That Time I Was Lost in the Mountains of Bulgaria

It’s time for another crazy travel tale! My tales are usually travel fails! This one is a bit of both I guess. This past September I enjoyed a visit to lovely Bulgaria. After spending a few days in the beautiful chill capital, Sofia, I rented a car and planned to drive to see the Rila Monastery, hike the Rila Lakes and then go on to Plovdiv, the 2nd largest city in Bulgaria. I also wanted to see a few other places but I had to adjust my plans when I found myself lost in the mountains of Bulgaria.

Read More:  Itinerary for 7 Day Road Trip in Bulgaria

Mountains of Bulgaria

Rila Monastery

Rila Monastery is the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox Monastery in Bulgaria. It was founded in the 10th century and is named after it’s founder, the hermit Ivan of Rila.  The monastery is in the southwestern Rila Mountains, 117 km (73 miles) south of Sofia about 1147 m (3763 feet) above sea level.

Mountains of Bulgaria

Getting here wasn’t too difficult. It took about 2 hours from Sofia, using my trusty google map navigation. I was kind of stressed when I rented the car (got lost on the metro prior) and was kind of hangry so I didn’t notice when I wasn’t given a map. Since I was using my phone, I didn’t really worry too much.  It was an easy drive and I arrived just before nightfall and in time for dinner. Dinner was fantastic by the way! Loved all this hearty monastery food. Clearly those monks build up an appetite with all that chanting. Here’s a pic to drool over of some chicken, peppers and onions baked with cheese all over it in some sort of magic baking dish.

Mountains of Bulgaria

The Time 0f The Incident

The next morning I woke up feeling pretty pleased with myself. I had successfully rented a car and driven myself into the mountains, got a great hotel right next to the monastery, had been well fed, went to bed early, and was up before the crowds to see one of the most visited places in Bulgaria. I only had to walk a few minutes to visit the monastery. It was on a Sunday when the monks were chanting and it was delightfully uncrowded. The crisp mountain air, the chanting, the lack of crowds;  I was feeling very zen. At one with the universe. Mindfulness…inner peace…oh F@$%!

I dropped my phone. The screen shattered and some dark purple virus seemed to spread across the screen rendering it unusable. I kind of psychotically looked around, thinking that magic phone repair guy would somehow appear. Of course that didn’t happen.  I started to panic when the reality hit me that I was alone in the mountains with no map and no phone.

Mountains of Bulgaria
Are these frescoes of hell a foreshadowing?

I immediately went to the front desk of the hotel and asked for help. The nice lady spoke very little English but spoke enough to tell me that the wifi didn’t work and that there may be a map for sale at the monastery gift shop. Oh…I also missed breakfast.

I wasn’t even caffeinated yet! How was I supposed to deal with this nonsense?

The Plan

After stomping around my room like a bratty child, shedding a few tears and pouting, I realized these actions weren’t helping. Why couldn’t someone else just fix this for me? Oh yeah, one of the joys of solo travel is solving your own problems. Sigh. I sort of knew the way back to Sofia and surely there would be many signs, since it’s the capital. I knew I could find a cell phone store there and either fix mine or buy a new one. That was the surefire solution, but did I want to give up all the other plans I had made? I had driven all the way here and it would be a shame to not do the hike. Am I really THAT person…the one who can’t go a day without their phone?

I didn’t want to be that person. Sure, I had no camera (my lens had broken the month before in Greece, thanks to wind and a cheap tripod), and now no phone, but I still had my GoPro…and my memories! Does every bit of travel have to be recorded? No! I was all fired up, changed into hiking gear and left. I marched over to the monastery, ate some fresh deep-fried donuts from a kiosk (only food I could find) and found some sort of map. It was only of the Rila mountain and mostly in Cyrillic. but I was able to ascertain the general direction of the entrance to the Rila Lakes.

I got in my car and drove, praying to God, Buddha, Krishna, Allah, Jesus, Yahweh, Justin Trudeau, The Flying Spaghetti Monster and baby Jesus too. Just for good measure.

The Rila Lakes

This didn’t go as badly as one may think. There aren’t that many roads in the mountains, which is a blessing. I remembered the way to the highway from the Monastery and had memorized the names of the villages I was to pass through before arriving at the lift for the Rila Lakes. I got lost in small villages here and there but ultimately made it. It was much further than I thought and after factoring in the time needed to get back before the sun went down, I only had a couple hours at the Lakes.

There is a ski lift that takes you up and this trip takes 30 minutes. The mountains were gorgeous and being in nature was exactly what I needed at this point to get back some zen-ness. Due to time constraints, I was only able to see 3 out of the 7 Rila Lakes. Thinking about the drive home was ruining my zen.  I hoped I would remember the way. I did and made it back before dark, had another great dinner and went to bed.

Mountains of Bulgaria
v is for victory!

Getting to Plovdiv

I made the decision to skip a few things on my list and not risk getting more lost or eating up more time. Having more time to get to Plovdiv seemed like a good idea. I was fairly sure I’d be able to deal with my phone issue there and I was also pretty sure I’d get lost on the way. I knew the first 3rd of the drive pretty well, since I had driven it the day before.

The hotel wifi decided to work for a few miraculous moments and I studied the map. I took notes. I even wrote down what Plovdiv looks like in Cyrillic so I’d recognize it. It looks like this: Пловдив.  In case anyone thought it wasn’t that different! I also looked up the address of my hostel in Plovdiv, The Funky Monkey, and drew a map of the area in my notes, just so I’d have a clue. I was desperate for any help at this point.

There was little choice at this point but to just go. I figured I’d find a gas station and buy a map along the way. The first part of the drive went well and I saw plenty of signs. Then I didn’t for about an hour. I was deep in some forested mountain area and only saw a tiny village every 15 minutes or so.  Was I headed west? I looked at the sun’s position in the sky wishing I hadn’t dropped out of girl scouts. The engine light on my rental car went on. Omg, omg, OMG! What if the car has trouble? I can’t call anyone. There is nobody around! I’m going to end up walking for miles. I may never leave the mountains. I’m going to have to become a goat herder!

The Dramatic Conclusion

Eventually, I saw a gas station and stopped. They didn’t have a map. The attendant didn’t speak English. Luckily, a random patron overheard me and told me that the highway was only ten minutes away and he would lead me there. Which he did. Following a strange man through tiny woodsy roads was not exactly calming to me, but I decided to have some trust. The people of Bulgaria had all been extremely kind to me thus far.

As he lead me to increasingly smaller and more remote woodsy roads, I began to plot my defense, should he turn into a homicidal maniac. My GoPro stick would serve as a weapon if I couldn’t whip this snazzy rental car (made by a manufacturer I’ve never heard of) around fast enough. Finally, I saw the highway. Aw, that sweet man WASN”T a maniac and just wanted to help. Thanks Merica for poisoning my brain and making it hard to trust anyone. I waved good-bye to him and was on my merry way.

I saw Plovdiv signs, found a gas station that sold maps and made it to Plovdiv. Plovdiv ancient city is kind of a maze, so of course I was lost there, even with the map. I couldn’t read the street signs. I stopped someone on the street and was like, show me where I am on this map!  What street is this? Where am I?    Somehow, I made it to the hostel, where I practically cried with relief, before drinking lots of wine. And buying a new phone.

Lessons learned?

  1. Try not to panic and take stock of your resources
  2. Have a backup phone if traveling for extended periods. Something inexpensive of course.
  3. Have a real map
  4. Know how to read said real map and not solely rely on the google map navigation. I can’t stress this enough. I’d be living a quiet life as a goat herder in the mountains of Bulgaria right now if I didn’t have some basic navigational skills. I do like goats though.

I want to thank all the kind people of Bulgaria who were unfortunate enough to have to deal with a crazy American redhead in September.

Hope you enjoyed the story! What would you have done in this situation?

Put a pin in it!

Mountains of Bulgaria

About The Author

Cherene Saradar

Cherene is a travel expert with 30 years of experience in over 100 countries and 7 continents. She has traveled solo to over 50 countries. She is also a nurse anesthesiologist with over 20 years of healthcare experience. Her passions include wildlife travel and visiting wine regions of the world.


  1. 10 Safety Tips for Solo Female Travelers - Wandering Redhead | 10th May 19

    […] That Time I Was Lost in the Mountains of Bulgaria […]

  2. Itinerary for 7 Day Road Trip in Bulgaria - WanderingRedHead | 17th Nov 17

    […] Read More: That Time I Was Lost in the Mountains of Bulgaria […]

  3. wanderinjon | 14th Nov 17

    Some of the best memories are made when things don’t go to plan! I have a good friend in Bulgaria, keep trying to get there : ) Beautiful fotos.

    • csaradar | 17th Nov 17

      It’s a lovely country! I hope you make it there.

  4. Yanti | 9th Nov 17

    I always love reading your stories. I couldn’t help but laugh reading this one, I know it wasn’t funny at all when it was happening, just imagining if it was happening to me, I would panic even worse haha! I took notes to also pray to those you mentioned hehe!!!!

    • csaradar | 11th Nov 17

      Aw I’m so glad you had a laugh from this! And always pray to as many people as possible. LOL

  5. Laura Tenekjian | 8th Nov 17

    Wow cherene this is such an adventurous story!! Good for you getting through it and finding the joy among the chaos!

    • csaradar | 9th Nov 17

      I tried…not going to lie I did have a few minutes of completely freaking out!

  6. Jackie | 4th Nov 17

    You seriously have some of the best stories and adventures ever!! I love how you have a positive spin on things when they don’t go as planned. And also – I literally LOL’d at “I wasn’t even caffeinated yet! How was I supposed to deal with this nonsense?” hahaha

    • csaradar | 5th Nov 17

      Haha thanks so much. I try to find humor in things otherwise I get too worked up!

  7. Practical Wanderlust (@practicalwander) | 4th Nov 17

    This is hysterical! As a fellow disaster-prone traveler, I empathized deeply. This is also the EXACT reason why I don’t travel solo: I get lost walking out my own front door. I’d be a goat herder in no time!

    Also, next time I’m panicking, I’m going to remember to include Justin Trudeau in my prayers. So dreamy 🙂

    • csaradar | 5th Nov 17

      Always pray to Justin. LOL. It’s tough being so disaster-prone isn’t it? Maybe someday we will all be goat herders together.

  8. crazytravelista | 4th Nov 17

    Girl your writing style cracks me up! A goat herder hahaha. Dying!! And omg i understand about the phone. Mine got stolen recently in Bolivia and I was a mess! I couldn’t function it was terrible. I survived though hehe. Glad to see you did too! 🙂

    • csaradar | 5th Nov 17

      Oh that sucks. Stolen is even worse than broken. It’s crazy how dependent on those little things we are!

  9. Kristy | 4th Nov 17

    Haha, I’m sorry your trip was so stressful but it was quite entertaining to read about! Bulgaria looks beautiful, I hope to get there and one day and at least now I know the locals are helpful!

    • csaradar | 5th Nov 17

      I live to entertain with my misfortune. It is a great country!

  10. celine | 4th Nov 17

    3. Get a real map! 4. Learn how to read the real map. Hahaha.. So true. I absolutely have no clue on how to make use of a real map should the need arise. About time I learn. 🙂 One of my biggest fears is getting lost. I will totally panic. 🙂

    • csaradar | 5th Nov 17

      the navigation has failed me so many times…map skills have definitely came in handy. Thanks Dad!

  11. dorothyadele | 4th Nov 17

    I like your sense of humor where the frescoes foreshadowed your impending doom, great post.

    • csaradar | 5th Nov 17

      Haha glad you got that one:)

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