If the creators of Avatar wanted to re-film the movie using a real-life setting, they would undoubtedly choose Croatia’s natural gem, Plitvice Lakes National Park, as their location.

Plitvice (pronounced Plit-vit-sa) is made up of sixteen azure pools that vary in size and depth, wedged like a necklace of bright blue jewels into steep limestone crags. Each pool is separated by cascades of crystal-clear water, one brimming over and frothing into the next.  The water is like liquid air, so translucent that you can see the bottom, and everything in between.  Schools of fish parade around the edge, hoping for a nibble.  They look like they are flying, as they glide amongst lifeless trees that have fallen, and lay fossilized and suspended in time.  The water’s surface sparkles in the sun like diamonds, and branches bend gently to caress it with their leaves as though mesmerized by their own reflections. As though even nature itself must bow to pay respect to such a masterpiece.

Plitvice.  This is paradise.

Never had I seen such natural beauty with my own two eyes, and it made me blink like it would all end in the awakening from a perfect dream.

My new friend Stephen and I took the gentle, 2-hour bus ride from Zagreb, checked into a guesthouse nestled in a sleepy village nearby, and hiked into the park.  I use the word “hike” loosely; it was more like an amiable stroll suitable for people of all age-ranges and physical abilities than something you’d require athletic gear for.

Boardwalks perch gingerly above boggy peat, allowing people breathtaking access to each outpour without threatening the fragile ecosystem.

“How is the water seriously that blue?” I asked.

“Minerals,” said Stephen.  The lakes of Plitvice get their unnatural shade of turquoise because the dissolve-and-deposit process of super-pure water eroding the surrounding limestone rocks, moss and algae, coats the lakes’ floor in white mineral “dust,” which creates a bottom that reflects sunlight and sky.  In other words, nature does the photoshopping for you.  To the point where I almost felt the need to desaturate my photos so people would think they were real.

Stephen needed to be in Split the following day, and we were rapidly running out of daylight hours, so we chose to tour the lower section of the lakes together. With cameras in hand we snaked across the boardwalks, weaving in and out of tour groups with matching hats, and families with small children.  Each pool of water was more dazzling than the next, and had spouts of water gushing from its brim.  Blades of wild grasses and water vegetation sprouted at the edges, their reflections so vivid it made your mind play tricks on you.

We finally made it to the rest station where we each indulged in two cups of coffee and sat, marveling at the natural beauty surrounding us.  From there we hopped onto a boat that took us across a giant glass lake, and deposited us conveniently near a tram station.  The overcast sky had retracted to intermittent puffs of white, fluffy clouds in a brilliant blue sky.  We rode the tram back to the entrance, grabbed a bottle of wine and headed to the guesthouse to upload and share photos.

The following morning we had breakfast together, a traditional European meal prepared by our host, and Stephen begrudgingly packed up and headed to the bus station.  I showered, and got ready for day two of Plitvice paradise.  My plan was to tour the upper lakes.

On my way out, our host beckoned me over to a map she had hanging on the wall.  It was of the lakes.  She pointed at it and in broken English informed me that there was a portion of trail leading up to the road that the locals use, and that I should check out a look-out platform there.  Then she gave me a sly look.

What she was actually telling me, and I soon discovered when I found the head of the trail, was that there’s a way to bypass the $110 Kuna entrance fee.  The look-out was stunning, and I followed the trail as it lead effortlessly into the park.

I hopped onto the tram which took me all the way to the very top of the upper-most lake, and I started in on the trail after a cup of coffee.  The upper falls were perhaps more breathtaking than the lower, if only because the lakes themselves are prettier and more remote.  Water gurgled gently over the landscape, bumping impatiently into the boardwalks in many places, in its constant pursuit of downstream.  An hour or so later I found myself back at the boat launch.  From there I decided that instead of riding the boat, I was going to find the trail that hugs the lake’s shores, and take that.  I was suddenly alone, and it felt amazing.  I stopped to enjoy the complete solitude, accompanied only by cheeky bullfrogs, the odd mallard, a lizard, a shy water snake, and the water itself, lapping lazily against the rocks. In the near distance the boats that ply the lake were going back and forth silently, as a reminder that civilization was not far away.

When I got to the next rest stop, which is where Stephen and I had stopped for a double dose of java the day before, I took a break, and let the last of the throngs of tourists thin out.  By now the sun was golden and beautiful as it sunk slowly into dusk.  Darkness was still a few hours away.  From there I made my way by trail back to the entrance again. I wasn’t entirely alone, but most visitors had chosen to call it a day by this point, and had probably retired back to their fancy hotel rooms or a restaurant for dinner.

My map showed me a trail that veered off to the left, snaking along the bottom of the water-carved limestone ravine, instead of hiking the switchback up to the entrance and walking along the highway.  Since my guesthouse was also to the left of the park, I figured this trail might be an interesting diversion, and began to look for it.

When I found it, I noticed that it had been restricted to the public by a small piece of fence.  By this time there were very few people left in the park.  There was that moment, a pause where I contemplated doing what I was supposed to, or doing what I felt compelled to do.

Hastily, and with ease I skipped past the fence, and carried on down the path.  I soon understood why this path had been closed to the average lake-viewer, but in my desire to see something new I carried on.  I soaked my runners as I climbed gingerly down a set of rock stairs that had nearly become a waterfall themselves, like a scene from The Land Before Time.  When I got to the bottom I crossed a section of boardwalk that looked as though it hadn’t been used in some time.  Upon closer inspection it appeared safe.  I’m adventurous but not stupid. A broken ankle at the bottom of a ravine, while completely alone and with no one knowing my whereabouts after park hours, is stupid.

The boardwalk turned into more soggy path.  I continued along it, as the limestone cliffs rose higher and higher around me, becoming towers of sharp, majestic rock. I suddenly felt like I was on earth during the jurassic era.  I was completely . . . alone . . . what was that noise?

The sky turned overcast and unhappy clouds threatened to spit rain.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as my senses tingled with the notion that I was alone in what was essentially a micro-wilderness.  There isn’t really such a thing as wilderness here, in a country that is so small, but at that very moment I could have been fooled.

I passed a set of spectacular falls, and took a moment to appreciate that I was perhaps the only person who had seen them today. I  snapped a photo.  By this time my camera had died and I was relying on my iphone.   The path meandered along what had become a river, and the jungle around me got thicker.  I decided that if I lost the path altogether I’d turn back.  No point getting lost at the bottom of a limestone canyon near dusk.

The path turned into a boardwalk again, and I could see I was approaching a small cave.  Then I realized the path was leading me into the cave, and my eyebrows went up.  THEN, I realized that the cave had actually been intentionally carved from the rock in a sort-of mini-canyon, so that the path could slice through it.  It felt like I was heading underground, until I realized the cave-canyon had spat me out at the top of a cliff.  The boardwalk transformed into two spiral staircases, clinging to the rock with metal railings and wooden steps.  I tested each step as I winded sharply down them. It hadn’t been used in awhile but it was in good shape.  I was headed down the side of yet another giant waterfall.

At the bottom I found myself back on a flooded path, and hopped from rock to rock.  My shoes were already soaked, but somehow the cold ooze of new water still wasn’t appealing. When I was on solid enough ground that I could look up to admire my surroundings, my heart nearly stopped.

Above me, carved into the rock face on the opposite side of the river ahead, less than half a kilometre away, was a giant cave, a black, vacant abyss, a lightless hole like a 20 metre gaping wound. It sat some fifteen metres up, and was in clear view.  I trembled irrationally at the thought of what abominable creature could reside in such a place. It was truly massive.  It was frighteningly massive.

The path took me closer and closer to this cave, and then I realized I was crossing the river on a boardwalk at the top of another set of gushing falls.  These falls were high, and I tested each plank carefully before stepping foot on it.  Falling from here would have plunged me into rapidly moving water, and put me over the edge faster than I cared to think about.

Now I was standing at the bottom of the cave, and looking up I could barely see it through the trees.  But I knew it was there.  And I knew it was big.  The path began to switchback up.  I had no choice but to follow it or turn back.  I went up.  I soon realized that what I thought was only one cave, was actually two caves put together, as though the rock face had been pierced with a giant barbell and the jewelry removed to reveal two holes.  The trail continued right into the mouth of the cave, and I stood there, marveling at its sheer size.  The ceiling gaped so far above me that I could barely make out detail.  This staggering cathedral, built by time and water, carved carefully into the side of a canyon, whose architecture was nothing like you’d see in the civilized world yet was so spectacular it took your breath away.  It seemed big enough to house a sporting event.  Or a concert.  Far beneath me snaked a ribbon of shimmering turquoise and I realized just how high up I had climbed.  My heart thumped in my chest as I took it all in.  I was alone.

The shape of this cavern was like that of a cone on its side so that the floor and ceiling arched steeply towards each other and met in the middle at the very back.  The path continued into the cave, up, up up . . . Because the cave had two huge openings it wasn’t dark, and I was easily able to see the very top.  I climbed the switchbacks, eight of them, the highest ones had railings. I was in complete awe, and I was utterly alone.  And that was a very eerie feeling. I could hear the echo of water drops as they splattered onto the ground, the sound amplified by the hollowness.  I could hear the echo of my heart beating, thump, thump, thump.

At the very top the path ended in a sort of terrace, and I was confused.  There was a passageway carved into the side of the cave, and a grated metal door covering it with an old sign that had some Croatian and the word CLOSED on it.  The door was ajar, but the space beyond it was completely black and dank smelling.  I approached it cautiously, wishing I knew how the flashlight app on my phone worked. Surprisingly I couldn’t figure it out, but really, I was spooked by the blackness beyond the door, and its jail-cell appearance.  I was also aware that I’d either reached a dead-end or the trail was no longer passable, and I wasn’t sure where to go.

At that moment a crack of thunder rolled through the canyon, and a space that is capable of amplifying the sound of a water droplet turned that rumble into a deafening explosion. I decided to climb back out of the cave and search for another path to the road above.  By this point I’d come a long way and wasn’t appealed by the thought of turning back.

Thunder continued to growl through the canyon like angry indigestion, and I found the path I’d been looking for quite effortlessly.  I’d missed it in my earlier awe and apprehension of such a terrifyingly huge cavern.  There is something so exhilarating about being in a place you’re not supposed to be.  By this time I was so dizzy and drunk off adrenaline I could barely see straight.  The path switchbacked up the side of the cliff to the road, and I practically ran the entire way.

All in all the path was in decent shape, had only been decommissioned for probably a few seasons, and was likely built with the purpose of allowing people access to a spectacular cave that now sat vacant.  Aside from the flooding in areas, I wasn’t certain why it had been closed off.  It amazes me that thousands of people visit Plitvice and miss something so striking.

I made it back to the guesthouse just as the skies opened and rain pelted onto the quaint European countryside.

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If you’re planning on visiting Plitvice Park, don’t listen to the locals and squeeze it into a few hours.  Spend a night or two in the nearby village, and enjoy the lakes at leisure and the pristine countryside.  There are a few hotels that sit in the park, but they’re expensive.  At the front desk of Entrance 1, you can ask about the village, which is walking distance away and will give you a “local” experience!