Bear watching vacations in Bulgaria

If you go down to the Rhodope Mountains today, you’re in for a big surprise: these forested foothills squirrel away over 700 brown bears. It’s an amazing thing, all things considered. Chained and muzzled dancing bears were the pride of Bulgaria until the 1990s. But in 1998, conservation beat out this macabre 300-year-old tradition.
Bears don’t have to dance for their dinner anymore. Instead, visitors come to see some of the 700-900 brown bears roaming freely through the Bulgarian mountains.
This southern strip of Bulgaria, tucked against the mountainous border of Greece, is about as far from Sunny Beach as you can get. Prehistoric caves and orchid valleys sit side by side with gorges and deep-cut rivers. The setting of many a Balkan folk tale, the mystical forests of the Rhodope Mountains are now alive with a cast of Brothers Grimm characters, from the bears to golden eagles, grey wolves, bats and the ghostly Balkan lynx, which was previously declared extinct in 1985.
A bear watching vacation in Bulgaria will give you a round insight into bear behaviour and ecology in this neck of the woods, all the while introducing you to some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in Europe.

From bear dancing to bear protection

Bulgarians and bears share a particularly dark history. The idea of bear dancing being an ancient tradition allowed for a huge amount of normalised cruelty. Hot plates would be used to train stolen bear cubs to ‘dance’ when they heard music played by their owners. Chained by a muzzle and a ring through its nose, bear captivity was about as awful as you can imagine – and although banned in 1992, it took about 10 years to stamp out the practice.
Right up until the 1990s, you could wander the streets of Sofia and see an accordionist walking down the street with a ‘dancing’ bear in tow.
But Bulgaria is making up for lost time. After making bears a protected species in 1992, a hunting ban was the next big step. Brown bears were taken off the game species list in 2002, giving them a chance to recover from 300 years of persecution. The threats bears face now are more mundane, but no less dangerous – ski resort expansion, illegal hunting, logging and farmers protecting their crops.
One of the best ways you can help conservationists? Join them on a bear watching vacation. Many trips are led by ecologists who get you setting up camera traps and collecting data on any bear sightings, as well as learning about how farmers are being encouraged to use dogs as non-lethal bear deterrents.

You’ll be tracking bears on foot, so small group tours are your best bet – big enough to warn away bears when you’re hiking, but small enough that you can be silent when tucked into a hide. You’ll need around a week to maximise your chance of spotting a bear.

Where to go bear watching in Bulgaria

Luckily for travelers, Bulgarian bears are about as keen on the tourist trails as we are. Most bear watching tours explore the wild Rilo-Rhodope massif that shears the countryside southeast of Sofia.

Instead of day-tripping into the mountains, small group tours tend to base themselves in remote villages like Yagodina. Here, villagers largely tend the same fields, orchards, beehives and sheep pastures their ancestors did – a tempting, bottomless buffet for bears. The nearby Yagodinska caves reveal that people here have been living alongside bears since prehistoric times. Consider the issues around human-bear conflict before pulling on your hiking boots and heading into the woods.
Both mythical and mysterious, Homer described these deep Balkan woods as the resting place of the legendary songster Orpheus.
Bear watching vacations in Bulgaria are as much about the walking as the wildlife. Handily, bears tend to take the path of least resistance and plod down old forestry tracks, up ancient Thracian packhorse routes and across open wildflower meadows. Buynovsko Gorge is a favourite feeding area of brown bear, and the Devinska Reka river valley reels in bears, Eurasian otters and floods of butterflies.

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Brown bear watching vacation in Bulgaria

Brown bear watching vacation in Bulgaria

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When to go bear watching in Bulgaria

You’ll have to work around the bears’ hibernation schedules, so spring, early summer and autumn are the prime times for bear watching.
Most bear watching vacations set off in spring. That’s your chance to see cubs cantering around the feet of their (mostly) tolerant mother. It’s also when a spread of rare wild orchid species colours the Rhodope Mountains. September and October, just before hibernation, is also a great time to be on the lookout for bears. The adults will be at their most impressive weight, busy stocking up on berries in time for their winter snooze. The turning autumn leaves are a bonus.

Tips for bear watching in Bulgaria

If you’re looking for solid bear watching advice, an old Bulgarian proverb doesn’t beat around the bush: “If you are afraid of bears, you shouldn’t go to the forest.” So don’t strike out into bear territory alone. They might look lumbering, but Bulgarian brown bears can grow to over two metres, weigh up to 350kg and sprint at 45km an hour when they feel threatened. Go on a small group tour with an expert conservationist at the helm, and there’s no need to fear bears. After all, they’d much rather be rummaging around the forest for berries than chasing off curious humans. Experts reveal the hidden bear hides, show you how to check camera traps, and point out saucer-sized paw prints, scratching posts and signs of scat. Don’t wear bear blinkers. You’ll be hiking woods that are slap-bang in the middle of two major migratory routes for European birds. Globally threatened Egyptian vultures wheel above the Eastern Rhodope Mountains, alongside golden eagles, copper-bellied rock thrushes and alpine swifts. Grey wolves also roam these woods – or you might spot roe deer and wild boar grazing the meadows. Meanwhile, the Yagodinska caves house bats and squirrel-sized dormice. If you’re really lucky, one of the camera traps you check might have snapped a shot of the near-mythical Balkan lynx – until recently thought to be extinct.
As with any wildlife vacation, sightings aren’t guaranteed – but the cliffhanger is part of the fun. There’s nothing better than seeing a bear meandering unexpectedly into a meadow, munching on clover. Or catching a trio of cubs tumbling in front your bear hide after long hours of waiting. Just remember to bring binoculars to maximise sightings. Eat local food. Milk and cheese are freshly made in the Rhodope mountains, so fill your boots on homemade yoghurt, thick katmi pancakes, smilyanski fasulbean soup and patatnik potato pie packed with onion, cheese and mint.

Bulgaria bear watching vacation advice

Julian Perry, bear guide and founder of Wild Rodopi conservation group, shares his thoughts on bear watching in Bulgaria:

Cryptic creatures

“Bears are not only Europe's largest carnivores, they are also one of the most cryptic and difficult to observe and study. For this reason, they are often misunderstood, so tracking bears is both very exciting and highly rewarding.”

Peeping with purpose

“For me, trips are not just about bear watching or bear photography, they are very much about bear research and conservation. Whilst it’s hoped that all will have the chance to observe truly wild bears, it’s more important that they come away with a better understanding.”

The secrets of scat

“Whilst a glimpse of a bear in the wild is always a wonderful privilege, it is also an exciting moment simply to find a fresh footprint or scat, knowing that very likely one of these majestic animals is only a few hundred metres away, and possibly watching you as you walk along the trail.”

All change

“The presence of foreign tourists coming specifically to observe and learn about the bears in the Rodopi Mountains is already strongly promoting bear conservation amongst the local community, who now see ‘their’ bears as a source of pride.”
Photo credits: [Rhodope Mountains: HNHa CtaNKOBa] [Dancing bear cruelty: Bin im Garten] [Devinska Reka river: Boris Dzhingarov] [Bear & cub: Chris Shervey]