After spending a wonderful week in the Macedonian capital of Skopje, exploring both the quirky modern architecture, the ancient Ottoman cobbled streets and even attending a protest against the government…we wanted to escape the chaos of the city and have a true adventure in the Macedonia countryside. From the capital a day trip to Matka Canyon is a popular local adventure our hosts recommended to us. So we headed off on a short bus trip deep into this stunning gorge for a day to remember and a highlight of backpacking the Balkans and a perfect off the beaten track Europe spot.
Matka canyon is actually a man made gorge just to the west of Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. By man made what we mean is that the stunning lake that sits in this mountainous canyon is a result of the dam built right at the main entrance! The rest is a wonderful display of the beauty of nature and a real off the beaten track Europe highlight. Steep peaks surround the waterside which can be traversed on the many constructed paths. Some take a gentle stroll clinging to the steep walls, whereas others require a strenuous hike up to the various vantage points dotted with centuries old monasteries! It is possible to do a Matka canyon tour but also unnecessary too, especially if you are backpacking the Balkans.
Matka canyon is a popular area for the capitals residents to escape the city and head to the hills for some adventure as well as those backpacking the Balkans. The sheers walls of the gorge are home to many rock climbing routes (if only we brought our gear!) as well as regular ferries, kayak, SUP hire and one of the worlds largest cave systems, how’s that for off the beaten track Europe!
Built in 1935 the dam created the thin Matka lake that now covers a roadway used to travel through Macedonia, called the “Road of Strength”. Along this route many churches and monasteries where built to provide spiritual reflection to the rich merchants bringing goods to sell in Skopje.
The narrow Matka canyon is actually the oldest artificial lake in Macedonia and a highlight of our time backpacking the Balkans and in many ways reminded up of our epic ferry ride through a similarly created mountainous lake in Albania: Koman!
Kayaking down the gorge
Having left our harness out of our already heavy backpacks we decided to instead rent out one of the many kayaks and explore the lake and Matka canyon in a more intimate manner. Instead of taking one of the many tourist ferries that run up and down the length of the canyon we headed for more of a real adventure!
The 6km long lake is wedged between huge limestone towers that at times sit almost impossibly close. As we set off down the canyon the once crowded and noisy lakeside retreated into silence. The sheer amount of wildlife surrounding the lake became more evident than ever as birdsong filled the air and the wind blew through the colourful wildflowers.
In the beginning we took the paddling very easily, not really having much of an understanding of just how far we had to go if we wanted to make it down Matka canyon! The beauty of the 800ft cliff faced plunging into the turquoise lake took our attention just a little! As the canyon walls grew and grew the walls stood towering above us only a few feet wide! We had found paradise!
After around half and hour on the water swanning our way down the stunning gorge, past tiny settlements, tree houses, deep forests and awe inspiring cliffs we realised just how far we still had to paddle! The narrow lake would wind its way around the gorge walls, corner after corner of amazing views…but no sign of the cave in sight!
The periodic ferries going past to explore this natural underground wonder were beginning to thin out! Had we gone too far and missed the hidden entrance to the Matka Cave? Had we even gone the right way? (We did get lost an awful lot backpacking the Balkans!) No longer surrounded by people either on the water or on the narrow walk ways high above and having paddled for over an hour we felt somewhat isolated in the incredible Matka canyon!
But on we went, beginning to tire as the sun rounded the corner and beat down on us. Our wet hands on the slippery paddles were getting sore and we had not seen a soul in the last half an hour of our hour and a half long journey down the Matka canyon. Passing a dead forrest drowned by the rising water we eventually reached the dock for the Matka cave! Here at last! A spot many don’t get to see and real off the beaten track Europe!
Exploring the cave hidden in Matka canyon
There is no other way to get to the amazing Vrelo Cave than the water. One of Europe’s most impressive cave systems much is still unknown about what really lies underneath the ground here. We were lucky enough to time our visit on the kayaks with that of a passing tourist ferry boat. The captain on which kindly switched the lights on for his guests just as we entered!
This meant we could explore the Suva section of these beautiful caves with the benefit of the lighting system fitted down here. Once powered up it reveals the amazing nature of the huge stalactites and stalagmites this cave is known for including the massive “Pine Cone” right in the centre of the main chamber. Our backpacking the Balkans adventure was all about seeking out these amazing highlights of off the beaten track Europe!
The once hot air from the Matka canyon atmosphere outside of the cave had become cold and damp down here. We could see our breath as we explored at our own pace every corner of this mysterious subterranean system.
The cave system is relatively small above the water but at the far end of the cave sits two perfectly still lakes reflecting like a mirror the amazing detail of above. The underwater sections of the Matka cave are some of the deepest in the world and still have yet to be fully explored. So far divers have reached depths of almost 1000ft below the surface and more is still to be explored. Currently the cave is the deepest in the Balkans and may even be the deepest in the world! It’s crazy really what lies below!
How to get there/ How to rent kayaks
Getting to Matka canyon from Skopje:
Take the number 60 bus from Skopje‘s main public bus station (the red buses)
The journey takes between 45 and 60 mins depending on traffic and costs around 35 Denars each way (£0.50/ $0.62)
The buses run quite often but do check the return time. We missed one and would have had to wait a hour for the next, so instead we hitchhiked back to the city. Hitchhiking is easy and common in Macedonia and the Balkans as a whole and most people will be heading back towards the capital from Matka canyon.
Renting kayaks/ getting to the cave on a ferry:
You can either rent kayaks and paddle 1.5hrs to the cave or take the tourist ferry.
You can rent out either a double or single sit on top kayaks from the start of the canyon.
Rental is 200 Denar per hour (£2.77 / $3.50) per person but this is slightly cheaper for the double kayaks.
* Be sure to bring with you a dry bag to keep your camera, wallet etc. dry as it’s quite easy to get everything wet or capsize!!
* Try to find out the time of the buses back and time it, you can be waiting an hour so you might as well spend that time in the canyon.
* Wear some good shoes as the cave is slippery and muddy, you also might want to do some of the hikes if you have time.
The ferry takes around an hour and includes entrance to the cave and a tour of Matka Canyon. The price is 400 Denar each (£5.50 / $7.10)
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