When you sign up to hike the Samaria Gorge, it’s hard to imagine exactly what lies ahead. Even if you have made the descent before, as I had, your memory plays tricks on you and optimism prevails. Joe and I discussed the possibility of knee issues, but brushed our worries aside because, when in Crete, you hike the Gorge. It’s so stunning, I said. It will definitely be worth it. My knee will probably be fine, he said. And ignored memories of our last steep, downhill hike. And so, we embarked on this great adventure at 6am on a Thursday.
Indeed, the Samaria is a natural wonder. It is the longest gorge in Europe, stretching 13km from the village of Omalos nestled 1,200m up in the mountains down to the seaside community of Agia Roumeli. The gorge became a national park in 1962, displacing the few dozen residents still clinging to life in their small village of Samaria. Some of the cliffs reach heights of almost 300m, rising directly up from the gorge’s dry and rocky riverbed. Many of these sheer rock faces lean slightly over the narrow path trekkers follow, both providing much-needed shade but also looming threateningly. Pine trees, scrub bushes and flowers cling to the steep, rocky walls. Signs warning of impending rock slides remind hikers to move quickly through certain areas. Needless to say, it is a dramatic setting for a casual, 5-7 hour hike.
We booked our tour through Diana’s Travel because it was half the price for the same services – deal! Our German guide tried to prepare us for what we would experience, and made sure we understood the rules. No picking flowers, no feeding the wild goats (the “kri-kri”) that live in the gorge, and no dawdling. The last ferry leaves Agia Roumeli at 5:30, and if you’re not on it, you’re staying. There are worse places to spend an unexpected night, but the lack of a change of clothes might drive me over the edge.
Not wanting to enter the frying pan of the sunny last few kilometers after 1pm, our expedition headed out early. We started down the massively steep, “rock-paved” path around 8am and emerged from the gorge close to 1:30, exhausted but feeling incredibly accomplished. I use the term “paved” loosely: there was nothing flat or smooth about these trails. Fortunately, Joe and I are in good shape and work out our butts and legs regularly. Other hikers were not so well-prepared. One lady could not climb down without grasping and leaning on the rickety wooden railing hugging the trail, and an older man walked so slowly he didn’t make the last boat out.
I don’t think I’m selling this experience very well. Let me just say this: we will never forget our journey down the Samaria! The smell of pine needles mixed pleasingly with the gurgling sound of the crystal clear stream bubbling down the canyon. We filled our bottles from that refreshing, sweet water, feeling revived with each sip. Wild flowers sprung up between cracks in the rocks and on steep hillsides, insisting on adding bright colors to the grays, greens and browns. Every now and then Joe and I would stop and just look up. Craning our necks to see the tops of the mountains, wonder would wash over us. “I mean, just look at all the layers in that rock!” I would exclaim. “Holy crap, do you even see where we are??” Pictures don’t do it justice. You kind of just have to be there.
I have a few favorite memories and thoughts from our epic hike:
- A persistent goat butted its way into our group of resting hikers, attempting to steal snacks almost out of people’s hands. They resisted, remembering our guide’s admonition, but I know they wanted to feed that goat some cookies.
- A group of Americans discussed the massive amounts of gelato they had been eating: “At least we didn’t have dessert gelato after our dinner gelato…” to which another replied, “well, this has to burn it all off, don’t you think?”
- Hiking the gorge is like playing Mario Cart: we seemed to be leapfrogging the same few groups of people, passing them one moment and being passed by them the next. I had no banana peel to throw.
- The creek running through the gorge goes underground several times; we were only alerted to its reemergence by the rushing sound through the trees before seeing its light turquoise waters around a bend.
- Lastly, you’ll never walk over as many rocks – in your entire life – as you do walking through the gorge. Very few surfaces are not covered in highly irregular, tumbled stones. Our guide said her clients always asked her if they could have fewer rocks; she always says that it’s not possible.