Redemption in Rila

by Jennifer Roberts

Haunted by an abandoned hike five years earlier, a traveler gets a shot at redemption while hiking the 7 Rila Lakes in Bulgaria.

5 Years Ago

My body was achy from the previous day’s six hours of hiking, my lungs gulping at the little oxygen that ran through the air at this altitude after only a short walk to join my hiking group. We were heading to the Salkantay Glacier in the mountains of Peru, but to get there, we would have to go through the 7 Snakes, a series of steep, narrow switchbacks at 13,000 feet that lead to the pass holding the immense glacier. Suffering from mild asthma and a fear of failure, I looked in the direction of the snow-covered pass… and surrendered. I approached the guide and asked to go up on horseback alongside two of my hiking companions. “7 Snake Survivor,” proclaimed the T-shirt they gifted me after reaching Machu Picchu three days later. It now sat at the back of my closet, unused. I think of its bold, orange lettering and the regret I haven’t been able to shake these past five years as a shot at redemption lays itself before me high in the Rila Mountains of Bulgaria.

Present Day

It’s early morning in Sapareva Banya when we step off the bus that has carried us the three miles from the nearby village of Saparevo. Banya, as the locals call it, is quiet as dew hangs heavy on the trees and sidewalks, chilling our already cold bodies. Store owners are opening their doors, and people on their way to work are stopping at the local cafes for a quick coffee. Several men with balding heads and rounded bellies sit at a green plastic table outside an open restaurant, slurring their words. We walk a few blocks to the central square, with its concrete buildings and concrete fountain. Supposedly, there will be a bus here to the 7 Rila Lakes, but the Cyrillic alphabet complicates matters. We use Google Lens to translate the signs on the two buses in the vicinity, but neither are going into the mountains. My partner and I look at each other, shrug, and walk down the street and back, both to see if there are any other buses and to do something other than just stand there.

When we return to the square, a black van has pulled up in front of the city hall. The elderly driver, noticing our hiking boots and backpack, immediately waves us over. “Rila?” We nod and ask how much. He says a number in Bulgarian that we don’t understand, and we shake our heads. He turns toward the car behind him and writes “25” on the dust-covered window. It’s more expensive than we expected, but it’s the low season. If there were more hikers heading up, the cost would be less. It’s October, the leaves are already crispy, and it’s just us today. With no other way to get to the lakes, we nod.

I slide off the heavy green windbreaker that our Bulgarian hosts have lent me for the hike. The sun is now high in the sky and is starting to win the fight against the chilly air that blows over Babreka, the fifth of the seven lakes that line the trail.  Babreka, translated as “The Kidney” and so-called due to its chubby, half-moon shape, is spread out to our right, butted up against a tall brown mountain, as we collapse onto the grass for a momentary break. It’s been over two hours of walking with a backpack laden with water and snacks. The trail is generally considered average difficulty, but the higher altitude is sapping our energy more quickly than expected, and the steep incline of the first thirty minutes has left our legs wobbly.

I sigh between heavy breaths and turn to my partner, whose gaze moves between me and the next part of the trail, a steep uphill climb with several switchbacks that lead to the famous view of the 7 Rila Lakes. He doesn’t know if he can make it, and neither do I, but I think of the unused T-shirt and realize that not trying is not an option. 

My chance for redemption is here, the rock and dirt path zigzagging up the side of the mountain. “You can stay here and rest until I come back, but I have to go.” My partner hears the determination, even if he doesn’t understand where it’s coming from, and decides to join me. I’m relieved that he’s chosen not to create his own moment of regret.

Doubled over and breathless after only minutes, we stop often to gaze into the valley below, counting the lakes each time. Dolnoto, Ribnoto, Trilistnika, Bliznaka, and Babreka mirror the surrounding valley, mountains, and forests, each creating a distinct portrait of Rila. Okoto and Salzata lie ahead still, motivating hikers to keep going. A small waterfall trickles down the rocks on our right. Hikers coming down from the summit urge us on: “It’s worth it.” We resist asking how much farther we have to go. Thirty minutes later, a turn at a switchback reveals Okoto, the sixth of the seven lakes. “The Eye” is the deepest of the group, its depth transforming the turquoise water that caresses the shore to a deep navy at its center.

One of the 7 Rila Lakes in Bulgaria.

Legend says that the lakes were created when evil forces attempted to separate two giants who loved each other deeply and cherished the beauty of the Rila Mountains. The male giant was killed as he attempted to protect their home, and the female cried so many tears that she formed the seven lakes. I glance back at my partner, who is fighting every instinct telling him to stop in order to accompany me to the summit, and I believe I understand the love of the two giants.

We turn away from Okoto and glance up at the top of the mountain. We can see the people there, like tiny LEGO figures moving against the light blue sky. In the language of the Aymara, an indigenous group living on the Altiplano of South America, the word for “front” is also an expression meaning “past,” while the word for “back” is an expression for “future.” Contrary to the way many think of time, for the Aymara, the past sits in front of them… it’s something they can see. The future is behind them, unseen and unknown. I think of this as I look up at the summit, and I feel that the past is in front of me. I see myself at the summit, the green and brown valley spreading out below, hugging the seven lakes, funneling the wind that ripples the tears of the grieving giant.

The final stretch of the incline is steeper than any other part of the trail. The rocks have been worn smooth, and our boots slip every few seconds. Hikers coming down struggle to keep their balance. We lean forward to find a better center of gravity and push on. Breaths come in regular, heavy waves, and our focus shifts to simply moving our feet. Our hands are robotic, dragging our water bottle up to our mouths every few minutes. We don’t speak, and the only sound is that of the rocks crunching beneath us. Sooner than expected, we look up, and the Bulgarian flag is pegged to a wooden board in front of us. Small groups of hikers are seated on large boulders. We turn in a circle. Salzata has joined its sisters, and we embrace, laughing in exhaustion as we look down at the seven lakes.

The black van isn’t in the parking lot, and we soon realize that it will likely never come. Why would it waste the gas for only two passengers? We’re exhausted and, unable to process our options, sit on the parking lot gravel to look up how long it would take us to walk down the mountain.

Nearly three hours.

“It’s all downhill,” I justify, believing I could make it if worse came to worse. A tour van going to the Rila Monastery is sitting just down the street, and we ask if any taxis are likely to come retrieve stray hikers. The driver shakes his head and then laughs when we suggest walking down to Banya: “It will take you all evening.”

4 of the 7 Rila Lakes in Bulgaria.

We return to the parking lot, downtrodden, hungry, and grumpy now that the adrenaline of the hike has worn off. There are cars in the parking lot; someone has to leave eventually. A truck with five passengers blows by, barely glancing at our outstretched thumbs. Ten minutes later, a small gray car stops for us. When we say “Sapareva Banya,” the driver shakes his head. Unaware that head shaking means yes in Bulgaria, we close the door, thinking they are unwilling to carry us down the mountain; patient with our lack of knowledge, they wave us back in. It’s an easy route — the road leads straight to Banya. No matter where they’re going, they have to pass through the town.

“Only little English,” the man says as we scoot into the back seat, and the woman in the passenger seat smiles back at us and nods shyly.

“No problem. Thank you so much.” It’s all we can say as we lean our heads back on the seat in relief. I close my eyes, and the abandoned T-shirt floats in the ethereal space of my exhaustion. Maybe I’ll finally wear it when I get home.

Photo credit: Felipe Oyarzún

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