Hiking in Latvia and Understanding a Culture Rooted in Nature

by Jenna Lee
Beautiful stairway in the forest at Gauja National Park

Hiking in Latvia is experiencing Latvia.

The stunning city of Riga may be the capital, but can you really experience Latvia without taking time to explore nature? I would tell you that’s impossible. After all, the country is well known for the pristine and largely untouched forest area covering nearly half of it’s entire land mass. Gauja National Park is one of the four national parks that sprawl across the country. It’s just a short drive from Riga and a great place to spend a day hiking in Latvia.

Nature is woven into Latvian culture.

In Latvia, sustainability is a way of life. The personal and economic benefits of the nation’s rich and diverse ecosystem are a source of pride, strongly valued and fiercely protected through hard work and longstanding traditions. Weekly sauna treatments are not a luxury for the well to do, but a focal point of health and wellness within Latvian families. Wood, peat, and amber are large contributors to the economy. Forests provide connection not only to oneself but each other. Activities like berry and mushroom picking are popular bonding experiences for friends and family.

Preserving nature is paramount in this little Baltic country. Even in the city, well-maintained parks provide a peaceful respite to those looking for a momentary escape from an urban lifestyle. Given the way nature is knit into Latvian culture, it’s only logical that you escape into the country’s landscape. Hiking in Latvia is a perfect way to start.

A little bridge along the hiking trail in Latvia. Autumn is over but the trail is still green with pine and moss.
Wooden bridge along the Cecilu hiking trail in Latvia.

Hiking in Latvia wasn’t at the top of my list.

I found myself traveling to Riga in November of last year (2019) for the primary purpose of attending a conference for women in the travel industry. WITS is routinely scheduled in North America, but last January the organization announced their inaugural conference in Europe. What better excuse to travel than blame it on work, right? After tossing around the idea of another cold weather trip and stumbling on a dirt cheap plane ticket, I decided to give Latvia in the fall(ish) a whirl. Im using the term “fall” loosely because November in the Baltics feels a little more like winter.

I’ll admit, hiking in Latvia wasn’t on the top of my list. I do enjoy hiking and other outdoor activities. I don’t particularly like the cold. Not only that, rain and possibly even snow was on the forecast nearly every day of the entire trip. My intent for the duration of my time in Riga was to find ways to escape the chilly air and stay dry inside museums, coffee shops, and other interesting locations. As you may suspect, my curiosity for the natural beauty of Latvia led me astray. While there’s so much to see and do in Riga, I would learn that a trip to Latvia without visiting the forest is truly a mistake.

There’s more to Latvia than Riga.

After spending a couple of days in Riga on my own, I met up with a group of ladies also attending WITS. WITS, by the way, stands for Women in Travel Summit. Part of attending the conference involves the opportunity to connect and bond with other women over unique local and cultural experiences.

There’s a huge initiative to drive tourism beyond the capital and for good reason. Way too many tourists breeze through Riga on a whirlwind Baltic tour. These travelers are seemingly unaware that Latvia is more than just one city. This effort is part of why the Latvian tourism board was hosting me and six other female writers on a two day trip to Gauja National Park and Sigulda. To say we bonded over our day in the woods would be an understatement but that’s a different post for a different day.

Hint: We ended our day with a traditional Latvian sauna. Thanks to Kathryn for one of very few photos from our camera-off-limits experience.

The forest is alive even in the winter.

Surrounded by the white bark of the towering birch trees, we entered the Cecilu Nature Trail. Little evidence of Latvia’s golden season, the most popular season for hiking in Latvia, remained. However, the absence of vibrant yellow and orange hues dangling overhead wouldn’t mean the absence of color. Perhaps even more prominently, pine trees and dense moss keep the trail green even after the cold November air has stolen the golden leaves of autumn.

Beautiful Birch along the trail while hiking in Latvia at Gauja National Park.
Birch Trees in Gauja National Park
Close up of the towering birch trees in Latvia.
A few orange leaves remain along the hiking trail in Latvia.
The last signs of autumn.
Pine trees and moss keep the trail green.
Lush, green trails even in November

I almost didn’t go hiking in Latvia. I almost didn’t go to Latvia at all.

Stepping into the forest, I felt like I could breath for the first time in days. I was dealing with the loss of my grandmother who passed the day after my arrival in Europe. A week earlier, my dad was given the grim diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. The previous month, we lost my brother and law and only a few months earlier, my grandpa. Simply put, the weight of life and an ongoing loss of family throughout the year had become overwhelming. On top of that, the guilt of travel; even if it’s for work.

Canceling the trip crossed my mind but I felt an inescapable urge to press on. Sometimes we don’t know why things are meant to be a certain way until later. Still, instead of filling my first two days in a stunning new city with site seeing, I did little more than mindlessly walk along old cobblestone roads. My energy was depleted and my enthusiasm for travel wrapped snug under a blanket of stress. The idea of heading into the forest with a group of complete strangers was the last thing I wanted. It was, however, exactly what I needed.

Finding peace in the woods.

I could feel the oxygen from the trees in the crisp air begin to permeate my body and restore life to my weary spirit. Sigita, our trail guide from Cesis Inside, emphasized the importance of the clean forest air throughout the day. “There’s healing in the forest. Close your eyes and breathe the air. Listen to nature. Relax.” The trees were absorbing my toxic frame of mind the way they absorb toxins in the air.

Honestly, I didn’t need her reminding. Every revitalizing breath felt a little like salvation. Still, I was grateful for the occasional pauses of intentional focus on our own well-being. That’s what nature immersion is all about in Latvia. Here, a day in the woods can fix just about anything.

A walk in nature walks the soul back home.

– Mary Davis

We could all use a little more self care.

Hiking in Latvia is a form of self care. If we’re being honest, we could probably all benefit from a little more of that. “Forest bathing,” as Sigita would describe to us, is a way to describe quality time in the forest. It’s as essential as bathing at home. It’s a way of taking care of ourselves. That might sound hardcore but the health and wellness benefits of nature are substantial. Latvians understand this and it’s why the forest is so well integrated into their culture. A canopy of trees has the unique ability to engage all fives senses and reduce stress. Even a simple walk in the woods is therapeutic.

Besides the positive effects of reduced stress on physical health, science indicates that phytoncides, a chemical released by trees, can boost the immune system. In Japan, forest bathing is even incorporated into healthcare programs. I’ll be honest, I don’t know for certain all of what a day in the woods can or cannot do for our physical health. What I do know is that forest bathing is cleansing to the soul. I know that hiking in Latvia is exactly where I was meant to be on that cold November day.

Selfie at the conclusion of our Amata Trail hike in Latvia
Hiking the Amata Trail put a smile on my face even on a cold and wet day.

Basic things to know about hiking in Latvia.

Where are the best places to go hiking in Latvia?

There are many great places to spend the day outdoors in Latvia. The most popular choices are at one of the four national parks or along coastal trails. Both Gauja National Park and the Kemeri Boglands are easy to get to from Riga.

Do you need a guide?

Not necessarily. However, having a guide like Cesis Inside can ease your day and enhance your experience.

When is the best time to go hiking in Latvia?

The best time to head outdoors in Latvia really depends on your personality. The most popular season for hiking is in autumn. However, some people favor the beautiful blankets of snow in the winter. On the other hand, planning a trip to the Baltics in the off season like I did will be most budget friendly. As you can see, the trails were still beautiful!

Will I need any special gear?

Pack your standard essentials for basic hiking. In the fall or winter, you will definitely want a warm base layer, a rain jacket, and proper shoes. A gps is always a good idea if you’re heading out on your own.

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