Hiking the Samaria Gorge

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Some stunning scenery midway through our hike

In addition to its idyllic beaches, one of the top attractions in Crete we were most looking forward to was the Samaria Gorge.  As the longest gorge in Europe at 10 miles, Samaria was listed as one of the must-do’s that ultimately influenced our decision to visit this island.

Once again, we were faced with the option to book a tour that would embark around 6am, or do it ourselves.  While the latter offered a nice amount of flexibility, it meant that we had to find arrangements to get back to our car since the hike would end in a completely different place from where we started.  And we certainly weren’t going to hike back up.  But, our friends at Fatma Boutique Hotel were extremely helpful in outlining the various steps we needed to take (and there were many!) to get back to our point of origin.  They even prepared breakfast and sandwiches for us to take to go, since we were hitting the road so early.

We ended up hitting the road around 8am, later than any organized tour but still early for us.  After a series of endless switchback roads that tested our brakes and got us super dizzy, we arrived at the entrance to Samaria at Omolos Plateau around 9am.   To add to the challenging drive, we navigated falling rocks and herds of goats and sheep on the way.  The hike began at the highest elevation, descending on uneven rocks with only a rickety wooden railing to hang onto.  We heard the hike could take anywhere between 4-6 hours, so while our goal was certainly to finish with enough time before the last ferry left, we also wanted to erase our label of being “medium-slow” that our Inca Trail guide tagged us 4 years ago.  We were not off to a good start as I’m probably twice as slow walking downhill as I am uphill.  And much of the hike was straight downhill.

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Donuts from the day before = good pre-hike sustenance
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Winding uphill roads
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Cretan traffic jam

Thankfully, Doug found a nice walking stick that helped tremendously with my balance so we could go a little faster.  The first half of the hike was a relatively wide path that was down a mountain, lined with cypress and pine trees, on a rocky gravel path.  There were river beds that were once flowing freely in the spring, but the dry heat of the summer left these beds full of dust and rocks.  It was impossible to get lost, not only because the paths were extremely well marked, but because there were so many people there.  So while we were enjoying the natural beauty of the gorge, we also had to enjoy it with hundreds of other people around us, including a group of German men that were having an extremely loud conversation.  Who has a conversation while hiking, anyways?!  Doug was pushing me extra hard to go fast so we could distance ourselves from that group, although in hindsight we should’ve just let them go ahead of us since they were basically breathing down our necks as I was trying not to tumble down the edge of the mountain.

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Entering the gorge at the highest elevation
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We were treated with spectacular views that kept changing as the elevation changed.  Here, we enjoyed the plentiful pine and cypress trees on our hike down.
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Taking a much needed water break.  The dry river beds in front of me are usually flowing with fresh water in the spring, but are completely dry by the end of summer.
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A rare sighting of the endangered kri-kri, indigenous to the island of Crete and feeling very much at home inside the protected area of Samaria.
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Leveling off the terrain a few miles into the hike

At about 3.5 miles into the hike, we officially entered the gorge, where we were greeted with signs every few meters warning us of falling rocks as we walked through sheer cliffs on either side of us.  By 5.5 miles in, we reached the narrowest point in the gorge, as the cliffs were only 3 meters apart, and then back out of the gorge around the 8 mile mark.

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Looking straight up at some very sheer cliffs.  There were even signs warning hikers not to stop…at all.
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It’s hard to show how grandiose these gorges are, but take a look at the size of the people at the bottom of the shot and you’ll begin to get a sense of their height.  980 feet above us, to be exact.
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Contributing our own cairn
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Entering the “iron gates,” the narrowest part of the gorge, at 9 feet wide

We ended up finishing the 10 mile hike in about 5 hours, so right in between “speedy” and “slow”…but faster than medium slow in our opinions.  Upon finishing the gorge, there was a large bar that everyone seemed to stop at, so we stopped to hydrate with some amazing OJ and refreshing Alpha beers.  However, we weren’t done yet.  Even though we had gotten through the gorge, it was another 1.2 miles to Agia Roumeli, where we had to take our ferry, so the walking continued for a bit.  This stretch was rather boring, but thankfully flat, but filled with stinky goat smells.  We rushed through this because after taking down lots of water, OJ, and a beer, I had to use the bathroom rather urgently and the bar didn’t have one!

Once we got to the coast of Agia Roumeli, a small pedestrian village that mostly catered to Samaria day hikers, we bought our ferry tickets and grabbed a bite at a nearby taverna on the coast.  Even though the hike was by no means difficult, it was pretty nice to just sit down.  And eat.

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Coming out on the other side of the gorge
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And, we’re done!
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Toasting to another successful hike.  We hadn’t realized the consequences of downing beers with no bathroom nearby, yet.

After we ate, we had a little bit of down time before our ferry, so we did as all hikers did, and headed towards the beach to relax.  Agia Roumeli is on the south side of the island, so it actually opened out onto the Libyan Sea…crazy to think that straight across the sea was Africa!  This coast was very different from the other beaches we experienced, as it was much more rocky, colder, and dropped off more quickly.  It was actually one of Doug’s favorite places to swim since it was so refreshing and crystal clear.

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Right off the dock at Agia Roumeli.  So refreshing!
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View on ferry ride leaving Agia Roumeli

By 5:30, it was time to leave though, and the ferry took FOREVER.  We didn’t have to go far, only a few towns over along the coast, yet it took about an hour to get there.  We did get to enjoy a nice view and saw something leap in the water – we think it was a monk seal but really had no idea.  Upon arriving in the town of Sougia, most known for being friendly to naturists (aka nudey beaches), we headed over to a bakery that sold bus tickets.  It was a competition to get on the bus, as they prioritized those going straight to Chania first and then those returning to Omolos.  We were one of the last people to make it onto the bus, and there were quite a few that didn’t.  No idea how they got home…

Apparently, the ride from Sougia to Omolos was super criss-crossy and scary, but I had fallen asleep early and missed all the drama.  When we got back to Omolos, it was freezing cold from the higher elevation.  We had to continue the treacherous, dizzying drive in the pitch dark, and finally got back to Chania at 9pm.

Given the long day we had, hiking and jumping in the sea, we desperately needed a shower and some down time before heading back out on the town.  Thankfully, everything stays open late in Greece so we had the luxury of time.  Tonight, we chose to go to dinner at a restaurant called Portes, located down an adorable hidden alleyway filled with al fresco dining establishments.  Even at 10:30, the tables were packed, so the only place they could put us was at their rooftop terrace which wasn’t too bad an arrangement.  We must be getting spoiled since the food here was highly rated and yet not even close to our favorite…but it was still delicious!

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Greek fennel pie in front, local dakos (tomatoes, local cheese, crunchy bread) in the back
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Tonight’s special, chicken braised in saffron and lemon over rice

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