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Written by Ionut Maftei

Riding with Bears – a Romanian cycling experience

As a certified mountain guide, I have led cycling, hiking, and snowshoeing tours in Romania since 2007. I work for Bike In Time, a boutique cycling tour agency offering custom trips throughout the country. As cycling in Romania is becoming more and more popular, one of the most common questions from our visitors while planning their travels here, maybe surprisingly, is “are we going to meet bears on the way?”

This question is mainly related to one of the most well-loved climbs in Romania – the Transfagarasan highway, which crosses the Fagaras Mountains and links two historical regions of Romania: Walachia and Transylvania. Romania is one of the few European countries where wildlife is still diverse and well preserved, an asset we are very proud of. It is very common to spot wildlife in nature here: from small peaceful creatures (tortoises, hedgehogs, rabbits, small birds, squirrels, etc.) to big mammals (deer, foxes, wild boar, bears, buffalos, and even wolves). I have personally crossed paths with all of these, except wolves.

What’s the story of bears along the roads?


Around 50% of the total population of European brown bears are found in Romania, so meeting one on wilderness hikes is not an uncommon occurrence. However, encountering bears along roads was not common until recently, when Transfagarasan and similar roads became popular with tourists. The reason why bears are increasingly seen along the roads is actually troubling – they realised that travellers leave rubbish and food along the road for them to eat. It has gotten to the point where they will wait along the roads for people in cars to feed them. 

Why is feeding bears discouraged?

The trouble is that once bears lose their natural fear of humans, they start approaching towns and cities looking for easily accessible food, as can be found in gardens and garbage cans.

📍 A documentary by ArteTV explains the challenges of living with bears in the area. You can find it here (available only in German and French):

Bears have recently been spotted in other regions along the roads, which means people are continuing to offer them food to see a bear up close, despite all educational campaigns against this and the high fines issued in case people get caught.

Are the bears dangerous?

The bears we see along the road are called “beggar bears”: they are just waiting for food to be offered through car windows. They show no aggression, and to this date, I am not aware of any injuries caused by these bears. The only aggressive incidents involving bears happens when tourists attempt to take selfies with the bears (yes, unfortunately, this kind of human exists!).

As a professional guide, my approach and philosophy is risk prevention. Make sure to keep a safe distance when encountering wildlife such as deer, foxes, wild boars, or bears. It is always good to remember that we are the visitors to wild animals in their habitat, and they can cause serious injuries when provoked.

How can I see bears when cycling?

If you see several cars stopped on the side of the road while cycling in the dense forest, there is a good chance that they stopped to watch a bear or another wild animal. Most bears are in the southern part of Transfagarasan, where the road follows the lake shape. There are also cyclists who miss the bears, mainly on their descent, simply because of speed.

Personal accounts by our cyclists

Catherine from Canada crossed the Transfagarasan on one of our tours very early during the season, when the top of the road was still snowy. On the way down, through the forest, we spotted a few bears. But I’ll let her tell it in her own words:

It was a momentous day crossing the mountain on the stunning Transfagarasan highway when to our surprise on our way down we started to hear these loud amber alerts on our phones. What was happening in these tranquil picturesque remote villages to merit such an alert of emergency? Our guide explained it was signalling a bear in the close vicinity. How close, we wondered, could it be?
We got back on our bikes and around the next corner had our answer. A couple of cars had stopped ahead of the bears and there they were, a massive brown bear with a pack of cubs at her side. Being from Canada, we had spotted a bear or two on rare occasions, but it would be a glimpse in the woods and then they quickly disappeared. These Romanian bears were completely comfortable sitting and playing with cubs at the side of the road while being snapped by photographers.
We felt fortunate to have this exceptional experience. Little did we know, it would be repeated half a dozen more times as we wound our way down the road to our destination. An unforgettable day in every way.

Sue from the United States was also part of one of the groups we led across the Carpathians. Here are her memories about riding with bears:

Where else can you cycle three days in a row past bears along the side of the road, often mothers with cubs, lured into a daily pattern of road visits by tourists who feed them for a photo? The novelty of being so close by day three gave way to ‘not another one!’ We gave each other a heads up via WhatsApp communication. Passing cars waved to warn us of what was ahead on the road, and sometimes served as a space buffer so we could safely pass the bears. The reward of the climbing? The mirrored surface of Balea Lake, surrounded by the towering Fagaras mountains. A breathtaking view.

Deborah from Canada is the leader of a group we hosted. Here is the story of her first bear encounter:

Today, we left the flat Danube Delta and headed into the mountains for our first day of climbing in the forested area, crossing the mountains from Moldova to Transylvania. All is fair when climbing and I ended up cycling alone ahead of the group. As I was pedaling, I noticed all the signs warning us about the bears. I paid no attention to these, other than just chuckling to myself. We have signs like this in Canada warning us about the moose! I have never seen a moose on the road in my country EVER! Probably the last sighting was in 1975 and they just left the signs there. So, what are the chances of seeing any bears on the road here in Romania? Nahhhh…not a chance! I kept pedalling in my happy place….

As I was rolling along the quiet road, a car had stopped, and the driver took the time to tell me that there was a bear on the road and to be careful! So, I stopped for a while and then another car stopped to tell me about the bears….and another and another. The Romanians are so kind!

So, with trepidation and curiosity, I got back on my bike and continued… Half hoping and not hoping to see a bear! A few minutes later, I saw the traffic backed up to stop and look at the bears. Some people were feeding them! Well, that’s never a good thing if you don’t want them to approach. Just at that time, our support wagon arrived, and our guide told me to stay where I was, and he was going to gather the rest of the group and somehow safely manouever us around the bears. As we waited, we saw a beautiful fox and some birds. Part of the joy of cycling includes seeing the country’s wildlife.

The assistance van finally arrived with the rest of the group, and we cycled closely on the far side of the van which we used as a buffer from the THREE bears in the first group! Months later, our group is still talking about our Romanian Bear Encounters. A memory we will never forget!

How should cyclists behave?

For our guided tours, we will gather and use the assistance van as a shield to protect the cyclists as they pass. If you are cycling individually, we strongly encourage you to wait for a car and then pass together. In Deborah’s words: 

So, we did learn how to ride with the bears…. Find a car to pass with and pedal on the other side! They are really beautiful beasts, and it was wonderful to see them in their natural habitat and be so lively. There were more packs of bears on the road to our hotel but we felt safe with the van escort.

Will this situation continue?

For the safety of both wildlife and humans, authorities have plans to stop the bears from coming to the tourist areas. Currently, police are checking the “bears section” of Transfagarasan and fining tourists who are found feeding the bears. The hope is that if tourists stop feeding the bears on the road, the bears won’t roam further to forage for human food and will eventually return to the forest.

Are there any other places to meet bears? 

Transfagarasan is unique and the only place where you can expect to meet bears while cycling in Romania. Usually we see bear tracks, meaning we are in their territory, but it is unlikely we’ll view them up close. Of course, we cannot promise that we will meet bears during our tours of Transfagarasan, but as it is still very common, you have a good chance!

Thank you, Ionut, for sharing this fascinating story about bear encounters in Romania.
To find out more about Ionut Maftei’s cycling company Bike In Time, check out Ionut’s Bikemap profile or follow him on Instagram. 

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