Crete in August / early September is unabashed tourism – the ‘Agora’ markets are little more than cheap souvenir shops – the restaurant hawkers line the street trying to lure people in – and the beaches are a relentless string of sunbeds. The thing is – under all of it the layers of people and dust and heat is a lovely island, full of history and natural beauty.
I had to keep reminding myself of this as we joined 600 people on a 16 kilometer hike through the Samaria Gorge in southwest Crete. The gorge snakes its way through the White Mountains, and is protected as a National Park – in part due to the presence of the wild cretan goat – the Kri-Kri. The gorge hike is popular – and because it’s well – a gorge – people are funneled through a very small space – but the section in the middle is unbelievably beautiful (not the most beautiful gorge in Crete according to the locals) and almost peaceful at times.
The hike starts with a long bus trip up to the entrance high up in the mountains. From there you descend long sets of stairs (graded for a mule track) with rocks worn slick through thousands of feet crushing grit underfoot. At frequent intervals there are rest stations, with toilets, fresh water, and sometimes mules (for medical emergencies presumably). After what seems like a long time, the path begins to level off – and from there to the end of the gorge is gently slope down.
Being a gorge you’d expect a gushing stream. It does trickle to a gush in some places – but in others there is just a dry streambed to mark the way. The gorge hike is only open six months a year – and the water does peak at 6 meters in the winter during the narrowest bits – somewhat unbelievable in the summer months.
About a third of the way in is the Samaria Village – an abandoned village – now rest stop – that has a few resident ‘wild’ Cretan goats sifting through the garbage dropped by tourists. It’s somewhat sad.
After the ‘village’ the gorge tightens up until the path pretty much follows the stream bed. It’s too bad that the most scenic part of the hike is also one where you are encouraged to hurry through due to danger from rock falls (probably not much danger in the summer months). It really was spectacular.
After that the hike drops you into a village where you can rent sunbeds on the beach by buying a drink at a local bar, and treat yourself to a dip in the Libyian Sea – which is just as spectacular as the Aegean Sea on the north side of the island).
We managed to find a day where the heat wasn’t excruciating, and there was a steady breeze – even with that I’d rather have hiked any month but August – well except for July – where crowds can reach up to 1200 people a day.
Logistics: There are public buses from most of the major towns, but the tour buses only charge a few euros more and you are guaranteed a seat. They also come with a guide, but the guide – and the group – doesn’t really get in your way because everyone hikes at their own pace. It’s 16 kilometers – but almost completely downhill – which makes it doable for anyone who is relatively fit. From the entrance to the village where you can catch a ferry takes the average person about 5 and a half to six hours to hike – including rest stops and photos. The ferry leaves (both directions) the village at 5:30 pm – to another village where you catch buses back into town (the public bus waits for the ferry to arrive.)