Bulgaria might not be the first place that springs to mind when you think of a climbing trip abroad. However, anyone that visits is bound to be impressed by the quality and quantity of climbing the country has to offer. Bulgaria has a great landscape for climbing and mountaineering, as well as a strong scene of dedicated local climbers. Aside from climbing, there are lots of interesting and beautiful places to visit and enjoy.
Karlukovo, Prohodna Cave
The gobsmacking cave of Karlukovov, also known as Prohodna, is one of the most unique crags a climber will ever visit. The cave is a tunnel, with an entrance at both ends and a soft ‘U’ shaped curve to it. It is 262 meters long and in the middle it has two natural skylights in the ceiling, known as ‘God’s Eyes’. As crags go, this is as interesting and aesthetically pleasing as they get.
The cave is massive, with the larger entrance reaching a height of 45 meters, even being used by bungee jumpers on occasion. For a climber it’s paradise, with virtually all of the routes being permanently dry, shaded and generally not suffering from seepage. There are also climbing sectors on crags outside of the cave, giving over 80 routes at a variety of grades.
The routes are high quality, really long and technical. As you pick your way up a route with one move leading into the next, you will find yourself approaching the start of the cave roof as you battle to get to the chains. The exposure is epic, staring down 35 meters to your belayer and pondering if it is possible for someone to climb all the way to the apex of the roof. Some routes in the cave go the full distance, even exiting through the eyes in the roof! Others finish just as the steepening begins, with no extension yet bolted. It is certain that the cave has many more routes to offer for those good enough to tackle the ceiling.
Perhaps what makes the crag so great is that there are lots of routes in the sixes and particularly the sevens. Unlike Santa Linya, you don’t have to be a mid eights or above climber to do some of the best lines. The long vertical walls of the cave provide stunning climbing at amenable grades, so you get to enjoy the main event and not scrappy routes off to the side.
The crag isn’t as popular as you might think, sometimes holds can be dusty or have a resident spider on them. Bring a brush and on certain routes beware of hollow flakes. Loose rock didn’t seem like much of an issue but some routes will have a few suspect holds. At the top of the walls in large pockets there are birds and potentially bats. There weren’t any climbing restrictions whilst we were there, but it is worth taking care not to disturb the wildlife.
Vratsa is a charming town in north west Bulgaria, upon arriving there you will instantly see mountains and crags that look enticing to climb. The area has a real variety of climbing, including some long multi pitch routes. Many of these routes are trad, or require some degree of gear to protect them. As we only had quickdraws and a rope we decided not to scare ourselves witless multi pitching, but stick to the sport climbing sectors instead.
Possibly the most popular sector in Vratsa is the ‘Little Cave’. The sector has a great spread of grades and plenty of routes to keep most people occupied for several days. The rock is a mix of limestone and conglomerate. Some of the routes having the classic ‘search for the best pocket/potato before you pump out’ style. The grading seemed quite varied here with some routes feeling like a generous soft touch and others feeling like a proper sandbag, this was also similar at the other sectors in the area.
The routes at little cave were sometimes a bit polished, but not to the extent that it detracted from the climbing. if you continue on the footpath from little cave you will reach sector Stegite. Stegite is a beautiful crag offering crimpy climbing with most routes being in the seventh and eighth grade. There is a waterfall here but it doesn’t flow all year round. This crag is more newly developed and is a great sector. Having so many great sectors in a short area makes the climbing in this part of Vratsa a real pleasure.
The ‘Big Cave’ sector is nearby, and leaves from the same parking. This sector is more impressive, quieter and less polished. However the grade spread is not as good, being mainly seventh and eighth grade routes. There are also fewer routes in total than Little Cave. That being said, the routes we did there were all very good and it was one of our favourite sectors in the area.
There are endless other sport sectors around Vratsa, as well as the stunning looking multi pitch walls. Anybody will be able to find something to climb for their ability and preferred style. We enjoyed our time a lot here and it is definitely somewhere we would visit again. We both feel the sectors discussed above showcase the best on offer in the area, despite being only the tip of the iceberg in terms of quantity.
Other Climbing Areas
Bulgaria is a large country and has many different crags spread throughout the country. We spent two weeks climbing between Vratsa and Karlukovo. Even with the urge to seek out other areas, these crags were so good it felt silly to leave prematurely for somewhere else. After we had finished climbing we explored the country some more and it is a beautiful place. It follows that the other climbing areas will be of a high standard as well, so for anyone with the time it would be worth exploring further. The notable area we didn’t visit was Bozhenitsa. This crag is sandstone as has both sport climbing and bouldering as well as being under an hours drive from Vratsa. The other main are we would like to visit in future is the deep water soloing on the Black Sea coast.
Rupite Hot Springs
The hot springs at Rupite are really something to be savoured. The water comes out at a whopping 74°C, which is way to hot to get straight into. Instead, the water is diverted from the source to a number of different pools, via channels in the ground. when the pool is full, the channel is damned off and the water is left to cool to the desired temperature. These are the real deal, this is definitely a HOT spring and not a ‘lukewarm spring’ like many in Europe. You can enjoy a hot soak and use the volcanic mud from the pools on your skin to give you a proper spa experience.
Best of all it is free! There are some inside pools that are paid for, as well as a bar, however all the pools outside are free and so is the parking. Provided you avoid weekends and national holidays it isn’t particularly busy. The area is very relaxing and near some ancient Roman ruins. The whole area is very beautiful and could be combined well with a trip to the Rila Mountains and monastery, a nice way to spend a couple of days.
Central Balkan National Park
The Central Balkan National Park is a beautiful mountain area running east to west across Bulgaria. The national park has many great hikes, including Botev peak and Raisko Praskalo. The hike to Raikso Praskalo is a very enjoyable trail through a beautiful forest and right to the foot of the waterfall. At 124 meters tall it is the highest waterfall in Bulgaria and among the highest in the Balkans.
Right at the foot of the waterfall there is small pool you can submerge yourself in and get sprayed by the mist from waterfall (obviously don’t stand directly underneath it!) It was very refreshing and the highlight of the day, although everybody else thought we were weird for going in such cold water. We had read the full time for the hike was eight hours, in reality the whole trip including the dip took around three and a half hours.
Sofia is a beautiful city with a deep history, and worthwhile visiting for anyone in the area. There are endless cafes, bars and restaurants all serving delicious food and drink at reasonable prices. The city has many famous historical and cultural attractions and exploring Sofia is a very enjoyable experience. With a population of over 1.2 million it has a bustling atmosphere and a relaxing vibe.
Sofia has great transport links, we got a train to Burgas which was very cheap and a beautiful journey. The ride takes you through the famous Rose Valley area, where you will see fields upon fields of beautiful flowers, as well as views of the Balkan mountains. When you complete the journey you will be on the Black Sea coast, possibly the most touristy part of Bulgaria. There is some deep water soloing on the Black Sea, but we ran out of time to check it out. The coast is beautiful, and there are lots of quiet areas outside of the tourist resorts. Although it is a nice area, we both feel that our time in central and northern Bulgaria was our favourite part of the trip.
Bulgaria is a big and diverse country, with a lot of quality rock to entice climbers. The scenery is stunning and there is an abundance of outdoor activities to enjoy aside from climbing. Bulgaria is a large country so planning a route to make your trip more efficient will save you lots of journeying time.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time spent here and we would definitely visit again, probably to visit some different areas but certainly to go back to Karlukovo. We visited in spring and had perfect conditions for climbing, although with a good choice of sector it will be possible to find dry or shaded climbing at any time of the year.
For more articles about climbing in the Balkans, read our Balkans series here.
Relevant links and resources
Further information about climbing and routes in Bulgaria
Sports shop in Vrasta with sells the guidebook