The title might make you think it is difficult to find great hiking in Bansko in the Pirin Mountains of Bulgaria . . . but it’s not really. Pirin National Park is designated a UNESCO World Heritage area and it has a huge variety of flora and fauna. The area is stunningly beautiful with high, rugged mountains and beautiful, clear mountain lakes. And in the summer, there is a lot of sunshine.
So the whole thing is a bit sarcastic because “finding” the hikes and getting to the trail head was actually the most difficult part of finding great hiking in Bansko and the Pirin Mountains. I could do a stand up comedy routine about “finding” the hiking actually! But we will return to that story, first let’s talk about Bansko.
The Town of Bansko in the Pirin Mountains
Bansko is a well-known, European, winter destination. With peaks over 8,900 feet (2700 meters) Bansko is one of Bulgaria’s and Europe’s popular ski destinations. There is reliable snow here December through March. Located in the Pirin Mountains it is also a great summer destination for high-country mountain hiking.
The town is both a historic village and a modern ski town. The historic part of the town is charming with the traditional mehanas (restaurants or taverns) and the historic, old buildings. The cobblestone streets are great to stroll around. It is easy to imagine what life would have been like here.
Then there is the more recent addition of ski accommodation. And here my friends, is a very cautionary tale. Bansko has to be the worst example I have ever seen of a wildly over-developed, property market. And they were hit hard in 2008 and the years after when financial markets and investors went bankrupt. There would be more unfinished, part finished, and abandoned real estate here than I have seen anywhere. And more than is actually completed by the looks of it! And at the time of our visit you could buy a condo here for as little as 28,000 USD (25,000 Euros). Before you are tempted, you probably have little to no chance of selling it or renting it due to oversupply.
And had the developers not gone bankrupt and actually completed all of these real estate projects, I can’t imagine how crowded the place would be in the winter! The ski resort is just not that big. Some sort of central planning was sorely missing in this town.
Real Estate Investing Overseas
We met several people that did invest in real estate in Bansko. I will quickly share the story of an English couple we met. Apparently, Bulgaria was heavily marketed in England as a place to make a safe, real estate investment for income in your retirement. This couple bought a unit in Bansko and one in Varna, a popular vacation destination on the Black Sea.
PLANNING AN UPCOMING
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Well the property in Bansko was now worth a fraction of what they paid. They were unable to sell it even if they wanted to because to accommodate foreign buyers (who cannot directly own land) the developers had created one company to own the land which then leased it to the apartment owner.
Needless to say, I am telling this story because it doesn’t have a happy ending. The company owning the land went bankrupt, everything was then in limbo and in court and they couldn’t sell because they didn’t have title to their own apartment to transfer it. And renting it was difficult as there was way too much oversupply! So other than enjoying the use of it themselves occasionally, there was no income and so much for an investment.
We hear these stories often of people that invested overseas. If you are going to do it, make sure you get legal advice and know what you are really buying and how you can sell it.
Okay now back to hiking . . .
Hiking in Bansko in the Pirin Mountains
We are experienced hikers but trying to find information about hiking in Bansko in the Pirin Mountains area was difficult. As you do, we went to the National Park Office to obtain a map. No map, no information and in fact we were told it was not safe to hike as there was snow still. (We could see the tops of the mountains from the town and there was no snow visible??)
So next we try finding a shop in town that might have a map? Nope. To make a long story short we eventually find what is the equivalent of a ski map – but it does have the trails marked, and we keep reading the trails are well marked (I might add at this point in the story, this is all a pretty common experience trying to find information for a lot of places we travel to and want to go hiking.)
So not put off, we decide to walk up the mountain and see what we find. We can see the ski runs and figure we will follow one and see where it leads.
Well, as you can see as well, there was no snow. And the hiking is fantastic! This is beautiful, rugged, mountain hiking. And the trails are relatively well marked once you arrive at the trailheads. Most of them leave from Vihren Hut which is quite a ways up the mountain. So if you have to walk to there to start, it is difficult to complete a hike without camping.
We did not have backpacking or camping gear with us so this was not really an option. (Nor are we particularly keen campers, preferring a hot shower and a bed after a long day of hiking.)
We persevered and were quite fit from walking up and down the mountain by the time we left. The last week we were there a shuttle bus started to take hikers up the mountain. It was packed! And the number of hikers on the mountain increased tremendously. Gone was our blissful isolation!
The shuttle did enable us to go further into the mountains and do some of the hikes we had wanted to do so it was most welcome.
The Last Word about Hiking in Bansko in the Pirin Mountains
So should you go? I’d say yes! The hiking from Bansko in the Pirin Mountains was spectacular. Bansko, the town was also a lot of fun. There is a jazz festival in town in August.
Also due to the altitude, hiking in the summer is a lot cooler and more comfortable there than some other places you could go. And if you are into backpacking, there are some great multi-day hikes taking you far into the back-country.
It is rugged country, I could not honestly say we did a hike I would rate as easy and some I would rate as difficult (and I wasn’t carrying a full backpack) so be prepared. It is isolated. You need to carry the usual emergency gear, including warm weather gear in case the weather changes (it is mountain hiking), carry food and water, tell someone where you are going and try and find at least a basic map. Take your compass, and I recommend your hiking poles. And enjoy it, the scenery is magnificent!
Practical Advice for Hiking from Bansko in the Pirin Mountains
Also bring your sense of humor and your patience. People were generally helpful, but we have a ton of examples of people telling us about hikes or places to go. When we inquired about traveling to the hike, upon investigation they would realise there was no way for a tourist to travel there (unless you have a car and can drive). So there is a huge opportunity there for some enterprising soul to cater to tourists in the summer.
Near Bansko there are a couple of walks and easy trails around the town if you just want to get out of town and explore the forest and the mountains for a bit. The forest is lovely and there are a lot of picnic areas. You will see a lot of other people in the forest. We saw a lot of people foraging for berries, mushrooms and wild herbs.
If you do want to rent a car, rent one in Sofia, it is cheaper. Make sure you have parking where you are staying. To get around Bansko itself you do not need a car, you can walk everywhere. If you want to hike from Bansko in the Pirin Mountains, a car would make it more convenient. If I had it to do again, I would rent a car in Sofia. (We recommend Holiday Autos for car rentals, you can find this and other travel resource recommendations in this post. And for general trip planning lessons and tips there is a multi- part series which can be found along with other advice related posts under “Tips” in the menu at the top of the page.)
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If you have any questions, or other helpful tips for your fellow hikers and travelers, please leave a comment below. We would love to hear from you.