Unique Treasures of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Vjetrenica Cave

Near the small town of Ravno and the medieval orthodox monastery of Zavala is the largest cave system discovered in Bosnia and Herzegovina – Vjetrenica. Its stunning halls and remarkable cave fauna attracts not only scientists and adventurers, but also every nature lover that happens to be nearby. Hundreds of tourists visit Vjetrenica and its surroundings every year, claiming it to be a truly unforgettable experience.

A subterranean wonder of nature

Vjetrenica is one of the most beautiful and famous caves in Bosnia and Herzegovina and is located in the Municipality of Ravno, in the very south of the Herzegovina region. Vjetrenica, which roughly translates as the "wind cave" belongs to the Dinaric Alps mountain range and it is situated in a huge karstic field, Popovo polje. This magnificent work of nature owes its name to the strong and cold blast of wind that blows from its entrance even during the hottest summer months. Vjetrenica is a hydrologically active flow facility with four water courses and dozens of smaller periodic flows with underground lakes.

People standing inside the Vjetrenica Cave with helmets for protection
Inside the Vjetrenica Cave. Photo: WikimediaCommons

This UNESCO-listed cave system is the deepest in Bosnia and Herzegovina and disappears 3.7 miles below the Dinaric Alps into a stunning gallery of stalagmites and stalactites and subterranean rivers and lakes which are flowing into the Trebisnjica River on the southern edge of the Popovo Polje. The exact length of the cave is unknown, but geologists have concluded that Vjetrenica most probably stretches all the way to the Adriatic Sea which is around 12 miles from the entrance of the cave. 

 

 

Along with nearby village Zavala and its old architecture, Vjetrenica cave constitutes the natural and architectural site which is placed on the UNESCO Tentative list. Once you're there, don't miss visiting the medieval Orthodox monastery Zavala that preserves an invaluable collection of frescoes from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Beautiful lights light up the Vjetrenica cave.
The path inside the Vjetrenica cave. Photo: Flickr/Caroline Lywood

Home for hundreds of rare animal species

Vjetrenica cave is famous around the world for its very high subterranean biodiversity as it is a home to at least two hundreds of different species, many of them endemic and first time discovered in the Vjetrenica. The question which tackles scientists to this day is why is Vjetrenica's biodiversity so extraordinary, especially when comparing to numerous other caves of Dinaric karst with similar geological settings and climate conditions? One of the explanations is that special microclimate and hydrological conditions of the cave, along with the strong wind at its entrance, created a unique habitat for such a diverse and endemic cave fauna.

Among the hundreds of rare animal species found in Vjetrenica, probably the most interesting one is olm or proteus, an aquatic salamander which is the only cave dwelling chordate species ever discovered in Europe. This unique animal, which eats, sleeps and breads underwater, is locally known as "Čovječja ribica" (which literally translates as "human fish") since the color of its skin resembles those of humans.

After heavy rains and flooding of the cave, the olms are sometimes washed up from their subterranean habitat and in the old days people believed them to be an offspring of the "cave dragons".

A human fish located inside the cave
An olm swimming inside the Vjetrenica cave. Photo: Wikipedia

Also, the remains of eight fossilised animals have so far been found in it, the largest being the cave bear (Ursus spelacus) and the most interesting of all, the only complete skeleton of the European ice age leopard (Panthera pardus spelaea) which roamed Europe in the Late Pleistocene. The remains of animal fossils from Vjetrenica can be seen as the part of permanent exibition at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Neverthless, the unique beauty of Vjetrenica cave attracts visitors from all around the world, whether they're interested in speleology and paleontology or not. Over the past 100 years, Vjetrenica has been visited by thousands of tourists and scientists but many questions about the origins, development, length and unique diversity of life in the cave are yet to be answered.

How to get there?

The easiest and the most convenient way to visit Vjetrenica is to look up organized tours from the bigger cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Also, renting a car is an excellent idea as this region also has some other hidden gems such as the nature park and bird reserve Hutovo Blato and the beautiful Kravice waterfall. Well marked road signs to Vjetrenica are visible throughout the main Popovo Polje road from Stolac to Trebinje and from the main coastal road in Croatia towards the Municipality of Ravno.

Organized tours to the caves can be booked from Sarajevo and Mostar, but you can also find the tours departing from Dubrovnik, Croatia.

The view from the Vjetrenica cave. Photo: WikimediaCommons

The temperature in the cave is around 11°C (51°F) all year long! Which means that you will need to bring a jacket even during the summer months. Also, don't forget to wear some good, sturdy shoes as the walking path can be quite slippery from the water. During the visit, you will be required to wear helmets and a head lamp which will be provided for you at the entrance by the friendly staff.