It was a spur of the moment decision, the likes of those that lead to unforgettable adventures. One evening, over a few drinks, four pals decided to go climbing in Leonidio for a whole month; in a van that was not converted for sleeping and living in it; with two tents, too. There was no clear plan. In fact, we hardly knew any details for our trip – where to stay, how much we’d spend, were we’d climb, how it’d be, and so on. It was pure dirtbagging. And we excelled at it.
We said YES to adventure. One week later we all hopped in an old Renault Trafic van and headed for Greece. All we knew was that we wanted to reach Leonidio; at some point. Simple, right? Well, it was harder to get there than we’d though, as you’ll soon find out if you keep reading.
That’s not all you’ll find. Thinking of heading to Leonidio to climb, the dirtbagging way or any old way? I’ve put together this comprehensive guide for climbing in Leonidio to help you plan an epic trip and also discover what you can see, eat, and experience while there.
In this article
The drive to Leonidio & climbing in Nafplio
At the Romania-Bulgaria border, some of the paperwork for the car was not in order and they just wouldn’t let us go through. So, we had to return home the same day. It seemed as though the adventure ended as soon as it began.
The very next day, we hopped in a different Renault Trafic. We checked the papers, everything looked okay. So we left for Greece, again, hoping that we’d get it right the second time around.
We crossed the border, drove across Bulgaria, and then crossed the Bulgaria-Greece border. It was the middle of the night when we entered Greece and we knew we should stop to sleep, at least for a few hours. Our friend had a place in mind after Thessaloniki, next to the village of Stomio – Agia Paraskevi Gazebo.
GPS signal was not that great in Greece; for the entirety of our trip actually. That’s how we ended up driving for almost two hours somewhere parallel to the highway, on a narrow road in a sort of marshland that was half flooded, no cars or houses in sight, the navigation system telling us to turn left all the time. We had to turn back twice because the road was flooded, we nearly ran over a bunch of wild boars, and finally managed to get to the place we were looking for when we had already lost hope.
After we hung our hammocks under the roof of a gazebo perched on a rocky headland, we managed to get a few hours of sleep despite the restless Aegean Sea.
Our next stop was Nafplio, one of the most impressive ancient cities in the eastern Peloponnese. We were planning to sleep on the beach and also climb there for a bit. The drive there was simply striking – by the Aegean Sea, through highlands, and past Athens.
When we reached Nafplio, it was already dark. And surprise! The brakes of the van cave in. Let me just say it was an adventure to get down to the beach; our friend drove the car in reverse. But we did get down, and we parked the van next to the wide, sandy Karathona Beach, on the grass, and camped for the night.
We spent two days in Nafplio climbing, swimming, and changing the brakes for the van. We climbed at Neraki Bay sector, right next to the promenade, above the Aegean Sea. It is an impressive location, with 40+ sport climbing routes on reddish limestone, from 5 to 8a.
With new brakes for the van, we left Nafplio for Leonidio. It was yet another scenic drive by the sea, past olive groves, beaches, fishing boats, and traditional villages.
Leonidio in a nutshell
Photo by ABC Climbing
On the east coast of the Peloponnese, in Arkadia, the picturesque Greek village of Leonidio lies at the mouth of the Dafonas River Gorge, some 3 km from the Aegean Sea. Its terracotta-tile roofs seem stacked in perfect order, the occasional pointy cypress tree in between. Above them, the iconic (and impressive) Red Rock stands tall.
There are olive groves on the steep, rocky slopes above the village. On the flat land between Leonidio and the sea, there are orange groves and greenhouses. If you come here in winter, during orange season, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see locals handing out bags of oranges to tourists; randomly, for free, and with a smile. That’s enough to make your day.
Leonidio actually extends all the way to the sea. It has a traditional fishing port – Plaka – with some accommodation options, restaurants, and a pebble beach. It also has a few houses by the beach in Lakkos.
On Mondays, there’s a farmer’s market in the center of Leonidio, next to the bridge over the river. The prices are quite good, and you’ll see a lot of climbers making provisions for the week. In winter, you’ll find honey, olive oil, fresh farm eggs, mountain tea, herbal tea, groceries, fish, as well as honey or olive based skin care products.
You can find pretty much all you need in Leonidio. There are three climbing equipment stores, two well-stocked supermarkets (plus some smaller ones), souvenir shops, bakeries, grocery stores, fish market, meat stores, taverns, cafes, bars, and many more.
Dirtbagging in Leonidio
Is wild camping allowed in Greece? Generally speaking, wild camping and staying in a camper van in undesignated places is not allowed in Greece. But it is tolerated during winter months (off-season) in some areas, Leonidio included.
There are lots of camper vans in Leonidio; on the dirt roads to some of the crags, on the side of the road on the valley leading up to the mountain, by the beach… But our van was not converted, remember? Two of us were sleeping in a tent, another one in a tiny, half-torn tent, and the fourth in the van. The landscape in Leonidio is steep and rocky, not exactly camping material.
We drove around for some time before we found an abandoned olive grove near Poulithra. We asked a local if we could sleep there, and he said no problem. So there it was, our crew of dirtbags on the eastern Peloponnese coast, nestling in the bushes.
The Aegean Sea was not too cold, so I swam almost every day; twice a day on some occasions. Personal hygiene was all taken care of.
For fresh drinking water, we would go to the Leonidio Playground in the center of the village and fill our bottles and canisters.
On rest days, when the sea was calm, our friend went fishing with a harpoon, sometimes spending hours on end. Thanks to him, on some evenings, we feasted like kings on fresh fish grilled over the campfire on the beach.
The climbing vibes
Photo by ABC Climbing
You’ll find an international crowd of climbers at the crags. In the evening, everyone gathers at the taverns and bars in the village, for a filling Greek dinner, a beer, or a glass of local wine. Pánjika Cooperative is one of favorite hangout spots for climbers.
There are two guidebooks available for climbing in Leonidio, both of which contain the climbing areas around Leonidio and Kyparissi. The most popular guidebook is the one made by Pánjika Cooperative, a non-profit based in Leonidio, who also own a bar and a climbing shop.
The guidebook includes Leonidio, Kyparissi, Vlychada, and more. You can find it for sale in Leonidio at Pánjika Cooperative, the climbing stores, as well as other shops downtown. If you don’t have the guidebook or don’t wish to buy it, you can still get around with thecrag.com for free.
Climbing in Leonidio
Climbing in Leonidio gained a lot of popularity in recent years. It is a preferred winter getaway for European climbers, and with good reason – tons of sport climbing routes on high quality limestone, small and picturesque pebble beaches, seafood, Mediterranean cuisine, sunshine, and a laidback lifestyle all add to its charm, making it simply irresistible.
The amount of climbing at Leonidio is impressive, if not overwhelming. There are over 2,500 routes, from 4 to 9a+, as well as projects. The biggest chunk of the routes is in the 6a to 7b range. For beginners, it is a fantastic playground. It’s great if you’re looking to get some mileage, climbing as many routes around your level as possible. It’s also a good place to try hard and push your limit.
Leonidio is renowned for its reddish limestone and full range of styles and difficulties. There are tufas to hug, stalactites to cut loose in style, roofs, crimpy vertical faces, gray technical slabs, you name it!
Photo by ABC Climbing
Elona, H.A.D.A, Twin Caves, Mars, Jupiter, Sàbaton, Hot Rock, Nifada, and Limeri are already iconic sectors. Generally speaking, the routes offer good friction, as they’re not too polished yet, except maybe a few very popular lines.
The crags are located from almost sea level to 900 meters elevation. Choosing where you want to climb depends on the weather and conditions. There are sectors that are in the sun all day – perfect for colder days. And there are some at a higher elevation, partly in shade, that are good for warmer days.
During our trip, we preferred the sectors closer to the village, due to their lower elevation and sun exposure. For the most part, the month we spent in Leonidio was cold. Since we stayed true to the dirtbagging path, we did not enjoy the comfort of a heated room and longed for sun and warmth.
We climbed at Mars sector, Namaste, Twin Caves, Sàbaton, Montanejos Climbing Garden, La Maison des Chevres, and Theos Cave. All in all, we clocked in quite a few routes in very different styles. Not too shabby.
The best time to climb in Leonidio is between November and April. That said, some of the sectors at higher altitudes and in the shade may be climbable outside these months, too.
While Leonidio is dubbed a sunny winter getaway for Europeans, you should not take that for granted. The weather can be quite unpredictable in winter and we discovered for ourselves that the forecast doesn’t always nail it. When we arrived there at the beginning of December, it was snowing at the sectors higher up on the valley. At the beginning of January, we were basking in the sun at 17-18 degrees Celsius.
Certain sectors tend to be windy. Some places dry out quickly after rainfall, others not so much. Also, the bigger tufas may stay wet for a long time after heavy rainfall.
What to pack
Bring your entire climbing gear. A 70-meter rope should suffice for the most of the popular sectors. However, there are places with routes in the 35 to 40-meter range, too. There are some multi-pitches as well.
Bring a helmet, too. Some of the newly bolted routes may still have loose rock. Then there are the many goats that roam around freely, sometimes right above the crags.
Since the weather can be quite unpredictable, changing from warm and sunny to windy, rainy, or even snowy, make sure you pack layers.
Where to stay
There are quite a few accommodation options in Leonidio and the surrounding villages – Poulithra (9 km south) and Sampatiki (9 km north).
There is only one campsite in Leonidio – Camping Semeli – located in Plaka, near the beach. They offer places for pitching your tent, as well as bungalows and a guesthouse.
The dirtbag way…
The landscape in Leonidio is not exactly the friendliest if you wish to wild camp. If you travel in a van, there are quite a few parking spaces on the main roads as well as on the secondary roads to the crags. We saw vans near the beach in Plaka (where there’s also a public toilet open during off-season) and Lakkos, on the road between Leonidio and Poulithra, next to the road through Dafonas River Gorge, as well as closer to the crags.
If you’re looking for a friendlier and truly spectacular location to wild camp, then go to Fokiano Beach, about an hour’s drive from Leonidio.
What to eat
The Peloponnese is a paradise for food lovers. So, while in Leonidio, get ready to be swept off your feet by Mediterranean and Greek food at the many local taverns. There are some Turkish influences here, so don’t be surprised if you see hummus, baklava, and other oriental dishes and spices. Also, Greek coffee is strikingly similar to Turkish coffee – finely ground and flavorful.
Make sure to try the souvlaki (the popular Greek fast-food with meat grilled on a skewer), gyros (Greek doner), fish varieties, and calamari. For vegetarians, there are loads of options, from the classic Greek salad to the many vegetable-based dishes. Leonidio is also famous for its tsakoniki eggplants and there are many recipes that use them.
You’ll find loads of taverns in Leonidio, Plaka, and Poulithra. For a quick fix, head to “To Steki” and grab a souvlaki to go. For some Greek and Mediterranean delicacies, check out O Takas and Mitropolis Tavern in the center of Leonidio. If you feel like having an Italian pizza baked in a wooden oven, go to In Leonidio.
For some great seafood, go to Plaka at Michael and Margaret Tavern or the Fisherman’s Tavern (Tou Psara). Also, taste the seafood and other Greek dishes at Myrtoon in Poulithra.
While in Greece, and especially in the Peloponnese, you simply must try the honey. You can find honey in the farmer’s market on Monday, at the supermarkets, and at souvenir shops. There are many varieties you can try, from the famed thyme honey to pine, orange blossom, and more.
Try the fragrant mountain tea they sell at the farmer’s market and at some shops downtown. Have some Greek pita bread with your meal. And switch to local olive oil, the cloudy fragrant kind that’s so delicious you could almost eat it with a spoon.
Don’t even get me started on the desserts… You have the baklava in many different varieties and kataifi (a sort of baklava, different dough). Then you have the loukoumades (sweet Greek donuts), karydopita (Greek walnut cake), revani (sponge cake with orange/lemon syrup), portokalopita (Greek orange cake), diples (Greek pastry dipped in honey), and many more.
Greek semolina halva, made with tahini (sesame paste), semolina, honey, nuts, and other optional ingredients, is a vegan dessert and one of the most delicious in Mediterranean cuisine. And for a simple treat, you can’t go wrong with the traditional yoghurt and honey.
Rest days in Leonidio are mellow, just as they should be. You can walk around the winding narrow streets in downtown Leonidio, admiring the whitewashed houses and traditional architecture, stopping for a baklava at the local bakeries, a beer at a terrace, or lunch at a tavern. If you travel by personal car/van, bring your bike as it will make for a nice pastime.
Head out to the beach for a swim in the Aegean Sea. Leonidio’s main beach is Lakkos (Lakkos Paralia), about 3.5 kilometers from downtown Leonidio. However, I found the smaller beaches around Leonidio to be a lot prettier. Plaka, the traditional harbor 4 kilometers from downtown Leonidio, has a nice little pebble beach, taverns, market, and accommodation options.
There are some small, intimate, and adorable hidden beaches near Poulithra that we simply loved.
Go to the idyllic Fokiano Beach on the newly opened road to Kyparissi, some 34 kilometers from Leonidio. Chill at the beach and in the picturesque harbor in the sheltered cove. Have a filling meal at Costa Mare Tavern on the beach.
Visit the surroundings
Photo by ABC Climbing
Visit Elona Monastery (half an hour drive from Leonidio), right next to Elona sector. Drive further, to the traditional mountain village of Kosmas (about 30 km from Leonidio) on the Dafonas River Gorge, and stop at one of the taverns.
Check out other climbing areas near Leonidio, like Kapsala (between Fokiano Beach and Kyparissi), Kyparissi (55 km from Leonidio on a scenic road by the sea), and Vlychada (a striking hidden cove 65 km from Leonidio).
If you’re up for a longer road trip, drive south to Monemvasia, a superb medieval castle town and one of the most romantic places in the whole of Greece.
Other useful travel advice
Many climbers prefer to fly into Athens International Airport (ATH) and rent a car from there. Leonidio is 3.5 to 4 hours south of Athens by car.
There are also climbers who make the trip by personal car or camper van, mainly those who prefer to stay longer.
You can get to Leonidio via public transport, too. From Athens, there’s a bus to Leonidio (KTEL bus) twice a day. You’ll need to take a bus from Athens Airport to Kifissos in order to board the bus to Leonidio.
If you plan to climb in Leonidio, it’s ideal to have a car. Sure, it is possible to get to Leonidio without one. But once here, you are limited in terms of where you can climb, the sectors being scattered on the valley. You can reach some sectors by foot, but others do require a car to get to.
On our last trip, Greece didn’t really feel like such a budget-friendly destination.
Gasoline is expensive in Greece, one of the priciest in Europe in fact. And don’t get me started on the road tolls… Greece’s highways are really good; they’re also very expensive. There are dozens of booth gates, sometimes one after the other, and you’ll find yourself literally throwing money on road tolls. If you avoid the highways, the roads are strenuous and take much longer, so I guess there’s not much choice there.
Accommodation prices in Leonidio and the surrounding villages vary. You can find some budget-friendly accommodation options if you book well in advance for the low season (winter months) and for a longer period of time.
The farmer’s market in Leonidio has good prices, but I found the supermarkets to be a bit on the expensive side.
Luckily, the supermarkets are well stocked-up and you can find pretty much everything you need. Some things are expensive, such as meat and beer (that last one ruined our budget). But some local produce is fairly priced, such as Greek coffee, tahini, honey, yoghurt, feta cheese, wine, olive soap, etc. So, as long as you’re creative with your meals, you can get away with a decent shopping basket.
Overall, if you choose the dirtbagging way, it is possible to get around on a small budget – sleeping in a van (or next to it, as was our case), eating takeaway souvlaki, making provisions from the farmer’s market, getting free oranges, and cooking your own meals.
It was quite easy to get by with the locals in English. Reading Greek, on the other hand, now that’s a challenge.
Since I find it respectful to be able to use a couple of Greek words in a conversation, here are a few useful phrases in Greek:
- Καλημέρα (Ka-li-me-ra) – Good morning (only until 12 pm)
- Γειά Σας (yia-sas) – Hello
- Καλησπέρα (Ka-li-spe-ra) – Good afternoon/evening
- Καληνύχτα (Ka-li-ni-hta) – Good night
- Ναι (Ne) – Yes
- Όχι (O-hi) – No
- Ευχαριστώ (ef-ha-ri-stoh) – Thank you
- Παρακαλώ (pa-ra-ka-loh) – Please/you’re welcome
Join in on the Greek spirit
Greeks enjoy life; and show it. Take this opportunity to slow down, admire the scenery, smell the oranges, feel the salty seawater on your skin, eat, laugh, and find your peace. If not here, where?
Greeks love spending time outdoors. They are passionate, value family time, and take take eating and cooking very seriously. They also love coffee (and will take as many coffee breaks as they wish), are not punctual, are loud, and they may come off as a bit chaotic at times. But that’s all part of the Greek spirit.
Time passes by differently here. In Leonidio, even in winter, you’ll see how many shops close in the afternoon and the whole village becomes much quieter. That’s then Greek siesta. Then it all comes back to life in the evening.
Oh, and don’t be surprised if you see locals at taverns starting to sing or dance out of the blue. If you can, join them!
*Tiny disclosure: this post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I may earn a small commission to help fund my climbing trips.