Going to Plitvice Lakes was one of those travel decisions I made based on the advice of a stranger or, in this case, strangers: a group of tipsy Brazilian dudes I met in the common room of a hostel in Zagreb, Croatia. The Plitvice Lakes consistently make the pages of glossy 100-Places-to-Visit-in-Your-Lifetime magazine issues, with photos of bright turquoise water and waterfalls cascading alongside tidy paths. These photos always show the lakes sparkling in the sunshine, but while I was in Croatia in May 2014, I found out that it had been raining unseasonably heavily in the park for weeks. But the Brazilians told me that the lakes were stunning even in the rain, and I couldn’t resist their miming of the lovely way the raindrops splashed on the lakes’ smooth surfaces.
Admission to the park was half-price because much of it was flooded, making most of the trails impassable. The park shuttle now obligatory, it labored up into the hills and waded through lows in the road between them, which was flooded with moving water deep enough and close enough to steep drop-offs and shoreline that I questioned the wisdom of keeping the park open at all. Even the raised boardwalks were menaced by rivulets of water that gushed through the forest like rogue animals and disappeared in frothy torrents down holes in the hillsides made by tree roots. Long grasses and flowers that normally stand in the open air peered from beneath the still aquamarine water of the pools like museum specimens behind glass.
There is a choice of mindset at travel moments like this that divides checklist tourist from true traveler. The checklist tourist, wooed to Plitvice by lovely pictures and top-ten status alone, sees only what’s missing from the gray, wet landscape, shivers bitterly in the cold and the damp, and finds the day ruined because it didn’t meet expectations. They can’t check the “Plitvice Experience” off their travel list. True travelers might not like getting cold and wet either, but are awed by the power of the waterfalls and the lushness of the green foliage, find excitement in the perilous shuttle ride. They see how lovely the splashing raindrops look, and they mime the effect for fellow travelers. They shiver not just from the cold but from the thrill of seeing things happen in an unfamiliar landscape, of exploring a place that is beautiful because it exists, really, on rainy days too, and not just in a magazine.
I was soaked before I even set foot on the trail. I didn’t have rain gear for my DSLR with me, so I only managed to snap a few damp shots with my phone. They don’t do Plitvice justice, but neither do the magazines.