Wild Beauty is the official hashtag of Montenegro, and yes to both of those words. If you want someplace to go for an adventure vacation, this is it. This small country is in the process of building itself up into a desirable, modern European vacation destination and wild nature is its huge selling point. It’s a self-declared ecostate, which at this point is more aspiration than reality, but an excellent goal nonetheless. Forward-thinking entrepreneurs are using the country’s compact mix of oceans, forests, and mountains to stage adventure races. And whatever your outdoor pleasure, you can find it here, without the excessive crowds you’ll find other places.
If you select only one hiking destination, make it Durmitor National Park. This park has 48 peaks, 18 glacial lakes, charming picnic areas sometimes surrounding by grazing goats, and endless miles of rugged desolation. They also already have “selfie stations”, like the kind US National Parks are starting to create. I found this over and over again – lots of progressive thinkers in Montenegro, getting ahead of the trends.
Other national parks include Biogradska Gora which is special because it has a “virgin forest reserve, surface of 16 sq km, where the strict protection system has been established. That is one of the last virgin forests in Europe.”
Lovćen and Prokletije round out the set of four national parks. Lovćen is a nice day trip from the popular city of Kotor and features the mausoleum of Prince Njegoš, which is worth climbing the 400+ stairs to reach for the views from the top. Go early if you want to get parking. Prokletije is on the border with Albania and looks even more intimidating and fairytale-esque than Durmitor in the north. I didn’t make it there but hopefully someday.
The peninsulas that Kotor and Tivat are on have fantastic old trails created from roads left by the military of the Austro-Hungarian empire. They feature old forts and excellent views of the bay. But be attentive. You might not encounter any other people and you won’t encounter any bears – those are only up near Durmitor – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t beasts that can kill you in these woods. I had two very large and scary monsters run across my path. I froze, then got out my phone to see if I could capture any more on video. Until… (volume up).
Yes, that killer (wild boar) was still watching me from somewhere I couldn’t see him. I got out of there real fast, with horrible images from Hannibal and Deadwood in my mind.
On The Rocks
I’ve always wanted to do a via ferrata and I finally made it happen. It was a bit more difficult than I expected, but I absolutely loved it and want to do more now. The one I did in Durmitor National Park was special because the guide was the man who built it. He’s on the Montenegro national search and rescue team and is a very accomplished climber. He also built an easier one in Kotor, if you are slightly less adventuresome.
Side note, if you are familiar with via ferrata, you might expect to be able to go on your own if you have equipment. These two in Montenegro are for guided-experiences only. If that annoys you, keep in mind this is a poor country. Buda put a lot of time and effort into building these; they haven’t been sitting around since WWI like the ones in Italy. Cut them some slack (especially now) and pay up, or go elsewhere.
Other fun mountain activities include ziplining and canyoneering. I went ziplining once in Nicaragua, 13 years ago, and have never felt the need to go again. It’s fun, but not something I really want to pay for. However, the zipline over Tara River Canyon was already included in the price of my three-day adventure tour, so off I went with almost a 400 foot drop below me. I’m glad it was a short ride – less than 30 seconds – because I might have fainted otherwise. The drop was really insane.
Canyoneering, like the via ferrata, was a new-to-me experience. I went down Skurda canyon, which is in Kotor, where you have easy access to water sports as well. The Nevidio canyon is also popular if you want to stay in Durmitor your whole trip.
What I liked about this was that it didn’t feel “dumbed down” for tourists. The hike to get to the top of the canyon was kind of gnarly – sharp rocks, thorns, a little scrambling. Then we started dropping. We did about ten descents of varying length and difficulty, some over 100 feet. That was enough to really get a feel for it and practice the techniques, which the guide explained really clearly and in a way that was easy to follow. The excursion ended with a short hike, again involving a bit of scrambling, back into town.
I went at the beginning of September, so there wasn’t much water, which might be kind of nice for a beginner to not have so many elements to contend with. It was also nice that I didn’t need to wear a wet suit. I imagine this is very different experience in spring. But there was just enough water that there were tiny frogs all over the canyon. Hundreds of them! Sadly, I have no photos because this tour was just me and the guide, and obviously he was focused on the ropes. But I loved this activity so much that I’m signed up for another canyoneering trip at the beginning of October, this time in North Carolina.
If you’re not into mountains, Montenegro has stunning coastlines. You can have a relaxing day going out around the bay from Kotor or do some bird watching on the beautiful Lake Skadar if you’re inland in Podgorica. If you’re traveling by car, there are endless places to simply pull over and hop in the water for a swim. Your American brain might be worried about where parking is allowed or if you need a beach tag. Stop. Just pull over and jump in. Seriously. I found a nice little spot in Donja Lastva after I almost got eaten by those wild boars.
If you want to be more active, it’s easy to rent a kayak or a paddleboard. There are plenty of vendors and there’s no need to arrange your reservation in advance. The kayaking I did was actually in Croatia. Since I flew into Dubrovnik, I spent the first and last day of my trip there. Lokrum Island has snack bars, an old monastery, hiking trails, and a nude beach on one end. The open water kayaking to get there from old town is a bit of a frogger game – there are lots of boats of all shapes and sizes on the water. But I enjoyed working on my kayaking skills, navigating the waves and going into coves where there’s nothing but sheer cliff walls. I’m glad I went by myself instead of as part of a guided tour, which there were plenty of as well.
Driving on Any of the Roads
Finally, the most adventurous sport in all Montenegro is simply driving on their roads. I did an ATV tour in Zabljak, but honestly, the bigger thrill was whipping around in my rented, manual transmission Škoda. I’m fairly certain there’s not a single stretch of straight road in the country more than a mile long. Just look at the aerial view on this website of the serpentine road from Kotor to Lovćen. Yes, I drove that. I also got a little seasick after three days of driving in the north. Returning from there, you’ll go through lots of tunnels, more than 30 in the short 56 miles from the Tara River Bridge to Podgorica.
There are a few “normal” two lane roads connecting the major cities, but not a single highway. Outside those main roads, though, most roads are only one to one-and-a-half lanes wide. You need to have good reversing skills and remember where the last bump out was in case you encounter another car coming straight at you who clearly isn’t going to be the one to back up. You also need to have good spatial awareness because people will squeeze by you where you don’t think it’s possible and you will need to drive on the edge of some perilous drop-offs. In recent years, they have put up some barriers on the most heavily used roads, but other places, you have only your own skill to rely on.
Stay alert and off your phone because most places have no sidewalks, cars will pass each other around blind corners, and you may run into a herd of goats along the way.
So, if you know me, you know that I loved driving in this country. I found all these challenges exciting and skill building. But I did finally encounter a mountain road in the remote Banjani region that bested me and made me turn around where I would have kept going had I been in Colorado in my SUV. It wasn’t so much the narrow road and the drop-offs, but more the combination of factors – being in a car that wasn’t built for it, not having cell service, not knowing how often other people came along these roads (seemed like just about never). But man, someone needs to get an ATV tour up here because I would have loved to explore!
This post is the second of three about my recent vacation to the stunning, rugged, and hospitable country of Montenegro. Recommended reading: The Full Monte: A Fulbright Scholar’s Humorous and Heart-Warming Experience in Montenegro.