Tbilisi To Mestia: Into The High Caucasus

Tbilisi-to-Mestia-cross-above-mestia

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If you haven’t yet travelled to Georgia (the country), you really should.  It’s definitely one of my favourite countries in the world.  Travelling from Tbilisi to Mestia, an epic journey up into the Caucasus mountains, you’ll easily see why.

Tbilisi-to-Mestia

Mestia is a small town in the mountainous region of Svaneti.  It’s a mecca for adventurous travellers and outdoors enthusiasts in the know, who are drawn by its world-class hiking, skiing, and unique culture.

Getting there is part of the fun.  It’s a fairly remote place, high up in the mountains.  But the journey itself is spectacular, and you’ll pass through some beautiful medieval villages where life hasn’t changed much for hundreds of years.

About Svaneti - Why Travel Here?

Tbilisi-to-Mestia-mountains
It looks like this

Svaneti is, quite simply, breathtaking.  This ancient region, in the north-west of Georgia, is the highest inhabited area in the Caucasus mountains.

It’s hard to fully comprehend the beautify of this place.  Svaneti is a land of fertile green meadows, soaring snow-covered mountains, crystal-clear streams, vast glaciers, untouched villages and mysterious towers built over 1,000 years ago.

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Beautiful medieval villages frozen in time

Svaneti is also culturally distinct from the rest of Georgia.  This is largely due to its physical remoteness, which has helped to preserve the culture of the Svans for thousands of years.  Svaneti is a unique place.

Hiking in Svaneti

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Mount Ushba - the "Matterhorn of the Caucasus"

Svaneti has some of the best hiking in the world.  No exaggeration, it’s seriously epic!

Many fantastic hikes start from Mestia, which makes this an ideal place to base yourself when exploring the mountains.

There are hikes for all ages and abilities, from short day walks to multi-day adventures.  I’ve listed some of the best ones below:

Mestia to the Cross (8.5 km roundtrip)

Tbilisi-to-Mestia-cross-above-mestia

For amazing views over Mestia, the surrounding valleys and peaks, you can’t get much better than this hike.  It’s also relatively short, moderate in intensity, and easily doable in half a day.

The cross itself is located on Mount Tskahazagari, which is the large hill you see rising to the north of Mestia.  The hike starts by winding up through tranquil forest, until the trees thin out and the panoramic views begin.

It’s a relatively short walk, at just over 4 kilometres from Seti Square, in the centre of town, up to the cross (and another 4 km back down the same way).  Parts of the ascent are fairly steep, so you’ll need decent footwear. 

Mestia to Koruldi Lakes (16.5 km roundtrip) - the best day hike from Mestia

Koruldi-lakes
Stunning panoramic views

The first half of this hike is identical to the one above.

From the cross, it’s another 2 hours or so up to the lakes.  You’ll be walking uphill most of this time.  Though it’s significantly less steep from the cross to the lakes, compared to the bit from Mestia to the cross.  The views are also spectacular, so it’s more than worth the extra effort.

In my opinion this is easily the best day hike from Mestia.  It’s a decent length, without being too arduous.  You’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the surrounding mountains, including Mount Ushba (4,710 metres), known by many mountaineers as the most challenging peak in the Caucasus.

Anybody with a decent level of fitness should be able to make it up to the lakes and back down into Mestia with no problems, provided you don’t start hiking too late.

For those who want to spend a night in the mountains, people do sometimes camp by the lakes.  I’d only attempt this in the summer though, and make sure you are properly equipped.  

Mestia to Chalaadi Glacier (either 22 km / 13.5 km / 5 km roundtrip*)

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Chalaadi Glacier - one of the many walks you can do from Mestia

* There are a few options with this hike:

Option 1:  start and finish the hike in Mestia, making the total distance 22 km.  You’ll need to start early as this will take most of the day.

Option 2:  take a taxi (or hitch a ride) for the first (and last) 8.5 km of the route.  This part of the trail is flat, not particularly interesting, and goes parallel to the road running up the valley.

Option 3:  start hiking from Mestia, but on the return leg, hitch a ride back down the valley once the trail hits the road.  (I chose this option when I did this hike and would recommend.  It makes the walk a bit longer, but avoids the tedious slog back at the end.)

Whichever option you choose, you’ll likely encounter quite a few other hikers once you get close to the glacier itself.  

Don’t be surprised if at least one of them offers you copious amounts of vodka upon reaching the glacier itself.  (Not that I’d ever recommend scrambling up a glacier in a state of insobriety.  Come now, that would be silly….)

THE BIG ONE: Mestia to Ushguli (57 km one way, a 3-4 day hike)

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Ushguli: the highest permanently inhabited settlement in Europe

The multi-day hike from Mestia to Ushguli is legendary amongst those who come to trek in Georgia.

It’s not overly difficult, and you’ll get to enjoy some of the best scenery in the country (largely) undisturbed.  It’s a fairly popular route, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a hiking buddy or two, should you wish.

The route passes through several traditional Svaneti villages with (basic but more than adequate) guesthouses where you can sleep.  These do fill up during the summer months though, so it’s wise to book ahead to ensure you secure somewhere decent.

For those who prefer to carry a tent and camping gear, there are plenty of stunning places to wild camp.  Don’t worry about packing food for the whole trek – the guesthouses along the route serve hot food and drinks.  (Though, as with all treks, you should definitely carry some extra supplies, just in case.)

Check out this article where I review the best tents for wild camping.

When you reach Ushguli, you won’t struggle to find other trekkers to share a taxi with back to Mestia.

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Slightly terrifying (very wobbly) bridge

Head to the tourism information centre in the centre of Mestia (Seti Square) for further info on hiking in the area.  The people here are super helpful.  They’ll also be able to advise on the best routes, and provide useful maps and localised weather information.

** Check out some of my other hiking-related posts, including:

Mountain Biking in Svaneti

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EPIC mountain biking

Mountain biking is becoming increasingly popular in the Mestia area.  Several companies offer bike and kit hire in the centre of town.  And there are many trails ideally suited to exploration on  two wheels.

Again, speak to the folks in the tourist information centre who will be able to provide you with maps, details of bike hire, and more.

For a selection of potential routes, head over here.

Skiing in Svaneti

Skiing-in-Tetnuldi-Georgia
Tasty powder

Yup, Svaneti is also a ski destination.  It get tonnes of snow in the winter, and you can ski here for a fraction of the cost compared to resorts in the Alps, North America, etc.

There are a few decent resorts with pistes and lifts (e.g. Khatsvali Ski Resort, just outside Mestia).  However, skiing in Svaneti is all about the backcountry.  This is a world class destination for ski touring and heli-skiing.

There’s loads of great information on skiing in Svaneti over at Powderhounds.

FYI, the official ski season in Svaneti runs between December and mid-April.

Khatsvali-Ski-Resort-in-summer
Year-round chairlifts, I like

Some of the chairlifts above Mestia also run in the summer, and are a great way to get up to the higher level hiking routes and viewpoints.

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Piste in winter, walking trail in summer... nice

Svan Towers

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Svaneti is known as the “land of a thousand towers”.  Ancient and mysterious stone towers dot the region’s valleys, and are the stuff of legend.

Many towers are over 1,000 years old.  In the local (unwritten) Svan language, they are called “koshki“. Traditionally attached to people’s homes, these unique structures were built to defend their owners, and their livestock and possessions, from enemy attack.

These towers have protected their residents from attacks for centuries, by invading Mongols, Persians and Turks.

Svaneti-towers

The medieval villages and tower houses of Upper Svaneti are unlike anywhere else in the world.  They are, rightly, protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  You’ll see many of them on the drive up from Tbilisi to Mestia.

If you’re lucky, a local family might offer to show you around their own tower.  (And then ply you with bottles (and bottles) of homemade vodka, all night.)

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The road to oblivion
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Climbing to the top of an ancient, crumbling tower probably isn't the most sensible thing to do either

How To Get To Svaneti

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Watch out for the piglets crossing!

To get to Svaneti, you have three main options:  by public transport, with your own car, or flying.

Tbilisi to Mestia: By Public Transport

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View over Tbilisi from Narikala fortress

This is the method most backpackers use to get from Tbilisi to Mestia.

First, take the overnight train from Tbilisi Central Railway Station to Zugdidi.  The train usually departs at 21:45, but double check at the station beforehand.  It’s fairly basic (bedding costs extra), but perfectly comfortable.  Tickets are also cheap, 20 GEL (about £5) each way.  You can reserve these online, here.

From Zugdidi, you can take a marshrutka (shared minibus taxi) to Mestia.  These usually wait outside the station entrance, and leave when full.  Tickets also cost 20 GEL each way for the marshrutka.

Tbilisi to Mestia for £10 – not bad, eh.

Tbilisi to Mestia: With Your Own Car

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Our €300 piece-of-sh*t car overheated A LOT on the drive up to Svaneti

This option costs considerably more, but also gives you infinitely more flexibility.  Plus you can take as long as you want to get up into the mountains, stopping at as many viewpoints and small villages as you fancy.

The total distance from Tbilisi to Mestia is 470 kilometres.  I’d strongly recommend breaking the journey by spending the night in Zugdidi.  The second half of the drive up to Mestia is steep, windy and quite slow going (especially if your 20-something year old banger overheats every 15 minutes).  

The views get ever more spectacular the higher you climb.  You’ll probably want to get out and admire the scenery at each turn (something you can’t do if crammed into the back of a marshrutka).

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Beehives and honey sold by the roadside

Pick up a pot or two of Svaneti honey on your way up into the mountains.  It’s delicious!

Cheap Car Hire

The best deals on car hire in Georgia are usually found on localrent.com They compare the prices of local car rental companies, which tend to be significantly cheaper than the big international hire companies.

Tbilisi to Mestia: Flying

Vanilla Sky operates a service that flies from Tbilisi to Mestia, usually once per day.  The flight takes about an hour and is relatively cheap (90 GEL, approx £20 / $30, each way).

I’d only recommend this option if you’re really pushed for time, though.  By flying into Svaneti you’ll miss out on some of the incredible scenery on the long drive up into the mountains.  However, if you are looking to save some time, one option to consider might be to use public transport one way, and fly the other.

You can buy tickets online here, although the website doesn’t always work.  Alternatively, there is a Vanilla Sky office in Tbilisi.  Just bear in mind that flights are often sold out several weeks in advance (the plane is tiny!), and are often cancelled due to unpredictable weather in the mountains.

Note that flights from Tbilisi to Mestia depart from Natakhtari airport, 30 km north of the capital (not the main international airport).

Practicalities For Travelling To Svaneti

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A typical traditional village in Svaneti

Costs

Georgia is, in general, a very cheap country to travel in.  It’s closer to Southern/South-East Asia than Europe in terms of costs.  It is perfectly possible to travel in Georgia for £20-30 per day (excluding car hire), and live fairly well, especially if you are sharing accommodation costs.

You can easily grab a bed in a dorm for less than £5 per night.  A simple room in a decent guesthouse (or a basic-but-perfectly-fine hotel) will typically set you back less than £20 per night.

Good food and drink is also cheap and plentiful.  I rarely spent more than £10 on this per day, and ate (and drank) like a king.

This makes it a perfect backpacker destination, but without the hordes of backpackers.  Not everyone’s seen the memo yet, but more people are catching on each year.  Go soon!!

Best Time to Travel to Svaneti

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Ski lodge in the winter; trekking stop in the summer

This depends on why you’re coming.

Summer (July-September) is the best time for hiking, although tourist numbers also tend to peak during these months.

Spring and autumn are also pleasant, although the evenings will be cooler and the nights much colder.  Expect snow at higher altitudes.  If you plan to do multi-day hikes, bear in mind that May and June tend to receive the most rainfall.

For skiing, come in the winter (duh).  Beware that the road up to Mestia can become dangerous (and sometimes impassible) following heavy snow in the winter.  If driving yourself in the winter, it’s a good idea to invest in a 4×4 with snow chains.

What to Pack

Again, this obviously depends on what you’ll be doing. 🙂

For trekking, you’ll want decent hiking boots/shoes, proper socks, blister pads, waterproofs, sun cream, snacks, a large water bottle and water filtration system / purification tablets.

The maps.me app has loads of great offline maps for Georgia – not essential, but recommended (+ bring a portable charger).

If you’ll be camping, you will also need a tent, warm sleeping bag, Thermarest/mat, head torch and decent warm clothing.

Skiing gear can be hired in Mestia, at reasonable prices, if you don’t have your own.

Visas

Georgia offers a free visa upon arrival to citizens of over 90 countries, including the UK, EU and U.S.  Best of all, most visitors can spend up to a year in the country on this visa.  That’s pretty unusual compared with other countries, and super awesome.

Safety

Georgia is overall a very safe country for tourists.  However, beware the two main dangers you’re likely to face:

  1. Crazy roads:  beware maniac drivers, potholes, animals, boulders, children, and random pieces of farm equipment/junk/general carnage in the road, especially in rural areas.  Driving in Georgia is not for the faint hearted.
  2. Excessive alcohol intake:  Georgians are extremely hospitable, generous people.  They also like to drink, a lot.  Don’t be surprised if many locals offer to share with you whatever they’re drinking, wherever they are (be it half way up a mountain or walking down the street).

If hiking or doing anything else in the mountains, the usual rules apply.  Make sure you’re well prepared, and well equipped.

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Wine with a lovely stranger (at 8am)

If you’re looking to extend your trip, check out my guide to the best places in Northern Turkey, another beautiful region that’s easy to reach from Georgia.

Further Info & Useful Links

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