As I really don’t like zoos, animal circuses and any business that forces animals to perform or uses them as photo props, I’d rather support places where animals are free and can be watched at their natural habitat. When I found out about bear watching tours in Transylvania, I knew I had to visit it.
There are two hides right now, one in Baile Tusnad and one at the Lake St. Anna. Both are totally safe. The hides were designed and built by Bence Máté who is a Hungarian wildlife photographer. He has several awards for his work, such as Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2010. The hides are made of wood and a special kind of glass (one-way glass): the visitor can see the bears, but the bears can’t see the people inside the hide. Inside there are comfortable chairs, enough for a group or a class. Photographers can spend the night there as there are bunk beds hanging from the wall. In the evening it can be pretty cold sitting there for hours so make sure you dress warm (preferably dark clothes) or take a blanket.
We had our appointment booked a few weeks before we arrived at Transylvania. We took a five-day tour by motorbike from Cluj-Napoca to Baile Tusnad and back.
On our second day after dinner at 6 pm, we met our guide, Janos the „Bear Shepherd” in Baile Tusnad. He hadn’t got any other reservations that day so it was kind of a private experience for the two of us. He took us to the hide through the forest with his 4×4 car. We had to get out of the car and enter the hide very quietly. The back of the hide was next to the offroad and the glass side was looking at a small meadow. As we sat down inside, we got a shot of welcome pálinka to stay warm. And after a few minutes, the first bear arrived at the scene! It was so exciting! As Janos told us, he put out corn every day for the bears, that’s why they keep coming back. He knows them very well, some of them already know his voice and is not afraid of him.
So the bear was eating until something scared him away. But we didn’t have to wait for long: two others arrived, probably a couple of years old cub and the mom. We took some photos and then just focused on the experience. We had such a great time.
Bears kept leaving and coming back, once there were five of them at the meadow at the same time. We saw the last one around 9 pm, it was almost dark outside. We almost spent 3 hours in the hide but it seemed less because we enjoyed every second of it. Most of the time we were sitting there quietly, but when there was no bear around, Janos told us many things and stories about these beautiful animals. Unfortunately, locals don’t really like having bears around and it’s been only two years since it is illegal to shoot them. There are problems with garbage management in the area, that’s why bears appear often in villages around trash cans looking for food.
How to book
You can book on this website. Make sure you make a reservation ahead of time. Especially in high season (summer), the hides and the area can be crowded. One thing you need to know before booking that the tour is not recommended to children younger than 7 years old, as they might not be able to sit quietly for hours.
The program starts about 2 hours before sunset, so you can spend the whole day with other programs in the area.
The program costs 30€/person. For a 3-hour long experience that’s not that much. And there’s money-back guarantee: you get your money back if you don’t see any bear.
What to bring
As I mentioned earlier, it can be really cold in the evenings even in springtime, so make sure you have warm clothes on. It is better to avoid colorful clothes so stick to the dark ones. You can take an extra blanket if you want. I had an extra pair of socks and I didn’t regret it. We also had a thermos filled with hot tea which is also a great idea. However, you cannot bring food. Definitely bring a good camera or mobile phone but make sure you turn off the flash. (If you don’t know how, don’t worry, you can cover it with a tape.) This is very important because the light of the flash can be seen from the other side of the glass and it can scare the animals away. You also have to mute them obviously.
Would I go back?
Definitely! Brown bears are magnificent animals and we know so little about them. I could watch them in the forest for days, not just for hours. So if you are an animal lover who enjoys spending time in nature, this program is for you. Besides, there is so much beauty in Transylvania which we did not discover entirely because of the bad weather so I’m sure we will be back some other time.