how to visit the dancing bear park belitsa

How to visit the Belitsa Bear Sanctuary – Dancing Bears Park Bulgaria

The Bulgarian Dancing Bears Park outside Belitsa is a park for the rehabilitation of dancing bears in Bulgaria.   This isn’t a zoo, nor will you see any bears dancing here.  It’s a sanctuary and a rest home for ex-dancing bears.  It’s in a gloriously wild location in the Rila mountains with facilities to aid the peaceful and more natural living of 25 brown bears.  20 of these were previously Dancing Bears, some were zoo residents, not all are Bulgarian.  The park covers 120,000 square metres of forest.

If you’re just looking for the logistics of how to get to the Bulgaria Dancing Bears Park, Belitsa, then you can jump further down the page using this link.  Alternatively, read on and find out why they’re here, what the park does and the stories of some of the bears.

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The History of Dancing Bears

Dancing bears history goes back to the Middle Ages.  Dancing bears were a common form of street entertainment.

What is a Dancing Bear?

As early as the tenth century there’s evidence that bears were trained as performers to dance, perform tricks and imitate man.  This occurred throughout Europe.   There was even a bear Academy in Poland and France which led the way in their training of bears.  Bear dancing and bear related activities became such a part of folklore and ritual that it would take centuries before the tide turned – there’s even a Bulgarian saying that “a festival without a bear trainer is a waste of time”.

Dancing Bears Park (17)

By the fifteenth century the practice of bear dancing was less common, however, it wasn’t banned in Britain until 1911.  The first decade of the 19th century saw an official ban in Poland on “bear leading” (basically leading a bear around with a collar on it).  However, in the 1960’s in Paris, there were still bear and monkey leaders to be seen.  Bear dancing was banned in Greece in 1969.

It wasn’t until the early 2000’s that international moves to ban the practice took hold, yet even as late as 2007 there was a bear performing in Seville in Spain.

Dancing Bears in Bulgaria

The practice of Dancing Bears was banned in Bulgaria in 1993, although a resident of the Bulgaria Bear Sanctuary, Monti, was rescued as recently as 2012.  He had been kept in a 9 metre squared concrete room in a hotel in the northern area of Ruse, Bulgaria, as an attraction for the guests.  He was just 18 months old when rescued.

Dancing Bears Park (21)

How is a Dancing Bear “Trained”?

A dancing bear is a bear that has been captured and trained to move as though dancing.  Bears have very poor hearing, so the concept of dancing is alien to them.  Bears were captured when young, separated from their mothers and trained to make movements that make them look as though they are dancing.

The bears are forced onto sheets on red hot metal.  In order to escape the pain, they alternatively lift their paws.  Music is played while this takes place.  Over time, the bears associate the music with intense pain and lift their paws, as if to dance when the music starts.

The bears are further controlled through additional pain infliction.  A bear’s nose is very sensitive – trainers put rings through the bear’s noses.  Control was applied by tugs of the attached chain.  Teeth were removed or broken to further increase control.  Bears teeth do not grow back.  Claws were removed from their paws.  And removed again when they grew back.  No anesthetic is used during these procedures.

Usually kept chained 24 hours a day in small spaces, unable to forage for themselves these bears became dependent on their “trainers”.  They ate the food provided – white bread, sugar and alcohol.  This situation and nutrition generally cause serious physical and mental health problems for the bears.   Many bears kept in this fashion still, years later, sway and pace to the limit of their “cells” from decades ago, unable to break free of the prisons in their mind.

The Belitsa Bear Park Bulgaria helps these bears to live in a more natural environment – no music, no hot metal, no nose rings.

Dancing Bears Park (13)

The Dancing Bears Park

The park now has 25 bears, 20 of whom were previously dancing bears.  There have been dancing bear rescues from from zoos or private ownership.  Set over 120,000 square metres of forest in the Rila Mountains at 1345 metres this is a glorious place.  The park opened in November 2000 and took in three bears immediately.

There is an onsite medical centre for the bears that can be reached directly from several of the enclosures.  Enclosures are very large.  This is no zoo.  There are pools in each enclosure for swimming.  Multiple enclosures can be joined together using tunnels and dens have been provided for hibernation.  However, some bears are now making their own dens and nearly all are hibernating – a natural bear phenomenon that was impossible when they were performing.

There has to be a fence.  These bears cannot survive in the wild.  The fence around all the sectors is 3,326 metres in length.   There are service roads and paths.  There’s also – for the safety of both bears and visitors some 26,608 metres of electric fence.

Dancing Bears Park (9)

But these enclosures look literally just like the forest.  The trees, the landscape is natural.  The pools might be concrete lined, but that didn’t seem to stop the bears enjoying the cool down in the water.

Restrictions on Dancing Bear Bulgaria Park

There’s no breeding at this park.  Many of the bears are too fragile and it would doom any cub born into a lifetime of captivity.  It’s a sanctuary.

The feeding procedures at the park mimic the natural life of a bear.  The Bears have to forage for the food given – it’s dispersed throughout their enclosures.

The Information Centre and Guided Tours

The Information Centre looks like an Ark.  Climbing up to the roof there are stunning views over the forest and the mountains.

Dancing Bears Park Views
Dancing Bears Park Information Centre

Inside the information centre, you’ll be shown a short video on just how the dancing bears were trained.  Steel yourself now.  It is not pleasant.

Dancing Bears Park Video

The medical centre for the park is below the information centre.

Your entrance to the park includes a guided tour (see details below) – you’ll be walked around by an enthusiastic, knowledgeable member of staff.  They’ll answer any questions and tell you the stories of some of the bears that you’ll see.

Bear Stories from the Dancing Bears Park

Monti – rescued from a hotel in Northern Bulgaria in 2012 where he was kept in a small concrete room as entertainment for the guests

Violeta – the matriarch of the Dancing Bear Sanctuary Bulgaria at 36 years old.  Her fur won’t grow back, such has been the abuse she’s received.  Her nose is so disfigured that it will bring tears to your eyes.

Dancing Bears Park Violeta
Violetas Paws

Gabriela – born in 1996, trained as a circus bear, but proved a little too untrainable, she was donated to the Plovdiv Zoo.  She lived in an enclosure of just 15 square metres.  Attacked by another bear she lost one of her front legs.

Gabriela

Riku – the youngest bear in the park – he’s healthy and fit and seems to have endless energy.

Dancing Bears Park Riku

The Dancing Bears Park Funding

This park is funded entirely by charitable organisations – the Four Paws (Vier Pfoten) organisation and the Brigitte Bardot Foundation.  It’s also of course funded by our entrance fees and donations.

The Future for the Dancing Bears Park

The park is currently trying to rescue some 40 bears from Albania.  Follow their progress and perhaps help them fund it through their website.

How to Get to the Dancing Bears Park Belitsa

Where is the Dancing Bears Park Belitsa Bulgaria?

The Dancing Bears Park is situated 12 kilometres outside of the village of Belitsa in the Rila mountains.  Its also known as the Dancing Bears Bulgaria sanctuary.  The closest bus or train station is Belitsa.  This is part of the narrow gauge railway that goes to Septemvri – yu can read more about it here.  Most people travel here from the all season resort of Bansko.

Map_Bansko_to_Dancing_Bears_Park
Belitsa_to_Daning_Bears_Park

The Bear Sanctuary Bulgaria is..

  • 40 – 60 minutes (33 kilometres) from Bansko
  • 2.5 – 3 hours (145  kilometres) from Plovdiv
  • 2.5 – 3 hours  (180  kilometres) from Sofia

How to Get to the Belitsa Bear Sanctuary

There is no public transport to Belitsa, you will need your own transport or to take a tour from nearby Bansko to get to the Dancing Bears Park Bulgaria.

Organisations in Bansko that can provide transport include

We haven’t used any of these – and can’t give a specific recommendation.

Route from Bansko to the Dancing Bears Park

In previous years this has been a precarious drive – the road from Belitsa to the Dancing Bears Park turn off was unpaved.  The road up to the park was in poor condition.  No longer.  This is now an easy trip.  So long as you have transport.

It is an easy drive from Bansko to the Dancing Bears Park.  Drive first to Belitsa.  Once you arrive in Belitsa, you will start to see signposts for the Dancing Bears Park.  They look like this.  The location on both Google maps and maps.me is also accurate.

Dancing Bears Park SIGNS
Dancing Bears Park SIGNS (2)
Dancing Bears Park SIGN2

The final part of the journey is up an unpaved road.  This road stretches for 2.3 kilometres.

Dancing Bears Park SIgn at the bottom of the hill
Dancing Bears Park road conditions

We took an ordinary rental car on this road and it was in better condition than some roads in Sofia!!  It is steep and potholed, but four-wheel drive is NOT required.  That said, I would caution taking this road in bad weather unless you have a suitable vehicle.

We saw 3 cars on our drive from Belitsa to the Dancing Bears Park.  When we left the park there were six vehicles in the car park.  The road was equally quiet on our return to Bansko.

Dancing Bears Park Opening Times

The park is open to visitors from April until November.  It is closed, in order that the bears can hibernate from December until March.  The opening hours vary depending on the month.  Opening Times are currently.

  • April – June:  1200 – 1800
  • July – August:  1000 – 1200  1300 – 1800
  • September – November:  1200 – 1800

Dancing Bears Park Guided Tours

There are guided tours either every 30 or 60 minutes depending on the time of year that you visit.  A guided tour costs no more than the entrance to the park.  The guided tours are given in English or Bulgarian, depending on the group and will give you an understanding of why the park came into existence.  Your guide will also tell you about the various bears who are in the park and their history.  You are encouraged to ask questions.

Dancing Bears Video

Watch the official documentary of the Dancing Bear Park Belitsa

Dancing Bears Park Layout

Your guided tour starts at the information centre.  This is a short 2-3 minute walk from the car park.  The walk is slightly uphill over somewhat uneven ground.  The entire route for the guided tour is about 1 kilometre.  50% of is downhill.  50% of it is uphill.

Dancing Bears Park Plan of park

The tour starts by going downhill – the path is between two enclosures.  There is a rope with which to steady yourself on one side.  There are some steps, there is loose gravel.  This is easy walking but you will need to watch your step on the loose gravel.

Dancing Bears Park Path conditions
Dancing Bears Park Steps back up
Dancing Bears Park Path

At the midway point of the tour, you turn back and begin to go uphill again.  It is 500 metres back to the Information Centre.  It is a combination of slope and steps.  The park is at 1345 metres above sea level.

Dancing Bears Park (12)

We travelled with an elderly member of our family, who was at this time particularly fragile and unsteady on their feet, but who very much wanted to visit.   The staff at the park were superb.  At this halfway point they sent down the 4×4 Lada to take her back up to the Information Centre.   They will assist wherever possible to ensure that your visit is safe in order that you see as much as you and your family are able to.

Dancing Bears Park Lada 4x4

Dancing Bears Park Contact Information

  • Bear Park Sanctuary Belitsa
  • Andrianov Chark area, town of Belitsa, district of Blagoevgrad, BULGARIA
  • Phone: +359 887 866 189

Entrance fees to the Dancing Bears Park

The cost of entry is 6 leva per adult and 3 leva per child.  This includes a short video describing why the park came about.  The video is in Bulgarian with English subtitles.  The entry cost also includes a guided tour.  It is possible to take a private tour for 50 leva for up to 10 people – but you will need to arrange this in advance with the park.  They are very responsive through their Facebook page, although the email on their website does not work.

Food and Refreshments at the Dancing Bears Park

There is a small kiosk, where you buy tickets, that sells hot and cold drinks.  There is also a small kiosk in the car park. In the car park, you’ll see a sign to the BBQ restaurant, noting 400 metres.  You can also drive down to this by returning down the unpaved road, turning right at the end and driving a further 50 metres.  A full menu is available here and the food is superb.

Dancing Bears Park BBQ Restaurant BEAR PAW
Dancing Bears Park Bear Paw Salada

Concluding our Visit to the Dancing Bear Park Bulgaria

We were all very keen to visit, however, we were seriously concerned about the terrain at the Dancing Bear Park Bansko.  The staff helped us immensely and ensured that each member of our family was able to see both the bears and understand their stories.  The location is beautiful and this sanctuary is well worth your visit, your time and your money.

Where to Stay to Visit the Dancing Bear Park

What Else to Do around the Dancing Bear Park

Plan your Trip to Bulgaria

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