Wander just a few miles out of the urban jungle, and you find yourself at the very gate to the Macedonian countryside. The first stop, surprisingly close to the city of Skopje, is the nature paradise known as Canyon Matka. An outdoor attraction covering 5000 hectares of breathtaking scenery, it is easily one of the most captivating places Macedonia has to offer.
Shying away from tourist maps, Canyon Matka is heavily underrated. Quite likely among the most picturesque nature sites on the European continent, it is nonetheless ignored by many. Lack of marketing, however, shouldn’t keep you away from this paradise. With so many separate places to visit, and activities to enjoy, Canyon Matka can easily take up an entire day of your schedule. What follows ahead, is a guide of sorts, taking you by the hand through one of the most exciting places on earth.
How to arrive at Canyon Matka
Macedonia, for better or worse, is not the infrastructural equivalent of European countries. The upside being, of course, a more adventurous experience with every single trip outside the constraints of large cities. That being said, arriving at Matka requires a bit of resourcefulness.
To save you the legwork, I will narrow down on several transport options.
The hardest one, bar none, is hiking to Matka through the long but otherwise forgiving trail, starting at the top of mount Vodno. This is not, however, something I’d recommend to everybody. Though easy to complete, the trail itself requires several hours of active climbing, and the presence of someone who knows the area. If you are the adventurous type, this is an experience worth considering, and you will have to organize upfront starting at dawn.
A second option is to catch the Matka Skopje bus, effectively taking a 30 minute ride with some logistical hurdles. The number of the bus line is 60, and thanks to the redesigned public transport rules you’ll have to buy at least 3 tickets (don’t ask!). The tickets come in the form of a prepaid card, to which you can add more credit later. Catching the bus is easy, for it cuts through some of the most urban areas of Skopje. Almost any bus stop on the boulevard “Partizanski Odredi” will be a suitable place for boarding. Ask few people, however, in order to make sure you are on the right lane.
The third option, which is especially pragmatic if you are a group of up to 4 people, is taking a taxi. Calling a cab is far better than hailing one on the street, since some taxi drivers enjoy ripping off foreigners. Making the call, you can rest assured that you are dealing with a reputable company, and that the meter will be turned on. The following numbers are for Panorama Taxi and Taxi Global – 071315199, 078415180. If you don’t want to spend credit, simply dial a number, wait until it rings and hang up after a second – they will call you back. As for the price, expect somewhere around $15.
Renting a car or maybe a bike is something I don’t generally recommend – the extra bucks you’ll save will definitely come at the expense of a headache.
Arriving at Matka
The parking situation below the entrance of the canyon is such a mess that you’ll be glad you decided not to rent a bike or a car. The overall upkeep of the place is terrible, and you will likely be somewhat disappointed – but worry not! Following the entrance of the canyon, is a natural wonder washing all the neglect away.
A good analogy is the river of Treska, which though meters away from the dam, is untouched and unspoiled, painted with a palate of colors, only by nature itself.
Before you enter, rock formations of various kind and size await, delivering an introduction of sorts. The charm of this place is not the water alone, but the surreal and picturesque cliffs towering on both sides.
Locals are selling souvenirs and food left and right, and the smell of roasted corn and chestnuts is likely to make your mouth foam. See to it that you resist the urge, and buy some snacks on the way back – the payoff is much bigger.
Things to do at Canyon Matka
After the long introduction, you arrive at the very entrance. There, kind of secluded, and seemingly isolated, is the Monastery of Saint Andrew, along with the Canyon Matka Hotel and Restaurant. The setting is breathtaking, and it seems as though everything is engraved into a large rock formation, opening to the view ahead – which I have no other way of describing it, except spectacular.
The restaurant terrace is the perfect place for taking pictures and enjoying the view, while sipping finest Macedonian wines. But we will come back to this later.
A souvenir shop will likely feature a Canyon Matka map, but unless you want to keep one for sweet memories, it’s not something you’ll otherwise need. Allow me, instead, to walk you through the landscape.
Hiking on the edge of a cliff
The hiking trail stretches for several miles ahead, and it is neither dangerous nor demanding. It provides a garden variety of panoramic photography opportunities, and a unique way to appreciate the scenery. The cliffs are huge and equally steep, though lush, with green vegetation. The trail walks their very edge. All in all, it is a sensory overload of another kind…
The kayak adventure
The Matka Canyon Kayak service allows you to rent a single or double kayak, so you enjoy the perfectly calm, and crystal green water. The prices are super affordable, costing 10 dollars to rent a double seat kayak, for up to an hour. The single seat variety will cost you twice less.
Equiped with an air vest, you will enjoy gliding through the water, discovering magnificent scenery with every corner you’ll manage to conquer. It is, at least for me, an experience of a lifetime. It takes just a dozen of strokes to fully immerse into the surroundings, completely forgetting the urban jungle you left behind.
Swimming and cliff diving
The water being deep and calm, it is perfect for spending hours inside. Slightly colder than what you’d expect July and August are probably ideal.
If adventurous enough, you can also send some time cliff diving as well. It takes courage and a bit of recklessness, but the payoff is more than worth it. Various degrees of height are available, and you just have to explore down the lake.
If you decide to dip your toes in the water, do so early since noon brings the rush hour and the good spots that are dotting the map are packed full with teenagers who are both loud and rude.
Arriving early gives you a chance to enjoy Matka canyon in its entirety, reserved just for you. And it is definitely worth it!
With nature marvels to look at and a total of 77 endemic butterfly varieties flying around, it is a happiness bonanza you are unlikely to experience elsewhere.
The Matka canyon boat trip
Second only to the kayak experience, the Matka canyon boat trip is reserved for those who are unwilling to get very near to the water. The price is, as everything else in Macedonia, is super affordable, and the experience quite rewarding.
You will be able to talk to a local guide, as well as take pictures of the beautiful canyon. The boats are going back and forth quite frequently, so don’t fear that you will miss the opportunity.
After a while, and down the river, the boat takes you to the cave complex nearby. A UNESCO protected site that attracts visitors from all around the globe.
Vrelo cave Matka
Perhaps the most stunning out of the group, The Vrelo Cave complex at Matka is an attraction in itself. The New7Wonders of Nature project, has listed Vrelo Cave as one of the top 77 natural sites in the world.
Filled with stalactites aplenty, the cave is deep enough to host two lakes of decent size, with the smaller being just over 8 meters in length, and 15 meters at its deepest point. The other one, far more impressive, is 35 meters in length, and whooping 18 meters in depth.
The depth measurements of the Vrelo Cave Matka though, albeit unknown, are on the speculative end of being so significant, that this could perhaps be the deepest underwater cave in the world.
The monasteries around Matka canyon
Next to the canyon entrance, a small church awaits, creating a monastic vibe. This familiar archetype, if you take the pleasure of discovering Macedonia in its entirety, repeats constantly. The mix, therefore, is always between the old and spiritual, combined with the breathtakingly beautiful – Macedonian characteristics that come more or less in tandem; a peculiar blend that enthusiasts will definitely learn to enjoy.
The small church is in fact a monastery, the one of Saint Andrew. It is at the very entrance, so visiting is highly recommended.
The monastery of Saint Nicholas is slightly secluded, being located on a cliff above the canyon, fairly close to the monastery of Saint Andrew. Though the construction date is still unknown, first mentions appear during Ottoman rule, in the 17th century. Deserted and revived several times since, the monastery offers a unique panoramic view of the entire canyon.
While these monasteries are located at the left bank of the river, the monastery of the Holy Mother of God, otherwise known as the Matka Monastery, is located at the left. Built in the 14th century, and revived in 1497, it is now a sight to behold.
The canyon itself, along with nearby mountains, are protecting this monastery complex, secluding Matka from the rest of the country, isolating it further still. This adds a layer of intimacy thanks to which you appreciate the place even more.
Enjoying Macedonian food and wine at Canyon Matka
The canyon Matka restaurant is perhaps one of the best places to eat in Skopje (though the accurate phrasing would be “near Skopje”). Part of the Canyon Matka Hotel and Restaurant, it is covered with traditional ethno décor, which makes it even more attractive.
The terrace is placed on a wooden platform next to the water, and the view is nothing short of spectacular. Dining as you watch kayaks and boats pass by, is a relaxation of another kind.
Famous for its wine menu, the Canyon Matka restaurant offers the finest Macedonian taste. The price, though well above that in the city, is still affordable from a foreigner’s perspective. You can taste traditional Macedonian cuisine as well, and the staff is very polite and professional.
Ending your Matka adventure in the restaurant is ending it the right way. See, perhaps, that you make a reservation prior to wrapping up your day, since the restaurant, although large enough to accommodate lots of people, is likely to be full during the summer season.
At the end of the day, you are left with three choices. To stay the night there, call a cab back to the city (maybe catch the bus if you so prefer), or hike the Matka Vodno trail. If the third option is what you like to experience, definitely call a local and see to it that you start somewhere around noon.
Staying in Skopje and not visiting Matka is a sacrilege of sorts. It is, without any exaggeration, one of the top 5 places to visit in Macedonia, depending on what is your cup of tea. For some, Matka has no competition whatsoever. For me at least, it blends together the topography of the Koleshino waterfall, the Mavrovo National Park, and the natural observatory of Kokino, creating an ambient so unique that you will be telling everybody about it. So whatever you do, definitely schedule a daily Canyon Matka tour. You’ll be thanking me later!