I woke up one morning on the top of a hill in the coastal city of Rijeka, Croatia. My first night of sleeping in the woods in a tent had more or less gone to plan.
Sure, it had rained the night before and I had gotten soaked. There had been strange noises and racket from nearby teenagers sneaking into the forest to congregate for covert, late-night parties. I hadn’t even gotten more than a few hours of sleep.
But everything was more or less good to go. That was August 15th, 2020. I would walk down the hill and head south for the next 2 months, spending most of my time sleeping in a tent along the way, seeking out well-hidden, secret camping spots near the coast.
I would go the entire way on foot, which would amount to about 600 kilometers, and I’d be carrying 30+ kilograms of gear comprised of an Osprey hiking rucksack on back and a Rip Curl backpack draped over my front. The natural weight balance would mean no need for trekking poles.
Yes, I would hike Croatia, and while I was at it, I figured I might as well write a book about it too.
Why the heck not? Which answers my next question:
Why Did I Visit Croatia, of All Places?
There’s many reasons to visit Croatia. It is a sort of budget traveler’s version of Italy with lots of sunshine and a great panoramic view of the Adriatic Sea, along with many islands stretching out to the horizon. Prices are a bit lower than the typical Western European destination, and they allow Americans to visit for up to 3 months at a time.
They also required no negative PCR reading for Covid-19, and getting there by train to Zagreb was pretty easy, though explaining why I’d overstayed my Visa in the EU due to the lock down on the way out seemed to be confusing for the cop checking my passport.
Right now, there’s not a lot of places where you can visit in the world as an American. Officially. But in my opinion, traveling during 2020 has been marked by selective enforcement of incredibly arbitrary undemocratic decrees. This means, you can often just show up and your fate will be decided by a government bureaucrat who may just want to pass you through without creating a hassle for themselves.
Croatia: Sights to See, Things to Do, Options to Eat
Croatia offers a long sea coast with numerous beaches and crystal-clear water. The beaches are almost always made of pebbles and small rocks, so flip-flops or aqua socks are probably not a bad idea.
During the summer, a good swim is usually possible from nearly almost any point. If you can get down the cliff side safely, then you will often have your own private watering hole. The water’s so salty, if you just take a large breath, you’ll float without having to try very hard.
When swimming, however, you will want to watch out for sea urchins. They are everywhere. These are little purple balls with lots of fine, thin needles protruding from them.
If you step on one or touch it with your hand, the little needles can and will easily break off into your skin like splinters, causing risk of infection and pain until you remove them with tweezers.
If you are into fishing, you will find lots of ways to do this, whether hanging out a line off the edge of just about any marina in Croatia, or chartering a boat with a local service. While I’m not much of an angler myself, it seemed that not many people caught big fish just standing on the shore and trying. My guess is fishing out in the sea from a boat would yield better results.
Popular tourist destinations in Croatia
Some of the more popular cities to visit include Rijeka, Senj, Novalja, Zadar, Split, Biograd na Moru, Primosten, Sibenik, Makarska and Dubrovnik. There are also lots of islands to visit which you can usually catch a ferry to quite easily from many ports located throughout the coast. Most of the larger cities have the typical sights for visitors ranging from unique 15th Century old city walls to the ruins of palaces for Roman Emperors.
If you want to get lodging or accommodations, AirBnB is an option I used. Other hotel apps may provide higher end hotels in greater abundance than budget options, and many of the budget options are not so great. Just driving or walking about town, you will see many signs with a phone number offering rooms, “sobe” in Croatian, or apartments, called “apartmani”, to rent.
The typical Croatian fare is much like that of other Mediterranean countries. They enjoy lots of grilled vegetables and fish, as well as some select meats. Everywhere you go you will see a sign for a “Konoba – Grill”. If you’re not willing to commit to a large scale meal with lots of grilled specialty items due to cost or maybe you want something smaller, then a dish known as Cevapi might hold you over.
Cevapi are little sausages served with a few slices of fresh onion and french fries. It’s not really my thing but if you’re hungry and you don’t want to eat pizza, it’s always there for you.
Eating out is not always an enjoyable experience though, in my opinion. I felt a lot of anti-tourist resentment from the locals. The customer service level is definitely lacking as a whole for the country as well, even when you just go to a cafe to order a cup of coffee.
Good budget options for food include stopping in at the Plodine Supermarket, probably the biggest supermarket chain in northern Croatia, and visiting the back of the store where they have lots of hot items to purchase including potatoes au gratin and grilled chicken, as well as vegetables and salad options.
Hiking, Camping, and Backpacking in Croatia
There are lots of places to camp officially in Croatia. There are quite a few auto-camps and paid sites for people in camping vans. I personally wanted to save a buck and have an adventure so I camped off the beaten path.
I encountered some wildlife during the journey from bears to snakes, as well as sheep roaming the hills. Croatia is home to a few very venomous snakes and I was constantly encountering them during my hike along the highway, though thankfully they would always try to dart away from me. One night, the local town’s somewhat independent and possibly stray dog came and stayed with me in my tent during a bad rainstorm.
Hiking down the coastal highway was a pretty major task. You do really have to be careful and know what you’re doing to avoid causing a public safety risk. So I’d advise you to only attempt the feat if you are very aware of your surroundings and are familiar with the concepts of “defensive driving”, since hiking along any roadway carries inherent risks.
Hiking during the day and camping by night would usually leave me quite dirty, so I would take a bath in the sea. By September and October the water was starting to get a little cold, but nothing life-threatening. Many beaches offer showers to clean off with as well, but these are not frequent outside of large population centers.
There are also lots of places where you can take off all your clothes and go for a swim. While it’s not my thing, there’s lots of “FKK” beaches there for the self-proclaimed “naturists”. If you’re lucky, you might just see me taking a bath in the sea too.
Just kidding, I kept my pants on for that.
For hiking and nature, there is Velebit National Park which stretches 100 kilometers not far from Senj and Zadar. I have read online that there are land mines from the war in the 1990’s in some places, but I never saw signs or heard of things being too big of a problem.
But, there’s also lots of places where you can simply go for a short day-hike around town or up a nearby mountain too.
One more thing. If you’re walking across a crosswalk, don’t expect Croatian drivers to slow down much for a pedestrian.
Is Croatia Ideal for Digital Nomads?
For people who work online or make money from their laptops while traveling, I have a mixed opinion of Croatia. In many places I stayed, the Wi Fi signal was not every strong but in addition to this, Croatia does not really have an online business culture.
While on the surface that should not matter much, it definitely gets old having people devalue your trade and income streams when you tell them what you do. It’s also probably a reason why they’re not a leader in technology or the worldwide web, and why the government is creating an e-visa program right now for “digital nomads”.
I don’t think I saw but maybe one Croatian sit in a cafe and open a laptop computer the entire time I was there, and I saw every city from Rijeka, Croatia down to the country of Montenegro. Many of them view the idea of an internet business as a form of sorcery or carnival barking, a scam, or something that they just have no interest in learning about.
It’s the kind of attitude you could expect from a former Yugoslavian nation, one where communism overshadowed an interest in or need for innovation and self-starters for half a century. As someone who’s traveled through Eastern Europe, I know the stale vibe of mediocrity when I encounter it.
Patrick is an online entrepreneur who has been traveling the US and the world for over 6 years. He served in the US Navy and obtained a degree in political science before starting his own business and leaving America in 2017 to live abroad.
His interests include music production, writing, running sprints, cannabis, and meditation. He speaks English, Russian, Spanish, and some Thai, and loves spending time outdoors and with animals. He’s been camping off-grid ever since he went out to the desert one night in Nevada.
His recent book about hiking and wild camping Croatia during the “pandemic” is available now on Amazon Kindle, paperback, and audio book.