11 February 2019.
For intrepid travellers who venture to Georgia in search of adventure, it is the raw and rugged wilderness of Svaneti which offers up the greatest allure. And when they finally arrive, it’s the 4-day trek between Mestia and Ushguli, two ancient villages set deep in the High Caucasus, that presents the ultimate outdoor experience.
The route is punctuated by cracked and crumpled glaciers and the rivers that they bear, sweeping valleys and open countryside, a skyline of snow-capped peaks and densely forested hills forever draped in an ethereal mist. But perhaps most intriguing of all, are the emblematic stone towers of Svaneti that stand guard between the mountains.
Whether you’re a hardcore hiker or not, this absolutely stunning hike is a superb way to explore these mountains – off on two wobbly feet and well and truly immersed in nature.
In this guide to the Mestia to Ushguli trek, you’ll find everything you need to know about what to expect from the route, where to stay and what things cost. For my top tips for the hike, check this post.
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Distance | 16.4 km
Time | 5 hours
Highest Altitude | 1,900 m
Beyond the confines of the village, the path begins along a rubble road that climbs high above Mestia to the south. City streets give way to fragrant forests, lush alpine meadows and the discordant jangle of cowbells as their hosts roam the muddy trails.
At the top of the rise, you’re greeted by open pastures and fantastic views overlooking the valley bound by the snow-capped peaks of Mt Tetnuldi in the distance. This makes an excellent stop for a bite to eat and to drink it all in.
From here, it’s a long but relatively easy downhill ramble along a narrow trail that skirts around Zardlashi and Murshkeli where a handful of Svaneti towers stand tall. Try to stick to the higher path for better views before joining the dirt road that leads through Zhamushi and Cholashi down towards the water.
Hugging the contours of the Mulkhura River, the path becomes rather indistinct, but as long as you continue on until the large wooden bridge that indicates Zhabeshi, you can’t really get lost.
Where To Stay In Zhabeshi
In Zhabeshi, virtually every house is a guesthouse and you’ll find a number of brightly-coloured signs indicating accommodation options every which way.
Guesthouse Fafo | After doing the walk around, I settled on this guesthouse located at the back of the village which was absolutely wonderful. Honestly, I have never seen a woman work so hard and so patiently in my entire life. Between whipping up a mountain of khachapuri, fresh bread and a fantastic feast for 4 guests plus her family, she was tidying the house, offering us tea, sorting out their animals and wrangling her kids to bathe and go to bed all single-handedly.
All rooms are private, the bathroom is shared and meals are included and absolutely delicious. There’s a hammock and apple trees in the garden and beautiful views over the valley. As with most guesthouses here, it’s not marked on any maps (or marked in the wrong place), but if you’re looking on Google Maps I believe it falls to the left of ‘Roberi Art Guesthouse’, while on Maps.Me it lies between ‘Zuriko Kakhiani’ and ‘Zhabeshi Risa’. No English is spoken but the host can call her English-speaking friend if needed. Highly recommended!
Price per person for bed, dinner and breakfast is 50 GEL (€16.50). Lunch can be arranged for an extra fee.
Either wander up and hope there’s space or book in advance here.
Lali Guesthouse | Another option which came highly recommended to me though tends to fill up in advance as it’s one of Zhabeshi’s most popular spots. Guests love the wonderful hospitality of Lali herself, the fabulous food and beautiful location.
Distance | 10km (low route) or 12km (high route)
Time | 5 hours on high route
Highest Altitude | 2,500 m
For the start of day two, the trail heads straight up behind the village, zigzagging steeply through fields, low-lying bushes and dense alpine forests. When I visiting in mid-September, the fiery autumn colours were just beginning to wash across the landscapes and it was absolutely beautiful.
Emerging from the trees, you’ll reach a very obvious gravel road where you’ll need to turn left and continue uphill. If you’ve taken the deviation to Tvirmi (more on that in this post) then you’ll join the normal Mestia to Ushguli trekking route here.
About a kilometre further up the road is a sign-posted intersection where you can decide to either take the upper or lower road to Adishi, and hint hint, you really want to take the upper road!
The lower road is by far the more popular choice as it’s easier, pretty enough and will lead you to Adishi in about an hour.
By this point though, I had only been hiking for around two hours and quite simply figured why the hell not take the longer route. You’ll need to continue climbing uphill along the winding road, but once you head off onto the smaller trail its all wildflowers, open grasslands, jagged peaks and epic views in every direction. Plus, I passed so few people along the way it felt like I had the whole area to myself.
As the lower trail has become the increasingly more popular route, the upper trail isn’t quite as clear as it once was, especially after winter, but it’s still easy enough to follow, especially if you have a map to guide you through any confusing intersections or misleading cattle trails. The way down does become very steep as you near Adishi which can be quite a challenge if you’re not using trekking poles. Just take it slow and hold onto the long grass if you’re feeling unsteady.
But seriously, take the upper route. You can thank me later!
At the bottom of the steep hill, you’ll join the well worn lower trail which will lead you into tiny Adishi.
As the shortest day, you’ll most likely arrive by early afternoon with plenty of time to kill. The small bar/market at the top of the village has a modest and fairly over-priced selection of beers and basic snacks and becomes a popular hangout for locals and hikers alike in the afternoons.
Where To Stay In Adishi
There aren’t all that many options in Adishi, but I ended up at Natia Guesthouse on the recommendation of my host in Zhabeshi. It’s a popular guesthouse and often becomes full with hikers throughout the afternoon so you may be asked to share a room as places fill up.
Rooms are basic but comfortable with shared bathrooms and plenty of delicious food included. Try to arrive early to ensure there is still space or call ahead to make a reservation. Price per person for bed, dinner and breakfast is 50 GEL (€16.50).
Distance | 17 km
Time | 6.5 hours
Highest Altitude | 2,700 m
The third day of the Mestia to Ushguli trek is a big one.
It’s the longest, most challenging, most spectacular and features the most anticipated hurdle of the entire hike – fording the bone-chilling Adishchala River.
The first hour or so the path trails through the lush valley, across the boggy marshlands that sprawl outward from the braids of the river. And then, it disappears altogether into the freezing tumult of the Adishchala, reappearing mockingly on the opposite bank.
After a night of heavy rainfall and with just a few rather vague online reports of the river crossing to go by, this was the source of endless discussion over the dinner table the night before. Would we be able to cross? How deep would it be? Where’s the best place to cross? On and on.
As it turns out, crossing on foot was actually rather straightforward, and dare I say kind of exciting, though with a few very important caveats (scroll down for my tips on crossing the river).
On the opposite bank, the trail climbs steeply through vibrant red foliage and verdant greens, with an increasingly more impressive backdrop of the Adishi Glacier. Once at the spectacular Chkhunderi Pass, even more rugged peaks are revealed along the horizon with the gentle folds of the valley falling away beneath your feet.
Don’t miss the short side trail along the ridgeline – it’s rather exposed and the icy wind whipping off the mountain will have you dragging out your jacket in no time. It’s here that you’ll find the absolute best views of the trek, so take the time to take plenty of photos and drink it all in before moving on.
Back at the pass, the trail zigzags steeply into the valley where you’ll join the gravel road that leads you all the way to Iprali.
TIPS FOR CROSSING THE ADISHSCHALA RIVER
Check The Depth | I was there in mid-September when the river level is near its lowest. During late spring and early summer when rainfall is high and melting snow feeds the river, conditions are likely to be far more challenging.
Find The Right Place | I walked up and down the river bank looking for a good place to cross, but in the end stuck to the spot where the horses walk, right where the trail ends. I watched the horses cross back and forth several times as well as a few other hikers to gauge the force of the water and the depth. At this time of the year, this stretch of water was no more than 2 or 3 metres across and came up to just below the knee at the deepest point on a relatively tall person.
Buddy Up | Though I was hiking solo, I wasn’t game enough to cross the river alone. Instead, I linked arms with a fellow hiker from my guesthouse for some extra stability and we crossed as a team. Most men would probably be fine to cross independently as they have a bit more weight behind them, but as the currents are quite strong, solo females might feel more confident buddying up.
Don’t underestimate just how unbelievable cold the water is | Though it’s just a few metres across, you’re quite literally walking through melted ice water and your feet will turn numb and start tingling the second they’re plunged into the water. Don’t panic and try to rush because of it. They’ll warm up quickly once you’re across.
Be Confident In Your Strides | The river base is very rocky so it’s best to take just a few big steps and make sure your foot is securely planted before moving on. Some people recommend using water booties or socks but, as someone who has crossed many a river, I just went barefoot and felt quite comfortable.
If you’re unsure, don’t do it | If the water levels are particularly high, the currents are strong or you’re just not sure you’ll make it across, just don’t attempt it. During the main trekking season, there are horses that wait here to take you across. In all honesty though, they looked less than thrilled at being dragged across the icy water repeatedly, and the 20+ GEL (€6.60) fee is outrageously high for the 3-second trip involved. Of course, if this is the safest option, it’s certainly better than the alternative.
Where To Stay In Iprali
Family House Ucha | I stayed at Ucha Margvelani which is widely recommended, largely because for many years it was the only option in town. Whether I just happened to catch them on a bad day I’m not sure, but I really didn’t love my stay here. On the plus side, the rooms were comfortable, clean and the outdoor fire-heated shower was great. Otherwise, despite the property being huge, there was a serious lack of bathrooms with wait times of well over an hour. During my stay, there was also a real shortage of food with a number of people at the table going hungry which is hardly ideal following the biggest day of the trek.
Prices are 80 GEL (€26.30) for solo hikers or 55 GEL (€18) per person in a pair or group with all meals included. If you’re hiking alone, I’d definitely suggest finding someone to share with to secure the cheaper rate.
Betegi Guesthouse | This is another option in town which receives excellent reviews online. Tasty food, relaxed atmosphere and comfortable beds make this a popular choice Iprali. Check rates and availability here.
You could also consider staying at top-rated Khalde Guesthouse which lies 2km before you reach Iprali.
Distance | 13 km
Time | 4 hours
Highest Altitude | 2,100 m
After a night of violent weather, I woke to torrential rain, heavy clouds and a sinking feeling that my hiking adventure might very well be cut short right here. But after an hour or two of waiting patiently, the rain began to ease leaving a tangle of whispy clouds strung across the valley.
For this short and easy final day of the hike, many people choose to stick to the road, a slippery muddy mess for most of the way which sees a fairly constant stream of traffic during peak times. Much better is to take the far prettier trail through the forest instead.
From Iprali, the heavily creased road snakes downhill to meet the main road from Mestia. Turn left here and follow the road beside the river until you reach the tiny village of Davberi. Cross the large wooden bridge and head left again, weaving your way uphill between the houses where you’ll eventually veer right and continue into the forest.
As I climbed higher through the trees, thick mist meant there was a complete whiteout, but every so often I’d catch a glimpse of rugged mountains peaking through the gloom.
Once you reach a large grassy clearing, the trail funnels you back downhill through the forest toward the main road and a first peek at Ushguli.
After four days in the mountains, laying eyes on the neat cluster of yellowing stone towers standing tall amidst the vivid green valley was something quite special.
As you arrive into town, don’t miss the tiny bakery on the left. If you time your visit well, you’ll be greeted with piping hot boats of bread fresh from the clay oven – a wonderful treat for dreary weather. Just beware the village dogs may stalk you until they’re fed a bite.
Even if you’re heading back to Mestia, it’s worthwhile taking the time to explore this World Heritage Listed area before setting off. Stop by the blackened tower on the hill above Chazhashi for excellent views of both villages, amble over to the Lamaria Church behind Ushguli, climb the steep hill on the right to the crumpled tower above, and get lost between the tangle of ramshackle streets of Ushguli itself.
Admittedly, up close the growing development in the area does detract slightly from the air of mystique that is so tangible from afar. Between the eerily beautiful stone towers and homes, haphazard expansions cobbled together from exposed metal and bright colours don’t exactly blend in. Still, it’s a fascinating place to explore with plenty of hidden nooks and muddy alleyways to disappear into.
For those staying overnight, you can also hike to Shkhara Glacier some 8 km further up the valley. The way is largely flat and sticks to a dirt road for most of the route with a few easy river crossings to contend with. The last kilometre or so of the trail leads through forest, emerging at the rock field where get as close to the glacier as you choose. To speed up the trip, it’s also possible to hire a 4WD taxi or horse to reach this final section of the trail.
Where To Stay In Ushguli
Guesthouse development is booming in Ushguli so you’ll find no shortage of places to stay.
Caucasus Guesthouse | This lovely guesthouse was really made by the incredibly welcoming family that overwhelmed me with more food than I could possibly eat at every opportunity as well as copious amounts of wine. The rooms are simple but comfortable with windows overlooking the beautiful valley and towers of Ushguli.
Where To Stay In Mestia
As the main transport hub in Svaneti, you’ll most likely be spending at least a night or two in Mestia before and after the trek. If you’re skipping the night in Ushguli and heading directly back to Mestia, these are a few decent accommodation options.
Manoni Guesthouse | This simple, family-run budget-friendly guesthouse is set a short walk from the centre of town and right by the trailhead of the Mestia to Ushguli trek. Family dinners served each evening are sumptuous, delicious and excellent value. Luggage storage is available for those doing the trek.
Roza’s Guesthouse | This beautiful place a short way from the centre was recommended to me by a number of people but was unfortunately fully booked during my visit. The buildings have recently received a complete makeover adding bright and spacious rooms, a large dining area and lovely outdoor terrace.
As a seasonal destination, most of these options are only consistently available during the peak trekking season which generally runs from June to September. In the dead of winter, expect visiting these mountains to be rather challenging.
Ushguli To Mestia
To return to Mestia, there’s usually one marshrutka that leaves first thing in the morning – confirm the exact time with your guesthouse – as well as a couple of departures around 1 or 2 p.m. when hikers are arriving off the trek. For those keen for more time to explore, there is often another departure later in the afternoon. Check with the drivers that hang around the bridge when you arrive.
It’s a slow and bumpy 2-hour drive and costs between 30 and 40 GEL (€10 to €13).
Mestia To Ushguli
Not a fan of hiking but still want to experience beautiful Ushguli, or perhaps you hope to do the trek in the opposite direction, it’s also possible to visit Ushguli on a day or overnight trip from Mestia.
Most guesthouses can organise a shared taxi to drive you there and back.
Tbilisi To Mestia
There are three possible ways to get between Tbilisi and Mestia – the marshrutka, a flight or a stint on one of Georgia’s atmospheric trains paired with a marshrutka for the tail end of the journey.
Marshrutka | From what I understand, there’s just one direct marshrutka each day from either the Navtlughi Bazaar or in front of the train station. The 9-hour journey departs at 7 a.m. though it’s recommended to arrive early to secure yourself a seat.
Flight | There are 4 weekly flights between Tbilisi and Mestia operated by Vanilla Sky. The planes are small, book up quickly and are frequently cancelled due to bad weather in the mountains, but they’ll also save you the better part of a day of travel if you’re short on time.
Overnight Train + Marshrutka | The most popular way to get to Mestia, however, is by train. Having had just about enough of Georgia’s manic drivers, it was quite a relief to be able to hop on the night train instead and fall straight to sleep. The night train leaves from Tbilisi Central (accessible from the Station Square metro stop) bound for Zugdidi and takes around 8 hours. Tickets can be booked online or at the station (bring your passport) for first or second class sleepers, or third class seats. Check here for the current schedule and to buy tickets, though the website doesn’t seem to work all that well outside of Georgia.
When you arrive bright and early in Zugdidi, there’ll be a number of marshrutka waiting outside the station bound for Mestia which leave when full. This final leg takes 3 to 4 hours with a short cafe stop and costs 20 GEL (€6.50).
For those not looking to travel by night, there is also a morning train departure from Tbilisi.
Onwards From Mestia
Early morning marshrutka leave from Mestia’s town centre for Zugdidi, Kutaisi, Tbilisi and Batumi. Buy your ticket in advance or ask your guesthouse to reserve you a seat.