Slovakia is a land of adventurers
says my trek guide, Erik Sevcik of Adventoura, who has been organising adventure trips for decades in Vysoké Tatry (High Tatras), pointing at a poster of Petra Vlhová, the country’s top women’s Alpine skier and a world champion. As we start talking, I get to know why everybody looks so cheerful and happy in this tiny landlocked nation – Slovaks learn to ski and hike before they start talking. And the benefits are myriad. Looking at Erik’s peach complexion, chiselled face and well-built physic it’s hard to tell that he is in his late thirties. When I ask him the secret, he blushingly credits the unique upland adventure playground where he was born, the place where we are hiking today – the Higher Tatras.
Craggy mountain peaks, plunging waterfalls, turquoise blue glacial lakes, rugged hiking trails, alpine meadows, and cable cars all come together to create the perfect adventure destination. In winter, snow transforms rough hiking trails into snow-smoothened ski slopes. Vanished from most parts of Europe, brown bears not just survive but thrive in Vysoké Tatry, and spotting one is never hard. The best part is, unlike in other European countries, the alpine adventure here is inexpensive, sustainable and offbeat.
At dawn, the mountains are bathed in the golden light, and the air has a certain nip. Despite the calendar displaying summertime, the cool breeze makes you feel like winter in Slovakia. Fleeces are zipped, bootlaces tightened, backpack stocked, walking poles extended, and off we set to explore the Tatra National Park – the largest, oldest and most visually striking National Park in Slovakia. The High Tatras, a protected park with a small part across the border in Poland, is a UNESCO-protected reserve dotted with 35 valleys, over 90 mountain lakes and countless waterfalls. Besides, what makes it so stunning is the sheer wealth of peaks cresting 2500m – 25 in total.
After several years of dreaming, I am finally in Poprad to hike the UNESCO protected reserve of the High Tatras that acts as a natural border between Poland and Slovakia. Soaring mountain peaks above 2500 m, emerald-green alpine lakes, rugged hiking trails, and cable cars all come together to form an adventure playground that can rival the Alps. While I have personally never experienced the winters in Tatras, I am told the winters here are as exciting as summers, if not more. Instead of cosying around the fireplace, everyone from a toddler to a senior citizen comes out to enjoy winter activities such as husky dog sledging, horse sleigh ride, snowshoeing, skijoring, and of course skiing. I am tempted to make a winter travel plan right away. But first things first – concentrate on the present – hike the High Tatras.
The hike begins…
After a short funicular cable ride from Stary Smokovec, a small resort town, along with my guide Erik I reach the starting point of the trek at Hrebienok. This pocket-sized ski resort is the base of numerous hiking trails of various difficulties, each one snaking through a different path around the inky mountains and lush green valleys. I opt for a day hike to the traditional wooden chalet called Zamkovskeho Chata.
As we start trekking, my eyes get glued on 6 feet 4 inches lanky, a muscular man walking ahead of us, carrying at least 70 kg weight on his back. Looking at my bemused reaction, Erik breaks the silence,
This trek is called the Shepherd trek because of Sherpas like him. But don’t confuse the Slovak Sherpa with the Himalayan Sherpa as our Sherpas carries only supplies to the mountain huts, not the luggage of the hikers.
The High Tatars is a year-round destination, and the mountain chalets are the only accommodation option available up in the woods. There are no roads for vehicles to tow supplies in the park. So, they rely on Sherpas entirely to haul everything literally up and down the mountain even when it snows, rains or in a storm.
I feel a bit embarrassed about not being able to catch up with the Sherpa despite him carrying almost 60 kg more weight than me. However, hiking is not about mindless competing but enjoying the journey. And, that’s what I decide to focus on.
Reaching the midpoint
The well-marked but rough-hewn rocky path led us through several wooden bridges, wild mountain streams, cascading waterfalls, tall spruce and Scots pine trees, and the snow-capped peaks. This hike wasn’t a test of endurance but a way to appreciate nature and get rid of the cobwebs accumulated in the cities. The trail began as soft adventure –broad and smooth – before zigzagging into an uphill stony trek lined with towering spruce and Scots pine trees.
We cover the first half of the trek quite easily in less than an hour, stopping every few hundred metres to capture the beauty of the trail and the sweeping valley views. Occasionally the fluffy clouds try to put a veil on the snow-capped peaks and green-carpeted valley.
Soon we are in the most photogenic part of the trek – a creek named Studený Potok slices the barren granite peaks on one side and fluffy snowy mountains on the other side. Just next to the stream, the giant waterfall, Obrovský vodopád, plunges down thunderously into a 20-meter-deep gorge.
From here, our trail becomes narrower and steeper as we climb higher. Greeting “na zdravie” to strangers and chit-chatting, we don’t realise when we reach our destination. Approaching the Chalet, we find a wooden signboard revealing the higher trails of the region along with their elevation.
The ‘hot’ reward
Our trek might have been relatively easy, apt even for kids, but the corresponding rewards are significant. Just below the treeline, Zamkovskeho Chata, a tranquil Swiss-style chalet built-in 1942 by pioneering local mountaineer Stefan Zamkovsky welcomes us with the warmth of a grandma’s kitchen. Like other mountain huts in the park, supplies here are ferried in on foot by Sherpas. Some are professionals, others are volunteers who do it to keep the tradition and lifestyle of the Sherpas alive.
After placing an order in the cosy dining area, we plonk ourselves on the sun-kissed wooden-benched outdoor terrace. Hot yummy lunch of local favourites – lentil soup, dumplings with sheep cheese and pierogis stuffed with cheese – is pure bliss after an excellent trek! Long live the Sherpas of Slovakia!
But the delicious meal wasn’t the best surprise. A gorgeous, extremely friendly husky named Mathew walks into the cottage with her female Sherpa owner. Being a dog lover, I couldn’t stop myself from playing with her, and the owner was quite happy to have her sit with us. Sadly, the tik-tok of the watch forced us to bid goodbye to the four-legged beauty.
A wild encounter
The previous night Erik had light-heartedly said,
In Slovakia, hiking and wildlife sighting go hand in hand. You don’t have to trek miles to spot foxes and brown bears.
On my way back, down the mountain, Erik’s words came true when our paths crossed with Eliška, a stunning orange and white Slovakian wild fox, who appeared from nowhere. She stops just a few feet away, turns her face towards me, and looks straight into my eyes, neither filled with fear nor aggression, just curiosity – before running away into the forest. That momentary eye-to-eye contact makes my heart skip a few beats and makes me realise how lucky I am to explore a country where nature and humans still coexist in perfect harmony.
That touching serendipitous moment became one of the highlights of my trip. How often do you see a wild animal in the wild so close, without much effort, and entirely on its terms?
Soaking in the Slovak Springs
And, it’s not just the alpine adventure and wildlife that makes the High Tatras a must-visit destination. This compact, rugged country of central Europe is gifted with a bounty of mineral springs, which are used for both therapeutic and relaxing purposes. Affordable pricing has made Slovakia the de-facto hub for health and wellness seeking visitors not just from Slovakia but from overseas as well.
The prolonged soak in the hot geothermal pools and the mineral-infused saunas of Aquacity provide a perfect reward for a day’s hike. The wellness complex was like a department store of saunas, studded with over a dozen saunas and steam rooms, each offering something unique – herbal, infrared, Himalayan, Finnish, arctic and many more.
While Slovakia is tiny in size (67 times smaller than India), it indeed boasts a lot of epic and varied scenery. Commonly nicknamed the “Little Big Country”, Slovakia deserves to be on your bucket list.
Travel Tips for an unforgettable trip
How to get to Slovakia
Fly to any bigger European cities such as Krakow, Vienna, Prague, Budapest or Bratislava. From there either take a public transport or drive to Poprad. I flew into Vienna from New Delhi with Austrian Airlines and then drove from Vienna to Poprad, which took around 5 hours. The cheapest way to get from Vienna to Poprad is by bus which costs 15€ – 35€ and takes 6h 30m. However, if you are travelling across many European countries then Eurail Global Pass works out cheaper as well as provides the freedom to catch any train any time without worrying about train timetables.
How to travel locally in Slovakia
Bratislava to the High Tatras: While renting a car and driving around is quite economical and saves a lot of time, public transport is pretty good in Slovakia. It takes about 4 hours to get from Bratislava to Poprad (the gateway to High Tatras) by train and costs around 14-17€ one way on Slovakrail. The bus is slightly cheaper, but takes 9-11 hours for the same distance!
Exploring the High Tatras: Having a self-drive car is always more convenient in High Tatras. However, public transport is available from Poprad to a few mountain settlements (such as Stary Smokovec and Strbske Pleso) and hiking trails. The Tatra Electric Railways, single track, narrow-gauge electric trains, run every hour. The one-way journey costs upto 2€ and an all-day pass is available for 4€.
Where to stay in High Tatras (Accommodation):
Poprad Tatry: Hotel AquaCity Seasons for a luxurious stay with one of the biggest geothermal spa resort
Strbske Pleso: Vila Marina Strbske Pleso for a fairytale-like setting on the edge of the lake with a grand High Tatras view
Liptov: Liptovsky Dvor consisting of cosy 15 wooden chalets
What to pack for High Tatras
Summers: hiking boots, rain/wind jacket, waterproof trekking pants, fleece jacket, day backpack, breathable T-shirts
Winters: Sweaters, heavy socks, cold weather footwear, heavy jacket, umbrella or waterproof coat, waterproof boots, warm pants, gloves or mittens, mufflers and caps and waterproof backpack.
What activities to try in the High Tatras
Hiking: Shorter hikes are accessible all year round and the long trails from July to October. Avoid popular treks on weekends and stick to the trails.
Other Adventures: White water river rafting, bear watching, mountain biking, mountain climbing, and paragliding.
Winter adventures: skiing, husky dog sledging, horse sleigh ride, snowshoeing and skijoring
Must try Slovak cuisine items
- Dumplings with sheep cheese (Bryndzové halušky)
- Pierogis stuffed with bryndza (Bryndzové pirohy)
- Cabbage soup (Kapustnica)
- Pork with dumplings and cabbage (Vepřo knedlo zelo)
- Goulash soup (Gulášová polievka)
- Fried cheese with French fries and tartar sauce (Vyprážaný syr)
- Schnitzel (Vyprážaný rezeň)
- Slovak passtry (Čokoládový špic)
- Potato pancakes (Zemiakové placky)
- Funnel cake (Trdelnik)
- Slovak pancakes (Slovenske palacinky)
Where to go next
- Ticha Dolina valley for bear watching
- River Dunajec for white water rafting
- Drevenik for rock climbing
- Zdiar for Slovak countryside immersion
- Spis castle for the medieval charm
- Jasna Nizke Tatry for more alpine adventures.
How to travel responsibly in the High Tatras
- Don’t litter and avoid buying single-use plastic bottles. Carry a refillable bottle that can be refilled from anywhere. Tap water is safe to drink across Slovakia.
- While Slovakia can be easily self explored, language can sometimes be an issue in exploring the hidden gems. So, using a local travel agency works better to travel responsibly, deeply and ethically.
- Stick to the trails, and if possible, plan your trip during the offseason
- Try local food and don’t be shy to strike up a conversation with the locals
- Hiking or biking are better ways to explore the national park
Are Slovakia and Slovenia the same country?
Believe me, I have seen from the biggest leaders to simple next door neighbours confuse the two. So, I decided to make a small video explaining the difference.
The edited version of the story was published in four publications:
- The Hindu businessline: When in Slovakia, take it slow
- The Asian Age: Hiking in High Tatras
- Deccan Chronicle: Hiking in High Tatras
- India Today Group: Winter Wonderland
I was hiking the High Tatras, Slovakia at the invitation of Adventoura Slovakia. Everything expressed above is based on my personal experience in the region and is honest and factual without any bias. All images used were either shot by me or provided by the company. Please don’t use any image or text without written permission.