With over 800 miles of coastline stretching from Slovenia to Greece, the Balkan Peninsula is well known for Croatian seaside holidays, sailing vacations and even war zones of the 1990s. Rivers play a key role in all of the above but aren’t always the first thing you think of when someone mentions Croatia or Bosnia & Herzegovina, two of the six countries with a coastline on the Adriatic Sea. But that’s about to change.
To travel and paddle Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina means discovering the last wild rivers in Europe, home to endemic species, wild whitewater and deep, local cultural connections. It means dropping mini-waterfalls on the Mreznica and taking in the grandeur of the Drina River. But keep in mind, this is adventure travel and paddling. Unlike Western Europe or North America, there are no websites with up-to-date water levels and gauges. Be prepared to step back in time, to the days when river levels were solely read from the river bank, and seasons were the only gauge to consider.
Knowledge of local history and ecology is an important place to start before setting off on any paddling adventure. In the early 1990s, the Balkan War rocked this part of the world. To simplify a complicated geopolitical battle, the socialist republic began to crumble following Slovenia’s declaration of independence. This provoked the countries of the Balkans into fighting over who would take control of Yugoslavia. This war took place in the streets of many towns and cities and affected every citizen. More than 133,000 people died.
Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina were two countries hit the hardest. But despite the trauma and hardship, the locals are kind and resilient people, who welcome tourism in their now peaceful region. But remnants of the war remain fresh, both physically in the bullet-hole peppered buildings, and emotionally for the thousands of locals who lost family members and fought in battles. Care, respect and sensitivity should be exercised. No conflict or danger exists in the Balkans today and exploring these countries is a wonderful way to support them and their wild rivers.
So, I give you five rivers worth traveling to and exploring in this exciting, culturally rich and undiscovered region in Europe.
Waterfalls for All on the Mrežnica River, CROATIA
Section: Primišlje – Bridge | Class II-III with some optional higher drops
Put-In: 45°10’27.9″N 15°27’03.6″E
Takeout: 45°11’43.2″N 15°25’51.8″E
Eat, Drink, Sleep: Raftrek Adventure Travel, 45°10’36.5″N 15°28’18.2″E
Dropping a waterfall is every kayaker’s dream, but depending on experience and skill level, it’s not always realistic. On the Mrežnica River, water-falling becomes a reality for even class I-III paddlers! With a collection of 10-15 drops ranging in size from 4-20 feet (depending on water levels), kayaks and even inflatable kayaks can get airborne off overhanging lips of travertine, a form limestone created by deposits of minerals in water over time. The Balkans are known for these river formations which creates many unique river features and landscapes.
Camp at Raftrek rafting base and they will drive shuttle for you. Hop into–or on top of–one of their old Land Rover Defenders for an exciting ride. Paddle the 3 km section, enjoying the dripping canyon walls and pool-drop mini-waterfalls. Take in the mossy overhangs and water trickling water from small springs and tributaries along the river. There is even a log-run section where you can paddle through the wooden walls used for moving wood down the river in the past. Be sure to pack some food and plan a ride back with Raftrek or use the above coordinates to plan your own day and set shuttle.
Pro Tip: If you want to cook your own meals while camping at Raftrek, stock up on food and beer before you arrive. Slunj is the closest town, about 20 minutes away, and offers small food markets and a couple of bars. Or, call in advance to arrange Raftrek to cook local fare for you.
Paddle a River Oasis on the Zrmanja River, CROATIA
Section: Kaštel Žegarski – Bilišane | Class I-II with 2-12m high waterfalls
Put-In: 44°09’43.9″N 15°50’52.9″E
Takeout: 4°11’49.1″N 15°46’07.9″E
Eat, Drink, Sleep: Raftrek Adventure Travel
Descending to the Zrmanja River is like finding an oasis in the dry and hot Dalmatian landscape. Located on a karst (limestone) plateau, the rugged surroundings of grey limestone boulders and arid bushes contrast the lush river valley, home to unique wildlife, with water so fresh you can drink from the river. Similar to the Mrežnica, travertine formations create river features and as this ‘living stone’ is constantly growing, the drops get bigger with time!
As one of the only rafting companies in Croatia, Raftrek also has a base on the Zrmanja. Book a guided trip, buy a permit from them for private exploration or pay for shuttle service. Expect to be on the water for about 3-4 hours at a relaxed pace and take your time to stop and swim at the various riverside picnic spots. Eat, swim and take in the cascades, pools, and greenery. It’s simple to set your own shuttle and a restaurant with cold beer, good local food and a rope swing into the water wait for you at the take out!
Kayak Deep Canyons on the Neretva River, BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA
Upper canyon section: Ulog Glavatičevo | Class IV-V
Put-in: 43°25’01.9″N 18°18’45.8″E
Takeout: 43°31’24.7″N 18°04’52.0″E
Eat, Drink, Sleep: Hitko Rafting, 43°31’24.7″N 18°04’52.0″E
With two sections of the canyon to paddle, Bosnia’s Neretva River offers solid class IV-V kayaking on the upper canyon, or more mellow II-III whitewater on the lower section, which is commercially rafted.
The upper canyon makes for a sporty run, peppered with siphons, undercuts and lots of necessary scouting. If you have the skills and time to tackle this river, the remote, steep canyon is a special place to experience. Keep an eye out for the riverside tunnel, where remnants of crushed machinery from a Chinese company’s failed dam project remain. At higher water levels, the tunnel may be underwater, but be aware of rebar. This remote run requires quite a mission to set shuttle, especially with a two-wheel drive car. Dropping a car can take 3-4 hours of driving one way. A seldom run canyon like this is rare in Europe, but its wildness makes it worth the extra footwork.
Pro Tip: Jump from rock to rock, do not wander along the river’s edge or up into the forest. Fluctuating water levels have dislodged landmines left behind from the Balkan War. There is no bushwalking and no option of hiking out of this run.
Hundreds of people per year go rafting down this section of the Neretva, putting in at the beautiful Hitko Rafting base and heading downstream through the lower canyon section.
With more mellow, class III whitewater, the deep canyon and forests become more lush with lower elevation. Keep an eye out for marble trout darting under your boat and, if you believe the local lore, watch out for the river monsters living in the deepest pools. Enjoy the box canyon section, and small waterfalls sprouting from the limestone canyon walls, with one big enough that kayakers can carry up and run the drop that spurts straight from its source underground!
There are two takeouts. Take the first one for a more remote river experience ending the day at a small bridge and dirt road. Or, drift down some moving water to the second takeout downtown Konjic, where you can walk across the 300+-year-old bridge from the times of Turkish rule, and straight into a bar for rakia (local liquor), cold beer or warm and savory burek pastry.
Camp or rent a cottage at Hitko Rafting and stay in traditional stone buildings made by hand by the owner. Wander around the grassy lawn, enjoy homemade food and arrange for a photo safari or other activities. Hitko will provide shuttle service for campers.
Experience a Budding Tourism Town and Paddle the Una River, BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA
Upper Section: Martin Brod – Kulen Vakuf | Class II-III
Put-in: 44°29’37.6″N 16°08’29.2″E
Takeout: 44°33’47.0″N 16°05’23.2″E
Eat, Drink, Sleep: 44°29’37.6″N 16°08’29.2″E
Martin Brod is a small village in the municipality of Bihać, Bosnia, and is known for its bubbling cascades reminiscent of a south Asian jungle. Home to the newest National Park in the country, these waterfalls aren’t big enough to kayak but have helped draw in tourism to the area. Small restaurants and cafes serve local and food and freshly caught fish, baring a budding tourism industry.
A small riverside campground has recently been established with running water, toilets a large gazebo and grassy tent sites all close to the Una National Park office. The main purpose of the park is to protect the unspoiled Una and Unac rivers which run through it, so by staying there you’re helping protect these two rivers.
Put in at the campground and paddle for 100m down the Unac River to the confluence with the Una where this dark green, wild river flows through rich forests and deep pools. Watch kingfishers darting above and enjoy the beginner-friendly whitewater, perfect for a day of stand-up paddling.
Lower Canyon: Bosanska Krupa | I-III
Put-in: 44°54’36.7″N 15°59’09.5″E
Takeout: 44°53’06.1″N 16°09’09.2″E (or anywhere upstream in the final 5 kilometers)
Eat, Drink, Sleep: Una Aqua Center 44°44’52.2″N 15°56’13.6″E
For a longer river trip, put on the Una in Bosanka Krupa, another village with a beautiful downtown, where riverside cafes serve Turkish coffee and local sweets. As you paddle down the river, watch schools of fish underneath your boat as you descend into the roadside run that feels like you’re deep in the wilderness and the huge karst outcroppings take you back in time. Consider a non-paddling day and try your hand at fly-fishing. The Una is famous for Huchen fishing and many local outfitters like Ani at Una Discovery will gear you up and guide you for the day. Get a real taste for the river and the locals in the short film, Una; the One, featured at the 2018 Wild and Scenic film festival.
Explore a SUP Paradise on the Drina River, BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA
Put-in: 43°21’00.2″N 18°50’12.3″E (or at Tara-Raft or any other riverside campground)
Takeout: 43°29’09.9″N 18°44’41.5″E (at the bridge connecting the road to Tjentište and the entrance to Sutjeska National Park)
Eat, Drink, Sleep: Tara-Raft
The Tara River acts as a border between Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina and is developing a reputation as a river for whitewater kayaking with Tara Fest Kayak paving the way. Once the Tara River meets the Piva river just past the border crossing of the two countries, it becomes the mighty Drina River, part of the Danube watershed which also flows between the two countries for its length.
Tara-Raft is a lovely campground and rafting company on the edge of the Drina and is developing as a SUP hotspot. From the campsite, you can paddle for 20 km from Sčepan Polje (Montenegro-Bosnia border) to the Bosnian town of Foča. Depending on water levels it can take 2-5 hours and hosts views of the electric green mountains over the clear, teal river. Sandy beaches, easy eddys and mellow class I-II whitewater make it a SUP paradise or a great place for kids to get comfortable in a kayak. Tara-Raft rents SUP and the family business has been respectfully operating on the Drina for almost 20 years. They can help organize shuttle and offer many other adventure opportunities like multi-day raft trips, hiking, motorbike packages and jeep safaris.
The rivers of Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina are threatened by thousands of large and small hydropower projects. One of the ways you can help keep these rivers free-flowing is to simply visit and paddle them. Bringing tourism dollars into these developing economies force decision makers to see there’s more value in a wild river than a dammed one.
For more info on river conservation in the Balkans, check out the kayaker-based NGO Balkan River Defence.