Matka Canyon, Macedonia: Since there weren’t any signs and we didn’t quite know what we were getting into, we should have brought more things from the car—like cash for tipping a boat driver.
We took the meandering path along the edge of a mountain, looking for the cave we had seen advertised. We found someone to take us to the cave by boat, and while we waited, we hung around a monastery, a restaurant, and a friendly dog. Locals were quick to point out the lure of the towering cliffs for rock climbers. Later I learned that the river hosts kayaking and canoeing competitions occasionally.
The whole feel of the place seemed like the nascent stages of a tourist resort. There weren’t any signs, but the bathrooms were clean inside the atmosphere-rich restaurant. Maybe we saw it just in time?
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Caving in Canyon Matka
Canyon Matka, Macedonia: Our kids put on hard hats while we waited for generators to warm up for the few lights inside the canyon. Our guide pointed out interesting parts of nature with a hand-held flashlight. He told us a funny anecdote about a recent Russian ambassador who had camped out in the cave, and swam in its pools despite the cold—assisted only by vodka.
Canyon Matka, Macedonia: We were looking for an outdoorsy, kid-friendly activity to break up our drive from Skopje to Lake Ohrid. We decided to explore a cave, and ended up enjoying the boat ride there.
Despite the glossy tourist brochure that sold us on the canyon detour, the only way we knew where to exit on the highway was a piece of scrap metal, held up by a single wooden pole, and scrawled in spray paint: “Matka Canyon,” with an arrow. The subsequent bumbling for directions gave us the opportunity to meet locals and to take in the small town nearby at a slower pace as we eased our way into a shimmering gem: Canyon Matka.
A few dilapidated buildings along the river seem to tell a story. They weren’t that old, but they had few if any services (like running water). Apparently some had been restaurants, recently, selling fish caught in the river. Our guide seemed eager and earnest to tell me about them, about his family, about war and emigration and change. I really, really wish I spoke Macedonian (or Italian).
Canyon Matka, Macedonia: I pictured my kids clambering through caves, scrambling through undulating stalagmites, in awe over surprising colors and gritty textures, a stillness and adventure that would linger in our minds, even as we closed our eyes for hours afterwards.
As it turns out, we had wind in our faces and the roar of a motorboat in our ears, smiling into the glittering morning sun, which bounced off the clear blue Treska River. Our guide was friendly and knowledgeable. He spoke brilliant Italian, which he used with zest since I spoke a little Spanish. Our kids got to steer the boat, and they had a blast.
We did enjoy the cave, but in March, it seemed the area was just waking up. Perhaps later in the year more caves will be open, with more extensive sites to explore inside. For us, the boat ride there and back was a blast and broke up the drive from Skopje to Lake Ohrid.