The Perfect Skopje Excursion: Exploring Macedonia’s Matka Canyon

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“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”William Shakespeare

Though I love the energy and cultural offerings characteristic of the world’s largest cities, I am most at home in natural settings. During my childhood, I’d go ‘on safari’ in my backyard, passing away hours hiking and hunting for fossils and critters. It comes as no surprise then that during our travels to *Macedonia, I was eager to escape the southeast European nation’s hectic capital city of Skopje to visit the serene Matka Canyon, which is only 30 minutes’ drive from Skopje.

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It was approaching the late afternoon hours when our zestful guides from Macedonia Experience, Ljupco and Aleksandar, picked us up from central Skopje. We rode through a countryside composed of rolling verdant hills and dotted with cherry-red poppy flowers and the minarets of mosques. Having been hosted by Ljupco the night before at a wine tasting, we’d learned all about life in the Macedonian countryside, which apparently teems with homemade fig and walnut marmalade, lokum (similar to Turkish Delight treats), and baklava. Ljupco explained that rural dwellers still often welcome guests with a dollop of marmalade and a glass of fresh spring water, a tradition that goes back centuries.

Given our short time in Skopje, and the stubborn cold I was battling, we wouldn’t be able to go on some of Macedonia Experience’s signature excursions – namely a 14-kilometer hiking trip from Skopje’s Millennium Cross to the Matka Canyon, a butterfly spotting walk, their active tours, or their ethnological excursions to meet villagers. Nevertheless, we were eager to visit the Matka Canyon, a natural escape that’s so popular with Skopje residents, especially on weekends.

Swapping honking horns for a symphony of chirping birds, we arrived to our wooded retreat. Shawn and I made a short stop into a tiny, centuries’ old Eastern Orthodox church, reminiscent of those we’d seen in Macedonia’s spiritual center of Ohrid. The brick structure’s interior walls were adorned with bold frescoes, which were darkened by the smoke of candles. We lit slender ones, placed them inside, and then joined Ljupco and Aleksandar outdoors.

MatkaCanyonTourwithMacedoniaExperience52 Matka Canyon church

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Hopping into a small boat near the church, we headed off to the Vrelo Cave, about three kilometers away. On the way, we passed a canoeing couple, rugged rocks on which some trees grew, and lush spring foliage. The air was cool and invigorating. We learned that matka means ‘womb’ in Macedonian.

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The cave, discovered in 1982, is 30 meters deep, and maintains an even temperature throughout the year. Inside, several bats awakened by the group of visitors flew overhead, while the rest of the colony slept among the stalactites. The acoustics are so good inside the cave that in 1995, a philharmonic performance was held there. I wonder how the bats responded to those vocalists’ crescendos?

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An underwater portion of the cave is attracting interest from scientists, some of whom think it’s the deepest in the world. So far, it only holds the title of being the deepest in the Balkans, and the second deepest in Europe. Its water exits into the river at the rate of 2,000 liters per second.

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As light was becoming increasingly scarce, we began our boat ride back to the canyon’s entrance, soon learning that our boat’s driver and trip hosts were not only skilled at entertaining visitors, but also rescuing them. On one of the rugged rock formations, we saw the figure of a young man, gently waving at us. Our boat’s pilot approached the land’s edge, to hear the traveler shout out that he’d fallen a considerable distance from a path and that he needed help.

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Our new boating companion was a Japanese traveler on a ‘round the world adventure, who was visibly shaken, and mildly scratched, having been disoriented at the water’s edge for several hours. Shawn’s knowledge of Japanese came in handy, helping to comfort the traveler. We shuddered to think what would’ve happened if we had missed him.

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By now, the river had become still – almost glass-like, reflecting the rugged silhouette of the canyon’s rocks. Mist had descended throughout the valley, lending a mysterious air. Wanting to soak up our tranquil surroundings a bit more, we stopped at the restaurant situated on the water’s edge, chatting with Ljupco and Aleksandr over tea and coffee, before returning to the hustle and bustle of Skopje. The Matka Canyon had been just the natural escape for which we’d been yearning!

MatkaCanyonTourwithMacedoniaExperience53 Macedonia Experience Staff

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • If you visit Matka Canyon, even if only by car, wear comfortable shoes, and stock a backpack with water and snacks. We also enjoyed stopping at the waterside restaurant as the sun began to set. It was the perfect spot to enjoy hot beverages on a chilly evening.
  • The next time we visit Macedonia, we will be sure to hike the 14-kilometer distance to the canyon from Skopje’s Millennium Cross, because we’d love to see the mountaintop monastery that can be visited on foot. (Thank you, Ljupco and Aleksandr for tempting us with that offer!)
  • As the encounter with the injured hiker taught us, it is indeed wise to have a guide along to navigate the rugged mountains. If you like customized, active tours (hiking, boating, kayaking) or cultural ones, consider touching base with the Macedonia Experience team. We respect their desire to promote sustainable, sensitive tourism, and enjoyed meeting a handful of the energetic professionals who established the small company.
  • Need more inspiration? This link contains an index of all my posts from Macedonia.

Thanks & Disclosure: 


Благодарам./ Many thanks to Macedonia Experience for hosting us for this wonderful, refreshing day trip. The natural wonders and fresh mountain air were wonderful, as was your company, and the cultural and historical tidbits that you shared with us during the journey.

These words, experiences, images, and opinions are entirely my own. Video footage is courtesy of my husband, Shawn.

*In this piece, I simply use the name Macedonia to refer to the country known as the Republic of Macedonia or FYROM (Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia), depending upon one’s perspective. Some controversy exists between Greece and Macedonia relative to what the latter nation should be called. To add further confusion, a Kingdom of Macedonia existed in ancient times, which encompassed territories from present-day Greece, Bulgaria and Macedonia. Today, there is also a region in northern Greece called Macedonia. For more on the issue, see this 2009 Washington Post article, Feud Between Greece, Macedonia Continues Over Claim to Alexander the Great.

Photography & text © by Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

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23 Comments on “The Perfect Skopje Excursion: Exploring Macedonia’s Matka Canyon

    • David, isn’t it funny how travel demonstrates how large and small the world is? :) Each place we visited, we realized how much more we have to learn about the world’s history, culture, languages, etc. Being in Macedonia was especially enjoyable, though, because it is still off-the-beaten-tourist path. It was refreshing not having to wait in lines, and mingling with locals who were as curious about us as we were about them. :)

    • Phil, it probably would’ve been just the kind of place that you like to shoot nature. Next time, I hope we can do some full-day hikes there so that we can spot the butterflies and other critters that lurk in those beautiful mountains.

  1. Struggling to throw off a cold before my weekend visit to my daughter, so I sympathise. Beautiful setting for your recoevry. :)

    • Jo, I’m late to send well-wishes, but here’s hoping that you’re feeling much better and that you enjoyed the time with your daughter. Europe’s had such unusual spring weather this year, hasn’t it?!

  2. Tricia , this is truly amazing, I have never heard of this place, although I had traveled when I was really young to the former Yugoslavia. That must have been a real adventure for you, your pictures are great and all the education you deliver is just wonderful. Thank you for sharing all your wonderful discoveries. Your hubby made a real great video! Looking forward where you will take us readers the next time. Bon voyage! Cornelia

    • Guten Tag, Cornelia! We’ve just returned to Germany, and I’m wondering if you’re anywhere in the neighborhood? With the floods in this region, we had a bit of an interrupted return to Oberammergau via train, but today enjoyed much sunshine.

      So glad you enjoyed the piece on Macedonia’s natural beauty. We have much more that we’re eager to share. (Shawn, by the way, says thank you for your kind compliment about his video. Film-making has been something he’s been passionate about since childhood, so it’s fun he’s getting to do so much of it now.)

      • Guten Abend, Tricia. Welcome back in Bavaria. I spent one most beautiful day in Garmisch last week, Thursday, the first real summer day there. I am flying out tomorrow to Florence and than taking the train to a small tuscan village, I will stay there with friends until the 29th of June, than back to Munich, I am planning to go one more time to Garmisch the first week of July, depends on my cousin who was going to take me by car. So it’s kind of up in the air when…… If I get a chance I would let you know. Oh I know between Weilheim and Tutzing the train connection changes due to flooding, I had the same problem last week. I went from Oberammergau up to the Kranzberg by ” Sessellift” and we hiked down to the Lauterbach Lake, a most beautiful scenery during that hike, if you have time I really recommend it…….. So we will see whatb happens…….meanwhile. Auf Wiedersehen

      • Cornelia, thank you for the welcome back greetings. As they say, “let’s play it by ear” then. :) Enjoy Florence and the Tuscan countryside. When we were there a few years ago, we went to a wonderful olive plantation that made olive oil and even a lovely dessert wine. If I can recall the name, I’ll certainly share it with you. Until then, have a wonderful time!

    • They were, Lynne. We were surprised that prior to going to Macedonia, we’d never heard of the Matka Canyon. Travel perpetually teaches how much there is to learn about the world.

    • We must give most credit to our boat’s pilot who expertly navigated the ship to shore. We did find it lucky that my husband was able to converse with the traveler in his native language too.

  3. Hey Tricia, What a great adventure … and rescue too! Great story! It looks like another gorgeous part of the world. Hope that you are now feeling better. All the best, Terri

    • Terri, feeling better and now visiting my parents in Germany. Since we have consistent internet now (in France, we experienced the most challenging connectivity during most of our travels) I can’t wait to share more of our Balkans tales and catch up on yours too!

      On a side note, it’s fun that my husband is now in contact with the young Japanese traveler that our pilot rescued. The world is small, and I wouldn’t be surprised if our paths crossed again.

  4. The underwater portion and the images you captured although it was cold are so expressive. I am one among those who like to see glass like river with reflections of nearby scenery with those of current streams. I somehow felt like i was being taken to the time with you while reading it. Loved this excursion completely. Kudos !

    • Thank you for stopping by, Skopje Travel. I also love seeing what unique perspectives I can capture when I pay close attention to reflections. The river was perfectly cooperative for such photo snapping that day at the Matka Canyon. :)

  5. Pingback: Seminar. Tolerant Europe – defining the obstacles. Skopje, FYROM. | Youth In Advancement 18+

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