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During my journeys, I always seek conversations with fellow travelers. Especially in remote and non-touristy countries, such an exchange of knowledge often enhanced my backpacking experiences by providing valuable insider tips.

Between the months of December and March 2022 (after I learned that I will move away from Germany to start a new job in California), I committed myself to visiting as many countries in and around Europe as possible, including North Macedonia.

Just like its neighbors, Albania and Kosovo, this place is still not considered a “tourist country”. Why is that? I seriously have no idea. People seem to simply not know how much these places have to offer.

Above Matka Canyon
Above Matka Canyon area

Why Balkan countries?

When talking to friends, first reactions varied from “there is nothing, why do you even want to go there?” to “that’s just dangerous, don’t do that!”.

Misinformation and memories of a long-forgotten past seem to prevent people from considering Balkan countries as travel destinations.

Contrary to such expectations, North Macedonia in particular has various breathtaking and untouched nature spots to explore without competing on small hiking trails with hundreds of tourists.

One such beautiful destination that I visited during my trip to North Macedonia in spring 2022 is Matka Canyon. 

Matka Canyon hiking trail on steep cliff. Photo by Thomas Später
Matka Canyon hiking trail on steep cliff. Photo by Thomas Später

How to Easily Reach Matka Canyon 

Matka Canyon, which is located close to the border of Kosovo, can easily be reached by car. The streets are well maintained and appropriately mapped when using Google Maps (or any other online navigation software/app).

Basically, there are two main hubs from which a journey to Matka Canyon can be started.  The first, which is also the closest to the canyon, is Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia. It takes only about half an hour to get to Matka Canyon when leaving anywhere from the city center.

Alternatively, leaving from Pristina, Kosovo, also represents an equally reasonable alternative. Although with roughly 100 km distance to the canyon this starting point is a bit further away, the 1.5-hour drive mostly uses a highway in very good condition.

I personally like the idea that the canyon is easily accessible from two cities that have international airports.

Whether you are already travelling through the Balkans and want to include the canyon in your itinerary, or simply looking for an affordable and quick way in and out, the canyons’ location doubles the possibilities for both flexibility and saving money. 

Kayak rental station platform. Photo by Thomas Später
Kayak rental station platform. Photo by Thomas Später

How to Move From the Parking Lot into the Canyon

Although the friendly voice of my mobile phone told me that I had reached my destination, I didn’t quite believe it yet. I entered a bigger parking structure and had a building to my right that most likely was a restaurant or information center.

I couldn’t really tell, since it was closed and had no outside information anywhere. To my left, there was Treska river (which makes sense when looking for a canyon filled with water, right?). Ahead of me, I was facing a street that was only half as wide as the one I just entered on.

I briefly looked at the GPS map again and got assurance that, in fact, the canyon was right in front of me. So, I decided to just see where the narrow street would take me to.

Only about 20 seconds later, I reached a small area that reminded me of a dead-end within a residential area.

A few cars were parked in all kinds of ways and orientations. Some parallel to a wall, some facing the middle of the street. I couldn’t really figure out if this spot was an actual parking structure or simply an area that cars could use to turn around. Luckily, there was also a taxi parking.

The guy sitting on the driver’s seat was smoking a cigarette and had his legs hanging out of the window. “A good and reliable source of information if he speaks English” I thought and walked up to him while I maintained the engine of my car on (yes, it was quite cold at that time of year/day).

His English wasn’t the best, but he was more than helpful to answer my two questions. He first assured me that I can leave my car right where it was parked and also pointed out the way I should follow in order to reach the entrance to the canyon.

It was a narrow footpath that could have easily been overlooked if not specifically pointed out. I followed it and entered the main area of the canyon after passing the Matka Dam during a 2-minute walk.

Kayak docking platform. Photo by Thomas Später
Kayak docking platform. Photo by Thomas Später

What is There to do Inside Matka Canyon?

The thing I liked most about the entrance area of Matka Canyon in Macedonia was the fact that it was quite small and easy to figure out. To my left, there was the river and to my right, a rocky cliff. This left me with only one way to go, straight ahead.

As I was walking further along the cobblestones, I reached a little wooden cabin that was just in the process of opening for business (I got there early at about 09:00 am). I asked the service employee what there was to do and received a simple but straightforward answer: Restaurant, Kayak, and Boot Tour.

And that’s exactly what you can do when visiting the canyon. It doesn’t sound like much but is definitely enough. I sometimes feel that too many options make it way harder to decide anyways. So whatever shape people are in, there is an option for everyone to explore the canyon.

Either all alone or via a guided boat trip. As usual, I wanted to take my time, take as many pictures as possible, and wanted to combine my adventure with a proper workout. Hence, I decided to follow the hiking path alongside the river first.

For someone (like me) that is afraid of heights, this trail can be a bit challenging at parts. Every once in a while, I reached higher altitudes while at the same time having a steep drop to my left. 

To be honest, although I felt a bit uncomfortable sometimes, it wasn’t a big deal after all. Since this is a hiking path, turning around is always an option. So even if you are unsure, go for it and see how long you can do it. 

After about one hour, I decided to turn around. I wanted to by inside the canyon when the sun reached its highest position in the sky, not casting any shadows of the surrounding cliffs on the water’s surface. At roughly 11.00 am, I got back to the wooden cabin and rented a one-person kayak.

I was told to walk down the water’s edge and waited on a floating platform for 15 minutes. 

After I was told that putting a life vest on was mandatory, I entered my kayak and was free to go. Before I began my journey on water, I quickly asked the guy from the rental place if there was anything special to see inside the canyon.

He said that there was nothing but a cave on the left about 2 miles up the canyon and that there was a spot to stop with the kayak. Good enough for me, so I headed out.

Power generator next to the cave. Photo by Thomas Später
Power generator next to the cave. Photo by Thomas Später

Finding Vrelo Cave Inside Matka Canyon 

To be honest, the up-river kayaking by myself was way more exhausting than I thought. First of all, I obviously had to permanently fight against the current. As soon as I got up to a certain speed, it felt not as hard anymore.

The problem was that I kept floating back down the river every time I stopped paddling so I could take pictures. Basically, five minutes of taking pictures or flying the drone eliminated the entire process of kayaking for 10 minutes.

Accordingly, I always had to carefully chose where and for how long I would stop to use my camera. The problem with that: After every corner, there was another beautiful view. 

After over an hour on water, I started to desperately look for what could be the platform I was supposed to stop in order to get to the cave. There was neither a GPS signal nor any other glue in the canyon that pointed out how far I had traveled so far.

It was about 1.5 hours into my journey when I was about to turn around and spotted another kayak, which had two people in it, coming up the river. Before making any irrational decision, I decided to wait and talk to them (maybe they also wanted to check out the cave and knew more?).

I slowly drifted back down the river as the other kayak got closer to me. Starting a conversation was very likely and easy, since the three of us were the only ones in the canyon.

Hike in Macedonia
Hike in Macedonia

My two new Spanish friends (Alessandro and Sergio) told me that they were also searching for Vrelo Cave, so we decided to move on together. While talking to each other, none of us really focused on the exhausting journey anymore.

15 minutes after we combined our journeys, we saw a wooden dock to our left. It looked lopsided and partly disappeared in the water. “Could that really be it?” we were asking ourselves? In fact, it looked so “off” that we decided to move further up the river.

Only after not seeing anything else that made sense for 20 more minutes, we decided to turn around and stop at the shady platform to see where it would lead us to. Stopping and exiting the kayak wasn’t as easy as we expected.

My Spanish friends had the advantage of having 2 pairs of hands, so while Sergio could hold on to the platform, Alessandro got out to help unload everything. I, being by myself, would probably not have been able to get out of my kayak.

At least not without running a high risk of losing either the kayak itself or my backpack (that I was holding onto while exiting). 

After we all exited our kayaks, we walked up some stairs and indeed found the entrance to Vrelo Cave. However, there was nobody in or around the cave. On top of that, the inside of the cave was pitch black.

Stairs leading into the cave. Photo by Thomas Später
Stairs leading into the cave. Photo by Thomas Späte

We were walking around for a while, and again started to become very unsure about our whereabouts again. All of a sudden, Alessandro said that he found a cable attached to the lights inside the cave. These cables led us straight to a generator next to a wooden map, showing the pathways inside the cave.

“Let me handle it, I am an engineer” Alessandro said while he checked the fuel level and started the power unit. 

Magic! The lights in the cave turned on and we happily walked in. We decided to make it quick since we didn’t really know how stable the generator would run. The way down the cave was slippery and quite dangerous, even with the little light we had. 

The last thing we wanted was to get stuck inside the inside of a dark cave that neither of us knew. 10 minutes later, we were outside again, turned the generator off, and peacefully floated back down the river while having a good conversation. 

Were we allowed to turn on the generator and enter the cave all by ourselves? Until today, we don’t really know. We decided to not bring more attention to the matter once we returned to the floating platform of the rental place.

After all, the service people told both me and my Spanish friends about the cave, so we assumed they must have known. Before separately heading home, we decided to grab something to eat together at the restaurant overlooking the river.

Later at night, we all met in Skopje for some drinks as well. Isn’t it great that almost every adventure comes with new friends?

Vrelo Cave. Photo by Thomas Später
Vrelo Cave. Photo by Thomas Später

Ready to Discover Matka Canyon?

As mentioned above, being able to get to Matka Canyon from either Pristina (Kosovo) or Skopje (North Macedonia) gives you more than just one option. I personally recommend using search engines like Momondo or Skyscanner.

With such search engines, you can enter multiple variables (airports) and filter out your best options very easily by flight time, price, or stopover options. This comes in handy when having to airports to choose from (Pristina and Skopje).

Either way, a rental car in Macedonia is definitely the most flexible option, especially because prices are relatively cheap and it is possible to cross borders within the Balkan countries.

Exclusively the option of crossing over to Albania usually costs an extra fee at most car rental places due to the extremely bad road conditions there. When looking for cheap rates of rental cars, I highly recommend billigermietwagen.de.

It has never failed my needs and offers solid and well-known dealerships. As for the hotels, there is not really a specific way that gives you benefits, such as cheap prices.

Since there are so many affordable options to choose from in Macedonia, any website, such as booking.com or hotels.com, will work just fine.

Relax in Macedonia
Relax in Macedonia

Matka Canyon Stay in Macedonia

However, if you decide inside Matka Canyon itself, there is only the Canyon Matka Hotel & Restaurant, which is right at the water’s edge. Since it is the only hotel inside the nature park, it is a bit pricier (still not overpriced for what it is at all).

What I find particularly awesome about Matka Canyon is the fact that it generally does not charge an entrance or parking fee. So technically you could just drive there and go for a hike. It wouldn’t cost you a cent, isn’t that cool?

Obviously, renting out a kayak or booking a boat trip will cost a bit of money.  At the time of my visit, the prices for kayaks were about 5 Euros per hour.

The guided boat trip was roughly the same in price and took about 30 minutes (15 minutes up the river and then back).

If you haven’t been to the Balkans yet and you like adventures as well as outstanding landscapes and nature sceneries, I highly recommend putting North Macedonia on your bucket list before tourism swaps over. 

Book This Trip to Macedonia

Ready to plan a truly unique vacation to Macedonia? Start planning with knowledge on how to get around, hotel and VRBO accommodations, local restaurant reviews and more through TripAdvisor and Travelocity.

For the best flight deals, train tickets and ground transportation options in Macedonia, check out OMIO Travel Partner.

Read our articles about other exciting destinations below:

Author Bio: Thomas Später is an experienced backpacking traveler that specializes in adventurous trips around the globe. He has traveled to remote and exotic places, such as Namibia or Mongolia and focuses on landscape and wildlife photography to share the beauty of our planet with others. In 2021, Thomas published a (German) book about Overpopulation and overconsumption (Die Überbevölkerung). With his awareness of current global issues, he uses his travels to support particularly local hotels and restaurants to raise awareness for the nature and culture of his destinations. 

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