Greece’s river to the ‘underworld’ now lures adventure travelers

Acheron, the mythical waterway to Hades, is popular for birdwatching, river trekking, and zip lining. Is it sustainable?

Back in the days of gods and monsters, the Titans fought the Olympians for control of the universe. During this 10-year Titanomachy, the Titans gained strength by drinking from the Acheron River. Angered by the move, Zeus cursed the river, turning it black and bitter—a fitting fate for one of the five rivers in Greek mythology said to lead into the underworld.

At least, that’s how one version of the river’s origin story goes. In real life, the Acheron is far from its ancient mythological reputation as “the river of woe.” The 32-mile-long waterway in Epirus, a region in northwest Greece, teems with life, enchanting day-trippers with its biodiverse ecosystem of majestic gorges, ponds, and waterfalls. In riverside villages, nature lovers spot rare wildlife, learn about the area’s history, and yes, float down the storied river.

But a recent uptick in pandemic crowds is incurring the wrath of residents and government officials in tourist towns such as Ammoudiá and Glykí. Misbehaving visitors are leaving trash, damaging flora, and disturbing bird nesting areas. Now, with the spring tourism season on the horizon, officials are looking for ways to balance increased visitation with sustainability. At risk are the area’s endangered animals and natural spaces, which locals are determined to preserve for future generations.

Myths, history, and beyond

The Acheron springs from the Tomaros mountains in the Ioannina prefecture and flows west to the fishing village of Ammoudiá, where it fans out to a delta before emptying into the Ionian Sea. Many villages along the way offer access to the river, but most travelers set their itineraries to Ammoudiá, Mesopótamos, and Glykí.

Of the three, Mesopótamos is most closely tied to the river’s mythology. Located just three miles east of Ammoudiá, the hamlet is home to what used to be Acherusian Lake, long believed to be an entrance to Hades. From 1958 to 1977, University of Ioannina archaeology professor Sotirios Dakaris excavated the northwest shores of the lake and uncovered ruins dating to the Hellenistic-period (late fourth to late third centuries B.C.). The ruins were identified as the Necromanteion, or the Oracle of the Dead.

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Millennia ago, the Necromanteion (also Nekromanteion) featured in Homer’s tale of Odysseus sailing into Hades, where he briefly reunited with the souls of many, including his mother, on the banks of the Acheron. Like Homer’s hero, ancient Greek pilgrims made the arduous trip to the oracle to communicate directly with the dearly departed.

“The world of the dead was considered quite dangerous,” says Anthi Aggeli, director of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Preveza, an expert on the site’s history. “Therefore, pilgrims had to be clean in body and soul. They had to follow a specific cleansing ceremony.”

Pilgrims typically stayed at the Necromanteion “for a lunar month,” says Spyros Raptis, president of the Friends of Nekromanteion and Acheron and a tour guide at the site for 35 years. They ate specific foods—including hallucinogenic plants—and performed rituals in the darkness. During their stay, the believers claimed to see shadows of deceased loved ones.

Experts debate whether the site is the fabled Necromanteion or an ancient farmhouse, yet it continues to fascinate, especially after sound tests conducted from 1997 to 2008 by Aristotle University of Thessaloniki researchers concluded that the subterranean chamber is indeed “dead silent.” Even if it isn’t the ancient Necromanteion, “it certainly is an early anechoic chamber built 2,700 years ago,” claims Panagiotis Karampatzakis, one of the researchers.

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Today’s travelers can combine a stop at the ruins with a visit to Ammoudiá, where boat tours explore the wetlands along the river with its waterlilies, emerald damselflies, and trees decorated with fuzzy penduline tit nests. It’s mesmerizing, says tour guide Giorgos Bitzios, a modern-day ferryman in Ammoudiá.

About 12 miles upriver from Ammoudiá, Glykí is known for heart-pumping adventures like canyoneering and river trekking, a popular activity in Asia that combines swimming and climbing boulders, to a gorge commonly called the Straits.

Others take to the sky on zip lines at places such as Zipline Greece, and slide 350 yards at speeds up to 30 miles per hour over the turquoise waters. But it’s not all adventure. “Acheron is a mild river [in summer],” says Vivi Markou, who started her tour business, Riverdream, with two rafting boats and two horses. “Rafting here [in Glykí] accommodates all levels of experience. It’s ideal both for families and older people.”

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Nature—and challenges

Besides the myriad of outdoor activities, Acheron supports unique habitats that are home to rare and endangered animals and plants in the region. Vulnerable birds including golden eagles, griffon vultures, Bonelli’s eagles, and Egyptian vultures nest at the Straits in Glykí, while Eurasian spoonbills, black storks, and ferruginous ducks shelter in the wetlands of Ammoudiá. In all, the 11,440 acres encompassing the Straits and wetlands are part of the European Commission’s NATURA 2000 network of protected areas.

Tourism wasn’t a viable economic pursuit in the region until 2006, when the construction of nearby resorts and motorways provided access to isolated towns like Glykí. In 2019, 50,000 people visited the region, mostly from April to September, boosting Glykí as a key destination for Acheron tourism. With improved opportunities, most young people now stay in town to work in local businesses.

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The popularity of the region seems to be rising. Last summer during the pandemic, visitation to the region grew to nearly 2,000 daily visitors, “something very promising for the next season,” says Giorgos Ntagkas, deputy mayor for culture, sports, and trade in the municipality of Souli. “Our goal is to extend the tourist season and further develop outdoor activities, improve the hiking trails, open up mountain and river biking routes, and promote paragliding.”

Yet, officials must now contend with the rise in visitation’s negative side effects. Visitors are increasingly going off established trails, leaving trash, camping, and lighting fires. Recently, branches cut from plane trees left them vulnerable to a dangerous fungus.

Exacerbating the problem, some restaurant construction projects in Glykí are impacting the riverbed, while beach-side canteens (snack bar-type businesses) in Ammoudiá have caused the destruction of sand dunes and the clearing of juniper trees and shrubs.

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Officials are keeping an eye on the problems in planning for the future. “We have been studying the carrying capacity [at the Straits and surrounding area] … so that the ecosystem does not deteriorate,” says Alexandros Konstantinis, environmental manager and physicist at Management Body of Kalamas-Acheron-Corfu.

Because the study is ongoing, it’s too soon to say for certain what changes will be implemented this year. In the meantime, officials say they’re enforcing existing regulations and raising awareness at information centers in Ammoudiá and Glykí and educational events throughout the region that highlight Acheron’s historic and natural heritage.

In time, officials hope that new initiatives will bring awareness to a wider audience so that the river’s treasured biodiversity doesn’t become the stuff of myth.

“We want visitors to come for the beauty of this scenery,” stresses Ntagkas, the deputy mayor of Souli. “We certainly don’t intend to sacrifice nature for profit.”

Maria Atmatzidou is an Athens-based writer who covers travel and archaeology. She was previously editor-in-chief of the Greek editions of National Geographic and National Geographic Kids magazines. Follow her on Instagram.

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