Canyon Matka – A Nature Paradise You Must Visit At Least Once
Finding a hidden gem, as many seasoned travelers would say, requires a lot of legwork. But once you abandon the popular destination chart, and step far outside of capital cities, a world of discovery awaits. Zooming in on the Balkans, you have Macedonia – a small and welcoming country with Mediterranean climate, breathtaking scenery and surprisingly affordable prices.
Living in the shadow of its southern neighbor Greece, Macedonia never advertised itself as a tourist destination. Though being the only country to exit the Yugoslavian conflict peacefully, it still acquired some bad regional reputation.
But here we are, uncovering the vail, 27 years after its independence. Welcoming more and more foreigners by the day, Macedonia is on the verge of becoming a legitimate tourist attraction.
The article you’re about to read, takes you by the hand to one of the most breathtaking nature sites of Europe. A place that will have your camera snapping pictures left and right, and your Instagram post going viral within minutes.
Arriving at Canyon Matka
Visiting Matka, you must first land in Skopje, the capitol of Macedonia. An interesting blend of old and contemporary, Skopje has recently been under the spotlight, for becoming the “capital of kitsch”.
Reinvented thoroughly, and decorated in baroque, it underwent one of the largest government interventions when it comes to urban planning and architecture. This earned the city, once known for centuries of cultural heritage, an epithet which Macedonians are not that eager to share.
Luckily, however, many parts of the city have remained intact. You can still visit the Old Bazar, the Kale Fortress, and dozens of captivating churches.
The prices, even on your way in, will catch you off guard and surprise you with a very positive realization – you can easily prolong your stay, without putting a hole in your pocket.
But let’s wrap up this introduction for now, and head straight to Matka.
Transport, as anything else in Macedonia, is surprisingly affordable. It takes a 20 minute car ride from the center of the city, to the beginning of the canyon, and you’ll have to walk additional 15 minutes or so.
It feels surreal to step outside of the city, and witness nature at its finest – welcoming you to Matka is a shallow but picturesque river with tons of green scenery by the side.
That Macedonians don’t care about tourism is evident after witnessing the neglect you are going to notice. Parking areas are barely sufficient; streets and roads leading to the dam – uncomfortably narrow.
This created, at least for the group I was taking with me, a light disappointment. And with expectations unjustifiably lowered, we crossed the dam, to see the canyon opening in front.
Stepping into the canyon
With tall cliffs left and right, and crystal green water in between, the canyon is a sight to behold. Massive rock formations engulf the only passage leading in, and there comes instantly a feeling of being isolated, divorced from civilization, and thrusted into something that is breathtaking and unprecedented.
At the very beginning of the canyon, there is a conveniently located rustic restaurant, with a panoramic view terrace – where you can sit and relax, tasting Macedonian cuisine after getting back from the hike.
The hiking trail, starting on your right, is more than 5 miles long. It soars upwards, granting some of the most picturesque views of the canyon. It is neither demanding, nor forgiving, and taxes you with an equally long trail back.
If you are not the hiking type, you can visit one of the old monasteries located near the restaurant. Built many centuries back, it feels just as surreal as the site itself.
The group I was traveling with insisted on renting kayaks. Spending an unforgettable afternoon, I strongly urge you to try the same. The water is calm and disturbed only by the boats traveling back and forth, taking tourists to the end of the canyon and back.
Seeing the steep cliffs, decorated with all types of vegetation, from the comfort of your kayak, and as you glide through the crystal green water, is a truly remarkable experience.
One that warrants a full meal once you go back to the restaurant. But that’s not the only water adventure you get to have. Though it takes a bit of courage, jumping from the smaller cliffs is riveting as it is exhilarating. You can swim between the breathtakingly tall cliffs, enjoying nature as it was meant to be enjoyed.
Another discovery you get to enjoy, is the underwater cave complex nearby. Divers visit this site for years, trying to write down a new record – the caves go incredibly deep, challenging experienced divers to go and try their luck.
But even if you are not that keen on wearing a scuba diving suit, a local guide can take you to a place where dry passages allow for some reasonably deep exploration. Arriving there with a boat, this adventurous cave exploration is going to be the most satisfying experience of your entire trip to Matka.
On your way back, affordable prices will definitely lure you in for a lunch under the setting sun. Macedonian cuisine has much to offer, mixing centuries of ottoman influence with Slavic tradition, creating a blend that is unique and daring.
Make sure to try Ajvar, Tavce Gravce, Stuffed peppers or Shopska salad. Combined with rakija – a regional alcoholic beverage – you’ll discover a world of gourmet enjoyment.
Macedonian wines, if you would like to sample the taste, are going to surprise you as well. Exported to Italy, repackaged, and sold in the west, they do have a high standard of quality, not typical for the region.
Things to do in Macedonia
While there, you can definitely visit the town of Ohrid, which is another nature vault waiting to be open. On the cultural side, it is said to have over 365 churches, one for each day of the year, now largely used as art galleries, classical music recital podiums, and artisan workshops.
Many of the churches are still standing, overlooking the glorious lake. Visit Kaneo, the Monastery of Saint Naum, and Plaoshnik.
If you cannot afford the time to go and visit Ohrid, make sure to enjoy Skopje as much as you can. The mountain Vodno is located only 15 minutes away from the center, and it is a place you’ll definitely want to see. A cable car will take you to the summit, from where you can take a panoramic shot of the city.
Folding up this letter, I want to leave you with the notion of discovery. The type of which only happens when you dare to explore the unfamiliar.
Here is to unforgettable places hiding below your radar, and the great adventures they always tend to bring along.