Hiking in the Svaneti Region of Georgia is an absolute treat. It’s one of the main areas that is easily accessible from Kutaisi so it’s a well-trodden route to get to Mestia from Kutaisi.
Getting to Mestia
We discovered just how cheap Georgian taxis are when a 10 minute ride to the bus station from our hostel cost 2.6 Lari (£0.75) for the three of us.
It was as easy as I expected to find the correct bus (window board marked in English) and then we were directed to buy our tickets from the cashier window which looked like it was a ticket office for the casino it was housed in. Tickets from Kutaisi to Mestia cost 25 Lari per person and the minibus that leaves at 08:10am has 20 seats and it left on time and is full.
The journey though! Leaving Kutaisi was a bit hectic but it was once we reached the open road that the driver seemed to be trying to break the sound barrier!
After a town called Zugdidi, which is another option to begin the trip to Mestia, the roads turned into zig-zaggy mountain passes and we soared above a spectacular turquoise reservoir. But it definitely felt like we were travelling at 100 miles an hour and was exhilarating/terrifying.
My tip here is that if you are a slightly nervous passenger then maybe just give this bus ride a miss. Pay a little extra to take a taxi there and stay sane. This is one of the most hair-raising road journeys of my entire life.
We arrived in Mestia in a little over 5 hours, with a much-needed break to calm the nerves. The bus station is in the main square so it’s easy to get your bearings. We plopped ourselves down in the nearest cafe and had lunch while we planned the next steps.
I popped over to the tourist information office and had a chat with the woman about possible routes and places to stay on our way to Ushguli. There are a number of other options for treks which are not as touristy but we had set our hearts on the 4-day hike to Ushguli.
If you fancy it, you can summit a couple of the peaks around here but you need to register with the Border Police because we are on the border with Russia and they do NOT like people making incursions into Russia over the mountains. I met two guys who had been caught walking off the mountain trail the day before by Border Police and they had had their passports confiscated so that they couldn’t cross to Russia.
Tourist Information has paper maps of most of the hiking routes, but they aren’t particularly easy to use and they often run out of the popular routes. We tried to navigate a bit using a paid-for app but it was terrible (with routes uploaded by any trekkers rather than reputable guides who take reasonable trails!). We fell back to MAPS.ME every time and it was fine.
Accommodation in Mestia is more expensive than most places in Georgia so we did some hunting around online and found a place with a triple room that was in a “nearby” village.
The place we chose, Eco House Svaneti, had a basic room rate of 45 Lari (£13) and is listed as 8km from Mestia. We booked it, pleased with ourselves for securing such a bargain and then we tried to get a taxi, thinking the price would be about 50 Lari (price list in the tourist office). We were offered a ride for 90 Lari initially and I managed to negotiate it to 50.
The ride was back the way we had come for a few kilometres and then steeply down into a valley and up another one to a village called Latali. The driver stopped a few times to ask for directions and we were greeted at the gate by the owner, David, who speaks decent English. We opted to add dinner and breakfast to our reservation so the price was 45 Lari (£13) per person.
The views from the large balcony are absolutely stunning and it’s nice to be able to chill here while we wait for dinner. We had expected to do some route planning but it seems that I immediately misplaced the maps so we are settling for knowing which village we are going to walk to tomorrow.
Dinner was a delicious home-grown vegetarian feast and I am now sitting up on the balcony looking at the stars while I let dinner go down. I could get used to this.
Day One – Mestia to Zhabeshi – 14km
We got a lift from David back into Mestia so we could get some cash, snacks and more maps for the hike. We set off late because the Tourist Information doesn’t open until 10 anyway and we had the most leisurely breakfast ever.
Our hike today lasted five and a half hours and most of the way we were reasonably content that we were following the right trail. Or at least I was. But each app and map showed a different route and distance.
We walked approximately 14km, first getting another epic view of Mestia from a track leading up out of the valley. The towers in the village are stunning and they rise up from everywhere and sit against the mountain backdrop. We can see Ushguli, a beautiful ice-capped mountain at the very end of the valley and we will spend the rest of the week hiking towards it.
The hike undulated a lot but it was only tough for a short section near the beginning and we were glad to be walking up it rather than coming down as it was loose and rocky.
About half way through our hike today we reached a ridge with a fantastic view over the valley and we stopped for a little picnic. We were suddenly joined by a very curious and friendly cow who was really just in it for the food. She began dragging the bags around and snuffling for the hotdogs and apples.
For the last four kilometres we followed the raging river. It was good to finally see one of the Georgian rivers up close as they are formidable and make more of an impression when you are alongside.
We shared the trail today with an incredible number of animals; mainly cows but towards the end there were lots of pigs and even a curious herd of goats.
We reached Zhabeshi at 5pm, having hiked since 11:30am, so we made pretty good time and found a guest house called Kakheti. Luka, the owner, is friendly and helpful, with good English.
The price for a mixed dorm with three beds, plus dinner, breakfast and a packed lunch is 60 Lari per person, which is less than £20. I went to sit out in the evening sun, (despite some sunburn) and was pounced on by a three month old German Shepherd puppy called Charlie who just got more and more bitey. It was fun sitting there with nothing else to do in the whole world except play with this puppy.
Dinner was at 7pm and we shared the table with a Polish family. The meal was nice and was punctuated with Charlie running up the stairs and trying to jump on the table before being chased off by the owner. We had some wine that smelled strongly of strawberries but tasted quite like vodka – we are firmly in the land of homemade wine now!
There was a big storm after sunset and we sat out on the veranda drinking wine and chatting amid the chaos.
I sat listening to music for a while longer and still managed to get to bed fairly early.
Day Two – Zhabeshi to Adishi – 10/11km
The day has dawned bright with some light cloud. We expect rain later in the day so we planned to leave quite early, but it looks like we will leave close to 10am. Breakfast was unusual but nice, we had little meat cutlets with coleslaw, omelette and toast.
Luka gave us a quick summary of the route for today and then we were on our way.
The hike was uphill for a solid few hours. Sometimes across open fields and other times through woods.
The views just got better and better this higher we got as we could see into the glacier valleys.
At the top of the path we reached a ski lift, closed for the summer season and we continued up the gravel road for a kilometre and then dropped down into a lush valley. We found a “market” there which is actually a cafe with a fantastic view across the valley plus there were deck chairs! We bought drinks and ate our picnic lunch there.
We knew there was rain forecast from 2pm so we went on our way and walked past some gorgeous wildflowers with the mountain backdrop before the trail became quite rocky and steep.
We descended into a valley and then crossed a babbling brook then climbed steeply upward through a slightly overgrown trail in the woods.
At the top we reached a meadow with cute haystacks and it was flat for a while until it seemingly headed straight over the edge of a cliff! Upon closer inspection of course it wasn’t a death trap but it was a really steep section leading down towards Adishi village where we walked straight to Elizabeth’s Guest House.
Elizabeth is really nice and she showed us to a room and then a German called Raphael has joined us for the night. There was a super cool male cat called Ozzie and he curled up on my bed while I stroked him for more than an hour while I chilled after the hike.
Elizabeth’s mum invited us into the kitchen and fed us watermelon and then Elizabeth looked through the photos I’ve taken in Georgia on my DSLR.
Then we went to the Cafe/Bar at the end of the road that Elizabeth recommended. It’s so cute. A wooden hut with some tables and a fridge full of beer and soft drinks. I am chilling here until dinner. Rafael joined me for a while but mostly I’ve just been watching the sun set at the end of the valley.
Dinner was nice as all the guests ate together at a family dinner table. We had a decent spread of Georgian cuisine with a soup to start and a range of traditional breads and stews.
The place was strangely full of spiders but it was still a nice place to stay.
Day 3 – Adishi to Iprali – 18km
Today was the longest day but Emma and I decide to surprise Seb by hiring horses for the first part of the trail. We had hoped to hire them for the whole day but the price we were offered made our eyes water. The prices were: 250 Lari per horse for the whole day, 150 per horse to reach the pass (8km), 50 per horse to reach and cross the river (5km). We opted for the 5km ride across the valley to the river. Out of curiosity, I decided to check how much it would cost to buy a horse – around 2000 Lari. Maybe I should come back here and set up a horse rental business if you can make 10% of the horse price back per day!
The horses were nice and it worked out well. I led the way and Emma brought up the rear, with the guide sharing her horse for most of the way. The path was undulating but fairly easy going and we took roughly the same time as walking would have.
The best thing for me about riding today (aside from me missing horses so much) was that you can look up and around so much more of the time than when you are hiking. And boy was there a lot to look at.
The view of the Adishi Glacier as we rounded a corner in the valley was astounding and it just kept getting better and better.
We reached the rushing river and waited for a little while for a few other people to borrow Seb’s horse to cross the river. There was a tiny baby foal there, barely able to stand, what an adorable sight!
Also, there were a few Georgian men and boys there to hire horses to the tourists so that they could cross the river. One of them walked over to me and asked if I was Holli, then showed me a photo of myself on his phone. There’s me thinking my blog had gone viral or something!! Haha, turns out a friend I made in South America, Sarah, who has been giving me advice for Georgia after her recent trip, is still in touch with this guy, Svani, and told him I would be there today! What a small, crazy world.
We said goodbye to the horses and then headed up the steep trail, climbing for over one and a half hours with views of the valley that just kept getting more spectacular.
We reached the top and walked along the ridge towards the glacier for a better view and to eat our lunch. We were joined by some of the cutest mountain dogs I have met since the Himalayas!
The next hour was spent walking down a really steep and narrow trail with switchbacks through a lovely steep meadow. I hiked alone for this and enjoyed being with my thoughts. It’s a great experience hiking with a group where you can have time together and time apart as you feel like it. I stopped for a while to listen to music and look at the view from half way down. Emma was struggling with blisters today so the downhill was tough and I had some time to wait for her to catch up.
We hung out at the bottom with Raphael who we had bumped in to a few times today and then we all walked an hour along a fairly smooth wide trail until we came to a village that had been almost totally destroyed by the Russian army in 1876. Now there is one family there running a guest house with a bar and a lovely view. We had a beer and probably stayed a bit too long as the temperature dropped and the sun vanished from the valley.
We set off thinking we had quite a long walk to Iprali but we made it to the village in less than an hour and went straight to Betegi Guest House. We were greeted by Billy who gave us a room with dinner and breakfast for 55 Lari.
The showers were so nice and there is a lovely terrace where we enjoyed a glass of wine before dinner. It’s a bit chilly here though so I have had to put on all my warm clothes tonight.
Dinner was a feast. The table was packed with dishes like Christmas or Thanksgiving! We shared dinner with all the guests here too, so there were eight of us at the table which was nice.
After a long day I’ve definitely earned an early night!
Day Four – Iprali to Ushguli
We decided to take a car from Iprali to Ushguli because the hike is 5 hours on a mountain trail that is 200m above the road the whole way. We had heard it was a boring trek and that Ushguli was a great place to hang out. We chilled for the whole morning with great views of the mountains from our room and then got in the car to go down the steep track to the main dirt road to Ushguli.
Our car promptly broke down on a steep bend, miles away from the guesthouse but still miles from the road. Haha. The driver didn’t say anything but he just started slowly trekking back up the hill and left us there for ages unsure if we should just hike.
Another car owned by the family arrived to jump start the car and thankfully it was the functioning 4×4 that took us the rest of the way. The views were spectacular along the valley and the river looked beautiful flowing down a canyon.
We rounded a sharp corner and Ushguli came into view. Many of the houses down by the river have towers, most of them are dilapidated and that seriously only adds to the charm. The glacier at the top of the valley is the icing on the cake.
We were pretty hungry so we found a little cafe by the river to have lunch then walked up to a guesthouse with fantastic views and got dinner, bed and breakfast for 40 Lari or person. I went back out to explore the village and had an awesome time trying to find my favourite tower in the village. This is the one I chose.
I made my way to the top of the village to check out where the valley opens out towards the foot of the glacier. It took my breath away. I just sat there listening to music and admiring the view for a while then I messaged Emma to see if she wanted to come back down to the very bottom of the village to have another look at the view that we could see when we drove in.
We had a nice stroll down the other side of the valley and got some great views looking back up into Ushguli.
Then the three of us walked back to a cafe I had found with spectacular views of the glacier to chill until the sunset and dinner. At Cafe Lemi we bought the most horrible wine in the world; 5 Lari bought us half a litre of bright pink clear liquid that smelled of strawberries but tasted like a cross between vodka and vinegar. I do not recommend the wine. Check out the cafe for sure, but stick to the beer!
Dinner was not the best but it was fairly satisfying and the same went for breakfast. Our rooms were nice though and the mountain view and mountain air were fantastic. Don’t be tempted to reach Ushguli and then get a ride back to Mestia on the same day.
Day Five – Ushguli to Mestia
I’m now in the car for the bumpy two hour ride back to Mestia. We paid 160 Lari for a 7-seat Toyota Delica shared with an Italian couple at 32 Lari each for plenty of space to bounce around in. The driver even immediately gave Emma an aux cable so we’ve got some decent techno music for the journey to accompany the views.
We reached Mestia in good time (not a surprise given the speed this dude is driving at!).
Then we caught a marshrutka from Mestia to Zugdidi to catch the night train to Tbilisi.
I had forgotten the marshrutka journey up here so it’s taken me by surprise again. Genuinely, do these guys get paid more if they break the land speed record?