along the way.
The following day I decided to venture out on another 8-hour hike on my own, which you will learn quite soon, was a very big mistake on my part. I scoured the hiking map I'd been given by the hostel in the morning and decided that a ridge-line hike would be a good option to take as it seemed like the views from it would be quite nice. The hike started great, and I got about two hours nearly straight up without a hitch. The views were amazing, overlooking the city of Zakopane below, and though I could see some clouds in the distance, I felt like my luck would remain the same as I continued. Quite quickly though, it changed, and I entered into a dense fog with 40mph gusts and mist that threatened to blow me straight off the mountain (I actually saw one guy get blown over, but thankfully he did not fall all the way off). After about five minutes of hiking through this, I turned back and made my way back down the mountain and to a simpler trail out of the rain and wind. After a few hours I ultimately made it back to the hostel, cooked some dinner and settled in for the night.
There was still a large group of travelers at the hostel, and a number of us who'd been there a couple of days decided to relax for the evening with a sauna and bonfire. This was the first hostel I've ever been to with either of those things, and it was pretty awesome to enjoy them both in the middle of the woods in Poland. I guess that's the beauty of traveling, though. You really truly never know where your Google Maps searching is going to take you, and that's why I'll continue to plot my next destinations with the same method: just scroll, discover, and enjoy.