Europe North Macedonia

Matka Canyon – A breath of fresh air outside Skopje

The Matka Canyon is certainly the main natural attraction in the vicinity of Skopje and one of the most beautiful places to visit during a stay in North Macedonia. If you want to make a short day trip from Skopje, this natural wonder will enchant you.

I went there during my stay in North Macedonia for my friend Viktoria’s birthday. We definitely did not have to worry about how to get there, as my friend booked a taxi for us. There are many activities in Matka, however, we just enjoyed the boat ride, having 2 hours to spare before heading back to Kumanovo for Viktoria’s birthday party.

A full guide, however, is provided below to help you appreciate the beauty of these green hills that descend steeply into a deep fjord-like gorge filled with sparkling turquoise water. Isn’t it enough to blow you away ?

Matka Canyon, a not-so-natural beauty but not only

Firstly, it must be acknowledged that this beautiful place was not created by nature. In 1938, a dam was built on the river Treska, creating an artificial lake, the oldest of its kind in North Macedonia. But the rest of the area is pristine and has many medieval monasteries.

The Matka Canyon covers an area of about 5,000 hectares and has about ten caves, the shortest measuring 20 metres and the longest 176 metres. The best known is the Vrelo Cave, which we visited.

Located on the right bank of the Treska River, Vrelo Cave has been ranked among the 77 best natural sites in the world by the New7Wonders of Nature project. Although the exact depth of the cave is unknown, some speculate that it may be the deepest underwater cave in the world.

Vrelo Cave has many stalactites, including a large one in the middle of the cave, known as a “pine cone” because of its shape. There are two lakes at the end of the cave.

To visit it, you’ll need to take a boat tour, rent a kayak or one of those pedal bikes. The hike along the canyon is on the other side, and there is no boat to the cave entrance from the left side.

This is by far not the first cave I have visited, and I indeed found it rather ordinary in comparison with Vallorbe in Switzerland or Postjona in Slovenia. Indeed, the one in Vrelo cannot be visited in its entirety, as it is not equipped for it.

How to get to Matka Canyon

Matka Canyon is located in the north of Macedonia, only 17 km from the centre of Skopje, heading southwest. Mount Vodno forms the border between the city of Skopje and the Matka Canyon.

It does not seem very far from Skopje, however, we were coming from the city of Kumanovo (3rd largest city in the country) which is 25 km east of Skopje. For this reason, we had the pleasure to use the services of a taxi that brought us to the canyon, waited for us for 2 hours and brought us back to our hotel in Kumanovo. This was for 65 Euros (or 4000 Macedonian denar). Feel free to add a tip (well deserved, even if the 170 km/h on the highway got my friend and my dad some frights).

So, the best way to get to the canyon is by car, in my opinion. There is plenty of free parking along the river as soon as you see the first tourist restaurant. By noon, it was crowded, so it is often the case that cars park along the path to Matka Canyon. From this point on, if you park at the car park, it will take you about 10 minutes to walk to the official entrance of Matka Canyon (where you find the boat agencies).

There are no official signs on the highway, and even our driver had to ask locals to find the right road. In fact, to get to the Matka Canyon from Skopje, you have to drive towards Tetovo, then turn left and follow the signs to the canyon. We exited the motorway one exit further on, and so after a few seconds on the main road to Tetovo, we turned right and joined the road to the canyon.

The public transport option is, of course, the solution when you do not have a car, or you do not want to spend on a taxi. However, it seems that this choice is not the easiest one.

To get from Skopje to Matka Canyon, you will have to take bus number 60. It leaves from the central bus station, the one under the railway bridge. I arrived at this bus station from Priština. However, the city buses leave a little further, on the other side of the street, than the long-distance or international buses. You will recognize the place by the many red double-decker buses parked there.

As I did not take this means of transport, I looked it up on the internet, and the official canyon page offers a detailed explanation of how to get there by bus. You will see that it includes the purchase of a special Skopska card, but all the information you need for a good trip is detailed in the article.

However, do not expect public transport to be on time, or for the bus on the return journey to come to the above-mentioned car park (where you will be dropped off on the outward journey), as it is often overcrowded and therefore the bus cannot make a U-turn. I was just advised that if I took this option, I would have to keep my eyes open to get back and sometimes run after the bus much further up the road than at the stop. In the end, I was quite happy in my taxi.

The bus ride from the centre to Matka Canyon takes about 40-60 minutes, depending on traffic.

What to do in Matka Canyon?

If the natural beauty of the Matka Canyon is not a sufficient reason for you, there are a few more reasons to visit the place.

It is one of the most popular recreational areas near Skopje, attracting both locals and visitors throughout the year. On our way there, we came across a few groups of young English men (dressed as militaries) enjoying the many activities in the area. Indeed, you can hike, fish, kayak, ride a bike on the water (I would have loved to do so!) or climb.

I would have liked to hike along the canyon and in the surrounding area, looking for the various monasteries scattered around the canyon area, however, as we had two hours at the most, we opted for the typical sightseeing tour to discover the beauty of Matka, either by water by combining the boat and the discovery of the Vrelo cave.

To get to the starting point of the boats, from the car park, you will have to walk for about ten minutes. It is a flat path suitable for everyone. When you get to the dam, the path becomes narrower and more paved. You will find the first agency that offers boat tours (but not to Vrelo cave) and various water options, such as pedal bikes or kayaking.

We continued for two minutes and arrived at the main rental agency, located next to the hotel and the monastery of St. Andrew, built-in 1389. After a short visit to the toilets (I haven’t seen a Turkish toilet in a long time), we went to the little hut where we could buy tickets for the water ride (or kayak rental, etc.).

The prizes were as follows:

  • MkD 500 for a round trip by boat to the Vrelo cave.
  • MkD 600 for a round trip by boat to the Vrelo cave in a premium boat

However, we did not know that there were two categories, and we took the first one as the seller told us that price. This is approximately equivalent to 8 euros. We were able to pay in euros and not in Macedonian denar.

Not having any other information, we waited and went to the person who baits the tourists and asked him what to do, not knowing when the next boat would leave for the cave.

He explained that the boat leaves as soon as it is nearly full. Seeing that we had normal tickets, he told us that we could still take the premium boat as the next visitors had paid that fare and that this boat would surely leave before the normal boat.

This was a nice surprise, discovering the boat where we would be seated in a much more comfortable way (than the traditional rustic boat) to marvel at the landscape (leather or imitation seat, lots of space). Also, this boat is faster than the traditional boat. For the full experience, I would have enjoyed sailing on a typical boat, similar to the pletnas in Bled, Slovenia, but we didn’t have much time to spare, so we were happy to be upgraded.

The boat gently sets off, and it is more than a moment out of time to appreciate the beauty of the Matka canyon. And of course, a charm that could be broken by the deafening music of the driver who switches it on as soon as he steps on board. It seems that Macedonians can’t live without music (I think I came back from this trip with tinnitus…but that’s not the point).

Apart from the continuous noise, I let myself wander, enjoying the welcome breeze on this warm April day. And then I see green. Everywhere. The river Treska is really a beautiful emerald green, and the surrounding greenery enhances these shimmering colours.

The colours are natural and vibrant, we escape the omnipresence of Skopje’s kitsch to find ourselves in the middle of nature.

After about twenty minutes, we approached the cave, which will be our final destination in the Matka canyon. As mentioned above, the visit to this one was a bit short, as I don’t think it has been fully explored yet. A prepared road takes us there. The boat driver waits for us while listening to his music (I swear I could hear it all the way into the cave…).

The return journey was accompanied by the sound of birds and wildlife, the music having been drastically and miraculously muted, leaving us to appreciate the beauty of the place even more.

All in all, this is a necessary getaway if you visit the capital of North Macedonia, allowing for some natural and fresh air, away from the overwhelming Skopje (which I nonetheless greatly enjoyed).

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