Bear tracking vacations in Greece

“Bears? In Greece?” seems to be the consensus when faced with the possibility that Greece is in fact the realm of a growing population of brown bears. This slow but steady increase in numbers to around 500 is no accident, either. It’s largely down to the efforts of Greek conservation groups that have been championing the beasts since the early 1990s.

Still, seeing a bear is like trying to see equally elusive animals like the Bengal tiger. It’s the holy grail of wildlife in Greece – and not least because most don’t realise that they exist in this country. Bears aren’t exactly the biggest fans of humans; outside sanctuaries they’ll avoid you at all costs, so you’ll need an expert to guide you. That’s what bear tracking vacations in Greece are for.
It’s mesmerising every time.
Dimitra Christidi, a biologist, conservationist and wildlife guide at our Greek wildlife specialist Natural Greece, is one of those experts. She says: “I don’t think there is a time when you stop feeling excited seeing animals in their natural habitat. It’s a form of connection that you don’t really get when you’re used to growing up in the city. It’s mesmerising every time. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bear or a small bird you see.”

Bears are back

Brown bears in Greece are a bit of a conservation success story. Unlike the rest of Europe, where reintroduction programmes are trying to bring bears back from the brink of extinction, there’s been an increase in numbers, from between 190-260 bears in 2005 to around 500 bears in 2020.

Eurasian brown bears have a familiar backstory. They lived happily on the continent until around the 15th century, when hunting and forest felling made numbers fall. In Greece, the 20th-century construction of the Egnatia Odos motorway through the Pindos Mountains was a particularly heavy blow. Great for Greeks and the struggling economy; not so great for bears with newly broken territories. In 2008-9 five percent of the Greek bear population died in road accidents.

Luckily, Greek environmental groups like Callisto and ARCTUROS are a proactive bunch. Because of the troubled economy, they’re used to working on little – or zero – funding and bidding for money from EU projects like Life Safe-Crossing, which has funded tunnels and motorway fencing to create safer travels for bears, as well as lynx and wolves.
I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if tourism could be a tool for nature conservation?’
Vacation companies like Natural Greece – where guide Dimitra Christidi works – understand that tourism is also an effective tool for supporting conservation. In fact, owner Chantel Kyriakopoulou-Beuvink says that’s why she first started the company – to bridge the gap between the 33 million people who visit Greece every year and the natural world around them: “Usually these [tourism and wildlife conservation] are two separate worlds in this country… So having seen those two worlds for myself up close I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if tourism could be a tool for nature conservation?’
“If you think about it, the very foundation of tourism is that we have a healthy ecosystem and that we have nature in a good state. In reality, the environment is suffering because of those 33 million visitors and overtourism.”

Responsible bear tracking in Greece

Inadvertently wrecking the world you’re exploring isn’t something you have to worry about when you travel with Greek bear tracking specialists. You’ll travel in a small group with professional, knowledgeable guides like Dimitra who are passionate about the bears and their ecosystems: namely, the north-westerly Pindos Mountains.
Together, we have this vision to give people these extraordinary experiences with local specialist guides.
As a vacation company owner with a background in conservation, Chantel is a big believer in collaborating with real experts. You might wind up shadowing a conservationist from a wildlife charity as they go about their field research, learning about how they track bears using radios and camera traps. You’ll look out for footprints (soberingly large), scat (hold your nose) and scratch marks on trees (brown bear claws grow up to 10cm – yikes).
“People in the field are mainly biologists or ornithologists from wildlife charities,” says Chantel. “Together, we have this vision to give people these extraordinary experiences with local specialist guides. As a result, we have excellent reviews because people get in touch with the real Greece and the real Greeks.”

As one of those specialist guides, Dimitra agrees. She works with Callisto, an environmental NGO that protects bears and wolves in Greece. “Bears are a very well hidden secret,” she says. “This is the whole idea behind these trips: to get to know faraway parts of Greece that are not very touristy.”
You won’t get wild bears on demand either, Dimitra adds. “It’s responsible wildlife viewing. We are not baiting; we are not harassing the animals in any way. And that means, of course, that nature is unpredictable. But we will have the best chance of seeing the bears, because the experts who lead these expeditions know where the bears go, their habits, their behaviour, their customs and traditions, and what they do in this environment. It is quite fascinating when you’re in the mountains – you get to track the wild animals and see their life.”
That doesn’t mean that you won’t see bears at all. You'll get the chance to go to Arcturos Bear Sanctuary in Nymfaio village, where you’ll be introduced to rescued bears and wolves, and meet the Greek shepherd dogs bred as livestock guards.

People problems

People-bear coexistence is a complicated issue. It’s easy to judge communities up in arms about bears, but farmers in the Pindos Mountains rely on their orchards, crops, beehives and sheep to live. And brown bears are big, opportunistic, and they’re not inclined to say no to a goat dinner once in a while.

But unlike elsewhere in Europe, where the anti-bear sentiment is ratcheting up in line with reintroduction programmes, Greek wildlife charities have intervened and handled these issues with understanding and care. They facilitate fair and quick compensation for farmers in bear country. They also donate effective prevention measures like the St Bernard-like Greek shepherd dog, which isn’t afraid to bark at a bear until it gives up. The best bear tracking vacations take you to see the people who can give you real, honest insight into the highs and lows of living alongside beehive-demolishing, orchard-hoovering bears.

Dimitra says that this communication between villagers, wildlife charities and vacation companies is vital. “The important thing is that these efforts are made so that people don’t get frustrated when they get damages by bears or wolves,” she says. “They can approach this matter in an alternative way without actually causing harm to the wildlife. It is important that tourists get to see these shepherd dogs; that they learn everything from their guide.”

Where to see bears in Greece

There are two distinct populations of brown bears in Greece. For your best chances of spotting them, you’ll need to go north-west to the Albanian border, where most of the big mammals mooch: Northern Pindos National Park. This is the moment when you’ll realise that bear tracking vacations in Greece double as walking vacations. These mountains are well off the tourist trail, laying out deep black pine and beech forests cobwebbed with hiking trails. It’s all safe hiking territory – especially with a guide. Eurasian brown bears are much more laid-back than their grizzly North American cousins.
Even if you don’t see wild bears, you’ll be charmed by the mountains and lakes, lovely people and shared food, startling birdlife, fellow travelers, and starry skies.
You’ll probably stay in family-run accommodation in the midst of it all – perhaps a guesthouse on Lake Kastoria, just north of Northern Pindos National Park. Bears aren’t stopped by park boundaries, so you’ll see bear tracks and scratch marks even here – just a mile or so away from the water’s-edge mansions, Byzantine churches and tavernas of Kastoria village.
When you’re not in Northern Pindos National Park, you’ll be exploring nearby Grammos Mountain (2,520m), where forested slopes make up one of Europe’s last real wildernesses.
A guided wildflower walk in Prespa National Park – about a 2.5-hour drive away from Lake Kastoria – teaches you about how the community manages water for the people, birds, mammals and amphibians that live here. This being Greece, even tiny villages like Agios Germanos are filled with 1,000-year-old churches, cobbled alleys and restored watermills.
Wherever you go, you’ll follow in the wake of a professional guide who’ll take you along trails favoured by bears rather than people, and who’ll pause to translate what you see around you. They’re often contagiously passionate, too, so if you’ve got questions, ask away.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Bear watching or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Tips from our travelers

“Be prepared to do plenty of walking over rough and rocky ground, possibly in high temperatures. Enjoy the local people, food, culture and scenery as much as possible. Don’t expect to find bears, just treat it as a highlight if you do. Understanding the interaction between bears and humans and the work being done by Callisto to improve relations was fascinating and heart-warming.” - Liz Pitt

“Don’t forget to look at the stars when you’re staying in the mountains. The dark skies and thin; dry air provides a spectacular view.” - Ian Summers

“Bring with you a spare pair of gentle walking shoes in case of heavy rain. Be ready for changeable weather in the mountains. Enjoy the adventure!” - Henriette Hradocka
Don’t focus on the bears only; just enjoy the nature.
- Emilia Majcher
“Expect a low-key guided walk/hike, don't ‘expect’ bears! A walking stick is helpful, as are binoculars. The landscape and life of northern Greece were so beautiful and interesting to learn about – so happy we extended our trip to include Naousa and Vergina and [added] days in Thessaloniki, also.” - Christine Singer

“The scenery is truly stunning and unspoilt, and the autumn colours were just superb. Do a little bit of research into the area before you travel, as the guides will be happy to seek out any specific experiences who want to try (for us, it was mushroom foraging and then tasting the results at an excellent restaurant that specialises in wild mushroom dishes).” - Baxter Jeffs

“You will probably not see bears in the wild. This is about understanding how the bears live and are protected so they can survive, but part of their survival is that they must be wary of humans. Greeks take their eating seriously, so expect to spend quite a lot of time at lunch and dinner – it’s great food and good company, but no quick sandwiches.” - Cathryn Symons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Copyright: Armin Riegler/CALLISTO] [Top box: Copyright: ?Armin Riegler/CALLISTO] [Bears are back (woman with binoculars): Gabriells Winfried/Natural Greece] [Responsible tracking: Natural Greece] [Where to see bears: Zahos Anastasiadis] [Review : Gabriells Winfried/Natural Greece]